Here’s a new regular feature. I was a little surprised to look down a list of the biggest-selling albums ever and realise that there was a good number I’d never really heard. Most of these records are such a pervasive part of our culture, and their songs are on the radio so often, I’ve never felt the need to sit down and listen to the albums those songs originally came from.
Last time, we looked at the Eagles’ Hotel California. Let’s see what we quietly desperate Brits were up to while the heads on the West Coast were getting mellow.
While considering myself something of a Pink Floyd fan, I’ve always avoided the band’s last two albums with Roger Waters at the helm, The Wall and The Final Cut. The latter’s reputation for impenetrable bleakness proceeds it, while The Wall is a concept album with more than a hint of the theatrical about it, and that’s never really been my thing. Frankly even after having my opinion on Floyd turned around by hearing Dark Side of the Moon properly, I still scorned The Wall.
Presumably The Final Cut is a still more gruelling experience than The Wall, but I can’t imagine there’s a darker album that’s racked up anything like The Wall‘s sales. At 80 minutes long, it’s a punishing listen. I went been through it all four times in 48 hours, and frankly, it left me in a rather odd mood.
It begins with the band at its most aggressive. In the Flesh?, rather than beginning the story of Pink, the album’s anti-hero, seems to address the band’s audience, although whether the narrator is Pink or Waters (or whether there’s a meaningful distinction to be made at this point in the record), is up for debate:
Tell me is something eluding you, sunshine?
Is this not what you expected to see?
If you want to find out what’s behind these cold eyes
You’ll just have to claw your way through this disguise
Roger Waters’ strained, cracking voice (the dominant one on the album, with David Gilmour getting comparatively few lead vocals and Richard Wright none at all) is accompanied by a heavy riff in 6/8 time that sounds oddly like Queen – grandiose and stadium ready – but without Queen’s warmth or exuberance.
Let’s stop a minute to discuss sound. Dark Side of the Moon remains to this day a hi-fi buff’s demo record. Alan Parsons’ production and engineering work is among the most impressive accomplishments in popular music. The Wall is a very different sounding beast. By this time, the band was working with Bob Ezrin, who’d made his rep producing mainly hard rock and metal acts, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Aerosmith and the Babys among them. He gave Pink Floyd a bigger, colder and less intimate sound than they’d had before, with a huge, undamped kick drum. It’s an arena-sized sound for a band that knew they’d be recreating the songs in arenas. Some sources claim The Wall was one of the earliest digitally recorded albums, but this isn’t something I’ve been able to confirm. Either way, the sound of the record is an integral part of the experience, and given the enormous dynamic range of the material, its natural home would seem to be CD and other digital formats, even as it arrived in stores a couple of years too early for them.
The album continues with The Thin Ice. The song, split vocally between Gilmour and Waters, again sounds like a prelude to the main story. We’ve not yet met Pink’s overbearing mother, but what other persona could Waters be adopting?
At this point, we do finally meet our protagonist, Pink, and the rest of side one tells us the story of his early years: the death of his father during the war (Another Brick in the Wall Part 1), his schooling (The Happiest Days of Our Lives and Another Brick in the Wall Part 2) and his suffocating relationship with his mother (Mother). About Another Brick in the Wall Part 2, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you, though I should say that I find it a more powerful experience in the context of The Wall than on the radio; I never really felt the depth of Waters’s fury when he and Gilmour yell in unison “Hey! Teacher!” – the anger is palpable.
Anger may be The Wall‘s defining emotion, but Mother ends the first side on a note on a note more of dread than rage. The knotty structure of shifting time signatures defeated Nick Mason, so Toto’s Jeff Porcaro was brought in as a sub, and he aced it, as you’d expect, but the complex rhythmic structures only work because they’re part of a composition that’s harmonically and linguistically simple; otherwise they’d just be showy. Here, as elsewhere on side one, Waters makes effective use of straightforward, childlike language to tell the child Pink’s story:
Mother, do you think they’ll drop the bomb?
Mother, do you think they’ll like this song?
Mother, do you think they’ll try to break my balls?
Oh, Mother, should I build a wall?
Mother seems to me to be the heart of side one, the song that really sets up the story, and it’s followed at the start of side two by another one of the album’s key texts. Goodbye Blue Sky, while very pretty, is also extremely ominous. At this point in the story, we assume, Pink is no longer a child, yet he’s unable to let go of his memories of the Blitz, of life under constant threat: “The flames are all long gone, but the pain lingers on.”*
The rest of side two tells of Pink’s growing alienation and psychological disintegration, with One of My Turns and Don’t Leave Me Now the centrepieces of the suite. One of My Turns features Waters’ most ragged (deliberately so, I think) vocal performance, by turns darkly hilarious (“Would you like to learn to fly? Would you? Would you like to see me try?”) and profoundly despairing, as when his voice drops in pitch and intensity over the course of the final phrase “Why are you running away?”
This leads into one of the album’s most troubling songs, Don’t Leave Me Now. Over an extremely unconventional harmonic structure (Eaug |D♭maj7 | B♭7 |G Gaug), Waters’ strangulated vocal is that of a man at the end of his rope, while what he’s actually saying is horrifying. He gives two reasons for needing his departing wife: “to put through the shredder in front of my friends” and “to beat to a pulp on a Saturday night”. Until this point, our sympathy has been with Pink, even as he turned into a macho swaggering cock on Young Lust. After Don’t Leave Me Now, whatever sympathy we have for him is tainted, even if we read the beating he alludes to as metaphorical rather than physical.
By the end of side two, Pink’s wall is complete (Goodbye Cruel World), and side three begins with the beautiful Hey You. The song is credited solely to Waters, but Hey You’s arrangement seems to have come mostly from Gilmour – the unconventional use of a modified Nashville tuning (in which the lowest four strings are replaced by strings an octave higher, and in this case a low E two octaves higher) suggests the input of a guitarist, while the sinuous fretless bass playing is credited to Gilmour. Gilmour takes the lead vocal for the first half of the song, too, with Waters taking over as the intensity increases when Pink realises he can’t escape the wall he’s built for himself. One of the song’s strongest musical touches is the way the opening four notes of the Another Brick in the Wall melody reappear two minutes in as a heavy riff under Gilmour’s lead guitar.
Nobody Home goes some way to humanising this new version of Pink. Alone and despondent, he produces an inventory of all the things his success has bought him, and how none of it matters as he’s still alone.
I’ve got the obligatory Hendrix perm
And the inevitable pinhole burns,
All down the front of my favorite satin shirt.
I’ve got nicotine stains on my fingers,
I’ve got a silver spoon on a chain.
Got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains.
I’ve got wild staring eyes
And I’ve got a strong urge to fly,
But I got nowhere to fly to.
Ooh, babe, when I pick up the phone
There’s still nobody home.
Waters’ voice is a strange instrument, brittle and somewhat stiff, with a papery top end that sounded like that of an old man even when he was in his twenties, but on Nobody Home, singing near the bottom of his register until the end of the second verse, over a backing of piano and orchestra, his performance is hugely effective, and I can’t imagine any other singer, however accomplished, doing better.
Vera and Bring the Boys Home return us to the themes of side one. Pink (and, of course, Waters, whose father died at Anzio) remains haunted by the war, what it did to those who fought, and what it did to those left behind. In that context, Vera Lynn carries huge metaphorical weight, not just for Pink (and Waters) but for anyone of the same generation. Younger listeners, I suppose, cannot hear this song quite the same way as those for whom hearing Vera Lynn singing We’ll Meet Again was part of a foundational shared cultural experience, but nonetheless I find it very moving.
Side three ends with Comfortably Numb, about which you probably don’t need to be told. More than just one of The Wall‘s most famous tracks (in the UK, the most well known is Another Brick in the Wall Part 2, which was a number-one single, but I can’t speak for other countries), it’s one of the band’s most iconic songs, with Gilmour’s guitar solos justly held up as some of the best in rock music history.
Side four sees Pink completely unravel and imagine himself as a fascist dictator and his concert as a huge rally. It begins with The Show Must Go On (the first line of which is “Must the show go on?”), the sense that something is wrong heightened by the incongruous Beach Boys-style backing vocals that are actually out of tune with the track. Then we get a horrifying reprise of In the Flesh (without its question mark), in which Pink is now an Oswald Mosley-like Blackshirt, railing against gays, Jews and black people and screaming how they should all be shot. It’s extremely unsettling.
Run Like Hell begins with one of Gilmour’s most exciting riffs, a series of triads with delay played over a D pedal tone. The song maybe never quite lives up to its riff, but it’s narratively essential, as it’s here that the crowd at the gig become a rioting mob, chasing after the “riff-raff” inventoried by Pink during In the Flesh. Waiting for the Worms switches back to Pink’s POV as he barks orders and hatred through a megaphone, while also restating the album’s most recognisable musical leitmotif: the grinding 4-note E minor riff from Hey You, itself the opening notes of the melody from Another Brick in the Wall.
At this point, Pink puts himself on trial, and is found guilty by the judge, who orders that the wall be torn down, and the album ends with a sprachgesang-ing Waters over the dance-band style melody we heard right at the start of the album, before the heavy riff of In the Flesh? crashed in.
So, what of the quality of the album itself? Of course, its sheer scale, musically and thematically, is impressive, and among concept albums it’s notable for its sheer dedication to its own premise. Everything here advances the story in some way, and the way it’s programmed into four suites, with its crossfades and segues, is both elegantly designed and technically accomplished.
Not all the music, though, is to my taste. While I’d concede its narrative importance, the track Young Lust is a low point – Pink Floyd were not a band made for louche Stonesy R&B, and Gilmour’s growled vocal is unintentionally comic, I think. He just doesn’t convince. The Happiest Days of Our Lives, while containing some cool bass playing from Waters, doesn’t add much to the album’s critique of the education system, and the dwelling on the beatings doled out by wives to their schoolmaster husbands is juvenile.
My bigger problem with the album, though, is that it seems to be telling two stories, both of which work well on their own terms, but don’t quite fit together. I find myself completely won over by the story of the young Pink, never quite able to process the loss of his father and brutalised by a harsh education system. I buy that an overprotective mother could damage her son still further trying to compensate for the loss of a husband and father from family life. As the child grows up and finds a void within him, it seems psychologically reasonable that he’d look to fill it with things, while finding it hard to relate to other people emotionally, eventually building a protective barrier around the parts of his psyche that are most damaged. All of that seems to me psychologically realistic, well handled by Waters’ songs and successfully brought to life by the band.
What doesn’t quite work for me (thematically, rather than musically), is the jump from that to Pink’s hallucinating that he’s a fascist dictator. It feels like a chunk of the story has been missed out along the way. Side four feels cut off from the rest of the album’s themes, even as the music is successful on its own terms. Of course, it was Waters’ misgivings about his relationship to his fans, his profound estrangement from them on the 1977 In the Flesh tour, that led to the creation of The Wall in the first place, but it feels to me like in the process of writing The Wall the early-years material took on a life of its own, and ended up becoming the more compelling part of the story.
Ultimately, these are minor quibbles. The Wall is still a massive achievement. That it took me until the age of 36 to hear it is partly a reflection of my own taste, partly a function of the band’s unfashionability for much of my adult life, and partly to do with its reputation as dark and misanthropic in a way I didn’t feel like I wanted in my life. Now I’ve heard it, I can’t say I’ll come back to it often, but it’s pretty radically altered my perspective on the band and Waters in particular. Which is what I was hoping for.
*I haven’t mentioned the Alan Parker movie adaptation of The Wall, as we already had enough to get through, but it would be remiss of me if I didn’t say at this point that Gerald Scarfe’s animation work is extremely impressive throughout, and his visualisation of Goodbye Blue Sky is one of the most haunting moments in the film.
While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.