The Wall: The spectacle of the century

In July 1990, one of the biggest rock concerts of the world, “The Wall”, took place on the former death strip between Brandenburger Tor and Leipziger Platz.

On the morning of 21st July 1990, Volker Ehlers travels from Bad Bramstedt in Schleswig-Holstein to Berlin. With a ticket for the concert “The Wall” in his pocket. The then 24-year-old fan of the band Pink Floyd does not want to be late at any cost. More than a hundred thousand people are expected to attend the rock festival, which is taking place at a historical place as it were. In the no-man’s land on the former border strip in the middle of Berlin, at Potsdamer Platz.

I had the feeling that everyone who was young wanted to go to Berlin on that day

These are crazy times after the opening of the Wall, the summer of anarchy. There are still two sovereign states, two Germanies, two Berlins; but the borders are open. Thousands pilgrimage from the East to the West and back every day. Two years previously, Ehlers had had to black out his “The Wall” sticker on his car by order of the GDR border guards, in order to be able to travel the transit route to Berlin. On this Saturday in July, there are no more checks, but traffic jams. They come from all over Europe, the USA and even Japan to see this legendary show. “I had the feeling that everyone who was young wanted to go to Berlin on that day”, Ehlers remembers. The concept album “The Wall” by Pink Floyd is about a young musician, Pink, oppressed by his environment, who builds an imaginary wall around him, isolates himself increasingly and transforms into a despotic, callous tyrant. At the end, he is sentenced by a tribunal to destroy this wall. The story and the songs largely originate from Roger Waters, leader of the band. The show is an onstage multimedia spectacle featuring a wall several metres high that is erected brick by brick first and demolished again at the end. After its premiere in Los Angeles in 1980, it visited only three other cities: London, New York and Dortmund. Due to its complex technology, a tour in the traditional sense was out of the question at the time.

Ten years later, Waters is eager to trump everything that has been seen before with a remake of his work. The apocalyptic metamorphosis of Pink was to take place in the very place where the most strictly guarded border had run through Europe only a few months prior. Notwithstanding that the story of Water’s hero has nothing to do with the divided city, the wall in the head nothing to do with the real one made of concrete. But is there any other place on Earth that has more symbolic power in the year 1990 than Berlin?

On the dusty grass between Brandenburger Tor and Potsdamer Straße, the largest stage that has been built thus far is created: 170 metres long and as wide as the motorway. More than 300 people have worked on its construction and special effects for four weeks. They have erected a wall of white styrofoam blocks, higher than a five-story building. No less than 59 TV stations broadcast the spectacle into the whole world.

“It was an indescribable feeling to stand on what was previously the death strip and to experience this concert. It was like I was hypnotised.”

“It was an indescribable feeling to stand on what was previously the death strip and to experience this concert. It was like I was hypnotised.” Claudia Kupferschmidt, “The Wall”-attendee from East Berlin.

Waters has meanwhile fallen out with his Pink Floyd band colleagues. He now commissions super stars, such as Van Morrison, Bryan Adams, Cyndi Lauper, the Skorpions and Ute Lemper for his sombre rock opera, however. At no pay, by the way, as the mega show operates as a charity concert for a global emergency relief trust fund.

From noon, fans occupy the entrances; stewards have to open the terrain prematurely. “It was incredibly hot and dusty, and there were way too few food and drink stalls”, Volker Ehlers who had travelled from Bad Bramstedt remembers. Towards evening time, more and more people who were unable to get tickets accumulate in front of the barriers that secure the concert grounds. Among them, East Berlin citizen Claudia Kupferschmidt, 21 years old at the time. She can hardly believe her luck when the stewards give in to the pressure by the masses and open the gates. The organisers sold 180,000 tickets. At the end, the number of people who will await the beginning of the show impatiently will have almost doubled.

On the second song, the sound fails

Spotlights circle the sky, a construction crane is moving an alien-like teacher puppet, whose spider-like hands reach over the styrofoam wall, while Cyndi Lauper screams out the lines of the popular anthem of disobedience: “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control”. “It was incredible”, Claudia Kupferschmidt remembers: “The music, these crazy cartoon sequences, the rattling rotors of the helicopters again and again in between; I just loved it.”

Volker Ehlers, on the other hand, is disappointed. On the second song, the sound fails completely. After a short time, the concert continues. The sound system, however, is unable to cover the whole terrain. “You could hardly hear anything”, Ehlers says. He shares this experience with several thousand visitors who did not stand directly in front of the stage. Still, Ehlers is happy to have been part of it: “The party atmosphere, the crowd of people from all over the world; it was just extremely special.”
On 15th and 16th June 2011, Roger Waters returned to Berlin for the 30-year anniversary of “The Wall”.

Text: Ulrike Schattenmann


the wall concert