David Bowie once described his 1970s Berlin trilogy – Low, “Heroes” and Lodger – as containing “a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass”. It’s that same dislocating retro-futurist vibe that Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley was looking for when he created his latest compilation, Cafe Exil: New Adventures in European Music 1972-1980.
“This album is all about imagining what Bowie and Iggy Pop might have listened to and how it might have impacted the records they made in Berlin,” explains Stanley, who has previously created themed albums for Paris 68 and the long, hot English summer of 1976. “I always find it interesting when music is hard to pin down to a particular time but has a very definite sense of place.”
That place is Cafe Exil, a bohemian restaurant in the Berlin neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, after which Stanley chose to name his compilation. It is where Bowie, Brian Eno and Iggy would shoot pool between recording sessions. Bowie described it as “like another living room except the company was always changing”. Kreuzberg was populated by artists and immigrants, and the Exil was run, suitably, by immigrant artists: Austrians Michel Würthle and Oswald and Ingrid Wiener. The Wieners had left Austria after Oswald staged a chaotic happening in Vienna in 1968 that saw him accused of blasphemy. They fled to Berlin and opened a cafe because, according to Würthle, there was nothing to eat there except “currywurst and pea soup”.
In Vienna, Wiener had been part of a club called the Exil for the Austrian avant garde. In Berlin, the name took on a dual meaning: the patrons were emigres but they were also, like Bowie and Iggy, artistic outliers who challenged convention. The Swiss artist Dieter Roth designed “beer flower” wallpaper in exchange for free food and drink, and artists from across Europe met there, including Joseph Beuys, Richard Hamilton, Martin Kippenberger and Eduardo Paolozzi. Bowie, pushing boundaries in Berlin, slotted right in.
Did Cafe Exil have a jukebox? Bob Stanley thinks that if it did, it would play the sort of music you find on his compilation: motorik electronica with excursions into folk and jazz-rock. Alongside Faust, Eno, Amon Düül II, Popol Vuh, Cluster and Michael Rother are rarities such as Way Star by Rubba, a record that Stanley found in a charity shop in Coulsdon, which is about as far from Cafe Exil as you can imagine. The music is otherworldly, mysterious and a little creepy, fitting the title far better than if Stanley had named the album after another of Bowie’s Berlin favourites, Joe’s Beer House. Now what might a soundtrack for that sound like?
Cafe Exil: New Adventures in European Music 1972-1980 is out now on Ace Records