From today’s Times (I’ll copy and paste as the article is probably behind the Murdoch paywall). Looks interesting, especially with Bob Harris as a guest speaker…….
Also note a Hansa documentary coming in the new year.
Is this what every David Bowie fan wants for Christmas? Ja!
Ed Potton goes on a tour of David Bowie and Iggy Pop’s Berlin as a documentary about Hansa studios, where they recorded in the city, is broadcast on Sky
December 6 2017, 12:01am, The Times
“I need a lie down,” says Pat Jebson, looking as if she has been hit by a bus. She is one of a group of British tourists who have become heroes just for three days on a bespoke musical tour of David Bowie’s Berlin. We’re standing behind the mixing desk at Hansa studios, where Bowie recorded his classic albums “Heroes” and Low during a self-imposed exile here from 1977-79. For fans, this is a sacred space. Our guide, Thilo Schmied, has just played the title track from “Heroes” through the studio’s speakers. Hearing one of the Dame’s greatest songs, loud over professional equipment just feet away from where it was recorded 40 years earlier, proves too much for some people. Lips quiver. Eyes well up.
With the second anniversary of Bowie’s death approaching, this £2,000-a-person weekend is the gift for the fan who has everything, and there are some serious Bowie-heads here. Woe betide you if you get into an argument with any of this lot about what the B-side to Be My Wife was.
The guest speakers on the tour are even more steeped in Bowie lore. They include Lesley-Ann Jones, the journalist and friend of Bowie who has written a vivid biography of him, Hero; Bob Harris, the radio and TV presenter who got to know the singer as host of The Old Grey Whistle Test; and Denis O’Regan, the photographer who took many seminal shots of Bowie, some within these very walls.
Visiting Hansa, the subject of a meticulous forthcoming documentary, Hansa Studios: By the Wall 1976-90, is the highlight of the trip for everyone. Standing in what was West Berlin, just a few hundred yards from the remains of the Wall, the building still has a Cold War bleakness to it, all marble and modernist lines. Originally used to record schlager music — cheesy German pop — it now has a global mystique, up there with Abbey Road and Muscle Shoals. It has also hosted U2, Depeche Mode, Nick Cave and, more recently, REM and Manic Street Preachers. There is a hush as we enter.
Up in studio one is the Steinway whose ivories the Thin White Duke once tinkled. Downstairs is the window alcove that was the preferred lounging place of Iggy Pop, who recorded songs including Lust for Life here and shared a flat with Bowie
near by. Outside is the spot, now a garden, where Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti, kissed his lover, Antonia Maas, in the shadow of the Wall. Bowie saw them, and the image is thought to have inspired him to write “Heroes”. Maas has disputed that the kiss happened, but Visconti said it did and I’m going with his version.
Hansa’s centrepiece is the famous Meistersaal, aka the Big Hall by the Wall, a 7m-high wood-panelled cathedral where Heroes was laid down, as well as U2’s One, Depeche Mode’s People Are People and Marillion’s Kayleigh. From the control room, now a bar, Bowie could see the Wall. A Hansa engineer once flashed a light at the guards in a watchtower; Bowie and Visconti leapt behind the mixing desk, expecting bullets in return.
In the Seventies the studio was in the apocalyptic, flattened todesstreifen (dead zone), which had been on the front line of fighting at the end of the Second World War. Bowie and Iggy would tour other parts of the broken Berlin on the S-Bahn. “We’ll ride through the city tonight/ See the city’s ripped backsides,” Iggy sang on Passenger, also recorded at Hansa.
They sometimes ventured to the east side, on one occasion accompanied by Howard Davies, who is chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, but was then a young diplomat. Davies wrote recently that he “escorted them through Checkpoint Charlie, booked a table at the restaurant in the Bertolt Brecht theatre, drank rather a lot of indifferent wine and escorted them back safely to the west as dusk fell. No one we encountered had the slightest idea who they were.”
Cold War Berlin has a persistent hold on creative imaginations. It was the setting for Steven Spielberg’s recent film Bridge of Spies and John le Carré returned to it in his latest novel, A Legacy of Spies, as did Bowie in his 2013 album The Next Day, the closest he got to nostalgia. For Bowie it was an escape route from the temptations of California. “I thought of the most arduous city I could think of,” he says in the film. “And it was West Berlin.”
“He came here because he would have died in LA,” Jones says. “He was taking Matterhorns of cocaine. He was storing his toenail clippings and semen because he was worried that somebody would steal them. One of his biggest fears during that off-his-rocker period was said to be that ‘witches’ would use his sperm to create a baby they could sacrifice to the Devil. Which is the plot, more or less, of the Roman Polanski film Rosemary’s Baby. David Bowie, ladies and gentlemen: ever the plagiarist.”
Berlin was not the kind of place where rock stars went in the Seventies, but it had an anonymity and a sense of danger that suited Bowie. “Sometimes you have to isolate yourself and start again,” Jones says. “The most creative work he did came out of misery and loneliness. He had to take himself down to his deepest innermost self and he was able to do that here. He misbehaved horribly as well.” An employee at Hansa has claimed that Bowie once requested that three prostitutes join them at the studio. “You can have the first pick,” he told Iggy. “I’ll have the other two.”
Later on we see some of the other places where he misbehaved: SO36, the tunnel-like venue in Kreuzberg where bands such as Einstürzende Neubauten cut their teeth; Paris Bar, a zippy brasserie in Charlottenburg, which still does a mean steak frites; Der Dschungel, the decadent nightclub that Bowie namechecked in 2013 in Where Are We Now? Bowie ran with a cosmopolitan crowd that included Romy Haag, the transgender singer who became his muse, some say lover.
Then, of course, there’s the high-ceilinged apartment at Hauptstrasse 155 in the slightly grimy district of Schöneberg, once home to Albert Einstein and Christopher Isherwood, where Bowie and Iggy lived in relative modesty. Bowie’s room had an easel and a shelf for books and records; visitors would sit on pillows on the floor. O’Regan tells a story about returning with Bowie to No 155 years later. The man living there let them look around and Bowie was delighted that he had painted around a drawing by his son, Zowie (now Duncan), on one of the walls. The apartment is ripe to become a museum, but it’s home to a Turkish family, who presumably have to put up with lots of unwelcome buzzes on their bell. We resist the temptation, settling for selfies on the doorstep.
It may come as a surprise that such a savvy trip has been promoted by Saga, the over-fifties specialist. It’s part of a plan to rebrand its cruises-and-care-homes image. Who knows if it will work, but it’s certainly true that, although the people here are over 40, they don’t see themselves as typical Saga customers. “My boyfriend said I’m off with the blue-rinse brigade,” Diane Alagar says, “but they’ve done a really good job of modernising it.” Surely Bowie would have shuddered to see a Saga holiday themed around him. “He’d have loved it,” Jones insists. “He wasn’t hung up on age.”
Musical holidays are on the rise, many powered by the grey pound. Found in Music, the company that did this one with Saga, specialises in tours of musical destinations, featuring expert speakers. It has led trips to the “golden triangle” of Memphis, New Orleans and Nashville, to Saltzburg to mark 50 years since The Sound of Music, and is planning a Beatles trip to India, a Motown one to Detroit and another Bowie trip to New York.
Our base on this tour is Soho House Berlin, which, ironically for such a bastion of capitalist decadence, is based in the former headquarters of the Communist Party. Over dinner in the Politburo Room, dead comrades spin in their graves as O’Regan recalls snapping Bowie in front of the Wall and Harris reveals that he sang backing vocals on Memory of a Free Festival, on the Space Oddity album.
Bowie’s Berlin legacy has become big business. Some may balk at that, but Bowie probably wouldn’t; this was the city where he made some of his best music and to which he returned in 1987 to play one of his most important concerts. He performed in front of the Reichstag on the west side, but within earshot, if not the view, of a crowd on the east side. Before he sang “Heroes” he called out in German: “We send our best wishes to all our friends who are on the other side of the Wall.”
“It was one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever done,” Bowie said. “I was in tears.” A week later, just metres from where he had played, Reagan urged Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”. By embracing Berlin as he had, Bowie was credited with playing a role in its fall. After his death the German foreign office tweeted: “Good-bye, David Bowie. You are now among #Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall.” He’s part of the furniture now, with Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate.
For more information on music holidays see travel.saga.co.uk and foundinmusic.com. Thilo Schmied’s Berlin tours: musictours-berlin.de. Hansa Studios: By the Wall 1976-90 will be on Sky Arts in the new year