Saturday 28 March 2020


One person I always hope is able to help out on these projects is Niggels Uhlenbruch from Munster. If I want a definitive view on how big Depeche Mode were in Germany at any time in history, Niggels is the man I go to. For this month's project, he's written this incredible blog about the way Depeche were viewed in both East and West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall and then how their music became the soundtrack to reunification. It is a captivating read and I know that everyone will love this. Thank you Niggels.

Big in Japan, erm, Germany

1990 was a crucial year for Germany: It was the year of the reunion of East and West Germany, and Depeche Mode's Violator was released.

Well, I'm not trying to say that both events were on the same historic level in general terms, of course. And it is very obviously an over-simplification. But if you ask an East-German DM fan (the term “devotee” didn't exist back then, for reasons you should know) there is a good chance that he or she will say that the fall of the wall and the release of Violator and all things around it, in particular the tour, were BOTH life-changing events. And they were more intertwined than you might guess. 

The years 1989 and 1990 were certainly very interesting and exciting times for Germany! On November 9th, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down and marked the beginning of the end of the cold war. Almost the entire year of 1990 was dominated by a somewhat rushed but peaceful reunification process of the two German states, the Federal Republic of Germany in the west and the German Democratic Republic in the east. This process culminated in the German unity on October 3rd, 1990.

It was the turn of an era not only for Germany but for the entire world, as the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the cold war. Just as much as Violator was the turn of an era for Depeche Mode and their fans in their little depechey world - a world which was not so little anymore! Depeche Mode turned global super stars in the years 1987 to 1990, they broke the US market with Music For The Masses, became an unlikely stadium act with 101, and the immense success of Violator catapulted them even higher to global superstardom. But you all know this already in detail as you surely read every blog article here this month, right? In the decade prior the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, Depeche Mode grew from cold war kids to a glitzy superstars worldwide. All of a sudden, seemingly, Depeche Mode were the biggest act around! 

In some places, however, DM had been superstars for a number of years already, and Germany was certainly one of these. Depeche had solid success here in their early years and with People Are People they hit the No. 1 spot in the German singles chart, making them a teenage sensation and a high-grossing live act. People Are People remained their only number one in Germany for a long time (until Dream On in 2001, in fact) but the overall popularity of DM increased from year to year and from album to album. The success of Violator in 1990 might have seemed like a sudden explosion in some other parts of the world but in Germany it was the result of long and kinda unstoppable process. That the band chose to premier Enjoy The Silence months ahead if its release at a rather odd German TV show is quite telling! It was “Peters Pop-Show”, an annual media event with lots of acts lipsyncing to playback, which was recorded at the huge Westfalenhalle in Dortmund November 17th, 1989, and aired on December, 2nd. If you want to get an idea how big DM already were in Germany at that time then just rewatch the performance:

Mind you, this was not a pure DM crowd but a 15,000 capacity venue with people coming to see a variety of artists, from Janet Jackson to Tina Turner and from Bonfire to, oh dear, the inevitable Mr Hasselhoff. Interestingly Erasure and Camouflage were also on the bill, so some synth pop fans certainly ventured to witness the playback charade on location. Smile, you're on TV now!

Attending “Peters Pop-Show” never came to my mind back then, even though I didn't live too far away from Dortmund, but I just had started my own little adventure by reaching out to the east of our country, at first by finding penpals in the still existing GDR. Just weeks ago this would have been near impossible but now it was easy. Just grab a teen magazine like Bravo or Pop Rocky and check the penpal section. Or, as in my case, the New Life Soundmagazine, a mag that did have its name for a reason as it started as a Swiss DM fanzine and evolved into an underground music mag covering all sorts of electronic music and New Wave. So I found a few penpals from East Germany pretty quickly (their hunger for new contacts and new experiences was quite palpable!) and of course all of my penpals were also DM fans! You need something to write about, right? And back then the only things I would write about other than Depeche Mode were Front 242, Nitzer Ebb, and Skinny Puppy.

Grey sky over a black town

In spring 1990 it was about time to see East Germany myself instead of just reading about it. So I followed the invitation of a guy from Dresden, with whom the exchange of letters was particularly dilligent and who also ran a local fan club, to come over and attend with him a Depeche Mode convention in nearby Meißen, on the doorsteps of Dresden. After a long train ride, and the weird experience of the infamously smelly wagons of the East-German Reichsbahn, I arrived in Dresden. And in a completely different world which almost felt like another planet! Dresden is certainly a beautiful city but many houses were just down-and-out and in a pitiful state after decades of neglect and lack of investments. The whole city felt grey to me as there were no neon lights, no outdoor advertising, no colourful shops and bars trying to attract customers. Just the grey reality of a socialist state! I actually liked it.

Depeche Mode live in East Berlin, 17 March 1988 - picture courtesy of Depeche Mode Classic Photos and Videos Facebook Group

My penpal Karsten picked me up at the rain station and soon I met his friends. All of them DM fans, of course! I was used to most people at my age being also fans, unless they weren't metalheads or rather into rivals U2, but in East Germany it was a different scale! You could write entire books about the fandom in the former GDR, and some people did, but suffice to say that being a Depeche Mode fan was a complete youth culture of its own! Like being a Punk or being part of the Goth subculture. A particular eye-opener was when we headed to the train station on Saturday to travel to Meißen. We received the news that the Depeche Mode convention, which was planned as an open air [sic!] event, was cancelled because of the heavy rains. As we were at the train staion already we waited for the local train from Meißen to come for some trains, and when the train opened its doors it cast a mass of black-clad DM fans! I had never seen so many DM fans outside a DM gig, and even at the band's shows I never before saw so many Dave- and Martin-lookalikes like on this Saturday in Dresden! Later we went to a youth club were the DJ (rather a CJ as he played cassettes!) played about 50 % Depeche tunes. I asked Karsten if it was because of the cancelled DM convention and the fact that so many DM fans were at the youth club. Simple answer was “No, it's the usual Saturday night programme here!

The grabbing hands grab all they can

Depeche Mode were really big in West Germany but it was actually no comparison to the massive fandom in the old GDR. East Germany seemed like Depeche Mode wonderland to me, and the DIY culture there was pretty awe-inspiring. Fans over there couldn't simply go to a store to buy records or clothes to dress like their heroes, they had to improvise with the stuff they had at hand and make it all by themselves, from patches and accessoires to shirts and leather jackets. And the music was traded on tapes as you couldn't buy it anywhere, except for the Greatest Hits released on state-owned record label Amiga in 1987.

Depeche Mode Greatest Hits on East German label Amiga

So there was an entire country packed with fans hungry to get their hands on anything DM related, now that the wall and strict censorship no longer kept them from Western sources. There was just one little problem: East and West were still separate nations, with different currencies! And with the “Mark der DDR” of the ruined socialist state you could buy fuck-all elsewhere. The so-called “Währungsunion”, when West Germany's Deutsche Mark was introduced to East-Germany as the official currency, didn't happen before July 1st, 1990 as the first major step towards the reunification. Not too big a problem for your record buying plans, I guess, as you just had to be a little more patient. But a bloody BIG problem if you want to grab the first real chance to see your favourite band live for the first time! Sure, there was the legendary DM gig in East-Berlin in March 1988, but the audience was handpicked from the FDJ youth organisation and officials went great lengths to hide the fact that DM would be playing as long as they could and masked the event as a special birthday celebration of th FDJ. The officials indeed feared riots if it was made public that DM play in East-Berlin, and quite rightly so - there were riots, as the word made its rounds anyway!

So World Violation was the first actual chance for any East-German fan to see the Mode live. The problem was, that the presales started in spring, months ahead of the “Währungsunion”, and as you might guess all dates were sold out in no time! No chance for folks who had only “Mark der DDR” in their wallets... When Depeche's tour finally came to Germany in autumn 1990 the black market simply exploded as many, many fans from East Germany came anyway to see if they have a chance to get a ticket. No matter if it was in Hannover, Frankfurt, Hamburg or Dortmund, you always see sheer masses of East German fans in front of the venue. Some with happy faces as they could get hold of a ticket, some still looking for one. Prices went sky-high, easily five or six times of face value and often even more, and if you dared to hold up a ticket in front of the arena you would find yourself in a knot of people, each and everyone trying to overbid the others. There was a sense of hysteria in the air, and this surely translated to the gigs - as if they weren't hysteric enough already!

So the eleven months of the German reunification, from the Fall of the Wall in November 1989 to the actual reunion in October 1990, were all the more exciting for German fans. Of course for those from the east, in particular. Violator delivered their soundtrack of the German reunion, and it is indeed interesting that the band's releases around Violator marked Germany's turn of an era like landmarks. Personal Jesus was released in August 1989, stayed in the German charts for 27 weeks and was one of the big hits through autumn 1989, when the East German protests against the regime turned into a mass phenomenon. The last single off the album, World In My Eyes, was released on September 17th, 1990, shortly before the German Unity Day on October 3rd. All four singles from the album, which of course include Enjoy The Silence (missing the lead in the charts just by a margin as Sinéad O’Connor's Nothing Compares 2 U refused to leave the No. 1 spot) and Policy Of Truth, were top 10 hits in Germany. David Hasselhoff will probably cry tears of disappointment but Depeche Mode were pretty much the “fall of the wall act” for many Germans rather than the former “Baywatch” star. His performance at the wall was nothing more than a publicity stunt and took place months after the actual fall of the wall - on new year's eve, to be precise. And some people were actually throwing stuff at him! There's a YouTube video as proof:

The Hoff, however, lends himself much more to a running gag than Depeche, so we Germans love to fuel the urban myth that The Hoff brought down the wall all by himself by singing “Looking For Freedom”. Apparently he started to believe the myth himself at some point, so please don't show him this blog! 

Show it to everyone else instead. ;-)

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