Tag Archives: 1970s Berlin

David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Expressionism – Berlin Years

26 Nov

When David Bowie and Iggy Pop came to Berlin in the late seventies, they were welcomed by a divided city, a city which flourished in its confinement, breathing and living in hustle of capitalism, at the same time suffocating in an alienation which was its own product.


With Bowie’s arrival in Berlin, a period of cultural and artistic thriving started both for him and the city itself, which gleefully relived the glamour and decadence of its Weimar days.

Products of this fruitful, avant-garde, quite radical, sleek and modern, Europeanised, bohemian-aristocratic period of Bowie’s career were three albums; Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979), and The Idiot (1977) and Lust for Life (1977) for Iggy Pop respectively. Drawn in deeper and deeper in cocaine hell, fame and shallowness of Los Angeles, Bowie had wanted for some time a clean start, a departure from his old personas because things did took him ‘where the things are hollow’. Iggy Pop wasn’t in a good place as well. West Germany was a place to go. Bowie was drawn to Berlin; a city at the heart of the West-East ideological conflicts, with a rich yet drab cultural history.

1927-brigitte-helm-on-the-set-of-the-metropolis-1927-fritz-langBrigitte Helm on the set of the Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang)

Bowie spoke himself about the reasons behind his moving to Berlin: ‘Life in LA had left me with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. I had approached the brink of drug induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take some kind of positive action. For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary-like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer anyway.‘ (Uncut magazine, 1999)


In order to understand Berlin as it was in the seventies, it is necessary to understand its history, especially its ‘golden era’ of the 1920s – the decadency and cultural richness of the era equals the ones in Bowie’s time in Berlin. Berlin underwent a lot of transformation and served as the background for many political events since it first became the capital of the German Reich in 1871; from the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II to the roaring twenties, with all the freedom and avant-garde that characterised the decade, then the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, World War II and the events after it, the beginning of the Cold War and the division itself, building of the infamous wall, heroin addicts at the Bahnhof Zoo, arrival of Western rock stars – Lou Reed, David Bowie and Iggy Pop, later Nick Cave, all the way to the fall of the Wall and today’s modern ‘clean’, commercial and capitalist face of Berlin. It’s a city that nurtured its own bleakness, greyness and almost aggressive modernity. It’s also a city that allowed Bowie his freedom and anonymity.

1908-ernst-ludwig-kirchner-street-dresdenKircher’s vibrant colours express the overwhelming bustle and frenzy of life in a big city, and the loneliness of an individual at the same time. A million people and not a single friend.

I especially felt this modernity and sense of alienation in places such as Potsdamer Platz, Bahnhof Zoo (can’t deny its legacy) and Alexanderplatz. I remember it well, last summer I was standing on Alexander Platz with greyness all around me and trams passing in different directions – I felt like I was in one of Kirchner’s paintings. I also enjoyed watching trains arriving to the Bahnhof Zoo, wondering about the boroughs they connect. Oh, I simply adore that urban Romanticism about Berlin!

1914-ernst-ludwig-kirchner-1880-1938-berlin-street-scene-1914-pastel-and-charcoal-on-beige-colored-corrugated-laid-paper-67-7-x-49-3-cm-stadel-museum-frankfurt-am-mainErnst Ludwig Kirchner, Berlin Street Scene, 1914: People crossing each other’s paths, walking directionless, waiting for tramways, chatting, gazing into distance, waiting for clients; careless, nervous, breathing an air of avant-garde.

In 1871, Berlin had only 800,000 inhabitants, in 1929 it had more than four million. Unlike London or Paris, Berlin wasn’t dotted with museums, churches and palaces, but was rather more ‘grey and uniform looking’.

Old Berlin consisted of six different boroughs: Mitte, Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg, Kreutzberg, Tiergarten and Wedding. In 1920, seven surrounding towns were incorporated:Charlottenburg, Spandau, Schöneberg, Wilmersdorf, Lichtenberg, Neuköln and Kopenick. ‘Greater Berlin’ was thus formed by artificially uniting the existing, established eastern sector with a new area of land. The resulting caesura remained visible and tangible, both in terms of the social structure of the city and the mentality of its inhabitants.’ (Berlin in the 20s, Rainer Metzger)

This is an interesting information because we know that both Marlene Dietrich and Blixa Bargeld were born in Schöneberg – the same part of Berlin that Bowie and Iggy lived in. Bowie also named his song: Neuköln. The point is, Berlin was different, a concrete jungle half-coated in avant-garde, half in junkies, misfits and eccentrics. Paris had a romantic flair, London had a certain quirkiness, but Berlin had the legacy of Expressionists and Anita Berber, and of course – Gropiusstadt.

1923-anita-berber-photographed-by-madame-dora-1923Anita Berber, looking like one of Klimt’s muses and a Biba girl at the same time.

What Berlin also possessed, both in the 1920s and in the 1970s, was a certain fragility, awareness of its own transience. In that decadent frenzy, anxiety and excitement, the city lived, breathed and sensed its own collapse, as the Einsturzende Neubauten would later sing. Carl Zuckmayer, a German writer who lived in 1920s Berlin, writes about this feeling: ‘The arts blossomed like a field awaiting the harvest. Hence the charm of the tragic genius that characterised the epoch and the works of many poets and artists cut off in their prime… I remember well how Max Reinhardt… once said: “What I love is this taste of transience on the tongue – every year might be the last year.” Rainer Metzger further adds: ‘Today it is clear just how accurate, vigilant and prophetic this awareness of its own fragility, prior to the events of 1933, turned out to be.‘ Berlin’s artistic and cultural life at the time was a landslide, its seeming excitement, energy and a need for fun and intoxication was simply a facade that hid the unrest that lay on the inside.

1977-child-in-berlin-david-bowieDavid Bowie, Child in Berlin, 1977

Berlin in the seventies still held many of these characteristics, except it didn’t just sense the catastrophe but lived in the middle of it. Now a wall divided the West and the East, and Bowie arrived just in time to sing of lovers standing by the wall and create a new sound that would soak up the atmosphere of the city like a sponge. A sense of transience still lingered though, as we all know, Bowie’s artistic periods and personas didn’t last long, and from the moment he came it was evident that he may be gone soon. How long would Berlin continue to inspire him? One, two albums? It turned out to be three. If I may say – some of the most beautiful out of all his entire oeuvre. Bowie later ‘called “Heroes”, and his three Berlin albums, his DNA.’ (*)


Bowie’s divine Berlin era started as early as in the summer of 1976, when he started working on The Idiot with Iggy Pop, although his previous album Station to Station hints at a change that was soon to come, especially the ten minutes long title track, Bowie said himself: As far as the music goes, Low and its siblings were a direct follow-on from the title track Station To Station. It’s often struck me that there will usually be one track on any given album of mine, which will be a fair indicator of the intent of the following album. (Uncut magazine, 1999)

Iggy Pop said in this interview that The Idiot was inspired by the idea of Berlin, not the city itself yet, although they knew it was their next destination. That is so interesting because many times in art there’s a situation that the artist painted his reveries of a certain place, idealised visions of it, and not the realistic place itself. That’s the power of imagination.

Seeking spiritual and physical purification, and turning his interest from America to Europe again, Bowie found a new wellspring of creativity, imagination and happiness. Seems like those years served him good; not only did he produce three magnificent albums, and turned Berlin into a Mecca for the world of rock music, but also – found himself. He no longer needed a mask to hide himself, but rather found a way to express himself and go on stage as David Bowie.

1925-26-farewell-by-ernst-ludwig-kirchnerErnst Ludwig Kirchner, The Farewell, 1925-26

David Bowie loved Expressionism, and often visited Die Brücke Museum in Berlin, which was opened just nine years prior to his arrival. I remember reading somewhere that he loved watching twenty hour long Expressionistic films while travelling by train. He explained his love for the art movement in one interview:

Since my teenage years I had obsessed on the angst ridden, emotional work of the expressionists, both artists and film makers, and Berlin had been their spiritual home. This was the nub of Die Brucke movement, Max Rheinhardt, Brecht and where Metropolis and Caligari had originated. It was an art form that mirrored life not by event but by mood. This was where I felt my work was going. My attention had been swung back to Europe with the release of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn in 1974. The preponderance of electronic instruments convinced me that this was an area that I had to investigate a little further.‘ (Uncut magazine, 1999)

Did Bowie have Kirchner’s painting The Farewell in mind when he wrote lyrics for Sound and Vision? Just look at that beautiful vibrant electric blue outline on Kirchner’s figures of a woman with turquoise skin and a man in a brown-reddish coat. It really pierces your vision, and it’s imbued with almost a spiritual energy, just that single line would make a painting outstanding.

Blue, blue, electric blue
That’s the colour of my room
Where I will live
Blue, blue

Pale blinds drawn all day
Nothing to do, nothing to say
Blue, blue” (*)


Covers of Bowie’s album Heroes and Iggy Pop’s Idiot both have a similar theme, which draws direct influence from artists such as Erich Heckel, mentioned by Bowie in an interview as one of his favourites at the time, and also the photographs of Egon Schiele. Bowie and Pop’s interpretations of the older artworks possess the same modernity, chic avant-garde, almost robotic poses. The titles are interesting as well, Hero and Idiot, antonyms of a sort.

Musically, I’ve always been a fan of Bowie’s Berlin era. Even though I like Bowie’s earlier stuff as well, this period endlessly captivates me, not just because the songs are so peculiar, strange and beautiful, but also because of the cult of the city itself, and also because it’s Bowie’s most-honest, most-himself phase up to that point. Songs from Low, Heroes, Lodger, The Idiot and Lust for Life are anomalies in a world of rock music, created in a specific place at a specific time. Berlin was never the same again. Back then, it was strange, unexplored and politically unstable. Then came capitalism, and they’ve created a seemingly clean and safe, but slightly soulless environment, which is just what tourists want. They don’t want to feel the real thing, or see junkies or live art, they want to take a photo standing in front of Brandenburger Tor. I can’t help it wonder, would Bowie chose Berlin as his artistic destination knowing the city as it is today?


Musically, Bowie and Pop’s albums from their Berlin eras convey that specific atmosphere of Berlin at the time, and that grey, modern and grim appearance of the city. As if their music responded to the scenery around them. Listening to tracks such as V-Schneider or Sense of Doubt you can picture the massive monstrous building of Gropiusstadt, or U-Bahns and Strassenbahns arriving at a station, you can feel the November coldness and bare trees in Mitte, tall soulless buildings, escalators at Europa Centar, never ending traffic jams…

1917-roquairol-erich-heckel-1917-or-the-idiot-iggy-popErich Heckel, Roquairol, 1917

And now some lyrics. Iggy Pop and David Bowie co-wrote Sister Midnight:

Calling Sister Midnight
You’ve got me reaching for the moon
Calling Sister Midnight
You’ve got me playing the fool
Calling Sister Midnight
Calling Sister Midnight
Can you hear me call
Can you hear me well
Can you hear me at all
Calling Sister Midnight
I’m an Idiot for you
Calling Sister Midnight
I’m a breakage inside.


David Bowie’s song ‘What in a World’:

You’re just a little girl with grey eyes

So deep in your room,
You never leave your room
Something deep inside of me
Yearning deep inside of me
Talking through the gloom
What in the world can you do
What in the world can you do
I’m in the mood for your love
For your love
For your love” (*)

Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo – ‘It’s Too Late’

5 Nov


Berlin; a city divided by the wall, alienated by the Cold war, an ‘outsider status‘ city clashed between west and east, had turned on itself for four decades. In the meantime, an alternative lifestyle was created in the West Berlin with lots of discotheques, such as the infamous ‘Sound‘, cinemas, theatres, clubs, and as a byproduct, a developed drug scene.

Despite the economic prosperity of West Berlin in the 1970s, living conditions, especially for young people, have not changed at all, in fact they have worsened; increasing demands at school, crowded classes, shortage of teachers, idleness and family conflicts are all specific expressions of deterioration West Berlin faced. In localities such as the infamous Gropiusstadt, settled by 45,000 people, all these problems become massive because of the vast amount of people living there, thus we have young people facing idleness, domestic violence and failures at school. Even schools, which are supposed to be motivating and joyous places, have became almost contaminated by disincentive and competitive atmosphere where pupils are just trying to be better than one another and finish off one another instead of helping each other. No sense of communion at all. There was no personal contact with teachers who were as uninterested in school curriculum as their pupils were. The classes were very crowded and the teachers didn’t even notice if someone wasn’t present at school.

Alienation, which was felt by many young people who later ended up as drug-users and prostitutes at the infamous Bahnhof Zoo, began by growing up in the dehumanizing environment of Gropiusstadt. There, in that ‘concrete wasteland‘ their childhood dreams and ideals were crushed by harsh reality; there was no nature, no playgrounds, not a single meadow that children could play on. Logic of localities such as Gropiusstadt relies on cost-effectiveness and not on human needs and desires. Consequences of that artificial way of life came evident in a whole generation whose youth and childhood innocence were destroyed by the dehumanising and alienating environment. Financial adversities were the biggest problem. High rents and living expenses entailed bigger and bigger work load, on both man and women and people were in constant pressure to put more and more effort and strength into their work, without getting any true joy or welfare. Alcohol was always the first choice of substances people used to numb the consciousness of their position as victims of social progress. For Berlin’s youth in the 1970s, heroin seemed like the only solution; they hoped it would eliminate their problems and numb their senses so that they don’t feel anything at all.

berlin sound 1974

Children from Bahnhof Zoo were tricked for their childhoods; they found no pleasure in their present, no valuable perspective for their future, nor were they capable of drawing strength from their past. Possessing rudiments of childlike imagination, independence and self-confidence, these children just ran from one stimulation to another. Their childhood faze, with its free and stabilising possibilities of development, was reduced only to a pre-school age; and all for the account of the earliest possible orientation abilities and passive consumerism. Children from Bahnhof Zoo had nor the time nor the environment to actually be children and enjoy the carefree and playful atmosphere of that phase. While appearing emotionless and cold on the first sight, these children and drug-users were emotionally developed as a ten year old child, and, very sensitive, with a need to be loved and accepted, they went through the thick and thin of a typical drug-using career.

One of Christiane F.’s best friends was Babsi who later hit the cover side of Berliner Zeit in 1977. when she died aged only fourteen. Shocking title ‘Sie war erst 14!‘ lifted the veil from what was previously a tabu topic; drug scene in Berlin. Babsi was the youngest drug victim in Berlin, and her death, along with the publication of the book Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo helped in raising the awareness of the increased number of teenage drug users. Teenage drug users aren’t very emotionally strong, as I’ve said, and they wave between their romantic fantasies and dreams about ideal world and the manner of behavior of adults who struggle for survival. Despite the hard living conditions these drug users, aged between 12 and 16, face in confirming themselves on the ‘scene‘, they are on the emotional level of a small child.

babsi 3 babsi tot

These young people have seen through the system and society for what it was; a cruel place with hopeless, neglectful and competitive atmosphere, where the individuals are led by greed and hatred, and the society in general, that has lost its moral values, is in a state of anomie. In the clash between the dehumanizing living environment and consumerist false values, these young people felt trapped in the petty-bourgeois monotony. Young people came to the conclusion that, by their future financial capabilities, they’ll never have access to the wonderful, glittery world of commercials and shop windows that has fascinated and attracted them so much. It is a cognition which they formally accept, and soon start looking for the alternative ways of life, but deep down, a lot of teenagers feel bitter and disappointed that all the privileges of the consumerist society will remain unavailable to them.

Also, money had became more and more important determinant of human relationships, and young people, unable to satisfy their desires, more and more controlled by money, try to find other ways to satisfy their desires. Their parents weren’t able to show them the right way for they were burdened by the demands of the Capitalistic society as well. They were burdened with insolvable contradictions themselves; with what they’ve accomplished in life and what they are yet to accomplish will never be enough to fulfill what they wished for in life, or, what they were taught to wish. At the same time, unlike their children, they didn’t give up the race so fast, they instead made their best efforts in their Sisyphus task. In doing that, they neglected life values such as friendship, family, neighbors ties, trust, confidence, willingness to help others and understand their needs. All this problems led to destruction of a family life.

christiane f this is a real-life photo and they probably are christiane, stella and babsi.

Social problems in West Berlin in 1970s only show the true nature of society; its hypocrisy, obduracy,  materialistic obsessions and complete detachment from nature, God and true values of existence. Christiane F. soon became fascinated by the coolness and seeming indifference of her peers. She did not yet knew that that coldness, inner death, with a short phase of ‘living death’ duration, the length of the lifeline of addicts, is marked by a transition from soft to hard drugs, along with the gradual deterioration of body and the collapse of consciousness. Christiane F, and many, many other young people in West Berlin, started smoking marijuana in Haus der Mitte, gradually passing on to stronger stimulants, to LSD which she first tried in the discotheque Sound and later, just a month prior to her 14th birthday, after a David Bowie’s concert, Christiane sniffed H for the first time. From that moment began her sliding into the spaces of horror; discotheques and the infamous Bahnhof Zoo; where the collapsed existences suffocate in the stench, stupor, confusion and vomit. Fatal Bahnhof Zoo with its irresistible smell of piss and disinfectants would become her natural habitat.

At that time, barely turning fourteen, Christiane F. was already drawn into the heroin hell, and is acquainted with the infernal underground, composed of the sellers of death and new, fresh customers. Stretched between being a Child and a heroin shooter, Christiane already faced the world of perversions, a world of misery where the rich ones are suffocating in luxury and boredom, and the others are struggling to survive, sinking deeply into the darkness, knowing that the only way to survive is to kill all the emotions. Christiane F. found herself on Bahnhof Zoo in the early morning one day, after a night spent in the Sound with her friends, and saw how unkempt and drab the station was; full of tramps and drunk man lying in their own vomit. She did not yet knew that she would be spending her afternoons on this notorious Bahnhof in months to come.

wir kinder vom bahnhof zoo 14

Christiane’s eyes reflected nothing but fear and despair; her eyes saw the depth of their own grave, because the body of a heroin user is a bigger burden than a fourteen year old girl can take; for a body laden with pain, shooting up, cramps, vomiting and itching, becomes an unbearable burden. However, Christiane’s most painful experiences came with death of her friends. Axel and Bernd both died, Lufo, who first impressed her because he was shooting up only at the weekends, also died, her first love Atze; lying in a coffin. But the biggest shock was the death of her dearest friend Babsi D. who died aged only fourteen, as I’ve said, with a needle still stuck in her left hand. What a horrible life, death, destiny! When Christiane read the news of Babsi death, she felt like the newspapers were writing of her own death. She wasn’t clear whether she was crying over Babsi’s death or her own; her sinking deeper and deeper in the hell of drugs, into a wasteland world of apocalyptic darkness.

These children took the burden of an economic development on their backs. At such a young age, deprived from their childhoods, they waved between their ideals and the struggles of life. Trying to overcome a complex of a total outsider, they were always trying to be more original, more daring and brake the conventions. Still, they realised from the early on that they’ll never be Heroes, as in a David Bowie’s song; they’ll never be something more. Seeing the life that awaits them, they protested, trying to escape to brutal world, but all in vain. Escaping the harsh and boring triviality into the world of music and drugs, they found a place to belong in places they shouldn’t have; discotheques, clubs, wandering the streets of Kudamm at night, vainly searching for that something, that essence of life that was nowhere to be found. Christiane F. said in the book that the ideals of their parents were ‘live to acquire something‘, and the thing that gives meaning to life would later come too. That something which gives meaning to life was nowhere to be found for the children from Bahnhof Zoo. Christiane F, and her friends, were still vainly searching for the meaning.

bahnhof zoo 3

Children from Bahnhof Zoo have, on the threshold of life, seen through the emptiness, shortcomings and monstrosity of the modern society whose main characteristics are mimicry and adaptation as prerequisites for success. The society is not based on freedom and individuality, quite the opposite, the ‘damned‘ ones who tasted the bitter taste of ‘knowing‘ have realised, and succumbed to their realisations, that the world; the society is a place of alienation, emptiness, hypocrisy, the monstrous morality and great injustices.

wir kinder vom bahnhof zoo jugendliche

Christiane F. naturally wasn’t the only child on the Bahnhof Zoo, there were plenty of them, the number of deaths caused by heroin in West Berlin rising from around fifty in 1970. to a drastic 560 only seven years later. The first photo shows Christiane’s love, a young lad Detlev who was in prison in Moabit at the time photo was taken. He still dreamed of a civil life with Christiane; his dreams and ideals being the only things he had. Second photo shows Babette ‘Babsi‘ D; look at those eyes, how sad, disappointed they are, full of fear, resignation and despair; eyes darkened by the depth of its grave. Fourth picture shows Christiane’s first love Atze who deliberately overdosed in 1977. aged only seventeen. He killed himself because he considered his life to be immaterial, with drug users only bringing troubles and worries to their loved ones. The tragedy of his death did not stop there for his girlfriend Simone, only sixteen years old at the time, soon quit high school and hit the streets; shooting up and earning the money on Bahnhof Zoo. She slit her wrists soon after. Fifth picture shows Christiane’s other friend, Stella, for ended up in prison aged only fourteen. And the last one shows some other girl from Zoo, Karin.

Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo z rudi und dirk

The picture above shows Rudi, 17, and Dirk, 18. at the Bahnhof Zoo. They started shooting up aged fifteen, and feel hopeless about their future, even though they want to overcome their heroin addiction and find the meaning of life.


The photo above show Livia S. She started shooting up aged fifteen, and died aged eighteen in a public toilet on Hansaplatz. A letter written to a social welfare office was found in her pocket, begging for a rehab therapy. ‘Every day may cost me my life.‘ And it did, sadly. Life is such a fragile thing, if you think about it. Livia was so young, still blossoming into the adulthood, with dreams, desires, memories, wishes, hopes; all crushed in a moment, in a dirty toilet. Sad end to an even sadder life.

wir kinder vom bahnhof zoo 4

This is a tribute to all of them…