Sunday, November 30, 2014

Off The Wall: Pink Floyd's angry young man turns 35

In writing yesterday’s post on The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, the concept album Genesis released in November 1974, I was knocked about by the realisation that, presciently, it was an unwitting blueprint for The Wall, the Pink Floyd and - face facts - Roger Waters’ opus, released this very day in 1979.

Both are double albums, both are constructed around complex narratives, and both ultimately lead to the principal behind the concept leaving the respective group. One in considerably less acrimony than the other, it must be said. But whereas the Genesis album was a rights-of-passage fantasy, The Wall was an altogether more ambitious and brooding affair that delved deeply into the dark depths of Waters own neuroses.

Principally, it provided a platform for Waters to address numerous demons, including his father’s death at Anzio in 1944, the audience alienation that stemmed the increasing success Pink Floyd had enjoyed post-Dark Side Of The Moon, and even world politics since the end of the Second World War.

The first brick of The Wall, if you will, was laid during the Floyd’s 1977 tour for the Animals album, at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal. Drummer Nick Mason recalled, in his brilliant memoir Inside Out, that group of fans close to the stage who were “probably high on chemicals and definitely low on attentiveness” were loudly shouting out song suggestions to the band. On catching one of them calling for Careful With That Axe Eugene, Waters lost it and spat at the fan.

The episode left the entire band deflated, but none more so than Waters who became severely affected by his lack of control and the realisation that Pink Floyd had lost its connection with the audience, a key tenet of the punk movement that was targeted such bands at the same time.

For the next year Waters worked in isolation on two concepts that he presented to the band in July 1978 as suggestions for their next album: one would become his debut solo album, The Pros & Cons Of Hitchhiking (a brilliant record to this day, built around the concept of a man’s dream in real time).

The other was The Wall, the story of a washed up rock star - Pink - struggling with a collapsing marriage, paranoid and descending into a morass of stereotypical rock star distractions, and drifting into fascism as a consequence.

In the process, Waters would address the separation that had plagued him - first that of being forced apart from his father by war (Waters was just five months old when his father, Eric Fletcher Waters was killed) and second, the distance that had clearly started to form between him and Floyd’s fans.

With the band “less inspired” [Mason] by Pros & Cons, The Wall was chosen as the project to go for, though it is not known how enthusiastic the other three were about having their next album more or less prepared for them. Mason certainly felt that the fully-formed demo tapes were an issue: “The level of contribution by the other members of the band made it a bone of contention,” he wrote in Inside Out. “Perhaps the very completeness of Roger’s demo made it difficult for David or Rick to contribute much.” Tensions had been building for some time between Waters and Gilmour, but when Pink Floyd entered London’s Britannia Row Studios in July 1978 to start working on The Wall, “The potential volcano of future discord was,” says Mason. “Still dormant”.

The acrimony to come - which saw Wright sacked by Waters, only to be reinstated on wages for The Wall’s epic tour (ironically, he was the only member of the band to make money on the tour as a result), and then Waters leaving the group in 1982 and then trying to sue them to prevent further use of the band name - has been well documented.

There have, though, been apparent moments of thaw since. The band’s one-off reformation for Live 8 saw an awkward on-stage hug between Waters and Gilmour (though Wright’s death has put paid to any further talk of a reunion, and Gilmour, in particular, has said that their latest album, The Endless River, will be their last). And even Gilmour and Mason joined Waters on stage for a performance in London two years ago of his revived stage show of The Wall.

The album, on the other hand, has certainly endured. Like the Genesis album five years before it, The Wall is mad, stunning in places and awful in others, as all double concept prog rock albums should be. And while it may not be in the same league as some of the most vital albums of the last 40 or 50 years, The Wall stands up today as a piece of grand performance art, built around some of the best songs of Pink Floyd's entire career. And a large dose of melancholy.

Punk had set out to see off bands like the Floyd and yet, here they were, two years after punk’s last globules of phlegm had dried up, almost going the extra length to stick two fingers up to the Pistols, et al. And the fact that it was released on the cusp of 1980 meant that, like Abbey Road, Tommy, Let It Bleed and Nick Drake's Five Leaves Left, that bridged the 60s and the 70s, The Wall played a distinct role in ending the decade that had produced so much enduring music, before giving way to a decade that became arguably about a lot of over-produced froth.

In the world at large, The Wall also came about during a period of, at times, nerve-wracking instability: Thatcher in 10 Downing Street, Reagan in the White House, and Russian rhetoric warming up the Cold War. An album about alienation and political failure told through the eyes of a narcissist rock star was timely, even if it did come from one of the so-called dinosaurs.

Two weeks before The Wall was released, Pink Floyd delivered a prelude in the form of the controversial single Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2), which went to No.1 in the UK and became the nation's somewhat subversive Christmas No.1 for 1979. With the album being completed around the time that the former Tory education minister Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in the previous May, there was a delicious irony about school children - myself included - running around playgrounds singing “we don’t need no education”.

Perhaps, though, even more subversive was the song’s 4/4 disco beat. Prog rock is best known for its obscure time signatures and epic single tracks, but with disco still in vogue in 1979, some were even fooled into thinking the Floyd had sold out and gone down the Rolling Stones/Rod Stewart/ELO route.

They hadn’t, it was just that producer Bob Ezrin had seen the potential for a single. To say Gilmour wasn’t a fan of the idea is putting it mildly, but Pink Floyd ended up with the distinction of Britain entering 1980 with, as it’s No.1 single, a disco song from a prog rock band with its roots in 1960s psychedelic wigouts. I don’t think it gets any more bonkers than that.

Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)’s deceptive infectiousness drew in audiences to the The Wall and its not so deceptive darkness, and it is the total work that commands assessment.

One of the problems with concept records is that it is often hard to work out what the concept was to begin with. Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, even Frank Sinatra’s Wee Small Hours Of The Morning all carry some sort of narrative thread. But with The Wall - and through its stylistic mish-mash that ranges from the broad rock of In The Flesh to the theatrical, Lionel Bart-esque nature of The Trial - the thread of the darker areas of Waters’ psyche is never far away.

As pretty as it is, with Gilmour’s acoustic guitar, Goodbye Blue Sky is a heartfelt and profoundly painful reference to the war that took Waters' father from him; Nobody Home brilliantly conjours the image of rock star on the verge of madness ("I've got nicotine stains on my fingers/I've got a silver spoon on a chain/I've got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains/I've got wild staring eyes/And I've got a strong urge to fly/But I got nowhere to fly to") while Hey You peers beyond the brink of insanity. Comfortably Numb - essentially a cut-and-shunt between a Waters song and something Gilmour had been working on for a solo album - creates, ultimately, the greatest Pink Floyd track of their career, blending light and dark as it jumps between childhood memories and a hazy present, while also featuring one of rock's greatest ever guitar solos.

There has never been any doubt as to whose album The Wall is, but it has provided a substantial amount of material for the post-Waters Floyd, including Gilmour's own solo performances, of which Comfortably Numb has always been a high watermark.

Waters, though, has made it a more personal legacy. Two years ago, when I saw The Wall show at the Stade de France - with its staggering staging eclipsing that of any previous productions -  it was clear that Waters still found the work to be a useful outlet for his anger, modifying its 1970s politics to embrace Israel and Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, corporate excess and even the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes.

© Simon Poulter 2014

"All those years ago when I wrote this piece," Waters told Billboard magazine in 2012, "I thought it was about me, and about feelings that I had about my Dad being killed at Anzio [in Italy during World War II], how much I missed him, and the fact that I'd made some really poor choices in relationships with women - all of that crap. Which it was."

And he added: "But in the intervening 33 years, I've realized that...the power of the metaphor lends the story a much more universal vision and appeal. So I've come to realize it's not about me. It's about anybody that has suffered the loss of a loved one in some kind of conflict, whether it be war or something else. It's about the problems we all face with errant authority, or all the difficulties we all have in relationships with one another, whether they're sexual relationships or political/international relationships."

Waters is 71 now and a little mellower. But not much. "Some people have been asking Laurie, my wife, about a new album I have coming out in November," Waters wrote on Facebook ahead of Gilmour and Mason releasing The Endless River.

"Errhh?" he continued. "I don't have an album coming out, they are probably confused. David Gilmour and Nick Mason have an album coming out. It's called Endless River. David and Nick constitute the group Pink Floyd. I on the other hand, am not part of Pink Floyd. I left Pink Floyd in 1985, that's 29 years ago. I had nothing to do with either of the Pink Floyd studio albums, Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell, nor the Pink Floyd tours of 1987 and 1994, and I have nothing to do with Endless River. Phew! This is not rocket science people, get a grip." So that's us told.

1 comment:

  1. Ah but Rock Science is still Light Years ahead of Rocket Science..