Pink Floyd is one of the biggest bands of all time. I mean, I certainly believe that, but it’s also quite difficult to argue. The band has sold more than 200 million records over their career. That’s more than Queen… freaking Queen! It also happens to be more than AC/DC, Whitney Houston, and The Rolling Stones. But I digress.
One of the band’s most famous works is the 1979 concept double album The Wall. You’ve probably seen the artwork: just plain white bricks laid out, sometimes with one in which a screaming, deformed face appears. The record tells the story of Pink, a fictional rock star who slowly builds a metaphorical wall in his mind to block out the rest of the world and protect himself from physical and psychological harm.
So why am I talking about this? Why am I talking about an album that is very nearly 40 years old? Well, I hate to bring it up, but we are about to enter a time when walls, both metaphorical and real, become very important. Building walls between countries to keep people out (no matter how implausible that structure may be), building mental walls to ignore facts, evidence, and the cries of downtrodden. I want to talk about The Wall not simply because it’s my most favoritist album of all time (though it is) but because its themes continue to resonate today and shall continue to do so. But now, perhaps more than ever, have they become so crucial.
I want tell you about why Pink Floyd doesn’t want us to build those walls.
The Wall is, for the most part, the brainchild of Pink Floyd’s Bassist, Vocalist, and self-appointed Leader (it’s a long story) Roger Waters. Waters, who had perhaps the least musical training of the band, constantly stressed the importance of lyrics, themes and storytelling over musicality and composition, which was in direct contrast to Guitarist and Vocalist David Gilmour. Pink Floyd constantly struggled with this balance, the peak of which was probably their most famous album Dark Side of the Moon.
But after Dark Side’s release, Waters began to slowly take control of the band’s direction, his ideas becoming a powerful driving force behind their followups of Wish You Were Here (an ode to former Leader of the band, Syd Barrett) and Animals (essentially a rock adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, but with the focus turned to Capitalism instead of Communism). It was during the band’s 1977 In The Flesh tour (for Animals) that Waters found himself frustrated with the very audience that he played for. One instance had him snapping at the audience for lighting off fireworks in the middle of songs. Another found Waters actually spitting in the face of a fan trying to climb a barrier and reach the band during a performance.
It was during this time that Waters began to feel a “wall” between himself and the audience. He, along with his bandmates, felt alienation from fans and disaffection towards the large stadiums they began playing. This led Waters to begin work on what would become The Wall. Writing virtually all lyrics and most of the music (with specific integral contributions from the rest of the band, more on that later), Waters created a semi-autobiographical story that became one of the biggest rock shows of all time.
The live show consisted of stagehands literally building a gigantic wall between the band and the audience over the course of the first half, the band playing through small holes in the structure. The second half had the performers appearing both at the bottom and from the top of the wall, before bringing the entire thing down in spectacular fashion. Though most recordings of the original live shows are either bootlegged or of very low quality, Waters would eventually perform the entire show (with a menagerie of other artists) at the Berlin Wall after it was finally torn down, and that show is indeed available for viewing (seriously, it’s a true spectacle).
The Wall is a huge album: running nearly an hour and half in length and consisting of 26 songs (that number would be increased for the live shows). It’s hardly fitting to just talk about the work as a whole, so I need to do this song by song. For the sake of inclusion and completion, I will also discuss songs that were exclusive to the live version, and will discuss a few difference between the studio and live versions where necessary. So without further ado or stalling, let’s dig in.
In The Flesh?
The album begins with a very soft, low key melody played on clarinet along with a quiet voice asking “… we came in?” Before the melody can finish it is interrupted by an explosive guitar riff, taking us into the song proper. In addition to the name of the song referencing the tour that inspired Waters, the lyrics are sang not only from the perspective of Waters, but the character of Pink, our protagonist. The song stands as a sort of mission statement from Waters for the show: “this isn’t just another rock concert, you’ve no idea what’s in store.” While simultaneously beginning the story in medias res, showing how Pink performs for a crowd, demanding that you pay attention in order to “find out what’s behind these cold eyes.” During the live show a backup band wearing masks of the actual members of Pink Floyd would perform this first song instead of Pink Floyd themselves, furthering the distance between the band and the audience from the word go.
The song ends with the sounds of a plane dive-bombing before everything cuts out to the sounds of a baby crying, taking us all the way back to Pink’s birth, the dive-bomber representing the death of his father before he was born (which is inspired by Waters own grief over the death of his father in WWII, also before he was born).
The Thin Ice
This continues into the next song, shifting chronologically back to the beginning of Pink’s life and describing the sentiments of his parents about the life he faces and the world he is born into. The voices of Pink’s parents (or possibly just his mother, it’s difficult to specify as both Gilmour and Waters sing on the track) lament that although there is beauty in this world it is in fact a difficult and hard place, describing it as the “thin ice of modern life.” The voices warn of cracks in the ice, and should they appear, Pink will lose his sanity and will find his “fear flowing out behind” before he falls in.
The ice is representative of social and cultural mores, the basic human decencies we are taught to hold up from an early age. The lyrics argue that once a crack appears in those values, you begin to lose it all, with fear and anger taking control and causing you to fall into despair. As the old Jedi proverb says: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”
Another Brick in the Wall (Part I)
Pink is growing older now, finally learning the fate of his father. “Leaving just a memory/ A snap shot in the family album,” the knowledge is traumatic for the boy and instills a feeling of abandonment in him. This trauma that stays with Pink the rest of his life becomes the first brick in his mental wall. Another brick that will be built on with further trauma, anger, and sadness. It’s a deep cut that never heals, and perhaps a cut that other people he meets don’t quite understand. As will become his fashion, this lack of understanding from others is what causes Pink to eventually lash out.
The Happiest Days of Our Lives
We’re told this from the beginning by most adults, “cherish being young because it’s the happiest you’ll ever be.” But those adults often forget something very simple: it’s still difficult to be a kid. You’re small, impressionable, gullible, and constantly under pressure in ways adults often tend to overlook. In particular, our school days. We send our children to large buildings full of strangers who will be responsible for practically 1/3 their upbringing. What happens when these strangers are spiteful, vindictive, and petty?
Pink finds himself and his classmates at the mercy of their schoolteacher, an abusive man who is in turn abused by his wife. It’s alluded to that there are, of course, many people who propagate this cycle, too weak to put a stop to it, and so must take their anger out on those beneath them.
Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)
The second brick is laid as Pink begins to rebuff his teachers, and thus instills his hatred and mistrust of authority. He stands up for his classmates, “Hey, Teacher, leave them kids alone,” and rallies them against the adults. But the small uprising fails, the children being beaten back and chastised by the teachers once more.
Of all the songs on the album, this is likely the one that you’ve heard before, with it’s most famous lyric being: “We don’t need no education.” And sure, a lot of smart people have made the joke that that’s a double negative, it’s pertinent to realize the ones saying this are indeed young schoolchildren. They ain’t so educated. This can in fact acknowledge the mistrust of the education system (indeed, most of the members of Pink Floyd were very critical of the educations their children would receive) and the downside of lacking a proper education. That lacking an education can create paranoia, anger, and indeed resentment. Sir Isaac Asimov once lamented the Western world’s views on intellect:
“The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
Sums it up quite nicely, don’t you think?
Back home, Pink has a conversation with his mother, expressing his anxiety with the world and wondering if he should cut himself off from it by building the wall. His worries are initially big picture: the dropping of bombs, his value as an artist, his masculinity, government authority and callousness, before wondering if life itself is “just a waste of time.” But after Pink’s Mother “comforts’ him by confirming all his worries while promising to shelter him from the world (thereby adding to his wall), Pink’s anxiety becomes more personal and almost selfish: will the girl(s) he loves break his heart. Again, his mother reassures she will protect him and will keep him “healthy and clean.” The song ends with Pink questioning his mother’s overprotectiveness: “Mother did it need to be so high?”
Pink’s overbearing Mother adds to the wall by sheltering him from the world. Instead of teaching him anything of beauty she reinvigorates all his fears (calling back the cynicism displayed in The Thin Ice). Though not labeled another brick, this acts as fortification: the single authority figure Pink trusts tells him to not trust anyone or anything, that the world is a horrible place, and that he will always get hurt.
Goodbye Blue Sky
Beginning with a child’s voice (possibly a little girl) calling to their mother about an airplane she sees, the song is Pink’s memory of a life he did not live: a life in a time of war, a life in a time of destruction and misplacement. Yet he still feels the pain from those lives (the loss of his father), and with it Pink leaves the last of his optimism behind (the Blue Sky, another callback to The Thin Ice) and embraces a new cynical outlook as he enters adulthood.
The Empty Spaces
This is were examination of the differences between the studio and live version become necessary.
The original version is rather simplistic and even a bit of a jab at listeners. Before the actual lyrics of the song a backwards message plays. When deciphered, this message describes itself as a secret message and attempts to tell the listener instructions before being interrupted. This could simply be a joke, or shorthand for Pink’s becoming a popular musician who, like Pink Floyd themselves, is accused of hiding satanic messaging in his work through back masking (recording a message backward that is meant to play forward) which in itself is little more than a joke, as the real messaging is right their in the actual lyrics for all to hear, clear as day. The song’s lyrics allude to Pink’s marriage now falling apart: “We used to talk,” and has him pondering what will allow him to complete his wall.
The live version is roughly the same, though the backward message is no longer there and the lyrics have changed: instead of describing Pink’s failing marriage, it describes the emptiness that Pink feels despite the adoration he receives from the crowd. The live version quickly transitions into a song not included on the studio album.
What Shall We Do Now? (Live only)
Building from the alienation described in the previous song, Pink ponders about what he can do to actually be fulfilled. By way of materialism: “Shall we buy a new guitar/Shall we drive a more powerful car.” Or perhaps through work, and even acts of violence. The song ends with Pink concluding that nothing he tries brings him satisfaction, he can never relax, and so the wall continues to loom over him.
From the perspective of successful musicians this song become increasingly important to the wider picture. The ideas of success and happiness being intertwined within our society can be a dangerous one. The suicide note written by Kurt Cobain comes to mind, in which he described his jealousy of someone like Freddie Mercury (of Queen, but you should already know that) and his ability to apparently bask in the adoration of a crowd. Cobain seemingly felt the cold distance between himself and his audience that Pink does within our story. And in spite of Cobain’s success, he still suffered personally enough to take his own life, which may or may not reflect the fate of Pink (we’ll get to it).
Pink sets out to find a new “connection.” He scours the town while on tour to find a new woman, a “dirty woman.” Pink plays the typical role of a rockstar: taking advantage of his stardom to seduce women. We don’t know it yet, but this is in fact the final attempts of a desperate man to find a connection to the world. Pink seeks to cheat on his wife not simply for pleasure, but to still yet find something to fulfill him. In a twist of irony, Pink calls his wife to find a man answering the phone, discovering his wife’s own infidelities.
One of My Turns
Pink succeeds in finding someone, a groupie, who he takes back to his hotel room. While she tries to talk to him, to excite him, Pink continues to feel no connection. In an act of desperation, Pink flies into a fit, searching for something, anything to feel for. He tries to play the rockstar, the boyfriend, the husband, the lover, before finally becoming the aggressor and scaring the woman into running. The song ends with Pink calling out to the girl, not understanding how she drove her off: “Why are you running away?”
Don’t Leave Me Now
Pink returns to find that his wife is leaving him for good. Despite their mutually destructive relationship (her emasculation of him, his physical abuse of her) Pink pleads with his wife to stay. But he fails, she walks out on Pink as he repeats his words to the groupie: “Why are you running away?” It’s the last straw.
Another Brick in the Wall (Part I)
Seeking solace in television, Pink furiously flicks through channels, searching for something, anything to connect. He can’t, there’s nothing. His life is falling apart and there’s nothing left: his Mother is gone, his Wife is gone, his Lovers are gone. In a fit of rage Pink destroys his television with a baseball bat. He now embraces the emptiness he feels, believing he can now let go of the world and everything in it. In the end, he blames everything in his life for building the wall around him, forcing his hand to finally retreat behind it. “All in all it was all just bricks in the wall.”
Goodbye Cruel World
Though sounding suicidal, Pink’s final words to the world aren’t as literal. He sends his farewells, claiming nothing can change his mind, as he places the final brick into place. This was done literally during the live shows, with Waters singing through the single opening left in the wall, which would be filled up just as he sang the final words, finally cutting himself and the rest of the band off from the audience.
The second half kicks off with what is, perhaps, the most important song on the album. Finally isolated behind his wall Pink finds he has made a mistake, with most of the lyrics made up of his many cries for help to people on the outside. His calls become increasingly desperate, but no one answers. This song contains the first reference to “the worms,” who will become the antagonists of the album, eating away at Pink’s humanity and empathy.
Hey You is particularly interesting due to it’s small callbacks to Pink Floyd songs from previous albums. Near the end of the song we can hear a “ping” sound similar to what is heard in Echoes. But a more overt reference can be found with the mention of “the stone.” This was used as a metaphor in the song Dogs, wherein once-powerful leaders of industry find themselves at the mercy of their own mortality, dragged down by the weight of the stone. This perhaps identifies Pink as one of the Dogs, a powerful member of society who who yet finds themselves with little control.
Of significance, and words to ruminate upon, are the final lyrics: “Hey you! Don’t tell me there’s no hope at all/Together we stand, divided we fall.”
Is There Anybody Out There?
Pink regresses still further behind the wall, his cries for help reduced to the single phrase of the title. He repeats the question, but never gets an answer, as Pink slowly seems to accept his fate.
Pink finds himself seeking solace in his various possessions, while lamenting his current state of mind. Some items are significant: “… little black book with my poems.” Some are less so: “elastic bands keeping my shoes on.” Pink also alludes to a final attempt to reach his wife, calling her one last time, but knowing no one will answer: “when I try to get through/on the telephone to you/ there’ll be nobody home.” Pink also mentions his continued drug use, which actually refers to keyboardist Richard Wright who had been struggling with a cocaine addiction at the time: “got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains.” By the end, Pink is trailing off, seemingly unable to find meaning in his possessions anymore: “… I’ve got fading roots.”
Directly referencing the WWII Era British singer Vera Lynn, Pink cries out to her memory, and her famous promise to “… meet again some sunny day,” referencing her famous song “We’ll Meet Again,” perhaps most recognizable nowadays for its use at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb). This may in and of itself be a reference to the infamous black comedy, which depicts the most powerful men on Earth scheming to, in the end, hole themselves beneath the Earth’s surface with a population ratio of 10:1 female-to-male. Pink’s isolation and hiding may in fact be no less selfish, though certainly less inherently bemusing.
Bring The Boys Back Home
Pink’s thoughts drift to his father, killed in battle during WWII. Though much is left to interpretation, it can be inferred that Pink may be watching the News, seeing something about conflict in the world, or merely echoing the sentiments of many popular rock bands who were stridently anti-war. However you read it, Pink cries out bring them all home, warning not to “… leave the children alone at home.”
Though one of the shortest songs on the album, not even a minute and a half in length, Waters has stressed how this one is the crux of the entire story. Despite its militarist overtones, the song can refer to anyone who finds themselves separated from friends and family through their work. That whatever you do in life, never allow it to become more important than your loved ones. This becomes increasingly of note in conjunction with the following song.
Pink, in a catatonic state, is examined by a doctor at the behest of his manager. The doctor offers him help to “ease your pain/get you on your feet again.” Pink, unable to respond vocally, remains in his catatonia, thinking back to his childhood and becoming lost in thought, blissfully unaware of his surroundings. He has become numb to all outside stimuli. But Pink is injected with a mysterious drug that returns his motor functions and starts bringing him back to the world, with what will be disastrous results.
Perhaps the most critically lauded of the songs from The Wall, Comfortably Numb is one of the significant contributions made by guitarist David Gilmour, who wrote most of the music while Waters penned the lyrics. It is also one of the few times during the live shows where improvisation was allowed, making for extended guitar solos to close out the song. While I haven’t linked to many videos, this is one that I have to insist you take a moment to view. There’s a reason its solos are frequently listed as the one of, if not the, greatest guitar solos ever.
The title of the song can be taken in several ways, but due to its proximity to Bring The Boys Back Home, I see at as Pink finally losing all feeling and empathy. He no longer cares for anything, and no reason to do so anymore. He has become comfortably numb to the outside world.
The Show Must Go On
Another song with a slight diversion between studio and live versions.
Pink is whisked away to his concert as the drugs slowly kick in. Fear begins to settle in as he realizes he shouldn’t perform in such conditions: “Why don’t I turn and run?” Pink recognizes again the mistake he’s made by building the wall, finding that someone (perhaps the worms, the industry, or society) has taken away his soul and continues to be unfeeling for the outside world. But Pink decides to follow the clarion cry of the artist: “The show must go on.”
While mostly the same, the first verse from the live version is omitted, leaving Pink focused squarely on his mistakes instead of his fears.
In The Flesh
A reprise of the opening song (or perhaps return to the story’s present timeline) that branches off with a slightly different arrangement and new perspective. The euphoria of the drugs have worn off and Pink enters a state of paranoia and delusion. He begins to envision himself as a fascist dictator before his throngs of adoring fans. Pink demands the audience prove their devotion to him by singling out the “undesirables” in the crowd: “Are there any queers in the theater tonight… that one looks Jewish/and that one’s a coon/who let all this riffraff into the room.” Pink has the crowd stand them “up against the wall,” and tells them he’d like to have them all shot.
One of the more dangerous songs on the album, out of context In The Flesh could be a song in support of white supremacy. It is also the beginning of a “trilogy” of songs about hate and paranoia and sensationalism. Pink rallies his crowd into a mob mentality who begin to believe whatever he says.
Run Like Hell
Pink incites his mob of fans and turns them to the streets, unleashing rage upon the outside world. He threatens all he comes across with indiscrimination. Even the acts of love are destroyed, warning he and his army will kill even a pair of backseat lovers: “They’re gonna send you back to mother in a cardboard box.” It’s important to note that Pink never admits he will personally hurt his detractors or the undesirables, leaving that only to his mob, whom he refers to as “the hammers.”
The Live version, though mostly the same, begins with Waters addressing the audience. He issues a direct warning to “all the weak people in the audience” before beginning the song, telling them all “this is for you, it’s called ‘Run Like Hell.’”
Waiting For The Worms
Pink has fully succumbed to his fears, now waiting for the worms to destroy the rest of him. As he looks out upon the destruction waged in his name, Pink realizes he has infected the crowd, poisoned their minds. He has spread the worms to the rest of the world. As the crowd chants in unison, the voices reach their peak and Pink cries out for everything to stop.
With this Pink fully embodies that of a fascist dictator in the mold of Adolf Hitler, even counting the song in using the German “Eins, Zwei, Drei.” The sounds of the crowd evoke that of something akin to the Nuremberg Rally, as Pink callously looks out upon his followers. The song depicts the apex of mob mentality, showing how people rally behind their charismatic leaders without regards to what they actually say. The allusions to WWII and the Holocaust become overt: “… the final solution to strengthen the strain,” “… turn on the showers and fire the ovens.” Though as his audience is swept up in his hateful rhetoric, Pink is eventually able to recognize the wrong he is doing, and the harm he is creating.
Calling for a stop to all the violence, Pink again regresses behind the wall and begins to turn his hatred inward, questioning “Have I been guilty all of this time.”
At barely 30 seconds long, this is easily the shortest song on the album, but important nonetheless. Pink has always thrown his contempt of the world outwards, directing it to the people in his life and eventually society at large. With this he finally realizes he must take responsibility for his mistakes and find a solution.
Slipping into insanity, Pink imagines himself in a courtroom in session with The Worms, who call various witnesses from Pink’s life to testify to his “showing feelings of an almost human nature.” As an agent of the Worms, Pink is not allowed that which makes him human: his empathy. His schoolmaster and wife are called, both threatening Pink in various ways before his mother appears again to try and console him. The judge declares Pink guilty and sentences him “to be exposed before your peers,” ordering him to tear down the wall. The song ends with an explosion, bring the wall crumbling down.
The song makes it explicit that Pink has finally lost his mind and has degenerated from paranoia to delusion. This is in spite of his finally seeing his own life through a clearer lens, that despite the negative influence of those in his life Pink continued to blame everyone else for his unhappiness. This is rooted in the single tragedy in his life that Pink had no control over: the death of his father. This rooted trauma influences the rest of his life: because he couldn’t stop this atrocity, Pink felt forever unable to stop anything. The explosion at the end of the song has been interpreted as a gunshot, symbolizing that Pink shoots himself in order to be free from the wall. However…
Outside The Wall
With the story of Pink over, we are given a glimpse of what happens outside the wall. That whenever we build our walls, there are always our loved ones walking around on the other side, trying to reach us. Some will reach out as a lone friend, others as groups, others as family. And for larger walls come the bands, the artists, the creators of society to reach out their hand and put a stop to those who would divide us. But it is important to remember that you may still fail to reach those behind the wall, even bearing your heart and soul to do so may yield nothing but your own undoing. That perhaps, sadly there are those that are too far gone. But, significantly, the lyrics do not refer to a hypothetical individual, but directly to the listener: “And when they’ve given you their all…” A reminder that you are always adding bricks to your own wall, and it is your ultimate responsibility to knock it all down.
So there you have it, you’ve made it through this monster of a write-up, and if you haven’t already please go give the album a listen. But still you’re probably asking: “why this, and why now?” That’s perfectly relevant and I’m all too willing to share.
As I said at the top we are about to enter a time of great turmoil and upheaval in America, and indeed the world at large. Between Donald Trump’s election and the UK breaking from the European Union it seems very much like these leaders of the free world want to wall themselves off and keep the outsiders out. They want to be selfish and hide away, they want to de-socialize, they want to break down communications and trade. They believe they can survive all on their own.
But the fact is, Human beings as a species cannot survive all alone. The very reason we got this far is because of language. Language is in fact the starting point of all society. Language brought us together, allowed us to work together, to explain methods, share ideas, and express ourselves. We human beings are social by nature, we rely on each and every other person in the world, and that is not hyperbole. It’s how we all got this far.
So do not wall yourself off. Don’t cut out the people in your life whom you disagree with. Challenge them, demand them to explain their views, make them see your own. Show everyone your story, because each and every one of us has one, and I say show because actions speak louder than words. If someone makes statements that are casually racist, bigoted, misogynistic, or in any way dismissive of others, be sure to call them out. Some may be too far gone to reach, for whatever reason, but we still need to try.
Don’t simply share an article that agrees with your viewpoint. Volunteer when you can. Donate when you can. And if you can’t, just show up to the party. Be involved. Engage. Speak your mind but open your heart.
Now start breaking down those walls.