Moment in time

When David Bowie completed his Berlin trilogy

In May 1979, David Bowie released Lodger and brought his legendary Berlin trilogy to completion.

Photo: IMAGO/ZUMA Press

“Berlin has the strange ability to make you write only the important things,” said David Bowie after his time in the city on the Spree. “Anything else you don’t mention, you remain silent, and write nothing… And in the end you produce Low.”

That first album of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, with its experimental, German expressionism-inspired sound, was recorded in Switzerland but mixed at Hansa Studios in Berlin soon after Bowie moved to the city in 1976. Working in Berlin with musician and producer Brian Eno, among the great music innovators of the time, Bowie also drew on electronic and post-punk German krautrock bands like Kraftwerk, Neu! and Can to create a new musical vocabulary.

🧑‍🎤 David Bowie in Berlin: Hansa Studios, Paris Bar and the birth of a legend

The trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger are the uncompromising works of an artist finding his truest voice, as are The Idiot and Lust for Life records Bowie produced for Schöneberg flatmate and fellow English rocker Iggy Pop in 1976 to 1977. “Nothing else sounded like those albums,” he once said. “Nothing else came close. If I never made another album, it really wouldn’t matter now, my complete being is within those three. They are my DNA.”

By the time Lodger completed the Berlin trifecta in 1979 to muted critical acclaim, the legend of Bowie’s Berlin years was starting to infuse the global imagination. Though this androgynous and enigmatic English music maverick was in and out of the city – he recorded Lodger in Montreux in Switzerland after an extensive 1978 world tour – his best and most expansive work remains synonymous with Berlin.

Getting Out of LA

The Thin White Duke had come to the Hauptstadt to escape the hollow self-indulgence of Los Angeles, to kick his oversized cocaine habit, to realise his singular artistic vision on the streets where his Weimar-era avant-garde heroes once walked. Long hounded by the anglophone press over his permissive lifestyle, Bowie fled to a divided city, an island full of people also on the run. He came to liberate himself – to disappear. “For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary,” Bowie once said.

Amid the misfits, draft dodgers and political exiles, Bowie and Iggy were free to be Berliners.

Before moving to Germany, he checked in with Christopher Isherwood, author of the seminal expat fable, Goodbye to Berlin. Isherwood feared the Weimar city he knew – and left on the cusp of Hilter’s takeover – was gone, but Bowie soon found his own way. “It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity,” Bowie later reflected. “For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer.”

In West Berlin, the megacelebrity and former prince of glam rock rode around on a bicycle and hung out in local bars and cafés. He drove a rusted old Mercedes. “You could see the road through the floor; we felt like teenagers again,” Bowie said. “I was going broke; it was cheap to live… Coco [his assistant], Jim [Iggy Pop] and I had so many great times. But I just can’t express the feeling of freedom I felt there.”

Amid the misfits, draft dodgers and political exiles, Bowie and Iggy were free to be Berliners. “A huge burden was lifted off of me,” Bowie added. He later admitted that “I was out of my mind, totally crazed” before the move to Germany. “It was a dangerous period for me. I was at the end of my tether physically and emotionally and had serious doubts about my sanity.”

Album cover for David Bowie’s Low, released in January 1977 by RCA Records.

Finding Friction

Bowie and Iggy Pop lived together for a while before the latter got his own place in the back house of the same tenement building on Hauptstraße. Next door was a gay bar called Anderes Ufer (“the other shore”), which became their second living room.

At the end of Potsdamer Straße, which headed east from his apartment, Bowie recorded and produced a seminal body of work at the fabled Hansa Studios that then looked over the Berlin Wall – a scene said to have inspired the song ‘Heroes’. By comparison, Bowie said he was “incapable of composing” in LA, New York, London or Paris as “there is something missing”. That thing, he said, was “friction”.

“Towards the end of my stay in America, I realised that what I had to do was to experiment. To discover new forms of writing. To evolve, in fact, a new musical language,” he told Melody Maker magazine in 1977 as he was promoting Heroes. “That’s what I set out to do. That’s why I returned to Europe.”

His best and most expansive work remains synonymous with Berlin.

Transgender cabaret performer and nightclub owner Romy Haag, Bowie’s onetime girlfriend and muse, was a crucial figure in his Berlin. The pair met one night after he performed in Berlin in 1976. “He was a little boy, a lovely boy who wants to have some inspiration, who wanted to have life,” she recalled.

Haag opened the Chez Romy Haag nightclub in Schöneberg – where, as described by Brian Eno, she performed wild “space age disco” revue shows – soon after arriving in West Berlin in 1973. The 23-year-old Dutch woman had been living in New York but joined the many transgender outlaws, like punk singer Jayne County, then finding their way to Berlin. In this urban frontier that was again becoming Europe’s crucible of queer culture, the chanteuse felt she could do whatever she wanted.

Bowie became a regular at Chez Romy, which was located just around the corner from his apartment. With the audacious Haag, the Renaissance man who also liked to frequent the Brücke Museum to view expressionist favourites like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, set himself free in another parallel Berlin world.

Album cover for David Bowie’s Heroes, released in October 1977 by RCA Records.

Berlin in Bowie’s DNA

After Bowie left Berlin in 1978, he returned to the States once more. Much of the Lodger album that would become Bowie’s Berlin swansong was finished in New York with master producer Tony Visconti again at the helm, and Eno co-writing most of the genre-fluid songs. By the time it was released in 1979, Bowie was painting a lot, portraying scenes in what he called the “Turkish area” around Neukölln that typically had a neo-expressionist patina.

Yet a big part of Bowie remained in the city. In 1987, he returned to perform a huge outdoor gig at the Reichstag. In 2013, he released his first song in a decade and it was all Berlin: the singer nostalgically name-checking his Schöneberg haunts, the disco clubs like Jungle, the streets he strolled with Iggy. ‘Where Are We Now?’, recorded three decades after he left the German capital, was a yearning for that Berlin freedom he lost but never forgot.