In 1987, singer David Bowie played a concert in West Berlin, near the Reichstag. The performance was so loud, a massive crowd gathered on the East side of the nearby Berlin Wall to better hear his performance. He could hear the East Germans behind the Iron Curtain, singing along.
At the time, he didn’t know it would be the catalyst for the beginning of the end the city’s crushing divide.
The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 to keep East Berliners (and all East Germans) inside East Germany. It certainly wasn’t needed to keep Western citizens out. It quickly became a symbol of the Iron Curtain over Eastern Europe, the barrier between East and West that kept one side subject to the oppression of forced Communism and the other a burgeoning society of freedom and self-governance.
It was in Berlin where Bowie recorded his 1977 album, “Heroes,” a song about two lovers, one from East Berlin and one from the West. Living with punk legend Iggy Pop in the city’s Schöneberg neighborhood, Bowie could walk outside his door and see the tyranny and death that came with living in the heart of the Cold War. The song’s lyrics were so descriptive of the city’s plight, it became one of Berlin’s anthems:
I, I can remember (I remember)
Standing, by the wall (by the wall)
And the guns, shot above our heads (over our heads)
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall (nothing could fall)
And the shame, was on the other side
Oh we can beat them, forever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day
70,000 Germans attended the 1987 Concert for Berlin.
The artists spent years in Berlin recording his albums “Low” and “Lodger,” along with “Heroes.” Today, they’re referred to as Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy.” A decade after recording “Heroes,” Bowie returned to Berlin as part of the Concert for Berlin, a three-day festival held near the Reichstag, the seat of West Germany’s parliament. Nearby was the Brandenburg Gate and, running through it, the notorious Berlin Wall. The music, forbidden in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) rang out loudly in the West, and wafted over the wall.
Along with Bowie came Eurythmics, Genesis, and Bruce Hornsby. Thousands of East Berliners began to crowd the area near the gate, trying to get an earful as East German guards fought them back, dragging them away from the area and arresting the unruly. If they couldn’t listen near the wall, they could listen over the airwaves. The radio station Radio in the American Sector broadcast the concert in its entirety throughout the city, with the blessings of the artists and recording labels.
“It was like a double concert where the wall was the division,” Bowie told The Atlantic. “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. When we did ‘Heroes’ it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer.”
Eventually, the crowd broke into a full-on chant of, “the wall must fall!” and “Gorby, get us out!” When the concert ended on the third night, the East German police beat back the crowd with billy clubs. Even though Bowie headlined the second night, it’s believed his performance attracted more East Berliners to the wall the next night. It was the overreaction from the East Berlin police that turned so many residents against the regime. It completely changed the mood of the city, which would only be divided for two years longer before frustrations overwhelmed the wall.
“The title song of the ‘Heroes’ album is one of Bowie’s best-known works and became the hymn of our then-divided city and its yearning for freedom,” said Berlin Mayor Michael Müller. “With this song, Bowie has not only set musical standards, but also unmistakably expressed his attachment to our city.”
Bowie played Berlin again in 1989, after the wall fell and the city was united. His last show in Berlin was in 2004. When Bowie died in 2016, the German government officially thanked him for bringing the wall down and unifying a divided Germany.