Tear Down This Wall: How Berlin Overcame Division And Changed Music

Transcending barriers and boasting the legendary Hansa Tonstudio, Germany’s capital city has birthed some of the most groundbreaking music in history.

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Berlin Wall
Photo: Stephen Jaffe/Getty Images

Berlin today barely resembles the city that was physically divided by the Berlin Wall. Nowadays, the newly-restored German capital is vibrant, outgoing, and future-embracing, but for almost 30 years – from August 13, 1961, to November 9, 1989 – it was physically and ideologically divided, with an actual concrete wall driving a wedge between capitalist West Berlin and communist East Berlin.

Standing by the wall

Berlin’s unique position on the edge of both worlds dated back to August 1945’s Treaty Of Potsdam: a political agreement between the victorious Allies Of World War II (the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia’s Soviet Union) that led to the military occupation and reconstruction of post-World War II Berlin.

As a result, the city’s western sector was occupied by the western Allies (the US, UK, and France) while Soviet forces controlled the city’s eastern sector. By 1949, the Russians had established East Berlin as the capital of the communist German Democratic Republic, even though the western Allies never officially recognized the GDR’s authority to govern in the East.

In layman’s terms, this meant that the relatively high standard of living for most people residing in affluent West Berlin contrasted starkly with the austerity forced upon citizens in East Berlin. Indeed, after hundreds of thousands of East Germans moved west during the late 50s and early 60s, the beleaguered GDR (in a move condemned – but not prohibited – by the western allies) eventually erected a wall to prevent the rest of the population from leaving.

Initially just marked out by primitive barbed wire when the GDR commenced construction during August 1961, the Berlin Wall was gradually built up to almost four meters in height and its defenses were further strengthened with the addition of everything from tank traps to land mines during the course of the structure’s lengthy history.

A thriving cultural scene

Yet, against the odds, this backdrop of Cold War-era deprivation and social division gave rise to a thriving underground cultural scene in the Berlin of the 60s and 70s, with the city spawning a new, radical breed of musicians (and, indeed, artists of all persuasions) who went on to blaze new trails in the same way that singular Berlin-based performers such as Marlene Dietrich, Berthold Brecht, and Kurt Weill did during the 20s and 30s.

For example, electronic music as we know it today would have been inconceivable without pioneering West Berlin outfit Tangerine Dream. First formed in 1967 by the indomitable Edgar Froese, the band’s early recordings, including 1972’s magnificent, glacial Zeit, played a pivotal role in the development of ambient music and the pioneering German experimental music that has been termed “krautrock”, while their legend-enshrining 70s albums for Virgin Records, such as Phaedra and Rubycon, utilized sequencers long before they were widely accepted elsewhere.

Berlin also looms large in Tangerine Dream’s catalog. Their 1986 live album, Pergamon, documents the night that they became the first “rock” band ever to play in the communist-controlled GDR, when they performed at East Berlin’s Palace Of The Republic, on January 31, 1980. Their landmark 1979 release, Force Majeure, was the result of sessions at Berlin’s legendary Hansa Tonstudio.

Hansa by the Wall

The roots of this famous recording complex are traceable back to 1962, when brothers Peter and Thomas Meisel formed Hansa Records (later responsible for European releases by Boney M, Iggy Pop, and more) in West Berlin’s Wilmersdorf district. Keen to build their own studio, the brothers first rented the former Ariola Records’ production facilities in West Berlin’s Köthener Straße in 1965 and eventually fitted it out as Hansa Tonstudio (aka “Hansa by the Wall”) in 1974.

Famed for its outstanding acoustics, Hansa established itself as a leading complex during the 70s when David Bowie and Brian Eno holed up in the studio to write and record significant parts of Bowie’s widely-hailed “Berlin Trilogy”: Low, “Heroes” and Lodger. Berlin itself was integral to Bowie’s radical change of lifestyle when he sought to eschew the pressures of fame in the US and begin a much simpler life in West Berlin’s Schöneberg district in 1976. Bowie’s close friend Iggy Pop shared his apartment in Hauptstraße during this period, with Bowie also playing a key role in the writing and production of Pop’s much-acclaimed solo albums The Idiot and Lust For Life (both from 1977).

Iggy Pop - Lust For Life

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Achtung, baby

During their time in Berlin, Bowie and Iggy were also regulars at one of the city’s most groundbreaking nightspots, the SO36 in Kreuzberg. Often referred to as Germany’s equivalent of New York’s legendary CBGB, the SO36 (which took its name from Kreuzberg’s local postcode) first opened its doors in 1978 and it continues to host shows by most of the world’s most significant punk and alt-rock acts. The club soon became the go-to Berlin venue of choice for bohemians, with London post-punks Killing Joke including a haunting track entitled “SO36” in honor of the venue on their self-titled 1980 debut album.

Berlin made a deep impression on Killing Joke, who later returned to Hansa Tonstudio to record their breakthrough album, Night Time, with Rolling Stones producer Chris Kimsey, in 1984. Indeed, both before and after the fall of the Wall, the esteemed studio has remained an in-demand facility. During the 80s, Hansa Tonstudio hot-housed landmark albums such as David Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees (1984) and Siouxsie & The BansheesTinderbox (1986), and it has continued to enhance careers ever since. In 1991, U2’s initial sessions at Hansa Ton helped shape their artistic reinvention with Achtung Baby, while Snow Patrol’s A Hundred Million Suns and R.E.M.’s 2011 swansong, Collapse Into Now, are just two of the notable titles bearing the studio’s stamp since the start of the 21st century.

U2 - Mysterious Ways (Official Music Video)

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Neue Deutsche Welle

Situated tantalizingly close to the Berlin Wall, Hansa Tonstudio produced era-defining records, but on the Wall’s eastern side, the strict communist regime frowned on artistic expression. Nevertheless, while East German talent was greatly compromised – lyrics had to be state-approved and performances were routinely monitored by the GDR’s notorious secret police (the Stasi) – several homegrown “Ostrock” (Eastern rock) bands from the 70s and 80s, such as The Phudys, Karat, and City, still built followings on both sides of the Wall.

East Berlin even sired several bona fide international stars. After her singer-songwriter stepfather Wolf Biermann’s citizenship was withdrawn in 1976, nascent punk star Nina Hagen followed him to Hamburg in West Germany, where she garnered critical and commercial success with her CBS-released debut album, Nina Hagen Band, in 1978. Hagen influenced the emerging “Neue Deutsche Welle” (German new wave) acts of the 80s, such as West Berlin acts DAF, Trio, and Neonbabies, but she wasn’t the only member of East Berlin’s small but vital punk community to achieve longevity. Future Rammstein members Paul Landers and Christian “Flake” Lorenz also cut their teeth with “Ostpunk” outfit Feeling B during the mid-80s.

“One of the most emotional performances I’ve done”

Several musical events in Berlin during the late 80s also contributed to the radical changes that lay ahead for the city. In June 1987, when David Bowie returned to play in Berlin, his show took place at the Reichstag. The venue was so close to the border that many East Berliners crowded along the Wall to listen to the forbidden western music wafting across the city, allowing the two halves of Berlin to hear the same show, divided yet almost together.

When Bowie took to the stage, he began by telling the crowd, in German, “We send our wishes to all our friends who are on the other side of the wall.” He later sang “Heroes”, a song he’d recorded in Berlin a decade earlier amid the city’s Cold War fear and violence.

“It was one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever done. I was in tears,” Bowie later recalled for Performing Songwriter. “We heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear, but there were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert where the wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again.”

“Tear down this wall”

Just a week after Bowie’s show, US President Ronald Reagan visited West Berlin and, standing in front of the city’s famous Brandenburg Gate, called on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Reagan’s speech, along with Bowie’s concert, helped change the mood around the wall, which by then had existed for more than a generation.

The following year, on July 19, 1988, Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band went one step further, playing Rocking The Wall, a live concert in East Berlin, which was attended by 300,000 people and broadcast on television. Springsteen spoke to the crowd in German, famously declaring: “I’m not here for or against any government. I’ve come to play rock’n’roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down.”

Early in 1989, East Germany’s longtime leader Erich Honecker ominously predicted that the Berlin Wall would still stand in 50 or 100 years, yet the fall of communism in neighboring countries Poland and Hungary that same year led to the East German state collapsing within a few short months. With Honecker resigning and his administration in tatters, the previously unthinkable became a reality when the Wall fell on November 9, 1989. As the news headlines said: “This is a historic day. The GDR has announced that starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone. The gates in the Wall stand open wide.”

Inevitably, music chronicled the subsequent changes in Berlin which led to German reunification by the summer of 1990. Though written a few years earlier, Marius Müller-Westernhagen’s song “Freiheit” (“Freedom”) became the unofficial anthem of reunification, while Scorpions’ signature power ballad “Wind Of Change” (also written prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall) topped the charts in Germany and across Europe, and peaked at No. 4 in the US. On July 21, 1990, meanwhile, ex-Pink Floyd mainstay Roger Waters staged a universally-acclaimed concert during which he performed the band’s 1979 album, The Wall, on vacant terrain between Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate – a location that had formerly been part of the “no man’s land” area of the Berlin Wall.

Scorpions - Wind Of Change (Official Music Video)

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A fresh eruption of creativity

If you were to compile a soundtrack to the tearing down of the Wall, however, techno and house music would dominate. The rise of the city’s near-mythical club culture began while the Wall was still in existence, in 1988, when the “godfathers” of the Berlin techno sound, Dr. Motte, Westbam, and Kid Paul, started playing all-night acid house raves at the basement-level Club UFO on Kreuzberg’s Köpenicker Straße.

Motte then hit upon the idea of taking the party to the street with a truck, loud beats, and a group of ravers. This event, dubbed the Loveparade, was born in 1989 and ran annually until 2003, peaking in 1999 when an estimated 1.5 million people joyously partied in the Berlin streets.

Far from creating an artistic vacuum, the fall of the Berlin Wall encouraged a fresh eruption of creativity which registered right across the sonic spectrum. Techno and electronic music have since played a big part in all this, thanks to the creation of the much-respected Berlin-based labels such as Tresor, BPitch Control, and Shitkatapult during the 90s.

Yet that’s only part of the story. Berlin’s punk, indie, and alt-rock bands, both old (Einstürzende Neubauten) and new (Beatsteaks, Wir Sind Helden), have since gained international recognition, while the 21st century has seen myriad genres make their mark on the city, ranging from downtempo to dancehall and homegrown hip-hop.

Decades after the fall of the notorious Wall, Berlin’s hunger for creativity is fed by an insatiable appetite for change and diversity that ensures this singular metropolis will forever remain in a league of its own.

Looking for more? Discover the most groundbreaking German musicians in history.

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