The Wall. Pink Floyd.
1979 Harvest/EMI. Producer: Bob Ezrin, David Gilmour, James Guthrie and Roger Waters
Gift ca. 1984.
IN A NUTSHELL – Audacious Rock Opera describing a sad descent into madness, but with terrific songs and absolutely amazing guitar by David Gilmour. It’s as iconic an album as there is in the rock era, with several songs still played on the radio today.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – This record honestly could fall anywhere between Top Ten and 150. My feelings about it are SO dependent on my mood and how much time I have to spend and what’s going on in my life. So I guess it would be higher if I’d written the list another day!
My dad has always been a hard worker.
He was a tool and die maker back when he was still working – a profession that seems easy to learn, but is difficult to master, and that certainly has never paid a wage proportional to the knowledge and skill required to perform the duties. He spent forty hours a week, 50 weeks a year, for almost 50 years, standing on concrete floors in poorly ventilated machine shops whose temperature was controlled by opening or closing a garage door at one end; hunched over drafting tables and hot, loud machines, grinding and cutting metal to ludicrously exact specifications – tasks that most days sent him home covered with little curls of metal embedded in his clothes and balding head, like he’d been sitting all day petting a steel poodle.
Evenings and weekends he worked some more – fixing our cars, redoing rooms in the house, making repairs, maintaining our yard. For “fun”, he did more work: building engines, crafting muzzle loading rifles, making fishing lures… He most certainly identified with the diligent Ant in that Aesop’s Fable about the ant and the grasshopper. My mom has always been an Ant, too. She was a housewife, and she didn’t delegate her “responsibilities” very much at all. She cooked, cleaned, did laundry (at a Laundromat in winter, or using a big old wringer washer and galvanized steel tubs in the summer), made beds, shopped, banked, paid bills, registered kids for school and community groups1, made appointments, chauffeured kids … Later she got a few part-time jobs – cafeteria lady, waitress, bologna factory worker – and STILL did all the other stuff she’d already been doing.
My folks would watch a little TV in the evening, and go for drives in the country on a Sunday afternoon, but that was about the extent of their R&R. They were ants, and the work had to get done – whether it had to get done or not.
I wouldn’t say I’m lazy, but those around me probably would. I’ve been known, at times, to do some hard work, but like that grasshopper, I’d much prefer to be singing and dancing.
I always thought that my aversion to hard work was a problem, a blight on social order. I seemed to lack some sort of gene, and I felt second-class because of it. But then I read a book that changed my perception of myself. When my kids were little, I read them the best book in the world – much, much better than that stupid ant and grasshopper fable. Frederick, by Leo Lionni.
In this book – which was deviously hidden from me as a child2 – all the mice work really, really hard to prepare for winter, just like the ants in Aesop’s fable. Meanwhile, Frederick just sits on his ass and watches the weather. The other mice get annoyed, and ask why he isn’t helping, and he keeps saying “Don’t worry, I’m helping, I’m getting … words and colors and warmth!” All the other mice are pissed. But they don’t lock him out of the den – like the mean old ants did with that fun-lovin’ grasshopper. Instead, when the winter gets desperate and dark, they ask, “Hey, slacker, where’s that warmth and color you were gathering?” And Frederick responds. He tells them wonderful stories and keeps them all amused and happy while supplies grow thin. And then all the other mice are like, “That Frederick don’t work for shit, but he sure can tell a story! He’s all right!”
Frederick is a celebration of The Charming, Lazy Bullshitter. This sounds like a knock but I mean it in a positive way! Charming, Lazy Bullshitters (CLBs) get a bad rap, but that’s because there are so many folks who TRY to be the CLB, but who just really don’t do it very well at all. But if you’re fortunate enough to have a GOOD CLB in your midst, you’re happy to know him or her.
To be the good kind of CLB, you have to be friendly and inconspicuous. This is where the Grasshopper went wrong. He danced and sang and told the ants they were saps for working. Of course they thought he was a dick – he WAS BEING a dick! But Frederick was quiet, contemplative. When the other mice challenged him, he didn’t say “Suckers!” He convinced them that he was actually doing work – and he did so nicely.
The good CLB doesn’t take much away from the group, either. Once winter came, Frederick didn’t cut to the front of the line, or eat more food than anyone else, or say dumb stuff like, “Hey, who ate the last kernel of white corn? I was saving that!!” In fact I think he probably took even a little less than his share. He clearly knew how to work his angle, so I guarantee he played it cool in the chow line.
The most important aspect of Frederick’s CLB act – and the most difficult part to master, and probably the point where most lousy CLBs fall down – is in the payoff: the stories he shares. He clearly has some skills with words, and the mice around him love the tales he tells. He’s like Richard Pryor or Joan Rivers or even Aesop, back in the day.3The stuff he comes up with is so good that the other mice shake their heads and wonder, “Where does he come up with this stuff!!??” He keeps those mice so enthralled that they even forget they’re all starving together!!
Good CLBs don’t always end up as professional performers. Many workplaces have the guy who doesn’t do Jack Squat and who everyone else complains about – the bad CLB. Equally common – but far more difficult to spot – is the good CLB. The guy who asks you about your weekend, and spends fifteen minutes discussing the awesome Pentatonix concert you went to; the woman who remembers everyone’s birthday and talks about the celebration you had; the senior director who comes over to the cubicles and tells funny stories about things that happened at the company before you were hired. These are the people who you enjoy around the office, but don’t know what it is they actually do all day. They are the workplace lubricants, making it easier to accomplish your tasks, even though they aren’t really helping you do any actual work.4
An example of Charming Lazy Bullshitting just occurred here, in this blog post, as I spent the last several paragraphs blabbing about some unrelated topic instead of actually typing up some stuff about Pink Floyd’s The Wall. “But wait,” you say. “You do that with every album write up!” To which I say, “Indeed! But this time I don’t have a point! I’m just trying to avoid hard work.”
Because, you see, writing about The Wall is going to be hard work, and I find hard work to be … hard. Considering The Wall and describing its place among all the records in my collection creates a challenge that is unique to Rock Operas: whether to judge the work as a musical story, or as a collection of songs. Or figure out something else.
You may think it’s not such a big deal, but that’s most likely because you’ve never decided to sit down and
waste spend years of your life considering which 100 albums are your favorites, and how to rank them from 100 to 1, and then writing about your endeavors for a few dozen folks to not read. If you’ve ever attempted such a task, you know what I’m talking about.
To most readers, it probably seems that The Wall should simply be judged for what it is: a rock opera – a singular narrative told through a collection of rock songs.5But if judged as a Rock Opera, then I have to consider the story. My appreciation of a story is greatly affected by my mood – much more so than it affects most collections of songs. There are times I listen to The Wall and find it almost overpowering in its emotion and depth, and other times that I get to “Goodbye Cruel World” and I think, “Man, I hope he finally ends it all here and just moves on to the good songs.”
So if it’s a record I can’t appreciate any old time, and there are other records I COULD listen to any old time, then I can’t rank The Wall as highly as those others – even though when I’m in the mood, it may be among my favorites.
“Okay, okay, enough already,” you say. “So big deal, then, just judge it on its songs, what’s the big whoop?”
The Big Whoop is this: some of the songs on the album – on most ANY Rock Opera album – are pretty lousy as simply songs. Works on The Wall such as “Stop” and “Vera” are very short fragments, rather unlistenable to me outside the context of the album. So if I judge it as just a collection of songs, the record will be too harshly judged.
I discussed this dilemma with the famous Dr. Dave. He made a very wise point (as he nearly always does) – stating that surely the fact that a band attempted such a work of artistry should merit some consideration. This was, I think, Dave’s cut-the-bullshit-and-admit-the-record’s-fucking-awesome way of guiding me in my thoughts.
It’s hard to overstate how HUGE a record The Wall was when it was released in late 1979. I was a 12 year old 7th grader, listening to AM radio and curating my Village People cassette collection when The Wall arrived, and even I could feel its presence everywhere. I remember B., a friend at both school and Sunday school – one of the rare crossover friends – who had older brothers and was therefore always a step or five ahead of me in musical awareness. He proclaimed the album a masterpiece in 7th grade, and I was excited to tell him I had seen a commercial on TV for it. He asked me what song was on the commercial and I replied, “Something about a wall.” He was unimpressed.
My oldest sister – a high school senior that year – purchased the record on vinyl soon after it came out. I remember my other sister and I being perplexed by the fact that The Wall contained sounds such as people talking, and a baby crying and a plane crashing – evidence to us that a) it was some kind of strange music (crying babies? Crashing Planes??!!) and b) maybe our big sister wasn’t the same girl anymore who used to play Barbies with us on snow days.6
There was a mobile home park near my house across the street from Lions Lake (now “Ebenezer Lake”), and it sat on land about 8 feet higher than the road, Jay St. That eight feet of earth was held back from the roadway by a retaining wall made of white cinder blocks. Soon after the release of The Wall, a well-rendered, spray-painted graffito showed up on this wall stating “Pink Floyd The Wall” in an approximation of the script on the album cover. It looked really cool!7 So cool that it seemed to be repainted every so often, enough that it was legible a good 15 or 20 years after its first application.
So before I had ever even listened closely to the album – I’m counting neither my aural glimpses through my sister’s bedroom door, nor the time I listened to “Program One” of the 8-track tape repeatedly on a malfunctioning Mego 2-XL Talking Robot toy that my cousin had8 – I was well-aware of the album’s existence as a cultural marker.
The album was an enormous hit, and several of the songs frequented AOR radio stations in the 80s and 90s, and are still played today on
rock oldies radio. “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II” even spent four weeks at Number One on the Hot Singles chart in 1980, surrounded by such fare as “Working My Way Back to You/Forgive Me Girl,” by The Spinners, and “Desire,” by Andy Gibb.
It wasn’t until sometime in my senior year of high school that my good friend Rick, appalled that I had never listened to The Wall, recorded it on cassette tape for me and I finally listened to it for the first time. I recall being blown away. I listened to that cassette a lot, and I finally went out and purchased the CD as part of my First Grand Conversion of Musical Formats in the early 90s.
It’s difficult to describe The Wall briefly and do it justice. It is a double album length rock opera about a rock star, named “Pink” (aka “Mr. Floyd”), and his descent into madness, as told through flashbacks to his childhood and deep dives into his troubled psyche.9 It’s quite an audacious undertaking by the band, and a testament to Roger Waters, Pink Floyd’s founder, bassist, main songwriter and guiding creative force for The Wall, that the end result succeeds so well.
There is much to love about the album – its songs are cool and interesting, they’re diverse, and the musicianship is terrific. But what I think I love most about the record are two things: the interplay between Roger Waters’s and David Gilmour’s voices, and Gilmour’s amazing guitar work. Waters and Gilmour have had their differences over the years, but their singing voices always seem to get along.
A song that features both aspects is the aforementioned “Mother,” where Waters sings Pink’s lines, and Gilmour sings the title role:
The song has other characteristics that I love. For one thing, the “Pink” lines are in 4/4 meter, but the “Mother” lines are in 3/4. This subtle shift makes the song more interesting, but also works extremely well as an storytelling device, juxtaposing the two characters and rendering musically the distance between them (one of the first “Bricks” in Pink’s “Wall”). Also, I like how the Mother’s lyrics slowly turn from loving to creepy. Gilmour’s wonderful, evocative lead guitar work is featured in “Mother.” At about 2:52, the band snaps out of Mother’s 3/4 and Gilmour plays a typically understated yet direct solo – saying so much in so few notes. Gilmour is one of those rock guitarists – like Dire Straits’s Mark Knopfler, Eddie Van Halen, or Mike Campbell, of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – whose sound is immediately recognizable. His guitar work connects with me on some level that is hard to describe; it’s like I know what he means when he plays.
One of the most famous songs on the album also features the shared vocals and stunning Gilmour guitar: the scary description of Pink’s debilitating drug use – which nonetheless immediately became an anthem for recreational drug users upon its release – “Comfortably Numb.”
Waters sings the verses and Gilmour sings the chorus. The music feels a bit dreamy and floating, and sounds like I imagine having “hands just like two balloons” might feel. But Gilmour’s hands are definitely nimble enough in the solos. He plays two this time, (2:04 – 2:34 and 4:31 – end) and the sound and feel of both amaze me with every listen – even 35 years later. When asked what effects he uses to get that “Gilmour sound” on “Comfortably Numb,” Phil Taylor, Gilmour’s guitar technician of more than 40 years, said this: “It think it’s just pretty much him. He is obviously using a couple of effects, like a Big Muff and a delay, but it really is just his fingers, his vibrato, his choice of notes … I find it extraordinary when people think they can copy his sound by duplicating his gear. In reality, no matter how well you duplicate the equipment, you will never be able to duplicate the personality.”
A third song featuring my two favorite components is “Hey You,” with the boys sharing vocal duties, and Gilmour being Gilmour, and also playing some wonderful fretless bass.
“Hey You” is a sad song and since The Wall tells a sad story, all of the songs have varying degrees of sadness to them. Many are slow songs. I’m not typically a fan of collections of slow, sad songs, but they work here as a part of the larger story.10 But there are a couple of rockers on the album, and even with their tinges of sadness, I could listen to them any time.
“Young Lust” is a reflection of Pink’s desires as he makes his way in the world.
But with it’s reference to needing a “dirty woman” – just the type of woman “Mother” said she’d never let get through to him – it sounds more sadly desperate than sexy. It has (again) fabulous guitar playing, showing that Gilmour can evoke anything with that axe. Also worth mentioning is Roger Waters’s’ bass playing on this track. He is the main visionary, songwriter and singer in the band (and particularly on The Wall) and sometimes it seems like “bass player” is indeed the fourth item on his To Do list. But on this song he plays a sort of funky, bouncy, 70s-sounding bass line that helps give the song a feeling of fun. The song ends with Pink calling his girlfriend and hearing a man answer – the type of non-musical addition that challenged my sister’s and my view of music back in 1980.
Non-musical additions such as this certainly add some emotion and context to the songs, helping to place them squarely into the narrative of the piece as a whole. But such additions – to my taste – can sometimes takes away from the songs. There are times when I’d rather hear more of the actual song, and perhaps have another verse help carry the narrative. For example, the very good “One of My Turns” uses TV clips and the sounds of a room being destroyed.
However, the song is rather short, and ends before I want it to end. It makes sense as a narrative piece (Pink wigs out (one of his ‘turns’), his lady friend leaves, he suddenly finds himself alone) but I’m a music fan, and I want to hear more music. I want another Gilmour solo, I want more vitriolic lyrics spat with gusto through Waters’s snarl. I think the narrative could’ve been achieved with another verse instead of the added sounds.
Similarly “Goodbye Blue Sky,” is excellent, and deserves to be a lengthier song, but instead has been whacked down to a measly 2 min 48 seconds, with two verses and a single chorus, in order that it fit into the structure of the record.
I understand that not all songs can be “Hey Jude” length – no matter how good they are – but several songs on The Wall sound – to my ears – incomplete.
And then there are the final six songs, Side Four of the vinyl double album. It contains the songs “The Show Must Go On,” “Run Like Hell, “Waiting for the Worms,” “Stop,” “The Trial,” and “Outside the Wall.” This is where the album really gets too theatrical for my tastes. Now, as I’ve said before, I grew up listening to my mom’s Broadway musical cast recordings – Annie, Fiddler on the Roof, My Fair Lady – and I appreciate the craft and musicality of good show tunes. However, I’m really a rock music fan, and Side Four sounds too much to me like show tunes. Again, the songs fit nicely into the story of Pink, and the Beach Boys-esque backing vocals throughout the songs (featuring none other than Toni Tennille, of The Captain and Tennille fame)11 are really cool. But in terms of songs, the only one that connects strongly with me is “Run Like Hell.”
Ah, David Gilmour. I know, I know, again with the guitar. But he is a genius, you gotta admit. I should mention drummer Nick Mason here, who seems like a solid drummer, but who I never think about much. This song lets him play a nice, fat disco beat. While I’m at it, I’ll mention keyboardist Rick Wright, who was fired from the band soon after the recording of The Wall. There isn’t a lot of standout keyboards on The Wall – it’s mostly supporting instrumentation. Which, given my love of Gilmour, is okay with me.
Of course, the biggest song on the record, the one that struck a chord with listeners worldwide, even in the midst of a global, near-debilitating case of Disco Fever, was that ode to the terrors of elementary school, “Another Brick in The Wall, Part II.” (Here it is paired with the introductory song, actually called “The Happiest Days of Our Lives.”)
There’s a little something for everyone here. Even the sunniest, most well-adjusted folks on Earth probably had a few miserable moments in elementary school. So this is the song where we all get to tell the teachers, “Hey, teacher! Leave them kids alone!”12 It actually conveyed a punk rock sentiment that was somewhat controversial even as late as 1980. It’s a really cool song, with Mason and Waters providing a rhythm that sounds just funky enough (of course, not really funky) to attract the era’s disco-infected masses. Need I even mention that it also has amazing guitar work by David Gilmour? Probably not, but it does.
The Wall was clearly a massive creative undertaking that took substantial work, patience and sustained attention to detail to create. It is exactly the sort of thing a Lazy, Charming Bullshitter such as myself could never do. It tires me out just thinking about it. But I think Frederick would agree with me that us Lazy, Charming Bullshitters are forever grateful for the hard workers around us, such as Pink Floyd. As long as they keep doing the heavy lifting, I’ll do my best to stay out of their way and blab about it afterwards.
In the Flesh?
The Thin Ice
Another Brick in the Wall (Part I)
The Happiest Days of Our Lives
Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)
Goodbye Blue Sky
One of My Turns
Don’t Leave Me Now
Another Brick in the Wall (Part III)
Goodbye Cruel World
Is There Anybody Out There?
Bring the Boys Back Home
The Show Must Go On
Run Like Hell
Waiting for the Worms
Outside the Wall