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Tour the Iconic Music Studio Where David Bowie Recorded His Berlin Trilogy

The Meistersaal recording hall. (Photo: In3s/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

A version of this post originally appeared on Slow Travel Berlin

Standing in the Hansa Studio’s neoclassical Meistersaal in Berlin–a lavish 7,000-square-foot space with polished herringbone floor, elegant coffered ceiling studded with chandeliers and heavy red drapes that run all the way up to the two-story ceilings–it’s impossible not to feel the twin vibrations of sound and history.

Afternoon light filters through the windows and the room seems to gently hum with the possibility of creation; closing your eyes, you’re reminded of the artists who have left traces of their personal and musical history here. 

Seminal albums recorded at Hansa Studios during the ’70s and ’80s include Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life and The Idiot, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ The Firstborn is Dead and Your Funeral, My Trial, and Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Tinderbox. But one artist’s work stands out for its sonic and lyrical connection to the city of Berlin–that of David Bowie.

In the summer of 1976, Bowie came to the divided city to escape his cocaine-fueled lifestyle in Los Angeles, and threw himself into creative projects. Out of the celebrity spotlight, Bowie was composed, productive and “felt a joy of life and a great feeling of release and healing.” Berlin, for him, was “a city that’s so easy to ‘get lost’ in–and to ‘find’ oneself too.”


The facade of Hansa Studios. (Photo: Fiona Laughton)

Bowie aficionado and sound engineer Thilo Schmied, of Berlin Music Tours, runs the only official tours of the still-operating studios. Full of enthusiasm and rock trivia, he leads visitors around the building–including the spiral staircase where Depeche Mode once posed for a photograph that would appear on the back of A Question of Lust–explaining its history, showing old photos from the Wall era, and throwing out anecdotes from the endless recording sessions that have taken place here over the years. 

The building has a fascinating and checkered past. Built in 1913 as a guild for the Berlin Builders society, it was later used as a concert hall for chamber music, before becoming a cultural hub in the Weimar era. The Marxist publishing house Malik-Verlag moved into the ground floor, Kurt Tucholsky held readings here, and a Dada art gallery hosted regular exhibitions.

Then the Nazis arrived, confiscated all the Malik-Verlag titles as part of their book-burning campaign and turned the Meistersaal into a venue for the infamous Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber); SS officers swayed through the space to State-approved ‘good German music.’

The ornate spiral staircase,where Depeche Mode were photographed. (Photo: Fiona Laughton)

Used briefly as a cabaret hall after the war, it became isolated until the early ’60s–undesirable for most uses, but perfect for a use as a studio, initially for classical recordings and then for Schlager artists.

In the beginning of the ’70s, the Meisel brothers founded the Hansa Studios and acquired the building, operating no fewer than five studio rooms in the building; the Meistersaal became the now-legendary Hansa Studio 2. 

Shortly thereafter, David Bowie moved to Berlin in 1976 and stayed for three years. Hansa quickly became his musical base. Bowie produced the two aforementioned Iggy Pop albums at Hansa, appeared alongside Marlene Dietrich in Just A Gigolo and–most famously–wrote his avant-garde Berlin trilogy: the albums of Low, Heroes, and Lodger.  

Film poster for Just a Gigolo, a 1978 film starring David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich, set in post-WWI Berlin. (Image: Wiki Commons)

Heroes was Bowie’s only album that was recorded entirely at Hansa. The title track, a tale of two lovers who come together in the shadow of the ‘Wall of Shame’, epitomizes Bowie’s relationship with both Hansa and Berlin.

According to Schmied, the original inspiration for the song “Heroes” came to Bowie when viewing Otto Mueller’s 1916 painting Liebespaar zwischen Gartenmauern (Lovers Between Garden Walls) at Berlin’s Brücke Museum.

But in 1977, the painting seemingly came to life before his eyes as he gazed out of Hansa’s windows and allegedly watched his (married) co-producer Tony Visconti embracing Antonia Maaß, one of the back-up singers from the “Heroes” sessions.

The serendipitous moment was captured in the lyrics of the song, which has gone on to become one Bowie’s best-known anthems. Used for everything from World Cup football to eco-documentaries like The Cove, the song is often misread or misheard as a message of victory and hope, when actually it’s an elegy to futile romance.
 
As Berlin-based Australian author Craig Schuftan writes in his book, Hey! Nietzsche! Leave Them Kids Alone!, the couple kissing by the Wall are “doomed and they know it.” While on the surface the song appears to be uplifting and motivational, it’s ironically bittersweet and “full of wrenching sadness, because in this contest between two people and reality itself, they don’t stand a chance.”
 

The heart of Hansa Studio 1 is the SLS 4000E mixing console, finished in its trademark Hansa Blue. (Photo: Fiona Laughton)

At the end of the tour, the familiar refrains of “Heroes” suddenly fills the Hansa studios. Schmied is playing it through the very mixing desk on which it was recorded. He encourages us to listen carefully for the reverb of the Meistersaal within the song, Brian Eno’s swirling synths, and the urgency in Bowie’s voice as it builds to the final crescendo.

Schmied must have heard “Heroes” a zillion times, but his feet still tap along and his face wears a look of sheer rapture; indeed, it’s hard at that moment not to be momentarily transported back to that special moment in time, in an equally special building.

A version of this post originally appeared on Slow Travel Berlin, an online repository of eclectic information about the German capital.