I must admit I have not listened to Pink Floyd’s The Wall in its entirety for nearly three decades until recently. However, in anticipation of our The Wall 35th anniversary celebrations, I duly dusted off my vinyl copy (I prefer the original UK pressing), plonked it onto the turntable, and I have played it straight through twice a day since.
The Wall is often regarded as an overblown solipsistic account of a poor rock star’s mid-life crisis (a theme revisited on the songwriter’s solo follow-up The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking). However, it also went platinum a whopping 23 times, having sold 11.5 million copies in America and an estimated 30 million worldwide, so it must be doing something right!
As a lyricist, Roger Waters has never been one to shy away from weighty topics as he illustrated with his exploration of mental illness, mortality, and the need for human empathy on The Dark Side of the Moon, his reflection upon the band’s emotional state after their stupendous success, the superficiality of the music biz, and the loss of their former bandleader Syd Barrett on Wish You Were Here, and the socio-political Animals, which unleashed an unveiled attack on humankind’s corruption of power loosely based upon George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
However, these three albums were not concept albums in the sense of The Who’s Tommy but rather albums based upon a specific theme. Like Tommy, The Wall is a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end (even if the finale alludes to the onset of a vicious cycle) and it is a true rock opera that tells a tale of self-imposed alienation.
Waters based the protagonist Pink upon what one may fairly on unfairly call his favourite topic (himself). The band had just come off a huge stadium tour on which the singer/bassist experienced a sense of loathing and contempt toward the audience. Their unwelcomed ‘singing along’ and unhinged gaiety ultimately resulted in Waters spitting in a fan’s face (perhaps he would have preferred the reverent atmosphere of one of our listening sessions). He fantasised about creating a wall between the band and the audience and used this as a springboard to build a story brick by metaphorical brick.
It is fascinating how a relatively private person like Waters is able to reveal his innermost fears and anxieties to the world through music. Mirroring his own life, Waters’ leading role is left with feelings of abandonment caused by the death of his father in World War II. He is traumatised by his dealings with authority figures such as an over-protective mother and abusive schoolteachers and in the ultimate act of defiance, becomes a rock star. The dark side of public celebrity and success rears its ugly head and Pink succumbs to drug use and infidelity and even has hallucinations of being a violent fascist.
Perhaps the remaining Floyd members were unsurprised by Waters’ dictatorial fantasies. During the recording of The Wall inter-band relations reached new lows that eventually brought about keyboardist Richard Wright’s departure (although he toured as a salaried musician and made more money than the proper band members, who had to subsidise the hefty costs).
Amusing and interesting stories surround the making of the The Wall, but ultimately it is the music that holds the most significance. Upon my first thorough listen since my teenage years, I was surprised at how much I remembered due to Gilmour’s indelible melodies and guitar solos, Water’s intriguing storyline, and the actual recording itself. Thirty-five years on it still makes for captivating listening.
Recorded: January-November 1979 (in France, UK and US)
Released: 30 November 1979
Produced by: Bob Ezrin, David Gilmour, James Guthrie, and Roger Waters