The idea to go to this came from one of those tacky ads in the back of the music press that do all-in packages to see big gigs on the continent, you know ‘See Madonna in Paris, luxury coach 4 star hotel and front row tickets included’ etc. I seem to remember my friend and I paid well over a ton each, a small fortune in those days of 3 quid an hour at the Cash & Carry, but we got 36 hours in a coach and 2 nights in a Ramada and our tickets for that. This was meant to be one of the largest concerts ever staged, and coupled with the political and social significance of going to East Berlin only a few months after the fall of the wall, the anticipation was immense, and the potential for ‘the greatest gig ever’ pretty high. It was definitely to be a serious road trip.
At Victoria Coach station were hundreds of Floyd fans all waiting for their rides. Dozens of air-conditioned, tinted-glass, luxury behemoths rumbled past on their way to Dover, a constant stream of luxury liners, as we waited for ours. When it finally turned up, it was the shittest coach out of all of them, and then some. I think the driver might have been so embarrassed about having to drive past the other bus drivers in what can only be described as a jalopy, he waited until almost all of them had gone. The theme tune from Steptoe & Son would have been entirely apt at this point, as the veteran rust-bucket juddered to a halt in front of its 40 odd shame-faced passengers.
Anyway, we loaded up and joined the procession of nice and shiny and safe looking coaches over the river, out through South East London and Kent-wards on the M2 and Dover. We had a top bunch on our coach, great atmosphere and met some really interesting people. Unsurprisingly, the VCR in the coach didn’t work, and the stereo was only audible to those that were fortunate enough to have a speaker right above their seat, but over the course of the next couple of days, we got through pretty much the entire Floyd back catalogue. I would estimate that half the people on the ferry we boarded were going to Berlin – it was such a stampede that I felt part of history, and we were still in British waters. This was going to be way better than David Hasselhof dancing on top of the wall and singing ‘I’ve been searching for freedom’ or whatever the fuck it was called. Every restaurant, bar and seating area was crammed with Floyd fans getting on the piss and getting (openly) stoned, it’s as though a small part of Glastonbury Festival had been transplanted into the English Channel.
Anyway fast forward 24 hours or so and we’re driving down the corridor through East Germany to Berlin. Well technically it wasn’t East Germany anymore, but it certainly looked a lot grimmer and greyer than the West had. There were T34 tanks all over the shop, some on display as war relics, but some definitely far from being stood down. As we approached Checkpoint Charlie it was abundantly clear that this was a communist country – lots of Soviet era statues and dismal grey concrete everywhere, and I swear the sun went in exactly as we crossed into the East. It’s not all grey tower blocks – we drove right past the Brandenberg Gate and some other fancy stone things adorned with eagles and the like, but it is mostly grey tower blocks. And then we were upon it, the wall itself. Turning a corner and pulling alongside the Berlin Wall for the first time has to be one of the most anti-climactic moments of my life – it’s flipping tiny. It can’t have been that difficult to climb over (watch towers with machine guns notwithstanding), and I must admit it was quite difficult to see how it divided a nation.
The coaches parked up and we walked for miles to get to Potsdamer Platz. There were a LOT of people, all marching towards the distant stage, framed by the massive cranes that would later suspend the giant inflatable teacher and judge. We walked and walked, through thousands of people lying out in the late afternoon sun, trying to get vaguely near enough to be able to see and hopefully hear the proceedings. By the time we had picked our way as far forward as we could, we were perhaps a quarter of the way back from the colossal stage, still some couple of hundred yards away.
There were a couple of hours to kill before the show started, so we just gawped and gawped at the swarms of people. There were 250,000 tickets sold, but another 100,000 were admitted free on top of that as the polizei attempted to avoid mass panic and crushings. That’s 350,000 people in a space the size of St James Park (total guess off the top of my head). Germans are a big lot generally, so even I had problems seeing the stage.
Anyway, to the music. There were three support acts – The Hooters, The Chieftans (feat. James Galway) and The Band. I was mildly interested in The Chieftans, but not in the rest of it, and consequently I remember nothing of any of them.
It was almost dark when the main attraction started. A massive video screen behind the stage played clips of the film, while local(ish) lads, The Scorpions took to the stage to massive cheers. They were to do ‘In The Flesh’ and it became immediately apparent that we would struggle to hear from where we were. The largely German crowd were shouting ‘louder’ (or is it Lauda?) in unison but it got no Lauda. We managed to get a little further forward, but it looked like we were definitely not going to need earplugs. Sinead O’Connor did ‘Mother’, Cyndi Lauper did ‘Another Brick pt ii’, and bizarrely enough, the best performance was Bryan Adams doing ‘Young Lust’. ‘Comfortably Numb’ was murdered by Van Morrison. The trial scene was great, the inflatable Judge and Teacher must have been 80ft high, and the rally scene, featuring a whole division of East German armoured vehicles rumbling across the stage would undoubtedly have been impressive too, had I, at a piffling 6’3”, been tall enough to see the stage. And then it was all over, and it has to go down as a bit of a let down really. It was just too far away to be that impressive, although I was totally overawed by the scale of it all, and the sheer mass of human beings. I’m quite sure I will never again be part of such a large crowd.
Footnote – we had a couple of hours to kill before the rendezvous with the jalopy, so we went for a walk in search of the real wall. We wandered aimlessly through dark backstreets thinking, this thing stretches the entire breadth of the city, so we surely must come across it eventually. Sure enough, we did, and this part of the wall was largely intact. We had (thankfully) ignored the dozens of East German hawkers selling chunks of ‘wall’ up to now, and we ignored the enterprising individuals hiring out hammers and pick axes. I still have a small piece of the Berlin Wall, broken off with my own (bare) hands. It’s the most important wall ever built, but at the end of the day, it’s just a bit of concrete covered in grafitti…