Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Top 100 Albums - #14: The Wall (1979)

Pink Floyd's fifth chart entry is The Wall, a double-concept album rock opera which resulted in one of the most elaborate tours in rock history.
Following the release of Wish You Were Here (1975), Roger Waters' influence over the musical direction of Pink Floyd began to grow. Following the tour, the band invested a large amount of money in the creation of Britannia Row Studios, described by Nick Mason as a place that "could take on the grim and claustrophobic qualities of a nuclear bunker".¹ It was in these (suitably) dark surroundings that Animals (1977) emerged, with Waters writing, co-writing and/ or singing all five tracks. The tour that followed saw the band playing huge stadiums, often filled with people who came not for the music but for the drugs and the buzz of the crowd. On July 6th 1977, at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, Waters finally lost his temper and spat in the face of a fan trying to climb up the barricade. The band returned to Britain alienated and exhausted. While David Gilmour and Rick Wright busied themselves with solo albums - David Gilmour and Wet Dream (both 1978) - and Mason turned producer for The Damned, Waters set to work on the components for a masterpiece that would revive the Floyd's fortunes.

It is in these bleak surroundings that The Wall emerges. 'In The Flesh?' kicks off the first half in unusually subdued style. After the brief and as yet inexplicable snippet of dialogue - "... we came in?", there are a few seconds of calming harmonica. But don't be fooled. After about 18 seconds, the first guitar chord slashes through this sea of tranquility, hitting you right between the eyes without any warning. The chords are punchier and harder than anything on the previous album, and the whole feel of the song is so huge and expansive. It's a brilliant way to introduce the album, even before the explanatory lyrics come in.

'The Thin Ice' is much in the same vein, with a quiet beginning which slowly but surely mutates into an horrifically loud ending. At the start, where it is just Gilmour and Wright's piano, it all feels rather tender and soft. But the mood of the music is counterbalanced by the pathos-ridden words emanating from Waters' pen and Gilmour's mouth. Waters sings the more overtly dark second half, describing the sensation of being out of depth in the world. Then Gilmour lets rip with a series of amazing chords that make you feel like you are sliding down into the depths of an ocean filling with your own blood. This is a terrifying track, one which if listened to in a dark room will transport you closer towards the true meaning of fear.

Having come through this psychotic episode, 'Another Brick In The Wall (Part 1)' is, relatively speaking, a moment of light relief. Though he may have hinted at it on The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973, #23), this is the first instance of Waters writing openly about his father, killed at Anzio in World War II. While the first two tracks were more thematic, to get us in tune with the new Floyd sound, this introduces the character of Pink. Like Waters he has lost his father in war, feels neglected, and in response is beginning to erect a wall to protect him from the world outside. Musically it's very well structured, managing to sustain a repeating riff to create tension without sounding like filler.

Before long, though, the tea break is over and 'The Happiest Days Of Our Lives' comes hovvering into view. Quite literally in fact, since this track begins with the sound of a helicopter and the teacher's familiar yell: "You! Yes, you! Stand still, laddee!". Here Waters starts to get into his stride, railing against the education system of his childhood. Through the eyes of Pink he depicts the teachers as uncaring fiends, who take their aggression out on the children while being secretely beaten by their wives (one of many sick jokes in this piece, of which Waters seems to be a fan). Waters' bass playing has always been simplistic, but this is not a bad thing. Underneath his whispering and screaming, his simple chords slowly cut into you like a chisel while Mason's hi-hat buzzes around your head like a wasp stuck in a jar.

'Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)' is almost too famous to require much more being said. Of course, it is famous for the wrong reason, being known as the Floyd's only hit single rather than as an amazing piece of rock craftmanship. As I said in my review of Echoes (2001, #31), the true genius of this track is that it sounds more complicated that it actually is. Taken in its component parts, we have a decent (but not brilliant) set of lyrics, a nice (but not brilliant) guitar solo, a good-ish bass line and a fairly mundane drum part. But put these pieces together, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Like 'Money' on Dark Side, this is written and produced so that each instrument and section comes in at just the right time and for just long enough. No aspect, from the drums to the children's choir, is allowed to overstay its welcome or be cut short by the intrusion of something else. This has everything you could possibly want from a Floyd track: a powerful message, strong lyrics and amazing sound, all tied down to a hummable melody and played by brilliant musicians.

'Mother', meanwhile, is more subtle. Waters and Gilmour again share lyrics, only this time they take on the characters. Waters plays some simple but sweet acoustic on the verses, while relaying Pink's fears to Gilmour's overprotective mother. This is similar to both parts of 'Pigs On The Wing' from Animals in that the individual lines are spaced out, given room to breathe so that they stand alone as powerful statements. Gilmour is ideally suited to the part of the Mother, singing Momma's gonna make all of your nightmares come true in his usual bright, ethereal voice, thus achieving maximum irony.

'Goodbye Blue Sky' is probably one of the best anti-war songs ever written. From the childish cry at the start ("Look Mummy, there's an aeroplane up in the sky" - more irony) to the descending bass line at the end, it never fails to make your heart feel heavier. Unlike Waters' subsequent anti-war efforts, like on The Final Cut (1983, #49), this doesn't tell you directly what is wrong or what is to opposed. All we get in the lyrics are vague glimpses into human tragedy, which our minds then multiply until we picture a horror too unspeakable for words. Lines like The flames are all long gone/ But the pain lingers on are perfect for this purpose, and the images they convey is amazing, depicting war as some kind of loss of innocence. Gilmour's vocals meld beautifully with the acoustic to create a truly sensational piece of work - not just in its quality, but the way that it makes you feel.

Like 'Goodbye Blue Sky', 'Empty Spaces' only gives you glimpses. But here the glimpses come much later, and only after considerable build-up. For a song that only has four lines, it is surprising and a rare joy because it doesn't feel even remotely padded out. The repeated sound effects maintain the beat, while the distant wail of the guitar puts more pictures in your head. This song sees Pink wondering how he will fill the final places to complete the wall. The first note of the guitar is flung into the centre of the mix like a spotlight being turned on, showing the face of a demented Pink scouring his new concrete landscape. In the show this piece was much longer, incorporating a rant about humans' frenzied desire to not stand still; it was edited for the LP to make the music fit on the vinyl. But that doesn't matter, because like the edited version of 'Marooned' on Echoes, you still get plenty of majestic music that leaves you wanting more.

Having run out of bad experiences, Pink decides to become a rock star in 'Young Lust'. Gilmour takes the lead in this one, with his voice sounding rougher and his guitar playing just exuding menace. He shouts the opening line, which comes as a bit of a jump if you've had your ears pressed close to the speakers to hear what Waters is saying. But then that's appropriate, not just because Waters and Gilmour are completely different kinds of singers, but also because we are seeing a different side of Pink: the openly destructive, hedonistic side rather than the dark, self-pitying one. The simple macho chorus is punchy, as is Mason's drumming, while Wright re-emerges on the organ as a form of musical counterweight.

'One Of My Turns' sees the union of both Pinks, the old introvert and the new rockstar, in what turns out to be a lethal combination. Pink leads a groupie into his hotel room, only to take no notice of her advances and then proceeding to smash everything around him, scaring her to death. After the television flickers into the background, the keyboard enters the fray and the song begins properly. The first half is incredibly sinister: the lyrics drip from Waters' mouth like wax from a burning candle; Day after day/ My love turns grey/ Like the skin on a dying man is a fabulous opening line. Eventually, Pink explodes in a fury of drums and guitar, and Waters moves from a whisper to full-on screaming and shouting, so that it feels like he is attacking YOU.

'Don't Leave Me Now' is the first track to fall short of the mark. It finds Pink alone, having collapsed out of his fury with the news that his girlfriend has been cheating on him. He goes from angry to despairing, desperate, and even fearful. The main problem with this is that it feels lazily written. There is no sense of discipline over where the words and music join up, as if the band recorded a rather uneventful ambient track and then Waters improvised over it. While such techniques would serve him well on Amused To Death (1992), here they compromise the result.

'Another Brick In The Wall (Part 3)' refocuses the plot and the listeners, albeit a little unsubtly. Amid glass smasing, Pink completes the wall and realises his dream of perfect isolation from the rest of the world. The lyrics are more basic, and the music is familiar, but the pace feels more frenzied, as if Pink is moving a knife through his hand and then sealing his creation in his own blood. At 1:15, it's shorter than the other parts, but this doesn't matter because it successfully conveys all that needs to be said. All of which makes 'Goodbye Cruel World' pretty much superfluous. It's shorter, the title is hackneyed, the lyrics are obvious and musically it's flat, with a two-note bassline nicked from 'Careful With That Axe, Eugene'. This worked in the show, serving as a means to place the last brick. On record, this isn't needed, so it doesn't work at all.

The second half kicks off with 'Hey You', and finds the first pangs of regret beginning to take hold of Pink. Here his slow descent into madness begins with his desire for human contact, the very thing he has shut out in creating the wall. The verses chronicle this progress, with Pink first asking for feeling, then for contact, and finally for help, each time directed at a force he knows is there but that he cannot quite comprehend. In another sense, this is a song of two halves. The first half is Gilmour's, beginning with a sweet turn on vocals and a maelstrom of a guitar solo, while the second half belongs to Waters, melding together his bitterness and his empathy in one powerful cocktail.

'Is There Anybody Out There?' is a look spookier, with the mood changing drastically. Where 'Hey You' genuinely sought contact and the comfort which that brings, this is more suspicious. Waters' whispered lyrics echo across the mix like whispered yells over no-mans'-land. You feel with this song like you are a soldier crouched in a shell-hole, or perhaps a PoW dodging the searchlights in his bid for freedom. And all the while, at the centre of this suspicion and trepidation, the mood is haltingly and cleverly juxtaposed by the acoustic, faintly reminisent of John Williams' 'Cavatina' from The Deer Hunter (1973).

'Nobody Home' is quite simply astonishing. Continuing on from the previous track's sampling of film audio clips, we are taken back to the hotel room where a washed-up, burned-out Pink is listing his earthly possessions. It doesn't sound thrilling, but the execution of this 'list song' is superb. This in indicative of Waters' later solo work, like 'It's A Miracle' from Amused To Death. He starts with simple background music, and then the lyrics tumble forth in a sequence which, though random in real life, seems to flow perfectly and compliment everything. Everything about this little gem is wonderful. Waters sings/ speaks the lyrics with gravitas, leaving room for every impressive syllable. The strings and brass that are added later on create a wonderful mood that is tragic and nostalgic, with a military touch to it. And the inclusion of odd clips ("Surprise, surprise, surprise!") add humour in order to bring out the darkness. This is Waters at his finest.

Both 'Vera' and 'Bring The Boys Back Home' are too short and one-dimensional to serve any great purpose. They are at heart segues, designed to carry the plot rather than stand as songs 'Vera' is a mini-ode to Dame Vera Lynn, the famed wartime singer who was all but forgotten after 1945. Waters seems to be using this as a metaphor for how the ideals of 'the post-war dream' have slipped from memory, but he doesn't develop this in nearly enough detail. 'Bring The Boys Back Home' is just bizarre; the grouping of the screechy Waters with a deep male voice choir never really works. This does have one plus point, however. After the singing ends, a sound montage is slowly built up, which serves as a very good lead-in to 'Comfortably Numb'. Like 'Speak To Me' on Dark Side, it combines little motifs and snippets from most of the other songs, finally culminating in the echoey "Is there anybody out there?".

'Comfortably Numb' itself is one of the album's centrepieces. It is indeed one of the centrepieces of the band's repertoir, solidified by its performance on both the Pulse tour in 1994 and at Live 8 in 2005. So far all the songs of the second half have hinted at Pink's descent into madness, but this is the starting point for that actual descent. Rather than demonise Pink straight away, the band are very clever, presenting him as being pleasantly aware of the events going on around him. His body and brain are 'comfortably numb', swimming in drugs designed to keep him going through the show. The lyrics switch between the doctor (Waters) assisting the patient, and Pink (Gilmour) describing this new-found numbness in graphic and beautiful detail. Gilmour sings dreamily, guiding the audience into Pink's head so that they feel an organic part of the mix. Thus, when that award-winning guitar solo rears its head at the end, it feels like the soul of Pink himself is singing and thrashing around, taking the listeners with it. What a rock masterpiece this is.

'The Show Must Go On' is more segue, and therefore deserves little attention from us. Its purpose is to link the hotel room to Pink's arrival at the concert, something achieved without music in the film but difficult to do on an album. It's not completely superfluous, but it's hardly essential either. 'In The Flesh', meanwhile, is completely essential. Not simply a reprise of the first track, it is the unveiling of the new Pink. The rockstar has died a violent death, and in his place, amongst the organ and guitars, strides a blackshirted fascist dictator, ready to unleash himself upon an unsuspecting crowd, brimming with admiration. By employing female voices and selective echoes, the Floyd succeed in turning the rock concert into a gigantic rally in which no-one is safe and the adrenaline levels begin to rise.

'Run Like Hell' takes things ever further, both in consolidating the fascist landscape and raising the bar for Floyd songs to a whole new level. This is undoubtedly the best song on the entire album. Where previously you could be but a spectator, idly looking in, on 'Run Like Hell' you are thrust right into the mêlée with no means of escape. The mass experience dominates everything, with the heavy drums and loud bass taking you to the front row of a eardrum-bursting arena. The narrative is sustained magically, with Waters doubletracking and pushing his range to its uppermost limits. His voice is absolutely hypnotic as he snarls through the verses and screams magnificent lines like If they catch you in the back seat, trying to pick her locks/ They're gonna send ya back to Mother in a cardboard box. This is a frenzied and psychotic piece, which truly demonstrates the power of the Floyd's music. Not only will this send shivers down your spine, it will openly scare you, and yet thrill you at the same time.

'Waiting For The Worms' is just as good, although its role is very different. Pink is now in the grip of madness, and enjoying every minute of it. With the aid of a well-recorded megaphone, he barks out orders to his minions, directing them to follow the worms and bring about their destruction. A lot of this is an allegory of the Nazis' genocide, hence the references to Jews and the line (Waiting)/ To turn on the showers/ And fire the ovens. These must be taken with a pinch of salt, for Waters is clearly being ironic, setting up Pink as being an accurate but extreme representation of evil, so that people may not repeat it. The best part of this truly frightening track is the final speech. As it plays you can picture Pink smiling, then the smile turning to a forced grin, then a rictus, then gaping horror and finally the epic scream of 'STOP!'.

The actual song 'Stop' is the shortest on the album, at only 30 seconds long. It's the last so-called segue, being extremely brief and not especially deep; its only purpose is to start Pink's process of self-trial and coming to terms with what he has done. This is dealt with much better in 'The Trial'. Even if you haven't seen the film, which features the nightmarish animations of Gerald Scarfe, you can't help but be terrified by this track. Waters takes on all the voices, playing the various characters who are called to testify against Pink - the schoolmaster, his girlfriend, and his mother. While the lyrics are characteristically dark and sinister, their structure is unusual for a Pink Floyd song. It's less of a rigid pop song than a dark take on a libretto by Gilbert and Sullivan: the characters sing as they speak, and the song sounds more staged as a result. This is not a problem, however, since the content and production are still enough to make you jump out of your skin. The climax, where judgement is passed and Pink has to tear down his wall, is one of the finest conclusions to any rock song. If you listen to this in the dark first time round, be sure to have a defibrillator close to hand - because this is heart-stoppingly good.

As the dust settles, we end pretty much where we began. 'Outside The Wall' trundles merrily along on its harmonica and children's choir, appearing to neatly wrap up any loose ends so that we can all go home. But in fact, very little is left answered. Is Pink still alive, or did the process of destroying the wall kill him? If the latter, who is singing at the end? And is this really the end? The final question is addressed with the closing words, "Isn't this where...": the continuation of the opening words, "... we came in?" hint that this may be a continual process, to which Pink and ourselves are irreparably bound. It's certainly enough to get the little grey cells going.

The Wall may not be the finest album the Floyd ever made, but it still contains everything that made this band so great. From the dark, ambiguous lyrics to the complex yet hummable melodies, and all the conceptual touches, this extend and build on the previous three albums. Where Dark Side dealt with the human condition as an expression of empathy, Wish You Were Here looked at absence and the feeling of loss, and Animals explored the notion of class and the powers that be, The Wall is a deep and involving journey into the darkest reaches of the human subconscious, albeit a journey skewed by Waters' own experiences. It's not perfect: the jazzy touches of Dark Side have all but disappeared, and the second half can seem inconsistent. But when listened to as a whole, you will struggle to notice this, because the whole is so overpoweringly brilliant. This album will shock you, scare you, terrify you and thrill you in ways that you cannot possibly imagine. It will take you to the very brink of insanity and then blow your mind. It is essential listening for anyone who loves Pink Floyd, or anyone who wishes to go a little deeper into the darkest corners of the human mind.

4.04 out of 5

¹ Nick Mason, Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd, ed. Philip Dodd (London: Phoenix, 2005), p. 218.

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