Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Better late than never. Here is yesterday.
On January 24th 1844 Köthener Strasse gets its name. Along with Bernburger Strasse and Dessauer Strasse it is part of the so called Geheimratsviertel – “Privy Councillors Quarter” (Geheimrat being a very high official, whose British equivalent would be a “privy councillor”) – where, as the name suggests, the rents were high and servants a necessity.
Today Köthener Strasse is best known for the only building that survived the WW2 relatively untouched: apart from the right wing and the roof all was still there when the bombs stopped raining. That building went on to make history itself.
At Number 38 in 1976 the Meisel brothers, two music producers, opened a new recording studio. Sold by a famous German label, “Ariola”, who were its owners since 1964, it came to be known as Hansa Tonstudios 2 or “Studio By The Wall”. “Meisel Music Publishers” were very impressed with the quality of the sound in the Meistersaal – a sentiment shared later by many well-known artists who rented the place to save the costs they would otherwise have to pay. For one-twelvth of the price that Abbey Road Studios were asking back then, such heavy-weights of music as David Bowie, Iggy Pop (Lust For Life was born in Köthener Strasse with David Bowie contributing the music for the title track), U2, Depeche Mode, Siouxsie & The Banshees, or Nick Cave preferred to come to Köthener Strasse and enjoy both the excellent conditions for recording and the spooky view.
Back then, if you left the building and crossed the street in the hope of taking a refreshing walk, you had to think again: right in front of the studio East Germany shut its doors was keeping its curtains well shut. Berlin Wall run along the whole length of Köthener Strasse. It offered space for artistic expression but banned one from all other spaces. For the musicians working at Hansa Studios an additional source of frisson. As well as inspiration: Bowie´s perhaps best known album, Heroes – part of “Berlin Trilogy” – was recorded right here. The title track which tells the story of two lovers and victims of the Cold War immediately earned legendary status. By the way, the two lovers were no fictitious characters either: the producer of Bowie´s album, Tony Visconti, was sinning against Holy Matrimony by cheating on his wife with a German singer, Antonia Maass.
And if you watch Wim Wender´s Sky Over Berlin you will notice that in the last scene of the film the main character is running along a street at Berlin Wall – that street was Köthener Strasse. The very same scene is featured again, as a cover, in one of U2´s Achtung Baby videos.
In Meistersaal Köthener Strasse 38 U2 (the band with Bono before he stopped making good music and started chatting with the Pope) recorded what I consider to be eponymous and the album of the early 1990s: Achtung Baby. And despite their stay in Berlin having been an utter catastrophe – the Wall has just collapsed, their East Berlin hotel was far FAR from cosy, everything was damp and grey (just as a sideline: what did they expect? Waldorff Astoria and Polynesian sunshine?), they think of it fondly now and consider to have been their “baptism of fire”. A very interesting BBC documentary about U2´s Berlin adventure and the Meisterstück album they produced thanks to the mixed blessing that their Berlin experience was can be watched here.