Wednesday 16 March 2016


Of course, perhaps an even bigger loss this year has been that of David Bowie, probably one of the most important performers in western popular culture over the past 50 years. Without wanting to list every facet of Bowie's talent it is probably enough to state that his contribution was primarily important because he introduced the idea that an artist's style - their very lack of substance - was important. With Bowie we were freed from the idea of rock culture as being wedded to a dreary kind of masculine authenticity - we were free to celebrate and revel in an absence or a reinvention of self. Bowie was an artist who put on many masks and personas, who obscured his ideas even in the public eye and became inmpossible to classify in terms of look, sexuality, politics or genre.

Probably the period which best encapsulated this dissessentialied approach was the period he spent in Berlin in the late 1970s. Fleeing to West Berlin with his best friend Iggy Pop to escape his drug addiction and personal isolation in Los Angeles, he was driven there by the emerging combination of Krautrock artists such as Neu!, the rising electronica of Kraftwerk, the traces of the city's Weimar cabaret past and the nihilistic philosophy of Nietzsche - but what he and his friend would create out of this was something else entirely.

At the time and then into the '80s and '90s west Berlin represented it's own cultural underworld; walled in and surrounded by East Germany, accessible by a single road or air corridor, occupied by French, British and American troops, not even officially a part of the Federal Republic of Germany, and home to a burgeoning scene of punks, anarchists, outcasts, military deserters, drug addicts and bomemian followers of every kind of alternative lifestyle. In this strange island of hedonistic nihilism Bowie and Iggy embarked on one of the most important creative streaks in music.

Recorded first was Iggy's solo debut 'The Idiot', produced by Bowie and which showcased a bleak blend of industrial funk and electro-fuzz melancholy. This was effectively a dry run for 'Low', the album which kicked off Bowie's own Berlin trilogy and showcased a collision of noise-rock cutaways and Eno-inspired depressive ambient. Not to be outdone Pop responded with 'Lust For Life', a vital slab of raw punk rock and manic energy which contained several bonafide classics of it's own. Then "Heroes", Bowie's arguable masterwork, showcased that winning combination of soul rhythms, funk guitar, punkoid noise from Robert Fripp, ambient discord from Eno and Bowie's own arch lyricism.

These albums were not only inspired by the echoes of past & present contempory German culture but ended up chanelling the spirit of West Berlin into something which helped define the city for generations to come. Was any song more indicative of the collapse of the Wall than 'Heroes' itself?

And although Bowie may be gone, and the political entity of West Berlin has gone, you can still feel and see traces of the world that drew Bowie there and inspired him - from the punks in Kreuzberg to the remnants of the wall outside Hansa Ton studios. Take a walk amongst the ruins, and see for yourself.

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