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Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Wall


It was twenty years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play …
But on July 21, 1990, another was playing the music. A quarter of a million people, including yours truly, gathered on a huge patch of waste land (today completely redeveloped) between Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate, where only eight months earlier the Berlin Wall had divided the city, to see Roger Waters and various rock stars perform “The Wall.”
Pink Floyd had originally released the double concept album, The Wall, largely composed by the group’s bassist, Waters, in 1979. It was their second most successful album after Dark Side of the Moon and the single, Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2), their most successful, reaching No. 1 in the charts all over the world (something unusual for Floyd, who were always primarily an album band). It was also the last major common artistic project from the complete group (Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason). The various tensions between different group members reached such epic proportions that Waters actually succeeded in throwing Wright out of the group during the recording process, although subsequently the other three members separated themselves from Waters.
The Wall is, in many ways, a source of contention among the huge community of Pink Floyd fans – my membership of which I unashamedly admit – and rock aficionados in general. Many regard it as their greatest work, others see it, as do I, as a flawed work of genius, which fails to live up to the artistic perfection of Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. The flaws derive from the personality of its primary creator, Roger Waters himself.
The album is massively ambitious, dealing with themes such as alienation, isolation, madness, the basic difficulties in relationships, particularly between men and women, the horror of war. In many instances it makes powerful musical statements about these themes and much of the music is up to Floyd’s usual high standard. The artwork for the album (and the animated scenes in videos and film) are by Gerald Scarfe and are excellent. And, in a sense, the concept does work, especially when it is visualised, as in the live show or Alan Parker’s film; there is a sort of story-line/development/plot, leading to a kind of cathartic conclusion. But this is also where my problems with The Wall begin.
The themes treated in the album are powerful and serious, expressions of many central concerns of modernity which have occupied many artists, from Beckett to Picasso, from Sartre to Ginsberg. That’s part of the difficulty, others have set a very high standard here. The Wall approaches the subject through the autobiographical workings of the themes in Water’s own life and there is a distinct flavouring of the egoistical whining of a spoilt rock-star, crying into his champagne. Following the story of the rock-star Pink, whose father died in the war, who had an overpowering, dominating mother, who was mistreated at school, whose wife is unfaithful to him, who has problems coping with fame … I’ve always found part of me reacting with; tough shit, we all have our problems, lots of people would be happy to have yours, get over it!
And then there’s the music. Some good numbers like “Mother,” “Goodbye Blue Sky,” “One of my Turns,” and, of course, the one everyone knows “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) [“We don’t need no education …”]. Two great songs, “Run like Hell,” and “Comfortably Numb” – interestingly the only ones with a compositional credit to Dave Gilmour, Floyd’s guitarist. And a couple of painful pompous monstrosities like “Vera,” and “Bring the Boys back Home,” which are excruciatingly bad. But Waters had the bit between his teeth and increasingly wasn’t listening to anyone as the recording of the album proceeded.
The live show of The Wall was the last of the legendary Pink Floyd tours (with the complete group), setting – as always – new standards for elaborate effects, concept and production excellence. After it, the band and Waters basically split up. Nearly ten years after the whole thing, in July 1989, Roger Waters commented in a radio interview (as a joke) that the only way the live show would ever be resurrected would be if the Berlin Wall fell. Four months later … it did.
And so, on what was the hottest weekend of 1990, I spent over twelve hours driving around six hundred kilometres to Berlin, along with many thousands of others. The border posts to East Germany were deserted and the jams on the former transit autobahn through the GDR were endless, exacerbated by broken-down Trabis with boiling radiators. Waters had gathered a horde of prominent musicians and actors, an orchestra and a Soviet song and dance ensemble (including a military band) and the show was bombastic. Among all the guest stars and singers, one performance remains, for me, particularly memorable; Van Morrison singing “Comfortably Numb.” For that alone, the drive to Berlin was more than worth the effort.
“All alone or in twos,
The ones who really love you
Walk up and down outside the wall
And when they’ve given you their all
Some stagger and fall, after all it’s not easy
Banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall.”
(Outside the Wall, Pink Floyd/Roger Waters)

[From December this year Waters is going on world tour with The Wall once more!]

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