A Look at Pink Floyd’s The Wall, 39 Years Later
Mention Pink Floyd to any person who has listened to any amount of eighties music, and they’ll likely start talking about how great Dark Side of the Moon is, which, don’t get me wrong, it is, or how tragic it was to have Syd Barrett leave the group, which don’t get me wrong, it was. Dark Side of the Moon introduced much needed variety into the music industry shortly after the breakup of The Beatles, and played perhaps the most important role in propelling the group to the legendary status they are seen at today. Or maybe, they will mention the song “Wish You Were Here”, a song filled with five minutes and thirty-four seconds of the most heartfelt guitar riffs and soul-filled singing.
However, an album that often gets glossed over when talking about the legendary music group is their work of art, The Wall. I have come to believe that the reason for this is that the album has been broken up into the titles written on the album sleeve. What song by Pink Floyd was played on the radio in 1979? The simple answer: “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”. Now, as a single, this is a great song. More importantly though, it is also a great song in the context of the rest of the album. The lyrics, “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control” resonated with many students at the time, and to a degree still does today. People loved the song, and it played well as a radio song. The issue that arose when playing the song on the radio is that it lost the context of the rest of the album. The Wall was not intended to be broken into individual songs. In reality, when Roger Waters, a singer and the bassist for Pink Floyd, wrote The Wall, he wrote a single, one hour and thirty-five minute song.
The album is a story. A powerful story, telling the tale of a boy named Pink, who is raised by a mother who desires to shelter him from every aspect of the world. This issue is exacerbated by Pink’s teachers who verbally and emotionally abuse him. He turns to his mother for emotional support, but is only met with the response:
Hush now baby, baby, don't you cry.
Mama's gonna make all your nightmares come true.
Mama's gonna put all her fears into you.
Mama's gonna keep you right here under her wing.
She won't let you fly, but she might let you sing.
Mama's gonna keep baby cozy and warm.
Ooh baby, ooh baby, ooh baby,
Of course mama's gonna help build the wall.
(Pink Floyd, Mother)
Pink’s mother isolates him from the rest of the world, and encourages him to build this metaphorical wall to isolate himself. He does this, by building his wall during the song “Goodbye Blue Skies” and completing it in “Empty Spaces”. At this point in the album, it is apparent that each brick in the wall is one of the reasons he uses to justify isolation from the rest of the world. (“After all, it’s just another brick in the wall”, Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2, in reference to his abusive teachers). Pink remains isolated for the of Side 2 of the LP, the entirety of Side 3, and a good part of Side 4. During this time, Pink becomes a performer and gains success in the music industry; however, Pink also becomes increasingly more insane as he wrestles with the thought that maybe, complete social isolation was not the best option for coping with his past. He begins to try to make contact with people outside the wall in the songs “Hey You”, “Is There Anybody Out There?”, and “Nobody Home”. Pink eventually resorts to drugs to continue to function in “Comfortably Numb”, another well known song off of the album. As Pink begins to regret his decision of social isolation, he creates a trial for himself in his own mind. He declares himself guilty, and sentences himself the punishment of tearing down the wall he has constructed. The album ends with the same instrumental solo that it began with, and the audience is left to imagine what happens to Pink after the wall falls. The album is the most touching piece of music that I have ever heard, and the only album I have ever heard that rivals the storytelling ability of The Wall is Green Day’s American Idiot, but that’s a story for another article.
The album was originally written as a live show, which was played from 1980 through 1981. The show was not the average concert that you would go to today. Sure, today’s shows might have big screens to better show the performer or cool pyrotechnics, but does that modern day show have a replica plane crash, while on fire, into a wall during the opening song of the concert? You read that right. During the opening song, “In the Flesh?” a full sized replica fighter plane is set on fire, and slides down a cord into a wall near the band. During the show, a brick wall is built up around the performers and is knocked down in the second to last song. The performance of Pink Floyd’s The Wall is not just a performance, it is a theatrical act, unmatched by any other musical group to this day.
Pink Floyd’s The Wall is truly a terrific work of music, and could definitely be argued to be Pink Floyd’s greatest album. The only thing that prevents it from reaching this level is the limitation that telling such a story arc produces. The sum of the parts in an album like The Wall is greater than the total of its individual songs. This is cool, and is an amazing aspect of an album like this--if one has the time to sit down and listen to the whole album, and appreciate it as a whole. For purposes of being with friends and throwing on in the background, albums like “Wish You Were Here” are much more suited to the task.
I wholeheartedly encourage anyone who hasn’t experienced The Wall to strongly consider listening to it when they just need to sit down for ninety-five minutes and be engrossed in a story. The emotion in the album is incredible, and is beautifully conveyed to any listener. Pink Floyd’s The Wall is an album to be experienced, and will stand the test of time, looked back on as one of the greatest stories told through music in the twentieth century.