Back in 1977, Pink Floyd were one of, if not the biggest band in the world. Their 3 most recent album releases (The Dark Side of The Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals, had all been immensely successful, at both a commercial and critical level, and it seemed that, although the band had always had tension and intrigue lurking under the surface, there was no reason why the band should not continue making great albums for a long time.
Their record company certainly intended for that to be the case, their fans hoped for it to be the case, but it seemed as if nobody had told Roger Waters. Following an infamous incident during the tour in support of Animals, where he spat on a fan, Waters came to see himself as being isolated from his fans, stuck behind “a wall”, largely of his own making. It was this feeling that would lead to this album, a concept album that must rank up there with the most remarkable ever recorded. Because make no mistake about it, regardless of your feelings on The Wall as an album, there’s no arguing about how extraordinary it is.
The album revolves around a fictitious central character called Pink, and takes place as a series of flashbacks through his life, which begins in England, during a time of war, and goes right through to his time as a disillusioned rock star. If that sounds ever so slightly familiar, it’s because The Wall is a semi-autobiography of Roger Waters, which gives the album a more human feel, that it might otherwise be lacking. It’s certainly hard to see somebody making this album that didn’t have the experience of the concept to relate to. Again, you may have noticed there that I said Roger Waters made this album. Although that’s a slight exaggeration, the concept of the album is his, as are the lyrics and the vast majority of the music.
It was this dictatorial attitude to the recording of the album, with Waters ruthlessly allowing nothing and no-one to stand in his way, that would ultimately lead to Richard Wright being kicked out of the band, and being re-hired as a session musician, with rumours abounding right up today that Nick Mason was next in line for this treatment. Certainly, regardless of any speculation, it can’t really be disputed that the making of this album effectively ended the classic lineup of Pink Floyd, with the final Floyd album that featured Roger Waters (The Final Cut) being a huge disappointment, as well as being even more of a Waters solo record. In these circumstances, is it really surprising that the album turned out as it did?
Just to provide some more background on the concept behind this album, the wall that Pink builds for himself to hide behind is purely mental, with incidents such as the death of his father, his overly protective mother, the way he was treated at school, drug abuse, a failed marriage, and fame all combining to cause him to seal himself off behind the wall, in an attempt at self-protection, before descending into neo-fascist insanity after the wall is complete, eerily mirroring Hitler in the war that claimed his father. The album concludes with the tearing down of the wall, although it’s very ambiguous as to the final fate of Pink, for reasons that I will explain later.
Anyway, it’s time to get onto the music, and due to the nature of the album, with the songs largely flowing into each other, I’m not going to do a track by track review. The album actually opens with a continuation of the music from the final track, Outside The Wall, and the very first sound we hear is Waters asking “we came in?”. This immediately adds a new layer to the album, as the final words on the album are “Is this where.” In other words, if you put the album on a loop, it runs in an exact cycle. You can draw your own interpretation from this, but it seems to me as if Waters is indicating that Pink’s problems do not end when the album does, but that, like everyone else, his life revolves in a cycle, from which there is no escape.
In The Flesh? itself is a very strong opener, with Nick Mason’s drum rolls and Gilmour’s imperious guitar work making this a very powerful rock song, which, combined with Waters’ lyrics, referring to the crowd arriving at a show, make this a brilliant aural spectacle. It immediately segues into The Thin Ice, with the sound of a Spitfire diving overhead drowning out the music, before the final note of the song is that of a baby crying. The Thin Ice is a much softer song, with Gilmour’s initial lyrics singing from the point of view of Pink’s parents to Pink at his birth, before Roger Waters comes in singing far more cynically, with what sounds like the careworn voice of life to Pink of the pitfalls that await him. So far, so good, and without a pause for breath, the song turns into Another Brick In The Wall (Part 1).
The first of three parts of this song, this song marks the start of Pink’s building of his wall, with lyrics such as “Daddy’s flown across the ocean, leaving just a memory”, showing that Pink’s father died in the war, and that from the youngest of ages, Pink’s life is already changing for the worse. The Happiest Days Of Our Lives then follows, with Waters condemning “certain teachers who would hurt the children in any way they could”, over a low semi-disco rhythm, before launching into a revenge fantasy of how the teachers would go home to be beaten by their wives.
Clearly this song refers to Pink’s education problems, as does the next song, Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2). One of the band’s most famous songs, this has the anthemic chorus of “Hey, teacher! Leave them kids alone!”, and also features schoolchildren singing on this, over Dave Gilmour’s famous disco guitar line. The song is meant as an attack on the monotonous style of teaching present in the English education system, and it’s brilliant, also having a great guitar outro.
The first real break in the album is Mother, which is a soft acoustic song, featuring Dave Gilmour singing the part of an overly controlling mother, who attempts to keep Pink under “her wing”, in a misguided attempt to protect him, which only leads to him withdrawing yet more from real life. There’s a huge amount that could be written about this song, which, in terms of music alone is one of the best on the album, but it’s full of references to the mother watching over Pink’s girlfriends, as well as offering advice on his future life. The song also has one of the best guitar solos on the album, that’s brilliantly understated. However, from here, the album takes something of a dip in quality.
Goodbye Blue Sky is the most paranoid song yet, with Gilmour’s initial airy vocals providing a curious juxtaposition with the lyrics of “Did you see the frightened ones?” and his moody guitar line, just lurking under the surface of the song. Marking the beginning of Pink’s adult life, the song turns into the bleak Empty Spaces, with what sounds like a work camp taking place in the background, behind an imperiously cold guitar part, before Waters asks of someone unspecified, “How should I complete the wall?” Young Lust is a real oddity on the album, and acts as an intentional parody of rock and roll excess, with Dave Gilmour singing “I need a dirty woman”, and showing that, free of the confines of his mother’s attitude, Pink is rapidly heading off the rails.
One Of My Turns, however, shows that Pink is in real trouble. With the music barely audible behind Waters’s quiet vocals, the song laments his wife’s infidelity, and his inability to connect with a groupie he’s brought back to his hotel room, before a sudden crescendo turns into him lashing out at the groupie with his singing, before the final plea of “why are you running away?” shows his desperation. Don’t Leave Me Now then features him singing to his wide, urging her not to leave him, even as, almost in the same breath, he threatens to put her through a shredder. The whole song is sung in an emotionally fragile tone, over quite guitar and piano chords, symbolising Pink’s further breakdown. Like with many of the other songs, Pink seems to think that the world has built the wall for him, ignoring his own actions and their role in doing this.
Another Brick In The Wall (Part 3), is the bleakest part of the series, with Waters singing “I don’t need no arms around me”, as he completely removes himself from all pretence of a normal life. Goodbye Cruel World, the final song on the first disc, is Pink saying goodbye, not to life altogether, but to normal life, and the “cruel world”, which he can no longer cope with at all. Like the previous songs, it’s an instrumentally quiet song, with Waters singing over the top, in a song that reflects his importance to the record, as it’s pretty much a solo effort.
Onto Disc 2, and the album here takes on a more bleak air here, almost immediately. Hey You is the first song after Pink has completed his wall, and the lyrical content, with Pink pleading for people to open their hearts to him; something that he couldn’t do for anyone, is exceptional as well. Combined with a great guitar solo, this is one of the best stand alone songs from this album, and it also introduces “the worms”, that eat away at Pink, driving him yet further into insanity. Along with Comfortably Numb, this provides one of the best examples of Gilmour and Waters’ vocal interplay, and leads into the incredibly desolate Is There Anybody Out There?, which has one line repeated four times, and shows that Pink, now he is finally behind the wall, is now looking for help, or at least comfort, to reconnect with the real world again. The song, apart from the lyrics, consists of Gilmour playing a classical guitar outro, accompanied by a quiet orchestra in the background, making this possibly the most haunting song on the album.
Nobody Home features Waters looking through his possessions, and reflecting that although he owns all the paraphernalia of a rock star, he’s now truly alone, and, with no-one to connect to, he’s falling further away from reality, and now looking for a way to reconnect with the world, although the lyrics of the song mean that it seems he is descending more into drug use. Vera refers to Vera Lynn, the English World War II singer, and the song refers to Pink’s desire to reverse the building of his wall, by returning to the days of his childhood, in the hope of regaining innocence, and meeting a childhood memory again. Bring The Boys Back Home is a song that Waters has described as the centrepiece of the album, and features him and a choir, repeating the phrase over an orchestra in another flashback to Pink’s youth, where he asks for the return of his father. Then comes Comfortably Numb.
Arguably the band’s best song, this features Waters in the role of a doctor, and Gilmour in the role of Pink, with Pink trying to be given drugs to make sure he can perform for that nights show. Again, looking at the music, it’s incredible, with 2 great guitar solos, some ethereal lyrics, and a typical beautifully melancholic musical line under the vocals. The Show Must Go On, then has Pink reflecting on whether or not he wants to take the stage, although, interestingly enough, he’s asking his parents for guidance initially, and to take him home, before he finally decides in the last line that “the show must go on”.
And with these words, the album changes again. In The Flesh has the same air of majestic power as the opening track of the album, but there’s one subtle difference. Although the initial lyrics are the same, Pink then reveals that “Pink isn’t well, he stayed at the hotel”, and tests the loyalty of his fans by ordering them to get various racial minorities “up against the wall”. The sheer scale of his isolation has turned him into a Nazi, and exactly the same sort of figure that took his father’s life. Finally, it seems, his transformation is complete, although this song exists on several levels, including an attack on pop culture, with fans blindly following their idols. Run Like Hell was played live even after Waters left the band, and has the same sort of deep disco groove as Another Brick In The Wall, and has Pink bellowing orders to his fans, demanding that they follow him in his new found fascist ways, while sound effects in the background include screaming, suggesting a genuine evil present in the rock star.
Waiting For The Worms is the last in this trio of racist songs, with Pink once again bidding farewell to the world, before bellowing instructions through a megaphone to his followers, including a promise to “turn on the showers”, in an undeniable reference to the Holocaust. However, when it seems as if Pink is now beyond all redemption, with the marching atmosphere of the song, and its bitter hatred complementing the lyrics, his lone voice over comes the chanting of the crowd, to scream “Stop!”. This one moment leads into Stop, and ends the dictator form of Pink, with him immediately questioning “Have I been guilty all this time?” in a song that seems to spiral away from the album up to this point, giving Pink a chance at redemption.
Now, bear in mind that whole books could be written about this album. It’s no exaggeration to say that The Trial alone could have long chapters written on it. According to Roger Waters, the trial takes place inside Pink’s mind, with the witnesses called against him including a teacher, Pink’s mother, and his ex-wife. Musically, the song’s phenomenal. Teetering on the brink of insanity throughout, with orchestral effects being in place throughout, the arrival of the judge, thundering in with his judgment, of the wall being torn down, seems to lead the song into even further insanity, with the band losing structure, while a crowd chants “tear down the wall”, before we hear exactly that: a wall falling down in the background.
Bear in mind that I don’t think there’s any way of describing this song in print, but honestly, this is one of the outright strangest songs I’ve ever heard. Finally, Outside The Wall leaves the concept of the album, although Waters has never really explained the song, but it offers a message of hope, saying that those who really love you will do whatever it takes to blast their way through people’s individual walls, as happened with Roger Waters. In other words, although people will build walls around themselves, they can all be knocked down, making the final message of the album one of hope: that although life is cyclical, it’s not all dreadful.
If you’ve read this far, apologies for making this so long. I’m well aware that I’ve focused a lot on the concept of the album, perhaps at the cost of not mentioning the music as much, but I think the concept behind these songs is as important as the music itself, since the concept is so detailed. If you need any reassuring about the music, it’s generally brilliant, although there are moments, particularly in the second half of disc 1, where the fragmented nature of some songs starts to grate, and the music gets repetitive. This was the last great album by Pink Floyd, and any fan of the band should own a copy , as it displays the band’s most remarkable album, and one that contains all the hallmarks that made them great; ethereal, haunting at times, uplifting at others music, lyrical genius, and instrumental work, particularly from Dave Gilmour, that makes the ideas reality.
The band’s best album? Probably not. However, there’s a definite case for saying that it may be the one that people are most interested in, and with very good reason. Although some people will disagree, this gets 5/5 from me.