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Music

Tim Renner: 'Bowie showed it's possible to resist the mainstream'

David Bowie died a year ago, on January 10, 2016 - two days after turning 69. Here's why his influence on the history of music remains so unique.

DW: Where were you when you heard the news of David Bowie's death?

Tim Renner: I was standing in the kitchen and was on my way to the office when I saw the news. I nearly dropped my coffee cup.

Did you suspect that he had been so ill? In the music industry, no one seemed to know that he had cancer.

People suspected it. His second-to-last album, "Where Are We Now," sounds like a farewell if you listen closely - particularly the title track, in which he says goodbye to Berlin.

There had been rumors that he was very sick. At the Berlin State Senate for Cultural Affairs, we tried multiple times to get him to come to Berlin for the 25th anniversary of German reunification. At that time, the people close to him signaled to me that he had to save his energy. That's a statement in itself. And he used his energy very concertedly for his fulminant last album "Blackstar." As soon as it was released, he was able to let go.

David Bowie concert in Manchester (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Rickett)

The pop icon fascinated generations of fans

As a musician and artist, David Bowie influenced pop history like hardly anyone else with his innovative music and eccentric style. What made him a pop icon?

He became a pop icon because he was the first to show that it's possible to resist so much of what's mainstream. That it's possible to think, act and make music in a completely different way - and still do it in style. He didn't take the typical 1968-generation track, he cleverly played with the bourgeois norms and reached a lot of people while doing it.

What was so unusual and new about his kind of pop music at the time?

He dared to intertwine things and styles of music that didn't otherwise belong together. Especially at that time, there was a clear separation between rock and pop. He frequently mixed up the boundaries - and crossed over them. He collaborated with musicians from all styles. And he dared to completely kidnap the people and define something totally new - even to the point of inventing parallel worlds, like in "Ziggy Stardust."

David Bowie Ziggy Stardust 1972 (picture-alliance/dpa/N.Halle'n)

He wrote pop history with his character Ziggy Stardust

To what extent was he ahead of his time as a musician? You've been a key player in the music business for many years and followed trends. Was Bowie more progressive than music production was at the time?

Yes, definitely, in many respects - both musically and how he dealt with the music industry. Remember the "Bowie Bonds" [Eds: commercial debt securities based on intellectual property] from 1997. He was the first big-time musician to say, I don't need a record company, I'll finance myself via my fans. And that's why he founded the Bowie Bonds, which actually paid for a whole album.

When Bowie began combining different musical styles, it was groundbreaking in the pop music world.

Yes, he did that consciously throughout several musical phases. The most significant one was in the 70s. At the time, the music world was moving into opposite poles. On one hand, rock music became more academic, with British progressive bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Rock music was going through a kind of "neo-classical" phase.

David Bowie in 1987 (AP)

Bowie in 1987

On the other hand, disco music was also booming (it was the age of "Saturday Night Fever"), offering glitter and liveliness which was until then unknown in pop. Those were the two major opposing poles in music - and David Bowie was the great link between these two worlds.

Were his songs played in disco clubs, where rock music wasn't to be heard?

He was the one who brought the other musicians into the discos. In Berlin - although I am too young to have experienced it personally - it is said that he was the one to have introduced Iggy Pop as well as Blixa Bargeld to the Dschungel, a club which was the central meeting point of the music scene, the place where they'd crash with Lou Reed at the bar while disco beats were thumping in the background.

Christiane F. Wir Kinder Vom Bahnhof Zoo David Bowie (picture alliance / United Archives/IFTN)

He also made an appearance in the film "Christiane F." that portrayed the drug scene in West Berlin in the 1970s

How important was Berlin in his musical career? Were Bowie's Berlin years a major milestone in his music and his life?

The three albums in his Berlin trilogy are definitely among his most important works. He was noticeably wrestling with himself. The Berlin era was also a difficult period as he was dealing with his drug abuse.

This led to good results in his musical experimentation, but also to drug-related lows. It created a new mentality in the Berlin music scene, which is still promoted by the media. With his song "Where Are We Now," Bowie reflected on Berlin and the time he spent there once more.

Tim Renner, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa

Tim Renner is the former CEO of Universal Music Germany

Tim Renner has been the State Secretary for Cultural Affairs in Berlin since April 2014. He is a successful music manager and producer and formerly headed the label Motor Music, which launched bands like Rammstein, Sportfreunde Stiller and Tocotronic to fame. From 1999 to 2004, he was CEO and President of Universal Music Germany.

DW's Heike Mund interviewed Renner in January 2016.

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