Home to the recordings of such seminal albums as David Bowie’s “Heroes”, U2’s “Achtung Baby”, and Depeche Mode’s “Black Celebration”, Hansa Studios in Berlin is one of the most famous and iconic recording studios in the world.
During a recent trip to Berlin, I visited the studios, guided around by Berlin Music Tours, who have an exclusive arrangement with the studios and specialise in themed tours around Hansa and Berlin for fans of Bowie, U2 and Depeche Mode
The Hansa Studios are in a building that was never designed as a recording studio. The Meistersaal, as the building is known, was built by the union of the Berlin building society and the Berlin builder’s guild between 1910 and 1913. It became a concert hall in the 1920’s and was one of the few buildings in the locality that survived bombing by Allied forces, and after WW2 it became a cabaret venue and cinema.
All this stopped in 1961, however, when the Berlin Wall was built just a couple of hundred yards away. Once at the centre of town, it was now cut off from the East, right on the border of the West of Berlin. Through a window, you could see a lookout tower populated by armed guards, who were there to prevent* people attempting to vault the barrier from East to West.
The Berlin Wall, and the absence of other buildings around it immediately made The Meistersaal a quiet location ideal for recording music and in 1961, it was first used as a recording studio by record label Ariola. Then, in 1976 the building was bought by music producers and publishers Meisel, a company built on cheesy euro-pop hits for the German market known as “Schlager”, and which later enjoyed huge international success (under the Hansa record label) with Boney M.
Hansa’s reputation as a recording studio was not built through its association with euro-disco, however. Instead, it was secured when David Bowie and his producer Tony Visconti used studio 2 to write and record the second album of Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy”, “Heroes”.
As you walk through the doors, you are greeted by an ornate staircase which will be familiar to Depeche Mode fans as the scene of some famous photos….
…here’s one from the Black Celebration tour programme…
…and one from the same shoot from a Mute Records publicity flyer (which was signed by the band in the eighties!)…
The stairs lead to studio 2, a huge former dance hall with high ceiling, parquet floor and a stage area. Tall windows illuminate the ornate decor and chandeliers. And as you stand there you can try to picture Bowie belting out what became perhaps his greatest song…
The first surprise is that there’s no mixing desk, or window to the console room. This was, after all, a dance hall. Instead, the mixing desk was situated twenty yards away down a corridor, in the Green Salon, now a bar area.
In the Green Salon is a window through which Bowie, Visconti and the musicians could see the look-out turret on the Berlin Wall as they sat at the mixing desk. Said Visconti, “every afternoon I’d sit down at that desk and see three Russian Red Guards looking at us with binoculars, with their Sten guns over their shoulders, and the barbed wire, and I knew that there were mines buried in that wall, and that atmosphere was so provocative….”. Visconti clearly had his Russians and Germans mixed up, but you get the idea.
This is also the window where Bowie saw two “lovers”** kiss, which led to the happy accident of the lyrics of “Heroes” (of which more next time). Now, the view is much changed….
Upstairs is the more compact Studio 1, complete with a fascinating array of equipment and a window to the console room, through which you can see their SSL 4000E console which cost 1.3 million Deutschmarks in the early 1980’s…
The studios are still much in demand, with the likes of The Manic Street Preachers having recorded their most recent Futurology album here. Just like the City of Berlin in which it is based, Hansa Studios is a fascinating place dripping with history and is well worth a visit if you are in the area. You can read about Bowie’s Heroes session by clicking this link
- *i.e. “shoot”.
- ** The identity of those lovers is now well known, but was kept a secret for many years.
- To arrange a tour of the studios, contact Thilo Schmied at Berlin Music Tours
- Source: The Complete David Bowie by Nicholas Pegg
- Depeche Mode Black Celebration tour programme and Mute publicity photo from the ERTAS attic