Pink Floyd – The Wall – Classic Music Review

 

From the essay “John Keats and ‘negative capability” by Stephen Hebron, via the British Library:

Great poets, argued Keats, had gusto because they were not impeded in their work by an identity of their own, with personal opinions that might affect the independence and freedom of the characters they create: a poet, he told Woodhouse, ‘has no Identity – he is continually informing and filling some other Body’.

Keats described negative capability as the state of mind “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason,” asserting that such a state is essential to achieving literary greatness. He specifically mentions Shakespeare’s work as the example of negative capability par excellence. The result of negative capability is what he called “gusto” in the quote above.

Let’s connect the dots. Shakespeare had gusto because he was not impeded in this work by an identity of his own, with personal opinions that might have affected the independence and freedom of the characters he created. This perception of Shakespeare is enhanced a thousandfold by the simple fact that we still don’t know much about the guy. Any biographical information on Shakespeare is full of phrases like “scholars believe that . . .” and “it is not known definitely when . . .” and references to local legends and third-hand accounts. We don’t know if old Willie was constantly beset by doubts like Hamlet or had a jealous streak like Othello or had a drinking problem like Falstaff, so we don’t really know how much his personal opinions or real-life experience influenced the nature of the characters he created. For all we know he could have been a serial murderer like Macbeth.

Shakespeare’s true genius lies in the fact that he never wrote his autobiography.

Roger Waters, on the other hand, was seriously impeded in his creation of The Wall by an identity of his own with strong personal opinions that affected the independence of the lead character he created. The story is largely autobiographical—Waters’ father was killed in the war, he was raised by his mother, he was bullied in school, and the rock star experience described in the narrative reflects Waters’ personal disillusionment with fame and the consequent disconnection from the human race. He attempts to correct for over-personalization by using a character named Pink to tell the tale. “Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink?” queried the oblivious record company mogul in “Have a Cigar.” Waters’ decided to run with that slight and use it both as a symbol of depersonalization and a way to provide distance between self and story. Many authors have used a character to relate one’s personal experience in order to create the distance necessary to achieve negative capability (Nick Calloway in The Great Gatsby, for example). Waters’ success with this device is hit-and-miss, and sometimes The Wall sometimes feels more like the transcript of a therapy session than a story designed to enlighten us through shared human experience.

So that’s the downside. The most obvious upside is that The Wall features a coherent psychological narrative that most people can follow. Although few among us have ever experienced life as a rock star, all of us have built walls to shield ourselves from something in the outside world we have identified as either dangerous or strange. And the more energy we put into building that wall, the weirder we get. We may not be able to relate to the specific experiences described in The Wall, but we can relate to the feeling of not fitting in, not being accepted for who we are and the tendency to turn inside when the world burdens us with unreasonable expectations.

I have never trashed a hotel room, but I will admit to smashing a few pieces of crockery in my time.

As a musical composition, I can understand why Waters said in 2018, “To date, The Wall is my finest musical achievement.” Like Finnegan’s Wake, the narrative is circular, with the closing fragment (“Isn’t this where . . .”) recirculating to the work’s opening lyrical fragment (“we came in?”). The music supports this quest for unity through strong repeating motifs, slightly different versions of songs in different contexts (“In the Flesh” and “Another Brick in the Wall”) and the heavy use of crossfades from one song to the next. While there are moments when we hear classic Pink Floyd tropes borrowed from earlier works, the soundscape is generally more diverse than previous efforts, incorporating styles as diverse as doo-wop and operetta. Though the backstory describes creative and interpersonal tensions that led to Richard Wright’s departure (he shouldered on as a hired hand through the end of the project), the end result is a cohesive, well-executed effort that compensates for its flaws through a clear commitment to an artistic vision.

“In the Flesh” was the tagline for Pink Floyd’s 1977 tour where Roger Waters made his unusual breach of the fourth wall by spitting at a fan who tried to climb the fence separating crowd and band. Waters was having a Thom Yorke-like breakdown during that tour, like Thom deeply disturbed by the distorted dynamics of stadium rock. “I disliked it intensely because it became a social event rather than a more controlled and ordinary relationship between musicians and an audience . . . The front sixty rows seemed to be screaming and shouting and rocking and swaying and not really listening to anything. And those further back could see bugger-all anyway (Wikipedia).” The alienation he felt resulted in the fantasy of building a wall between performer and audience, an extreme, apparently nonsensical reaction that served as the seed for The Wall.

The version that opens the album ends with a question mark (“In the Flesh?”), emphasizing the unreality of the mass gathering experience. Reinforcing the sense of circularity, “In the Flesh?” opens with the scarcely audible tune from the album’s final track, “Outside the Wall.” Suddenly we hear power guitar chords from Gilmour in a tense D-E-F pattern, each chord echoed with complementary variants from Wright on the organ. The intro eventually leads us to the first memorable motif (not quite a leitmotif by definition, but that’s a technical quibble) where Gilmour blasts single notes in a D-G chord pattern, using the root note to begin the D pattern and the third for the G. Pink Floyd has always been very good in creating strong motifs that raise listener anticipation of good things to follow.

What follows immediately is Roger Waters as Pink, establishing one of the main themes with poetic economy:

So ya
Thought ya
Might like to go to the show.
To feel the warm thrill of confusion
That space cadet glow.
Tell me is something eluding you, sunshine?
Is this not what you expected to see?
If you wanna find out what’s behind these cold eyes
You’ll just have to claw your way through this disguise.

The theme involves layers of identity crises: the conflict between what people expect and what’s really inside; the tendency of fans to identify with performers and use that identification to strengthen their own sense of identity; the inevitable distortion inherent in projecting hopes, dreams and fantasies onto another human being. Idolization seems to be a natural tendency in the young as they search for role models different from their parents, and while there is always the danger of celebrity worship syndrome, most people grow up and out of it. Few care about the impact idolization has on the idol, in particular the expectation that the idol should live up to the unreasonable standards established by someone else’s projection of who they should be. Given the bitterness in his voice, it’s obvious that Waters/Pink resents the projection, the depersonalization and the distortion of the relationship between musician and audience.

If Waters had limited this exploration of the meaning of identity to the experience of a rock star, the listening audience would have responded, “Boo-hoo, poor you—you’re rich and famous and bitching about it? Fuck you.” Luckily for us, he centered his attention on the universal tendency to build walls, a defense mechanism that first appears in childhood. After Waters completes his introduction, he shouts over the repetition of the main motif, then all hell breaks loose in the form of a cacophony that most notably features the terrifying roar of a Stuka dive bomber and cuts to the sound of an infant crying.

This is the cue that we’re going to explore the walls built in childhood, especially those constructed by the parents. “The Thin Ice” splits vocal duties between Gilmour and Waters with Gilmour taking the comforting role of motherhood and Waters voicing mother’s more cynical and bitter view as a woman who lost her husband in the Battle of Anzio. The “advice” she shares with her child reflects her own state of mind:

Don’t be surprised when a crack in the ice
Appears under your feet.
You slip out of your depth and out of your mind
With your fear flowing out behind you
As you claw the thin ice.

As will become apparent shortly, she will raise her child through a lens of fear and loss. The outro for “The Thin Ice” is dark and gloomy, foreshadowing a problematic relationship.

The first brick in Pink’s wall results from his father’s death, as described in “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 1.” I’ve always wondered why the kid angrily complains, “Daddy, what’d you leave behind for me?” Shit, kid, it wasn’t his fault he got whacked by the Nazis! One possibility is that mother has been filling his head with crap, and really it’s mommy who is indoctrinating the kid with a story about how daddy wasted his life trying to stop fascism, coldly abandoning his family in the process. The disco rhythm of the piece was suggested by Bob Ezrin (one of four producers), a suggestion mightily resisted by Waters and Gilmour but one that worked out in the end, with the dominant bass guitar intensifying the dark mood of the lyrics (though I think they could have cut the fade in half and lost nothing).

“The Happiest Days of Our Lives” is an ironic title describing the joys of being bullied in school by sadistic teachers. Apparently the legacy of Wackford Squeers lives on in the British school system, with teachers “pouring their derision on anything we did.” The lyrics and tone indicate that Waters has crossed the line and slipped out of character to purge himself of some ugly memories, but the song does have the virtue of setting the table for “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” and the chilling voices of children in revolt against education (or, more accurately, what passes for education in a dysfunctional school system):

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers, leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.

The idea of children singing in unison was also Ezrin’s idea, deviously actualized when he edited the takes while the band was away. As the children’s chorus provides the most striking and memorable sound on the album, Ezrin can be forgiven for his ethical lapse. My reaction to the song is a combination of hope and fear. The hope is that when people hear “we don’t need no education,” they realize that our educational systems have drifted from their primary purpose of education and enlightenment and that such a drift needs immediate attention. The fear is that stupid people will use it as a rallying cry to justify their ignorance, attack the educated and elect morons like Boris Johnson and he-who-shall-not-be-named.

The second instance of Waters crossing the line and making it personal comes in the form of “Mother,” a painful description of a toxic co-dependent relationship. Rather than letting the mother speak uninhibitedly and allowing the listener to conclude that she is one sick puppy, Waters inserts his own translation of her responses to her child’s questions about life and love:

Mother’s gonna make all your nightmares come true.
Mother’s gonna put all her fears into you.

Oh, come on! She would never say that, even if the kid was too young to understand what she was talking about. And it’s highly unlikely that she would consciously and deliberately decide to put all her fears into the kid—she would justify her actions as completely in sync with the protective and nurturing aspects of motherhood. While I don’t buy the turn of the narrative here, I do like the use of multiple time signatures to reflect the naturally uneven expression of a child trying to form ideas and ask the “right” questions in the right way. The closing line, “Mother, did it need to be so high?” tells us that mom brought a wheelbarrow full of bricks to the personality construction site—the poor kid will now have to conduct his relationship with the world from behind an ever-growing barrier of fear and distrust. Career choices, friendships and sexual intimacy will all be subject to the boundaries established by the wall.

“Goodbye Blue Sky” describes the experience of the Blitz but seems quite out of place, both chronologically and narratively. It’s followed by a sudden fast-forward into the future, “Empty Spaces.” Pink is now old enough to be a married rock star; in this scene, we find him waiting to board a plane as he heads out on tour. The music is gothically eerie and tense, the beat reminiscent of the automatic toe-tapping of an anxious flyer—or someone ready to explode with internal tension. Pink receives a call from his wife, but instead of relating the conversation, Waters uses internal dialogue to inform us of a barren relationship characterized by physical and emotional distance:

What shall we use
To fill the empty spaces
Where we used to talk?
How shall I fill
The final places?
How should I complete the wall?

Q: How should I complete the wall? Answer: Do what rock stars and sports heroes have done for centuries. GET YOURSELF LAID! “Young Lust” injects some rough, blues-based rock into the mix, featuring Gilmour on both lead vocal and guitar. Although the more acclaimed solo is yet to come, David Gilmour is consistently great throughout this album, and seriously (and appropriately) on fire for “Young Lust.” The E-minor key adds a touch of darkness to the mix that complements the dark, subliminal urges of man-in-search-of-sex-object:

Will some cold woman in this desert land
Make me feel like a real man?
Take this rock and roll refugee
Oooh, baby set me free.
Ooooh, I need a dirty woman.
Ooooh, I need a dirty girl.

Sadly, the hot sex doesn’t do the trick of flushing the loneliness out of Pink’s system, so he makes an international call to his wife . . . and a man answers the phone (gasp!). Well, shee-it, bro, what did you expect? Pink isn’t in the mood for anything like accepting mutual responsibility for the marital failure, so he broods his way into the song “One of My Turns.” I haven’t mentioned the film, but though Floyd does a pretty good job of helping the listener visualize what’s going on, this is one scene that definitely works better in the cinematic version. The setting finds Pink in front of the hotel room telly, staring without watching, replaying the demise of his marriage in his head while an awe-struck groupie tours the luxurious suite, gaping, gawking and rambling on, asking silly questions to which Pink pays no attention. The music is quiet and just a little bit off . . . with the low-register organ’s phrasing slightly out of sync with Pink’s vocal (which is slightly out of sync with the rhythm). This passage ends with our out-of-sync hero finally arriving at some form of resolution:

And I can feel one of my turns coming on.
I feel cold as a razor blade,
Tight as a tourniquet,
Dry as a funeral drum.

Then WHAM! The music leaps from still to loud and Bob Geldof (in the role of Pink) leaps from superficially calm to fucking out of his mind, completely destroying that suite in two minutes flat and scaring the living shit out of the groupie in the process (he actually cut his hand on a Venetian blind during the filming). Returning to the song, Waters plays his part to perfection, managing to sound both manic and pitiable at the same time once he realizes there’s someone else in the room witnessing the explosion:

Would you like to call the cops?
Do you think it’s time I stopped?
Why are you running away?

Gilmour is again outstanding on guitar and Nick Mason has a wonderful time fueling this piece with hard rock bash.

At this point, both narrative and music become darker, occasionally crossing the line into derangement. “Don’t Leave Me Now” wins the prize for Most Dysfunctional Song on the Album with its clashing chords and deliberate disconnection between the vocal and background music. It’s clear that Waters is using extreme dissonance to reflect Pink’s crumbling psyche, but this shit is positively painful to listen to. I have the same reaction to “Don’t Leave Me Now” that I have to Jackson Pollock’s work when he overdoes it with the black—extreme loathing. That loathing is intensified by Pink’s closing line: “I need you, babe, why are you running away?” Because you’re a major league asshole, you self-pitying piece of shit! Though the song eventually transforms into something we mere mortals can identify as music, the shift falls far short of relieving the listener of the trauma inflicted by the first four minutes.

Deciding that the world is going to do fuck all to help him (smart lad), Pink announces his descent into vulnerable narcissism in “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 3,” a shorter and more muscular version of the album’s theme song:

I don’t need no arms around me
And I don’t need no drugs to calm me
I have seen the writing on the wall
Don’t think I need anything at all
No! Don’t think I’ll need anything at all
All in all it was all just bricks in the wall
All in all you were all just bricks in the wall

Apparently not trusting the listening audience to get the message that Pink is headed in the wrong direction by disappearing into his asshole and throwing a tantrum, Waters tacks on “Goodbye Cruel World,” where Pink officially bids the outside world adieu. It sounds like the manipulative shit that some of my friends tried to pull in high school to get people to feel sorry for them, which I believe is the point. Pink really wants help, but he’s too frightened to ask—not an uncommon response in a world where asking for help is viewed as a weakness.

This hypothesis is confirmed by “Hey You,” where Pink appears to regret his decision to tell the world to go to hell. The introduction and first verse provide a perfectly lovely, melancholy entrance to the song, featuring arpeggiated acoustic guitar using alternative tuning that eliminates the bass from the bottom string by replacing it with a string that raises the pitch by two octaves, creating some marvelous overtones. Gilmour sings the first two verses (as Pink), then delivers another thrilling solo before turning the mike over to Waters, who steps in as narrator to update us on Pink’s mental state . . . and then magically transforms himself back into Pink. This is one of the flaws that has marked many a rock opera: the failure to assign consistent voices to the characters. It’s so community theatre. Ray Davies was the worst offender, playing nearly all the roles in the Preservation play—Flash, Mr. Black, The Tramp, even one of Flash’s molls—despite having access to a singing brother and two hired female hands. The Wall would have been much easier for the average fan to follow had Waters sung all of the first-person parts and gave Gilmour the rest . . . or vice versa . . . or used one of the singers he hired for background and operetta duty to take on a role or two.

We hardly need a second reminder of Pink’s failed attempt to reach out from behind the wall, but we get it anyway in the form of “Is There Anybody Out There?” All the track does is repeat the title four times over bottom-heavy synth, random noises, choral insertions and TV chatter. I think it might have been more effective to drop “Hey You” and just let “Is Anybody Out There?” demonstrate the isolation; the repeated lines are sufficient to make the point, while the soft, clean guitar arpeggio does a better job of establishing the mood of fragility.

At this point, Pink takes stock of his rapidly collapsing personality in the song “Nobody Home.” Having alienated everyone around him, all he has left are a few meaningless possessions, a “Hendrix perm,” “a silver spoon on a chain,” and “thirteen channels of shit on the TV to choose from” (obviously a pre-cable sentiment). Ah, the glamorous life of a rock star! Nothing like watching Gomer Pyle reruns after a healthy snort or two (yes, that is Jim Nabors in the background)! The salient point is that Pink is now isolated from humanity, and if you had walked into his hotel suite at this moment, you might conclude that you’ve encountered another rock star who has hit rock bottom.

Not even close. This dude is intent on plumbing the depths.

The descent picks up steam with “Vera Lynn,” a reminiscence of the British singer who crooned “We’ll Meet Again” to give hope to soldiers and comfort to those keeping the home fires burning. The introduction of excerpts from the film Battle of Britain reminds us that Pink and his father did not meet again some sunny day. The appearance of orchestral strings hints that Pink has connected with profound emotions concerning the loss of his father—an uncompensated loss, an unresolvable problem. “Vera Lynn” fades into the martial snare drums that open “Bring the Boys Back Home,” eighty-seven seconds of cacophony that Waters identified as the central organizing song on The Wall in a BBC Radio One interview shortly after the album’s release:

 . . . it’s partly about not letting people go off and be killed in wars, but it’s partly about not allowing rock and roll, or making cars, or selling soap, or getting involved in biological research, or anything that anybody might do . . . not letting that become such an important and ‘jolly boy’s game’ that it becomes more important than friends, wives, children, or other people.

Amidst the operatic noise, you can hear Waters’ genuine anguish, especially on the line “Don’t leave the children on their own, no, no.”

After nearly drowning in a flood of traumatic childhood memories and rattling wartime nonsense, Pink (apparently) exhausts himself and winds up in a catatonic state. Someone in management (off-screen) arrives to take him to tonight’s show and decides that Pink is unable to make the gig in his current condition. Cancellation is out of the question (think of the cost!), so they bring in one of the more unethical members of the medical profession to administer the necessary dose of whatever works so Pink can make it through the two-hour set. Recalling his own experience when he agreed to an injection to relieve stomach cramps prior to a show, Waters worked with a fragment of melody Gilmour had developed to complete “Comfortably Numb.” Here Waters plays the role of doctor and Gilmour a version of Pink capable only of internal dialogue. While this is yet another violation of character consistency, there is no question that Waters’ voice was more suited to the role of creepy doctor and Gilmour’s to the dampened model of Pink.

Though the two “argued over ‘Comfortably Numb’ like mad,” the result is one of Pink Floyd’s finest moments. Michael Kamen’s orchestral arrangement is top-notch and beautifully conducted so that the orchestra never overwhelms the musical and lyrical narratives. In the places where an amateur might build to a thrillingly inappropriate crescendo, Kamen had the wisdom to pull back for a soft landing. Waters’ parts are reminiscent of classic Pink Floyd numbers like “Brain Damage,” integrating restraint with a certain eerieness, expressed here through vocal echoes and orchestral swoops. In Gilmour’s chorus passages the music becomes slightly more intense, balanced by Gilmour’s sensitive and realistic portrayal of a man in a state of confusion trying to make sense of what appears to be an illusion. The rightly famous guitar solos were created from several scraps of solos Gilmour had been working on; he patched the best performances together to create what you hear on the record. If that sounds like cheating, well, get over it—it’s pretty much standard practice today. Recording and performance are two different art forms that require slightly different skill sets and present different challenges to an artist. All I know is that when that last solo is coming, the anticipation nearly overwhelms me, but Gilmour exceeds my expectations every time.

Changing gears to a sound somewhere between Beach Boys and doo-wop, Gilmour continues as Pink-in-a-fog for “The Show Must Go On.” Bruce Johnston helped Waters design the harmonies, an excellent choice given his stunning work on “Disney Girls” (Waters had asked the Beach Boys to record those harmonies, but they backed out at the last minute). Waters still managed to assemble a more-than-competent group of singers (including Toni Tennille), resulting in the most beautiful harmonies to ever grace a Pink Floyd record. Meanwhile, Pink worries about whether or not he’s too old for this rock concert stuff, wonders if he can remember the words and is still reeling from the numbing effects of the injection. The song fades to the sound of the welcoming crowd and the power-packed motif of “In the Flesh.”

What follows is intensely disturbing on many levels. After repeating the opening lines of the initial rendition, “In the Flesh” takes a very dark turn, with its ugly lyrics intensified by Waters’ completely unhinged vocal:

I’ve got some bad news for you sunshine,
Pink isn’t well, he stayed back at the hotel
And they sent us along as a surrogate band
We’re gonna find out where you fans really stand.

Are there any queers in the theater tonight?
Get them up against the wall!
There’s one in the spotlight, he don’t look right to me,
Get him up against the wall!
That one looks Jewish!
And that one’s a coon!
Who let all of this riff-raff into the room?
There’s one smoking a joint,
And another with spots!
If I had my way,
I’d have all of you shot!

The obvious question is why Waters felt he had to go there, spewing homophobic, anti-Semitic, racist bullshit. I go back to something he said to Mark Blake in Comfortably Numb – The Inside Story of Pink Floyd: “I kept saying to people on that tour, ‘I’m not really enjoying this … there is something very wrong with this.'” That something is the mass adulation you find in virtually any arena-size concert, where the crowd imbues their rock heroes with god-like status. It’s not a big leap to imagine a narcissistic celebrity exploiting that dynamic and demanding that his worshippers fall into whatever line he’s peddling, be it religion or hate-filled politics. The Nuremberg rallies demonstrated how even relatively sane people can lose it under the hypnotic powers of a charismatic leader; despite Pink’s beyond-offensive message, the song ends with the crowd shouting his name, ready to follow him into the darkness. “In the Flesh” therefore serves as a warning, a passionate appeal directed at each individual in the crowd to reject the urge to sacrifice native intelligence and common sense for the adulation of any leader and to refuse to get caught up in the unconscious, irrational behavior of a mob.

The next two songs place Pink in concert, squarely in the center of a fascist hallucination, threatening the crowd and screaming his head off like a mouth-foaming Hitler (“Run Like Hell”) and imagining himself “sitting in a bunker,” waiting to destroy his imaginary enemies (“Waiting for the Worms”). The latter echoes the line in Waters’ third-person narrative in the middle of  “Hey You” (“And the worms ate into his brain”), indicating that his descent into madness has been one of slow, relentless disintegration (“worm” is also used later as a moniker for individual fascists). “Waiting for the Worms” features a choral arrangement that intensifies the effect of the frightening voice coming through a megaphone, echoing the wildest dreams of the racist-fascist National Front:

Waiting to cut out the deadwood.
Waiting to clean up the city.
Waiting to follow the worms.

Waiting to put on a black shirt.
Waiting to weed out the weaklings.
Waiting to smash in their windows
And kick in their doors.

Waiting for the final solution
To strengthen the strain.
Waiting to follow the worms.

Waiting to turn on the showers
And fire the ovens.
Waiting for the queens and the coons and the reds and the jews.
Waiting to follow the worms.

Would you like to see Britannia
Rule again, my friend?
All you have to do is follow the worms.
Would you like to send our colored cousins
Home again, my friend?
All you need to do is follow the worms.

Suddenly Pink gets tired of the fantasy life of a fascist dictator in the very brief (thirty-one seconds!) “Stop.” This is a rather inadequate transition that doesn’t explain much at all, and just as suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of an operetta, where we learn that Pink has decided to put himself on trial for the crimes of showing feelings and attempting to reach out to his fellow human beings. Waters plays most of the roles (and plays them exceptionally well), many of which represent characters from Pink’s past who dwell on his many perceived shortcomings. The operetta is exceptionally well-arranged and executed (as is the film segment), and it’s not hard for the listener to grasp that all of this is happening inside Pink’s head. What I find most interesting about the piece is that operetta is usually a form limited to light comedy and sometimes farce; applying the form to such a weighty topic as mental illness would seem a poor choice. Actually, the opposite is true: the sonic environment created and directed by Michael Kamen is actualized madness—listening to the music makes you feel like you’ve walked into a circus tent full of macabre clowns where funhouse mirrors have replaced the canvas. The over-the-top acting and florid choral support reinforce the sense of broken boundaries and uncomfortable excess. The piece is rock-and-roll-free until Gilmour enters with a motif from “Another Brick in the Wall,” adding to the build as the judge passes sentence:

The evidence before the court is
Incontrovertible, there’s no need for
The jury to retire.
In all my years of judging
I have never heard before
Of someone more deserving
Of the full penalty of law.
The way you made them suffer,
Your exquisite wife and mother,
Fills me with the urge to defecate!
“Hey Judge! Shit on him!”

Since, my friend, you have revealed your
Deepest fear,
I sentence you to be exposed before
Your peers.

Tear down the wall!

The chorus shouts “Tear down the wall!” until the sound of demolition tells us that Pink is wall-free.

The sound of a concertina introduces “Outside the Wall,” where Pink/Waters are joined by a children’s chorus to deliver the lesson from the fable. It’s a witty little piece that deserves to be quoted in full:

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

In one tidy little swoop, Waters managed to reinforce his central message (the importance of reaching out to others) and express the frustration of the artist or caregiver who has a hard time getting their message across to people who live their lives in fear and ignorance. I love how Waters traded out “head” for “heart” in that last line, emphasizing the emotional drain of the encounter with “some mad bugger’s wall.”

Some people are annoyed that Waters doesn’t tell us what happens to Pink after the collapse of the wall. But he does! The circular narrative tells us that like any other human being, he’s going to go through the whole process of trauma/construction/deconstruction again and again and again. The next growth experience will involve a new or repressed trauma . . . that will cause Pink to build another wall . . . that will lead to weird, anti-social behavior . . . that will eventually trigger some kind of wall demolition experience . . . leading to a new round of trauma/construction/deconstruction. Tip: It’s better to experience the circularity than imagine it. While doing my research for this post, I had to fly to Budapest on business, about a two-hour flight once you factor in the usual bullshit. That gave me an opportunity to listen to The Wall straight through, without interruption. Once “Outside the Wall” ended, I was very surprised that instead of moving to the first song on the next playlist, the iPod took me back to the start of The Wall, and I could hear “Isn’t this where we came in?” as one unbroken sentence. “Aha!” I shouted to no one in particular, earning a raised eyebrow from my fat, grumpy seatmate.

So yeah, Pink’s going to go through it again—we’re all going to go through it again. This is life, people! We are separate, isolated creatures who simultaneously fear and need other human beings. Our other-directedness causes us to present a touched-up picture of ourselves to the world in the hope that people will like us, but that false front only increases the sense of isolation. We’re never going to break the cycle unless we abandon all forms of pretense, and that is a very, very scary proposition for most people, especially in a world that values image over substance.

Despite a few flaws and occasional lapses into over-personalization, The Wall is a remarkable creation with a simple but powerful message: don’t try to go it alone. At a time when the human race seems irreversibly committed to fear and division, that may be a hard lesson to learn, but the truth is that the protective power of the wall is an illusion, a security measure that increases insecurity.

Break down the walls!

2 responses

  1. When I was a teenager, Pink Floyd was THE group for me, and The Wall was THE album. I drifted away from Floyd around my mid-twenties, as I expanded my musical tastes, and it was just a few years ago, around age 50, that I bought up all the Pink Floyd CD reissues and began listening to them again in earnest. However, The Wall is the one Floyd album that I haven’t really been able to reconnect with. Maybe it’s because I was so into it as a teenager that it brings back unpleasant memories of those mostly unhappy years. Maybe it’s because the album is so structured that it feels claustrophobic and does not allow enough room for interpretation. And part of it may be that I’ve been influenced by a lot of negative criticism that I’ve read about the album over the years. So your well-written positive review of The Wall is very welcome. This will help me to approach the album in a more positive way when I listen to it in the future.

    I agree that the narrative holds together pretty well, and I agree that David Gilmour is in great form throughout. This was the last time that he and Roger Waters collaborated well together, as Gilmour did not like the material for The Final Cut and only put his stamp on a few of the songs from that album. (Which, for my money, is the final Pink Floyd album. The Gilmour-led Floyd did nothing for me.) Gilmour has always been my favorite rock guitarist–a master of melody and texture. He had a distinctive style, and he could do it all.

    Roger Waters did take some artistic license with his story. For example, he said he always had a good relationship with his mother and that the mother in The Wall was nothing like his own mother. The lines, “Momma’s gonna make all of your nightmares come true/Momma’s gonna put all of her fears into you” may be a little too blunt, but this is sometimes what mothers do to their children (either accidentally or on purpose), so I don’t have a problem with them. I’m also okay with the anger in the line, “Daddy, what’d you leave behind for me?” I’ve heard that sometimes people can feel anger toward those who have died, and this may be especially true of a young child whose parent has died. It’s not rational, but it seems possible.

    I’m with you all the way on “Don’t Leave Me Now.” That one is torture to listen to, and you didn’t even mention the labored breathing that is audible throughout the track. I think the album really hits its stride on side three, with “Hey You,” “Nobody Home,” and “Comfortably Numb,” plus the beautiful acoustic guitar solo on “Is There Anybody Out There.” But then side four is like a descent into hell, beginning with “In The Flesh.” It is too intense for me because I can’t fully commit to the album in the way I did when I was younger. The Wall as a whole is still pretty damned impressive though. That’s awesome that your iPod looped it so you could hear “Isn’t this where we came in?” as one sentence. Sometimes these newfangled music listening devices create happy accidents.

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  2. I’m glad you included the Waters quote about the Wall being “my finest achievement.” Whether or not that statement is true, the fact is that the Wall is far more a Waters solo album than a legit Pink Floyd album. As much as I enjoy much of the Wall, it always sounds like an egomaniac hijacking a legacy and murdering a great band – I can’t get past that. I think if it had been packaged as a solo album it would have aged more gracefully.
    Also, my favorite song from the era isn’t on the album. When the Tiger Break Free opens the movie version of the Wall and was included on some versions of the Final Cut (another Waters defacto solo album abusing the Floyd name/legacy.) That song tells the tale of the father being killed in the war, and it is, IMO, the single greatest song of that period and one of Waters all time best songs.

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