During the Cold War, the legenadry Hansa At the Wall recording studios in Berlin, were just that, at the wall, and at the junction of two staggerlingly different worlds:
- It was this potent combination of Cold War stand-off and hedonism that inspired David Bowie, Iggy Pop, U2 and Depeche Mode to tap into Hansa at the Wall’s shabby glamour to record some of the greatest pop music of the last century.
“We were in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. For many artists from Britain and America that was very exotic. Some of them thought they’d need flak jackets and helmets,” said Tom Mueller, chief sound engineer at Hansa studios from 1972.
“The studio has a great sound, fantastic flair and a real creative spirit,” said Mueller, now in his 60s, reminiscing about old times as he stood in the converted 1910 ballroom that was Studio Two, one of Hansa’s main recording rooms.
….Since the redevelopment of the adjoining Potsdamer Platz area, the big studio, restored to its former grandeur, has reverted to its original role as a ballroom and concert hall — part of a post-unification clean-up of the capital which some Berliners say is destroying the city’s “cool” status.
In this room 25 years ago, Bowie recorded “Heroes,” the centerpiece in his influential trilogy of Berlin albums, during a time spent enjoying the Berlin night life with Detroit punk rocker Iggy Pop and New York maverick Lou Reed.
“There was a unique smell, partly because of all the joints and cigarettes, but you felt you could live well here,” he said.
The old ballroom stood just 50 yards from Hitler’s bunker and was badly damaged in World War II. But the proximity to the Berlin Wall, the Cold War barrier between East and West, was the real draw for international stars.
The late 1970s marked Hansa at the Wall’s golden years, with Bowie the biggest profile name to use the studio.
“The high point was David Bowie. He liked it so much he lived here for a few years down the street,” said Mueller.
Bowie moved to the Schoeneberg district in October 1976 with Iggy Pop and lived there as a semi-recluse for three years…
….The high point of Bowie’s Teutonic phase was “Heroes,” with references to World War II and districts of Berlin divided by the Wall. Cold War angst is the background to the whole record.
The title song is a love story about two people trying to escape over the Berlin Wall, fantasizing about life in the affluent West and it became an anthem when the Wall collapsed in 1989, something of which Mueller is clearly proud.
“When the Wall fell, Heroes became a hymn. It was an unbelievable feeling,” said Mueller.
Bowie drifted away from Berlin after the third part of the trilogy, “Lodger,” but his success drew many other artists to Hansa studios, including Depeche Mode, David Byrne, and most famously, the Irish rockers U2.
In the autumn of 1990, U2 began work on “Achtung Baby,” produced by Daniel Lanois with Brian Eno, who also produced some of Bowie’s Berlin oeuvre, back in the studio. The record was a renaissance for U2 and sold more than 10 million copies.
“This room saw the beginning of U2’s big international success and a lot of that was about the atmosphere of the city and the atmosphere in the studio,” said Mueller.
….The studio’s eerie atmosphere has inspired artists in many different ways — Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore famously stripped naked to get himself in the mood before recording a poignant love song in the basement.
“One time the punk band Killing Joke filled the grand piano and covered the mixing desk with fire extinguisher foam. It took us 14 days to clean it up,” said Mueller.
“The atmosphere was free from pressure, where artists could be creative. We tried to be like a hotel for the stars. We removed everything that could hinder their creative urges.”
….Nowadays Hansa is right at the heart of new Berlin and located near the grandiose headquarters of Sony Europe, but Mueller misses the days when it was a dusty, run-down creative hothouse.
“Nowadays, well, you can’t just throw a cigarette butt on the floor anymore. I don’t think heavy metal bands would feel so comfortable in this room.” [Reuters]
I interviewed and profiled British producer/engineer Gareth Jones, who worked at Hansa for almost ten years:
Gareth Jones was one of the most important engineers and producers of British new wave in the ’80s and ’90s, producing or co-producing the techno-pop of Depeche Mode’s Some Great Reward and Black Celebration ; Erasure’s Wild!, Erasure (No. 14 U.K.), and Cowboy; the melodic neo-psychedelia of Wire’s The Ideal Copy and A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck, and the vibrant electronica of Sheep On Drugs’ From A to H and Back Again and Greatest Hits.
Gareth Jones was born in the English countryside outside of London in 1954. He enjoyed classical and jazz music growing up, eschewing pop music until his mid-teens. Always interested in music and technology, Jones played piano, trumpet and French horn and studied science in school. He also “mucked about with tape recorders” from an early age.
In college Jones realized that a living could be made combining music and technology, so he “wrote the usual kind of letter” to all the studios in England asking for an assistant’s job. Receiving no replies, Jones decided he’d better get more experience in the general field, and ended up as a junior trainee technical operator with BBC Radio in ’74. Showing an aptitude for the job, Jones was promoted to junior studio manager: the radio equivalent of recording studio engineer. When told that he would not be directly involved with recording music for at least five more years, Jones wrote to the studios once again. This time he got a response from the owner of a small eight-track, Pathway, in London.
After working at both the BBC and Pathway for six months, Jones left the former to be a full-time recording engineer at the latter. Though at first he felt like he was “jumping off the deep end” at the studio – on his first session the drummer asked him to turn up the snare and he didn’t know which drum that was (“Not the one that goes BOOM, the loud slappy one in the middle,” quoth the drummer) – his work at Pathway was “excellent training because I had to deal with lots of quick projects with different bands and different kinds of music,” he says.
At Pathway, Jones’ engineering projects included Madness’ first single, “The Prince” (’79), and John Foxx’ first solo album after he left Ultravox, the minimalist electronic milestone Metamatic (’80). Foxx then formed a collective with several other artists. Together they bought a warehouse which was converted into artist’s studios, including a recording studio called the Garden. Jones helped create the starkly elegant studio, and became staff engineer.
In ’83 Depeche Mode was looking for a place to record their third album; until then they had worked at Blackwing Studios, owned by Eric Radcliffe (of Yazoo’s Upstairs At Eric’s fame). Jones was living in Brixton in South London at the time and listening to a lot of underground music and reggae. He had no interest in Depeche as they seemed to be a commercial synth-pop band. Depeche loved the Garden but didn’t like the engineer they were working with, so Jones was brought in despite his negative predisposition. As these things often go – Jones, the band (Martin Gore – synths, songwriter; Dave Gahan – vocals; Andy Fletcher – synths; Alan Wilder – electronics) and their producer Daniel Miller (owner of Mute Records) got on famously and began an ongoing relationship that continues to this day.
The album recorded at the Garden, Construction Time Again, was a stylistic change for Depeche in that they wanted to move away from bouncy synth-pop into darker, moodier soundscapes: as on the classic anti-avarice single “Everything Counts.” Besides engineering the album, Jones contributed ideas such as recording the band’s synths through amplifiers, affording a broader sonic reach through the use of distortion and the like.
After the album was recorded at the Garden, it was mixed at Hansa Studios in Berlin, which at the time had the biggest SSL mixing board (56-channel) in the world. Jones felt his contributions merited inclusion in the production team, and he was given co-producer credit (with Miller and the band) for the next two Depeche albums – Some Great Reward and Black Celebration – which effectively began his production career.
Reward includes the clangorous single “Master and Servant”; the spooky, thought-provoking “Blasphemous Rumours” and “Shake the Disease”; and the band’s first U.S.-charting single “People Are People” (No. 13) (for which Jones did not receive production credit). Celebration features the great meditation on death “Fly On the Windscreen,” as well as “Stripped,” and the peppy, paranoid “A Question of Time.”
Having met and fallen in love with Anete Humpe, lead singer of the German new wave pop band Ideal, and delighted with the Hansa Studio, Jones moved to Berlin in ’83 and stayed until ’92. There Jones engineered and/or produced quite a few German bands, including Ideal and avant-noise band Einsturzende Neubauten.
In the late-80s Jones produced art-punk pioneers Wire, and over the course of two exceptional albums (The Ideal Copy, A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck) aided in the band’s transition from thrash/minimalism to powerful, Gang of Four-type alterna-funk (“Ahead”), and floral neo-psychedelia (“Kidney Bingos”).
When the Wall came down in ’89, Berlin changed from a cloistered enclave of the West embedded in the East to just another city, and gradually lost its appeal for Jones, who returned to London in ’92.
Since then he has produced transplanted Australian Simon Bonney, the tasty jungle and electronica of Sheep On Drugs, and even reunited with old friends Depeche Mode to help mix and engineer tracks for Ultra (’97). He produced the instrumental soundtrack to the Australian film To Have and to Hold with Nick Cave in ’95; and has co-produced three albums for techno- oppers Erasure (Vince Clarke, Andy Bell), including the wildly successful Wild!, with the luxuriant “Blue Savannah” and the anthemic “Star.”