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Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Pink Floyd: The Wall

PINK FLOYD: THE WALL (1979)

1) In The Flesh?; 2) The Thin Ice; 3) Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 1; 4) The Happiest Days Of Our Lives; 5) Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2; 6) Mother; 7) Goodbye Blue Sky; 8) Empty Spaces; 9) Young Lust; 10) One Of My Turns; 11) Don't Leave Me Now; 12) Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 3; 13) Hey You; 14) Is There Anybody Out There?; 15) Nobody Home; 16) Vera; 17) Bring The Boys Back Home; 18) Comfortably Numb; 19) The Show Must Go On; 20) In The Flesh; 21) Run Like Hell; 22) Waiting For The Worms; 23) Stop!; 24) The Trial; 25) Outside The Wall.

General verdict: Still the best album about alienation ever written.


Is there life behind The Wall after 30? Back in 1979, the album became the personal Bible of many a frustrated adolescent — certainly its theme of alienation hit closer to home than some­thing far more symbolic and far less realistic as Tommy a decade prior to that. But as time went by and those same young people began to grow up, overcome their crises, broaden their scopes, and expand their horizons, more and more of them grew more dismissive and skeptical about the simple hooks, cheap tricks, exaggerated hyperboles, and emotional manipulation that lies at the heart of the album. More and more you would encounter accounts of the «...yes, I used to be a big fan, but fortunately, I grew out of it and moved on to more serious things...» variety — in fact, although I certainly cannot confirm it statistically, I do believe that The Wall only stands second to Jim Morrison in that respect.

In reality, The Wall suffers from all the typical problems of a pop record that dares to make a strong, concise, and mass-accessible artistic statement. Like any Waters-led album, it takes itself very seriously, while failing, at the same time, to explore its artistic and philosophical themes with the kind of depth one would expect from the likes of any «classic of alienation», be it Schopenhauer or Herman Hesse or even Leonard Cohen. It was a record made for mass appeal, even despite Waters' alleged despisal of the masses; its frequent use of contemporary arena-rock clichés and, occasionally, even disco tropes emphasizes that appeal, and its self-loathing, self-pitying, self-aggrandizing, self-humbling lyrics make it easy for people to equate themselves with the protagonist. (We don't need no education? We don't need no thought control? Now you're talking my language, mate!) Overall, when it comes to musical story-writing, Roger Waters is no Peter Hammill, Lou Reed, or David Bowie — although, granted, when Roger Waters intentionally tries to be sophisticated and modernist, the results can be even more embarrassing (there is a good reason, after all, why the rest of the band, when facing a choice between The Wall and The Pros And Cons Of Hitch-Hiking, never wavered before settling on the former).

Nevertheless, not everything in this life necessarily has to be ultra-complicated and multi-layered in order to be true — and a large part of why The Wall succeeds has to do with Waters making it autobiographical, sometimes to the point of mild disturbance. His own family history, his school experience, his colleagues, his women, his audiences are all partially reflected in the tale of The Wall, but the main underlying message is that of misanthropy. There are no positive characters in The Wall whatsoever — even Pink's own mother is an abomination — and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this more or less reflects Roger's own stance in this world. The Wall was an album that he must have loved making, regurgitating every single drop of hatred he had stocked up in his organism, and since the most important thing about art is passion, not intellect, it is hard not to admire the passion-for-hatred that populates every single song here, regardless of your own personal feelings towards Waters or towards humanity.

Additionally, one must not forget about the second most important person in the making of The Wall: not Gilmour, and certainly not Wright (who showed very little interest in working on the album anyway, and was eventually fired for lack of commitment), but Bob Ezrin, the mastermind behind all of Alice Cooper's albums from 1971 to 1977. It is Ezrin's touch, largely, that is respon­sible for The Wall featuring a far more «nightmarish» sound than anything Pink Floyd did up to that date — and a lot of the album's theatricality, all the way down to the Gilbert & Sullivan pastiches at the end, would have been unimaginable without Ezrin. This is usually served as another argu­ment against the album: namely, that Ezrin's participation had dragged Pink Floyd, one of the most serious and intellectual bands of their time, down to the level of Alice Cooper's macabre extravaganzas. However, for one thing, Alice Cooper's macabre extravaganzas were usually far more intelligent and intriguing than most people are willing to admit; and for another thing, sometimes a point is far more effectively driven home when it dons a black cape with a red lining, a top hat, and a pair of fangs hanging over its lower lip. Not always. But sometimes.

Then there are the simple defensive arguments — namely, that The Wall (and particularly its first half; the second half starts repeating itself too much) has lots of great songs. Short, concise, catchy, emotional, whatever, and they all make sense. Certainly, the decision to make ʽAnother Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2ʼ into a disco song was commercially calculated — but it is hardly a coincidence that the disco elements, coming from a mind-numbing genre that the band loathed, are used in a song that subtly protests against mind-numbing treatment of children in the stiffly conservative educational system. (It is too bad that when the movie came out, the association between stiff teachers, brainwashed adolescents, meat grinders, and robotic dance muzak never truly became a part of the public conscience). Likewise, the thick, meaty, testosterony, macho-masculine big riffs of ʽIn The Fleshʼ and ʽYoung Lustʼ are perfectly justified in their ironic deconstruction of the arena-rock stereotypes: Pink, by his very nature, is anything but a macho guy, but the nature of the game forces him into certain stereotypes, just as it forces Pink Floyd to slip into uncomfortable musical clothes to reflect this.

And all the neat production touches, too. An album cannot be bad if every single time that I listen to it, no matter how many years have passed, every single time I do a bit of a jump at the eighteenth second, when the quiet concertina melody of ʽOutside The Wallʼ is knocked into oblivion by the big opening chord of ʽIn The Flesh?ʼ I mean, I know it's coming on, but unless I make an effort to concentrate really hard and watch the timer, that jump is inevitable — a psycho­logical move that puts you on your toes from the very beginning and literally forces you into watching your step all the way. Or the way the quiet wing-flapping, sky-crossing, grim-sounding delayed rhythms of ʽAnother Brick In The Wall, Pt. 1ʼ grow out of the arena-rock conclusion to ʽThe Thin Iceʼ? Those sounds are suspense incarnate — a foreboding of something terrible about to happen, a dark omen that can be visualized in the form of some seriously inauspicious bird formation up in the sky, with Pink's daddy as the leader of the pack.

And all the diversity, by the way: in addition to meaty arena-rock and four-on-the-floor disco beats, we have just about everything else — occasional returns to Floyd's pastoral acoustic past (ʽGoodbye Blue Skyʼ, now ten times darker and gloomier than it used to be); industrial night­mares that make ʽWelcome To The Machineʼ look like a tourist visit (ʽEmpty Spacesʼ); retro-fashioned vaudeville (everything that has to do with Vera Lynn); military marches (ʽBring The Boys Back Homeʼ, unsurprisingly given over to the Military Orchestra of the Soviet Army when Roger would later resurrect The Wall in Berlin); and, of course, the above-mentioned Gilbert & Sullivan bits in ʽThe Trialʼ. For all my love for Tommy, it's got nothing on this sonic panorama in terms of bringing out the different moods through a smorgasbord of musical styles.

I have always maintained, and continue to maintain, that The Wall seems to run out of inspi­ration toward the end — that its first half, dealing with the construction of the wall, is so much sharper and deadlier than the second half, dealing with living behind the wall and ultimately tearing the wall down. The Hitler thing that Roger came up with for the second half is frankly silly (the Führer's name should not be taken in vain every time you need an evil analogy for your protagonist, you know), and the concept kind of sags, if not directly crumbles, by the time of Pink's imaginary «trial» and the final verdict — if only because it is very clear that The Wall, once constructed, cannot be torn down by any single decree. At most, it can be torn down tempo­rarily, only to be quickly rebuilt again from scratch — which, I guess, is precisely the symbolic point of the looped ending, in which ʽOutside The Wallʼ both ends and begins the album. Many people probably mistook the record for featuring a happy ending of sorts — a perspective that would certainly be reinforced by the Berlin shows a decade later — but it is conceptually quite clear that the destruction of the wall brings neither redemption nor peace of mind to the prota­gonist; rather, it leaves him in the position of a snail without a shell, a scared, shivering, whim­pering little being, whose state of mind perfectly corresponds to the quiet wimpy concertina and clarinet duet at the end of the record. But I have never found this to be a satisfying ending, for some reason; the entire «From Nüremberg Rally to Nüremberg Trial» line of the second half, once it abandons the true-to-life storyline of Roger ʽPinkʼ Waters' biography and dips into pure symbolism and Lewis Carroll analogies, loses sharp focus and becomes almost self-parodic.

I think that if I had my way around this, I'd probably end the album with ʽComfortably Numbʼ. This is the song that should bring Pink's fate to a close: what better conclusion than to simply admit that "I have become comfortably numb", and leave it at that? The chorus of the song, along with Gilmour's first solo, offers a glimpse of redemption — a blissful, Platonic vision of paradise that, for one brief moment, returns the hero to the happiest moments of his early childhood — but the verses, and, of course, particularly the bleak-o'-the-bleakest closing solo shut out that possi­bility for good, and bring down the Hammer of the Gods. It is amusing, I think, that in most of the polls on greatest guitar solos it is usually ʽStairway To Heavenʼ and ʽComfortably Numbʼ that battle for the top spot — where the former, the way I see it, represents Eternal Salvation, and the latter is a clear-cut contender for Eternal Damnation (brilliantly captured in the movie, by the way, where the guitar solo is accompanying Geldof-Pink as he is being dragged by two security devils through the dark corridors to Hell — the rock stadium).

However, if I were to try and redeem the serious, immortal value of the album through one single song, I would have made an unusual choice — as great as ʽComfortably Numbʼ is (and, might I add, in subsequent live performances Gilmour managed to make it even greater: the single best version of the song I have ever seen or heard was from his recent return to Pompeii in 2016), the single most touching and deepest moment, I believe, can be found in ʽDon't Leave Me Nowʼ. This is where, according to the storyline, Pink has his first soul-baring breakdown, and while the lyrics simply try to put a new twist on an old cliché (the lowdown wife-beating husband confes­sing how much he really depends on his wife for survival), the transition from the last "why are you running away?" into the moody, drawn-out, quietly wailing coda of "oh babe, babe..." is the one that, as they say, «gets me in the feels» every time. That single, simple moment of several prolonged and sustained guitar notes and vocal harmonies is the single, simple moment when Pink Floyd came the closest to embody that "dull, aching pain" from which there can be no escape and no remedy if it ever gets to you. If, for some reason, you have not been paying enough attention to that bit, and have eluded getting caught up in it, try to go on as if nothing happened — there were a couple of moments in my own life when I happened to listen to it in the wrong mood, and although I will not confess to wanting to cut my wrists or anything, well, there were some nasty consequences anyway.

With all this and more, I think the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this review becomes more or less self-evident. The Wall is a great album — a solid concept that has not been realized to the utmost perfection, remaining as flawed as its protagonist, but for the most part, running upon utterly sincere and profound inspiration, and, at its best, combining brilliant musical, technological, and theatrical ideas in a way that no other Pink Floyd album does. Parts of it, in fact, become more obviously awesome as time goes by — ʽDon't Leave Me Nowʼ, in parti­cular, I'd say, is more naturally appreciated after 30 than before, though, clearly, I would not ever say the same about "we don't need no education". Whatever be the complications, The Wall is a singular achievement in rock history — and, while we're at it, it should probably also be noted that it was a timeless achievement from the very start, having come out at the height of the New Wave era, yet released by a pack of old fogeys from the age of psychedelic and progressive rock: who else at that time had managed to beat the odds in a similar manner?

17 comments:

  1. Not interested. Pink Floyd never sounded this blaring and simple before, and the last thing I have any patience for Waters shrieking about is his own self-perpetuated misery. It has its moments, but as a whole, this thing isn't fit to lick its predecessor's hooves.

    And in what musical universe does anything about "Empty Spaces" outdo "Welcome to the Machine"?

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    1. Looks like you've never had problems with eating your meat before having your pudding. I have, so it's easier for me to relate.

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  2. Your opinion change on the movie?

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  3. ʽDon't Leave Me Nowʼ - agree with you, George, this is the truly transfixing, special moment in The Wall.

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    1. And, sadly, one they never seemed to get right on stage -- not during the original tour, not during Waters' solo tour in 2010. The anguish and desperation just never seems to be carried over properly.

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  4. If ever I'm gonna get into this album, it's gonna be thanks to your writing, George. Superb stuff, as always.

    (Though I'm still pretty sure I'm done with Floyd, ha)

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  5. Van Morrison/the Band's rendition of Comfortably Numb from live at Berlin is also well worth a listen.

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  6. Great review as always that has gotten me to give this album another spin. As it stands, I still think it would be a really good single LP but as a double album, it's trying as hell. It's really hard to care about anything after Comfortably Numb, especially.

    My biggest problem is that it's just too much Roger Waters for me. Aside for coming across less than wonderfully as a person, I just find his whole ultra-pessimistic, misanthropic worldview extremely tedious. Give me Pete Townshend, who has the decency to shoot through that same cynicism with spirituality, broken idealism, self-deprecation, humour and even a bit of romance, any day over Roger's often one-note cynicism any day of the week.

    Though, maybe I'm being a bit harsh. Waters is far more palatable on Floyd's pre-Animals albums, especially as he is counterbalanced by a much stronger band presence than he is here. Gilmour does phenomenal work here but even he can't quite get out of Rogers' shadow - and the album's really all the worse for it.

    I've been enjoying getting back into Floyd of late (your reviews haven't hurt) because, man, when they're good, they're really bloody great but this one is a major mixed bag.

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  7. It’s a masterpiece, even if it does fall apart a bit towards the end. A few highlights: all of the incredibly sad bits like the verse about the love interest in “Mother,” the “why are you running away???” bit in “Don’t Leave Me Now,” the entire song “Nobody Home,” but especially the “fading roots” ending, and the saddest moment in music history: the second chorus in “Comfortably Numb,” ending with “the child is grown; the dream is gone,” which also might just be my favorite moment in rock history period; all of the scary bits like the jumpstart intro, “Empty Spaces” (scariest backwards-talking ever!), that synthesizer riff on “Goodbye Blue Sky” and the generally unnerving atmosphere of side three, and also the fact that, you know, there’s a whole bunch of really good songs.

    I’d say it’s not all the way until the second half of side four that the wheels fall off. I even like the deteriorating-to-Nazism conclusion in theory, granting that it’s a bit of an over-the-top way for Roger to get his point across, but the songs just aren’t there at the very end like they are on “Tommy,” “Quadrophenia,” and to a lesser extent on “The Lamb.” Even still, it’s an incredibly relatable album with themes so universal that the different specifics of your life story don’t preclude your indulging in its fanatical misery. I like it.

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  8. Agree with your review. Except Side Three is the best side - Hey You, Is There Anybody Out There?, Nobody Home, Vera, Comfortably Numb.
    Is There Anybody Out There is sublime. One of their greatest instrumentals. Sums up all the sadness and feelings of isolation in one guitar figure. Excellent understated orchestration on this track too. Those sad horns. Sheer perfection. And I agree with you about ending on Comfortably Numb. And put back in What Shall We Do Now? Couldn't believe this wasn't included on the Immersion box. Much better than anything on Side 4.

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    1. It's true side 3 probably is the strongest and most consistent part of the album. It's also probably why disc 2 seems so lopsided.

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  9. "The Trial" is the best song on this album.

    Fight me.

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    1. It was better when it was called "Pilate and Christ"

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    2. Not the best, but I love "The Trial".

      "Yeah Judge, shit on him!"

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  10. Something occurred to me recently, I think when I read your recent review of Animals. There's a common structure in some concept albums of the time: building up a grand idea across many songs, but then contrasting it with a counterpoint at the end. Look at Sgt Pepper, or Quadrophenia, or Sticky Fingers. And in each of those, the counterpoint song feels so passionate and powerful, they might be the highlight of the album.

    Roger Waters sorrrrta does this, with Pigs on the Wing and Outside the Wall, but they're more like halfhearted afterthoughts, not so confident or memorable. I guess it makes some sense for the repeating cycle of The Wall, as you point out how it makes it all even more pessimistic. But thematically it's still 99% cynicism and despair.

    Which isn't necessarily bad for the music, but it does feel like those other albums had more depth, maybe even wisdom, within them. Meanwhile The Wall is so single-minded that the overall message doesn't get more relevant with age... but it's still fun to pull it out once in a while to relive that single idea.

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  11. "It was a record made for mass appeal"
    And as I, when I was a frustrated teen, not only rebelled against my parents, most of my teachers and disco, but also against many of the other teens and they liked so much to sing the utterly stupid "we don't need no education" I disliked this album from the start. Anno 2018 nothing has changed - The Wall is the sell out version of Animals.

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  12. 1979 was rough year to be an alienated teen. Disco excess, New Wave excitement, The Knack throwback, Nick Lowe proclaiming it's cruel to be kind, Rick Ocasek saying Let's Go! Uh, where to?

    Every generation has its hitching-post alienation album to tie up to. If you were born in the mid-sixties, The Wall was it.

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