Bowie arrived in walled-in West Berlin in November 1976. By the time he left in 1979, a punk rock renaissance had begun to take root. Did he have a hand in the transformation?
You have to realise that there was nothing in West Berlin,” says Wolfgang Müller emphatically. “Nothing. Nobody cared about Berlin.” When Müller moved here from Wolfsburg in the late 1970s, the underground musical subculture that would later prove fruitful enough for him to chronicle in his 2013 book Subkultur West Berlin 1979-1989 was just beginning to coalesce. The landscape of West Berlin was desolate and bleak, strewn with post-war ruins and hastily thrown-together 1950s and 1960s buildings. It was insular and austere, an island state trapped behind the Wall, which acted as a pivot between East and West Cold War tensions.
Gudrun Gut, founder of Malaria!, original member of Einstürzende Neubauten and head of the Monika Enterprises record label, remembers how Berlin felt to her when she first arrived in 1975 to attend the Hochschule der Künste. “There was no industry. The houses were in poor shape, there was coal heating; we took showers in this big bath. It was pretty run down.”
The idea that an international superstar like David Bowie would come to live in this wasteland was, at the time, ludicrous – even more so the idea of him coming to a notorious heroin capital to detox from drugs. “The most famous person here was Christiane F.,” notes Müller. The former teen drug addict’s 1979 memoir came to symbolise the atmosphere of desolation and neglect that permeated the city at the time. “She was a junkie when she was 14, and she was the biggest star from West Berlin. It’s not very glamorous, if you think about it.”
Yet something was attracting people, particularly young people, to live there. One reason was obvious: West Berlin was a special zone occupied by the US, the British and the French, which meant young West German men who lived in the city were exempt from doing their obligatory military service.
The artist, musician and queer nightlife regular Salomé came to Berlin in 1973 as a draftsman for the US Army, working at Tempelhof Airport. “I got the job through an agency. I was glad because I wouldn’t be drafted for the West German army.” Still, that wasn’t the only reason he made the move. Working for an architecture company in his hometown of Karlsruhe, he recalls: “A secretary there said to me – because I was already a little bit dragged with coloured hair and high heels – ‘You have to go there, this is awful for you. You have to go to Berlin, it’s the place for you to be.’”
The exemption from conscription was a factor for Müller as well, but not the deciding one. “I was kicked out of art school in West Germany, and West Berlin was a good place to come to,” he says. “Because I lived on the border to East Germany, I hitchhiked from Wolfsburg all the time to West Berlin… it was the next big city. It was quite an open place and it was very cheap.”
Gut felt that West Berlin invoked something different from the rest of West Germany. “You know, in those days, it was really kind of organised and boring, in a way. Everything was perfect. Berlin was completely different. I remember clearly how you could smell something.”
The springing up of counterculture and the feeling of unrest from the 1968 protests was still resonant throughout the city. Living in the squats of Kreuzberg as a hippy was an easy way to express revolt. Yet the idealism of the ’68 era had long begun to stagnate.
As had Berlin’s music scene. Removed from the nexus of Cologne and Düsseldorf, Berlin nonetheless had krautrock and Kosmische groups, tending towards the ambient electronics of Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream, whose founder Edgar Froese would befriend Bowie early in his Berlin stay. But the detached intellectualism of the genre was far from the attitude which artists such as Müller, Salomé and Gut would have felt. “We were trying to invent our own kind of new music,” Gut says. “German music didn’t have any kind of impact at all.”
What did have an impact was the American and British glam and proto-punk scenes, of which David Bowie and Iggy Pop were undisputed figureheads.
In late 1976, their choice to move to West Berlin conferred on the city the kind of cool it had never had before. “He was really the first international star who moved to this very unfresh city at this time. It was still wasted by the War,” says Müller. “David Bowie and Iggy Pop – they were Anglo-American and they brought something fresh into this city. It’s a fact.”
Not that any self-respecting Berlin resident would admit to being impressed by him. Says Salomé, “David Bowie was just another freak in town, who cares? I had him a few times as a customer at Anderes Ufer because I was working behind the bar. He was polite and nice, he got what he wanted, then you’d leave him alone. Let him do what he was doing. People left him alone and that’s probably why he enjoyed it so much.”
Nonetheless, Berliners paid attention to where Bowie was going and what he was doing – and whom he was doing it with. Just before his move to Berlin, the star had declared his bisexuality in an interview with Playboy; in the city, his frequenting of transgressive clubs like Chez Romy Haag and Lützower Lampe helped usher in the blending of straight and queer subcultures that was key to the formation of the German punk scene.
Anderes Ufer opened in 1977, two doors down from Bowie’s 155 Hauptstraße address in Schöneberg “I don’t think it was any accident that David Bowie lived just a few doors down,” notes Müller. “He had an influence on these things.”
The bar was seen as being the first publicly gay locale in Berlin, with its wide-open glass front – which Bowie famously paid to replace after it was smashed by angry drunks. Salomé worked there as a waiter. “In the late 1970s things started to be different because Anderes Ufer opened. It was the first gay bar with open windows where everybody could look in and young people met…“
As the decade began to draw to a close, more and more venues opened that attracted both hedonistic hometown revellers and, increasingly, bands from the US and the UK punk scene, which was in full swing at the time. 1977 was the year in which John Lydon’s sneer of “no future” became a mantra, and it was also the year that Kantkino in Charlottenburg hosted a show by UK band The Vibrators, which inspired PVC, one of West Berlin’s first punk bands; later that same year, they were opening for Iggy Pop.
One year later, in 1978, the club Dschungel opened on Nürnberger Straße, quickly gaining a reputation as “Berlin’s Studio 54”, an anything-goes hangout for freaks of all stripes. And the Kreuzberg punk club SO36 was taken over by German artist Martin Kippenberger, who invested his own money in it to save it from bankruptcy. Kippenberger reinvented the club, bringing over names from both sides of the Atlantic: from Bowie himself to post-punk and industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle and Wire. Müller remembers it as though “a UFO had landed among the hippies”.
“There was this open, liberal atmosphere,” says Müller. “People really didn’t care. A friend of mine once lay down on Oranienstraße, on the street, and cars just slowly passed around her.” Salomé felt that SO36 was a point where queer scenes and the music scenes merged. “Those were places where the crowd mixed. Openly mixed. You could meet anybody and everybody. That was the change.”
Inspired by the bands they saw, the people they met and their own West Berlin experiences, musicians like Gut and Müller began to write their own songs… in their own language. Previously, this had been fraught with political implications. “Singing in German was a taboo – the Nazi era destroyed the tradition of German lyrics,” says Müller. “But the punk movement was all about erasing taboos. We started to think about singing in German again.”
Bowie’s contribution to this? “He did that version of ‘Heroes’ in German in 1977 – so we thought, if David Bowie could sing in German, then the Germans could, too!” laughs Müller.
By the time Nick Cave, the next international musician to take up residence in Berlin, arrived in 1983, West Berlin’s cultural landscape was a different place. Punk, post-punk and industrial bands like Salomé’s Geile Tiere, Müller’s Die Tödliche Doris, Gut’s all-female group Malaria! and her friend Blixa Bargeld’s Einstürzende Neubauten had created a new musical language that the city could call its own.
Bowie might have resonated through the city – “Berlin was nowhere, and Bowie gave it a glam factor,” as Gut pointed out. But the people who took up their inspiration through the punk scene and went on to continue through the 1980s were able to move on, experiment with genres and bring in a new era of music to Berlin.