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Music Friday: Pink Floyd's The Wall

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Collage of Pink Floyd's album The Wall

Pink Floyd's concept album/rock opera The Wall was released on November 30, 1979. It was an enormous success; it spent 15 weeks at #1 on the Billboard charts, and it was the best-selling album of 1980.

The album grew out of frustration. Pink Floyd's 1977 "In the Flesh" tour was their first time playing in stadiums, and they didn't enjoy the experience. The audience was too far away for the band to feel any real connection; they often didn't seem to be paying much attention, and their noisy misbehavior made it hard for the band to concentrate, or for those audience members who did care about the music to hear it. At the final concert of the tour, in July 1977, lead singer Roger Waters was so angry at the behavior of fans in the front rows that he spat at one of them.

Pink Floyd took a break after that tour. Band members David Gilmour and Richard Wright took time to record solo albums, and Waters began working on new songs.

When the band gathered to begin work on a new album in July 1978, Waters presented them with two ideas for concept albums. One was a look at the thoughts and fantasies of one man during a late night drive, presented in real time over about 45 minutes; the other was the story of an alienated rock star who copes with his traumatic life by isolating himself behind a wall. The band liked the rock story better, and it eventually grew into The Wall. (The late night drive idea didn't go to waste; it was the basis of Waters's 1984 solo album The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking.)

An outside producer, Bob Ezrin, was brought in to help refine Waters's concept and to help facilitate communication among the members of Pink Floyd, who weren't getting along very well. The residual stress of the "In the Flesh" tour was still causing tension, and everyone was on edge about their finances after some bad decisions by the band's financial planners.

Waters, Gilmour, and Ezrin replaced Waters's autobiographical central character with a more abstract composite character named Pink. The songs tell the story of Pink's life, from a difficult childhood—father killed in war, overprotective mother, cruel and domineering teachers—to an unhappy adulthood as a rock star, with Pink turning each of his traumas into another metaphorical "brick in the wall" behind which he isolates himself.

Recording sessions for The Wall began in January 1979, mostly in France and the United States, as the band's members had been told that leaving the UK for a year would greatly reduce the tax liabilities caused by their financial problems. It was a difficult process; Ezrin's lack of punctuality and casual approach clashed with Waters's desire for a stricter schedule.

And Waters was getting along so poorly with keyboardist Wright that the band was rarely in the studio together; Wright came in at night to record his parts separately. The relationship had deteriorated so badly that Wright left the band shortly after the recording of The Wall was finished. Depending on who you ask, stories differ as to whether he quit or was fired, but Wright's name does not appear on the album.

When the band presented the finished album to Columbia Records, the executives weren't impressed by it. They didn't like the idea of releasing a double album. Critical reaction to The Wall was mixed, with reactions ranging from Robert Christgau calling it "dumb" and "kitschy" to Kurt Loder thinking it was "stunning." The British music magazine Melody Maker couldn't make up its mind, saying "I'm not sure whether it's brilliant or terrible, but I find it utterly compelling."

But the public loved it, and the first single, "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)" was Pink Floyd's only #1 hit in the US. Waters had not wanted to release any singles from the album, thinking that it should stand on its own as a complete work. But Ezrin came up with the idea of adding a more disco-flavored beat to "Another Brick in the Wall," and Waters was convinced when he heard Ezrin's proposed cut of the song.

The tour in support of The Wall was an enormous production, during which a forty-foot wall was constructed at the front of the stage. The story was told through a combination of puppetry and animation projected onto the wall, which collapsed at the end of the show to reveal the band. It was an expensive tour, and the band lost money on it. Ironically, the only member to make money was Richard Wright, who didn't officially re-join the band, but was hired as a salaried musician to play his keyboard parts.

Even before the album was fully recorded, there were plans to turn The Wall into a movie. The original concept was that Waters would play Pink, and that footage from the concert tour would be integrated into the film. But after a series of disappointing screen tests, Waters was replaced by Bob Geldof, lead singer of The Boomtown Rats, which meant that the Pink Floyd concert footage also had to be dropped. Making the film was apparently just as difficult a process as recording the album had been; director Alan Parker said it was "one of the most miserable experiences of my creative life."

Waters left Pink Floyd in 1985, but he has returned to The Wall periodically. The Wall: Live in Berlin is his 1990 solo recording, done as a charity event on a site that was once occupied by part of the Berlin Wall. Between 2010 and 2013, he toured the world with The Wall, releasing a DVD of the performance in 2015. And in 2017, Waters teamed with composer Julien Bilodeau to turn it into Another Brick in the Wall: The Opera.