14. The Wall – Pink Floyd 1987-
I’ve been spending a bit of time with Roger Waters lately. I won’t lie, he’s not what you’d describe as a “fun guy”. He won’t be put in charge of the children’s entertainment at my daughter’s next birthday* and you can scarcely send him out for a pint of milk without him writing an allegorical concept album about it. “Milking Them Dry” – the story of Daisy, a beautiful friesian that feels alienated from the rest of the herd following the loss of her father in the Second World War and plots revolution against the farmer’s oppressive yoke . Working song titles: “Milking It (Full Fat)”, “Escape (curds and a-whey)”, “Milking It reprise (Semi-Skimmed)”. It’s a sprawling double album and he looked cross when I suggested he could edit it down and release it as “Condensed Milk”.
So we don’t share many laughs, Roger and I, but I still like him. He’s interesting, makes me think, and he’s got a healthy suspicion of authority that appeals to me. He’s compassionate too, underneath that slightly prickly exterior. You have to let him be in charge though. Can’t even tell you what happened when I tried to take the TV remote off him.**
There are a few scenes I like to imagine happened between 1978 and 1980. In one of them Jimmy Carter doesn’t go out jogging, the Iranian hostage crisis doesn’t take 444 days to resolve, and Ronald Reagan remains frozen in memory purely as an actor. That one, though, isn’t entirely relevant to the song at hand. Fragments from the ones that are pertinent might sound something like this.
The members of Pink Floyd reconvene at Brittania Row Studios to discuss working on the follow up to Animals. They’re running out of money after a series of ill advised financial ventures and about to incur a huge tax bill.
Dave Gilmour: We need to record an album… I know the last tour wasn’t much fun but I can’t see another way…
Nick Mason: Has anyone got anything ?
Rick Wright: Perhaps we can get back to the more atmospheric stuff – more textural, modulations. A little softer than Animals.
Dave Gilmour: Yes, yes, I think that could really work
Roger Waters: I’ve got something.
Nick Mason: Great, Roger, let’s hear it.
Roger Waters: Well… it’s a twenty six song concept album about personal isolation, dealing with traumatic loss in childhood, which rails against institutionalisation and the abuse of authority. There’s some secondary themes about seeking personal annihilation through substance dependency but I just included that to lighten things up. It ends with every important authority figure from my formative years putting my psyche on trial as I struggle to hold on to my sanity.
Dave Gilmour: Erm…
Roger Waters: Hang on… there’s more. When we tour it we’ll physically build an enormous wall on stage so that no one can see us. It’ll be a powerful statement about the separation between artists and their audience.
Rick Wright: Are you sure about this Roger ? It sounds quite personal. Maybe it’d be better suited to a solo album…
Executives from EMI, Floyd’s record label at the time, gather to hear a first playback of the album. One of them (let’s call him Exec number 1) is on the phone to the CEO who’s awaiting their verdict.
CEO: How’s it sounding guys ? You know I don’t wanna hear that stuff about pigs taking over the farm again.
Exec 1: I think it was sheep boss.
CEO: Pigs, sheep… it’s all pretentious crap to me son.
Exec 1: I think it was that peculiarly British sense of satire boss – you know, tracing the lineage from That Was The Week That Was, Orwell, all that stuff.
CEO: Like I said son, crap. Now please tell me this is sounding like Wish You Were Here. Not that “Have A Cigar” song though. What the hell was all that about ?
Exec 1: I have no idea boss. Okay, the playback’s starting…
There’s a pause as “In The Flesh ?” begins…
CEO: Talk to me guys !
Exec 1: It sounds great boss – like a straightforward rock album. You’ll love it.
CEO: What’s that sound in the background ? It sounds like World War 2 kicking off in there. Is that a plane dive bombing your building ?
Exec 1: Er…it’s on the record boss. I think Roger’s working through some of his feelings about the loss of his father in the war…
CEO: This is what I was talking about. I don’t want that shit. No one wants that dark stuff anymore. What’s it called ?
Exec 1: The Wall.
CEO: The Wall ? No one wants that. Jackson did “Off The Wall”. Off the wall is cool. Even “on the wall” might be okay. Over the wall. Work with me here. No one wants the actual wall.
Exec 1: Boss, there’s a song about kids not liking school – it’s kinda catchy.
CEO: Okay, we can maybe salvage something out of that…
A suburban dinner party in late 1979***
Margot: Jerry ! Jerry, would you decant that Blue Nun please darling. Tom and Barbara will be here soon.
Jerry: Yes Margot, it’s under control.
Margot: Can you put on some music too. Something suitable, you know I don’t really like your records Jerry.
Jerry: I know Margot. What about that Pink Floyd ?
Margot: Oh if you must. Not the one about the donkeys or whatever it was please Jerry. One of those relaxing ones.
Jerry: Don’t worry, it’s the new one… I expect Tom and Barbara will love it.
Margot: Yes. That’s what I’m afraid of.
Much to the relief of EMI and the band “The Wall” was actually a huge commercial success, currently tracking upwards of 30 million sales worldwide. Much like The Who’s “Quadrophenia” and “Tommy” – its distant rock opera cousins – it also spawned a film adaption, a distinctly gloomy dystopian affair starring Bob Geldof. It’s not much of a date movie. It’s also not much of a dinner party album; sorry Margot.
What it is though is a hugely ambitious piece of work. It’s a record I must have had during my formative years (which may explain a lot…), initially hearing about a third of it on a home-taping-is-killing-music cassette that my Dad had before later discovering that the record didn’t abruptly end midway through “Another Brick In The Wall pt 3” but actually had another hour to run. It’s a record that particularly appealed to my teenage self – it was about something and seemed important even if you weren’t quite sure what. I guess, for me, it was probably the nearest equivalent to mooching around Parisian cafes and ostentatiously reading Camus or Sartre. There weren’t many Parisian cafes in Plymouth or Bristol. In those days there wasn’t even a Costa. Now that’s dystopia.
So, despite being a record that’s fundamentally about personal alienation, it’s not one that especially resonates with me of late or during periods in my life when I’ve felt down. It’s just one that I find really interesting, it largely appeals to my intellect rather than my heart. I always find something new in it, always think I’ve uncovered a little more of the puzzle that Waters has put together. I still can’t decide if it’s not half as clever as it thinks it is or much cleverer than I’ve ever given it credit for. As previously stated it’s certainly ambitious – taking on an apparently autobiographical view of Waters’ childhood, facing in to feelings of abandonment after the loss of his father, and tackling his increasing sense of isolation. All via an elaborate metaphorical construct – the wall – which he builds around himself to cut himself off from everyone around him. In case that wasn’t enough there’s also a tranche of stuff (which was extended in the film and, latterly, in “The Final Cut”, Waters’ final album with Floyd) exploring the dangers of totalitarianism and the horrors of war. It’s consciously not lightweight.
I’ve dwelt on Roger Waters thus far (perhaps a little unfairly – Roger, if you’re reading this, it was all meant affectionately) and it’s hard not to listening to late period Floyd. He was undoubtedly the principal driving force in the band by the end and ultimately it broke the group apart until Gilmour picked up the pieces and released “A Momentary Lapse Of Reason”. It’s a great shame that the group lost its capacity to collaborate as, odd songs apart, the final two Floyd albums, for me, lack some of the darkness, some of the bite, that Waters brought to the party whilst his own solo output lacks the musicality of the best Floyd records. They were better together. The best moments on The Wall highlight this too. It’s often (and I’ve largely done it here too) thought of as very much Waters’ album but Gilmour’s contribution in particular is immense. Whilst he only gets a writing credit on three songs – “Young Lust”, “Comfortably Numb”, and “Run Like Hell” – his guitar playing is absolutely phenomenal throughout, culminating in “Comfortably Numb” and the solo to end all solos.
There are a few guitar solos I know by heart. Not to play, clearly, but I can hear them whenever I want in my head, every inflection, every note. “Comfortably Numb” is top of that pile. It’s not fast, not especially showy, and there aren’t actually that many notes but it’s huge: epic. We should reclaim the word epic specifically for this guitar solo. I don’t think anyone balances tone quite like Gilmour, those squalling slabs of noise, like being buffeted in the wind, and pure, clean high notes. Few guitarists have his capacity for space either; he understands when not to play or when to leave a gap. His sound on that solo is enormous; I had a vision of him standing in a warehouse in front of a monstrous array of Marshalls blasting it out but a quick search seems to suggest that he doesn’t use a Marshall, gets all of his distortion from pedals, and prefers to record via a small amp in a small room. So, just shows how much I know…
Musically, in many respects, “The Wall” is fairly straightforward by Pink Floyd standards. It’s largely a rock album and most of the songs – albeit they knit together – clock in around the three or four minute mark. It even contains a “hit” – the education establishment bashing “Another Brick In The Wall pt 2”. It’s interspersed with snippets of dialogue and snatches of voices from Waters’ imagined past (“how can you have any pudding, if you don’t eat your meat ?”) but it’s far less experimental than the albums that preceded it. This may be just as well given that the overall concept and lyrical concerns are so grandiose – hanging those ideas on music any more complex and the whole thing might have just collapsed.
Lyrically it’s great and Waters expresses his main themes through a range of voices, principally via his gestalt character Pink whose story “The Wall” tells – it’s a device that puts a little (but frankly only a little) distance between Waters himself and the lyrics. Through Pink we get a frightened child looking to his mother for protection, a process that starts the construction of the wall (“Mother did it need to be so high ?”), the failed husband (“day after day, love turns grey, like the skin of a dying man”), the rock star (“I am just a new boy, stranger in this town, where are all the good times, who’s gonna show this stranger around ?”), and, slowly, the lonely, broken man driven to the brink of insanity (“I’ve got wild staring eyes, and I’ve got a strong urge to fly… but I’ve got nowhere to fly to”). Alongside that we also get the cast of supporting characters – his mother, the school master, a groupie, and then various nightmarish, hallucinatory voices from within Pink’s / Waters’ damaged self. It ultimately culminates in the freakish spectacle of “The Trial” in which Pink’s derangement is such that he imagines various key figures from his past putting him on trial to answer the charge of showing feelings – to which he can only plead “crazy, crazy, toys in the attic… I am crazy”. He’s found guilty and the wall is ordered torn down: he must face the outside world again.
The album closes on a curiously ambiguous note with final track “Outside The Wall”. A plaintiff clarinet picks out a gentle melody and Waters sings the following lines, each one echoed by a supporting choir, almost murmured in the background:
All alone, or in twos,
The ones who really love you walk up and down outside the wall.
Some hand in hand and some gathered together in bands.
The bleeding hearts and artists make their stand.
And when they’ve given you their all
Some stagger and fall:
After all it’s not easy banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall
It’s never explained what happens to Pink. The inference in the song is clear – there are people who will love you (and, in this instance, potentially save you) but you have to be prepared to let them in and they won’t wait around forever – but whether Pink manages to escape his isolation isn’t apparent. Perhaps the final clue rests in the way that the album is bookended. It begins with the words “…we came in ?” and ends with “isn’t this where….” suggesting a repeating cycle. Perhaps he isn’t fated to escape.
Waters though evidently did. Whilst not all of his post Floyd output is to my taste he’s never less than interesting and there was something genuinely touching about seeing his reconciliation with the band at Live 8 in 2005 before Rick Wright’s death three years later. “The Wall”, in more recent years, has taken on new life – particularly post the fall of the Berlin Wall – with some of the broader anti-totalitarianism themes perhaps assuming greater prominence but, for me it remains largely a more personal document; a fascinating glimpse of an artist openly working through his own internal struggles and coming to terms with his past.
*although… can you imagine ? It would be amazing:
– “Dad, Dad, look at that inflatable pig !”
– “It’s a searing critique of the bloated nature of capitalism inspired by George Orwell’s savage satire of Stalinism: authority corrupts and inevitably leads to totalitarianism”
– “No Dad, it’s definitely a pig”
– “Do you think he knows any Disney songs ?”
**brilliantly, of course, Roger Waters is also the name of one of the beavers in a Sylvanian Family (a set of children’s toys comprising various families of woodland animal folk) which I can’t believe was accidental – particularly given its description as “everyone’s best friend because he’s always very friendly and jolly” !
***will make more sense if you’ve seen the late 70s British sit com “The Good Life”