The Cinematic Experience of Roger Waters’ ‘The Wall Live’

Roger Waters

Aside from being one of the greatest bands of all time, Pink Floyd is easily one of the most versatile bands ever to rock the face of the Earth. While this certainly applies to their music (“progressive” and “psychedelic rock” are hardly complete descriptions), Pink Floyd’s versatility goes far beyond the excellent music they’ve played over the decades.

Their live stage show is so peerlessly eye-popping that it has been touring without the band (as the “Laser Spectacular featuring the music of Pink Floyd”) for years now. That’s right, a live concert without the band, completely Floyd devoid. If that sounds unprecedented, then bury yourself into Pink Floyd’s 1972 theatrically released film, Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii, in which the band performed a rousing and incredible live concert in the Roman amphitheater at Pompeii whose ancient, now uncovered seats remained completely empty. That’s right, a live concert with the band, but without any “live” audience. Somewhere in the limbo where these twain meet is the 1980 – 1981 tour in support of Pink Floyd’s 1979 LP The Wall, in which both the band and audience were present, but were literally isolated from each other by the growing, opaque, white brick divider that gave the album and tour its name.

When Pink Floyd’s founder and sole (to date) songwriter, Syd Barrett became unstable, the band brought in his friend David Gilmour to back him up and ultimately replace him before Syd’s brief solo career. The band carried on, ironically benefitting from the fact that no other members really knew how to write songs and continued to push the boundaries of experimental music. When bassist and co-lead singer Roger Waters left the band to pursue his own solo career, Gilmour, along with drummer Nick Mason and fired (but still present) keyboardist Richard Wright continued to record and play live even in the face of Roger’s lawsuits and publicly poured derision. Over their many years and incarnations, Pink Floyd turned out masterpiece after masterpiece, each of which deserves an article all its own. The focus of this article, however, is Waters’ concert tour, The Wall Live.

Almost synonymous with the name Pink Floyd, The Wall went from an idea to an operatic concept album to an incomparable multimedia concert experience to a full length movie to a post-Floyd concert special at the Berlin Wall itself and back to an experience as Roger Waters brought his concert tour The Wall Live to the world. Like the band itself, The Wall has so many “bricks” that each deserves its own analysis. As Hamlet said, “The play’s the thing”.

The Wall Live is, in and of itself, an intense and epic drama, packed with live action, garish puppetry, actors, musicians and enough projected motion pictures to warrant its coverage in a film column like The Next Reel. So dramatic and theatrical an experience was the original The Wall album and its subsequent tour that the initial plan for the 1982 Alan Parker film Pink Floyd – The Wall was to feature live concert footage from the tour, interspersed with the terrifying, yet breathtaking animation of Gerald Scarfe and a few extra bridging scenes featuring Waters himself as the main character of “Pink Floyd”, a rock star facing increasing isolation due to the many “bricks” he has built in “The Wall” around him.

While the character Roger created and originated was recast (with Bob Geldof, ironically or appropriately, also a rock star) and the live concert Floyd scenes were dropped in favor of recreations, The Wall remains a rock ‘n’ roll show piece, focused on Waters, his personal experiences an those of people close to him. The film remains an excellent and entrancing companion piece to all things The Wall, but the 2010 – 2012 tour proves that the film is no replacement for the live show. Waters’ return to the role in 2010 (yes, 30 years after he kicked off the first tour) is a triumph, no worse for the wear. Brick by Brick, this Wall is still a masterpiece.

Unlike Waters’ previous tour, the also-excellent “The Dark Side of the Moon Live”, there is no first set to prime the audience. No retrospective of the career of Waters is given, no Pink Floyd medley is played, no Waters singles are offered. This experience is The Wall, the whole The Wall and nothing but The Wall. The theatrical production begins with the limp body of the stuffed “Pink” being escorted onstage by black-clad soldiers. A clip from Spartacus is played as the puppet is thrown to the floor and abandoned, framed between the slopes of the barely begun Wall itself. Like a distant memory of an event yet to come, a light trumpet is heard over the crowd, playing the sweet melody of The Wall‘s final track “Outside the Wall”.

Without warning, the stage, guitars and crowd all explode simultaneously as the first song “In the Flesh?” kicks off with a roar. The menace of what is to come is only hinted at as Waters emerges in full black regalia, flanked by soldiers bearing flags with the distinctive crossed hammer symbol. The “Surrogate Band” has arrived.

A staged plane crash continues the assault on the senses and we are pulled directly into the peaceful-cum-aggressive “The Thin Ice”, describing “a million tear-stained eyes” and “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1)”, detailing the death of Pink’s (and, thus, Roger’s) father in World War II. It is almost easy to forget that Waters is, in fact, a staunch pacifist. However, at this point we get one of our fist glimpses at the (still far from complete) Wall as a movie screen. Images not just of Waters’ own father, but of a great many men and women lost in battles and attacks fill up the bricks in tribute.

Waters politics are only beginning at this point of the show. “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” introduces “The Schoolmaster”, a frightening nightmare of a teacher that could only be conceived by a terrified child. As the gigantic puppet Schoolmaster descends from the rafters and Waters’ band discos into “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” local children (chosen at each stop on the tour) storm the stage to lip-synch and ward off this monstrosity of a bully teacher with the admonishment “We don’t need no education!”

It’s only here that Waters actually addresses the audience for the first time, acknowledging the children for their own applause and setting up the next song, “Mother”. Waters then introduces himself as a much younger man and the huge round screen behind the Wall is filled with his own face, recorded on the 1980-81 Wall Tour. Waters duets with himself on “Mother”, perfectly matching his movie-projected self, while the wall around “them” is filled with political statements such as “Big BrMother is Watching You”, and a rather profane answer to the lyric “Mother should I trust the government?” The inflated puppet representing Pink’s mother matches the disturbing cartoonishness of Pink’s Schoolmaster.

The arena/ theatre darkens during “Goodbye Blue Sky” and bombers are projected over most every surface, dropping not ordinance, but symbols like stars of David, crosses, hammers and sickles, dollar signs, crescents and the logos of McDonald’s, Mercedes Benz and Shell oil. The image is striking if none too subtle.

Up until now the Scarfe’s beautiful animation has been used somewhat sparingly, with newer CGI taking over many projections. As the gap in the Wall begins to close and more bricks are stacked, “What Shall We Do Now?” (the full version of the album’s “Empty Spaces”) is graced not by new computerized animation but by the original Scarfe sequence, filling up the round screen as well as the broken Wall’s bricks in a cinematic nightmare of startling sexuality, greedy consumerism and bombastic brutality.

These cartoon scenes give way to full-screen nudity accompanied by “Young Lust”, which starts a trilogy of depression, continuing through the almost detached nihilism of “One of My Turns” (with the confused cry of “Why are you running away?”) and ending with the complexly ironic lament “Don’t leave me now” (ending with a physical and frightening attack on Roger/ Pink by another monstrous puppet of Pink’s wife).

“Another Brick in the Wall (Part 3)”, the working title of which was “Drugs”, completes Pink Floyd’s isolation, beginning with the defiant cry “I don’t need no arms around me!” to the same tune as part 1’s “Daddy’s flown across the ocean.” and part 2’s “We don’t need no Education!” In that this is the last of the three songs with this title and that the next number is the non-album track entitled “The Last Few Bricks”, it’s easy to guess that the Wall has been completed and is now one solid, inaccessible brick divider, blocking the audience from Waters and (the character of) Pink Floyd. The next song is the depressing “Goodbye Cruel World”, which suggests an end to much more than just what it is, the first set.

Part of the brilliance of The Wall is its Romantic reconciliation of opposites, often in a very ugly way. “One of My Turns” reads, on paper, like a list of possible activities for a date, but is sung in a furious scream by Waters as he (as Pink) trashes a hotel room. “The Thin Ice” turns an almost “do-wop” piano line into a desperate guitar attack. Set 2 of “The Wall Live” both amplifies these dichotomies and ultimately gives up all pretense of “pretty”.

The song “Hey You” starts out as a cry for help and human contact, but builds into the graphic description “And the Worms ate into his brain.” Continuing this theme, “Is there Anybody Out There?” is a nearly instrumental song with the title as its only, echoing, lonely lyrics rolling across a barren stage in front of the (now complete, 30 foot tall) Wall. Then, in an almost Broadway turn, the Wall opens to reveal Waters on a hotel room-reminiscent platform, folding out of one of the bricks. Waters almost passionately recites his list of the darkly mundane in the song “Nobody Home”.

The Wall, the album and show, shift into a more political gear with the classic, brass-infused double feature of “Vera” and “Bring the Boys Back Home”. Waters’ melodic shout is matched only by the crowd, standing and crying out “Don’t leave the children on their own” (many of us with tears in our eyes). The movie screen of a Wall is then filled up with the Dwight D. Eisenhower quote “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”

However, the movie versions of The Wall and the opera The Wall still have terrible thrills to show us. “Comfortably Numb”, one of only three songs co-written by Gilmour, is our last hopeful moment, even as the lyrics describe illness and hypodermic needles. The psychedelic colors and trippy motions of the Wall coming to animated life are breathtaking to witness, just as the song remains one of the best of the show. Still, there’s something sad about seeing singer Robbie Wyckoff and guitarist Dave Kilminster standing atop the wall instead of David Gilmour, in a position that Gilmour described as one of his favorite moments of his career. However, it’s noteworthy that it took two musicians to succeed (if not replace) Gilmour and (as the next song indicates) “The Show Must Go On”.

“In the Flesh” (note the lack of question mark this time) follows the Beach Boys-inspired vocal harmonies of “The Show Must Go On” with a thunderous and angry chord progression which segways into a political rally style of background ringing. Here Waters (and Pink) have become everything they hate, a fascistic dictator, barking out orders for every “different” audience member (from drug users to minorities to kids with freckles) to be pushed “up against the wall!”

As the aggressive guitar of “Run Like Hell” fills the theatre the famous “Pink Floyd Pig” who debuted on the cover of the album Animals makes her appearance. Combining the black-colored surface of the pig from the original The Wall Tour with the overt political graffiti of Waters’ “The Dark Side of the Moon Live”, this version of “Algie” is a remote-controlled floating nightmare of a blimp, seeming to seek out undesirables in the crowd with her red, glowing spotlight eyes. Up until the double hit of “In the Flesh” and “Run Like Hell” seeing The Wall Live is already like being inside a movie. As the Pig makes her terrible swoops around the audience, one has the strange feeling of both being inside a horror movie and, for unknown reasons, rooting for the bad guy to come find you.

The animation (both old and new) comes to a fascinating and disturbing crescendo during “Waiting for the Worms”. The nearly nauseating imagery of cartoon worms squirming through political structures as Waters’ dictator character shouts orders into his hammer-like megaphone (both on the big Wall screen and in person in front of it) is matched only by the haunting look at twin hammers marching over the countryside at his command. Taken out of context (and, sadly, this has), one could find every reason to “Run Like Hell” from what is on the screen and all around.

It’s Pink Floyd himself, no longer as the Dictator but as the good man Waters wants to be, that screams out “Stop” at the beginning of the song of the same name. He recognizes his wrongs (many of which were informed by Waters’ own elitist rock star experiences and Barrett’s excess-driven decline) and begs to go home, but accepts that he must be judged in “The Trial”. As in the film version (and previous tour) “The Trial” is an almost entirely animated affair with Scarfe’s animation taking over the entire Wall, replacing real bricks with animated bricks and real life with a surreal nightmare. Still, this movie-infused epic finale is so inspiring that nearly the entire crowd is on their feet shouting the repeated phrase “Tear Down the Wall!” to close the number… and as the animation stops, the Wall does indeed come down in a violent tumble of smoke and broken brick.

The Wall Live comes full circle with the final sounds of “Outside the Wall” with Waters on trumpet. He introduces the band, all of whom have come out to finish the song with Waters amid the rubble of the Wall. The touring band includes, amongst others, multi-instrumentalist Jon Carin (a rare player who also toured with a post-Waters Pink Floyd), G.E. Smith and Snowy White on guitar, Graham Broad on drums and Roger’s own son Harry Waters on Hammond organ. And when Waters says goodnight and leaves the stage, the lights rise. No encores are offered. This experience is The Wall, the whole Wall and nothing but The Wall.

The Wall has now officially been performed (as a live individual show) more times by Roger Waters solo than by Pink Floyd the band, with this 2010 – 2012 (and a rumored 2013 extension) far exceeding the mere 31 shows performed on the original 1980 – 1981 tour. There is so much more to Pink Floyd and, in fact, Roger Waters, than The Wall which was Waters’ second-to-last album of original songs with the band. It’s easy for truly inclusive Pink Floyd fans to resent The Wall‘s singular popularity (it is second only to Dark Side of the Moon among Pink Floyd’s best sellers).

Still, there’s no denying that The Wall the CD is truly great , which is the way it will continue to be enjoyed the most.

As an immersive concert experience, however, The Wall is an entirely different beast. Its harsh, theatrical nature pulls the audience deep into its storyline and its visuals create the illusion of actually being inside a dynamic, frightening and engrossing movie. Yes, The Wall live is every bit as cinematic as its actual cinema-released counterpart film Pink Floyd – The Wall and will remain a milestone in Pink Floyd and Roger Waters history. The Wall Live has truly been more than a concert tour, but an anti-war, pro-music, theatrical, cinematic, brilliant, inspiring truly immersive, multi-media experience that compliments the history of The Wall and, perhaps, brings it one step farther in its story. That is, not to mention, making a 68-year-old man performing songs written over 30 years ago the biggest concert draw of 2012. When you see it and hear it, you’ll understand why. Until then, I’ll see you in the next reel.