I started writing this post last year, when we first went into lockdown. Just a few months earlier, my SO and I had visited Berlin and my thoughts kept returning to the utter magic of that trip.
We had a huge list of things we wanted to do while we were there and we knew there was no way we were going to get even close to doing all of them. One of them was absolutely non-negotiable for me, and that was exploring some of David Bowie’s Berlin haunts.
Berlin Music Tours meets the needs of pretty much any die hard music fan, hands down. Bus tours, walking tours, themed tours, they do it all and the most popular tours are, of course, the Bowie tours. We had the choice of a walking tour of places where Bowie lived, worked and partied, a multi-media bus tour and a tour of Hansa Studios. After much deliberation, I opted for the Hansa Studio tour because I felt a burning need to stand in the rooms where Bowie worked and dreamed and created.
Writing this blog post is turning out to be a strange experience. I’m a writer and I’ve spent years sorting out my thoughts, feelings and experiences in writing. But I’m finding it challenging to convey in writing just what it was like to be at Hansa Studios. It was hard to take it all in while I was there – so much history and so much info. I wanted to simultaneously absorb and document every second.
When the day came, it was a bit of a comedy of errors. We had gotten pretty good at navigating Berlin’s excellent and very organized transit system, yet we somehow managed to get on a train going in the wrong direction. Then once we got off the train we walked a couple of blocks in the wrong direction. We ended up dashing up to the studio just as the tour was starting.
Berlin Music Tours is run by Thilo, who is a sound engineer, promoter, booker and all around music nerd. To say that he was the perfect tour guide is putting it mildly. The tour was advertised as being 2 hours long but it ended up being nearly 3.5 hours.
We started in front of the studio, where Thilo gave us an exhaustive history of the studio. These days, the street the studio is located on is lined with commercial buildings in the heart of Potsdamer Platz. Back when Bowie was recording, it was an industrial wasteland located just a couple hundred yards by the Berlin Wall, hence why it was called “The Hall By The Wall”. Looking at the pictures of the studio standing stark and lonely in a grim and burned-out landscape, it’s easy to see what inspired the angst of “Heroes”, the ambient moodiness of “Low” and the bleakness of “Black Celebration”.
Then it was time to go into the studio. The front of the studio has a digital mural with rotating pictures of Bowie. The entrance hallway is lined with gold records and photos of all the artists who have recorded at Hansa. I stood there entranced, surrounded by pictures of my idols and heroes. David Bowie, Nick Cave, Iggy Pop, Depeche Mode, R.E.M, Einsturzende Neubauten.
The sheer volume of music history contained in that hallway alone is beyond measure, and we hadn’t even gotten to the recording studios. Back in the day, there was a huge recording studio on the second floor, and the room with the sound engineers was down the hall. Now, they’re both event spaces. Thilo led us up to the second floor and took us through an exhaustive history of the space. Like how the sound engineers looked into the cameras one day and freaked out at the sight of the Neubauten boys setting up ladders so they could drop rocks onto the hardwood floors. Not to mention the night that they stuck a microphone into a toilet in their unending quest for the most unique sound effects. The main draw, of course, was Bowie’s groundbreaking Berlin trilogy and Thilo provided detailed descriptions of how Brian Eno and Tony Visconti set up the mics to get that distinctive vocal sound on “Heroes. Then he played Heroes and yes, I cried.
The remaining recording studios at Hansa are on the third floor and we were told we wouldn’t be able to see them because a band was booked to record there that day. Midway through the tour, Thilo got word that the band was running late and so we got to go inside the recording studios. No photos were allowed, but I can tell you that the studios are well worn and ancient and positively reek of history.
It can be dangerous to attach too much emotional significance to a particular place or experience. I had been holding this image of Hansa Studios in my mind for months leading up to our Berlin trip. The Hansa Studio tour didn’t just fulfill my expectations, it far exceeded them.