by Adrian bridge / Telegraph
11th January 2013
David Bowie fans have always been aware of the enormous significance of the “Berlin years”, the golden period from 1976 to 1979 when he retreated to the extraordinary enclave of West Berlin to cure himself of a drug addiction – and to recharge his creative batteries.
Great things flowed. Between journeys to Checkpoint Charlie and late-night sessions with Iggy Pop in clubs such as the Dschungel and SO36, three highly acclaimed albums were recorded – Heroes, Low and Lodger.
Few would have suspected the city was still exerting its influence. Then, this week, came Where Are We Now?, a haunting comeback song that took everyone by surprise: it’s full of references to the Berlin Bowie knew and clearly loved.
It is also a moving tribute to a city that has gone through as many ch-ch-ch-changes and reinventions as Bowie himself.
There are a number of Berlin references in the lyrics and images used to accompany Bowie’s song. Here’s a guide to what they were when he lived in the city in the Seventies – and what they are now.
In 1976 Potsdamer Platz was a heavily fortified, forbidding patch of land surrounded by watchtowers manned by gun-bearing East German guards.
After a period in which it was the largest construction site in Europe, Potsdamer Platz today is a glitzy new high-rise commercial centre containing shops, cafés and the flagship Sony Centre. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s better than the toxic wasteland that was there before.
- In the 1930s, Postdamer Platz was the Piccadilly Circus of Berlin, and there are still some who recall those days nostalgically.
The Dschungel, Nürnberger Strasse
The Dschungel nightclub was West Berlin’s answer to Studio 54 and a popular haunt of Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.
While the Dschungel is, alas no more, the Nürnberger Strasse is home to the fabulously renovated Hotel Ellington, an Art Deco gem where Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald once played. It stages regular jazz concerts – and a Jazz Radio station.
- The reunified Berlin has become one of Europe’s coolest clubbing spots, though these days, unlike in Bowie’s time, most of the action is on the east side.
The Bösebrücke at Bornholmer Strasse was one of the many crossing points to which access was denied to almost all East Berlin citizens. On November 9, 1989, it shot to fame as the place where the first convoys of Trabant cars crossed over to the West.
The Bornholmer Strasse is a reopened road linking the trendy district of Prenzlauer Berg in the east and Wedding in the west.
- While almost all East Berliners have ditched their Trabis in favour of Golfs, Volkswagens and BMWs, visitors wanting to drive one can join specially organised Trabant Safaris (see below).
The Harrods of Berlin, famed for the quality of its goods – and an exquisite food hall.
As above, but these days you may well find Russians among the customers.
- Down the road from KaDeWe, the five-star Waldorf Astoria, which opened this month, is the biggest signal that there may yet be life in what used to be West Berlin.
Right next to the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate was the ultimate symbol of the divided city, with the Wall running right round the back of it (the gate was on the eastern side). This was where Ronald Reagan once stood and said, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
The Brandenburg Gate is one of the city’s key tourist attractions and the point where the formal splendour of Unter Den Linden meets the beautiful green spaces and lakes of the Tiergarten.
- The Adlon Kempinski, another wonderfully restored landmark hotel, has rooms with stupendous views of the gate.
Although many imagine that the Wall simply ran through the middle of Berlin, it encircled the whole of West Berlin and extended for nearly 90 miles. Westerners adorned it with colourful graffiti; East Berliners attempting to get that close tended to be shot.
In their hurry to dismantle the hated symbol of division, Berliners took down almost all of it within months. There are still a few slabs at Potsdamer Platz and a (reconstructed) stretch close to Bernauer Strasse, where there is also a museum.
- The mile-long East Side Gallery is a stretch of Wall close to the centre full of artworks celebrating the fall of the Wall; the Mauer Park in Prenzlauer Berg is where graffiti artists in Berlin today can come and practise their skills.
The 1,200ft-high television tower was East Germany’s attempt to say that anything the West could do it could do better (and bigger). This ugly brute towered above Alexanderplatz and reminded both East – and West – Berliners that they were being watched.
The tower is still a brute but some of the harsher edges of the Alexanderplatz have been softened.
- There’s an altogether nicer view from the restuarant at the top of the Fernsehturm.
Other Bowie landmarks
Where Bowie recorded three albums and most famously the song Heroes (about two lovers defying the East German border guards and kissing at the Wall).
The point at which Bowie would have crossed into the East and now the site of a fascinating little museum detailing the history of attempts to escape to the West.
A stylish restaurant near Savignyplatz in which Bowie and Iggy Pop liked to celebrate.
Close to the Berliner Ensemble on the eastern side of the Wall.
The SO36 Club
Another Bowie/Iggy Pop hangout.
Fritz Music Tours (musictours-berlin.com) offers tours of the city that include a stop at the Hansa Studios and the flat in Schöneberg where Bowie and Iggy Pop lived.
For details of tours of Berlin by Trabant, see trabi-safari.de.
For further information on visiting the city, see visitberlin.de