The Wall (1979)
The last Pink Floyd album to feature all four integral members, The Wall has for many fans and critics been a point of as much contention as the album that would follow it, The Final Cut. A magnum opus by any standards, the album is seen as much the work of an egomaniacal, self-obsessed Waters as it is the “true” final statement of one of rock and roll’s greatest bands. Both claims are somewhat justified in light of the album’s visionary focus coming almost solely from the intensely personal experiences and emotional perspective of Waters, and also with regards to the album’s inclusion of the classic lineup, as Wright would be fired by Waters two years after its release.
However, for all its enormity and conceptual magnitude, The Wall’s origins and overall premise are rooted to the band’s humble beginnings and, more specifically, their former band mate’s inability to grapple with himself or the world that surrounded him. Like much of Pink Floyd’s story, the creative impetus for The Wall has been well-documented including the most well-known story of the band’s unpleasant interaction with an especially rowdy group of fans in Montreal providing the ultimate catalyst for the album’s creation. The last show of the band’s In the Flesh Tour, the incident especially affected Waters who’d gone so far as to spit at a group of the unruly fans.
Whatever success may have been afforded Pink Floyd by that time, what became ultimately clear was that the disconnect between the band and their audience and, more importantly, the rapidly growing rift between the members themselves were both proving detrimental to the group’s future. In a testament to the band’s creative vitality, The Wall’s meta-narrative concerning Waters’ own misgivings about the band’s success pairs eerily well with the storyline’s literal mirroring of the isolation and mental depravity that Barrett had experienced years earlier largely due to the same issues, albeit in the context of an already ill mind.
Waters’ use of his own personal experiences and the erratic behaviors he’d witnessed from Barrett as a dual inspiration for the album’s focal character, Pink, provide a fascinating dynamic, however unintentional it may have been, to the overall storyline of The Wall. Whereas Barrett’s isolation came as a result of the exacerbating effects of drug use on his already unstable mental condition, Waters’ own isolation had come gradually by way of grief over his father’s death and the growing disillusionment with and detachment from his identity as a “rock star.” Though both lives contribute to the album’s overt theme of isolation, the origins are indisputably disparate.
Over the course of the album’s hour and twenty-odd minutes, Waters uses his already well-polished metaphorical skill set to eviscerate everything from the recording industry to the educational system to the patriarchal (and yes, even matriarchal) corruption and villainy of the British government. In contrast to the album’s predecessor, Animals, The Wall found Waters in a state of emotional vulnerability, with the musician replacing the former album’s seething rage with the latter’s hopeless desperation. The result is an album that seems less an autobiography for Waters (see: The Final Cut) or an homage to Barrett (see: Wish You Were Here) and more a painfully accurate portrayal of the band who created it.
From start to finish, The Wall is an overture to the perils of rock stardom and the inevitable betrayals of self it brings to those artists who achieve it. What might have otherwise lent itself handily to epic-scale self-loathing for virtually any other band served a different purpose for Pink Floyd with The Wall as the songs and overall storyline speak to the most viscerally human commonalities of fear, regret, and grief. Channeled through what are some of the band’s most powerfully enduring songs, The Wall allowed Pink Floyd the rarity to write an album about the introspective struggle of their celebrity without sacrificing its merits to self-important posturing of the highest order.
Beginning with a pointedly titled “In The Flesh?” Waters’ primary writing credits are immediately apparent with the song’s overtly theatrical flair hovering over the song’s cautionary tale characterization. From there the album shows itself to be a compositional deviation for the band with the previously elongated and largely improvisational songs replaced by a relatively short pop rock-ready framework. Even with the transition, the songs of The Wall are not augmented in terms of what was already well known as the band’s penchant for uninhibited insight and depth. In fact, the songs seemingly follow the deliberate pop rock formula almost like a clever wink from Rogers to the band’s earliest days as a more radio friendly band on the verge of commercial success.
To that end, The Wall could be seen as a deliberately overwrought declaration of isolation and disillusionment with Waters hedging his bets on a full-scale production and the self-mocking underpinnings of the album’s entirety. Whatever creative direction he may have initially set into motion for the album, Waters’ meta-narrative quickly became nearly indistinguishable from the realities of Pink Floyd’s past as well as those impending fractures of their immediate future. Regardless of the album’s finality as a work of art, The Wall’s most compelling trait is its harrowing portrayal of the rise and fall of the very band performing it — an effect unlikely to have been deliberately rendered by the band members themselves.
Alongside what would become some of the band’s biggest commercial hits like “Another Brick In The Wall Part 2″ and “Comfortably Numb,” The Wall contains the metaphorical domesticity as war tracks such as “Mother” and “Goodbye Blue Sky” — two tracks that find a rare lyrical moment for Waters in his exploration of matriarchy and its representation both of the government and his own struggles in growing up without a father yet surrounded by the ghosts of his memories in war memorabilia. The illusion of presence, both paternally and artistically, takes thematic center stage for much of The Wall, translating many of the songs into a near frenzy of paranoia and self-doubt.
The album’s constant questioning both of Pink to himself and to the world he inhabits no doubt reflects the achingly introspective projections of Waters himself, and with the album’s methodical deflection and avoidance of any semblance of an answer to those questions, it achieves the purpose, however grand in scale, of what its name and its creator intended. Another unlikely intentional effect of The Wall is its musically foreboding compositions — all of which lighten the near disturbing darkness of Animals only to turn that same general cynicism inward to devastating results. With its theatrical eccentricities and offhanded melodies such as those found in the harmoniously brooding “The Show Must Go On” or near the album’s close with the Broadway-ready “The Trial,” even The Wall’s most sonically inviting songs are the very wolves in sheep’s clothing suggested throughout the album’s entirety.
Though much of what carries the plotline of The Wall is Waters’ obsession with the pitfalls of success personified by the character Pink, the album is inexorably tied to the musician’s grief over his own childhood as well as the loss of innocence both he and his band mates had endured through the ironic fate of their nearly incalculable success. The album’s exploration of that grief is most successfully translated in its longest track “Comfortably Numb” — one of only three songs on The Wall that would be credited to both Gilmour and Waters. The endless accolades and praise heaped on the song is more than well deserved not simply for Gilmour’s phenomenal blues guitar craftsmanship but for the aching vulnerability of the lyrics running parallel to the music’s lonesome narrative.
Thirty-five years after its release, The Wall still feels strangely linked to a cultural pulse seemingly defined by its celebrity status or the pursuit thereof. As massive in scale as it is, the album’s most compelling characteristic is in its cruelly honest depiction of what emotional and mental costs Pink Floyd had incurred in the pursuit of art. It would not prove itself to be the band’s most musically successful attempt at retrospective as the album occasionally falters under its own weight, but The Wall is exactly the beast it means to be in showing the inherent isolation and detachment culminating from the well-deserved but equally as formidable successes of the band.