Berlin is considered a city of worldwide significance as an epicentre for cultural production and musical expression, due to its blighted historical and political past and the harmonious coexistence of diverse subcultures today. In particular, the division created by the Wall and its enduring echo, have proved irresistible to generations of artists, musicians, and writers.
In this regard, British musicians who followed the call of a Berlin ‘brimming with liberal artistic life and internal social and political polarities’1 and reflected on it through musical expression before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall are no exception.
David Bowie in Berlin
David Bowie was one of these musicians. He saw first-hand the suffering and the friction of life in Berlin in the 1970s and 1980s. To Bowie, Berlin was an inspirational and intriguing place to create, as he once stated: ‘At that time, with the Wall still up, there was a feeling of terrific tension throughout the city. For the first time, the tension was outside of me rather than within me. And it was a really interesting process, writing for me under those conditions.’2
Of particular interest for Bowie was the alluring attempt to capture the sound of the Wall itself, since the Hansa Studio where he recorded his album Heroes was about five hundred yards from the Wall. According to journalist Steve Turner, ‘Bowie called the Hansa Studio ‘The Hall by the Wall’ and the name stuck.’3 The site of the studio further stimulated Bowie to make the Wall part of his artistic expression and hence to be involved in the politics of the day. As Visconti, his co-producer, recalled: ‘Recording there was a memorable and alarming adventure. Red Guards would look into our control-room window with powerful binoculars.’4
Heroes, ‘Bowie’s most universally admired song’5 recorded in 1977, is the song which centres exclusively on the theme of the Wall and its repercussions on the emotional life of people standing on its two sides. The song is part love story, a celebration of romantic love in the context of the Cold War ‘And the guns shot above our heads\ And we kissed as though nothing could fall.’6 Most importantly, it can be read as a wider reflection on politics, since the Wall symbolizes the heavy atmosphere of political division and the disconnection of cultural life between two parts of Berlin. However, the heroism evoked against the physical barrier just for one day, goes beyond the personal life of two lovers, delivering the empowering message for courage, heroism and change to everyone:
“We can be heroes, just for one day
We can be us just for one day”7
Later Bowie commented that ‘The Wall’ was also a symbol of that which he had left behind.8 Behind ‘The Wall’ was Bowie’s past—his rockstar lifestyle, unhappiness, drug addiction, emotional dislocation. He hoped in front of him was a new version of himself, and a new vision for the future. As Buckley considered it: ‘It’s a piece of music which has sucked in Berlin’s history.’
As can be noticed, the Wall is featured in Bowie’s song as an intriguing source of artistic inspiration as well as a symbol of separation and the stark contrast of political and cultural life on both sides of Berlin.
Bowie and his legacy on the electronic music industry
It is interesting to explore the impact of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy albums Low, Lodger and Heroes on the development of electronic music. Bowie was not exclusively an electronic music artist. However, he was keen on experimenting with new recording techniques and technologies, which Hansa Studios possessed in the 1970s.
Bowie used the Harmonizer H910, ARP Synthesizer and Minimoog to create a variety of sounds which would make him embrace the electronic style of music.
1. The specific snare sound in the Low was a result of using the new Harmonizer H910 (produced by the US company Eventide in 1974) that allowed for the extension of the pitch from +-0,5 octave to +-1 and its delay (up to 112,5ms). This was also the first commercially available and successful synthesizer. Such famous rock groups later used this instrument as AC/DC’s in ‘Back in Black’ and singers like Chuck Hammer and Steve Winwood. In 2007 this Harmonizer received a TEC ‘Hall of fame’ award for its significant influence on recording. To Bowie’s question of what it does, his producer (Visconti) answered “it fucks with the fabric of time”. This instrument made a huge impact on the world of music. Bowie’s producer said the following about the Harmonizer: ‘I heard that it could change the pitch of a sound without changing the speed. My brain nearly exploded when I found what I could do with drums. By lowering the pitch of a live drum, then feeding it back, I got a sort of infinite dropping of [the] pitch, ever renewing itself’.9
2. ARP Synthesizer – one of the first analog synthesizers. Main commercial rival of Minimoog Company. ARP 2600 was used in 1982 to work with Bowie’s impression of Baal from the eponymous Bertolt Brecht play. This synthesizer allowed the producers to make Bowie’s voice more “infernal” and create a much smoother impression of Baal with high pitch notes. This Synthesizer was also used during the first stages of work with the Low album.10
3. EMS Synthi A – one of the first synthesizers with installed recording software and the first modern keyboard design. Produced by British Electronic Music studios and was used by David Bowie’s “guitar player” companion Robert Flipp. The main feature of this synthesizer was the usage of so-called signal-chain editing that allowed it to add depth and variety to recording the voice and guitar. This synthesizer was also used by Pink-Floyd for the guitar riff in the On the Run track and is actively used today by German electronic music bands (e.g. Tangerine Dream).11
4. Minimoog – module synthesizer that was produced by Moog Music. It is easily recognizable by its ‘suitcase’ form and was the first portable synthesizer. It was created in a hurry because the modular synthesizers were quickly replaced by analog and, in fact, this was the last commercially successful module synthesizer. The main feature of this synthesizer is its unstable power supply, which resulted in the ability to create deep and rich sounds. It also had a new voltage-controlled filter, which resulted in a high variety of sounds: from funky style to whistle tones. This synthesizer was also the first model to have a pitch wheel, which allows bending notes as guitarists and saxophonists do.12
The crash of ideas, the fusion of funk, electronica, ambient, and chanson would prove a direct influence on Nineties groups, most obviously in the work of Radiohead but also, on some other artists such as The Manic Street Preachers, Tricky, Björk, PJ Harvey, St. Vincent, LCD Soundsystem, Moby, Blur, and many others.
In particular, some well-known contemporary British musicians have overtly accepted the influence that Bowie’s work had in building their career as electronic music artists.
For example, Danny Howells, an English DJ and producer, says of Low: ‘His influence on electronic music is just immense. Just the entire concept of dividing an album into short poppy song fragments and ambient wordless instrumentals was an eye-opener to me, especially at such a young age.’ He continues: ‘I don’t think the early ‘80s New Romantic thing — Visage, Human League, Associates, Culture Club, etc — would have happened if it hadn’t been for Bowie’s music, along with his images. A lot of the key players of that period, the likes of Steve Strange, were also involved in the emergence of UK club culture.’13
Bowie’s reverberation on electronic music goes beyond the British world of musicians.
Tiga, a Canadian record producer of electronic dance music provides the example of Bowie’s international fame and impact. He has stated: ‘Bowie’s impact on me as an artist and producer was massive. For years he was the personification of the dream. His intelligence, his freedom, the songs, the looks, his voice — Bowie has it all in a way almost nobody else ever had.’
The Fall of the Wall
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was another important political event that British musicians reflected on artistically. One example is Pink Floyd’s famous song A great day for freedom.
“On the day the wall came down
They threw the locks onto the ground
And with glasses high we raised a cry for freedom had arrived
On the day the wall came down” 14
The image of the Wall coming down not only describes the fall of the Berlin Wall, but rather serves as an extended metaphor of the fall of authoritarian rule and the arrival of freedom and democracy. Just like in Bowie’s song, the Wall is perceived as an obstacle and its fall is celebrated joyfully by many people. As David Gilmour said in an interview to The Sun: ‘It was about the aftermath of the end of authoritarian rule and how it initially felt like true freedom until genocides and ethnic cleansing came to disrupt the peace.’15
Where are we now? is another song Bowie launched in 2013, which does not explicitly feature the Wall, but is more of a retrospective tour around West Berlin in the 1970. The old footage of Potsdamer Platz, KaDeWe, and Dschungel, a famous disco and cocktail bar in Schöneberg which is shown in the video, suggests the reflective nature of the song. Despite the nostalgia for the old times he spent in West Berlin, quite strikingly Bowie refers to the new opportunities and the liberation taking over Berlin after the fall of the Wall by emphasizing: ‘You never knew that I could do that’
“Had to get the train
From Potsdamer Platz
You never knew that
That I could do that
Just walking the dead
Sitting in the Dschungel
On Nürnberger Straße
A man lost in time
Near KaDeWe” 16
As an important political event that turned the historical page of a new era, the fall of the Berlin Wall is joyfully represented in Floyd’s and Bowie’s songs. The image of the Wall coming down pervades because the Wall itself denotes a reality that is dwindling in the past. Hence, it is used to symbolize the future and the prospect of new opportunities arising from freedom and democracy.
MUSIC IS POLITICAL
With Brexit, it looks like non-barbed wire ‘modern walls’ are rising in contrast to the Berlin Wall, and having a detrimental effect on the music industry in Britain. As the Brexit deal does not feature any arrangements for those working in the music industry, musicians are expected to face significant challenges when touring countries within the EU. Individual visas for each member state as well as work permits will be necessary, a considerate bureaucratic effort, especially for artists travelling with hundreds of people making the shows happen.
From now on, the lack of visa-free EU travel may deter many British musicians from producing music inspired by the hands-on experience of living in Berlin or touring freely around Europe. Many British musicians such as Elton John, Fenella Humphreys, Ben Palmer, and Sir Simon Rattle have expressed their concerns regarding the huge costs and the excess paperwork they have to deal with in order to perform on European stages. 17
Ben Ellis, bass player, has commented on the irredeemable impact of Brexit on his career: ‘It feels like an absolute car crash. They finally got the Brexit agreement sorted out, and it turns out that there’s no provision to enable musicians to be able to go and work in Europe. It’s devastating’, and it seems to resonate with the painful reality of other musicians, too.18
In order to avoid such scenarios, the Musicians Union has launched a petition for a special arrangement allowing those working in the music industry to travel and work in the EU easily. This call for a ‘Musicians passport’ has been supported by over 100.000 signatures so far.19 While this all might sound rather abstract, these matters do have an impact on individuals. To illustrate this point, we have asked British musician Ben Palmer to share his fears and experiences regarding the topic.
Musa Okwonga, British-born writer and musician of Ugandan descent, has been living in Berlin for the last 7 years. He is one half of the musical duo BBXO, who create music “that explore[s] urban socio-political issues of struggle, love and friendship” in their own distinctive way 20. Their explicit aim is to “portray a message and ideology, within a vessel of contemporary and accessible pop production”21, proving the enduring capacity of music to combine a powerful message with a form that can reach wide audiences. As the writer of the duo, Musa Okwonga creates the lyrics of the songs, which often speak of struggle, trial, pain and recovery.
Musa brings social commentary and ideology into the songs too, a practice that he includes in his work as a writer of poetry, prose, as well as spoken word poetry. Outspoken and direct in his message, explorative and analytical of his emotions, often bringing to the fore his intersecting identities as a queer Black man, he uses music, and his power to wield words, to send a message to and create a connection with his audience. To find out more about Musa’s work as a writer, check our Literature section.
Sasha Perera//Perera Elsewhere//Jahcoozi
Another contemporary artist who has proved the political and critical potential of music is Perera Elsewhere. British-born, of Sri Lankan descent, Sasha moved to Berlin more than twenty years ago. She co-founded the music group Jahcoozi22 in the 2000s, who are openly political and engaged in their lyrics. The group was among the first to bring Grime to Berlin23, a British style of music known for its subversive and political potential24. Their musical style is a combination of a multitude of genres, a “ unique and ever-changing blend of futuristic dub-glitch-tech-step based sound”.25
Although she had become less explicit in message and more experimental in her music in the last years, the latest project she was involved in, From a Whisper to a Riot, employed music as an “expression of emancipatory movements and the politicisation of the dance floor”. It addressed the recreation of borders in the form of exclusion of immigrants and refugees, even in the face of natural or man-made disasters.26
She is an artist who has addressed her experience as a woman and person of colour, both upon first coming to Germany, and in the present, in an increasingly right-oriented political climate27. She positions herself openly on issues such as politics, social inequality and identity, and understands the importance of being able to get involved in your community and of giving people a chance to understand your perspective. You can listen to Sasha in conversation with other Britons in Berlin in our panel on identity from last year’s project!
Riah Knight is a British Romani singer, songwriter and actress, who moved to Berlin in 2018. Much of her work has been political in nature, employing music as an explicit tool for social critique, either on the theatre stage or as a singer. Her work has often focused on discussing the discrimination against the Roma population in the UK, Germany, and Europe more broadly.
In the theatre show Roma Armee, perhaps the most political of Riah’s career up to date, she performs two songs which relate to her identity as a Romani woman. The first, Gelem Gelem, is the official Romani anthem, adopted at The First Romani Congress in 197128. The second, I Will Roam , is her own original creation, which she adapted for the show. The song, on a personal level, has a dual significance, being both an affirmation of the endurance of Romani cultural practices, which are being systematically eroded, and a nod to the stereotypical representation of the Roma as nomads29.
Riah uses her voice and her capacity to create music as both a tool for social critique, and an instrument of self-affirmation and celebration. A woman, a member of the Roma community and a performer, she aligns herself to varied social issues and movements, exploring the interaction between her ethnic identity and other identity dimensions, such as her gender and sexuality30. She acted in three plays by the Gorki Theatre in Berlin, and participated in the theatre’s First Roma Biennale, an interdisciplinary artistic festival “to combine “individual artistic perspectives and feminist strategies to generate visibility and self-determination”31. The show was curated by Delaine Le Bas, herself too a British Romani woman.
1 Buckley, Komponist, Bariton, Musiker, and London. Strange Fascination: David Bowie, the Definitive Story. London, 2005.
2 Devereux, Eoin., Aileen. Dillane, and Martin J. Power. David Bowie: Critical Perspectives. First ed. Routledge Studies in Popular Music; 6. New York, 2015. 222.
3 Buckley, Komponist, Bariton, Musiker, and London. Strange Fascination: David Bowie, the Definitive Story. London, 2005. 278.
4 Ibid. 278.
5 Ibid. 280.
8 Devereux, Eoin., Aileen. Dillane, and Martin J. Power. David Bowie: Critical Perspectives. First ed. Routledge Studies in Popular Music; 6. New York, 2015. 223.
9 Buckley, David 1999 Strange Fascination – David Bowie: The Definitive Story. London: Virgin Books 264 – 265.
10 Ibid 270.
13 Dj Mag
17 Classic FM
18 The World
19 Musicians’ Union
23 Friends of Friends
24 The Guardian
27 Friends of Friends
28 Petcu, 2019: 80.
29 Maxim Gorki theatre, 2018.
30 Union Romani.
31 Petcu, 2019: 80.
Barry, Orla. “British musicians warn of devastating impact of new Brexit rules”. The World. (2021).
Baskaru-Contemporary Electronic Music and Sound Art.
Beaumont-Thomas, Ben. ‘You Can’t Escape its Inspiration’. Inside the True History of Grime. 2018.
Buckley, David. Strange Fascination: David Bowie, the Definitive Story. London: Virgin Books, 2005.
Calore, Michael. “Clear Some Space on Your Synth Rack: The Minimoog Returns”. WIRED. (2016).
Devereux, Eoin., Aileen. Dillane, and Martin J. Power. David Bowie: Critical Perspectives. First ed. Routledge Studies in Popular Music; 6. New York, 2015.
Ebeling, Fabian. Perera Elsewhere Appropriates Technology and Makes Room for Creative Freedom. 2019.
Maxim Gorki Theatre. “1st Roma Biennale”. Roma Biennale. (2018).
Petcu, Anisia. Reconstructing the Roma Identity. A Comparative Analysis of Roma Activist Art in Romania and the United Kingdom. Unpublished MA Thesis. 2019.
Roberts, Maddy. “Brexit deal will destroy our industry’ – desperate musicians plead government on EU visas”. (2021).
Sasha Perera. Instagram Post.
Union Romani. “Gelem, gelem”. Union Romani.
Whitewurst, Andrew. “Bowie Electric!”. DJmag.com. (2013).