They say music is the language of the soul. To understand a city then, one should listen to the music produced by it’s inhabitants. Having long been a creative cosmos, Berlin has inspired a prolific mass of melodies. The following ten tracks in some way encapsulate the wonderfully chaotic spirit and innovation of this multifarious city.
Ton Steine Scherben - Rauch-Haus-Song (1971)
Inspired by the occupation of an abandoned nursing home in Kreuzberg including the failed attempt of the “Pollies” to remove them, this is somewhat of a squatters anthem. Georg-Rauch-Haus, named for a radical leftist killed in a shoot out with police, still exists as one of the oldest “self-managed housing projects” in the city. Singer Rio Reiser’s gruff bellow “Das ist unser Haus!” (This is our house!) became a rallying cry for generations of Berlin’s illegal lodgers.
“Sag mir eins – haben die da oben Stroh und Scheiße in ihrem Kopf?
Die wohnen in den schärfsten Villen – unsereins im letzten Loch.”
(Tell me – do they have straw and shit in their heads?
They live in the flashest villas, we in the worst dump).
Seeed: Dickes B (2001)
This multi-headed musical monster has been producing hip-hop, reggae and dancehall infused bangers since 1998. Despite the tragic death of vocalist Demba Nabé in 2018, they continue to do so. Their 2001 homage to their hometown “Dickes B” is one of their bigger hits, even used by local football team Hertha FC to amp up the fans during home games.
“Dickes B, oben an der Spree
Im Sommer tust du gut und im Winter tut’s weh”
(Big B, up on the Spree
In summer you feel good and in winter it hurts)
Ideal - Berlin (1980)
Ideal were fore-runners of the Neue Deutsche Welle which defined the West German music scene of the 1980’s. This, one of their most popular tracks, captures the rebellious spirit of embattled West Berlin.
“Graue Häuser, ein Junkie im Tran
Es riecht nach Oliven und Majoran
Zum Kanal an Ruinen vorbei
Da hinten das Büro der Partei”
(Grey houses, a junkie nodding off
It smells like olives and marjoram
To the canal, past some ruins
Back there’s the office of “der Partei”)
The Ramones - Born to Die in Berlin (1995)
Bassist Dee Dee Ramone, whose mother comes from Berlin, spent much of his childhood and early teens in West Berlin. This track had the bitter honour of being the last track on the last album ever recorded by these pioneers of punk. If you miss their shaggy haired shenanigans, don’t fret, there is a museum dedicated to keeping their legacy alive right here in Kreuzberg.
Sometimes I feel like screaming
Sometimes I feel I just can’t win
Sometimes I feeling my soul is as restless as the wind
Maybe I was born to die in Berlin
SIDO - Mein Block (2004)
In his breakthrough track, east Berlin born SIDO lifts the lid on life behind the pre-fabricated walls of “his” 16 floor apartment block. It’s as brash and offensive as you’d expect from Berliner hip hop. Yet, in an exaggerated way, SIDO does highlight the grim reality faced by many in Berlin’s poorer areas. In this case the focus is the Märkisches Viertel (MV), a satellite district of West Berlin completed in the 1970’s.
“Hohe Häuser, dicke Luft, ein paar Bäume
Menschen auf Drogen – Hier platzen Träume”
(Tall houses, thick air, a few trees
People are stoned, Dreams are destroyed here)
Ellen Allien: Stadtkind (2001)
You didn’t think we could compile a soundtrack to Berlin without a little Techno, did you? DJ, producer, record label owner and all round techno legend Ellen Allien has been in the mix since the early 90’s. Stadtkind (city-kid) is an ode to her home city.
“Die Nacht geht vorbei, ein neuer Tag beginnt.
Alles strömt. Stadtkind”
(The night passes, a new day begins.
Everything flows. City kid).
David Bowie - Heroes (1977)
Bowie spent just 3 years in West Berlin, in that time producing three albums. This with soaring guitar and synth provided by Brian Eno, and inspirational chorus “We can be heroes, just for one day”. A song of optimism produced in the embattled half city of West Berlin.
“I can remember
Standing, by the wall
And the guns, shot above our heads
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall
Iggy Pop - Passenger (1977)
Iggy Pop and David Bowie arrived in 1976 with the aim of getting clean. Whatever the success of that idea, the years proved fruitful fro both. Iggy was to produce two albums which would shape punk for ever. This, one of the “Godfather of Punks” most iconic songs, was reportedly inspired by his many trips on Berlin’s commuter train the S-Bahn.
“We’ll see the city’s ripped backsides
We’ll see the bright and hollow sky
We’ll see the stars that shine so bright
The sky was made for us tonight”
Nina Hagen Band - Auf'm Bahnhof Zoo (1979)
Recounts the tale of a passionate rendezvous in a ladies bathroom
“Auf’m Bahnhof Zoo im Damenklo
Ist es geschehen
Es war so schön”
(At Zoo Station in the ladies’ room
that’s where it happened
It was wonderful)
Einstürzende Neubauten: Die Befindlichkeit des Landes (2000)
With a haunting, apocalyptic, at times achingly beutiful and at others down right terrifying sound Einstürzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings) encapsulate something of Berlin no other band have, can or probably ever will. This, one of their later works, displays a more restrained approach when compared with earlier efforts, but the result is all the more haunting.
WÜber den Schaltzentralen
Über dem Stoppelfeld aus Beton
Über den heimlichen Bunkeranlagen
Die nicht wegzukriegen sind”
(Above the control centers
Above the field of concrete stubble
Above the secret bunker systems
That can’t be removed)