In Berlin

The Berlin Low sessions took place in October 1976 at Hansa Tonstudio 1 on Kurfürstendamm, and Hansa Tonstudio 2 at Köthenerstrasse 38. David Bowie stayed for a short time at the Hotel Gerhus, before finding a seven-room apartmetment at 155 Hauptstrasse in the Schöneberg district, where he was joined by his assistant Coco Schwab and the singer Iggy Pop.

Well the whole reason for going there was because it was so low-key. Jim (Iggy Pop) and I – we were both having the same problems – knew it was the kind of place where you walk around and really are left alone and not stopped by people. They’re very blasé, there. Cynical, irony-based people and it’s a great place if you really want to try and do some soul-searching and find out what it is that your really want.
David Bowie
Q magazine, June 1989

Bowie found Berlin’s rich cultural heritage alluring, with its links to Christopher Isherwood, Fritz Lang, Bertolt Brecht and others. The post-war divide and the contrast between the decadent West and austere communist East also fascinated Bowie.

In many ways, the city made real the post-apocalyptic fallout Bowie had written about on the Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs albums, with its bombed-out buildings, drag clubs, proto-punks, misfits, and a thriving artistic community. Far from living like a rock megastar, Bowie revelled in anonymity, growing a moustache, reverting to his natural hair colour for the first time since 1972, and exploring Berlin on bicycle and foot.

These days most Berliners are people who want good, strong family ties and a good strong social fabric where people care for each other. That’s why I was drawn to that city after Los Angeles, which is the antithesis of that. Berlin was my clinic; it brought me back in touch with people. It got me back on the streets; not the street where everything is cold and there’s drugs, but the streets where there were young, intelligent people trying to get along, and who were interested in more than how much money they were going to make a week on salary. Berliners are interested in how art means something on the streets, not just the galleries. They wonder how painting can help them in their live.
David Bowie
Musician magazine, May 1983

The conclusion of the Low recordings in Berlin also coincided with the final throes of Bowie’s marriage to Angela. The couple had clashed at the Château d’Hérouville, and he resisted her efforts to persuade him to return to their home in Switzerland.

Angela visited Berlin in November 1976, which coincided with Bowie’s collapse with a suspected heart attack. On 10 November he was rushed to Berlin’s British military hospital, where he was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat caused by excessive drinking – Bowie’s latest vice after his diminishing cocaine use.

Shortly afterwards, Angela demanded that he fire Coco Schwab, who had been by Bowie’s side since 1973, and whom Angela later blamed for contributing to the end of the marriage.

I guess Coco is the one person I could say has been a continual friend to me. She is my personal assistant and a very good friend. She became the most important person in my life in the mid-Seventies. My whole lifestyle at that time made me quite bonkers, and I had a complete breakdown. Coco was the one person who told me what a fool I was becoming, and she made me snap right out of it, I’m so glad to say.
David Bowie
Hero: David Bowie, Lesley-Ann Jones

Angered by Schwab’s closeness to Bowie, and their unwavering loyalty towards one another, Angela staged a dramatic farewell before leaving Berlin.

I went into Corinne’s room, gathered up her clothes and some of the gifts I’d given her in better times, threw them out of the window into the street, and called a cab and caught a flight to London.
Angela Bowie
Backstage Passes : Life On The Wild Side With David Bowie

Angie and David met on only one subsequent occasion, in February 1980 to exchange legal documents to end their marriage.

Completing Low

Bowie knew the Château d’Hérouville recordings could be assembled into an album, but they were still in need of more music. Bowie composed ‘Weeping Wall’, playing all the instruments himself – the only such instance on Low.

We arrived in Berlin being one track short for the album. David composed ‘Weeping Wall’, obviously in sympathy with the sad people on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. It was recorded very quickly, in just one day. When he finished he asked me, our engineer Edu and someone else to listen to the piece and to draw a picture of what came to mind. We all came up with several versions of little faces peering over a jagged wall and in one case someone drew an alligator’s head with people inside its mouth, with faces peering from in between the jagged teeth.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town book

Bowie added vocals to other Low tracks, wrote and recorded ‘Art Decade’, and reworked the previously-recorded ‘Subterraneans’. As with ‘Weeping Wall’, these were written about the divided Berlin, and the plight of those in the communist east side of the city.

On Low, the subject I was dealing with was so intangible to actually talk about, it was preferable to try and put it into music rather than words. I’m not well-equipped enough or articulate enough to put the experience into lyrics really. It’s really about that whole area of Poland/ Germany/ Austria where the album was recorded. It was a very new feeling and experience being there… because I hadn’t been there very much before. Really it was a first experience with that part of the world and that is what came out.
David Bowie
Rock Australia Magazine, 3 June 1977

Hansa’s in-house engineer Eduard Meyer played a cello on ‘Art Decade’. The part had been scored by Tony Visconti, who had intended to perform it until it transpired that Meyer was a classically-trained performer.

At Hansa Studios we approached the mixes in a very sober manner. We clocked in and went home for dinner at the same times every day. The mixing wasn’t that difficult because of all the recorded effects on the multi-track tapes. In a few cases we needed to do extra work, especially on ‘A New Career In A New Town’. For the floaty parts, when the only percussion is the kick drum, I muted all the drum tracks and used only the kick drum going through an electronic ‘gate’ to cut out the sounds of the other drums. (Dennis Davis was playing the full kit in those passages.) I’m always impressed by how selective mixing can change the character of a live track.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town book

Despite his indispensable role in bringing Low to life, Visconti later expressed frustration at being overlooked as the album’s producer.

It amazes me how so called responsible journalists don’t even bother to read the credits on the album, which read, “Produced by Bowie and Visconti” Brian is a great musician, and was very integral to the making of those three albums. But he was not the producer.
Tony Visconti, 17 December 1998
BowieLive online chat

Visconti’s integral role in the Berlin trilogy was confirmed by David Bowie in a 2000 interview.

Over the years, not enough credit has gone to Tony Visconti on those particular albums. The actual sound and texture, the feel of everything from the drums to the way my voice is recorded – it’s Tony Visconti.
David Bowie