AFTER THE WALLBreaking the Berlin Wall and Building the Artistic Legacy

Figure 1. The Berlin Wall.

“In English, there are many walls, but only one Wall.”

– Timothy Garton Ash

“The fall of the Berlin Wall: what it meant to be there.”

– The Guardian

The Berlin Wall had a tremendous impact even after it ceased to exist. A concrete wall with barbed wire and watch towers, ridden with contradictions: the Wall was a barrier dividing the country, and yet was one of the main subjects and source of artistic inspiration around the globe. The wall remains relevant in the arts even to this day. The legacy of the Wall is represented in many cultures and can be found in almost any form of art, such as graffiti, literature, cinema and music.

Graffiti culture in Berlin is commonly associated with the East Side Gallery, which became an open-air gallery after the Wall fell. Since then a total of 118 artists from 20 countries¹ have contributed to the art on the Wall including British artists Margaret Hunter and Peter Russel, who left their marks on the Wall in 1990.

As for ​literature and cinema, the Wall has inspired an increase in the popularity of spy novels among British authors. This provides insight (albeit from a romanticised, literary perspective) into the relations of various countries with Germany, particularly during the Cold War. Such novels include The Spy who came in from the Cold by John le Carré or Berlin Game by Len Deighton. Notable films include Cycling the frame (1988), starring  Scottish-born actress Tilda Swinton, which reflects on the “symbol of the Cold War” in West Berlin. and B-movie:Lust & Sound in West-Berlin (2015) which reveals what the music scene of West Berlin looked like in the 1980’s. The Wall also became an unparalleled source of inspiration for ​musicians too—well-known local record labels and clubs tried to mirror the reality of the Wall, thereby creating the unique, rather rebellious “Berlin-type” music.²

West Berlin – Music Paradise for Britons

British artists have always been attracted to Berlin for its liberal culture, its diverse and fragmented nature, and because Berlin was the epicenter of some of the most important historical events of the century. Throughout the 20th century and even to this day freedom of thought, expression and sexuality remain important elements of Berlin’s culture.

In the early 1980s recording studios in Berlin were teeming with Western punk music and the western part of the city became a “breath of fresh air” for the music industry. An extremely slow “British” pace of life and uncomfortable “peace of mind”³ inspired one of the most influential British musicians of all time, David Bowie, to boost his creativity in West Berlin. His musical contribution to the film Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (1978), along with his trilogy of albums “Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger” reveal his vision of Berlin as a “Weimar-era-inspired sanctum of transsexual decadance and artistic ferment”.⁴

Mark Reeder, a British musician, sound producer, the co-writer of B-movie, and an influential figure in the punk scene, was likewise captivated by West Berlin. Even though he worked in a vinyl shop, in the “musical epicentre” of Manchester, he shared exactly the same feelings of boredom of the UK, describing his hometown as “poor, ugly, dirty and desperate”. He got infected by the “German music disease” and went to West Berlin to discover more.⁵ West Berlin appeared to be even more friendly, welcoming and exciting than Reeder had expected. He enjoyed the intense atmosphere to the fullest, and his productivity as a musician and sound producer was at its peak in Berlin—he worked as a sound engineer for Malaria! and Die Toten Hosen, organised concerts and formed the rock band, Die Unbekannten. The island of West Berlin was totally different from the island of Great Britain, and the former had something that his home country lacked at that time—freedom, creativity and respect.

Figure 4. Kennedy in Berlin by Urlick Mack.

“It was the city of excess – there was not a single desire that this city couldn’t satisfy”⁶

Songs about Berlin before the fall of the Wall

West Berlin influenced British musicians, and the musicians influenced the city in turn. West Berlin helped shape career paths, and at the same time was being transformed into the artistic centre of the Western world. For example, “Heroes” by David Bowie, which became one of his most popular songs, was dedicated to the city. The dramatic story of this song unfolds right in the heart of West Berlin. This song became the musical symbol of the city, which is considered to be the impetus for the fall of the Wall.⁷ In fact, Bowie did intend to dedicate it to the appalling reality of divided Berlin which would become “an epic tale of lovers torn apart by the Berlin Wall”.⁸

“I can remember
Standing, by the wall
And the guns shot above our heads
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall.”⁹

The line of the song “We can be heroes, just for one day” is about a love story that was so dangerous for  the lovers that it could only last for one day. The storyline was “accidentally” inspired by Bowie’s record producer, Tony Visconti, who secretly kissed his lover (he was still married back then) in the shadow of the Wall:

A less romantic view of the city is presented by The Stranglers, in their song Bear cage, where they show their dissatisfaction with the capitalistic reality of West Berlin and being trapped in a so-called “Cage” of capitalism:

“I work hard, I’m saving my marks
They never told me what was the truth
Just a young man losing his youth
Sell cars, sell meat, selling anything
Save up just to live like a king.”¹⁰

Quite a positive image of the city, as compared to the previous songs, is depicted in the song by Fischer-Z called “Berlin”, released in 1981. Even though the Wall is still present and appears in one line (“The signed pictures of film stars who stayed here ​in eras that knew of no wall”), it is not central to the song. The focus of the song is instead on the vividness of the nightlife, on revolutionary thoughts, changing mentality and hope:

“Come they told me, down to the dark clubs at night
They’ll surprise you, the ones who are asleep when it’s light
Young faces new ideals, in search of paradise
They merge into the history, the theatre of memories
That make up the feel of Berlin.”¹¹

Camel’s representation of West Berlin in their song which was named after this part of the city matched its spirit of freedom of the mid-1980s:

“And I’m looking out over West Berlin
Feeling freer now than I’ve ever been.”¹²

Marillion’s song “Berlin” stands out because it was released right before the Wall fell and it has a very powerful message about the people who tried to escape over the Wall. It did not matter who you were and what you did—first you were “quick, and then [were] dead”:

The butcher, the baker, the munitions maker
The over achiever, the armistice breaker
The free-base instructor, the lightning conductor
The psycho, the sailor, the tanker, the tailor
The spotlight dancer
The quick and the dead.”¹³

The feeling of loss of those who were killed while trying to get to the other side of the Wall is also described:

“We wake up without you With a hole in our hearts.”¹⁴

Songs about Berlin after the fall of the Wall

Not only was the Wall itself reflected in the British music, some performers also emphasised the significance of the fallen Wall in their songs. One such example, is the 1994 song “A Great Day for Freedom” by one of the most influential rock-bands in Britain, Pink Floyd. They looked at the Wall in a broader sense, not just describing its fall, but the fall of communism as a regime in different countries, which they initially saw as a moment of liberation:

“On the day the wall came down
They threw the locks onto the ground
And with glasses high we raised a cry for freedom had arrived
On the day the wall came down.”¹⁵

As David Gilmour explains in his interview to The Sun magazine: That song is really about the aftermath [of the fall of the totalitarian state]. First, it was a joy and a release for the people with the freedom of democracy but then it became horribly marred by the ethnic cleansing and genocide, particularly in Yugoslavia.5

However, some songs did not reference the Wall, such as Robbie Williams’ b-side song “Berliner Star”, released in 2003. This catchy song depicts another kind of freedom—less political and more personal—the freedom of love, partying in Berlin, having a love affair with a German girl (Eva Friedel), and using substances together:

“Dear Eva Friedel
Got a brand new needle for you
You said weed was evil
So we smoked it in the lobby in the hotel foyer.”¹⁶

And then the short love story ends: “Eva tore my heart out I got wasted in action Auf Wiedersehen Berliner Star You rock like a bastard, plastered.”

A more recent representation of Berlin includes Bloc Party’s “Kreuzberg”. The music video starts by depicting the underground culture of Kreuzberg—the epicentre of social gatherings and bars in West Berlin. However, the main narrative of the song is a love story, where the Wall appears as the “obstacle” for the lovers, and is a symbol for narrator’s broken heart, which will never be “joined”, just like Berlin:

“There is a wall that runs
Right through me
Just like this city,
I will never be joined
What is this love?
Why can I never hold it?
Did it really run out
In those strangers’ bedrooms?”¹⁷

The famous admirer of Berlin, David Bowie, takes the listener yet again on a nostalgic tour around Berlin in his song “Where Are We Now?”. He is showing his retrospective vision of the city—what it looked like in the past, when he was living in West Berlin in 1970s up until 2013, when Bowie composed the song He speaks about the new opportunities that opened up after the Wall fell—he sings about taking a train from Potsdamer Platz, which “he never knew he could do”, since this simply had not been possible because of the Wall:

“Had to get the train
From Potsdamer platz
You never knew that
That I could do that
Just walking the dead
Sitting in the Dschungel
On Nürnberger Strasse
A man lost in time near
KaDeWe Just walking the dead.”¹⁸

It is worth mentioning Bowie’s lyrics about Bösebrücke—a bridge that served as a border between East and West Germany. His song mentions the 20,000 people who crossed the border on the 9th of November 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, hoping and trusting that the atrocities of the past would not come back to their lives:

“Twenty thousand people
Cross Bösebrücke
Fingers are crossed
Just in case.”¹⁹

The representation of Berlin in British songs when the Wall existed and after it was taken down is quite diverse. Numerous songs of the era use the Wall as a powerful symbol. But often it stands for completely contradictory things: on the one hand it is used to represent oppression and separation, or an obstacle; on the other hand it is used to denote hope for love, reunification and liberation.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city was portrayed as an escape from problems; as an “island” full of new hopes and ideas; as a place to secretly kiss your lover for the last time in front of the Wall. The city embodied the terrifying development of capitalism, as well as the effects of an oppressive political system.

As for the songs written or released after the Wall fell, it is notable that the wall still appears quite frequently in songs, as an obstacle tearing lovers apart or as a symbol of the communist regime. However, looking at David Bowie’s “Where are we now”, one can clearly see that the focus is no longer just on deprivation caused by the Wall, but also on the opportunities that were brought about when it was taken down.

https://www.eastsidegalleryberlin.de/en/ (last accessed 25.06.2020); Bader, Ingo, and Albert Scharenberg. “The Sound of Berlin: Subculture and the Global Music Industry.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 34.1 (2010): 76-91.82.; Bader, Ingo, and Albert Scharenberg. “The Sound of Berlin: Subculture and the Global Music Industry.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 34.1 (2010): 76-91.82; Ibid 43.; B-Movie – Lust & Sound in West-Berlin 1979-1989. Created by Jörg A. Hoppe, Klaus Maeck, Heiko Lange, 2015.; Ibid.; O’Grady, Siobhan. “Germany to David Bowie: Thank You for Helping to Bring Down the Berlin Wall”. Foreign Policy. 11.01. 2016. https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/01/11/germany-to-david-bowie-thank-you-for-helping-to-bring-down-the-berlin-wall/ (last accessed 20.06.2020); Seabrook, Thomas Jerome. Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town. London: Jawbone Press, 2008: 178.; 

Figure 1: The Berlin Wall © Wikimedia Commons
Figure 2: Himmel und Sucher by Peter Russell © Unsplash
Figure 3: My God, Help Me to Survive this Deadly Love © Dmitri Vrubel
Figure 4: Kennedy in Berlin © Ulrick Mack

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