Cold War Klang: Bowie’s Berlin

Charlotte Collins pens a paean to the late David Bowie, whose Berlin residency between 1976-1979 left an everlasting legacy on the city’s cultural fabric. This article is intended for audio accompaniment – found here.

Cold War isolation saw an inward-facing Berlin create a creative hotbed for disaffected creatives and musicians – underlain by youth rebellion. Most notable and influential was the presence of David Bowie who called the Schöneberg quarter of West Berlin his home. This period, in the late 1970s would be one of Bowie’s most productive and gave rise to the production of three critically appraised albums; Low (1977), Heroes (1977), and Lodger (1979).

Identifiable in all three works is a distinct yet abstract form of musical construction, a turn towards improvisation and minimalism. A product of its environment, the ton reminiscent of the Krautrock movement that paralleled the time in which the ‘Berlin Trilogy’, as the three albums became known, were produced. This alternative form of music was cultivated in West Germany as a direct reflection of the political climate during the Cold War. Overhanging political and military tension created by this proxy war left an environment of mounting dis-ease, threat and ambiguity – fostered also by the prolificacy of espionage throughout the ‘war’. Largely distanced from the popular music templates found in Britain and the US at the time, both Krautrock and Bowie’s avant-garde progressive rock sprung from the sense of ‘otherness’ that the geopolitical events perpetuated. Berlin provided a safe-haven from traditional ‘Western’ musical influences and formalities, a black canvas allowing for the curation of such experimental and pioneering sounds.

Mirroring the city which was segregated in two by the ‘Wall of Shame’ (Willy Brandt – former Mayor of West Berlin), Bowie’s work is also dichotomous. This is most visible in the album Heroes (1977) in which a distinct divide in style and tone is recognisable. The album’s namesake track ‘Heroes’ has become an anthem of jubilation, triumph and rebellion – the lyrics “And the shame was on the other side. Oh we can beat them, for ever and ever” making direct reference to the wall. Whilst the theme of the album’s tracks centre largely around the experience of living in 1970s West Berlin, the fluctuation between upbeat songs to melancholic, instrumental pieces suggest the volatility of life during these times in a city which was both exciting, free and vibrant yet under constant surveillance and fortification. The most salient of these tracks is ‘Sense of Doubt’, for it paints an audible portrait of a city under siege – low-frequency, staccato piano chords intertwined with rumbling noises (perhaps emulating the engines of military vehicles), which creates a sense of grave foreboding. From listening to the zeitgeist encapsulated by Bowie, complexities and realities of Cold War Berlin can be unravelled to create an inherently geopolitical portrait of the contested city.

Despite the brevity of his residency, David Bowie’s influence on the sounds of the city is everlasting. The 1970s triptych provides evidence that music can be a reflection of its environment, especially one which is underlain by political tension. In an interview with UNCUT, the musician himself acknowledges that he “created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds” which still pervade the city today. For fans of his, the Hansa Studios where the albums were recorded can still be visited, as well as his former apartment and nightlife venues they frequented – in a sort of pilgrimage to his music, life and legacy. What is most salient about visiting Berlin is the way it surrenders to its history, it is told and displayed with starkness and transparency, for it recognises that its conflicted past has created the authentic and vibrant city that is today – with the ‘Berlin Trilogy’ as its ethereal soundtrack.

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