Some things to consider if you’re coming to this new:
Again, I doubt anyone’s really coming to this new – even if you’ve never sat through the whole thing, you’ve definitely heard ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2’ and ‘Comfortably Numb’. If you were a casual Floyd listener at the time, and hadn’t heard ‘Animals’, you probably were wondering where the hell all this had come from. There are so many stories surrounding the making of this that I really could write a book on it. I’ll try to keep it to a reasonable length, however.
The first thing to think about when approaching this behemoth of an album is that Pink Floyd were, to all intents and purposes, skint again. All those cunning financial wheezes designed to keep the taxman at bay had only served to make a handful of investment bankers (look up Norton Warburg if you want the whole story; it’s long and complicated) a bit richer, and to finance dozens of failed businesses and ventures. The upshot was that they needed to make a record to get the money flowing again.
The problem with that was that both Gilmour and Wright were off making solo albums (always a bad sign for a band in my opinion); I rather like Gilmour’s first album, although I couldn’t tell you the last time I listened to it – here’s a bit of Rick noodling about on ‘Wet Dream’ – it’s not terrible, but it’s not Pink Floyd either:
Nick Mason was producing the Damned’s ‘Music For Pleasure’ album, and no-one save Roger Waters seemed to have much enthusiasm for thrashing out another Pink Floyd album. Waters presented the band with two sets of songs he’d been working on – one which would eventually become ‘The Pros and Cons of Hitch-Hiking’; and a long rock opera-style suite about how the isolation of being a rock star turns people into fascists, or something. The band all lined up behind what would become ‘The Wall’, and set about making it come to life in Britannia Row.
Whereupon, another minor inconvenience intruded. In order to avoid complete financial ruin, the band and their families (and, apparently, members of the crew and production team) were advised to go and live abroad for a year for tax reasons. They all scarpered early in 1979, but to different countries, making getting everyone together to record an album even more challenging. Much of the work was done in France, but keeping it all together was proving more and more difficult. Rick Wright in particular was struggling with a disintegrating marriage, living in a foreign country, a solo album which had pretty much disappeared without trace, and a general lack of things to do on the new album. To say he wasn’t totally committed to the project is putting it mildly.
At this point, I could observe once again that Waters, having basically written the whole thing, had a significantly higher financial stake in it than the others, and that would be true, but doesn’t tell the whole story. Pink Floyd didn’t disintegrate over royalites (although those didn’t help), and they didn’t fall apart because Roger was writing all the material; there were many factors. The fact that ‘The Wall’ got made at all was down to Waters’ drive and passion for it; it wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t cracked the whip to the point that he and Gilmour could barely stand to be in the same room, and to the point that Wright was forced out of the band altogether.
There is more than one version of the ‘Roger sacked Rick’ story; the facts seem to be these: Rick was dragging his feet on getting any work done at all – he was supposed to contribute keyboard parts and – perhaps more importantly – was part of the production effort. He kept putting things off due to the general turmoil in his life, and things eventually came to a head when he was required to cut short his summer holiday to finish his keyboard parts, which he flatly refused to do. Waters – acutely aware that if they didn’t get this thing done and on sale before the end of the year there would be heavy financial penalties from the record companies – essentially decided that his old mate was preventing his magnum opus from being completed in time and fired him. Or had him fired, or whatever version you prefer.
Not fired as in ‘no longer in the band’, of course – Wright was carefully disentangled from the corporate liabilities that being in Pink Floyd entailed by 1979, and then asked to stay on until the record was made, then hired on as a member of the touring band. It all sounds like an appalling way to treat one of your closest friends, and it was. It does appear possible that it was all a bluff, which Wright decided to call – Waters didn’t do the firing himself, and probably never intended it to get as far as it did – he was desperate for everyone to take the money issue seriously, and probably thought that threatening to sack Rick might do the trick.
Of course, once it had happened, he wasn’t about to admit to making a mistake…
In the end, only Gilmour and Waters’ names appear on the sleeve of ‘The Wall’ – the keyboard parts were partly by Rick Wright, and partly by various other musicians; the drums aren’t all by Nick Mason either, although he seems somewhat blase about all that – he did spend part of the summer competing at Le Mans, and went off during the mixing period to start work on his own solo album. Mason, unlike the others, seems to have been perfectly happy to work as a glorified session musician in the new “Roger Waters’ Pink Floyd”. The remainder of the credits on the Gerald Scarfe – designed sleeve (Roger had, with crushing inevitability, fallen out with Hipgnosis over something or other, and replaced them with his friend Gerald Scarfe) are illuminating – production credits for Gilmour and Waters along with Bob Ezrin; James Guthrie (who turned up on day 1 imagining himself to be the producer, only to find Ezrin already in place) is given a co-producer credit – whatever that means. No mention of the rest of the band, but the backing singers, including Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys and Toni Tennille of The Captain and Tennille, get a full credit, as do (in faint letters) Islington Green School – and that whole saga, of the school choir on ‘Another Brick’ is another one too long for inclusion here.
There’s a lot more to tell, but perhaps the best way to deal with the story behind the album and the infamous incident in Montreal is to let Roger tell the story in his own words. I vividly remember listening to the Friday Rock Show special dealing with The Wall just as it came out – memory insists that I heard it just before I rushed out to buy it, but I can’t quite be certain of the order. At any rate, I remember lying in the bath listening to Tommy Vance and Roger Waters talk in great detail about the album, and – the internet being what it is – the whole thing is available to either read in full, or – even better – listen to in full, including all the music.
There’s also the full version of ‘What Shall We Do Now?’, the missing song from side 2:
One more thing – famously, there was a hit single and Christmas No.1 – ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2’ was released at the insistence of producer Bob Ezrin, who apparently had always wanted to produce a disco song…
So, is it any good?
Well, frankly, it’s a bloody miracle it exists at all. For something so enduring to have emerged from the chaos which swirled around the band in 1979 is nothing short of astounding. It does, I think, mark the fatal shot which killed Pink Floyd – the bullet found its mark, but it took a long time for the band to die – from here on, there are memorable moments, some great songs (even – whisper it – one more pretty damn good album) but nothing you could honestly point to and say “that’s a Pink Floyd album”. And if I’m honest, and set aside my personal feelings about it, I don’t think you can really listen to this and think “yup, that’s a great Pink Floyd album”.
I mean, it’s a great Roger Waters album, probably his best, but it’s not really a band effort, save for ‘Comfortably Numb’ and – maybe – ‘Run Like Hell’. Nowhere does it soar and breathe the way the best Floyd tracks do; nowhere does it feel like everyone is pulling in the same direction and figuring this out as they go along. It’s all planned, charted and delivered with some precision, and that – I think – is its fatal flaw.
When I was seventeen, I thought this was the greatest musical achievement of the human race. I played my original vinyl copy (with the clear plastic label on the front, held on by static) until it pretty much wore out. I loved it, I knew all the words, I could play bits of it on my guitar, I could close my eyes and see what the rumoured film version would look like, and I thought it had changed my life.
I’m 55 now. It didn’t change my life, but I sure thought it had for a while there.
Looking at it now, it has too many flaws to be a truly great Floyd album. It’s too long (you could just about make a brilliant single album from it; you can certainly chop it down to an hour without losing anything from the story, and not much of great musical note); I think there are too many places where you can hear the original demo, and it’s been a long time since that was the case – it really suffers from not having all four of them work the songs over and over until they sound just right; and while I would keep bits of side 4, ‘The Trial’ is an overblown, parodic mess. And the story is – look, I’m sorry – a pile of self-regarding wankery. Poor, poor, pitiful Roger – his daddy died (and we’ve not wrung the last drop of blood from that stone, believe me), he was forced to be a rock star against his will, he’s crap at relationships and he thinks he’s built a wall around himself which might turn him into a bit of a dictator if he’s not careful (ask Rick Wright about that last bit, Rog), and instead of paying for therapy, he’s going to bleat to us about it.
And yet, it’s still an incredible thing. It has all that going against it, and it’s still mesmerising and brilliant. When the guitar is let free, it goes places it’s never gone before; several of the songs are among the best stuff Waters ever wrote (especially the plaintive picture of Syd which is ‘Nobody’s Home’ and the self-aware cry of ‘Hey You’), and the story, for all that it lurches around and is missing key parts, is a view of the rockstar life I don’t think we’ve seen before. As final, defiant, statements of what a failing enterprise can still pull off in spite of itself, it’s probably without equal.
Oh, and for a couple of years in the early eighties, BBC Scotland’s flagship sports programme, ‘Sportscene’, used a version of ‘Run Like Hell’ as its theme tune (sadly, I can’t find the evidence on YouTube) and if that doesn’t elevate this to classic status, I don’t know what will…