Fiona Laughton takes a tour of Berlin’s legendary Hansa Studios and tells the story of Bowie’s “Heroes”…
Standing in the Hansa Studio’s neoclassical Meistersaal—a lavish 650-square-metre space with polished herringbone floor, elegant coffered ceiling studded with chandeliers and heavy red drapes that run all the way up to the six-metre high ceilings—it’s impossible not to feel the twin vibrations of sound and history.
Diffused afternoon light filters through the windows and the room seems to gently hum with the possibility of creation; closing your eyes, you’re reminded of the artists who have left traces of their personal and musical history here. Robert Fripp’s feedbacking guitar, Bono’s complaints about Berlin’s “gloominess”, Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s “Oblique Strategies” creativity cards and Einstürzende Neubauten’s unorthodox use of a chainsaw as musical instrument.
The building has a fascinating and chequered past. Built in 1913 as a guild for the Berlin Builders society, then used as a concert hall for chamber music, it became an active cultural hub in the Weimar era—the Marxist publishing house Malik-Verlag (founded by Wieland Herzfelde) moved into the ground floor, Kurt Tucholsky held readings here, and a Dada art gallery (Galerie Groz) hosted regular exhibitions by Groz and his contemporaries like John Heartfield, Heinrich Maria Davringhausen and Otto Schmalhausen.
Then the Nazis arrived, confiscated all the Malik-Verlag titles as part of their book-burning campaign and turned the Meistersaal into a venue for the infamous Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber); SS officers swayed through the space to State-approved ‘good German music’.
Used briefly as a cabaret hall after the war, it became isolated until the early sixties—undesirable for most uses, but perfect for a use as a studio, initially for Ariola Sonopress classical recordings and then for Schlager artists such as Mireille Mathieu, Marianne Rosenberg, Udo Jürgens and Roland Kaiser.
In the beginning of the seventies, the Meisel brothers founded the Hansa Studios and acquired the building, operating no fewer than five studio rooms in the building; the Meistersaal became the now-legendary Hansa Studio 2.
We are here courtesy of Thilo Schmied of Berlin Music Tours, a Bowie aficionado and sound engineer, who runs the only official tours of the still-operating studios. Full of enthusiasm and rock trivia, he leads us around the building (including the spiral staircase where Depeche Mode once posed for a photograph that would appear on the back of A Question of Lust), explaining its history, showing old photos from the Wall era, and throwing out anecdotes from the endless recording sessions that have taken place here over the years.
The seminal Wall-era albums recorded in the Meistersaal, for example, include Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life and The Idiot (1977), Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds‘ The Firstborn is Dead (1984) and Your Funeral, My Trial (1986) and Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Tinderbox (1986). More recently, bands like Snow Patrol, U2, Manic Street Preachers, Supergrass and R.E.M have also recorded here and Hansa continues to be a working studio and event space to this day.
But of course one artist’s work stands out for its sonic and lyrical connection to the city—that of David Bowie. In the summer of 1976, Bowie came to the divided city to escape his cocaine-fuelled lifestyle in L.A. and threw himself into creative projects. Out of the celebrity spotlight, Bowie was composed, productive and “felt a joy of life and a great feeling of release and healing”. Berlin, for him, was “a city that’s so easy to ‘get lost’ in, and to ‘find’ oneself too”.
He produced the two afore-mentioned Iggy Pop albums, appeared alongside Marlene Dietrich in Just A Gigolo and, most famously, wrote his avant-garde ‘Berlin trilogy’ Low, Heroes and Lodger. Heroes was Bowie’s only album that was recorded entirely at Hansa. The title track—a tale of two lovers who come together in the shadow of the ‘Wall of Shame’—epitomises Bowie’s relationship with both Hansa and Berlin.
The original inspiration for the song apparently came to Bowie when viewing Otto Mueller’s 1916 painting Liebespaar zwischen Gartenmauern (“Lovers Between Garden Walls”) at Berlin’s Brücke Museum. But in 1977, the painting seemingly came to life before his eyes as he gazed out of Hansa’s windows and allegedly watched his (married) co-producer Tony Visconti embracing Antonia Maaß, one of the back-up singers from the “Heroes” sessions.
The serendipitous moment was captured in the lyrics of the song, which has gone on to become one Bowie’s best-known anthems. Used for everything from World Cup football to eco-documentaries like The Cove, the song is often misread/misheard as a message of victory and hope, when actually it’s an elegy to futile romance.
As Australian author and Berlin resident Craig Schuftan wrote in his book Hey! Nietzsche! Leave Them Kids Alone!” the couple kissing by the Wall are “doomed and they know it”. While on the surface the song appears to be uplifting and motivational, it’s ironically bittersweet and “full of wrenching sadness, because in this contest between two people and reality itself, they don’t stand a chance”.
Suddenly the familiar refrains of “Heroes” fill the Hansa studios. We have reached the end of the tour and Schmied is playing us a handful of songs through the very mixing desk on which they were recorded. He encourages us to listen carefully for the reverb of the Meistersaal within the song, Eno’s swirling synths and the urgency in Bowie’s voice as it builds to the final crescendo (thanks to a three-step gated microphone technique as constructed by Visconti).
Schmied must have heard “Heroes” a zillion times, but his feet still tap along and his face wears a look of sheer rapture; indeed, it’s hard at that moment not to be momentarily transported back to that special moment in time, in an equally special building.