It would be an wild exaggeration to suggest that David Bowie brought down the Berlin Wall, but 29 years ago this week, on June 7th, 1987, his concert in West Berlin did play a role in the monumental event two years later. He was just three shows into the European leg of the Glass Spiders tour and was booked at Platz der Republik as part of a three-day rock festival that also featured Genesis and the Eurythmics. The stage was right near the Berlin Wall, and the crowds of people in East Berlin gathered near to hear the music. It’s never been completely confirmed, but it’s been reported that some of the speakers were deliberately turned in the other direction in order to draw people in.
“It was one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever done,” Bowie said in 2003. “I was in tears. 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 could hear them cheering and singing from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart and I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again. It was so touching.”
Midway through the set he played his 1977 classic “Heroes,” which he wrote and recorded in West Berlin after watching his producer Tony Visconti kiss backup singer Antonia Maass near the Berlin Wall. “When we did ‘Heroes’ [at the 1987 Berlin concert] it felt anthemic, almost like a prayer,” he said. “I’ve never felt it like that again. That’s the town where it was written, and that’s the particular situation it was written about. It was just extraordinary. I was so drained after the show.”
Before playing the song that night, Bowie addressed the people of East Berlin listening through the Berlin Wall. “We send our best wishes to all of our friends who are on the other side of the wall,” he said. He didn’t realize at the time that some of those people were beaten by the authorities when they tried to get close. Over 200 East Berliners were arrested and many began changing, “The wall must fall!” and, “Gorby get us out!”
It was the first of many riots that escalated in intensity over the next two years, eventually leading to the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. All of that probably would have happened had Bowie not played that festival, but it quite possibly sped up the entire process.