John F. and the Gropiuslerchen: #FreiheitBerlin has an anthem
Summer 1987. A song rings out through West Berlin. And over “there,” in East Berlin, people are whistling the same melody: “Berlin, Berlin, dein Herz kennt keine Mauern” [“Berlin, Berlin, your heart knows no walls”] by John F. and the Gropiuslerchen. The story of a song that has been a part of this city for 30 years.
The story begins in 1986: The music publisher George Glück approaches a group of Kreuzberg musicians. His idea: Produce a song for the celebration of Berlin’s 750th year. The musicians, U.W.A. Heyder and Rainer Konstantin, are sitting in their studio and asking themselves: “Does the world still need a Berlin song?” The view of the Berlin Wall out of the window, however, gave Heyder an idea: He remembered famous speeches by politicians on both sides of the wall—they should get a chance to speak!
U.W.A. Heyder goes through the city’s archive and collects the famous speeches. Back in the studio, he quickly finds the structure of the song: Groove, bass, and politicians’ statements. A song that’s intended to play on the radio, however, needs a good refrain and a chorus. Heyder rehearses on the electric piano, repeating “Berlin, Berlin …” again and again. The initial inspiration, “Berlin, Berlin, lasst uns heute feiern,” [“Berlin, Berlin, let’s party now”] then becomes the earworm of today—“Berlin, Berlin dein Herz kennt keine Mauern” [“Berlin, Berlin, your heart knows no walls”]. Heyder contacts Bernhard Jahn, who at the time was famous for being the choir director of the “Gropiuslerchen.”
Bernhard Jahn rehearses the refrain with a group of girls from the choir. Heyder then finally records the song with eight of them. And producer Jens T. Troendle puts the final touches on the song in the studio with the band “Spliff.”
A rough start
In early 1987 it’s finally ready. Everything’s ready to go. But publishing comes to a standstill. “John F. and the Gropiuslerchen” can’t find a major label that wants to release the song: it’s too specialized, too innovative, has too much attitude, and is too provocative.
With Jörg Fukking—his Berlin indie label gave the then small Berlin band “Die Ärzte” their start—the musicians go about publishing on their own. Because there is no money for advertising, they put up posters themselves with the song line “Berlin, Berlin, dein Herz kennt keine Mauern” in a cloak-and-dagger operation before the release.
When the record finally makes its way into the music editorial offices of the Berlin broadcasters, nothing happens—at first. A few days later, however, the dam breaks with one radio premiere. “To my knowledge, the song first played on RIAS. A dedicated editor was able to convince the broadcaster that the title fit with the concept of the station,” says Heyder. Soon the song is also playing on Sender Freies Berlin (SFB). The private broadcasters follow suit until the song is played nationwide, in Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and even France.
More than a pop song
The political statement of the song is plain as day. “Berlin, Berlin …” is more than a pop song. Gorbachev's Glasnost and Perestroika are already starting to change things in the mid-1980s, when the song becomes a hit in 1987. Newspapers write about the song, the title is presented on the “Heute Journal,” on “Tagesschau,” and on “Tagesthemen.”
Even then, the song sums up the essence of Berlin—even before the city became an international symbol of freedom with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. “It was already clear to us at the time that such a monster construction like the Wall, which went through the middle of a city, couldn’t really survive,” says Heyder today. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Ronald Reagan’s words rang out on June 12, 1987 over the Wall and in the coming years things started happening very fast.
At the turning point of Berlin’s history
On the evening of November 9, 1989, U.W.A. Heyder is once again sitting in his studio in Kreuzberg, when a friend calls: “The Wall is gone!” the voice excitedly says on the other end. And on November 10, Heyder begins to collect current statements from politicians—Kohl and Genscher, Brandt and Momper—and fine-tunes a new version of the song. Five of the Gropiuslerchen stand in front of the camera of the ZDF-Hitparade on November 15, 1989. “Berlin, Berlin, dein Herz kennt keine Mauern” [“Berlin, Berlin, your heart knows no walls”] is no longer something that is felt to be true, but rather a reality.
With the new edition, John F. and the Gropiuslerchen even make onto the charts—for nine weeks. And while David Hasselhoff proclaims himself to be the soundtrack to unity with “Looking for Freedom” and hardly a TV retrospective on November 9, 1989 goes by without “Wind of Change,” whistled by Klaus Meine, “Berlin, Berlin, dein Herz kennt keine Mauern” [“Berlin, Berlin, your heart knows no walls”] becomes the unofficial Turnaround anthem of the citizens of Berlin. The ode to freedom and the knowledge of its importance for every Society.
It was already clear to us at the time that such a monster construction like the Wall, which went through the middle of a city, couldn’t really survive. (U.W.A. Heyder, musician)
30 Years of “Berlin, Berlin …”
In the coming years and decades “Berlin, Berlin …” is covered more and more. The version “Bonn, Bonn, Bonn,” appears in 1994, which satirizes greedy politicians. Shortly after the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall a compilation with newer versions follows with “Berlin, Berlin Remixes 2000.” For the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, the German cabaret artist Hans Werner Olm gives the song his own spin. He formulates his declaration of love to a Berlin in which every walk of life has its place. Olm raps awkwardly, but even this version is an ode to Berlin, the nightlife, the sports clubs, the people, and the many faces of the city. Even politicians have their say again—including Barack Obama and Klaus Wowereit—and once again the Gropiuslerchen sing the refrain: the choir members of the 2000 generation.
Three decades later, the song is still present. At a time when hard-won freedoms are at stake around the world, the #FreiheitBerlin initiative sets an example against political currents that seek to make walls between states and people once more an option. A version of the song “Berlin, Berlin ...,” written and sung by Robin Grubert, emphasizes that it’s the differences within a city that create a livable versatility.
Berlin stands for such diversity today internationally. And for a freedom that draws people from all over the world. U.W.A. Heyder still lives in Berlin and describes the city as an “urban melting pot of communication, bubbling ideas, taboo-free diversity of opinion, and experimental ways of living.” The moving words of his song line from 1987 apply now more than ever before: “Berlin, Berlin, dein Herz kennt keine Mauern” [“Berlin, Berlin, your heart knows no walls”].
Photos ©U.W.A. Heyder und Rainer Konstantin ©Berlin Partner