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48th Favorite: Animals, by Pink Floyd

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Animals. Pink Floyd.
1977, Harvest/Columbia. Producer: Pink Floyd.
Bootleg Cassette, ca. 1984. Purchased, ca. 1994.

IN A NUTSHELL: A concept album that takes the listener on quite a journey through society, this record has so much incredible David Gilmour guitar that I almost lose my mind!! Roger Waters’s voice is as effective as ever, and the whole band sounds great – even through the druggy interludes. I could do with fewer of these slow spots, but the songs and the playing more than make up for it. It’s an album designed for a listen in one sitting.
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I’ve seen fewer than one episode of that wildly popular old 90s TV show Friends. This is weird because, as a 49 year old, I am firmly and completely a part of that limiting descriptor called “Generation X,” and Friends is supposed to be one of our generation’s “touchstones.” And I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a big fan of almost all of our touchstones.

I devoured 70s Saturday morning cartoons, can recite entire Bugs Bunny Show scripts, and know most of the words to most of the Schoolhouse Rock episodes. I saw Star Wars in the theater when it was first released, and I watched the Quincy, M.E., punk rock episode when it first aired. I played Pac Man in the arcade for a quarter a game. I wished I could afford an Alligator shirt, but still never stooped to wearing the Sears “Braggin’ Dragon” brand instead. I watched Late Night with David Letterman when it was still “A Melman Production,” and watched MTV when it only showed music videos. I raved over Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson, bought Nevermind the month it came out and had tickets to Lollapalooza #1. I read (most of) Infinite Jest, saw Pulp Fiction in the theater several times, chuckled about the Y2K bug panic, and I felt old about MP3s and iPods and most everything else after 2002.

But I only ever saw part of one single Friends episode, the one where Nana dies twice, which was cutely titled – in that annoying Friends way – “The One Where Nana Dies Twice.” I remember there was a funny bit about someone’s grandma having a bunch of packets of Sweet ‘N Low. Despite the show’s apparent touchstone-dom, I never connected with it. I was never part of a big, close-knit group of friends, so I think the premise never resonated with me. I’ve always been more inclined to have one or two close friends, who may or may not know one another. Maybe this is part of the reason that I was more drawn to The X-Files during the Friends era. (And why I was one of the fans who DID NOT want Scully and Mulder to get romantic.)

When I think of “friends,” I don’t think of Friends: it’s not a large group, it’s a small group – maybe one other person. On TV and movies, they’re commonly called “buddies,” and there are examples galore out there. Scully and Mulder are of the “opposites attract” variety – she is skeptical, detached, reserved; he is high-strung and borders on gullibility. The most famous example is a pair whose friendship was created specifically to mine the deep vein of humor found in such an attraction: Oscar and Felix, from The Odd Couple – a success as a stage play, a movie, and multiple TV shows. From the manly/nerdy Martin and Lewis to man-hungry/good girl Laverne & Shirley to sunny/cranky Ernie and Bert, and in countless cop movies, Opposites has been a tried and true basis for fictional friendships.

Some fictional friendships are based on shared childhoods – people who connected in school and remained close. The Geeks, in Freaks and Geeks, fit the bill for me as a threesome – the maximum number allowed to meet my “buddy” standard. This means the Freaks don’t work for me because they’re a larger group. Raj, Dwayne and Rerun, from What’s Happening! are definite examples. Grown examples of childhood friends include Jerry and George, from Seinfeld, and Patsy and Eddy, from Absolutely Fabulous. Sadly, neither pair makes a good case for the mental health of individuals who remain close friends with childhood pals.

Some fictional friends are thrown together by circumstance, for better (as is the case with Red and Andy in The Shawshank Redemption) or for worse (as with Barton and Charlie in Barton Fink.) Some are friends for no apparent reason, like The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, or Ren and Stimpy. Still others just seem meant for each other, like Rhoda and Mary, Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, John Winger and Russell Ziskey, Spongebob and Patrick.

Whatever the source of the friendship, these one-to-one (or at times three-person) relationships have been more typical in my life than the large-group Friends model. This has changed somewhat as I’ve gotten older and my wife and I have made friends with our kids’ friends’ parents, and we’ve developed friendships with groups of couples. But despite these changes, the single “buddy” remains my Platonic Ideal of the term “friend.” And the buddy I’ve remained closest to the longest is Dr. Dave.

We’re not exactly opposites, although we are quite different. We didn’t meet as kids, although having met as freshmen in college, we pretty much did. We were kinda thrown together by circumstance, being two of about nine folks majoring in Toxicology when we got to college – not as stressful as Shawshank Prison, but probably weirder. More than anything, we just sort of connected over The Beatles, music, Mel Brooks movies, Bugs Bunny, the Phillies, Columbo, and so many other little things.

As you, dear reader, will likely understand if you’ve had a close friend for thirty-some years, it’s difficult to adequately cover all the big ways in which Dr. Dave has been important to me. Instead, I’ll just list a few concrete examples of the little things he’s done, such as: 1) getting me to try asparagus for the first time; 2) teaching me how to do hammer-ons and pull-offs on the bass; 3) telling me I should give Pink Floyd’s Animals another shot after my initial rejection of it. Another friend in high school, Rick, had duped his copy of the album onto cassette for me as part of a pre-digital-music data-dump of multiple Pink Floyd albums. I’d listened to it once, then never really went back to it. My initial assessment was that it was too depressing, and as a seventeen year-old, rural Pennsyltukian in 1984, I had Van Halen albums to consume and couldn’t be bothered with depressing stuff. (Which today sounds a bit depressing, in and of itself.)

At some point in college I’d transferred to a school a couple hours’ drive from Philadelphia, where Dr. Dave lived. He’d sometimes visit, and I have a vivid memory of him walking up the stairs to my crappy college apartment, having just arrived from a two-hour drive, and announcing, “Dude, what a ride!! I listened to Animals, the whole time!” I expressed doubt about his choice, but he made an excellent case for the album’s merits, countered my suspect assessment of it, and I soon found myself listening to my cassette version, instead of just rewinding it each time I listened to Dark Side of the Moon, on Side A.

Like most (all?) Pink Floyd albums from the 70s to early 80s, Animals is a Concept Album, with its (few) songs unified on the themes of class politics, Capitalism and societal decay. So, sure, my initial assessment of “depressing” may have some basis in fact. But the album’s soaring guitars, earnest vocals, and the fact that the sheep defeat the dogs, make it far from a negative experience.

And as depressing as some of the themes may be, the record actually opens (and closes) with a sweet, folky song, “Pigs on the Wing 1,” about the value of love (or friendship!) among the indignities in life.

These indignities are symbolized by Flying Pigs, and, one can infer, the waste products discharged therefrom. As one might expect from a Concept Album titled Animals, and confronting class politics, this begins the continuing metaphor of the album of human types as animals.

First up are humans as those shaggy, friendly best friends of humanity, “Dogs.”

Writing about 17-plus minute long songs can be challenging. In the past, I’ve gone deep into the weeds to write about such songs, using hundreds of words to comment on parts played and sung by all the members of the band. For “Dogs,” two words may be sufficient: David Gilmour.

He opens the song, which he wrote with bassist Roger Waters, strumming difficult chords on acoustic guitar and singing a cynical take on how to succeed in the modern world. The lyrics are quite bitter in that fist-raising, indignant, beautiful way that young idealists have – and that old fogies like me tend to dismiss as “immature” and “out of touch with the real world,” mainly because we realize we had a chance to make a difference and that chance passed us by. Lines like “You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to / So that when they turn their backs on you / You’ll get the chance to put the knife in” leave little doubt about young Gilmour’s perspective.

These lines also lead in, about 1:48, to the first of his many brilliant guitar solos in this song. I love listening to the song, a slight difference from merely loving the song, to hear where Gilmour takes me – his solos seem to carry the listener along. They’re filled with great sounds and subtle intricacies, movement and emotion. Often times on this album I think of the band as merely platform onto which the lyrics and Gilmour’s guitar have been placed for careful consideration. The next solo is truly epic: beginning at 3:40, the song takes a turn to a commanding, pomp-filled tone, and Gilmour plays a double-tracked solo, with added touches layered underneath (listen closely from 4:30 to 4:45), that swirls into the type of section heard in many Pink Floyd songs, and of which, frankly, I could do with less.

I’ve barely ever used any marijuana in my life, so I may be way off base, but I associate these moody, open spaces in Floyd songs, oftentimes containing non musical, natural sounds (in this case dogs barking), with stoned teenagers exploring their minds while keyboardist Rick Wright holds a note for several minutes, and Gilmour gently strums the same two chords repeatedly. Of course, as boring as they can be, these long interludes do provide the framework for such wonderful beauties as Gilmour’s next solo, at about 5:32. I love this entire solo, especially the sort of “laughing” notes, around 6:20. Roger Waters’s bass during this solo is actually pretty cool (Gilmour himself has mocked Waters’s bass-playing ability), with nice, bouncy chords.

The song could easily end at about eight minutes, just after the really cool chicken-scratch guitar Gilmour plays during the vocals at 7:30, but this being Floyd, there are about 9 minutes left. And they’re a terrific nine minutes. And of course, this being Floyd, before we get to the terrific part, bongs gurgle everywhere as we sit through three-and-a-half minutes of Gilmour’s voice echoing while Wright holds a few notes, drummer Nick Mason taps a cymbal and those damned dogs bark some more. At 11:40, Waters takes over the vocals, and the song becomes his – sort of a jaunty melody. Although Gilmour is probably the better pure singer, I sort of like Waters’s voice better. It has more of an edge, a sneer.

But holy shit, if Gilmour’s guitar doesn’t take over and steal back the glory!! The solo beginning at about 13:27 is his fourth of the song, and each one has been different and spectacular. This one is a trip up and down the neck, until it falls into a sort of Galaga insect-esque descent at 13:55. The finale (because such an impressive song requires a finale!) starts about 14:10, with more soloing and finally Waters putting the finishing touches on the song, singing a list of characteristics of the everyman in the song – the dog? The victim of the dog? both? – and Mason shows off his drumming chops.

Besides the fact that Dr. Dave introduced me to it, another reason Animals reminds me of friendship is that it’s so much a Gilmour/Waters-sounding record (despite the fact that only “Dogs” is credited to both of them, and the rest are Waters songs). I like to imagine the two friends playing and laughing together, like Dr. Dave and I would if we were Gilmour and Waters. However, this is pure fantasy. The two seem to really have a shared distaste, if not outright hostility, for one another. They’ve shared a stage once since 1981 (okay, fact-check: three times), and seem unlikely to do it again. But while they were together, they sure recorded some great stuff! For example, “Pigs (Three Different Ones).”

In this song, we meet three humans of the “Pig” variety, those at the top of the Social Ladder, according to Mr. Waters. This song is carried by Waters’s vocal performance; sneering, growling, falsetto, talking … Waters uses several techniques effectively throughout. The fretless bass on this song is tremendous, starting right at about 0:10, and I thought I’d be complimenting Waters for it; however, it was Mr. Gilmour who took over bass duties for this song, and he nailed it. This is a good song for paying attention to the stuff going on in the background. For example, the guitar is really cool-sounding and echo-y during the verses, and Nick Mason breaks out the cowbell just before 2:00. There’s nice piano work (actual piano, not synthesizer) around there, as well, and nifty little guitar doodles, too.

The lyrics are quite harsh, once again full of righteous indignation at the powerful class. And as someone who grew up far, far from power and wealth, it feels good to hear Waters spew these lines, I must say. And one little tidbit that many Americans may not realize: the “Whitehouse” in the third verse IS NOT the U.S. presidency! It’s in fact a woman named Mary Whitehouse who was a moralistic crusader against sex and violence in 1970s Britain.

As you may expect, I’ll again fawn over Gilmour’s guitar playing in this song. Even during the repetitive, extended “bong section” of this song, from about 4:00 to 8:00, he does some little string bends on his chords that lift up the playing. Then comes a “talk box” solo, at 5:10, that brilliantly mimics a wah-wah trumpet. The mid-to-late 70s were huge for the Talk Box. Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh, Rufus … it was everywhere, and it’s interesting to see an “artsy” band like Pink Floyd use it. The song does sag a bit during this part (although be sure to listen to that bass during it!!), and this 11 minute song likely could have been five minutes. But they finish with a flourish, ramping up the energy on a final solo and an almost-disco bass line!

The last of the animal types we’ll meet are those from the big herd, the massive group of folks who aren’t the dangerous dogs or the gluttonous pigs. The you and the me, even if we’d rather not admit it: “Sheep.”

This song, both lyrically and sonically, is actually quite uplifting. Sonically, it has a driving urgency and a satisfying guitar ending that sounds like release. Lyrically, although the sheep at first seem meek and hopeless, they do set upon the dogs and defeat them in the end. The Rick Wright electric piano at the beginning sounds a little too Al Jarreau for my liking, but it ends soon enough, with a growing bass that signals more of Waters’s sneering voice. And sure, at this point in my post I should just say “Gilmour, Gilmour, Gilmour.” But I mean, come on. The stuff he does from 2:26 to about 2:50 is just insanely good. And he does stuff like that throughout the whole song (3:30 – 3:50, for example)!

It builds to a near frenzy by about 4 minutes, but then … spark one up. We’ve got another 3 minutes of mellow to enjoy the drugs’ effects. After swirling synths and burbling bass, there’s a distorted 23rd Psalm to occupy your mind. The song builds to a very effective guitar fanfare at about 8:07 to signal the death of the dogs and the sheep’s success. On an album with three very long songs, it’s hard to choose a favorite, but the guitar in Sheep may place it atop that list.

To end the album, we again revisit those dreaded flying pigs, in “Pigs on the Wing 2.”

Same song, slightly different words, a recapitulation of the original point: it’s good to have someone else to help you avoid the pigs’ shit (and the dogs’ teeth, for that matter). That’s the point of friends in a nutshell right there, isn’t it?

So thanks, Dr. Dave. And Julia, of course. And Dan and Josh and Rick. And Josh S. and Adam and Ximena. And Mitch and Kim and Ed and Tiger and … holy cow! Weird, I’ve always felt like it’s been one buddy, one friend, for me. But when you start to actually name them and count them up, it turns out I’ve been lucky to have more buddies than I can really even comfortably list! Thanks to all of you, named and un-named!! Because of you, I’ve never worried very much about those flying pigs.

Track Listing
“Pigs On The Wing 1”
“Dogs”
“Pigs (Three Different Ones)”
“Sheep”
“Pigs On The Wing 2”

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81st Favorite: The Wall, by Pink Floyd

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The Wall. Pink Floyd.
1979 Harvest/EMI. Producer: Bob Ezrin, David Gilmour, James Guthrie and Roger Waters
Gift ca. 1984.

The-Wall-high-resolution-png

squirrelIN 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!
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My dad has always been a hard worker.

micrometerHe 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 steel poodleclosing 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… washing machine 1He 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 groups, 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.

This photo of my mom and her two colleagues hung in the lobby of the Weaver's Lebanon Bologna Factory store (on Weavertown Rd.) for years! It might still be there.

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.

ant grasshopperYet somehow, they ended up with a big Grasshopper for a son.

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.

hero frederickIn this book – which was deviously hidden from me as a child – 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 the perfect role model for young, lazy goofballs.

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.

fred chow lineThe 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 pryor et alin 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.The 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. laughing officeThe 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.

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.”

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.rock operaBut 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.

the wall wallI 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 whenvillage people 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 vinyl wallof 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.

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! 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.

The most important and memorable graffito of my life appeared on this wall ca. 1980.

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 had – 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. floyd cassetteI 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. 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.

roger dave

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 1Gilmour’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. gilmour 2He 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. 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. roger bassAlso 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 pieceone turns (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.

gilmour 3Similarly “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 toni tennilleto 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) 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. nick masonI 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.rick wright

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!” 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.

roger waters sing bass

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.

TRACK LISTING
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)
Mother
Goodbye Blue Sky
Empty Spaces
Young Lust
One of My Turns
Don’t Leave Me Now
Another Brick in the Wall (Part III)
Goodbye Cruel World
Hey You
Is There Anybody Out There?
Nobody Home
Vera
Bring the Boys Back Home
Comfortably Numb
The Show Must Go On
Run Like Hell
Waiting for the Worms
Stop
The Trial
Outside the Wall

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