Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Wall: 35 Years Later

Some animation from the film Pink Floyd The Wall. 1982.
So ya
Thought ya
Might like to go to the show.
To feel the warm thrill of confusion
That space cadet glow.
Tell me is something eluding you, sunshine?
Is this not what you expected to see?
If you wanna find out what's behind these cold eyes
You'll just have to claw your way through this disguise.

In September 1977, as I was beginning my college journey, the members of Pink Floyd discovered to their chagrin that they had lost the majority of the vast wealth they had accumulated off their recent highly successful albums and subsequent live tours.  They had hired a financial affairs firm that horribly mismanaged their money in all sorts of bad venture capital investments.  Eventually the firm went broke.  With only a fraction of their previous fortunes still intact Pink Floyd needed to do something.  Something big.  The only band mate with any big ideas at the time was Roger Waters.

"The scale of Waters' vision was larger than any of his band mates might have imagined.  'He came round my place in Chelsea, and played me the demos,' says Gerald Scarfe.  'It was all very rough, but he told me The Wall was going to be a record, a show, and a movie.  He obviously had the whole thing mapped out in his head." (Blake, page 261

I remember living in a college dorm during winter quarter in 1980.  My roommate and I crammed into a room a few doors down on our hall.  It was heavily decorated with rock and roll paraphernalia.  The two guys that lived there were having a small party in their room.  They were passing around a bong made out of a Heineken bottle.  I thought that was really cool.  Everybody was laughing and drinking beer and joking but on their stereo was a brand new Pink Floyd album that had just come out a few weeks earlier.  Just in time of the Christmas shopping season. 

One roommate got into this discussion with someone about the album, which I could not listen to distinctly but nevertheless kept thinking this is good music, really good.  What was the album about?  And I recall some sort of phrasing that involved the words "all this psychological shit, this guy puts this wall up between him and society...or some shit like that."  

I had not read much on the album and, indeed, did not become a serious Pink Floyd fan until after I bought my own copy of The Wall a few days later.  Up until then they were just a cool band that created Wish You Were Here and Dark Side of the Moon.  Rock news was not as accessible then as it is today.  If you did not read Rolling Stone or Billboard regularly, which I did not, then you were largely out of the loop. 

The rest of that winter and into the spring quarter my roommate and I listened to The Wall.  We played "Another Brick in the Wall (Part Two)", "Young Lust", "Hey You", "Vera", "Good-bye Blue Sky", "Run Like Hell", and "Comfortably Numb" dozens of times.  Sometimes just laying in the floor staring at the ceiling.  Sometimes with girls over and partying.  Girls were crazy about the album too. The album was a college status symbol.  If you owned and played it a lot you were totally cool to hang out with.  Music is like that at different times for almost every college student. 

Now let's jump forward in time.  Last year a friend of mine had heart surgery.  For whatever reason as he left the hospital he was singing out random lines from "In The Flesh".  It was humorous but I wondered why that tune was stuck in his head after all these years.  That is a trivial example of a much larger karmic force.  The Wall is one of the great rock and roll albums of all time and its resonance and relevance remains strong today. 

Back in 1990, when the Berlin Wall came down, Waters was soon thereafter in that storied German city for a historic performance that is really pretty good (see the whole show here).  It is not Pink Floyd but it is Waters at his theatrical best.  The final stage appearance of Waters, David Gilmour, and Nick Mason occurred when Gilmour agreed to perform "Comfortably Numb" for Waters in 2011 as part of the latest (and possibly last) The Wall tour. That extended tour has now ended and it became the third highest grossing rock tour of all time.

There are many reasons why this album remains significant and people keep paying all that money to see it performed many years after its release.  One is that it is a spectacular theater piece.  It is a true "show" as much as any Broadway caliber performance.  Another reason is that the music is superb.  As with my college days, this record gets played over and over again and stands up to repeat hearings, filtering into the subconscious of the listener to pop out now and then as with my friend following his heart surgery. 

The thematic material itself is a powerful draw.  The Wall is a metaphor of many things and each listener can apply their own meaning to the concept of the album.  It is about alienation, withdrawal, the challenges of living in the modern world, the pressures of society, drug abuse, sanity, memories of childhood, the search for love and meaning.  Really, The Wall is about many fundamental human experiences in modern life and how they can possibly find resolution.  If you have not personally felt or been exposed to some of its strong angst then you probably at least have a good friend or two who has.  

Everyone into rock music can relate to the messages of the The Wall as they perceive them. According to Phil Rose, The Wall was conceived in the mind of Waters during the years when Pink Floyd first toured before massive stadium audiences of 60-80,000 people.  Waters felt increasing frustration at the distance created between the band, the music, and these large numbers of fans who seemed beyond the reach of the music.  For that reason The Wall tour was performed entirely in smaller venues of 15-20,000 people.

Waters himself became so enraged at the behavior of some of the fans during the 1977 Animals tour that he actually spat at the audience during a performance.  He felt badly about this afterwards and pondered where this anger came from within himself.  Part of his answer was articulated in The Wall.  Waters realized what he had personally become in the act of touring and that, in turn, becomes the journey of Pink, the main character, in The Wall, which ultimate results in the tearing down of the wall that was built up throughout the performance.  

Rose writes of the conclusion of the concept album:  "That Pink's realization comes too late makes him a tragic figure, but through his symbolic gesture he emancipates himself from guilt.  Pink Floyd the group, under Waters' supervision, did likewise by choosing to perform the work in smaller venues - shows which proved to be the last that Waters would perform with the group.  Following the performances the barrier between the group and its audience came tumbling down, after which they strolled amongst the rubble and performed 'Outside the Wall' using acoustic instruments - a signification of authenticity and innocence, which was portrayed also by the children's voices on the studio version of the piece.  The work's ultimate meaning is allegorically powerful, and is best expressed by its author who says 'the show is about redemption, and we are redeemed when we tear our walls down and expose our weaknesses to our fellow man and sit around the fire and talk. That's the acoustic song at the end.'" (page 134) 

The album went through a difficult birthing process.  At the time only Waters had any motivation to come up with new material.  He still closely consulted with band mate Gilmour.  Waters offered Gilmour a choice between material for The Wall and material Waters was also working up for what would later become the first solo-Waters effort, The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking.  Gilmour wisely chose The Wall and went on to co-write three of the songs with Waters.  But Waters wrote virtually everything else. 

Unlike past albums , this was not a Pink Floyd collaboration.  The band was starting to fracture.  Mason was basically just around to play drums as needed.  Meanwhile, Richard Wright was going through a divorce, battling depression and a severe alcohol problem, and spent much of his time sailing on vacation.  Both Waters and Gilmour were upset with Wright for generally not contributing anything of originality to the album.  So, with Waters in the lead, the band basically fired Wright.  Wright would tour with Pink Floyd on live performances of The Wall but he did not receive the same revenues as the other three members.  He was only paid a per show fee, as any other session musician. 

Meanwhile, Waters pushed on.  Initial recording for The Wall began in July 1978.  Several studios were used during multiple extended recording sessions.  This gradually grated on everyone's nerves as Waters took on more authority to push the project through.  In truth, Gilmour and Mason were only marginally less lethargic about the project than Wright.  But they did show up and make contributions and argue with Waters over certain things.  Recording was completed in November 1979 just a couple of weeks before the album's release.  It had taken 17 sometimes agonizing months. 

The Wall went to #1 on the Billboard charts and stayed there for 15 weeks.  Sales of the record continued to be strong through 1990 when it reached the 19 million mark.  This was assisted by the strong Top 40 hit single "Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)". The initial tour was wildly successful as was the subsequent, rather famous performance in Berlin in 1990.  The Waters tour of The Wall from 2010 - 2013 grossed over $450 million dollars.  Detractors say this bloated success is evidence of the album's pretentious, self-indulgent, kitsch nature.  Obviously, I don't agree. 

Goose-stepping hammers from the film.

In 1982 the film version of the album came out.  I remember going to see it opening weekend and getting a free t-shirt which I still have today.  It seems to have shrunk with the passage of time (that is a joke haha) but it is still wearable though thinned with the passage of time, the imprint still legible.  The film itself was a terrific visualization of the music I had by now been listening to for two years.  It is not a "great" film. On my scale I'd give it a 7 overall but I am a huge fan of metaphorical films in general and this movie is heavily that way, just like the music it represents.  In some ways it brings the concept of the album into sharper focus.  Today it is part of my DVD collection.  (See a detailed analysis of the film (and subsequently the album too) here.

I particularly enjoy the animated sequences created for the film by Gerald Scarfe.  It was the first film I ever saw by Alan Parker, a talented and underrated director.  Overall, it was well received by the critics, with Siskle and Ebert giving it two thumbs up.  But, if the making of the album saw Wright torn from the group, the making of the film further fractured the Gilmour-Waters relationship.  The film is 10 minutes longer than the album so pieces of the music had to be re-recorded to fit with the cinematic timing.  Waters also wrote additional songs for the film.  These sessions brought on more animosity and a clash of Waters-Gilmour egos.

It seems the more The Wall morphed as a music and art project into in its many phases and expressions the more divisive it was for Pink Floyd.  Mason began to spend more time racing cars.  Gilmour would work with Waters on The Final Cut but their interaction as a team became minimal, their relationship adversarial, and it ended after that album, an appendix to The Wall really, which hit record stores (remember those?) in 1983. 

The Wall was released in the US 35 years ago this month. (See a recent Billboard interview with Waters about the enduring nature of The Wall here.)  It has been a steady but fading part of my adult life.  The only song from the album that I still listen to with any regularity is "Comfortably Numb" but I did pull out my CD (I still have my original vinyl record of it as well) of the album recently and enjoyed it as it brought back a flood of memories.  It is an 81-minute rock theater piece that is simultaneously, disturbing, nostalgic, tragic yet hopeful, with some really solidly rocking music that gets you grooving deep.  That is when I recalled that night long ago in the winter of 1980 when life was just about partying and having fun and passing classes and meeting girls; when The Wall first entered my mind as the backdrop to a student social gathering.

All alone, or in two's,
The ones who really love you
Walk up and down outside the wall.
Some hand in hand
And some gathered together in bands.
The bleeding hearts and artists 
Make their stand.
And when they've given you their all
Some stagger and fall, after all it's not easy
Banging your heart against some mad bugger's wall.

Pink Floyd circa 1980.  Waters, Wright, Gilmour, and Mason standing before The Wall.
Notes: David Gilmour performed "Wish You Were Here" publicly last night. Possibly riding the success of The Endless River, Dark Side of the Moon is back in the Billboard Top 20 tonight.  The immense endurance of this band is truly amazing. Pink Floyd produced 15 studio albums, this is how they compare on the Billboard charts.

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