Top of the Pops: The Wall

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January 3, 2013 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

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When it comes to Pink Floyd, the battle lines are drawn between those who believe that Dark Side of the Moon is the band’s magnum opus, and those who believe that The Wall is in fact the crowning jewel of the band’s discography.  What’s really at stake here though is how you like your Pink Floyd.  Do you prefer your Pink Floyd to be the accidental rock stars and omniscient narrators of Dark Side, or do you prefer them to be emotionally splattered and vindictively extravagant protagonists of The Wall?  A friend once told me that the first Floyd album you listen to will forever be your favorite.  If that’s true then the previous question is rendered moot, and I’ve just wasted about 40 words.  Regardless, The Wall remains a beloved classic within the discography of the band and the simplistically ingenious imagery of Gerald Scarfe has become the visual cue associated with the band.

Pink Floyd’s The Wall is a concept album which is autobiographical in nature about the emotional and mental demise of a rock star who has become smothered by his fame as well as his personal life.  With that being said, the true beauty and subsequent success of the album lay within the fact that The Wall is both an album and a concept at the same time.  It can be mainstream enough to attract the “pop kids”, go to #1 on the charts and have a #1 single in “Another Brick in the Wall pt. 2.  At the same time, the album is still a highly cerebral, guttural piece of insight that powerfully resonated and reconnected the band with a fan base that was starting to feel alienated by the band.

The Wall is an album founded and sustained by contradictions.  The tracks on the album shift between actual songs, brief interludes, and conversations between “characters”.  The best songs on the album, the ones that most importantly add to the overall story were also the ones that were the most commercially successful: “Another Brick in the Wall pt. 2”, “Mother”, “Young Lust”, “Comfortably Numb”.  Along with a few others, these are the best songs on the album.  They accomplish two things that occupy two separate realms: the “album” and the “concept”.  In terms of their contribution to making the album a smash hit, these songs are among the best.  “Young Lust” is David Gilmour at his finest, “Mother” is a track in which the lyrics, drums, and guitar all flow perfectly together, and “Comfortably Numb” is a hauntingly poignant ballad, featuring a guitar solo fit to make angels cry.

Conceptually, the best tracks on the album are the ones that make you feel what Roger Waters, the writer of approximately 91.4% of the album, felt whilst writing these songs.  From the very first song “In the Flesh?” the listener feels as if their being pulled into something greater than a musical composition, they are taken on a ride.  This is due to the song being sung as a narration, an introduction into what we can expect for the next 81 minutes.  It’s essentially the opening soliloquy of a Shakespearean play.  On the flip side though, it’s still a strong opening as that can be enjoyed on its own.  The school choir in “Another Brick pt.2” is what gives the song its sense of oppression and entrapment, just as the stuttering in “Goodbye Blue Sky” properly conveys the feeling of hopelessness.  “Young Lust” is a song that more than lives up to its title.  The riff composed by David Gilmour is right up there with “The Wanton Song” as being the sexiest riff in all of rock music.  On top of this, Gilmour’s howling vocals purvey us with a feeling that mixes hedonism with a sublime anger; a sort of frustration with the overall ease and pointlessness of his desires.

“Young Lust” leads directly in “One of My Turns” and these two songs, which are already sustainable by themselves, are doubly augmented when played consecutively.  The latter is a direct response to the former, an opposite reaction and emotion than those of “Young Lust”.  At this point the protagonist (named Pink) is angered by his wife’s infidelity along with his own desires of both vengeance and lust.  The first half of the song is a spoken word verse which displays these feelings, while the latter half is a dynamic, manic, and spontaneous rocker mocking the hedonistic protocol of groupie sex.  The final tracks on side two of the first disc compound on the loneliness, misery, hopelessness, and oppression by adding feelings of regret, anger, and sadness.  After 40 minutes and 13 tracks we’re left with a collection of songs that tells a coherent story with about 5 memorable songs.

Side one of disc two starts off with “Hey You” a great ballad in which Pink begins to regret his decision to erect an emotional wall, thus cutting himself off from the outside world.  “No matter how he tried he could not break free, and the worms ate into his brain”, this line serves as a commentary on Pink’s current mental state as well as an impending portent of things to come.  It’s a song that progresses from the beginning to the end, first starting with a simply riff and Gilmour’s vocals, and then builds up to the drums, guitar solo and Roger Water’s vocals.  This is all to heighten the sense of desperation and isolation presented by Pink’s current predicament.  The next four tracks are forgettable interludes that serve to remind us that even now behind his wall Pink are unhappy and trapped.  These cuts are the fuel that detractors use to condemn the album as being bloated and self-indulgent….bullshit I say.

The album picks up once again with “Comfortably Numb” which needs no introduction or description at all.  If you haven’t heard the song, finish reading this article, then promptly do whatever you need to do to listen to it.

Side two of disc two can be summed up in a word: angry.  For the first four tracks, Pink believes himself to be a fascist leader, and wants to lead a genocidal campaign to re-establish England as the preeminent world power.  Very Orwellian, I know.  “Waiting for the Worms” sums up this mentality quiet intellectually, in spite of the absurdity of the circumstances.  Both Waters and Gilmour sing lead vocals, but they both portray contrasting yet truthful depictions of dictatorial leaders.  Water’s is to represent the war-like and aggressive aspect of dictators, while Gilmour represents the soft and forked tongue aspect by trying to play upon emotions of prejudice and fear.  Instead of forcing you to believe what he tells you as Waters does, Gilmour instead tries to make his point appeal to you so that you willingly join him.  To be honest, this is how tyrants like Hitler, and Mussolini rose to power, not by force, but by appealing to the public.

After that short trek into the realm of political sciences, we get to the climax of the album in “The Trial”.  In Tommy’s Physical Graffiti on the Wall, I go into further detail about how this penultimate track is the manifestation of the protagonist’s id, ego, and superego.  With “The Trial” the idea that emotions can tell a story just as well as music and lyrics is never in question.  The suspense, drama, intimidation, and fear are all captured on this song that sounds more like a Broadway production.  “The Trial” serves as a paradigm for the success of The Wall as an album: it’s able to succeed as so many different things.  “The Trial” is an amazing composition that goes beyond the constraints of pop song because it really isn’t a pop song, it’s a musical composition which really has become a lost art in modern music.  It’s something orchestral that is presented in a way for not only the “pop kids”, but the fans on the band to understand and appreciate.  The song along with the album itself transcends the medium.

The Wall is pure emotion, and instead of being unfocused or overbearing as can be the problem with emotions, it uses those emotions to perfectly illustrate a story about people and what these emotions can do to a person.  It is not a perfect album, but how can it be if Roger Waters put a piece of his soul into it as he did?  The Wall seeks to make sense and create an order out of something as chaotic and at times extreme as human emotions.  Because the protagonist ultimately fails in his plot to isolate himself from the rest of the world, these themes of emotional turmoil and emotional fluctuation standout to make the album the success that it has become.  The Wall is so all encompassing that it even has its own imagery courtesy of Gerald Scarfe.  The images of the walking hammers, and the blank white brick wall will forever be engrained in rock lore.  Going back to the original question of Dark Side vs. The Wall….well there’s a reason why Roger Waters is still out there doing live performances of The Wall.  Isn’t there?

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