How Watching American Forces Network TV Created a Rock Classic

David Bowie live at Public Hall, Cleveland, Ohio February 28, 1976.  The author, Rolla Suttmiller was 17 at the time and it was the third time she saw him in concert in Cleveland. (Photo By Rolla Suttmiller)
David Bowie live at Public Hall, Cleveland, Ohio February 28, 1976. The author, Rolla Suttmiller was 17 at the time and it was the third time she saw him in concert in Cleveland. (Photo By Rolla Suttmiller)

How Watching American Forces Network TV Created a Rock Classic

by Rolla Suttmiller
American Forces Network (AFN) Broadcast Center

What happens when you mix two rock legends and add a night of American Forces Network (AFN) TV? A rock ‘n’ roll classic that still defines a generation!

AFN radio has been providing the American military serving overseas with a taste of home since 1943.  Since first signing on the air, the DOD’s network for the troops also made a huge cultural impact on host nationals around the world by introducing them to new at that time, diverse styles of music. Robert Plant fondly reminisced to David Letterman about hearing Muddy Waters and Little Richard on AFN on a faint radio signal from Germany in the 1950s because, “radio in the UK was pretty dire in the mid-50s." Van Morrison remembered the days before rock ‘n’ roll when every night was spent scouring the airwaves in hopes of tuning in AFN.  Rolling Stone Bassist Bill Wyman, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and guitarist Eric Clapton all said the music they tuned in to listen to on AFN radio in Europe was instrumental in shaping their musical interests and talents.  But AFN Television influencing rock ‘n’ roll?  Read on, read on.

It was 1977 and David Bowie was holed up in Berlin, Germany, producing a series of albums now known as the Berlin Trilogy (Low, Heroes and Lodger). He had moved there early in the year to kick his drug addiction and get clean. Iggy Pop came soon after at Bowie's invite because he too was trying to kick a drug habit, had broken apart his band The Stooges and was trying to put out his second solo album. Bowie had produced Pop's first solo album the year before in France and agreed to produce the second. They shared an apartment in the Dahlem area of Berlin, which also happened to be where AFN studios were located. As Bowie told Vogue Magazine in 2003, "It was like living in a timeless zone. No English to speak of except AFN.”  It was a four-mile straight shot down the street from AFN Berlin to Bowie's apartment. Travel another four miles and you hit the Berlin Wall.  Right next to it, about 150 meters back, was the famous "Hansa Studios,” commonly known as “Hansa by the Wall,” the recording studio where Bowie and Iggy spent most of their time. The line in the song Heroes (I can remember, standing by the wall, and the guns shot above our heads, and we kissed so nothing would fall) was inspired by Bowie looking out the window and seeing his co-producer, Tony Visconti, sneaking away with one of the backing vocalists and making out along the Berlin Wall with East German Guard Towers right above their heads.

Early on in 1977, Pop completed a mini tour for The Idiot and joined Bowie in Berlin. As Pop noted, Bowie was in an extremely productive state.  Low had already been released in January, and Bowie was already working on the second album in the Trilogy, Heroes. Bowie was full of ideas that didn't fit the theme or sound of his album. Most of those songs and sounds ended up on Pop's second album Lust for Life, an album written and produced in just eight days. As Iggy later said, "Bowie worked fast, really fast and I knew if I wanted to make it my album I had to keep up."

The two had developed a routine while living in Berlin. They had favorite cafes, clubs to watch live music for inspiration and even watched a little American TV, courtesy of an old school, over-the-air, AFN TV signal. As Iggy told "Q" magazine in 2013: "Once a week the American Forces Network would play Starsky & Hutch and watching it was our little ritual." As Iggy elaborated to the New York Times in 2016, "We were sitting on the floor waiting for the Armed (sic) Forces Network telecast of Starsky & Hutch. The network would broadcast an ID before the show, a representation of a radio tower with the signal shooting out going "Beep, beep, beep....beep, beep, beep, beep....beep, beep, beep in a rhythm that was like a Motown beat. David grabbed his son's ukulele laying nearby and repeats the riff, hacking out the beat. He wrote the chord progression and then says, ‘Call it Lust for Life,’ write something up!" The next day at Hansa, those staccato beeps of the AFN TV ID became the pounding drumbeat and guitar intro to a song now considered an iconic classic in rock ‘n’ roll. Most of the lyrics were improvised and made up live, 'on-the-fly' by Iggy. Rolling Stone placed the song at #147 in their top 500 Greatest Rock Songs of All Time. The song’s intro is so recognizable, Royal Caribbean used it for a series of commercials and Jim Rome uses it to open his sports talk show. The song was even featured in the movies Desperately Seeking Susan and Trainspotting and made its way onto The Simpsons and Rugrats.

So it was just ten seconds of a sound thousands and thousands of people heard while watching AFN TV in Berlin, Germany, every day for years on end, but it was the right ten seconds of inspiration played before the right musicians at just the right moment in their musical careers. Beep, beep, beep.

NOTE: The author, Rolla Suttmiller, has been a David Bowie fan since 1972.  Suttmiller served in the United States Air Force as an AFN broadcaster from 1983-2003.  Since 2006 she has worked as a DOD employee at the AFN Broadcast Center in Riverside, Calif., where she produces TV promos for upcoming shows.  Interested in listening to the song inspired by watching AFN TV?  Listen for yourself! Here's a link from Iggy Pop’s Official YouTube page.  Lust for Life Official Link. https://youtu.be/vYZ-n8L0AaI

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