The English progressive rock band Pink Floyd’s 11th studio album: The Wall experienced it’s 40th anniversary just a few days ago, with the album becoming Pink Floyd’s second-best seller with 24 million copies as of 2018, with their best being 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon. But what was its significance in both the music world and for the public?
The Wall became the best selling album of 1980, with it being Pink Floyd’s most iconic stylistic achievement in the group’s 13-year career. Despite this, it was no Dark Side of the Moon, which could be said is the group’s masterpiece. The Wall would require work for the early parts of the coming decade and eventually led to the collapse of the band itself.
The album follows the story of “Pink”, a persona formed from the band members’ personal experiences, mainly taking from their ex-band leader Syd Barrett, who suffered from a decline in mental health from drug usage with a gain in fame as well as bassist Roger Waters who stretched his talents with this album. Producing the words and a majority of the songs, projecting his troubled upbringing upon “Pink”, who was raised by his widowed mother after the death of his father in the Second World War.
Exploring themes of isolation, mental health, drug abuse, fame, parenting, domestic violence and aspects of fascism; Roger Waters portrays a dark, post Second World War society filled with a sharp bitterness and an ever-expanding fog of depression.
The Wall follows the story of Pink, born and raised by his overprotective mother and his life at a government/state-run school is made hell through torment by teachers; so he followed a career of rock on roll, leading to a crippling drug addiction and problems with prostitution, (stereotypical rockstar tropes), all the while building this metaphorical “wall” from reality eventually isolating himself in a hotel room. While high on drugs, Pink imagines himself as a fascist leader running rampant around town with his blackshirts, all concluding in a “trial” in his mind, waking him up to a sudden epiphany, to tear down the wall.
This story is also theatrically performed as well as being put into a movie, with the trial being animated. This arose rumours of a possible reunion of the band with The Wall going on tour, however, this seems unlikely as the album tore apart the band.
Why was it significant?
The Wall was focused heavily on stylistic choices, justifying its length to accompany the meanings behind the story. However, a problem arises as it can be said that the music is stretched and is thin throughout, many Pink Floyd fans at the time of release were not too fond of the relatively flat sounds of the album compared to the masterpiece that is The Dark Side of the Moon, and the outstanding sound engineering it includes by Alan Parson. But the album does still contain instances of hard rock, contributed by guitarist David Gilmour and heavy metal maestro Bob Ezrin. Notable contributions being “In the Flesh”, “Young Lust” and the fan favourite ballad “Comfortably Numb”, reeling in the fans and cementing themselves and in extension the album as one of the best pieces.
Thematic purposes within songs and albums are found everywhere, back then and now, but entire albums dedicated solely on telling a story in such a way are rare to find now.
An example from before the conception of The Wall is The Who’s masterpiece: Tommy, instantly acclaimed as the first rock opera in 1969, following a “deaf, dumb and blind kid” named Tommy. His story revolved around the classic hit single “Pinball Wizard”, a metaphor for his overcoming of his childhood abuse causing him to take a unique perception of the world while being unguided by the more ordinary approach of sensory information used by everyone else. Tommy would soon be adapted into a film and a stage play, much like The Wall did.
But a more modern take on this “rock opera” storytelling can be seen in My Chemical Romance’s 2006 album The Black Parade, a huge push for the band as they achieved their first number one hit single in the UK with “Welcome to the black parade”. The story centres around the character of “The Patient”. It is about the journey out the corridor that is life and his memories of it, eventually leading out into the afterlife where death comes to him in the form of a parade. Lead singer, Gerard Way’s imagery of death shows itself to a person as their fondest memory.
The album created the band’s alter ego “The Black Parade”, with Way’s performance during the live theatrical being compared to Bob Geldof who played “Pink” in The Wall movie adaptation. Way himself said the bands Queen and Pink Floyd heavily influenced the albums, with a noted similarity being the album’s opening track “The End”, and The Wall’s opening “In The Flesh?”. Lead guitarist Ray Toro explains how “we wanted a record you could pass down”, “something that was classic, something timeless.”, and how “there’s a lot of music out now that does not feel like that.” This is quite the note to take away.
Albums like, The Wall, and Tommy were both hugely successful but gave something to take away. I was passed down The Wall by my parents, and it’s something I hold onto dearly, albums that explore these more sombre topics may be something that we need today, something that we can still remember for years to come. The band may have been split but this album will always live on.