I’m treading carefully as I approach the Hansa recording studio on a crisp November morning in Berlin. Flurries of snow have descended from the skies, it’s icy underfoot, and my hangover from the previous night’s partying has excised a vicelike grip on my cerebral cortex. I’m starting to wonder whether this unassuming street could really be the place where classic albums such as David Bowie’s Heroes and Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life were bashed into shape. Then, through a fug of snow, I see the Hansa logo behind the doors of a nondescript building.
I couldn’t gain entry to Hansa on this blustery morning, but it didn’t matter. The building no longer engenders the same kind of thrill it must have possessed when it was located perilously close to the wall, and to Checkpoint Charlie, back when East and West Berlin were two sharply defined entities. Most of the artists and musicians of Berlin currently live in the East, where it’s cheap to live and the bars, clubs and parties don’t stop until the first rays of daylight poke through the clouds.
Inspired by my brief stay in the city, I’ve compiled a top-10 list of Berlin music. The songs included here weren’t necessarily recorded in Berlin, but all bear some kind of relation to the city. As with any list of this nature, there are notable omissions. Post rockers such as Tarwater and To Rococo Rot lie just outside of the final 10. Depeche Mode and U2 both recorded in Berlin, with the latter recording much of Achtung Baby at Hansa. And what of krautrockers Cluster, singers Nina Hagan and Marlene Dietrich, metal legends Rammstein, and labels like Basic Channel and International DeeJay Gigolo? Sadly, none of them made the cut. But the following artists often came to mind as I explored Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg and many other neighborhoods during my time in the German capital.
10. Peaches: “Fuck the Pain Away”
The Kitty-Yo label has proved to be an enduring institution in the Berlin music scene since its inception in 1994. Two of Kitty Yo’s most successful artist are Canadian transplants Peaches and Gonzalez, who have both lived in the city for extended periods of time. The relentlessly horny Peaches was tangentially connected to the electroclash movement that emerged in the early 2000s, and is one of the few artists to escape from the genre unscathed.
“Fuck the Pain Away” is culled from that era (it came out in 2000) and almost feels like it was custom-built to be spun at Larry Tee’s notorious Brooklyn club, Berliniamsburgh. Peaches also played the memorable electroclash festival in Manhattan, which caused a sizable rift between Tee and his Berlin counterpart, DJ Hell. Peaches veers between inspired porno-punk techno and the inebirated wailing of someone’s mother at a wedding party, but “Fuck the Pain Away” (which somehow manages to embody both these elements) remains her finest moment.
9. Joey Beltram: “Energy Flash”
How does a song by a New Yorker, released on Belgian label R&S, end up on a top-10 list about Berlin? The answer lies in the city’s thriving club scene, specifically with the infamous Tresor. R&S re-released Beltram’s “Energy Flash in 1991, the same year that Tresor opened for business in the vault of a former 1920s department store in Mitte. Today, Mitte still has a thriving arts scene, although Tresor is sadly no longer operating in its original location.
“Energy Flash” is the kind of pulsing techno that became the club’s stock in trade. Simon Reynolds calls it “the greatest techno track of all time” in his book on rave and dance culture (also titled Energy Flash, after Beltram’s song). Tresor was legendary for its packed, sweaty parties, and “Energy Flash” provided its ebullient soundtrack. It’s the kind of claustrophobic techno that can drain all thought if played at significant volume, and remains one of the best examples of early ’90s rave. Reynolds compares it to the base rock of the Stooges’ “Loose,” and “Energy Flash” is undoubtedly sourced from a similar pool of gloriously mindless antagonism.
8. Tangerine Dream: “Ashes to Ashes”
Berlin pioneers Tangerine Dream have cast a huge influence over the development of krautrock and electronic music. Julian Cope, writing in his indispensable Krautrocksampler book, describes the earliest lineup of the band as “like having Syd Barrett, Robert Wyatt and Eddie Phillips all in the same group.” He’s referring to Edgar Frose, Klaus Schulze and Conrad Schnitzler, who convened in the Mixed Media Studio in West Berlin in 1969 to produce the groundbreaking tape-collage album Electronic Meditation.
Cope examines how West Berlin exerted a huge influence on the group, describing it as “the home of people who cut up tapes, [and] ran music backwards.” He talks about artists such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage spending time in the city during Tangerine Dream’s formative years, and enthuses about the “revolutionary free-spirit of young Berlin” that coursed through the streets during this era. “Ashes to Ashes” is a cut from Electronic Meditation.
7. Atari Teenage Riot: “Revolution Action”
The digital hardcore scene that exploded in the early ’90s produced one of the most vibrant scenes in the history of German music. At the heart of the scene was Alec Empire and his band, Atari Teenage Riot, who directly opposed the kind of techno that was produced in Berlin during their formative years. “Rave is dead, it’s boring,” declared Empire, whose music borrowed from a broad range of influences, including lo-fi, breakbeat, Riot Grrl, jungle and Minor Threat.
Empire’s dream of Atari Teenage Riot becoming some kind of gabba insurrectionist threat to the establishment never quiet transpired, but it was entertaining to watch them try. The group members were all arrested for “inciting violence” during an outdoor show in Berlin in ’99, and MC Carl Crack died of a heroin overdose a year after the band broke up. “Revolution Action,” the opening song from 60 Second Wipeout, is a perfect headache track, and remains a great representation of their schizoid speedfreak sound.
6. Einsturzende Neubauten: “Armenia”
Hacke also recalls “throwing milk bottles into the cement mixer, which smashed and flew into the crowd.” This kind of willful nihilism became the band’s trademark in their earliest days, and this promo clip for “Armenia” shows how they enveloped such equipment into their sound. Bargeld is an imposing figure at the center of the mêlée, and the band members contrive to produce something quite moving out of their collection of industrial saws and scrap metal. Neubauten’s un-musical music dragged punk to some kind of unpassable point of no return, and cemented the band as legends in their home country.
5. Manuel Gottsching: “E2-E4”
Germany is known for its minimal techno/house scene, and this track by Berliner (and former Ash Ra Temple member) Manuel Gottsching has proved to be a great influence on the genre. Gottsching built the hour-long “E2-E4” around a repetitive riff that expands on many of the ideas he developed in his Ash Ra Temple days. It was recorded in his West Berlin studio, next to the huge department store Kaufhaus des Westens, commonly known as KaDeWe.
New Yorkers LCD Soundsystem famously tried to replicate the checkerboard artwork from the cover of “E2-E4” when they released their “45:33” track in 2007. The move upset Gottsching, who issued strong displeasure at this appropriation of his work. Despite his curmudgeonly stance, the influence of “E2-E4” on German labels like Kompakt and Basic Channel, and in the wider world of dance music, remains considerable. The patrons of KaDeWe, who may have overheard Gottsching producing his masterwork back in 1981, probably just wished he would keep the noise down.
4. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: “From Her to Eternity”
Cave also surfaces in the film, performing with the Bad Seeds in a dimly lit club full of writhing, black-clad West Berliners. We even get insight into his mindset as one of the angels in the film “reads” his thoughts. It’s easy to see why Berlin would appeal to Cave in the early ‘80s. A plentiful supply of cheap heroin and even cheaper accommodation were hallmarks of the city, and the desolate landscape of West Berlin would have fueled his creative fire. This clip of “From Her to Eternity” is from Wenders’ film.
3. Lou Reed: “Caroline Says I”
The album Berlin has joined the ranks of critically maligned and commercially disastrous records that later enjoyed generous reappraisal. It’s a rock opera about a strung out couple who are divided, much like Berlin was by the wall. Reed uses the city as a narrative device on the album, placing his central character, Caroline, in the city as she indulges in various addictions and love affairs.
Berlin itself doesn’t figure much in Reed’s lyrics, but the druggy words and occasional mentions of the Wall help conjure up images of the city. “Caroline Says I” bucks the album’s reputation for relentless negativity, and even ends in a summery flourish of woodwind and strings. If there’s a pop song on Berlin then “Caroline Says I” is it, although Reed’s curious eulogy to Caroline variously describes her as “vile,” “mean” and a “Germanic Queen.”
2. Iggy Pop: “The Passenger”
“Everything was made for you and me/ All of it was made for you and me.” Iggy Pop’s words, later used in everything from makeup commercials to numerous film and TV soundtracks, were allegedly penned while he was taking a trip on Berlin’s S-Bahn. The song is another product of Hansa, and was recorded during Iggy and David Bowie’s now-legendary stay in the city. You can even book a tour of Berlin that will take you to the pair’s former apartment and a gay café (named Neues Ufer) where they used to hang out.
“We’ll ride through the city tonight/ We’ll see the city’s ripped backsides.” Iggy’s words are in reference to the desolate nature of much of Berlin, which would still have been strewn with the bombed out remnants of World War II in ’77. The film Christiane F offers a disquieting look at the smack-addled teenagers of West Berlin during this era, and Bowie and Iggy were trying to wean themselves off their various addictions during their stay in the city. Christiane F also provides a fascinating glimpse of Berlin over this period, particularly the notorious Zoo Station, where junkies would hustle for money to pay for their next fix.
1. David Bowie: “Speed of Life”
Most people would probably opt for “Heroes” from Bowie’s infamous Berlin trilogy (comprised of the albums Low, Heroes and Lodger), especially as the song was inspired by two lovers kissing by the Berlin Wall. But “Speed of Life,” the opening instrumental cut from Low, perfectly captures the atmosphere of Berlin with its steely electronics and thoroughly modern sound. Its one of those rare tracks that never sounds dated, no matter which decade you play it in.
“Speed of Life” makes a perfect transition from the previous year’s Station to Station, with guitarist Carlos Alomar again laying down the kind of choppy R&B riffs that he delivered on Bowie’s preceding record. An old ARP synthesizer dominates the song, and somehow still manages to sound like the Sound of the Future some 31 years after Bowie tinkered with it on this track. It’s the aural embodiment of a crumbling dystopia, similar in feel to krautrockers such as Cluster and Neu!. And yet it still sounds like nothing that has come before or since.
Despite stories to the contrary, much of Low wasn’t recorded in Berlin, although it resonates with the sound of the city. Bowie, Brian Eno and producer Tony Visconti headed to Hansa to finish up the album after recording most of it in the south of France. “Speed of Life” would make a perfect soundtrack to another landmark in German art history, the Fritz Lang feature Metropolis. And there can be few higher compliments than that.