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David Bowie, Copyright: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for DKMS
Image: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for DKMS

Songs about Berlin's neighborhoods

Elizabeth Grenier
September 30, 2015

Musicians have played a major role in shaping Berlin's image - but do they know what they are singing about? DW's Elizabeth Grenier finds out what music can reveal about five neighborhoods in the city.


For all those creatively inclined who feel sentenced to too many "years of boredom," Leonard Cohen prescribed a great plan: "First we take Manhattan…then we take Berlin."

Looking back on their decision to head to the German capital, many expats will admit to thinking that if the city was good enough to inspire Lou Reed, David Bowie and Nick Cave, it had to be fantastic.

Never mind that the Berlin they experienced probably disappeared decades ago. Still, their songs remain. Some musicians even went so far as to pay tribute to specific neighborhoods of Berlin - or at least use their names as a song title. I was wondering if these songs still captured the spirit of these locations (or if they even did in the first place). Let's take a musical trip around Berlin.

Kreuzberg: Was that the East or the West?

My guests visiting Berlin will frequently ask me, "Was this part of the East or the West?" when I show them around, as they suspect - rightfully - that we might have suddenly entered the former Soviet sector without realizing it.

I might not be the best tour guide but, too often, I realize my visitors still don't get the historic geography after a short visit - or "A Weekend in the City," which happens to be the name of the Bloc Party album featuring the band's song, "Kreuzberg."

Bloc Party's "Kreuzberg" portrays a 25-year-old yearning for love when all he gets is casual sex. It's a nice tune, but you definitely shouldn't rely on it to get your geographical bearings. These are the two lines specifically describing Berlin: "Saturday night in East Berlin / We took the U-Bahn to the East Side Gallery."

This is definitely not in Kreuzberg: The now trendy area, world-renowned for its alternative scene, used to be an isolated and poor quarter of: West Berlin. So even if words like "counterculture," "poor" and "isolated" make it sound like a neighborhood belonging to the former East - it didn't.

You'll probably have to learn German to get a true taste of lyrical Kreuzberg.

In 1978, the band Gebrüder Blattschuss made the neighborhood notorious throughout Germany with their hit song "Kreuzberger Nächte" (Kreuzberg nights), which praises the fun you can have drinking beer all night. If you don't feel well the day after a party in Kreuzberg, you can quote them: "One of those 30 beers must have been bad…"

For a more modern song about the area, listen to the 2011 single "Königin von Kreuzberg" (The Queen of Kreuzberg) by controversial Berlin rapper Prinz Pi. It portrays a typical tough-cool girl who rules the 'hood - a modern incarnation of the co-founder of the German far-left militant group Red Army Faction: "Ulrike Meinhoff 2.0."

In that same song, Prinz Pi also points to another band that can help you decipher the mythical neighborhood. Instead of the usual nursery rhymes, the "Queen of Kreuzberg" grew up listening to the music of the cult German band Ton, Steine, Scherben. Their "Rauch-Haus-Song" captured the spirit of a squatted house in Kreuzberg so well that it became a classic protest song for the whole squatters' movement.

Tiergarten: One of Rufus Wainwright's favorite things

Tiergarten is both a neighborhood in Berlin and the name of the city's largest park. If you've been to the Reichstag building in Berlin, then you were in Tiergarten. A stroll in this wonderful park means soaking up the best of Berlin - made even more romantic with Rufus Wainwright singing "Tiergarten" in your ears.

In a 2014 interview with the "Berliner Zeitung," Wainwright said the park was among his favorite places in Berlin, along with the Restaurant Borchardt - where he believes you can get the best schnitzel in the world. Plus the Pergamon Museum, which boasts an incredible collection of Middle Eastern art.

Since the song does not actually reveal much about Tiergarten, here's some trivia indirectly related to Wainwright's personal life, as he is openly gay (and married to a German).

Historically, the Tiergarten park has played an important role for Berliner homosexuals.

If gays can now openly enjoy sunbathing nude in the area of the park known as the "Tuntenwiese" ("Queen's Meadow"), during the 20th century this meeting point for casual sex was a convenient, but dangerous one - especially during Nazi rule.

Over 50,000 homosexuals were then declared criminals - and many sent to concentration camps. The Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime, also located in the Tiergarten, pays tribute to these victims.

Neukölln: Bowie made it avant-garde

Bowie certainly did more to entice young artsy types to go to Berlin than any clever marketing campaign could ever do. He produced three of his albums while living in the city (in Schöneberg, not Neukölln) at the end of the 70s.

Now hipsters worldwide like to come and spend a year here too, hoping they could be "Heroes," as Bowie suggests in one of the albums of his Berlin Trilogy. That album includes the song "Neuköln" (note the misspelling).

Scene in Berlin logo

If "Heroes" became one of Bowie's signature hits, "Neuköln" is a Bowie/Brian Eno instrumental mood piece which will never land on a Greatest Hits collection: This fact will certainly please the avant-garde types who also chose Neukölln as their own experimental playground.

Musical critics have written that the song "Neuköln" portrays the isolation of the Turkish migrants who were "invited" to West Germany to work as "Gastarbeiter" (guest workers - a term used in the hope they would leave after the job was done). They were forced to live in the no-man's-land areas along the Wall. To some, Bowie's plaintive saxophone sounds a bit like the call of the muezzin.

There are still many Turks living in Neukölln, but, when Bowie and Eno produced the piece in 1977, the Weserstrasse had not yet been overrun by drunk Erasmus students.

For those who are unfamiliar with the neighborhood, it was long known as Berlin's "Problemkiez" - the problem hood. When the apartments in Kreuzberg became too expensive, Neukölln's proximity and cheaper rents attracted the adventurous types. International newspapers like "The Guardian" all wrote about it being the "epicenter of cool" by 2011, leading the area to change like no other in the city in the last five years.

Bowie's muezzin might still by crying, but now it's because it feels trampled by hipness.

Prenzlauer Berg: A shot of vodka with your latte

Complaining about how much neighborhoods have changed in the last 20 years has turned into everyone's favorite hobby in Berlin, and Prenzlauer Berg probably serves as the prime example (no, actually Mitte came first).

Let's skip the whole gentrification story here: Prenzlauer Berg can now be considered the neighborhood with the most designer strollers per capita in the country.

Beirut's 2009 song "Prenzlauerberg" doesn't refer to any of the specifics of the neighborhood. Songwriter Zach Condon mumbles most of the lyrics anyway. He also appears to be obsessed with foreign geographical locations when naming his songs (and his band).

City names automatically add symbolism to a song. In this case, the East European melancholy of the accordion in "Prenzlauerberg" inspires me to order a shot of vodka with my flat white, hoping that the baby will sleep at least another 15 minutes in his expensive pram.

For those who understand German and prefer a literal description of the neighborhood, Rainald Grebe's "Prenzlauer Berg" pokes fun at the way people here "all look the same: somehow distinct." Yes, Grebe sings, "rents are affordable, as I can afford them."

Sexier - but unfortunately outdated - is City's "King von Prenzlauer Berg" (1978), a guitar-driven rock song which tells the story of Nobi, a young man who likes mopeds and getting into fights. But the likes of Nobi are long gone from this area.

Wedding: Marching, waiting for the song

Although the international press now considers it to be the "hottest new neighborhood in Berlin," no indie band has released a single called "Wedding" yet: It might be related to the fact that the name doesn't sound very German/exotic (though it's pronounced "Vedding").

The most famous tribute to this worker's neighborhood is the socialist hymn "Roter Wedding," (Red Wedding) written in 1929 as a reaction to the "Blutmai," where the police shot protesters who didn't accept the authorities' decision to forbid May 1 celebrations. Over a thousand people were arrested; hundreds were hurt and 31 people died.

Today, many people are attracted by the unpretentiousness of this neighborhood - and it's turning into a new playground for the expat in the know.

It's obviously no longer a communist stronghold where people sing in unison "Red Wedding marches left - left - left." The different cultural communities who've set up their businesses here over the years have led it to being dubbed "Bunter Wedding" instead - the colorful neighborhood.

And here's the ultimate proof that Wedding is cooler than Kreuzberg: Decades before everyone started predicting that Wedding would be "coming soon" (in terms of gentrification), Berlin's counter-culture knew that it was the place to go to get inspired. In 1972 Rio Reiser, the singer of Ton Steine Scherben, is said to have written that previously mentioned mythical squatters' song about Kreuzberg in a pub in Wedding.