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Culture

Echoes of the Wall, from Bowie to the Hoff

©

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2009-10-29

Its fall ushered in a “wind of change”, boosted Prince’s sex drive and inspired David Hasselhoff’s greatest feat. From Bowie to Rostropovich, we look at some of the musicians who found inspiration in the Berlin Wall.

The brick and concrete wall that once split the German capital in two has long been a favourite canvas for aspiring painters; so much so that it has been dubbed the world’s largest open-air art gallery. But the Berlin Wall has also been a popular theme – and venue – among musicians, from pop idols to soap stars. 

No sooner had US President John F. Kennedy, standing defiant by the freshly built Berlin Wall in 1963, famously declared all citizens of the free world “Berliners”, than the first songs about the wall began to appear. 

Heroes 

In the early 1960s, Milt Larsen teamed up with fellow US songwriter Richard Sherman – the man behind Mary Poppins’s "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" – to sing about the Berlin Wall in their popular satirical record album "Smash Flops"

Tales of love frustrated by the Berlin Wall have been a mainstay of the wall’s musical history. French songwriter Renaud explored the theme in his 1975 release “Greta”, named after an East Berliner unceremoniously dubbed “Gros tas” (fat lump), whom the narrator cannot reach because of the wall between them. Years later, Renaud would thank former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for letting the wall come down in his tribute song “Welcome Gorby”

In 1977, the wall again formed the backdrop to a love story in “Heroes”, one of David Bowie’s most celebrated hits. Only this time the lovers are lucky enough to stand on the same side of the wall, with shame lying “on the other side”. 

The maestro and the Hoff 

Bowie’s heroes kissed “as though nothing could fall”, but twelve years later the wall did of course come down, sending jubilant crowds shaking their hips to the tune of 1989’s biggest dance craze, the “Lambada”. New age pianist David Lanz released “Dancing on the Berlin Wall” in 1990, eight years after Canadian new wave band Rational Youth had come up with the same title for their first hit, a track heavily indebted to German synthpop pioneers Kraftwerk. 

With the snipers gone and the bricks crumbling, the “wall of shame” suddenly turned into one big open-air stage. 

In November 1989, Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich staged a memorable impromptu performance by the wall as the crowds were tearing it down. One month later, on New Year’s Eve, Baywatch and Knight Rider star David Hasselhoff climbed atop the partly demolished wall sporting an outrageous leather jacket complete with flashing light bulbs to sing “Looking for freedom”, a cover of a 1970s German hit, before hundreds of thousands of adoring East and West Berliners – a feat he later claimed had helped re-unite the two Germanys.

 

The Wall, live in Berlin 

The Hoff’s finest hour would soon be followed by a mammoth live performance of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” on barren land near the Brandenburg Gate, featuring a 170-metre-long and 25-metre-high wall that was demolished during the show. 

Though Pink Floyd’s concept album initially had precious little to do with the Berlin Wall – the idea stemmed from lead singer Roger Waters’s desire to build a wall between himself and the audience after spitting at a fan during a 1977 gig through sheer frustration –, the wall’s collapse presented Waters with a perfect setting for what had become his pet project. 

Waters, who by then had discarded Pink Floyd as a “spent force”, brought in a host of guest stars including Van Morrison, Sinead O’Connor and Germany’s own rock heroes Scorpions, whose famous ballad “Wind of change”, released the same year, captured the mood of those eventful months.


Soon after the euphoria there would be time for “Ostalgie”, the German word referring to nostalgia of East Germany, and many would start missing the wall. But Prince, for one, is still relishing its collapse. Two decades on, the iconic pop singer is still happily “knocking down the wall of Berlin”; nothing political in his case, just a byword for sex.

Date created : 2009-10-28

  • HISTORY

    The rise and fall of the Wall: a timeline

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  • 20TH ANNIVERSARY

    Rebuilding the wall - with giant dominoes

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