The Show Goes On

By Paul Rigg

While many punk fans happily went to gigs to gob at their heroes on stage in the late 1970s, one star – from a completely different genre – decided to spit back.    

Roger Waters
had grown sick at the perceived lack of contact between the audience and a band who, during the In the Flesh tour, were sometimes playing in stadiums to crowds of 80,000. At the end of one gig in Montreal a few rowdy members of the audience were trying to storm the stage, and in response a furious Waters spat in the face of one of the fans. After the gig a disturbed Waters sat down with Bob Ezrin - who had previously produced Peter Gabriel, Alice Cooper and Lou Reed - and a psychiatrist friend, and explained how distant he had grown from his audience and how alienated he felt from himself.

And this moment was the spark that eventually led to the creation of the classic double-album The Wall, with the main character ‘Pink’ formed from a composite of Waters and Floyd’s original madcap leader, Syd Barrett.

For guitar fans, on the other hand, The Wall, released 30 November 1979, consecrated the status of Dave Gilmour as something close to a guitar god, as his acoustic and electric contributions to the album are, as one critic delicately put it, ‘fucking incredible’. Anyone lucky enough to have attended the live presentation of the album in Earl’s Court in 1980 will recall the sheer awe they felt when Gilmour suddenly appeared alone right at the top of a 40 foot wall built between the band and the audience, bathed in a bright spotlight, to deliver the final stunning guitar solo, on his iconic Black Strat, to Comfortably Numb.

And yet this whole wonderful creation - which besides selling well over 25 million records, has spawned countless live concerts; a feature film starring Bob Geldof; the Live in Berlin album and DVD; and an opera; - began as so many other classic albums have: in the context of near disaster. These problems included the entire group being impelled by financial problems to leave their homes within a month and move to other countries; by keyboardist Rick Wright, who died 10 years ago this week, being forced into virtual ‘session musician’ status by Waters (and drummer Nick Mason reportedly almost meeting the same fate); by Ezrin’s collapsing marriage and mental state causing constant delays; and by massive tensions between Waters and Gilmour as Waters took on the role as the band’s dominant, and some might say almost dictatorial, force. 

“You gotta be selfish, it’s a terrible thing”
film director David Lynch recently said in an interview, and perhaps Waters might concur with that. The Floyd bassist wrote all the lyrics and most of the music for this conceptual album and his vision, rooted in the death of his father in WWII and his personal existential preoccupations, are the driving force behind its creation.

It is easy to see how some of ‘Pink’s challenges’, such as his problematic relations with his mother, his teachers and his wife (to mention just a few of the ‘bricks in the wall’) are easily related to by Pink Floyd’s fans, but it is a mark of Water’s amazing lyrical skill that he can also make lines like ‘shall we set out across this sea of faces, in search of more and more applause’ – which is so directly linked to his highly personal experience as a rock star - also connect so strongly with an audience.    

Among many other surprises, The Wall spawned a number one hit single on an almost disco sounding Another Brick in the Wall (part 2)(with Gilmour playing the solo with a 1955 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop); Gilmour singing on a funky sounding Young Lust; and the extraordinary operatic conclusion of The Trial, in which Pink is forced to consider if it is actually him who has ‘been guilty all this time’. 

Looking back at the reviews when the album was released it is interesting to see some critics question whether The Wall can ‘succeed commercially’ because of its breadth and its dark themes. The facts and numbers aside, its success can perhaps be measured by its current status as a key cultural reference point; the world is difficult to imagine without it.