ink Floyd’s the Wall is one of the most intriguing and imaginative albums in the history of rock music. Since the studio album’s release in 1979, the tour of 1980-81, and the subsequent movie of 1982, the Wall has become synonymous with, if not the very definition of, the term “concept album.” Aurally explosive on record, astoundingly complex on stage, and visually dynamic on the screen, the Wall traces the life of the fictional protagonist, Pink Floyd, from his boyhood days in post-World-War-II England to his self-imposed isolation as a world-renowned rock star, leading to a climax that is as cathartic as it is destructive.
From the outset, Pink’s life revolves around an abyss of loss and isolation. Born during the final throes of a war that claimed the lives of nearly 300,000 British soldiers – Pink’s father among them – to an overprotective mother who lavishes equal measures of love and phobia onto her son, Pink begins to build a mental wall between himself and the rest of the world so that he can live in a constant, alienated equilibrium free from life’s emotional troubles. Every incident that causes Pink pain is yet another brick in his ever-growing wall: a fatherless childhood, a domineering mother, an out-of-touch education system bent on producing compliant cogs in the societal wheel, a government that treats its citizens like chess pieces, the superficiality of stardom, an estranged marriage, even the very drugs he turns to in order to find release. As his wall nears completion – each brick further closing him off from the rest of the world – Pink spirals into a veritable Wonderland of insanity. Yet the minute it’s complete, the gravity of his life’s choices sets in. Now shackled to his bricks, Pink watches helplessly (or perhaps fantasizes) as his fragmented psyche coalesces into the very dictatorial persona that antagonized the world during World War II, scarred his nation, killed his father, and, in essence, affected his life from birth. As much as this story tips toward nihilistic victimhood, there also runs a strong existentialist countercurrent in which freedom cannot be separated from personal responsibility. The narrative culminates in a mental trial as theatrically rich as the greatest stage shows, with Pink’s tale ending with a message that is as enigmatic and circular as the rest of his life. Whether it is ultimately viewed as a cynical story about the futility of life, or a hopeful journey of metaphoric death and rebirth, the Wall is certainly a musical milestone worthy of the title “art.”
As with most art, Pink Floyd’s concept album is a combination of imagination and the author’s own life. The album germinated during the band’s 1977 Animals tour when frontman Roger Waters, growing disillusioned with stardom and the godlike status that fans grant to rock stars like himself, spit in the face of an overzealous concert-goer. Horrified by his disenchantment, Waters began drawing from the well of his alienation as well as the loss of his own father during World War II to flesh out the fictional character of Pink. The wild stories surrounding Pink Floyd’s original frontman, Syd Barrett – including his drugged-out escapades and subsequent withdrawal from the world – provided Waters with further inspiration for the moody rock-star. The contributions of bandmates David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright provided the final brush strokes for a contemporary anti-hero – a modern, existential Everyman struggling to find, or arguably lose, self and meaning in a century fragmented by war.
A Quick Note About the Lyrics:
Because bassist Roger Waters and guitarist David Gilmour traded lead vocalist duties throughout 70’s-era Pink Floyd, I’ve received many e-mails over the years asking me to clarify the main singer of each particular song in the Wall. To this end, the singer’s name will be bracketed next to the sections of song that he sings. For example:
Of course mama’s gonna help build a wall.
Mother, do you think she’s good enough for me?
In this lyric taken from the song “Mother,” David Gilmour sings the line “Of course mama’s gonna help build a wall,” while Roger Waters sings the following line, “Mother, do you think she’s good enough for me?”, and so on. On songs with only one singer, the vocalist is listed in brackets at the top of the lyrics.