David Bowie in Berlin

Robert Fripp, Colin Thurston, David Bowie and Brian Eno recording ‘Heroes’ in Berlin, 1977


A Foreign Affair: David Bowie in Berlin

Crises are good for art – political as well as private. Those who balance on the edge of the abyss need to keep their wits about them, looking not only down but ahead.

In the late summer of 1976, the mentally and physically exhausted David Bowie moves to West Berlin. For three years, he lives at 155 Hauptstrasse in Schöneberg, an unobtrusive district in the American Sector. Apartments are in short supply, but Bowie finds a loft with seven large rooms on the first floor of an art nouveau building near Tempelhof Airport. Next door is a gay bar; Marlene Dietrich was born around the corner.

Berlin is really only an episode in the life of the English pop star. But in the life of the divided city this episode has evolved into a myth that is constantly conjured up in articles, films and guided tours: Bowie arrives from Los Angeles, where his dissolute lifestyle had almost robbed him of his sanity and his health. In exile here, at the age of 30 he reaches the maturity he requires to become a fully rounded artist. He paints, he writes, he makes a film with Marlene Dietrich and, in the Hansa Studio right next to the Wall, he produces the most courageous music of his life. In the Berlin albums Low and Heroes of 1977, which he makes together with Brian Eno, he adopts the sound of the electronic avant garde. And, little by little, he falls silent. It is the most radical abandonment of hit-parade music that a superstar has ever ventured. Imagine a Robbie Williams, who has followed in the Sinatra tradition as Bowie once did, bringing out a record in which he no longer sings, but improvises on the synthesiser and celebrates his psychoses and phobias as part of the Cold War. That gives you some idea of David Bowie in Berlin.

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By John Scanlan

John Scanlan is the Series Editor of Reverb with Reaktion Books.