There are few memories of middle school I’m willing to recall, but The Wall, ironically, always manages to channel hazy recollections from behind my psychic barriers. Out of forgotten corners of my brain swoop images of awkwardness, paranoia, and remedial mathematics. The first two qualities should come as no surprise—any concept album about an imploding rock star will feature them—but the last I owe to Eddie L., the 7th grade math teacher who tuned me into Pink Floyd’s last great album.
The ’70s had been kind to prog-rock’s poster boys. Dark Side of the Moon earned them an exploding fan base, and inspired a new love for The Wizard of Oz in legions of stoners. Wish You Were Here and Animals followed, making their name synonymous with the concept album. By 1979, the year The Wall debuted, they had grown from being song structure-bending psychedelics to stadium-rock superstars.
Similarly, the ’70s had been kind to Eddie L. He was that laidback teacher who seemed trapped in a bygone age. During class, he could easily be sidetracked into a wistful monologue about his wild days of youth, back when paisley and push broom moustaches were hot. Being a dead ringer for Sonny Bono somehow made this eerier. But what I remember him best for was constantly quoting The Wall. “You guys need to pay attention in school,” he’d say, “You think it’s like that Pink Floyd song—`We don’t need no education?'” Indeed we did, considering the indiscriminate extra credit he handed out.
Nevertheless, it was the first exposure many of us had to the band’s best known and often snubbed record. While plenty of non-fans regarded it as a hallmark of the era’s dinosaur rock, doing so writes off a psychologically complex set of discs featuring some of Floyd’s best work. “In the Flesh?” opens with a barrage of epic opera-rock and crashing drums, setting the stage for rock star Pink Floyd’s retreat from a trauma-filled world. The spacey guitar solos appearing here will duck in and out of the rest of the album, sounding somewhat dated today, but adding to the haunting, ethereal atmosphere inside Pink’s head.
After the placid piano ballad “The Thin Ice,” there’s a slow fade-in of the classic, echoing bass riff running throughout the “Brick in the Wall” trilogy. The sinister, trembling throb builds into a swell, until “Part 2” explodes with the infamous chorus of schoolchildren chanting Eddie’s favorite line. Roger Waters’ shouts of “Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!” rides a pulsing beat that the disco artists of the day could have envied.
“Young Lust” is the next standout track, a down-and-dirty blues-rocker that practically humps your ears. The organ grooves and bubbling raunch in Waters’ vocals make this the sexiest song on an album full of creepy, empty space and cold, lonely jams. Unfortunately, these minor jam sessions bridging The Wall‘s proper songs are one of the record’s inherent drawbacks. In structure, the concept is emphasized more than the actual music, with the one or two-minute “filler” tracks narrating Floyd’s past and present. This fleshes out a character whose nervous collapse is entrancing, but for those of us who know the story (or simply don’t care), the segue songs do little more than exercise the “skip track” button.
“Hey You” makes up for a number of these, bleakly summing up Pink’s isolation from the world. Both it and “Comfortably Numb” are dipped in reverb, quietly buzzing with a dormant fear held tight under the druggy vocals and rhythm. Pink finally lets loose on “In the Flesh,” the beginning of his transformation into a fascist alter ego. The songs start to slide away from recognizable pop and back to theatrical rock-opera, providing background for Nazi-Pink’s moralistic tirades. They’re certainly not radio-friendly, but do carry the “plot” of The Wall down Pink’s spiraling warpath of self-destruction.
It all culminates with “The Trial,” a cartoonish judgment of Pink’s life, complete with a full orchestra, children’s chorus and—in the film, at least—talking asshole with a testicular waddle. Pink’s schoolteacher and mother reappear, narrated by grotesquely distorted Scottish and English accents. After a verdict is delivered to raze Pink’s womb-like Wall, the album closes with the gentle caroling of children, and a stiff warning that we’re all still trapped behind our own walls.
Truthfully, the number of “hits” this album produced can be counted on one hand…or even three fingers. But its scope and ambition elevated Pink Floyd’s hallucinogenic acid-rock to a new level, and delivered a theatrical flourish that few bands could replicate. The Wall doesn’t work particularly well if you think of it as a straightforward pop album, but as a performance it draws you in like a whirlpool. Like all of Floyd’s albums, it forces you to peer inside your head, and does it with a character and a story rather than just songs.
Post-Wall, pretension and Waters’ narcissism tend to overrun the band’s work. But in this final capsule of ’70s art-rock, Floyd gives us one last musical experiment—and emerges with a watershed moment.
Similar Albums/Albums Influenced:
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black
The Who – Quadrophenia
Yes – Fragile