If social media is any indication, every day seems to mark a new anniversary in rock history, with most being transparent PR ploys used to trump up sales of overhyped re-issues or to generate online and media buzz. However, in terms of true milestone moments in rock history, few top the release of Pink Floyd’s masterwork The Wall. Coming on the tail end of a remarkable run of albums in the ‘70s that stand with any in the classic rock canon (Meddle, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals), The Wall was a significant turning point for both Pink Floyd’s unparalleled career and high-stakes arena rock. It ended up destroying the former and re-inventing the latter.
By 1979, Pink Floyd had become an institution. Long removed from their Syd Barrett-led psychedelic blues incarnation (but not from the specter of Syd’s ghost), the band had long since hit pay dirt with 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon. Having reached its well-deserved place as one of the best-selling albums of all time, Dark Side marked the last time the “classic line-up” (conceptual mastermind Roger Waters on bass, David Gilmour on vocals/guitar, the late Richard Wright on keys, and Nick Mason on drums) would work as a peacefully collaborative unit. Having taken control of the lyric-writing and grand concepts, and still haunted by the death of his father during World War II as well as Barrett’s schizophrenic breakdown, Roger Waters would turn the Pink Floyd machine into a vehicle for his increasingly nihilistic, yet oddly humane worldview.
The writing of the album was sparked by a well-documented moment in the band’s history. Growing increasingly bitter over the impersonal atmosphere at most stadium shows, Waters’ bile reached a boiling point during 1977’s In the Flesh tour (in support of the Orwellian Animals). During the final performance of the tour at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, irked by the inebriated and obnoxious crowd (audience members were reportedly blowing off fireworks throughout the performance), Waters zeroed in on one unlucky teen, lured him closer to the stage, and spat in his face. The incident, combined with Waters’ desire to erect a wall between the band and the audience, would go on to influence the creation of Pink Floyd’s next magnum opus.
Thirty years after its release, The Wall still stands as Waters’ definitive statement. Arguably the best lyricist in the history of rock, Waters encapsulated themes he’d been developing since “Corporal Clegg” from A Saucerful of Secrets – the futility of war, madness, alienation, and the potential of human agency – into a harrowing concept that illuminates the downward spiral humans potentially face when closed off from genuine connection with others (decades before Nine Inch Nails would steal the concept outright to lesser effect). The narrative was personal, an amalgamation of his and Barrett’s lives: the protagonist Pink suffers the loss of his father to war, grows up with an overbearing mother, is victimized by the British school system, becomes a drug-addled rock star, is trapped in a faithless marriage, and becomes increasingly alienated behind his metaphorical wall with each incident in his unhappy life serving as yet another “brick” separating him from his humanity.
By the end of side 2 (in the original vinyl release), Pink has tried committing suicide (“Goodbye Cruel World”), survives in a drug-fueled dream state and by the third side of the then-double album, the story starts flashing back to his father’s military experiences (“Vera,” “Bring the Boys Back Home”), before even darker turns where the protagonist imagines himself as a Nazi-like hate monger and is ultimately put on “trial” for all his crimes against humanity. The wall comes crumbling down, but not without an eerie denouement that hints at a perpetual cycle of misery (the final words of the album, a very faint “Isn’t this where…” begin a sentence completed at the very beginning of the album – “…we came in?”). All in all, a heartwarming way to spend a quiet Saturday night.
All joking aside (even Waters himself has talked about inserting some much-needed laughs in his long-gestating Broadway adaptation), The Wall has a bit of a one-sided reputation as unrelentingly bleak. One of the things often overlooked in casual observations about the Floyd is the near-perfect balance between the dark, challenging lyrical themes and the chilling, yet uplifting beauty of the music. And this is where David Gilmour shines. His impeccable, elegiac guitar tone and airy, pastoral vocals are an indispensable part of the Floyd package (Don’t think so? Give any of Waters’ solo albums a spin). As with Dark Side, the songs are not Pink Floyd without his masterful touch on guitar, particularly on “Comfortably Numb”. Very few guitar solos match the emotional depth and power of Gilmour’s playing throughout this song. While Gilmour could easily be “outplayed” by any number of ‘80s metal shred-heads, his tone, touch, and feel outclass nearly every player in existence. He is in the vanguard. Elsewhere on the album, his guitar playing and haunting vocal delivery (“The Thin Ice,” “Goodbye Blue Sky,” “Hey You” etc.) offer a much-needed counterpoint to Waters’ histrionic “singing,” lending The Wall its only rays of light and turning it into as much a showcase for his talent as for Waters’ (a fact that would serve him well when he assumed leadership of the band in the late ‘80s).
Of course, Waters’ overpowering vision and increasingly autocratic treatment of the band ultimately tore the group apart. Richard Wright, an unassuming, but highly underrated part of the Floyd magic, was ousted for not contributing enough to the Wall sessions. The tour, a milestone in the history of rock theatre (laying the groundwork for subsequent over-the-top spectacles by the Stones and U2), would be the last time the key foursome would play together until their miraculous turn at 2005’s Live 8. In blatant defiance of Waters’ anti-stadium sentiments, Gilmour, Mason, and a re-instated Wright would tour the world’s largest venues throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as a reconstituted Floyd. Waters would continue to follow his thematic obsessions to lesser commercial success without the Floyd banner under which to hang his work. He would eventually find success as a touring act starting in the late ‘90s and early 2000’s. Both he and Gilmour, relying heavily on Floyd’s golden ‘70s period, continue to play to sold out crowds whenever they venture out on the road (with Waters going so far as to tour The Wall to enormous success from 2010-2013 including shows in, you guessed it, massive stadiums).
With the passing of Richard Wright in 2008, any hope long-suffering fans had of a full-fledged Pink Floyd reunion passed as well. Having exceeded all expectations with the Live 8 performance, there was reason to be hopeful, but the bad blood born during the recording of The Wall clearly had not dissipated in the ensuing years. While Waters was surprisingly open to reconciliation, for Gilmour the moment had long since passed and in all likelihood, the infamously fractious duo will never work together again. But they leave behind a body of work surpassed, arguably, only by The Beatles (coincidentally, another larger-than-life and ultimately self-destructive English quartet). If you discount faux-Floyd efforts like The Final Cut, A Momentary Lapse of Reason, and The Division Bell, it’s a highly satisfying legacy with a definite beginning, middle, and end. While Waters subtitled 1983’s The Final Cut “A Requiem for the Post-War Dream,” The Wall itself was a requiem for Pink Floyd. Thirty years on, its incisive and fiery brilliance (as well as political commentary) is as relevant and necessary as ever.