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Pink Floyd: Many Happy Returns To 'The Wall'

Thursday, 04 December 2014 Written by Graeme Marsh

‘The Wall’ is a cultural giant, but a record that’s often overshadowed by a couple of Pink Floyd’s mid-’70s masterworks, ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ and ‘Wish You Were Here’.

Still, as a concept piece, it stands mighty and proud in the annals of prog-rock history, blossoming from its vinyl grooves into a huge stage show, accompanying film and, following the fall of the Berlin wall, a live performance by Roger Waters and a cavalcade of stars.

For a certain generation, the iconic animation, created by Gerald Scarfe, is just as memorable, remaining vivid and unsettling some 35 years after its release. His imagery, replete with marching hammers and skeletal school teachers wielding canes, seeped into receptive minds as Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2) spent five weeks at #1, but the single – from a band more renowned for their albums – represents only a speck of the whole story.

The album has its roots in Waters’ increasing frustration with the band’s enormodome brand of touring, which reached an infamous nadir in Montreal as they toured ‘Animals’ in 1977. Frustrated by poor sound and the logistical issues that attended playing a stadium show, an irate, restless crowd got to the band. Waters, losing his cool and feeling as though nothing of his work was actually getting through to the crowd, spat at one particularly vocal fan. “It was a situation we’d created ourselves through our own greed,” he later told BBC Radio 1 DJ Tommy Vance during an interview on ‘The Wall’. “The only real reason for playing large venues is to make money.”

Waters then withdrew from the public eye as the pressures of superstardom took their toll. He began what would become the epic album; a tale of isolation, anger, fame, expectation and greed based around the life of its central character, Pink. 'The Wall' began with that live disaffection.

“Well, the idea for ‘The Wall’ came from 10 years of touring with rock shows, I think” Waters continued. “Particularly the last few years, in '75 and in '77, we were playing to very large audiences, some of whom were our old audience who'd come to hear what we wanted to play, but most of whom were only there for the beer, in big stadiums. Consequently it became rather an alienating experience doing the shows. I became very conscious of a wall between us and our audience and this record started out as being an expression of those feelings.”

The story opens with In The Flesh, a look at what the man has become, before delving into the past and Pink’s origins. The Thin Ice opens with the cries of a baby as we retreat to the beginning of Pink’s life, before the first part of the most famous iteration of the wall, Another Brick In The Wall, begins. It’s the tale of a father who has left his family and “flown across the ocean, leaving just a memory, a snapshot in the family album” and a reference to Waters, who lost his own father during World War II.

The story continues through Pink’s life, taking in unhappy school days (the sarcastic The Happiest Days Of Our Lives), over-protective mothers (Mother) and sex (Young Lust), before depression, spite and violence washes in (Don’t Leave Me Now). By the time Goodbye Cruel World arrives, his slide into obscurity, behind the wall and locked away in a hotel room, has been completed. He’s had enough of life before muttering Hey You, a plea for help spoken into the void.

A rebirth of sorts occurs on Vera, which again harks back to World War II, before the grandiose, emotive Bring The Boys Back Home segues into another of the album’s standalone moments of brilliance. Pink’s doctor, a symbol of ‘show must go on’ avarice, is the antagonist as Comfortably Numb floats to its crescendo: a David Gilmour solo that may be the finest of all time. The song finds Pink embodying the frustration and grotesque behaviour of Montreal, before a Kafka-esque reappraisal of past and present self tumbles into the album’s denouement, Outside The Wall.

To complete such an epic storyline, Waters required a similarly epic way of portraying his vision. Scarfe had worked with the band before and once he grasped the concept, the ideas flowed. The notorious marching hammers were one of the first ideas that popped into his head.

“I tried to think of the most unrelenting kind of cruel symbol…the first thing that came into my mind was the hammer because it’s metal, it smashes things, it’s unrelenting,” he told REG Fanclub’s Michael Simone. “And then the other thing was to make it march because it has echoes of fascism and Nazism and so on. So that's how that really came about, these faceless, mindless tools of destruction just marching ever onward unrelentingly.”

Without his input, ‘The Wall’ may have just been an album. With it, the whole experience became legendary. It remains as phenomenal an accomplishment as it was when it was first released, so many happy returns to ‘The Wall’.

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