How a Berlin jazz singer inspired this David Bowie classic

Two years before David Bowie started recording his 1977 album Hero in a seedy studio in West Berlin, the city vibrated with a different sound. In 1975 a jazz-prog fusion group known as Messengers released his first album first message. Born under the oppressive shadow of the Berlin Wall, the band’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 rising violin passage of intense pastoral beauty. Slowly, Rhodes piano lights enter the mix. At the same time, the modulations of a sparkling synthesizer evoke the mechanical chorus of dawn of countless birds. And then suddenly everything stops and a breakbeat kicks in. What follows is one of the most surprisingly diverse jazz fusion recordings to come out of Germany in the 1970s, and Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti, had the chance to hear part of it. live. In fact, Messengers singer Allison Maass would go on to feature on one of the most contagious tracks on Hero.

David Bowie was introduced to Allison Maass by Tony Visconti, who had seen Maass’s band Messengers perform at a small Berlin jazz club after a day in the studio. “One night at a club, I heard Antonia Maass sing with her band and the next day I told David how great she was,” Visconti recalls in 2017. We tried her on “Beauty And” The Beast ”. David was very impressed. Shortly after, he had her jump through hoops (vocal) for her to sing while at the top of her range. He also asked her to sing ‘liebling’ as an alternative to ‘darling’, bringing a little Berlin flavor to the song.

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

The couple 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 aware 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 emerge. Instead, they were forced to distill their affection for each other into reels of magnetic tape, the quiver of which can still be heard today.

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