Pink Floyd The Wall: Is there anybody out there?

I am often quizzed as to why I like Pink Floyd so much. My dad thinks it’s all depressing mood music for melancholic reflection (although he reserves a special and more specific hatred for the “funeral dirge” of Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale, as do I). My wife doesn’t get it (though to be fair, I’ve not exposed her to much Floyd, second-guessing what her reaction would be). The only person close to me who I can say is a real Floyd fan is my nephew, Thomas, who’s 10. My sister likes it and saw them live with me in 1994, but she’s no devotee.

And, in fact, when you dig beneath the surface, most Floyd music is arguably basic, repetitive and rubbish: mostly it’s in 4/4 time, much of it is in the key of E minor, and all of it has very simplistic lyrics, depending on the time period. Post-Syd Barrett and up to and including Dark Side of the Moon, the lyrics were so laughably amateurish that they could have been written by a 15-year-old pseudo-poet in a dark, dank bedroom (in fact, that actually sounds like a Floyd lyric from that era).

Later on, specifically on the follow-up albums Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall, and The Final Cut, Roger Waters—as the then-principal songwriter having bullied guitarist David Gilmour and keyboard player Rick Wright into perfoming-only roles—became obsessed with exorcising his personal demons using the Floyd as his vehicle.

These demons were namely the loss of his father in World War 2, before he was even born, plus his general misogyny, wars in general, his hatred of the music industry (including performing to large crowds), and even his hatred of actually being in a band. Oh, and not forgetting the extension of the ideas explored on Dark Side: alienation, isolation, madness, paranoia and the fear of death, much of which was informed by the acid-fuelled downward mental spiral of original band leader Syd Barrett.

It’s not laugh-a-minute stuff to be sure. So why the appeal?

For me, I was 16 and obsessed with the prog rock excesses of bands like pre-1975 Genesis and Yes when I first heard Floyd. A friend lent me Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall after he played them on the kitchen stereo in the hotel where we worked.

The impact wasn’t overnight. I didn’t have any sort of epiphany, although they were good-enough albums. But none of the Floyd members was or is a particularly gifted musician, other than perhaps David Gilmour—and even he’s no Steve Vai or Joe Satriani. And being into Genesis and Yes, my teen-idol rock stars absolutely had to be musical geniuses, with their albums featuring 20-minute concept pieces.

But the music grew on me quickly, especially given the marked difference between the two albums, which fascinated me. Dark Side is not all that musically, lyrically or even conceptually ambitious, but as a cohesive piece of work, it’s sublime. Songs like Time, Us and Them, and The Great Gig in the Sky are effortlessly moving and relevant across all generations, and the subtle sound effects, like the musings on violence, madness and death that play softly in the background, all added up to make this one of my favorite albums.

The Wall, however, was a very different beast even though it was released only five years and two albums later. Here was a concept work clearly based on Roger Waters’ and Syd Barrett’s lives and experiences.

It took the themes of Dark Side—madness, isolation, death—and extended them into a bleak narrative that saw a rock star slide from superstardom into an alienated altered state, in which he is part fascist Nazi, part band leader, and full-on whack job. In fact, he’s so far removed from his audience that it’s as if a wall had been erected between him and them. (Of course, in the live shows a physical wall was actually constructed between the band and the audience during the first half of the performance.)

The album yielded a (Christmas) hit in 1979 in the UK—Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)—so I was at least familiar with some of the music. But the more I listened to it, the more it spoke to me on a personal level. It made me weep; it made me angry; it pumped me up with emotion and rage. It still does almost 30 years since I first heard it.

All of which is pretty weird since I had a very normal childhood and teenage years. I wasn’t rebellious, I didn’t have any sort of breakdown or other reason to identify with the album so much. But I am a very sensitive person and have had my fair share of reflective, introspective and depressed moments, and I was and am able to immerse myself totally in the world of The Wall’s protagonist and to completely identify with him and his losing battle with sanity.

Thematically, and in terms of the narrative, it’s brilliant, although musically it’s pretty simple. That said, the raw power of David Gilmour’s guitar work when combined with the most incisive of Roger Waters’ words (which had evolved beyond the studenty waffle of Dark Side’s lyrics by this time) is a combination that’s moodily seductive and very, very powerful, if you’re in a frame of mind that wants to both wallow and scream at the same time.

I still listen to it now a lot, as well as the live version released a few years back, and have seen the movie based entirely on the album many, many times (in fact, the album was conceived as a movie). I’ve seen the grainy 1980 live performance on YouTube as well as Roger Waters’ reimagining of it in his ambitious tours these past few years, and still it has the power to move me to tears. It’s something very personal and hard to put into words. But I thought I’d try in the paragraphs above… Next up: the 1977 Floyd masterpiece Animals…

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