David Bowie’s intensely productive Berlin period – when he made the iconic albums Heroes and Low, launched Iggy Pop’s solo career and kicked a drug habit – is the theme of a new show adapted from last year’s sold-out exhibition in London.
Arriving in 1976 from Los Angeles, exhausted from his antics as Ziggy Stardust and other stage personae, he shed the glam-rock outfits and big hair for a more anonymous life documented at Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau, an extended version of the show that broke box-office records at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
“If people saw him in a bar in Berlin they would just say: ‘So what? I play in a band too.’ Bowie liked that, there were no screaming fans and he wasn’t treated like a superstar,” recalls Peter Radszuhn, who worked at Berlin’s Hansa Studios where Bowie recorded and is now director of music at Berlin’s Radio Eins.
But in the company of the irrepressible Iggy and surrounded by the louche attractions of West Berlin, it was never going to be a monastic existence.
As photos on display show, Bowie was reliving the bohemian pre-war Berlin described by his friend Christopher Isherwood in books that would inspire the musical Cabaret.
Fascinated by the intense paintings and cinema of German Expressionism, Bertolt Brecht’s theatre and the city’s Cold War landscape, he and his collaborator Brian Eno blended the sounds of Krautrock, electronic and punk for some of Bowie’s most-covered tracks, as well as some brooding and obscure ones.
The Berlin era was so influential that Bowie has described the records he made here as “my DNA”. By the end of his stay, the chameleon-like artist was moving in a different direction with the pop sounds of the 1979 album Lodger.
But he again paid homage to the city in his acclaimed 2013 comeback album The Next Day, produced like the Berlin trilogy by Toni Visconti.
Recycling artwork from the cover of Heroes and listing his old haunts, like the nightclub Dschungel, it provides a soundtrack for fans who are expected to flock to the city for the new show.
Christine Heidemann, who curated the Berlin extension to the V&A exhibition, searched the archives of the rock star, his friends, museums and public records to present new material about his time here. Alongside photos, sketches and scribbled lyrics to his hits, she hangs portraits painted by Bowie of Iggy alongside a woodcut and oil by Expressionist master Erich Heckel. They inspired the odd angular poses on the cover of Heroes and Iggy’s The Idiot, one of his two raw 1977 hit albums produced by Bowie.
If people saw him in a bar in Berlin, they would just say: ‘So what?...’ Bowie liked that
Heidemann also discovered correspondence between Bowie and the ageing German screen idol Marlene Dietrich. They co-starred in the 1978 film Just a Gigolo, her last film appearance which was panned by the critics.
She also sifted through archives of the former East German secret police, the Stasi, for reports related to his 1987 return to Berlin, when he sang Heroes by the Wall – provoking a riot by thousands of fans on the other side risking arrest to listen.
The Berlin Wall appears in the lyrics of the single Heroes which was recorded near the Gropius Bau at the studio known then as Hansa Studio by the Wall – it was so close that East German sentries could see right into the windows from their watchtower.
Guiding visitors through recording studios used by a chart-list of legends – U2, Nina Hagen, Nick Cave and Depeche Mode – Thielo Schmied of Fritz MusicTours tells the story of how Bowie spotted his producer Visconti kissing one of the backing singers in the scruffy backyard beneath the Wall.
In the song, about two lovers, Bowie sings: “I can remember/Standing, by the wall/And the guns shot above our heads/And we kissed, as though nothing could fall.”
Heidemann said Berlin has changed a lot since Bowie’s stay, and not only because the Wall came down: “But people come here with similar expectations – that Berlin is a place where you can somehow relax or retreat, which is what Bowie expected when he came here after a turbulent time in Los Angeles.”