I’m well aware that I have written extensively on this album on this site, and can’t possibly have anything new to say about it. I’m also, however, aware that all the stuff I wrote before was about the album itself, and its place in the Pink Floyd discography. Very little of what I wrote was about The Wall’s place in my life, and why – despite the fact that I’m still ambivalent about parts of it – it played such an important part in my life at the end of 1979, and for the few months following that.
I was, as I have said before, listening to many different types of music in 1979. The albums I chose for this list to represent that year have included obscure German electronica, synth-pop, post punk, classic rock (and some French heavy metal which has bled in from the future). What on earth does this giant piece of Rock Opera (I’m calling it that; it’s the label which fits best, I think) by a band who had dropped out of the general definition of ‘cool’ several years before; a double album written and performed under duress because of tax liabilities – what is it doing in this list, and what was it doing on my record player in December 1979?
Let me rewind a little. The summer of 1979 seemed full of possibilities; there was a lot of music to process, some of it new and challenging, and some of it overlooked in the rush to write off everything prior to the Year Zero attitude which seemed to follow the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Somewhere in there, Pink Floyd had released an album which ranks among their very best – Animals. I hadn’t heard it before, but at some point in the summer of 1979, someone lent me a copy, and I was struck by how well it articulated all the pent up frustration and anger everyone was feeling; how well it summarised the Seventies and the creeping sense of helplessness in the face of several failed economic policies.
By the time we went back to school in August, my friend group was down to the few of us who really wanted to ornament our academic resumés – in my case, by retaking the final year of History to bump me up to the mark I’d need to get in to Edinburgh University. We picked a few unrelated classes to fill out the week – I did Accounting and Latin, among other things – and mainly talked about music even more than we had done in the previous years. There was an overarching feeling of restlessness and desire to be done with all this now, which was only amplified in my case when my appealed History score came back (I think I pleaded hay fever, and pointed to my class work and estimate exam scores); I had been upgraded as I’d hoped, and didn’t actually need to be in any of these classes any more. I spent a lot of time in the library and reading room; and a fair bit of time at home listening to whichever album had come my way that week.
Around November, the EMI publicity machine got up a head of steam, promoting the forthcoming Pink Floyd album like it was the most important piece of 20th century culture to date. There were interviews and radio programmes, preview selections (including a reputed single with a worryingly disco beat), and a general sense of anticipation I didn’t remember feeling for any other record. It had, after all, been an entirely unthinkable two years since the last one came out; what on earth had they been up to?
Of course I liked Pink Floyd; even when it wasn’t fashionable, my tapes of Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here got a lot of play. I’d been startled by Animals and was keen to see if they could really carry off a double album about alienation and the rock star life, or whatever it was really about.
It didn’t fit with anything else I was listening to, but I knew I was about to move out into a much wider world, and perhaps it was time to revisit some of the stuff I might have been missing. Equally, perhaps it was just a superb marketing job. Either way, I found myself handing over my fiver (I’m guessing here, but it was probably about that) in The Other Record Shop on or about the day of release – I know it was dark by the time I got it home; I have the clearest memory of sitting on my bed, peeling the whole thing open and investigating everything – the artwork, the clear plastic label held on with static, the way the drawing of the wall itself grew as you moved from side to side. Owning a copy of The Wall was an event; it was a major part of my life before I’d listened to a note of it.
Which all feels wrong now; I couldn’t have been that exercised about a Pink Floyd album, could I? It has only just occurred to me that this is the third 1979 album I’m talking about released on the Harvest label, but that can’t have been a factor – I paid a lot of attention to labels, but not to the point of buying only albums released under one brand. I genuinely don’t know what was going on in the music-loving parts of my brain. Interest had been whipped up by the release, and subsequent success of Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2 and I had heard Roger Waters talk to Tommy Vance on the Friday Rock Show about it, but why did I jump on a bus straight after school, and head into town to buy my own copy?
I’ll never know, sadly. The impact of the album is undeniable, and the way it loomed large in my life for months overshadows everything else about it at this point. I brought it home, played it over and over, learned all the words (I’m still pretty much word-perfect on most of them), worked out what most, if not all, of the sound effects were, and even tried to find out which films some of the dialogue had been lifted from – a significantly harder task in early 1980 than it would be today – and generally listened to nothing else for months.
In early 1980, I was part of a production of Hamlet – I played Claudius – which is the only other thing from that period which still impacts who I am and how I look at the world. I liked Shakespeare before doing it; I loved Shakespeare and his language ever after. I spent weeks learning all this wondrous text, and would regularly find myself at home alone (very few classes, see above) switching from testing myself on “Oh, my offense is rank…” and seeing if I could sing along with all of side three of The Wall without having to look at the words.
I’m still pretty much word perfect on that speech as well, although there are few opportunities to prove it.
It was an intense period of my life – I imagine being seventeen and ready to move on to the next part of your life is still intense for anyone going through it. I’m not special, but I had Hamlet and The Wall to help me through it, and that probably explains an awful lot about me….
At this point, I usually ask myself how well it stands up now, and do a track-by-track analysis of how I react to it now. I’m going to amend that a little. Firstly because I did that not too long ago, and I know what I think now, and partly because it’s so bloody long that no-one will read to the end; not even me.
So my reaction to listening to The Wall in 2021 (2022 by the time you read this) will be more impressionistic – I’m going to treat the four sides as four acts in a play, and see where that takes me. I am, of course, going to listen to my vinyl copy while I do that, because of course I have a vinyl copy – not the original one, which I wish I had held on to above any of the others I sold all those years ago – but the one my children presented me with a few years back, and which provokes fierce nostalgia and a desire to break into Shakespearean dialogue whenever I see it.
If I am to follow my own metaphor, Side 1 is Act 1 in the life of the main character – we’ve been told by the publicity machine to call him ‘Pink’, but I don’t think there’s any point at which it’s spelled out for those of us just listening. It starts with a baffling track which only makes sense much later on – it turns out this is Pink on stage being a rockstar, and deciding to show us his childhood as a way of explaining what’s happened to him.
So Act 1 is Pink’s childhood, which is naturally informed by Roger Waters’ own. He doesn’t even have the solace of having had an idyllic upbringing before being packed off to a school he clearly hates – the absent father is a recurring Waters motif (and I should say that the concert film of Waters’ own performance of The Wall addresses this whole part much more effectively that any of the songs he wrote about growing up fatherless and resentful of the war machine which took him away.)
The first appearance of the ‘Brick in the Wall´ theme is probably the one closest to the original idea; all sparse bass and reverb. It prepares us for the reprise, which filled the dancefloors of the world, and may have contributed to the perceived loss of respect for teachers and schools which people of my generation like to complain about, despite it having been part of our own experiences, if perhaps a little more internalised than it seems to be now.
Anyway, where was I? Ah, yes. Roger – sorry; Pink – didn’t have a nice time at school, and he thinks we should dance along to his complaints while nodding thoughtfully at a splendid David Gilmour guitar solo. The song dominated musical discussions for weeks, and comment sections of respectable newspapers for almost as long – what were the ethics of having children sing about needing no education, and why were the young people of the world buying this subversive tract in such large numbers?
Subversive? Well, yes. Perhaps a little ham-fistedly (it’s pretty obvious, and Pink Floyd are far from the first band to make money complaining about how terribly hard it was to have to go to school), but it was moral-panic inducing, and made more impact on the wider world than any of the actually subversive stuff we’d been listening to these past few years.
Act 1 closes with Pink complaining that his mother was overbearing and suffocating. It’s a nasty little song, which is treated more fondly than it should be because it’s got a nice laid-back acoustic feel. It does set up much of what follows, but the older I get, and the more I think about it, the less I like it.
Having spent all of Act 1 setting up the foundations of Pink’s psychosis, Act 2 manages to feel at once rushed and overlong. How does he end up in a band? How does he move so quickly from teenaged boredom to walling himself off from the world? And why does he have to spend so much of the intervening period whining about how awful life is?
Which is not to suggest that there aren’t any great songs on the second side; there are, and there were originally planned to be even more – my original copy had the lyrics to a much longer version of What Shall We Do Now?, faithfully reproduced on the copy I’m holding now. Both One of my Turns and Don’t Leave Me Now convey the creeping drug-fueled paranoia of the famous but isolated musician on tour. I might quibble about the need for two versions of the same essential story, but they are both tremendously well-crafted songs, with the slide into chaos and violence prefaced by the phone call – seemingly featuring a genuinely baffled operator who wasn’t in on the joke – and ending with the destruction of the hotel room in that time-honoured seventies rock star way. The two songs (and the quick burst of Empty Spaces which follows) mark one of the few times on the album where all four band members seem to be contributing to the sound, and it’s one of the reasons I can still listen to all of side 2 with something close to enjoyment. At the end of the act, Pink pushes the final brick in place with what feels like a suicide note attached, but in reality is simply the point at which the story needs to turn and begin to resolve.
I’m listening to it now, aware of the flaws but trying to hear it with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of my teenaged self. In spite of all the literature and poetry I’d been exposed to (I was reading Camus, Heller and Eliot as part of the curriculum at around the same time), I don’t think I tried to equate it to any of that; I think I was just hearing a terrific rock album, telling a compelling story which I hadn’t really thought about before, and doing it with cool sound effects, well-crafted guitar solos and exactly the kind of existential angst which propels teenage boys through those difficult years.
Act 3, then, should see Pink regaining some kind of control, and taking the first steps to resolve his situation. Of course, this isn’t a generic novel of any kind, and nothing of the sort happens. Instead, there are twenty minutes which are the heart of this album – fully realised songs which make their points carefully and thoughtfully. This is what Pink Floyd always were about – the first two sides have been pretty much a Roger Waters solo album, but this one pulls everything together – even the brief digression into the dream of Vera Lynn somehow being able to bring back Pink’s missing father more or less works in the context of the whole thing.
Act 3 is the portrait of the artist, alone and isolated by his own actions. He is walled off from the world, but – perhaps deliberately – this produces the best of the songwriting on this whole album. The three main songs, Hey You (moved from last place on the side to first, as revealed by the lyric sheet), Nobody Home, and Comfortably Numb are the three key songs on the album as a whole. They refer back to each other and tie the whole concept together in the face of the somewhat more overblown parts to come.
Comfortably Numb is, however, my least favourite of the three. I’m certain that’s due to its over-familiarity, as it is still a magnificent piece of music. I just wish there was some way to hear it for the first time again.
Intriguingly, that’s not really been a problem for any of the other songs, going all the way back to Revolver, which I might have become tired of. I wonder if there’s a threshold for how many times I can listen to something before I decide that I actually have heard everything it has to offer, and can move on past it. If there is, I’d say Comfortably Numb passed it several years ago.
The final act sees Pink’s breakdown and resolution. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to have been anyone in the studio to say no to any of the excess, so we have to sit through several songs from Pink’s show and then a full-blown parody of a trial.
OK, I know that Pink and his band (or the surrogates which Waters presumably is using to try to keep himself at arms length) are delivering satire; it’s all very 1984 and dystopian, but there really are lyrics about fascist marches, open discrimination and rape, and it’s just a little – weird. It seems to come out of nowhere; Pink is self-pitying and isolated, not some kind of black-shirted dictator, and despite the caustic energy of the whole ‘show’ part; I’ve never felt particularly convinced by it.
That’s a lie, of course – seventeen year old me though it one of the greatest things he’d ever heard, and it took quite some time for me to actually go back and look again at what was actually going on. The acid test for the first three songs on side four is that – notwithstanding that Run Like Hell was a single in North America – you can’t really take them out of context. No-one (I hope) could get up on stage and play Waiting for the Worms with a straight face before moving on to something unrelated.
Waiting for the Worms is the song which is supposed to justify all the satirical stuff; a peek inside the decaying mind of Pink as he sits back at the hotel while his band riles up the crowd. It feels more than a little forced to me now, and I do remember being unnerved by the orders barked through the bullhorn – I was acutely aware of things happening elsewhere in the world, and having someone – even parodically – talking about meeting outside Brixton Town Hall and firing up the ovens was deeply uncomfortable.
I wish I could say it sounds dated and amusing now, but it doesn’t. Of all the subjects to parody, this one is perhaps the most misjudged. I’m glad that I had a well-enough developed sense of the world to see it for what it was at the time, but it doesn’t sit well.
Neither does The Trial, which is a mini-operetta with caricatures of the characters we were introduced to in Act 1 and is the dictionary definition of ‘overblown mess’.
All of which seems to suggest that I don’t really like The Wall at all, and that’s not true. I do think it would make a punchy single album with all the excess trimmed out, and there are songs here which I know all the words to but have no particular desire to listen to too many more times, but I can’t ignore the effect it had on me at the time, and how it still has a claim on me after all this time.
As I’ve said before, it didn’t change my life, but I sure thought it had for a while there.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Well, yes. Most of the albums up to this point have something to recommend them, even Ummagumma, but the run from Atom Heart Mother to Animals is essential, and this isn’t far from it. In addition, both soundtrack albums – More and Obscured by Clouds – are worth a listen. After this (some say including this), albums are either Roger Waters and friends, or David Gilmour and friends. And you can skip The Endless River altogether. Wasn’t me who christened it Endless Drivel, but I wish it had been.
Compilations to consider?
The usual Prog warning here – you have to hear the whole albums, not snippets. There are a great many Pink Floyd compilations, of which Relics is perhaps the best known, containing offcuts and rarities rather than edited versions of the well-known later songs.
Not really, although the Dave Gilmour version of Pink Floyd were at their very best on Pulse, which is being reissued, so you could try that. The live performance which sticks in the memory, of course, is the one from Live 8, and that’s available on YouTube, but not as an official release – can you imagine how many lawyers would have needed to get involved for that to happen?
Many things – operas, picture books, documentaries, movies; you name it. If I have to recommend one thing, however, it would be Nick Mason’s memoir Inside Out; it’s as comprehensive as you could hope for, and while he does spare his old friends some kickings which they were perhaps entitled to, it tells a complex story very well. Is there a definitive Pink Floyd biography? I’d suggest not yet, but I’m happy to be proved wrong.