Berlin: Capital of sound and vision
Iggy, Bowie, Nick Cave, the Ramones - they all had a hand in making the German capital rock'n'roll central. That was before the Wall came down. Yet, says Andrew Spooner, it's still buzzing with creativity
Sunday 12 March 2006
A barely noticeable line of cobbled stones, re-creating the snaking route of the Wall, runs right through the centre of Berlin. Many visitors, taking in the Reichstag and the huge, glass and steel creations on Potsdamer Platz, don't even realise the cobbles are there.
I am aware of them because they point to my destination: a small, nondescript street called Köthener Strasse. A short walk down the row of gloomy, stone buildings is the granite brickwork of No 38 - the home of the Hansa studios. It was here, just west of the Wall, that East German wild child Nina Hagen created her experimental fusions of punk and reggae. She was followed by David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Nick Cave and Depeche Mode. All recorded seminal albums under the watchtowers and rifles of the East German border guards, the surreal atmosphere of a city split asunder helping to push creativity to its limits.
Despite its traumas, Berlin has always been a place that has relished artistic licence. Couple this with a particularly powerful penchant for debauchery and you have the makings of a perfect rock'n'roll city. However, it took the Wall to bring it all together.
Because its residents were exempt from military service, West Berlin, surrounded by East Germany, was a haven for non-conformist youth. After the Wall went up in 1961, it became even more isolated, an outpost for all the underground characters - freaks, hippies, and later punks - that West Germany could muster.
By the 1970s, the city was a hotspot of political radicalism and alternative lifestyles, most of which centred on Kreuzberg and Schöneberg - areas filled with squats and populated by Turkish immigrants and a burgeoning gay community. It was into this atmosphere that Bowie, Iggy Pop and Nick Cave arrived.
These days, Schöneberg has gentrified, but Kreuzberg retains much of its edge. Most of the squats have disappeared, but legendary venues such as SO36 still exist and radical politics flourishes. Wild bars, independent bookshops, funky cafés and Turkish bakeries add to the picture.
But if you really want to get a full slice of rock'n'roll Berlin there's only one place to head: the Ramones' Museum. "Yes, you could say I was completely obsessed with the Ramones," says the quietly spoken museum owner, Florian Hayler, as we sit amid an astonishing display of Ramones' memorabilia. Set in a basement in the back streets of Kreuzberg, Hayler's labour of love is the only museum in the world dedicated to a punk band. The New York-raised Ramones did have a strong Berlin connection it transpires. "Dee Dee [a founding member] lived in Berlin as a boy while his father was on military service," says Hayler. "He even once said he considered the city his real home."
The museum contains the Ramones' Converse trainers, the contact sheets for their first album cover and a baseball bat sent out as part of a marketing package. "There was a British version of the baseball bat inscribed with the title of a famous Ramones' song called 'Beat on the Brat', but it was withdrawn as it was considered highly offensive," says Florian as I look through the collection of carefully ordered posters, guitars and drumsticks. "I would just love to get my hands on one," he adds with fanatical zeal.
After an hour's browsing, I leave the museum as impressed with the collection as I am with Hayler's almost pathological affair with the Ramones. "I saw them on TV when I was 13 and knew straight away they were the greatest rock'n'roll band ever and that I loved them," he says. "Now I want to collect every detail of their career. I can already fill this space twice over."
The next day finds me waiting by one of Berlin's most famous landmarks, the Brandenburg Gate. It was at the nearby Adlon Hotel that one of the planet's most famous musicians engaged in a notorious incident. "That's the window," says Thilo Schmied. "The third one from the drainpipe."
Schmied is my guide on the Fritz Musictour, Berlin's only official rock'n'roll tour. We have begun our trip at the spot where Michael Jackson dangled his baby, Prince Michael II, out of a window. "I have lots of other really fond memories of Michael Jackson," says Schmied. "I was raised in East Berlin and remember how difficult it was to get any western music. In 1988, Jackson performed just over the Wall at the Reichstag. Thousands of us were crammed in and around the Adlon listening to the show."
A mixed group of students, tourists and goth kids clamber aboard the Fritz tour bus and we head out - first stop Hansa studios. "Apparently, the American musicians used to freak out coming here because it was so close to the Wall," says Schmied as we drive down Köthener Strasse. "They thought they would get shot by the Commies."
The rest of the trip combines interviews with figures from Berlin's music scene - displayed by a DVD system - with a soundtrack of Bowie, Hagen, DAF (a notorious 1980s Berlin punk band) and more recent musings from the city's techno and electronica scene, both of which now dominate the German capital's contemporary musical life. "The Love Parade is Europe's biggest techno party," says Schmied, as we pass by one of Berlin's most famous techno venues, the Tresor club. "It was cancelled in 2005 but we're hoping it will run in 2006."
We then head to Prenzlauerberg, a youthful district in old East Berlin. The tunes on the bus get decisively heavier as Rammstein, famed for their soundtrack on David Lynch's Lost Highway, blast out. We drive down Greifswalder Strasse and Schmied points out the Knaack Club. "This is one of the coolest underground venues in Berlin. It's owned by Rammstein's management and the band sometimes play secret concerts here."
The bus passes through Kreuzberg - "that's where Nick Cave used to live," says Schmied, pointing at an ordinary block of flats -Iggy and Bowie's old haunts and various other, less-well-known Berlin spots. With the tour drawing to an end we head back towards the Brandenburg Gate along Ebert Strasse. I can see the line of cobbled stones bisecting the street and imagine the watchtowers. Berlin has come a long way since the wild days of the Cold War but I can't help thinking it has a lot more rock'n'roll left in it yet.
Easyjet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) flies to Berlin Schönefeld from Belfast, Bristol, Liverpool, London Gatwick, Luton and Newcastle, from £41 return. The Ramones Museum (ramones museum.com) is at Solmsstrasse 30. Open Saturdays and Sundays, 12pm-6pm, entrance free. Fritz Musictours (00 49 30 3087 5633; musictours-berlin.com) cost from €19 (£13), and run almost daily during summer and twice weekly in winter
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