It was easily the most spectacular, ambitious, musical event ever staged, and for about half the 200,000 who crowded into Berlin’s sweeping Potzdamer Platz to see former Pink Floyd leader Roger Waters’ “The Wall,” the production was nothing short of dazzling.
For them, it was an emotional happening--rock turned mega-theater with a message of hope as big as the 80-foot-high sets, all in a place dripping with history and symbolism.
They floated home.
But for the hapless remainder, either stuck behind speakers that weren’t working, or else trying to take in a video relay running up to a full second out of sync with the sound, it was an over-priced fireworks show with a few whiffs of music thrown in.
They might as well have been in Philadelphia.
For many of those stuck a couple of hundred yards back from the stage (that’s an eighth of a mile, by the way), the only sounds they wanted to applaud were the chants of “louder, louder” from frustrated people who had forked out the equivalent of $30 and were getting little for it.
For them, the only hope is to join that part of the estimated 1 billion global television audience that will eventually see a taped version of the event.
(According to present plans, Americans will see the concert as part of an early fall network offering.)
Despite these snafus, the sheer power of Saturday’s performance of “The Wall” catapulted rock music into a new social dimension.
Above all, that will be its legacy.
In the London Live Aid and Nelson Mandela concerts, modern music became a vehicle for heightening social consciousness and generating money to right terrible wrongs.
“The Wall” continued this tradition, launching an equally worthy charity--the Memorial Fund for Disaster Relief--on its billion-dollar way.
But it also did more than that.
For “The Wall” was not just a gathering of sensational acts strutting their stuff for a good cause.
It was a production, with a beginning, a middle, an end and a message to tear down the walls that divide individuals, all staged in what was until eight months ago 35 acres of no-man’s-land behind a real wall, the Berlin Wall, that separated East from West for nearly three decades.
Instead of watchtowers with armed guards watching over a 200-yard wide “death strip,” there were new towers, with stage spotlights.
And for the first time since the words East and West became political terms, Waters filled this no-man’s-land with a sea of people from both sides, and the image of this, like the production itself, probably will be captured far more effectively by television.
In a very real way, with Saturday’s concert Waters finished work begun by the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson and U2, who all performed near the Berlin Wall so those locked into the East could hear, even if they couldn’t come.
Indeed, it was the U2 concert a few years ago that first rang alarm bells within East Germany’s then-decaying Communist regime as crowds of youths, who had come near the wall to listen, fought police and chanted anti-government slogans in what was then an unprecedented display of dissent.
Half of Saturday’s concert-goers may have been disappointed, but the chances are that the majority of the 1 billion TV viewers will not.
For those who could see and hear, it was a superlative affair.
“There was a special feeling there,” said Timothy Morton, an American in his mid-20s who had planned his European vacation around the concert and was near the front of the crowd. “People were thinking about what was happening on stage, really thinking about it. I never expected that.”
Added Leonard Cheshire, who heads the disaster relief fund: “It was unbelievable. I felt the audience had a sense of history, that it was more than just a concert. It was in Potzdamer Platz--an historic place and an historic time.”
The building and smashing of the massive, 550-foot-long wall (which doubled as the world’s biggest projection screen for a mixture of clever computer graphics and disturbing war footage), the sinister 40-to-50-foot-high puppets looming over the wall, Waters’ own arrival in a white stretch Cadillac with a Hell’s Angels escort, the appearance of a Soviet military band, the breathtaking lighting and other special effects plus the fireworks finale all set “The Wall” apart as such a one-of-a-kind production so unique that it overwhelmed many of those performing.
“I was so scared I was crying before I went out there,” said Cyndi Lauper, who did the second of three versions of the show’s best-known song, “Another Brick in the Wall.” “I’ve never done anything like this before.”
Paul Carrack, who followed with “Hey You” to start the second act, had a similar reaction.
“I usually don’t get nervous, but I was scared stiff,” he admitted.
Even Mick Worwood, who conceived and produced the show, described himself as “numbed to see it all finally happening.”
For much of the evening, it was a visual rather than musical spectacle.
Guitarists Snowy White and Rick DeFonzo helped push the music back into the forefront with solos in “Comfortably Numb,” while a bundle of talent, including Joni Mitchell, Sinead O’Connor, Bryan Adams, Van Morrison and Carrack gave the concert its emotional, upbeat finale, “The Tide Is Turning"--performed amid the wall’s wreckage.
“This was no celebrity parade, it was a theatrical event, it was rock opera,” said Robin Merrill, a popular deejay for the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS), which transmits in Berlin. “ ‘The Wall’ was written over 10 years ago, but it’s still valid, it’s a helluva thing.”
But if Waters produced some dazzling special effects and extended the social dimensions of his art, the technical problems may have helped define its limits.
Giving a crowd of 200,000 its money’s worth at a concert may simply be asking too much, even of the most modern technology.
The show also skidded to a halt briefly when a rack of circuit breakers blew after the opening number, and sound from Friday’s dress rehearsal was substituted.
“We lost about three tunes,” said a clearly exhausted Waters after the performance. “It was a one-in-a-million thing.”
A perfectionist by reputation, Waters described himself as “deflated and depressed about the way things went. I’m sorry for the crew because they worked so hard to make it go right.”
He indicated his desire to see the production done without flaws had already started him thinking about mulling the prospects of doing “The Wall” again.
“I don’t know, we’ll see,” he said. “I’d certainly like to get through it without the problems.”