Counterbalance No. 140: Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’

Pink Floyd
The Wall

Mendelsohn: If there was one album that I figured we would have come across much sooner, I think it would have been Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The fact that we are well outside the Great List’s Top 100 leaves me a little shocked. As we’ve noted many times, the critics love Grand Statements. And The Wall, clocking in at 26 tracks running nearly an hour and a half, is quite possibly the grandest statement on the Great List. It’s also the most pretentious, overwrought piece of bombastic rock ‘n’ roll to ever grace the airwaves. A sort of pompous retelling of Roger Waters’ life in the most over-exaggerated way imaginable. As rock theater, there is none better.

I used to love this album, Klinger. It’s been years since I spent any time with it and my appreciation for any Pink Floyd after Wish You Were Here has dropped substantially. I came in completely prepared to take this record apart, brick by grandiose brick. The truth is, as much as I want to hate the record—and some of it deserves all the scorn we can heap upon it—there are some excellent slices of rock music and pop synthesis that only Pink Floyd could ever achieve. Now that doesn’t mean I’m ever going to come back to this record once this week is over. In fact, I’m fairly excited that I will never have to listen to this entire record ever again.

Klinger: You know, it’s a funny thing, Mendelsohn. I have spent most of my life disliking this album, and for the many of the reasons you cited. During my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I would spend hours arguing whether Pink Floyd was better than Elvis Costello. We never did resolve that, nor did we ever finish that whole apples/oranges argument.

In later years, I found myself resenting Waters’ need to unburden his rich rock star psyche on a bunch of impressionable young people, not to mention the fact that his inspiration for The Wall was seeing his own fans behave with insufficient reverence at his concerts. (“Boorishness? At a rock ‘n’ roll show? Well, I never!” said Waters, as his monocle dropped into his martini glass.) And no, Pink Floyd, you can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat. Pudding is not a good dinner! So every time “Comfortably Numb” or “Mother” came on the radio, I would nearly chip a tooth on the steering wheel trying to get to the seek button.

But a funny thing happened as I actually sat and listened to this album. I found myself drawn into it. It’s a pretty good story, and they tell it well. It makes more sense than Tommy. (You hear that, Columbia Records 1979 Marketing Department? That’s a pull quote!) Whatever resentment I once felt about Roger Waters’ persistent need to discuss his own alienation has just become one more thing I don’t have time for. So sure. The Wall. Not so bad, although I really do have to come at it from beginning to end or those draggier numbers start to get to me.

Mendelsohn: Well, I imagine that those slow songs play an important part in creating the atmospherics, those overbearing atmospherics, that are so important to the success of this album. Without them, how would you know exactly how alienated and incomprehensibly depressing it is to be Roger Waters? He never had a Daddy. His mother loved him too much. So much, in fact, that all the hugging seems to have scarred him for life. All the mommy love then messed him up so he couldn’t have a normal relationship with a woman, which would explain why he is on his fourth marriage. And then there is the strained relationship with his bandmates. They used to be so close, you know? But then, for some reason, they all began to resent Waters’ immense talent and started to chafe under his grand plans for the band—plans that we’re all in their best interests, by the way. Because when you get right down to it, Pink Floyd is Roger Waters and Roger Waters is Pink Floyd. There couldn’t be one with the other. Never. Pink Floyd would cease to be without Roger Waters. There is no way the band could continue without him.

Klinger: OK, first of all, I believe the ghost of Syd Barrett would like to have a word with you. But I do take your dark sarcasms to heart—The Wall is a far more collaborative effort than many people, including many people named Roger Waters, would have you believe. In fact, I have to say that in listening to this album, I gained a new-found appreciation for David Gilmour’s guitar playing. His solos throughout are actually pretty fascinating, punchy with an innate sense of control. And I get the distinct feeling that his sound was brought to the fore by producer Bob Ezrin.

In fact, I credit Ezrin (whom we’ll likely talk about even more when we talk about Lou Reed’s Berlin sometime next year) with much of what makes The Wall as compelling as it is to me. His ability to create a sonic collage with such depth of sound is pretty impressive—both in the music (as in the first crashing guitar chords on “In the Flesh?”) and the special effects (as in the sounds of the TV being smashed, which pierce the groupie scene like a gunshot during “Another Brick in The Wall Part 3″). Clearly, The Wall was Waters’ Grand Artistic Statement, but it needed the rest of the group (and apparently guest musicians galore, including Jeff Porcaro from Toto and Toni “The Captain and” Tennille) to make it happen.

Mendelsohn: And make it happen they did—despite the personal walls that were going up between several members of the band at the time. Keyboardist Richard Wright quit the band during the recording of The Wall due to his disagreements with Waters—only to be brought back as a salaried musician for the tour. As it turns out, Wright was the only member of Pink Floyd to make any money off of that tour because he was pulling a regular paycheck while the rest of the band was taking a blood bath due to the exorbitant production costs involved in the incredibly ambitious stage show.

I think, if anything, The Wall was a grand statement—maybe the grandest—but it fails just short of true greatness and in the end, cost the group more in blood, sweat, tears, and cold hard cash than any of them could have anticipated. I don’t know where they could have improved. Maybe it was just flawed to begin with. Too much pretension that stripped the record of humanity and humility.

As a side note, The Wall has also increased my appreciation for Gilmour. I find myself drawn to the songs where he takes the lead on vocals. His take on Waters’ lyrics soften the acerbic blow and help the album flow. Whenever Waters sings, I get the distinct feeling that he’s more or less spitting his words at the audience. It makes me realize that Gilmour and Waters needed each other. After Waters left, neither Pink Floyd nor Waters were able to achieve the success that started with Dark Side of the Moon and ended with The Wall.

Klinger: And while we’re talking about things somehow ending with The Wall, I get the distinct impression that this album marks the end of an era in rock overall. What began in the mid-1960s as a means of moving rock into artier territory, and then achieved this sort of large-scale grandiosity seems to have ended here. The music had clearly changed, and The Wall seems to stand as a last artifact of that time—even as it addresses the change that had taken place. Their very Floydian version of disco was, of course, a massive success, and it’s interesting that it never drew the ire of rockists the way that, say, the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” did. Was it because the lyrics were as bleak and alienated as ever? Was it viewed as ironic? Probably a little bit of both.

But consider the other two giant hit double albums that came out in fairly short order on the heels of The Wall: the Clash’s London Calling and Bruce Springsteen’s The River. They’re all huge, sprawling (rock critics’ default word for describing two-record sets) opuses, but the effect is completely different. The grand narrative, the overarching statements—they’re all gone, and it doesn’t seem like they ever really came back (yes, I know that progressive rock kept going and has even enjoyed a sort of renaissance, but it would never permeate the culture the way The Wall did). I can’t think of very many times post-1979 where major rock artists went all in like this and hit so big. And even if that is for the best—that line between ambition and pretension is so very fine—it is still bittersweet to watch an era end and a generation change hands. The Wall marks the culmination of Pink Floyd’s career and end of the classic rock era, so whatever you want to say about it, it does end up serving as a suitable elegy for its time.