Bowie in Berlin: 12 things to know

A David Bowie sign appeared outside the late singer’s house at Hauptstraße 155 shortly after his death in January 2016. Photo: Imago/Peter Homann

No expatriate star has left such an indelible impression on Berlin as David Bowie. When the British musician landed in the enclave of West Berlin in 1976, he found himself in a divided city. Subcultures were emerging, drugs were rampant and there was little glamour. But far from the hype and flashes, Bowie thrived during those influential years.

After a wild phase in Los Angeles, Bowie was artistically exhausted. His desire for peace and a deep enthusiasm for the Weimar era and its artists, especially Bertolt Brecht and the “Die Brücke” expressionists, drew him to Hauptstadt.

In 1976 he moved to Schöneberg, hung out in nightclubs, bars and cafes, befriended Berlin’s underground royalty and remained there until 1978, during which time he produced three albums: Hero, Down and Tenantwhich went down in music history as the “Berlin Trilogy”.

Want to retrace the steps of Ziggy Stardust himself? tipBerlinJacek Slaski sums up 12 things to know about Bowie in Berlin.

1. The Hauptstraße Apartment

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David Bowie lived here at Hauptstraße 155 (Hinterhof, 1st floor) from 1976 to 1978. Photo (from 2015): Imago/Schöning

Hauptstraße 155, Schöneberg: a discreet building, then as now. When Bowie moved to West Berlin in 1976, he found the large apartment there empty and made it his home for two years. Although he probably never really furnished it, the rooms remained sparse and those around him usually ate out or at friends’ houses.

For a time, Bowie had a famous roommate, Iggy Pop, until the godfather of punk was ordered out again for stealing food from the fridge. And so the Stooges frontman moved to a smaller place in the building behind.

2. Hansa Studios

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Meistersaal Hansa recording studio in 1975. Photo: public domain

The Meistersaal in Kreuzberg, not far from Potsdamer Platz, had become an important venue for Berlin’s creative community in the 1920s. Readings were held here, chamber music was performed, a gallery stood below and Austrian satirist Karl Kraus lectured.

The Nazis also used the building for concerts, and after the war there were reviews, balls and cabarets. It was not until 1961 that the space was used for recording: first for the Ariola label, then from 1976, Hansa Tonstudios.

This was the beginning of the now legendary success story of the Köthener Straße 38 studio, where, alongside David Bowie with his Berlin albums, U2, Depeche Mode, Nick Cave, Jack White, Nina Hagen and Eartha Kitt recorded important works .

3. The Berlin Trilogy

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david bowie Hero1977 album cover

David Bowie came to Berlin to escape the hype and addiction, but also to forge new musical paths. He was already enthusiastic about the German avant-garde pioneers Neu!, Kraftwerk and Can, and he started to play with electronic sounds in partnership with Brian Eno.

The technological quantum leap took place in Berlin, with Bowie’s lyrics inspired by the dark and detached vibe of the walled city. His files Down and Hero are among the most important of his career.

4. Romy Haag and her new Berlin friends

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Romy Haag circa 1987. Photo: Imago/BRIGANI-ART

Despite the presence of Iggy Pop and an international network of acquaintances, collaborators and cooperating musicians, Bowie made new friends during his time in Berlin.

He often met club owner and underground queen Romy Haag as a guest at her restaurant Chez Romy. Berlin fashion designer Claudia Skoda and her friends were also part of Bowie’s new Berlin circle, while he also enjoyed friendly relations with Wolf-Dieter Trewer, a former sailor and his landlord.

5. West Berlin bars, clubs and cafes

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The Paris Bar in Kantstrasse in 2020. Photo: Imago/Stefan Zeitz

Nightclubs and memorable bars were rare in 1970s West Berlin. Bowie frequented the queer cafe Anderes Ufer, now known as Neues Ufer. He danced at Dschungel and dined at Oswald Wiener’s Exil restaurant in Kreuzberg.

He was seen at Chez Haag and the Paris Bar on Kantstrasse in Charlottenburg. But his favorite place was probably the Brücke-Museum. Bowie was particularly enamored with the expressionist paintings of Brücke artists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Erich Heckel.

6. Fame and glory in Berlin

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June 6, 1987: Thousands of fans await a David Bowie concert in front of the Reichstag in Berlin. Photo: Imago/Peter Homann

Don’t kid yourself – Bowie’s time in Berlin was significant, but not that long. In fact, the third and final installment of his famous “Berlin Trilogy” wasn’t even recorded here: Tenant was produced mainly in Switzerland and the United States.

Nonetheless, Bowie still returned to his former adopted country from his later homes in London and New York, and was received as an honorary Berliner at concerts, with only Nick Cave garnering similar levels of adulation.

Bowie’s concert in the summer of 1987 at the Reichstag was a major event and his last appearance in the divided city.

7. The last concert in Berlin in 2003

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Bowie performs at the Max-Schmeling-Halle in Berlin in 2003. Photo: Imago/BRIGANI-ART

David Bowie’s last performance in Berlin was in 2003, stopping at Max-Schmeling-Halle as part of his “Reality” tour on November 3. At 56, he was already a precursor to the pop revolution and an established legend. , but few would have thought that it would be his last concert in Berlin.

In 2004, he performed at the Hurricane Festival, but poor health prevented him from giving further concerts. He spent the last decade of his life in isolation and only returned in 2013, then finally 2016, with new albums.

8. Where are we now?

After years of silence, Bowie has come back strong. On his 66th birthday – January 8, 2013 – he announced that The next day would be his new album. On the same day he released the digital pre-single Where are we now?.

In the song, he looks back on his Berlin years with probably his most personal and biographical lyrics. He mentions KaDeWe, Potsdamer Platz, Dschungel in Nürnberger Straße and the Bösebrücke bridge between Wedding and Prenzlauer Berg.

9. The Great Exhibition

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The David Bowie multimedia exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in 2014. Photo: Imago/BRIGANI-ART

Although he won’t be returning to Berlin in person, a spectacular exhibition on Bowie’s life and work has put his legend back in the spotlight. First opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Bowie show, filled with costumes, instruments, videos, images, posters and sound installations, was a huge success.

At Martin-Gropius-Bau, the exhibition focused particularly on his stay in Berlin. Many artifacts from the era were on display, including items related to musical recordings alongside the keys to Bowie’s front door in Berlin.

The show’s curator, Victoria Broackes, said in a 2014 interview that Bowie was at his peak during the Berlin years, overcoming addiction and reaching new creative heights. “Here he managed to banish his demons,” she reportedly said.

10. A star is mourned

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Many Berliners said goodbye to David Bowie on January 15, 2016. Photo: Imago/ZUMA Press

David Bowie died on January 10, 2016, two days after his 69th birthday. In Berlin, overwhelmed by the occasion, hundreds of people gathered outside his former home in Schöneberg to lay flowers, photos and candles outside his door. Bowie’s songs played through loudspeakers for impromptu, soulful singing.

When the local station radioeins counted the 100 most iconic Berlin anthems of all time in the summer of 2017, the hundred-person jury voted Hero in first place.

11. Ziggy in Berlin

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David Bowie’s wax figure as Ziggy Stardust is unveiled at Madame Tussauds, 2017. Photo: Imago/A. Bug/Future Picture

Besides athletes, politicians and movie stars, legendary musicians also have their place at Madame Tussauds. In the fall of 2017, an alien appeared in the Berlin branch of the wax empire. Ziggy Stardust had landed.

Not a must for all Bowie fans, but the only opportunity for a selfie with the fallen man.

12. A Hero’s Plaque

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Commemorative plaque at the former Berlin home of David Bowie in Hauptstraße. Photo: Imago/Joko

Who knows if the then mayor of Berlin, Klaus Schütz (SPD), didn’t even think about the fact that an English pop star – drug addicted, sexually ambivalent, no less – lived in Schöneberg.

When Berlin’s official memorial plaque was unveiled in 2018 at David Bowie’s former home at Hauptstraße 155, then Berlin Mayor Michael Müller (SPD) was at least on hand to utter the remarkable words: “You have to imagine that David Bowie came to West Berlin in 1976 to stop doing drugs.”

In fact, 1976 was not a drug-free period in West Berlin. 1978 saw the publication of the infamous novel Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, and shortly after, a film adaptation of the tragic story of a young Berlin drug addict, which Bowie contributed to the soundtrack. Berlin’s dark fame as the heroin capital of Europe was thus sealed. David Bowie was unfazed; he abstained and moved on.

Original text by Jacek Slaski

Think you know everything about the man who fell to the ground? Try Exberliner’s ultimate Bowie quiz.