Music enriches our journeys, passes the time, and provides a pleasant distraction. When traveling through Berlin, a city with over 300 train stations and a view of the cityscape from the S-Bahn, having a fully loaded smartphone or MP3 player can turn your trip into a cinematic experience with accompanying music.
I possess a greater number of records pertaining to Berlin compared to any other city. I cannot help but think that the city should have a central hub or main location where all influences converge – a musical equivalent of the impressive Berlin Hauptbahnhof, which was established in 2006 and serves as a significant symbol of reunification.
Which artists will perform at the venue?
As someone who grew up in the 1970s, it may seem natural to focus solely on David Bowie. However, Berlin offers much more than just one artist. The city has a rich history in classical music, with the Schauspielhaus (now called Konzerthaus Berlin) being a prominent venue on the German circuit. In fact, Weber’s Der Freischütz, often considered the first romantic German opera, debuted there in 1821.
The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was established in 1882 and is headquartered at the unique, uneven, and tent-shaped Philharmonie Berlin. In 1913, the orchestra’s initial recording of Wagner’s Parsifal was led by Alfred Hertz. The background noise and imperfections are a result of the basic technology used at the time; the musicians squeezed into a small space to be as near as they could to a large recording horn.
The Weimar Republic was based in the Reichstag, but there is a misconception that it was controlled by cabarets and dive bars. Many tourists try to find evidence of the supposed decadence of Weimar, but it was actually brief and exaggerated. It is also unlikely to find the locations referenced in Christopher Isherwood’s novels Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), as Isherwood himself stated to David Bowie: “People tend to overlook that I am a skilled fiction writer.”
In late 1930, Isherwood found a permanent residence at Nollendorfstrasse 17 in the Schöneberg district, after relocating multiple times. He lived there with Jean Ross, a British war correspondent who inspired the character of Sally Bowles in his work, including the popular musical “Cabaret”.
During the early 1920s, there were 38 cabarets in Berlin. Among them was Tingel-Tangel, a show held at Theater des Westens (located on Kantstrasse 12) which featured performances from Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker. Berlin’s cabaret scene had a wide range of songs, with Dietrich’s “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt” (also known as “Falling in Love Again” in English) being one of the most famous. This song was recorded in both languages for the 1930 film The Blue Angel, which was filmed at the Babelsberg studio in nearby Postdam. Max Hansen, a Danish tenor who founded the Kabarett der Komiker, also recorded many playful show songs, including “Meine liebe Lola” and “War’n Sie schon mal in mich verliebt?”, which satirized Hitler as a homosexual.
The Nazis considered a significant amount of art and culture to be “Entartete” or degenerate. Music created by Jewish individuals was prohibited. In the 1930s, Hirsch Lewin, a Lithuanian, operated a bookstore called the “Hebrew Bookstore” at Grenadierstrasse 28 (now Almstadtstrasse 10). Despite facing persecution from the Nazis, Lewin also dedicated his time to recording klezmer songs and releasing them under his Semer label. Unfortunately, during this time, the Nazis destroyed his shop and many of the recordings and original plates. However, in 2016, an international ensemble released a collection of these songs on the Berlin-based Piranha label. One of the tracks, “Scholem Baith,” is a powerful call-and-response piece that rivals any song by Dietrich.
Hitler had a strong fondness for Wagner but had a deep disdain for jazz, experimental music, and Romany folk. In analyses of Nazi propaganda, a frequently referenced song is the 1942 popular hit “Ich weiss, es wird einmal ein Wunder gescheh’n” (I Know That Someday a Miracle Will Happen) by Swedish-born Zarah Leander. The song was recorded at Lindström Studios (located at Schlesische Strasse 26).
During the time of the Soviet Union, musicians in East Berlin played it safe to avoid being censored or facing even worse consequences. German easy listening, known as schlager, was considered a safe genre and the state-sanctioned Amiga label in the DDR (German Democratic Republic) produced numerous albums featuring tunes like Ilja Glusgal’s 1950 “Nein Nein Nein” – a song that could easily be imagined as the soundtrack to a Stasi raid in a dark comedy. The DDR Museum has a vast collection of albums from this time period. As jazz and big band music lost popularity, schlager became more cheesy and featured singers and ersatz country and western acts. It is often seen as the precursor to the kitschy and campy performances seen in the Eurovision Song Contest. German audiences continue to enjoy this type of music, as evidenced by the 25th annual Schlager Nacht held at Berlin’s Mercedes-Benz Arena last year. This year’s “good mood music” festival will take place on November 16th.
Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Iggy Pop all had intertwining careers. Reed was the first to explore Berlin, both mentally and physically. His 1973 album, Berlin, tells the story of a couple torn apart by drug dependency and aggression. The song “Berlin” creates a mood reminiscent of a bierkeller meeting a cabaret. Reed described Berlin as the “birthplace of German film noir and expressionism,” but also saw the Berlin Wall, now a memorial, museum, and art gallery, as a symbol for a fractured relationship.
Did the idea of a concept album inspire David Bowie and Iggy Pop to experiment with the real experience? Bowie stated that he traveled there to escape Los Angeles and the effects of cocaine-induced psychosis. The story of how he created three significant albums, known as the Berlin Trilogy, is intricate and lengthy. Many songs from Low (1977), “Heroes” (1977), and Lodger (1979) reflect on the city and the Cold War in the East. The iconic track “Heroes” (also released in German as “Helden”) features the image of lovers by the wall with guns firing above their heads, and has become one of Bowie’s most beloved songs. Subterraneans from Low was initially recorded in Los Angeles for the film The Man Who Fell to Earth, but was not ultimately used. In a 1977 interview with Record Mirror, Bowie explained that the song was inspired by those who remained in East Berlin after the separation, represented by the soft jazz saxophones symbolizing their memories.
The song “The Passenger” by Iggy Pop, featured on the 1977 album “Lust for Life”, could possibly be interpreted as a satirical commentary on his collaboration with Bowie. Alternatively, it can also be seen as a tune for a car ride, specifically on a scenic drive by the ocean. However, according to German photographer and former partner of the singer Esther Friedman, the song is actually a tribute to the Berlin S-Bahn. Pop was known to take the S-Bahn daily and Friedman claims that the journeys inspired him to write the song, particularly when traveling to Wannsee. The recording of the album took place at Hansa Tonstudio on Köthener Strasse 38, just a few doors down from the Berlin Wall, as depicted on this map. Numerous other artists, such as Depeche Mode, U2, and Boney M, also chose to record at this studio.
In 1977, the band Sex Pistols visited Berlin and were influenced to create their energetic song “Holidays in the Sun”. Unlike the romantic image often associated with Berlin, lead singer Johnny Rotten (also known as John Lydon) opens the song with the sound of marching boots and the lyrics “A cheap holiday in other people’s misery”. Lydon later expressed his admiration for Berlin and its chaotic atmosphere, stating that the communists could observe the constant activity of West Berlin, which never slept.
In June 1988, Nico, who had collaborated with Reed on the debut album of the Velvet Underground, gave her final performance at the Planetarium in West Berlin. She was born as Christa Päffgen in Cologne and spent her childhood in Berlin, where she worked as a salesperson at the KaDeWe department store. Nico’s final resting place is the Grunewald-Forst cemetery.
During the 1970s and 80s, the underground scene in Berlin encompassed a variety of do-it-yourself art, activism by squatters, and a culture centered around drugs. The Bahnhof Zoo was a popular spot for heroin users to gather, as depicted in the 1981 film Christiane F, which featured music by Bowie. Tangerine Dream, a band known for lineup changes, emerged as one of the most successful groups from this scene. They performed large concerts in West Berlin and were one of the first major acts to play in East Berlin. Their show at the Palast der Republik on January 31, 1980 (the former home of the DDR parliament, now demolished) was heavily bootlegged.
Reworded: Einstürzende Neubauten, a West Berlin industrial/experimental rock band, created radical music that reflected the city’s destroyed landscape. Their lead singer and screamer, Blixa Bargeld, was also a prominent member of the Bad Seeds and the Birthday Party. One of their most well-known songs, “Steh auf Berlin” (Wake Up Berlin), can be found on their first album, Kollaps. This chaotic and aggressive track was performed using unconventional instruments made from scrap metal and construction tools.
The punky synth-pop that emerged from Neue Deutsche Welle (NDW) – also known as the New German Wave – was more pleasant to listen to. One of its most successful songs was Nena’s “99 Luftballons”, which became an international hit even in English. I have a memory of a friend introducing me to a Dutch compilation album called “Die Neue Deutsche Welle Ist Da Da Da” in 1982, which I considered to be the epitome of edgy and cool imported music. Many of the songs on the album have a similar sound to Kraftwerk, but with a faster pace and more danceable quality, perfect for the popular skipping dance done by Andy McCluskey. Some of the top bands in Berlin that played NDW, punk, and metal had their music mixed by Harris Johns at his studio, Music Lab Berlin, located at Tempelhofer Ufer 10.
Many venues in Kreuzberg have opened and closed over the years. SO36, where bands like Einstürzende, Die Toten Hosen, Throbbing Gristle, and the Dead Kennedys caused chaos, is still in operation. However, it is unlikely that Bargeld will attend the Monday roller discos there. The club’s monthly “Gayhane” event, which features a “QueerOriental Dancefloor,” is well-known and highly regarded.
Tresor, which began operations in 1991, was among the first clubs to introduce Detroit techno to the city and continues to attract top DJs. Berghain, another prominent club, is situated in a former power plant on Karl-Marx-Allee, a monumental boulevard built during the socialist era. The former Templehof airport, constructed in a modernist style that mirrored the grandeur of the Third Reich, used to host raves. Berlin’s no-curfew policy, believed to have originated from West Berlin’s liberal views on nightlife, makes it a popular destination for techno enthusiasts. DJ Rolando, hailing from Detroit, maintains the transatlantic connection; his remix of Expo 2000 pays tribute to Kraftwerk from Düsseldorf, whose influence on many of the aforementioned acts is well-documented. Berghain resident Ben Klock’s Subzero evokes a retro-futuristic train gliding on icy tracks and serves as the perfect conclusion to our S-Bahn adventure.