An anomaly, a caustic presence in the crammed room of ’70s rock and roll, this group of four stood in the corner making music which was not supposed to make sense the first time one listened to them. Pink Floyd existed as a fusion of identities — real, imagined and fleeting apparitions. More than anything, they existed as a distinct sound, away from the quotidian banal existence of loud music and urban life. When Floyd’s eleventh album, The Wall hit the streets and record shops, most failed to understand what it actually stood for. A certain Margaret Thatcher hated it and many hormonal teens found it creepy and confusing. The sound would eventually grow on these very people, and The Wall came to be known as one of the greatest albums ever produced. Forty-two years later, it still finds itself relevant, the words managing to strike at the heart of politics and trends which echo till date and hummable melodies that continue to scar and heal.
The Wall stemmed out of Roger Waters’ harrowing experiences during the 1977 ‘In The Flesh’ Tour where his interaction with the crowds took unprecedented shapes — distanced and frustrated with his god-like presence at events. He called upon producer and musician Bob Ezrin and his psychiatrist friend to talk about the sheer alienation he was facing as an artiste and a figurative wall that he wanted to build around himself and the raucous fans down there, to escape an inexplicable burden of disillusionment.
The band at the same time, were falling apart with Richard Wright being fired (he rejoined later as a session player and full-time in the 1990s) and David Gilmour often opting out. David Gilmour described one of the numbers on the album as the last embers of his and Waters’ ability to work together. Muddled in a financial quagmire, the band decided to go ahead with Ezrin’s and Water’s fusion of ideas. And thus was born The Wall - a composite record which dealt with emotional isolation, forced alienation, disillusionment, trauma and desperation.
Breaking past the wall
The first time I heard The Wall, I did not know how to feel about it. It intrigued me to extents which made me question everything around. It was visceral and sterile. The record asks questions and eventually, answers them, quite teasingly. Looping in the persistent theme of intense existential crisis, it plays out in a complete circle, the final words “Isn’t this where” linking it back to the first words uttered, “…we came in?”, thus infusing a sense of melodic and thematic circularity.
The Wall traces the life of an embittered and cynical rock star Pink, a character fleshed out of a synthesis of personalities and vulnerabilities. Drawing mainly from the life of Syd Barrett, and Waters’ trauma, Pink reflected the cracks and blemishes. In flashback, the first track on the album, In the Flesh talks about Pink’s father’s death in the Battle of Anzio, echoing Waters’ experience of losing his father in the war.
Traces of the eccentric Barrett’s alienation can be found in tracks like Nobody Home. As Pink grows up, under the protective and obsessive shadow of his mother (talked about in the track Mother), he grows up to be a sour rock star, rankled by the banality of life, and pushed into murky quarters of disabused existence. As he starts building a figurative wall around him, his life and relationships seem to crumble. Seeking drugs to escape the pangs of existence, he hallucinates and finally, breaks past the wall, experiencing life outside.
The Who’s Pete Townshend described Floyd’s sound as “swirling, cosmic, enveloping and at the same time you could dance to them”. When Another Brick in the Wall was written, producer Ezrin did not feel it had the effect as a package, missing parts which stood out. With pre-80s disco beats breathing life into British watering holes, Gilmour, initially dismissing it as “awful”, decided to base the track on such beats with Ezrin, adding the school choir singing the verse, ultimately fusing it all to form the tracks, 1-3. For any adolescent student, listening to Another Brick in the Wall has proved to be a religious experience. With sharp anti-establishment sentiments oozing from the lines, the track spoke against the abusive nature of the British educational set-up. The video, released later, showed putty-faced students walking in lines, falling into a meat-grinder, teachers abusing the students and ultimately, the students breaking free, destroying the school and setting it on fire. Immortalised as a song of non-conformity, student liberation and untethered imagination, the atmosphere starts off on a tense note and Gilmour eventually providing the flight with a flawless outro solo. Triggering knee-jerk reactions till date, the track lives on, unapologetic and unvarnished.
The cream of concept albums
The album brought Floyd to a creative end, as a quartet group. With internal politics beginning to tarnish the productive and imaginative brilliance of the band, The Wall proved to be a perfect swan song for the distinct Floyd sound (the latter albums being steered by Waters and Gilmour with individual efforts and choices). While Waters helmed the creative side of materialising the concept and scripting unparalleled lyrics, Gilmour toyed with the sound to an extent perhaps only surpassed by The Dark Side of the Moon.
With Waters penning down the lines of the iconic numbers, like In The Flesh?, Another Brick in the Wall, Hey You and Is there Anybody Out There?, Gilmour co-wrote three heavier tracks — Young Lust, Comfortably Numb and Run Like Hell.
In the 2005 reunion, one might remember an emotional Nick Mason tossing his headset away to experience Gilmour, embarking on Comfortably Numb’s solo sections, for one last time as a band. For me, this remains the closest one can get to expressing what the track’s outro guitar solo makes one feel. Often dubbed as mankind’s greatest achievement in the YouTube comments section (an underrated goldmine, forever), Gilmour’s work on the song, captures an emotional wave, traversing a cosmic terrain, a mood intimate and unsettling, as a muscle relaxant would, tracing it back to Waters’ experiences of using the same, during a tour.
Forty-two years later, The Wall speaks a familiar language which relates to the mechanical existence and dread of everyday life. The cream of concept albums out there, The Wall remains ever significant, as a record which punctuated Floyd’s creative stretch as a group, and at the same time, eternized them as pilots of a ship hovering over the unknown terrains of human psychology.