The Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania is holding a 10-day e-mail discussion on Pink Floyd’s album The Wall later this month (Modpo people, you probably go the same e-mail from Al that I did). I could not resist signing up to participate, and I thought it would be a good idea to blog on the discussion, as well as my own understanding and appreciation of this work. Pink Floyd’s work, and this album has had a significant impact on me as a musician, at least when I am playing or writing rock music or popular music.
I originally planned to hold off on writing these posts until the discussion started, but I’ve decided to start early, primarily because I fear that I won’t have time to do the work justice if I wait until then. It’s better to start now and take my time.
What I’d like to do is go through the work, piece by piece, and explore it with you. My aim in doing so is to expand my understanding of the work, to develop as a critical writer, and to have some fun. I’d love to get discussion going here, so please do jump in.
Please note that I am not trying to do a thorough academic work. Frankly, while that would be fun to do, I simply don’t have the time for that. As such, one of the concessions I will make is that I will share bits of background history and apocrypha I’ve picked up over the years that contribute to my understanding of the piece- but I don’t intend to cite references. I have no intent at plagiarizing anyone- I simply don’t remember which interview I read on which website I got such-and-such from, and if I take the time to go back and cite references this effort will never get done. Instead, I will acknowledge up front: if you see something in these posts that you wrote- yes, I may well have learned it from you, and you deserve to be cited. Tell me and I’ll cite you. I also acknowledge up front that some of what I write may simply be wrong- perhaps because my recall is wrong. If you need an academic level of certainty on anything I write here, I encourage you to do your own fact-checking. I’d love to see what you’ve got- and to be shown I’m wrong. I’m always up to learn something new.
Before I begin, I would like to alert those readers who aren’t familiar with this work- this is definitely R-rated stuff. There is a great deal in this work that can be (and is) offensive: misogyny, violence, racism, Nazism. I obviously do not know Roger Waters personally, but I am under the impression that he is an ardent pacifist and is passionately against each of these. I am as well. I don’t believe for a moment that Roger Waters intends to condone these traits or behaviors, and to be clear, I certainly do not. To me, Waters uses them in a way that is artistically coherent and relevant- indeed, integral- to the development of the character whose story he is presenting. This is certainly not Waters being a provocateur for its own sake. I believe he intends to portray these in a very negative light. For the sake of those who are not familiar with this work, when blogging on a song with (my estimation of what appears to be) offensive material, I will warn you ahead of time. Please be assured that it is not my intent to offend anyone. If I have done this job well, you will see how these offensive representations contribute to the whole of this work.
I first heard The Wall in 1987, when I was 16. I’m almost 100% sure I heard Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon first. To a kid that was fairly naive, growing up in a household where you only heard the “oldies” (which in those days meant the ’50’s) or easy listening, Dark Side of the Moon was a revelation, and The Wall was even more so. Somehow I wandered over to 105.9 FM in Chicago, which back in those days on Sunday nights they would play through several classic albums. I made it a habit to be there taping. I had a huge collection of tapes that way, which I finally got rid of a couple of years ago when they were finally too degraded to play.
I was a shy, awkward kid and like many that age, I didn’t grow up easy. The Wall was like nothing I had ever heard, or even imagined. I didn’t understand it at that age, but I had the sense that whoever wrote this thing, *here* was a guy who gets it to be me. I can still remember the intensity of hearing it that first time. It felt like I had tasted forbidden fruit. This was serious stuff here, and I never looked back.
I saw (what was left of) Pink Floyd in 1988 at the Rosemont Horizon outside Chicago. By then Roger Waters had left the band, Rick Wright was there but not legally part of the band anymore, and that incarnation suffered from not having Waters. It was more like a weak David Gilmour solo effort. Still, for that young kid it was an incredible experience. That concert tour was documented in the live album Delicate Sound of Thunder. There was the obligatory renditions of “Run Like Hell” and “Another Brick in the Wall Part II,” but they simply didn’t work without Waters.
Last summer (July 9) I saw Roger Waters perform The Wall at the PNC Arena in Raleigh. I have some photos and video clips that I’ll share as we go along.
I have since performed a few pieces from The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon on various occasions. If memory serves, I have performed “Goodbye Blue Sky,” “Is There Anybody Out There?,” and have recorded “Mother” and “Nobody Home.” I’ve played “Hey You” for over 20 years but never had the opportunity to perform it. No self-respecting rock guitarist goes without learning the solo to “Comfortably Numb” and the riff from “Run Like Hell,” and I was no different. I had the idea at one point to cover the entire album as an exercise- but that just seems crazy now, as I’d rather work on my own stuff. I discovered writing my piece for the songwriting class that- not surprisingly, as a bassist like Roger Waters- his way seems to have creeped into my psyche. I see the final piece I did for the songwriting class as having a strong Pink Floyd influence, as if the Floyd and Neil Young got together for a jam.
A little background leading up to the creation of the wall (for those who aren’t familiar):
– In 1978, Pink Floyd were in bad straits financially. I don’t remember the details but they owed a lot of tax money. They needed to come out with a new album to pay off their tax debts. There was therefore a lot of pressure to get an album done and get it done quickly. This would have an effect on the rising tensions within the band, the end result of these tensions being the departures of Rick Wright and Roger Waters from the band.
– In 1977, Pink Floyd was on their In The Flesh tour to support their Animals album. They were playing large arenas, which is commonplace now but back then was a new thing, and the band found it a frustrating and alienating experience. (The Beatles experienced something similar, and quit playing live altogether back in 1966). One night, David Gilmour was so frustrated that he refused to perform their usual 12-bar blues encore. Roger Waters got hepatitis during the tour, and was given a shot of something (I’m not sure exactly what) to “keep you going through the show” (when he probably should have been at a hospital). This experience appears later in The Wall.
One night, Waters became so frustrated and angry at some unruly fans that he spat on them. He was shocked at what he’d done. He started to imagine building a wall between the band and the audience, playing from behind the wall, which was the kernel of the idea for the story.
– Roger Waters never knew his father. He was a baby when his father was killed at Anzio in World War II. If I’m not mistaken, he was killed by bombardment from a Stuka divebomber- but that may be more apocrypha than fact. The loss- and absence of his father- is a key point in the story.
While waiting to go into the arena to see The Wall, I found an interview Waters gave a few years ago. In this interview, he said that after years of psychotherapy he’d come to learn that he believed as a child (and carried into adulthood the unspoken belief) that he had killed his father, in the way that children egocentrically ascribe all events to themselves. Reading this helped me fit the last few pieces of my own confusion about this piece into perspective.
There are several incarnations of The Wall. There is the original 1979 album, to which most of my discussion here will be restricted. A film, directed by Alan Parker, was released in 1982. There are a few musical differences in the movie, which I’ll point out where relevant, but I won’t dwell on it since I haven’t seen the movie in probably 20 years. It’s a difficult movie to watch, but Roger Ebert includes it as one of his “Great Movies.” There is a live recording of Roger Waters and an all-star band performing it at the Berlin Wall in 1990. In 2000 a recording of Pink Floyd’s 1980 live Earl’s Court performances was released, titled “Is There Anybody Out There?” Waters has been touring The Wall live the last few years, including the show I saw last summer. It’s touring Europe now, I believe. There is also now available a box set called the “Immersion” set. I don’t know what’s in it or whether it’s worth checking out.
While the plot derives some semi-autobiographical features from Roger Waters’ life, it’s important to keep in mind that this is a work of fiction, and not meant to be in any way autobiographical. Some features are also borrowed from Syd Barrett, founder and former leader of the group who melted away into drug abuse and madness in the late 1960’s.