Once upon a time, Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters had a message for his fans:
While touring the world in support of the Animals record in 1977, Waters became disillusioned with the concert industry. By all accounts, he hated performing in stadium venues because a significant number of fans had become more interested in the party and the festival atmosphere than the music. Up until the release of Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd had played to reverent, hushed, enraptured crowds in theatres. But the collateral cost of the phenomenal success of DSotM and the follow-up Wish You Were Here album was the loss of intimacy with their audience.
Suddenly, fans were either relegated to the anonymity of Row 64 at the back of the venue (hundreds of feet from the stage) or they were so drunk and disorderly that they set off fireworks during the gig. Things got so bad that, at one infamous show at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, Waters actually baited one particularly looney fan up to the front… and proceeded to gob in his face.
In retrospect, Waters was ashamed and horrified by what he’d done, but the event gave him a powerful idea for the next record. What if we built a monstrous wall across the stage so that brick by brick the band could literally isolate themselves from the lunacy in the crowd? Could there possibly be a bigger “Fuck You!” statement than a stark 30-foot-high wall between performer and audience?
As the story goes, Waters presented two ideas to the rest of Pink Floyd before they left for the south of France in 1979 to make their next record (the reasons why they went to France are worthy of a separate blog post). One concept was the story of a hitchhiker, with a series of events unfolding over a late night on the open highway. The other was the story of a gonzo rock star that isolated himself to ever-increasing degrees from his audience. The band passed on the first concept, which went on to become Waters’ The Pros and Cons of Hitch-Hiking record in the mid-1980s. The second idea, with a less-developed demo but much greater musical and theatrical potential, was chosen by the band to become The Wall.
The Wall is essentially the story of Pink, a successful rock star who becomes increasingly displaced from his family, his lover, and reality. The parallels between Pink and Roger Waters’ experience on the Animals tour are obvious enough. But a simple “woe is me, the huge rock star” album would have been a complete disaster. Nobody wants to hear a record about how ‘miserable’ it is to travel from city to city by private jet, with 24-hour instant access to mind-altering substances and hot & cold running women.
Partial credit for actually executing The Wall should be attributed to guitarist David Gilmour (who co-produced and served as musical director) and producer Bob Ezrin. Ezrin suggested that the idea behind The Wall should be more generalized in order to broaden the appeal. Everybody feels isolated in modern society; few people get to know their neighbours, socialize beyond a very select circle of friends, or have the opportunity to travel to far-off lands. Everyone can relate to erecting a metaphorical wall between themselves and the world at large. By opening up the concept and pairing the evocative lyrics to the memorable music created by Waters, Gilmour (who brought “Comfortably Numb” and “Run Like Hell” to the table), keyboardist Rick Wright, and drummer Nick Mason, The Wall double-album went on to be an influential, world-wide smash. And that disco beat underpinning “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”? You can credit that to Bob Ezrin, too.
The original Wall tour in 1980 and 1981 was limited to a select number of engagements in Los Angeles, New York, London, and Dortmund. At the time, the technology to present the album in a live setting was prohibitively expensive, and it was unheard of to charge more than $20 or $25 for concert tickets. Concert promoters backed up the money truck, imploring Pink Floyd to take the tour into stadiums where the economies of scale would make the gig profitable. But this idea was so antithetical to what the band (particularly Waters and Gilmour) were about that a couple of dozen arena shows were all that ever transpired.
In the 1980s, Waters had a falling out with his Pink Floyd band mates which culminated in his acrimonious departure from the group. The divorce was extremely messy, but one of the things that Waters retained was the performance rights to the concept of The Wall. While the Soviet Union was crumbling, Waters assembled a collection of all-star musicians to re-create The Wall in the Potsdamer Platz, a stone’s throw from the Berlin Wall. Re-staging the themes of metaphorical isolation next to a landmark of physical isolation was an inspired idea. The show was an international phenomenon, but it was a one-time event. And if we’re being honest, it was a bit of a logistical nightmare. Reports vary as to how much money was actually raised for charity… and did they really need to invite Cyndi Lauper?
Fast forward about twenty more years, and the concert industry has become a completely different experience. People no longer go to a few gigs a month; these days, concerts are ‘events’ that are only attended once or twice a year. Perhaps the biggest difference is the cost of admission. If it used to cost $25 to see a primo show, today a $225 ticket price is not unusual. As well, concert production has progressed leaps and bounds from the ‘good’ old days. Multi-coloured laser lighting, high-definition projections, crystal-clear audio, and high-end computer processing power are readily available. The seeds were sown for a proper tour of The Wall.
Over a period of three years, Waters worked with a group of experts to put together an arena production of The Wall that could travel from city to city. The group worked on everything from brick assembly technology to synchronized video projections to inflatable puppets. Everything was designed to bring The Wall to life in a concert setting.
And the results are staggering.
I was lucky enough to attend two shows on the 2010 tour. I saw the Phoenix, AZ show in November, and two weeks later I caught another show in Vancouver, BC. Waters’ touring production of The Wall is brilliant – equal parts rock show, Broadway musical, and technological tour-de-force. The tour was so successful that it has been extended several times. Waters is taking his band of happy minstrels around the world again in 2012, including two shows next week in Edmonton, Alberta and two more in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Live and in the flesh, The Wall is unlike any other show I’ve ever seen. The quadrophonic sound is pristine, the musicianship is first-rate, and the video projections (first on the trademark Floydian circular screen, later directly onto the wall) are sublime. HDTV technology has advanced to the point where the A/V guys can project different images onto individual bricks in the wall. The show is so engrossing that the audience feels simultaneously overwhelmed by the spectacle, yet drawn into the performance. It is simply over the top of ‘over-the-top’.
There are many great songs on the record, and the touring band do an excellent job of infusing them with life on stage. I have never been too keen on Side 4 of the album, from “Waiting for the Worms” onward. The whole sequence where Pink goes on trial before his peers always seemed a bit over-cooked. Fortunately, the proceedings hold together a lot better in the live setting. This is where the twisted theatre-style multi-media presentation really pays off. Throughout the show, I felt emotionally invested in the story.
The whole show kicks ass on so many levels, but a few moments stand out. It’s hard to beat the bombast of opening number “In The Flesh?”, with the fireworks, the flag-bearers on scissor lifts, and the special surprise at the end. Throughout “Mother” and the “Another Brick In The Wall” suite, Gerald Scarfe’s puppets depicting the Mother, the Wife, and the Schoolmaster are simultaneously trippy and frightening.
The first half of the show concludes with the insertion of the last few bricks into the wall. During the intermission, the audience stands face-to-face with a massive monument bearing the images of soldiers, freedom fighters, and everyday heroes lost to 20th and 21st century conflicts. Among the bricks you’ll see a photo of Eric Fletcher Waters, Roger’s father, who perished in the Allied invasion of Anzio, Italy in 1944.
The tone of the performance has been updated in a variety of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) ways. The loss of the father he never knew, neo-fascist paranoia, oppressive educational institutions, and Orwellian military conflict were always cornerstones of the gig and remain so today. But watch the videos closely and you’ll see insights into how Waters feels about crass commercialism, religious fundamentalism, and heavy-handed police states. These are themes he dealt with more directly on 1992’s Amused to Death record, but now they form part of the Wall experience. The premise is no longer “Fuck You!”; the updated tone is very much Waters AND his audience united against the manifestations of evil in the world.
When ace guitarist Dave Kilminster performs the solos for “Comfortably Numb” from the top of the wall, time seems to stand still. Close your eyes for five seconds and you’ll be transported back in time to the early 1980s, when David Gilmour stood atop that wall and played his heart out every night. Kilminster comes the closest to nailing Gilmour’s unique mid-boosted tone and bluesy feel of anyone I’ve seen in concert. Snowy White does an admirable job on his guitar parts, too, bringing a little more Gibson Les Paul bark to the show.
The ending of the show is deliciously ambiguous. Without giving too much away, the pinnacle of the show is the systematic destruction of the wall. But it’s never particularly clear whether the collapse of the wall has released Pink from his fascist purgatory or condemned him to it. Does he survive the exposition, or is he crushed under the sheer weight of the falling debris? In a theatrical masterstroke, Waters leaves it up to the audience to decide.
If you have a chance to see this show during Waters’ victory lap around the world in 2012, I urge you to do so. Whether you appreciate it for the spectacle, the theatricality, the stories or the musicianship, you will not regret it.