Last Updated on August 20, 2023
(This article originally appeared in a 2015 issue of Where Berlin.)
Berlin has had a long-standing reputation for fostering musical creativity, even before Frederick II came to power in 1740 and ushered in the city’s “Golden Age” of music. Since then, the German capital has been heralded in songs spanning nearly every genre and has been the inspiration behind some classics.
“Berliner Luft” (1899). Considered the city’s “unofficial anthem,” Paul Lincke’s sprightly march is still often used as an encore by the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra. The song, whose title means “Berlin Air,” is best enjoyed while walking along the street named after the composer, which runs along the Landwehr Canal in Kreuzberg.
“There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Town of Berlin” (1943). Although Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters recorded the original version, Frank Sinatra gets the credit for making it popular, enlisting his signature croon to bring even further emotion to a song already ripe with patriotism: “When the Yanks go marching in, I want to be there, boy, spread some joy, when they take old Berlin.“
“Ich Hab’ Noch Einen Koffer in Berlin” (1954). Hollywood legend Marlene Dietrich recorded numerous songs about the city, including “Das War in Schöneberg,” an homage to the neighborhood where she was born. But it’s her “Ich Hab’ Noch Einen Koffer in Berlin” (“I Still Have a Suitcase in Berlin”) that is perhaps not only her best-known Berlin song but also her greatest tribute. In her smoky-smooth voice, she makes comparisons to other cities and argues, rightfully so, how none match up to her hometown.
“‘Heroes'” (1977). Although written and sung by a Brit, David Bowie’s now-classic might be the “most Berlin” song ever recorded, even when compared to the remainder of the artist’s own “Berlin trilogy” albums. The lyrics describing the lovers kissing by the Wall as gunshots ring out was written by Bowie as he peered out of a Hansa Studios window and spied his music producer enjoying a tryst by the famous landmark. “’Heroes’” was even featured on the soundtrack for We Children From Bahnhof Zoo, a cult film depicting the darker side of 1970s West Berlin.
“The Passenger” (1977). One of Iggy Pop’s most popular songs, inspired as he rode about town on the S-Bahn, is often interpreted as a metaphor for the punk lifestyle, which was just burgeoning in the divided city. The track was released on 1977’s Lust for Life, which was also recorded at Hansa and features Bowie on backup vocals. Try to get this earworm out of your head next time you’re transferring at Potsdamer Platz.
“Holidays in the Sun” (1977). Since it seems every other artist was writing about Berlin this year, The Sex Pistols decided to follow suit, releasing this as a track on their one and only studio album. After getting booted off the island of Jersey, the punk rockers skedaddled to Berlin, which they found to be much more to their liking for a break from their London hometown. Frontman Johnny Rotten declared, “I loved Berlin. I loved the Wall and the insanity of the place.“
“Sonderzug Nach Pankow” (1983). Sure, it’s basically just “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” in lederhosen, but Udo Lindenberg’s reinvention is an East German cult classic, due in part to its role in landing the rocker permission to be the first West German musician to perform in the GDR.
“City of Night (Berlin)” (1989). Peter Schilling found minor success outside of his native Germany with “Coming Home (Major Tom),” his retelling of Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Released just before the Wall came down, “City of Night (Berlin)” speaks of the plights of a still-divided city while encouraging Berliners to retain hope: “What’s done is done, but you are still young, Berlin.”
“One” (1992). Most any of the songs from U2’s Achtung Baby could have made the cut for this list, but it’s the album’s third track that most fully exemplifies both the city and the mood of the band as they recorded at Hansa. Just as Berliners were trying to find their way in a reunited country, U2’s members were experiencing their own discord, with drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. even stating he thought “this might be the end” for the band. Lyrics such as “We’re one, but we’re not the same, we get to carry each other“ refer as much to the sentiments of the band members for each other as those of East and West Germans at the time.
“A Great Day for Freedom” (1994). Although “Another Brick in the Wall” was performed at Pink Floyd’s 1990 concert on the former no-man’s-land between Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate, it’s the band’s 1994 song that has stronger ties to the city. Written shortly after the history-making Berlin show, “A Great Day for Freedom” tackles the disappointment many felt after the fall of the Wall. “I sort of wish and live in hope, but I tend to think that history moves at a much slower pace than we think it does,“ guitarist David Gilmour said. “I feel that real change takes a long, long time.” Despite his explanation, some fans continue to interpret the song as Gilmour’s feelings toward former band member Roger Waters.
“Born to Die in Berlin” (1995). As with most of the punk rockers’ songs, the final track on the final album by The Ramones is pretty open to interpretation. But with its multiple drug references and verse sung entirely in German, it’s a fair bet that Joey Ramone was singing about the city’s punk scene, even though it was pretty much over by the time the song was released. Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood is home to the world’s only museum dedicated to the band.