Note: some readers may find some contents of this post offensive or disturbing.
When we grew up and went to school
there were certain teachers
who would hurt the children in any way they could
by pouring their derision on anything we did
exposing every weakness
no matter how carefully hidden by the kids
but in the town it was well known when they got home at night
their fat and psychopathic wives would thrash them
within inches of their lives
The song begins with the sound of a helicopter and children’s voices, then the sound of a man (Roger Waters) with an affected thick Scottish accent, shouting “Hey! What’s this? Guards, get on with it!”
Immediately thereafter we get a heavy downbeat of D on guitar, bass, and drums. The guitar resumes the D ostinato rhythm from the previous track. After four bars, the bass descends in a G minor scalar pattern to establish a temporary tonality of G (probably G minor). Two bars later the tonality is transposed to A minor, with the same ostinato rhythm. The lyrics are chanted over this ostinato with transpositions up a third or down a fifth at the end of a phrase. The “but it was well known” portion is accompanied by the same G minor downward scale heard earlier. Once the lyrics complete, a chorus (originally scheduled to be the Beach Boys) sings alternating F and Bb chords, settling on a C chord (C7), which wants to resolve to F major. This tension is left hanging at the end of the track.
The lyrics are a prose poem. I found it difficult to determine where lines break- ultimately, I think the only natural break happens as marked here (“kids/but”). The lyrics are more spoken (or hollered) than sung, though there remains a vestige of tonality to them. Before the line break the lyrics are spoken in a soft but sinister voice. After the break they are shouted. There are some notable approximate rhymes (school/could; night/wives/lives) but it’s difficult to tell if these rhymes were intentional or were meant to create a structure. In the terminology of Pat Pattinson, the rhyme scheme adds to an already tremendously unstable song.
The story told here is straightforward. The title is sarcasm; Pink recalls his school days (we’re clearly in past tense now) and recalls unpleasant and hurtful teachers, represented here by the character of the schoolmaster. He also remembers feeling powerless except for the revenge fantasy that his tormenter is also suffering.
Early drafts of The Wall apparently developed the character of the schoolmaster, seen here as a hostile caricature. He appears on The Final Cut album (“The Hero’s Return”) as a disillusioned World War II veteran who can’t relate to the children he teaches or to others, not even his wife:
Sweetheart, sweetheart, are you fast asleep? Good.
That’s the only time that I can really speak to you.
There is something that I’ve locked away
A memory that is too painful to withstand the light of day
When we came back from the war
the banners and flags hung on everyone’s door
we danced and we sang in the street and the church bells rang
But the burning in my heart
the memory smolders on
of the gunner’s dying words
on the intercom…
We don’t see this human face, with whom we could empathize, of the schoolmaster in the final version of The Wall. Here he is a caricaturized puppet (in the live shows) who metes out abuse to the children he teaches by day, and who in young Pink’s imagination receives the same treatment at night.
We don’t really know what Pink’s teachers were like. They may indeed have been stern and abusive. We know, however, that Pink is telling the story in hindsight, and we know that he is not only an unstable narrator as an adult, but was full of angst and anxiety as a child, which likely distorted his perceptions of others, including his teachers and headmasters. Likely the truth is somewhere in the middle. As a work of fiction, there is no truth to be known on this matter, really. The only issue is how Pink’s perception of his treatment at the hands of his teachers affected the development of his character- which will be addressed in the next song.
The primary purpose of this piece is to introduce the schoolmaster and set the listener up for the next piece- “Another Brick In The Wall- Part 2.” The two pieces are so closely tied that they were released together as a hit single; casual listeners probably don’t realize the two are separate pieces.
In the live versions of this show (both the 1980 Pink Floyd tour and the Roger Waters shows), technicians begin stacking “bricks” in front of the band, gradually building a wall between the band and the audience.