Top 11 Songs and Albums Inspired by Central European Cities
Geography has always featured in the work of musicians both classical and contemporary from the likes of Antonín Dvořák's symphonic poem, Vltava (The Moldau), to Bruce Springsteen's restrained pop hit Philadelphia. There is also a long list of great songs or albums inspired by Central European cities, a handful of which we write about here. For the sake of brevity, however, we stick exclusively to the most obvious modern English language pop or rock music.
How could we not start with the most famous and iconic name-tagging music video of them? The Brit popsters were struggling to establish themselves in a crowded field of New Romantic synth-pop artists in the early 1980s when they brought in pencil-mustachioed Midge Ure. Rather than create a smash hit, Ultravox was trying to produce "interesting" music utilizing keyboard player Billy Currie's classical training. When they got into a recording studio Currie's sometime overblown and pedantic approach to the orchestration of songs produced the comment from Ure that "this means nothing to me"; the producer told him to sing that along with the other lyrics Ure had been adlibbing and the rest is history. The video itself was made deliberately to echo the haunting mid-European classical feel the band was trying to mimic in the song. Ure thought at the time that Vienna had a "decaying elegance" that best suited the atmospherics they wanted to capture on film. Despite many lucrative offers afterwards, Ultravox shied away from writing another song named after a European city. That's why the hit single 'Ljubljana' was never made (though to be fair, it wasn't a capital back then).
Ultravox - Vienna
Some of the greatest artists in the pantheon of rock’n’roll are associated with the German capital in one way or another (albeit before it was re-established as the capital of a reunited Germany) – David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.
Bowie famously decamped from Los Angeles in the mid-1970s to escape his cocaine addiction and settled in Berlin where he felt assured Berliners would ignore him and thus provide the anonymity that he craved at the time. While there he became interested in art forms other than music, visiting the Brücke Museum (housing early 20th century expressionist paintings) and becoming a passionate patron and collector of expressionist art. He also began an exhaustive study of classical music and literature, while at the same time developing a deep interest in the German music scene, especially innovative electronic music bands like Kraftwerk.
After co-writing and producing his friend Iggy Pop’s first solo album, The Idiot, also in Berlin, Bowie mined the products of his autodidactic absorption of Germany classical and pop culture to record the first of his Berlin albums, the avant-pop and instrumental Low. This was followed by Heroes and Lodger to form what Bowie himself later called his ‘triptych’. Although the three albums are all closely associated with Berlin, only Low and Heroes were recorded in part at Hansa Studios near Potsdamer Platz, nicknamed ‘Hansa by the Wall’ for its proximity to the edifice that separated East from West at the time.
David Bowie - Heroes
Bowie referenced his Berlin years in his second last album with the song released on his 66th birthday, Where Are We Now. The simple song lyrics and the accompanying video provide numerous references to the German capital in which an older person reminisces about time spent and time wasted, e.g. "Had to get the train / from Potsdamer Platz / you never knew that / that I could do that / just walking the dead".
David Bowie - Where Are We Now?
Lou Reed released an entire album named Berlin, which over time has come to be viewed as one of his best. The title track, Berlin, actually appeared on Reed’s first eponymous solo album and served as inspiration for the later concept album when producer Bob Ezrin asked Reed what happened to the couple from the song. That couple, Jim and Caroline (not actually named in the song itself), is used as a vehicle to address issues of drug use, domestic violence, suicide, and depression, so like Bowie’s Low album (allegedly related to his mood at the time he made it) the city didn’t exactly spark joie de vivre in the two artists, although it helped them work through painful personal issues (a very messy divorce in Reed’s case). The actual German connection in the song Berlin comes in the reference to a “five foot ten inches tall” woman “in Berlin, by the wall”, which may or may not be an allusion to Reed’s erstwhile German collaborator in the Velvet Underground, Nico.
Lou Reed - Berlin
The mega Irish pop band U2 also chose to record at Hansa Studios in Berlin, arriving on the eve of German reunification in 1990 looking for a source of inspiration for a more European musical aesthetic away from the domesticity of home life that they considered to be the enemy of rock and roll. Instead, they found the city to be initially gloomy and depressing, but looking back on the experience, they thought that working in Berlin had been more productive and inspirational than the output had suggested. Like Bowie and Reed before them, they used the experience positively to work through some very tense creative differences to produce one of their best received and most popular albums, Achtung Baby.
U2 - Achtung Baby
There aren’t too many English language pop songs name-checking cities in the Czech Republic. The major exception is the English rock band Muse, which covered the Mega City Four’s love song to the Czech capital, Prague, as the B-side to their Resistance CD single. The lyrics really do play out like unrequited passion for the City of a Thousand Spires, with lines like: It breaks my heart / to leave you far behind / and it breaks me up / to leave so suddenly / knowing we might never meet again / and it hurts so much to lose another friend.
Muse - Prague
Once again, English song lyrics referencing Hungary are almost as rare as 21st-century sightings of Elvis, but the old prog rockers with a name created in homage to an 18th-century agriculturist, Jethro Tull, penned something for their surprise hit album of 1987 Crest of a Knave. To the astonishment of many observers, that album took out the 1989 Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental, beating out Metallica, which had actually performed live at the Grammys that year and was expected to take home the award. Crest of a Knave features a track called simply Budapest, whose clumsy lyrics depict a backstage scene with a shy local female stagehand. It’s not a memorable song, but it gets points from us for another song inspired by a Central European city.
Jethro Tull - Budapest
Like Iron Curtain-era Berlin, the Polish capital of pre-1989 Warsaw Pact days also curiously stimulated the creative juices of western pop and rock artists. David Bowie pops up here again to create the instrumental track, Warszawa, that graced the first of his Berlin Trilogy albums, Low. Legend has it that Bowie visited Warsaw twice, in 1973 when travelling to Europe overland by train from a concert tour in Japan (Bowie had a fear of flying at the time), and in 1976 with Iggy Pop by train again when they disembarked in the capital for a few hours.
David Bowie - Warszawa
While strolling around the streets they entered a record store where Bowie bought a record by the Śląsk Polish National Song and Dance Ensemble. While recording Low later that same year, Bowie turned to that record for inspiration for the choral parts that would eventually feature in the song, Warszawa. The lyrics that were included in the mainly instrumental Warszawa are sometimes mistakenly thought of as Polish, but in reality they are in a language invented by Bowie to allegedly convey a longing for freedom. If you listen to the song Helokanie by Śląsk you can hear unquestionable similarities with Warszawa.
Śląsk - Helokanie
We should also mention here the obsession Ian Curtis of Joy Division had with Bowie’s song. The band was originally called Warsaw it was changed to avoid confusion or comparison with a London punk band called The Warsaw Pakt. Another passing mention should go to Paul Weller’s post-Jam new wave pop band, The Style Council, which used a jazz club located across the road from the Palace of Culture in Warsaw in 1985 to shoot a video for their song Walls Come Tumbling Down. The song’s overtly political lyrics were inspired by Thatcherite England rather than the Communist regime in Poland, but going by the reaction of the Polish audience in the video the band wasn’t about to trigger the tumbling of the East-West border walls anytime soon. Clearly, the authorities hadn’t vetted the song’s content beforehand, or perhaps they were smitten by The Style Council’s anti-establishment reputation in Tory-led England. The song contains lines like: You don't have to take this crap / You don't have to sit back and relax / You can actually try changing it / I know we've always been taught to rely / Upon those in authority / But you never know until you try / How things just might be / If we came together so strongly.
The Style Council - Walls Come Tumbling Down!
Finally, here’s one for the Antipodeans: a song called the Dresden Blues by Aussie rockers Cold Chisel first performed back in the 1970s when there was still some nuance to Jimmy Barnes’ voice before he began screaming all his material. The overall meaning of the track is open to interpretation, but there’s no doubt the lyricist, Don Walker, had possibly been reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and was thinking of the Second World War fire-bombing of Dresden that had reduced the city’s magnificent baroque and rococo centre to ashes at the war’s end. Incredibly, decades of restoration work has re-established Dresden as an architectural marvel.
Cold Chisel - The Dresden Blues (Live Footage 1978
If you’ve got favorites among these great songs or albums inspired by Central European cities then Go Real Europe will create a personalized travel itinerary for you upon request that includes the locations that provided the stimulus for the creation of this celebrated music. Log into the Go Real Europe website or call a consultant today.
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