Every great moment in human history has a soundtrack, be it the cries of battle, Nero fiddling high above Rome or Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." As the world marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall Sunday, the music that springs to mind is the thrashy punk that populated venues from East Germany to West Berlin, but there was more to the movement than just pogoing and leather.
This playlist will take you on a brief tour of the music that emerged in response to the division of Germany into West and East. This is not a comprehensive overview, but is instead a survey of some of the most enduring songs to arise out of that era, accompanied by a cursory dive into the scene that brought them to fruition.
This short tour will not satisfy old Berliners who frequented The Pike and other venues in the mid-'80s, nor will music historians find it convincing. It's simply a quick introduction to the tunes that defined an age, a way to begin exploring the political, and not-so-political, that arose as the Berlin Wall stood, unaware of its inevitable collapse.
Here's a Spotify playlist of the tracks mentioned in this piece:
And below are links to play them individually on Spotify and YouTube, accompanied by blurbs examining the unique conditions that birthed each track:
1. "Neurotic Reaction" - This Die Anderen track was released in 1968, just seven years after the Berlin Wall was erected, and long before punk and metal were household words. But German frontman Gerd Müller's shrieking vocals and Italian guitarist Enrico Lombardi's visionary warbling combine with a driving drumline to demonstrate the prowess of a band of musicians that would go on to embody the struggles of Berlin Wall-era Germany. The band later morphed into the heavier band Apocalypse, the name under which Colossus Records released their first album, "Kannibal Komix," featuring "Neurotic Reaction," the group's psychedelic response to chaotic times in Deutschland.
2. "Berlin" - Global politics can be described as a mad opera, and so can Lou Reed's classic "Berlin" solo album. The title track kicks the whole affair off with a sultry mood piece about a rendevous with a lover in split Germany. "In Berlin, by the wall / You were five foot ten inches tall / It was very nice / Candlelight and Dubonnet on ice," Reed croons over tinkling piano keys, shedding his New York street machismo in the service of seduction in one of the most politically-charged cities in the world. Hitting record stores in 1973, the album was widely derided, with Rolling Stone calling it "patently offensive" and a "disaster" upon its release. By 2012, the magazine had changed its tune, dubbing "Berlin" the 344th-best album of all time. And with Reed's death last year, the piece takes on yet another level of heartbreak.
3. "The Passenger" - Iggy Pop is said to have written "The Passenger" while aboard the S-Bahn train in Berlin in or around 1977, when the wall had long been a terrible fact of life for Germans. Though he doesn't mention Berlin or the wall by name, the lyrics seem to dance around the subject, as Iggy Pop drawls about gazing out the train's "window so bright" at "the city's ripped backsides," lyrics he loosely based on a poem by Jim Morrison of the Doors. Iggy Pop lived with David Bowie in West Berlin's Kreuzberg borough for several years in the late seventies, hoping to escape the druggy haze that followed them around the states, and it is during this phase that "The Passenger" came to fruition. Featuring Bowie himself singing back-up on the chorus, the song underwent a revival in 1998, when it was released as a single after Toyota used it in an ad for its Avensis car.
4. "Holiday in the Sun" - The Sex Pistols' take on the Berlin Wall was characteristically hard to understand -- especially for people who weren't zonked on Birmingham heroin. But it stands as one of the more instantly recognizable legacies of the wall's impact on popular music culture, as 1977's iconic "Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols" continues to enthrall teens from Los Angeles to Liverpool. Telling the tale of an ill-advised vacation to the Berlin Wall, this track begins with the sounds of duck-stepping Nazi boots and drops choice punk poetry like "Sensurround sound in a two-inch wall / Well I was waiting for the communist call / I didn't ask for sunshine and I got World War Three / I'm looking over the wall and they're looking at me." It doesn't get much more rotten or vicious than this.
5. "A Great Day For Freedom": Any deep analysis of the pop music that was inspired by the Berlin Wall will eventually touch on Pink Floyd's efforts. The band's classic album "The Wall" was a concept album based on the Berlin Wall and its impacts, and the eponymous single "Another Brick in the Wall" is a pseudo-anarchist screed based on the 412th brick used in its construction. (Pink Floyd lyricist Roger Waters took some liberties with this line, as the Berlin Wall was actually built of thick concrete.) But "A Great Day For Freedom," a lesser-known Floyd track, is from 1994, years after the wall had fallen. The band had performed "The Wall" in Berlin in July 1990, and all the post-collapse euphoria had passed. The song is centered on the disappointment by the people of Germany after the falling of the Berlin Wall had not resulted in the utopia its opponents had hoped for.
"There was a wonderful moment of optimism when the Wall came down -- the release of Eastern Europe from the non-democratic side of the socialist system. But what they have now doesn't seem to be much better. Again, I'm fairly pessimistic about it all. I sort of wish and live in hope, but I tend to think that history moves at a much slower pace than we think it does. I feel that real change takes a long, long time," Floyd guitarist David Gilmour told Guitar World in 1994. The words remain true today, 25 years after the Berlin Wall was reduced to rubble.