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Music

How romance in a Berlin jazz club inspired this classic David Bowie song

@SamWKemp

Two years before David Bowie began recording his 1977 album Heroes in a dingy studio in West Berlin, the city was pulsing with a different sound. In 1975, a jazz-prog fusion band known as Messengers released their debut album First Message. Born under the oppressive shadow of the Berlin Wall, the group’s music was a vehicle of exploration; containing seeds of everything from Stravinsky to Sun Ra.

The album’s opening track ‘Hankock’s Hideaway’, for example, begins with a soaring violin passage of intense pastoral beauty. Slowly, glimmerings of Rhodes piano enters the mix. At the same time, the modulations of a fizzing synthesiser evoke the mechanistic dawn chorus of countless birds. And then, quite suddenly, everything stops, and a breakbeat kicks in. What follows is one of the most astonishingly varied jazz fusion recordings to emerge from Germany in the 1970s, and Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti, was lucky enough to hear some of it live. In fact, Messengers singer, Allison Maass, would go on to feature on one of the most infectious tracks from Heroes.

David Bowie was introduced to Allison Maass by Tony Visconti, who had watched Maass’ band, Messengers, perform in a small Berlinese jazz club after a day in the studio. “One night in a club I heard Antonia Maass singing with her band and the next day I told David how terrific she was,” Visconti recalled in 2017. We tried her out on ‘Beauty And The Beast’. David was very impressed. Before long he had her jumping through hoops (vocal ones) getting her to sing at the very top of her range. He also asked her to sing ‘liebling’ as an alternative to ‘darling’, bringing a little flavour of Berlin into the song.”

Visconti quickly developed feelings for Maass, which had been bubbling under the surface ever since that night in the jazz club. But -being a married man – the pair were forced to keep their relationship a secret, leading some to assert that Maass and Visconti were the couple who inspired Bowie’s line about lovers kissing “by the wall” in ‘Heroes’.

The pair would indeed spend long afternoons wandering around the East-West border together, but, according to Maass, it must have been another couple. After all, She and Visconti were too conscious of keeping their affair hidden from his wife to risk kissing in such a public place. No, the romance between Alison Maass and Tony Visconti was never allowed to see the light of day. Instead, they were forced to distil their affection for one another in reels of magnetic tape, the simmerings of which can still be heard today.