Pink Floyd – The Wall 1979
There is no getting around this, Pink Floyd are a ‘marmite’ band. Those that like them probably love them, while those that don’t, in all likelihood really don’t care for them at all. I have not met many people that can take them or leave them. Which means this review could well be a waste of time. Those that are fans of the band will certainly know this album, while those that don’t are unlikely to be persuaded otherwise by a few words from me. Nevertheless I shall continue, in the hope that I can perhaps highlight the brilliance of this album to a new audience.
Pink Floyd had been around since the late 1960s with a number of stellar releases behind them including ‘Wish You Were Here’ in 1975 and the 1973 phenomenon that was ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ which broke various sales and chart records for fun. To get the best from their music you cannot just have it playing in the background. It needs a degree of commitment, you have to give it multiple plays, concentrate on it fully and let it envelop you. Listening in a darkened room through headphones is probably the ultimate way to get the best from their music. Put in the effort though and you will truly reap the rewards.
The Wall was a different type of project for them, being (in their words) a ‘rock opera’, predominantly written and driven by bassist and vocalist Roger Waters. Released in 1979 as a double album, it follows the story of ‘Pink’, a weathered and downtrodden rock star, based loosely on Waters himself and Syd Barrett, the band’s original singer and guitarist (who was replaced by Dave Gilmour in 1968 following a number of serious personal problems). Pink, having lost his father in the war, struggles to cope with authority and society and systematically builds a ‘wall’, a mental barrier between himself and the rest of the world as a form of self-protection. In essence this is the tale of a man suffering a gradual and serious mental breakdown and if you delve into the story and lyrics too deeply it can be quite uncomfortable listening. Waters has said that the idea started to form after a controversial and well publicised incident when he spat at a fan at a concert in 1977.
While hugely successful the album was also the beginning of the end of the band in that incarnation, with Waters falling out badly with Richard Wright during recording, culminating with Wright quitting the band before its release and then being rehired for the subsequent tour as a session musician. It also saw the first cracks in the relationship between Waters and Gilmour, divisions which were exposed fully with the recording of the next album (and last one to feature the two of them); aptly titled ‘The Final Cut’.
Despite the fractures within the band that it exposed, The Wall remains a fabulous album. It is powerful, varied and enormously moving, delivering a series of sweeping highs and increasingly desperate lows. Dave Gilmour is a remarkable musician who can make his guitar talk. There are plenty of guitarists that can play faster, produce more intricate patterns, with finger-tapping and huge sweeping arpeggios that can sound jaw-dropping. But I have never really connected with this type of playing. Those that practice it are clearly immensely talented, but for me it is almost an exercise in mathematics, learning the patterns and reproducing them. What Dave Gilmour plays, note for note, is actually pretty simple. Musicians will recognise the scale that he uses and from which he rarely deviates (the Pentatonic). But it isn’t about number of notes or variety of scales he uses, it is all about producing something that is absolutely dripping with feeling and emotion. In my humble view, music (not pappy throwaway pop, but real music) is about a connection with the soul. Nothing connects to my soul more completely than Dave Gilmour’s exquisite lead guitar playing. When considering the greatest guitar solo of all time, Gilmour’s iconic work on Comfortably Numb sits quite rightly alongside those at the very top of the tree. But it isn’t just the solos that stand out on the album; there are some stunning acoustic pieces too, such as the haunting and very beautiful ‘Hey You’ which kicks off side three. The whole album also serves as a master-class in the use delay and reverb effects on the guitar, demonstrated on tracks such as ‘Another Brick in the Wall (part 1)’ and ‘Run Like Hell’.
Underpinning the fantastic guitar work is the rock solid percussion from Nick Mason, dovetailing flawlessly with Waters’ bass playing. Waters and Gilmour share the vocal duties, with Waters’ voice in particular having a striking vulnerability and desperation which fits the mood of the album perfectly. The cherry on the icing on the cake though is Richard Wright’s truly astonishing keyboard work, ranging from beautiful and minimalist piano playing such as that which accompanies ‘Nobody Home’ to huge sweeping orchestral backing pieces underpinning some of the more powerful songs such as ‘In the Flesh’ and ‘Another Brick in the Wall part 3’.
Of course it is impossible to review this album without mentioning ‘Another Brick in the Wall (part 2)’ which was the band’s first single release since 1968. Mixing the classic ‘Floyd’ sound with a disco drum beat produced something that was hugely distinctive and catchy and it sold in large numbers. It reached number one all over the world, including in the UK, Ireland, Germany and the USA. It may never get played alongside Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’, but it was the UK’s Christmas chart topper in 1979.
But here is the thing (and this is an incredibly hard thing to explain). Listening to 'The Wall' is not like listening to any other music. To me it is more than music. I don’t know whether this is down to the composition of the songs, the production, the array of snippets of dialogue and sound effects that link the tracks together, the (frankly pretty dark) subject matter, or even that I was twelve years old when this album was released and its music formed the backdrop to my early adolescent and most impressionable years. But even as a musician, when I listen to 'The Wall' I don’t hear chord structure and lyrics. I don’t hear music. I hear emotion, misery, power and desperation. The songs are soaked in a menace and passion that is impossible to describe. There are times when it feels like the music has buried itself deep within your subconscious, has rounded up all your negative emotions and worst nightmares and then taken them dancing.
That is not to say I don’t like the album. Of course I do. In fact I love it. It is a masterpiece, an astounding piece of work that stirs emotion in me that I wouldn’t have believed possible. There is no doubt at all that this is a work of art and it is so sad that its lasting legacy is that it was the last time that Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason recorded together. As a die hard ‘Floyd’ fan I am unashamed to admit that I cried when they shared a stage one last time at the Live 8 event in 2005. With Richard Wright’s sad and untimely passing in 2008 we know now that there will never be any more music produced by this amazing line-up. All we are left with is a wonderful back-catalogue. And while the purists will cite ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and ‘Wish You Were Here’ as being the gems in the collection, for me ‘The Wall’ sits comfortably alongside them as being the very best that this incredible group of hugely talented musicians produced.
Stunning, dramatic, astonishing and incomparable, albums really don’t get very much better.