40 years on from its release, The Wall remains one of
the most celebrated concept albums of all time, as well as one of history’s
most acclaimed double albums. Considered by many (though not necessarily all)
to be the final jewel in the crown of Pink Floyd’s back catalogue, the
album takes the listener on a mesmerising musical journey, by means of a
semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical story, written by co-frontman and bassist
Roger Waters, about a tumultuous character named Pink.
Exploring themes of isolation and mental instability, the
story reveals from the very beginning that Pink is a rock musician, haunted by
the death of his father in World War II. This trauma forms the basis of
numerous flashbacks and hallucinatory episodes which are frequently alluded to
within the lyrics. Throughout the first disc, several vital secondary
characters are introduced to the plot one by one, such as Pink’s overprotective
widowed mother, his brutish schoolteachers and his unfaithful wife. It is here
where we observe Pink’s construction of the metaphorical ‘wall’ between himself
and others, slowly but surely inserting the final ‘bricks’, and in doing so
completely isolating himself from society. Meanwhile, the second disc
predominantly deals with the protagonist’s response to his self-imposed
isolation, as well as the chaotic effects of a drug-induced hallucination,
before all the main characters come together at the end, forcefully urging Pink
to “tear down the wall”.
As previously mentioned, this tale can be considered
autobiographical to a certain extent, especially considering how Roger Waters’
father also perished in the Second World War, and thus the traumatic memory
lives on in Waters’ mind, the same way that it does for Pink. However, there
are also many comparisons to be drawn between Pink and original Floyd frontman
Syd Barrett, whose ongoing heavy drug abuse brought about considerable
psychological damage, which included hallucinations and possible schizophrenia,
eventually leading to his gradual withdrawal from the band. Furthermore, only
four years prior to the release of The Wall, whilst the band were
recording their 1975 album Wish
You Were Here, Syd Barrett, whom for all intents and purposes had
ceased to be a member of Pink Floyd by 1968, made an impromptu appearance in
the studio. The band were shocked upon recognising that the now overweight,
shaven headed man was their former bandmate, by now a shadow of his former
self. These parallels between the fictional character of Pink and the stark
realities of Waters’ tragic loss, as well as the fate of Syd Barrett, simply
add to The Wall’s emotional gravity.
From a musical standpoint, The Wall constitutes a
notable departure from the complex progressive rock style of its predecessor,
1977’s Animals, the
core of which consisted of three consecutive 10+ minute long tracks. By
contrast, The Wall makes use of considerably shorter songs, with the
longest clocking in at six minutes and 23 seconds. Stylistically, while the
band undoubtedly hold on to their blues roots and art-school leanings, they
nonetheless steer towards a far more accessible sound, drawing from pop and
even disco music. Additionally, a number of acoustically-oriented tracks can be
heard interspersed throughout the record. One primary criticism of the album is
the disproportionate role played by Roger Waters in its creation, not only
lyrically but also musically, specifically regarding the composition of the
music and the undertaking of vocal duties. Consequently, David Gilmour’s joint
role as lead songwriter and vocalist is evidently minimised, which potentially
prompted the band’s stylistic shift, and the subsequent development of tensions
between the two members, which ultimately led to Waters’ departure and the
cessation of the ‘golden era’ of Pink Floyd.
The album gets off to a blistering start with the powerful
‘In The Flesh?’, which leads straight into the comparatively tender ‘The Thin
Ice’. However, the “meat” of the album truly commences with ‘Another Brick In
The Wall (Part 1)’, which describes how Pink’s father’s death signalled the
beginning of the construction of ‘the wall’. Containing that world-renowned
vocal melody, this suspense-filled track foreshadows the song that almost anyone
listening to this album would know is coming. ‘The Happiest Days Of Our Lives’ introduces
the infamous school teacher, and seamlessly flows into the timeless classic ‘Another Brick In The Wall
(Part 2)’. The abusive nature of the school eacher and the trauma inflicted
upon Pink by authority figures is contrasted effectively with the funky,
disco-inspired instrumental, while Gilmour’s sublime guitar solo during the
final portion of the track merely reaffirms its classic status.
This is followed by a couple of moments of genuine beauty.
Firstly, we get the heartfelt ballad ‘Mother’, which documents Pink’s
relationship with his mother growing up, and how her overprotective and
oppressive approach to caregiving only stifles his inability to develop a sense
of self-confidence, and facilitates the continued construction of ‘the wall’.
‘Goodbye Blue Sky’ is next, an acoustic track which departs somewhat from the
overall narrative, as it is written purely about Waters’ experience as a child
of World War II, containing poignant lyrics such as “Did you see the
frightened ones? Did you hear the falling bombs? Did you ever wonder why we had
to run for shelter when the promise of a brave new world unfurled beneath the
clear blue sky?” and “The flames are all long gone, but the pain lingers
The tension-filled ‘Empty Spaces’ leads into the insanely
catchy ‘Young Lust’, where the band’s blues influences really come to the fore.
One cannot help thinking that, if this track were not living under the shadow
of ‘Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)’, it could’ve been a huge hit. ‘One Of
My Turns’ describes how Pink invites a groupie back to his room upon
discovering his wife’s infidelity, yet spontaneously erupts into a fit of rage,
captured perfectly by the dynamics of the musical accompaniment. He
subsequently begins wallowing in his own despair at he and his wife’s strained
relationship in ‘Don’t Leave Me Now’, a bleak piano-led piece, where Pink’s
anguish is conveyed exquisitely by Waters’ strangled vocal delivery. ‘Another
Brick In The Wall (Part 3)’ and ‘Goodbye Cruel World’ round out the first disc,
signifying the completion of Pink’s wall, and as a result, his total isolation
from the outside world.
Disc two kicks off with the melancholic ‘Hey You’, where we
find Pink suddenly becoming fully aware of his newfound isolation and
regretting his decision, which starts taking its toll on his psychological
wellbeing, hence the infamous line “and the worms ate into his brain”.
The song begins as a sombre, acoustic guitar-driven piece, before exploding
into a sinister hard rock section, which contains yet another rip-roaring solo
from Gilmour. This theme is continued on the minimalistic ‘Is There Anybody Out
There?’ and the agonising piano ballad ‘Nobody Home’, which could easily take
the cake as the album’s most beautiful moment.
A couple of brief tracks follow, where Pink can be found delving into his past, such as ‘Vera’ where he asks “Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn?”, before his yearning is interrupted unexpectedly by a flashback to World War II in the form of ‘Bring The Boys Back Home’. The latter ends with an upsurge of sound effects and voices, as Pink is discovered unconscious in his hotel room, minutes before he’s due to perform. Before going on stage, he is administered with a drug, as described in the next track, ‘Comfortably Numb’. The centrepiece of the entire album, this song is influenced by Waters’ own experiences with using muscle relaxants whilst on tour, and is one of the few moments on the record where both Waters and Gilmour contribute equally to the song-writing and vocal duties. This results in a simply perfect, fully-rounded rock ballad, complete with luscious orchestral arrangements, a heart-breaking chorus and arguably Gilmour’s greatest guitar solo of all time. Although ‘Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)’ may achieve the highest amount of airplay 40 years on, ‘Comfortably Numb’ will undoubtedly live on in the hearts of rock fans for generations to come.
Here is where the album takes rather a bizarre turn.
Although the drug administered to Pink allows him to walk on stage to perform,
it also produces a severe hallucinatory effect on him. During the performance, his
sudden plunge towards insanity leads him to believe that he’s a fascist
dictator leading a neo-Nazi rally, and that the audience are his followers. ‘In
The Flesh’, a reprise of the opening track, contains a verse in which Pink can
be heard singling out various ethnic and sexual minorities, before exclaiming “If
I had my way, I’d have all of them shot!” This continues on the
surprisingly successful hit single ‘Run Like Hell’, whose lyrics primarily consist
of threats towards the aforementioned minorities, contrasted with an unusually
upbeat musical composition, once again recalling the prominent late-70s disco
scene, but with a hard rock edge. However, what was previously a fantastical
rally becomes a real-life Nazi rally, organised by Pink, in ‘Waiting For The
Worms’, which is aptly complemented by Waters shouting frantically through a
Shortly after, Pink abruptly snaps out of his hallucination,
and upon displaying “feelings of an almost human nature”, places himself
on trial. All of the main characters come together in the utterly whimsical yet
superb ‘The Trial’, where Pink’s school teacher and wife hurl insults towards
him, while his mother pleads to take him back into her arms. The song ends with
an uproarious crescendo, fuelled by chants of “Tear down the wall!”,
whereupon the metaphorical wall is demolished, and the story ends with Pink once
again opening himself to the outside world.
READ MORE: Pink Floyd // ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ at 50 years old
The Wall is a masterpiece that stands alone, not only
in Pink Floyd’s chronology, but also in the history of rock music, as a concept
album that succeeds in balancing the lyrical and musical aspects perfectly. The
story proceeds in a linear fashion, allowing the listener to follow the events
easily, whilst the quality of the music is not compromised in any way. The
album would go on to become Pink Floyd’s second best-selling album, after
1973’s The Dark Side Of The
Moon, and would later inspire both a successful movie and an opera.
Sadly, as previously touched upon, it would also signal the end of the classic
line-up of Pink Floyd, with keyboardist Richard Wright temporarily leaving
during the recording process of the album, and Waters leaving only a few years
later, following the release of their subsequent effort The Final Cut in 1983.
Nevertheless, despite the disastrous consequences it had on
the band itself, The Wall is and shall remain a truly unique and
timeless work of art.
Listen to The Wall by Pink Floyd here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: 40 years old, 40th anniversary, classic 70s, classic album, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Pink Floyd, Richard Wright, Roger Waters, The Wall
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