Friday, 10 January 2014

The Wall

More Pink Floyd ruminations for you...

You could divide Pink Floyd's work into four periods. The first, spanning 1967 to 1969 and including their first album Piper at the Gates of Dawn and some of the second, A Saucerful of Secrets, was dominated by guitarist, singer and chief songwriter Syd Barrett and involved experimental, off-the-wall songs and musical pieces with strange sounds and bizarre lyrics.

The second began when Barrett's mental illness made his ongoing participation impossible. It involved the remaining members - bass player Roger Waters, drummer Nick Mason and keyboard player Rick Wright along with replacement guitarist Dave Gilmour - trying to work out what they should do next. The result is a number of interesting musical experiments - quirky extended songs and musical pieces which tested the limits of late 1960s and early 1970s recording studios but which these days are more curious than compelling.

In the third period they finally found the answer. Beginning with an extended piece called 'Echoes' which appeared on 1971's Meddle, blossoming to full flower with Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, and extending across Wish You Were Here in 1975 and Animals in 1977, they made the music that defined them and secured their legacy.

In the fourth and final period, the band fractured and various combinations of its members tried to recapture the magic with limited success.

In between the third and fourth periods came The Wall, the album which many (particularly Roger Waters) consider their masterpiece and also the work which brought their simmering tensions to a head and broke their partnership.

After Barrett's departure, Pink Floyd had basically functioned as a collective.  They spent long periods together in the studio and on the road, working together on each others' ideas.  The resulting work was carefully constructed, many-layered, unfolding for the listener slowly and carefully over extended pieces which showcased each member's contribution while showing that the whole was more than the sum of its parts. 

This is not to say all members were equal.  Waters was the most prolific songwriter and the most forceful personality, Gilmour the most accomplished singer and instrumentalist.  Like Lennon and McCartney in the Beatles, the dynamic between these two tended to squeeze Wright and Mason to the margins.  Wright's quiet and often withdrawn personality mirrored George Harrison's underestimated genius while Mason, like Ringo Starr, did whatever it is drummers do when they're not hitting things.  Still, these tensions were managed and the dynamic they created was responsible for the sound we all associate with Pink Floyd.

The Wall was a startling departure.  While officially a Pink Floyd album it is in fact very much Roger Waters' work.  While Gilmour gets a couple of songwriting credits, Mason and Wright don't even get their names on the cover. 

The genesis of this dark masterpiece was a moment during a live performance in Montreal, Canada when Waters became so incensed with rowdy fans in the front row that he spat on them.  The moment crystallised the increasing alienation Waters felt during live concerts, and he began to think about creating a show in which he would physically build a wall between himself and the audience. 

Yet there is much more to the album than that.  The outbreak against his audience was just the tip of the massive iceberg of Waters' anger.  As he wrote it all bubbled to the surface - the loss of his father in World War 2; his overprotective mother; his sarcastic, destructive schoolmaster; his harpy of a wife (from whom he had recently separated); the loneliness and isolation of the travelling musician.  All are told in a series of songs and song fragments, linked by demented spoken word interludes, until on the last of the original four sides of vinyl 'Pink', the composite character who stands mostly for Waters, is brought face to face with all these various influences in a surrealistic courtroom scene before the wall is dramatically and cathartically smashed.  It is a harrowing, over-the top melodrama, a piece of frightening pop psychology enhanced by Gerald Scarfe's weird animations which danced across the wall during the stage show and formed the basis for the subsequent film.

Waters arrived at the recording sessions with the concept fully formed and proceeded to impose his will on his band-mates.  In the process, their already fragile relationships fractured beyond repair.  Frustrated at Wright's passivity, Waters forced him out of the band altogether although he played on the subsequent tour as a hired musician.  Waters and Gilmour clashed continuously and even though Gilmour occasionally got his way he never entered a recording studio with Waters again.  Mason did his best to bridge the gap and remain friends with everyone, but ultimately went with Gilmour when the band split.  Waters felt he didn't really need them and perhaps he was right.  Although the initial live performances featured all four, Waters has toured the show without them on and off ever since.  Although loyal fans miss them, the music doesn't need them.

In many ways The Wall takes their music in a new direction too.  Certainly it retains some elements of their sound - the trademark pounding bass, Gilmour's slide guitar, the spoken pieces tucked in behind the music, the reprise of key songs through the work.  There are even some deliberate references to their early work used for dramatic effect.  The whale song sounds from 'Echoes' that appear in 'Is There Anybody Out There?' make it seem like you are at an earlier Floyd concert.  Naming the central character 'Pink' reprises a joke from 'Have a Cigar' in which a fat cat record executive asks '...and by the way, which one's Pink?'. 

Yet the differences are greater than the similarities.  The lyrics, and the story they told, had never been this important in their work before.  Nor had the multi-media elements of the show - what had previously been background to the music was now integral to the whole package.  The Wall is not just a record, it is a theatrical spectacular.  The long, carefully constructed pieces that feature in most of their work are replaced by a series of fragments tied together by a few traditionally structured songs.  The long instrumental segments are replaced by Scarfe's images and the quiet reflective tone of their earlier work is replaced by a harder edge, with distorted guitars and jerky rhythms.  At times it almost sounds like punk.  It even gave them their only post-Syd hit single, 'Another Brick in the Wall Part 2', the lyric of which was gleefully chanted by school children across the English-speaking world.

We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teacher leave those kids alone

Perhaps with all this anger lurking just below the surface it's surprising the other band members put up with Waters as long as they did.  However it's also possible, given the strange dynamics between the four and their inability to communicate openly with one another, that The Wall was a gigantic and elaborate resignation letter from Waters.  Certainly a huge part of the anger is directed at his experience of being part of Pink Floyd.  I'm guessing that when it was finally over and the lengthy legal disputes ironed out, everyone was pretty relieved that they could get on with the rest of their lives.
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