“-we came in?”
Some time during the late seventies, Roger Waters presented the band with two possible projects that they could work on for their next album. One of them was a concept piece about an emotionally-disturbed rock star who would deaden the memories of his troubled past with drugs and television. The other was another concept piece (what a surprise) that seemed far too personal to the rest of the other band members, so they decided to go with the former. That project was called The Wall, and it was more than just an album in the mind of Roger Waters. It was a multimedia phenomenon combining an album, a stage show, and a film all revolved around this one concept. As expected, this project allowed Waters to maintain even more creative control on the band, holding them in a vice grip and even kicking out one of the founding band members mid-production, Despite these problems, what came out of the gunfire and rubble was their biggest work since Dark Side of the Moon.
Seeing how the album stretches over two discs, I’m not going to do a complete song-by-song routine. Even if I did do that, my efforts would have been futile considering how concise of a narrative this album has. The Wall is the first real concept piece that the band had put together, creating a story that could easily translate over into movie and theatrical from, the latter of which Waters is currently working on, possibly as an attempt to preserve live interpretations of the story long after Waters has passed from this Earth. Even so, my inner theater fan is itching to go to at least one showing of this.Taking a hint from The Who, Waters decided to work with concrete characters plowing through an allegorical storyline. Since the story is being told through such an amorphous medium as music, the narrative would have been at risk of exposing major plot holes and other writing errors, but surprisingly, I could follow the story extremely well. There were no major problems with the narrative and everything made logical sense as far as the universe of the story goes. Add the fact that it’s a psychoanalytical piece and this story seemed to have been tailor-made for me. Of course, I took the bait, but I loved what I got out of it.
The character of Pink, the protagonist of the story, seems to set himself up like a house of cards. The first disc of the album is dedicated to Pink’s past, how he got to where he is in the story, and how he has been able to build a metaphorical “wall”, a form of self-inflicted isolation, between himself and the rest of the world. “In the Flesh” brings us to an integral part of the story with a parody of self-indulgent rock acts that seemed to have popular at the time, but the bombast and adrenaline-pumping production makes way for the lulling and cautionary “The Thin Ice”. One thing about that track, and for the rest of the album, is that David Gilmour’s contribution to the album is slowly being diminished to the rank of session musician. His influence on the music is barely there aside from several tracks on the album. In terms of where you stand as a Floyd listener, the Pink Floyd sound is either fading or getting stronger.
The anvil of the disc can be found in “Another Brick in the Wall, part I”, the first of many expositional tracks on the album, which tells about Pink remembering his father, who died while serving his country in World War II. If you have some knowledge of Pink Floyd history, this may sound very familiar to you. It’s easy to take this track out of context and relate it to -what else- Roger Waters remembering his soldier father, which is basically is. Some of the tracks are so unavoidably autobiographical that it should be able to bring out facepalms from some of the most cynical listeners. Still, when you think about it, did the album get as big as it did because people were listening to it for Waters’ sob story? Ignoring that, it’s just a piece of fact given to understand the character more and nothing else.
The biggest piece of story in the album is the linked track “The Happiest Days of Our Lives/Another Brick in the Wall, part II”. This is the disco track of Pink Floyd’s career, but even they can make disco sound good. The thumping beat and bass do much to underscore the rebellious nature of the lyrics, which often cause the song to be misinterpreted out of context by the masses as a protest song against the establishment. “Yeah, school sucks,” they think, when really, it’s about the manipulative, assembly-line method of education that Waters is picking at, where schools only prep children to be robots without a sense of individuality. “Brick, part II” is catchy, the closest thing to a dance song that the band has written, and the basis on which Gilmour plays a thick, bluesy solo, one of the best of his career. The song has every right to be a radio hit, but unlike “Money”, this is one that I would like to fade into obscurity.
“Mother” is one of the most frightening tracks on the entire album, and fittingly enough, it’s followed by the bleak anti-war track “Goodbye Blue Sky”. The former is an introduction of the relationship between Pink and his mother, a helicopter parent who means well, but she is willing to go as far as prevent her son from enjoying a life of his own in order to protect him. What makes this song more harrowing are the vocal styles, one desperate and the other calming, for both Waters and Gilmour, who sing as Pink and his mother, respectively. “Blue Sky” isn’t much of a pick-me-up, either. The minor chords and twinkling acoustic would work well against images of war-stricken victims.
The best juxtaposition between songs on the disc would have to go to “Empty Spaces/Young Lust”. The former, a shortened version of the much-superior “What Shall We Do Now?”, radiates Pink’s plea for human compassion and communication. Cut to “Young Lust”, which fills that void like junk food to a hungry person. The latter is fun, vibrant, and daring. Pink Floyd was never really known as “sexy”, but this comes close. With all the storytelling that’s going on on the album, it’s nice to see that the band still had an experimental spirit flowing through some of the tracks. “One of My Turns” is Pink snapping on a groupie he brings to his hotel room. Waters’ delivery on the track proves that he’s more of an actor than a vocalist. For an album like this, having that kind of ability compensates for a lot. “Don’t Leave Me Now” is a little repetitive, but it’s nice to see the album slow down once in a while and allow the listener to collect their thoughts. the pace picks up again with “Another Brick…part III” and “Goodbye Cruel World”. The desperate cliffhanger will probably make you want to throw the album against the wall for being so angsty or make you want to continue due to its intrigue. The choice is yours, but take my word for it…it’s worth it.
Disc 2 opens with “Hey You”, an o.k. opener as a song (the “it was only fantasy” verse was especially awkward melodically) but, like the rest of the lyrics, definitely get the ball rolling for the purpose of the second act: to try to tear down the metaphorical wall that Pink is isolating himself in. “Is There Anybody Out There?”, despite having only the title as lyrics, is a much more effective piece. The ambience and sound effects in between the lines perfectly capture Pink’s isolation and inability to reach out to others. That is carefully illustrated in the almost-a-musical number “Nobody Home”. Here, we get a taste of the orchestral tinges that are scattered across the disc, making this the stronger act of the two in terms of music. “Vera/Bring the Boys Back Home” settle the father/son dilemma once and for all. What starts out as a beautifully yet pompously orchestrated middle finger to the war that took Pink’s father away, however, descends into a noise of voices and haunting memories. An impressive face-heel turn on Waters’ part.
We now go to what is probably the best-known (and best) song on the entire album: “Comfortably Numb”. Waters’ has stated in a radio interview last year that he and Gilmour had some troubles deciding who would write what while making the song. Eventually, it ended up with Waters writing the lyrics and the melody of the verses and Gilmour taking on the chorus. This is evident in the styles that they’ve written them in: Waters’ is gray, mournful, and puts a heavy emphasis on the Pink’s feelings while Gilmour’s chorus has an uplifting melody that shines through the song like a ray of light despite the discouraging lyrics. The listener is also treated to two of some of the best guitar solos ever recorded. If The Wall could be narrowed down to one track, it would be this one.
How do you stand up to a song like that? Well…not exactly with Beach Boys-esque filler, but that’s what we get with “The Show Must Go On”. Fortunately, it’s short enough to make a nice lead-in to “In The Flesh”, Pink’s prejudiced rant influenced by the hallucinogenic drugs he was given before he left to perform his concert. During this song, he sees himself as a fascist leader commanding his “army” of fellow followers. Not only can this be seen as Pink imagining himself as one of the monsters that took away his father, but it can be seen as snide commentary of rock worship as well. Even with the connections to Waters’ father in this track, I can’t help be see an indirect influence from David Bowie’s Thin White Duke character in here as well.
“Run Like Hell” and “Waiting for the Worms” don’t do a whole lot for the story as far as progression goes, but musically, they’re some of the best tracks on the disk. Both of the songs chronicle Pink’s tirade into the streets as he aims to kill anyone who isn’t a part of “the perfect race”. “Run” borrows a riff style that Gilmour had experimented with in the track “Short and Sweet” from his self-titled solo debut. The sonic sounds of the guitar, chorus, and synths make this more than fitting for any Pink Floyd light show. “Waiting” uses a militaristic rhythm to tell that part of the story, featuring Waters on a megaphone shouting nearly-incoherent ramblings at his cohorts. The build on the track, up until “Stop”, is incredible. It’s like reaching the worst part of a nightmare that seems like it doesn’t want to end.
“The Trial” is the climax of Pink’s psychoanalysis, where Pink evaluates himself in a sort-of eccentric trial that’ll prove whether or not he is worthy to exist. Waters provides the voices of all the members of the court, including the Judge and Pink’s Wife. Again, his delivery in this track is more convincing than his singing, which makes me wonder why he never took up a side-job in voice acting. The song is primarily orchestral, making it sound like a rejected song written by Danny Elfman for a scrapped film project. “Outside the Wall” is the open-ended conclusion to the album. Even Waters himself doesn’t know how the album really ends. It’s up to interpretation based on what the listener thinks. I think that the album is in a cycle because of the brief spoken bits that are at the very beginning and end of the album, but take that with a grain of salt. And with that, the curtain closes.
Whenever I listen to songs from this album, I don’t imagine a 36-year-old Roger Waters singing them. Instead, I imagine Waters now in his old age ranting and raving the lyrics with as much emotion as he can muster. What that means to me is that Waters was much wiser beyond his years. Even in his late 20s he was thinking about death and going insane when penning the lyrics to Dark Side. Even now, I find it impressive that, while he wasn’t that young, he was still young enough that he had much of life to experience before making any just opinions on the themes he discusses in The Wall. Yes, there are blatant references to Syd Barrett and Eric Fletcher Waters on the album, but as I stated earlier, not everyone is going to go into the album with an encyclopedic knowledge of Pink Floyd and weed out all the references. Those kinds of people are usually the ones who dismiss the album as pretentious and self-indulgent. For me, this album helped me come to grips with a very hard time in my life. Not to sound sentimental, but once upon a time, I built a wall of self-inflicted isolation to cope with the fact that I barely had any friends and that I was a little on the “weird” side. Detaching myself from that connection, I still find the album very enjoyable. It had something for me to sink my teeth into: a little in-depth characterization for me to pick at while listening to nicely written and performed music. It’s a win-win situation. Check this one out if you like a little “meat” on your rock lyrics with some excellent musicianship to boot.
“Is this where-“5/5
Key tracks (disc 1): “Another Brick in the Wall, part I”, “The Happiest Days of Our Lives/Another Brick in the Wall, part II”, “Mother”, “Goodbye Blue Sky”, “Young Lust”, “One of My Turns”
Key tracks (disc 2): “Hey You”, “Is There Anybody Out There?”, “Comfortably Numb”, “In the Flesh”, “The Trial”