The Wall. I think it’s Pink Floyd’s second-biggest selling album, behind the inevitable Dark Side Of The Moon. Occasionally this puzzles me, as it’s a severe bummer of an album, and in my humble opinion not as good as Animals, Wish You Were Here, or even Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. But of course it does have several things going for it: it boasts a fantastic conceit, being a well-realised concept album (although the narrative is hard to pick out); it is psychologically profound, plumbing the depths and facing aspects of life rarely encountered in rock music (unless you’re, say, Lou Reed); it contains several hits (“Comfortably Numb” and “Another Brick In The Wall pt. 2”) and also several stand-out individual tracks like “Run Like Hell” and the exquisitely painful “Nobody Home”); the film is one of the great rock movies (though again it’s an extreme bummer); and it’s one of the cleanest-sounding Pink Floyd albums, with a surprising absence of what David Gilmour has called “psychedelic noodling” (you know, the kind of thing that the Floyd do REALLY WELL) but tremendous presence in the guitar, bass and drums.
For me, it’s inextricably linked with my childhood. My dad and uncles were and are all enormous Pink Floyd fans, and I was subjected/exposed to The Wall – well, I don’t remember ever not knowing it. My uncle George had the VHS, and I found the box intriguing – there was no text on the back, just pictures. I remember being about 7 years old, and one rainy afternoon deciding, with my cousin Keith, to watch it. Obviously we didn’t understand any of it. We made a few observations as we watched, impressed with our own maturity, like “Good animation” during the “Goodbye Blue Skies” section and we giggled childishly during the “Young Lust” scene. Nonetheless, it was obvious that it was something that was deep, meaningful and, as Neil from The Young Ones would say, heeaavvvyy. Visually, the film is intensely striking, regardless of the lack of any plot, the shallowness of the characters and characterisation, and the gauchery of some themes. (I mean, the caricature of the wife is really quite misogynist, and its dismissal of the heroics of the Second World War, a truly epochal confrontation, because “the High Command took my Daddy from me” seems achingly narcissistic.)
As for the album itself, as time went by, I got to know it more and more. Though the Floyd were until then known for their colour, imagination and range, The Wall is oddly of-a-piece for a double album; it’s no rambling White Album or Exile On Main Street: the instrumentation is unimaginative for Floyd, the emotional range varies between fiercely bitter (“The Thin Ice”) to angrily bitter (“Another Brick In The Wall II”) to depressedly bitter (“Don’t Leave Me Now”) to forlornly bitter (“Nobody Home”). Only “Young Lust”, “Run Like Hell”, “Comfortably Numb” and “The Trial” – i.e. the few tracks not exclusively by Roger Waters – offer much variety, and there’s almost no memorable contributions from Rick Wright, whose majestic playing on songs like “Echoes”, “Any Colour You Like” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” so informed their previous classic albums. It is curious that an album so insistent on the difficulties in human relations should be such an exemplary demonstration of their failure within Pink Floyd. Curious, too, that Waters, the great sound architect, who structured Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and Animals with such aplomb, should make The Wall a series of fragments rather than fully fleshed-out songs. While some parts are phenomenally successful (pretty much all of Side 1, “Nobody Home”, “Comfortably Numb”, and “Run Like Hell”), the thinness of much of the material make less than the sum of its parts. (I mean, no-one’s ever going to say, “Hey, let’s listen to ‘Vera’!”, are they?). The overriding listening experience, for me, is one of a silent, white, ferocious anger, a rage that seems to verge on the autistic: something incommunicable and beyond comprehension.
For me, then, The Wall accompanied and soundtracked all the difficult parts of my childhood, my parents divorce and the difficulty in settling into high school in particular. It was the first genuinely adult piece of art I knew, by which I mean it is one which frankly acknowledges that life is often difficult and sometimes painful. (Indeed, it rather fetishises this). I suppose in some ways it’s good to have music etc to relate to when you go through tough patches; it gives you a sense of not-being-utterly-alone-in-the-universe, which does help. For instance, for some reason I found adapting into high school very difficult. I didn’t have any boys from my primary school in my class, lacked the confidence to make friends with the “cool” boys (I wasn’t very cool anyway) and despised the stupidity of those I was lumped in with. School, and life itself, seemed full of sharks ready to devour me. About this time, though, the local John Menzies (remember them?!) had a copy of Pink Floyd: The Wall, with a blurb on the back which finally explained the film to some extent. This fascinated me: I knew all the scenes and episodes from the film, but hadn’t understood them enough to work out what most of them “meant” (apart from the scene where young Pink tries to attach himself to a father playing with his kids in the park). This VHS box gave a few clues to help me figure it all out, and the fragments started to make sense. Studying the box (I was one of those inveterate music shop browsers) held a painful fascination, a grim attraction I couldn’t articulate but strongly felt.
I guess what I’m trying to say that The Wall is a powerful album, and one that soundtracked several dark patches. It’s not an album I return to at all often, and while Waters’ plumbing the psychological depths is brave, sometimes it just gets too much. Fixating on the negative aspect of relationships isn’t a recipe for a good outlook, whichever you look at it – and while Waters does acknowledge the upsides in the final, understated, coda (which even then is sarcastic, noting the efforts of “the bleeding hearts and the artists”), the overwhelming impression is of a tormentedly bitter man deriving no pleasure from anything at all.
So I think I’ll stick to Meddle and Dark Side and Piper and Animals, thanks, Roger.