Pink Floyd: The Wall

20 years later

By Shawn Perry

At the time, it didn't seem like such a big deal. Now, with all the hoopla surrounding the re-release of the feature film on DVD and the new release of IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE: THE WALL LIVE featuring performances from the 1980-81 tour -- I can clearly think back on the night I saw Pink Floyd recreate their epic album THE WALL at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.

As I recall, it was a bit tricky getting tickets because they were available by mail order only. Then, as now, Pink Floyd was a big act whose concerts were huge events. They could sell-out shows just about any way they chose. The mail order concept eliminated the need to stand in line, but it had its pitfalls. I made the mistake of sending a personal check, which was promptly rejected and returned. Frantically, I sent back a Cashier's check and miraculously snagged a pair of seats just off the floor. I had a bull's eye view of a stage that spanned the width of the arena with stacks of cardboard "bricks" at each side, waiting to be hoisted up by the Floyd's wall builders. Their job was simple: they would symbolically and literally construct THE WALL between the band and its audience. To my way of thinking, this made a front row seat practically worthless.

ERECTING THE WALL

There were several layers to THE WALL tour that were unique. Because of the massive staging, the show only ran in  four cities: L.A. and New York in the States; Dortmund, Germany and London, England in Europe. This obviously had a great impact on the demand for tickets far beyond the local regions. The big shots and hardcores would be flying in for this one.

Another unusual element of THE WALL shows was the absence of Pink Floyd material outside of THE WALL album. The band simply performed the album, song by song, as it was recorded, with minimal improvisation. There was nothing played from ANIMALS, WISH YOU WERE HERE or DARK SIDE OF THE MOON. Those who went to THE WALL shows expecting to see the band in peak form, performing a cross section of their best known material and extended jams, were in for a big disappointment.

Instead, the audience was treated to something else that would never be seen again -- the band with flying pigs as stage props about to explode. Roger Waters was at the helm, calling the shots and making it abundantly clear that this was HIS show. David Gilmour and Nick Mason were clinging on to the last shreds of their Floyd membership. Rick Wright had already received his notice, and was serving out his last days as a hired hand. Ironically, Wright was the only one to actually make any money off the tour because he had negotiated a severance salary.

As it turned out, THE WALL tour was the last one for Waters. Despite his gift for turning a lyric, his ego was killing the spirit of Floyd. After a flurry of vicious legal wrangling, Waters surrendered the name to Gilmour and Mason, who quickly rehired Wright to reaffirm that Pink Floyd -- minus one -- was back in business. Pink Floyd -- the band -- was transformed into Pink Floyd -- the brand name.

By all accounts, THE WALL was bound for greatness despite the internal friction. Or perhaps in spite of it. Waters apparently drew his inspiration for the piece from a personal episode in which he off-handedly hawked a loogy at some innocent, screaming eskimo in the front row of a Floyd concert in Montreal, Canada. His contempt for his audience, his contempt for his fellow band members, and yet Roger Waters still needed the power of Pink Floyd to transcend his message. Waters is fond of calling THE WALL his, but it will always belong to Pink Floyd.

In rehearsal tapes I've heard from THE WALL tour, Waters attempts to direct the entire WALL production while "starring" as its main character. He bursts into agitated rages with everyone -- the wall builders, the sound and video technicians, Gilmour, Mason, anyone who isn't paying attention. To Waters' credit, the shows were massive, unyielding in format, and someone had to take the reigns. At this point, Waters just couldn't let go. He tried to stretch it out with THE FINAL CUT, his last record with Pink Floyd. Then in 1989, Waters went a step further and re-staged THE WALL with all its trappings, everything in place, without Pink Floyd. We all know how that turned out...

Meanwhile, the Pink Floyd machine strove on. In 1987, the band released A MOMENTARY LAPSE OF REASON and embarked on a world tour -- without Roger Waters. To the majority, Pink Floyd's individual members are hardly household names; consequently the band had no problem filling stadiums and arenas on the strength of their distinguished body of work. To Waters' chagrin, his absence didn't amount to a hill of beans to the average, non-discriminating fan. As long as the hits came pouring out amidst special effects and space-age lights, it really didn't matter who was in the band. Granted, several numbers suffered from a lack of the infamous yelps and off-key howls that Waters had integrated into his vocal performances. Cognizant fans of THE WALL may have wished Waters would come on stage during "Hey You" and scream out "...together we stand...divided we fall..." just for old time's sake. No such luck.

In 1994, Pink Floyd put out THE DIVISION BELL -- a collection that has been interpreted by many to be a plea for Waters' return. Polly Samson, David Gilmour's wife, assisted with the lyrics -- much of which were pointed jabs at Roger for being such a spoiled sport (an idle observation: young Polly never had and probably never will meet Waters). For as much as the band may have wanted Waters back in the fold, sales figures for the album and tour still went through the roof. For his part, Waters released the excellent AMUSED TO DEATH -- which probably summed up his entire outlook of the present state of Pink Floyd.

ON WITH THE SHOW

When it was first released, I listened to THE WALL constantly. I thought it was the most brilliant album of the day. From the opening chords of "In The Flesh?" to the final notes of "Outside the Wall," I was sonically transported by Waters' nightmarish tale of alienation and star-obsessed calamity. The entire piece ebbs and flows without becoming stale and uninteresting. David Gilmour's guitar work is exceptional in its sheer density and power. Add in a team of producers that included Waters, Gilmour, Bob Ezrin and James Guthrie plus Michael Kamen's grand orchestrations and Gerald Scarfe's grotesque, chaotic illustrations that adorn the album cover and inner sleeve -- THE WALL is more than just another Pink Floyd album. Even by today's standards, It is a vast and complex production, a mellifluous monster -- much like the Who's TOMMY -- full of endless possibilities.

With tickets in hand, I went to the Sports Arena on the fourth night of the Los Angeles run. On the first (and opening) night, about 2 minutes into the show, a stage curtain had caught on fire. Talk about opening night jitters, I imagine the Floyd and their entourage were at their wit's end in L.A. I could only hope that by tonight, the bugs were worked out and everything was ready to go without a hitch.

A few rows behind me were a number of cameras, projectors and special effects gadgets. As I was to find out, the projectors would be screening tons of images across the wall while the cameras took it all in. Jim Ladd, then a DJ for 94.7 KMET and later the DJ/narrator on Roger Water's RADIO KAOS album/tour, stepped out to make a few stage announcements, which, I understand, were actually written by Waters (?)

Suddenly, the strained tones of a Hammond organ started simmering, the drums pounded out the time, fountains of fire illuminated the stage and the crunching chords of "In The Flesh?" echoed through-out the arena. "So you thought you might like to go to the show..." The excitement mounted as a small airplane, attached to a wire, hovered over audience and crashed into the stage. THE WALL was underway.

Waters, Gilmour, Mason, Wright and their surrogate band (Andy Bown, Snowy White, Willie Wilson and Peter Woods) vigilantly maneuvered through the first disc of the album. They shook the house down with one of the few chart-topping hit singles by Pink Floyd, "Another Brick in the Wall." Gilmour diligently strummed the ethereal "Goodbye Blue Sky" and blazed through "Young Lust" while Waters, bound by a set of headphones and a wireless microphone in his hand, assumed the role of Pink the protagonist, virtually throwing himself into the verses of "One Of My Tunes" and "Don't Leave Me Now." During all this, a crew of wall builders piled on one cardboard brick after another. Deformed, newfangled marionettes, based on Gerald Scarfe's animation from the album dangled over the edge of the emerging wall -- dazzling, perhaps even horrifying the audience.

By the end of the set, the band was walled off from the audience by, what else, a huge white wall. As Waters sang "Goodbye Cruel World," the last brick was inserted and the lights came up. The short intermission gave the audience time to reflect on what they had just witnessed. "Which one is Pink?" followed by "Where is Pink?" were just two of several questions fans were asking one another.

Now that the wall was built, Floyd cleverly transformed it into a makeshift theatrical device. Opening the second set with "Hey You," the wall stood, well lighted, but immobile. I remembering thinking at the time that the rest of the concert would continue in this manner: the audience staring at a wall while Pink Floyd played behind it. But suddenly another question came up: "Is There Anybody Out There?" Through a gap in the wall the audience was treated to Gilmour picking his acoustic. A flickering television set could be seen through another gap. As the lights came up, Waters was sitting in a chair, in a room, wailing his heart blue though "Nobody Home."

During "Vera" and "Bring The Boys Back Home," family pictures flashed across the wall, slowly parting the way for one of Pink Floyd's finest musical moments: "Comfortably Numb." All at once, Waters was out in front, draped in a white smock, facing the wall and asking, "is there anybody IN there?" Then the spotlight went over to Gilmour, perched on top of the 30 foot wall, proclaiming that he had become "comfortably numb" and followed suit with a blistering guitar solo of epic proportions.

From here, the intensity level was raised a notch. A chorus of "The Show Must Go On" followed by a reprise of "In The Flesh" featured Pink (Waters) masquerading as the leader of a Nazi-like regime, complete with black fatigues and emblems in a skull-and-crossbones mode with hammers and their claws as the dominant symbol. The entire ensemble was now IN FRONT of the wall and my worries were put to rest. While visions of marching hammers caressed the wall, Floyd let loose with "Run Like Hell."

Pink eventually resigned himself to the demagogues that clouded his thoughts. Waters slammed against his infamous gong while rambling through "Waiting For The Worms." The marching hammers took over the arena, creating a spectacle I'd never seen on a concert stage.

"STOP!"

"The Trial" began. Pink was left to confront his fate while the wall was covered with the grotesque figures of his past evoked through Gerald Scarfe's imagination - many of which would re-appear in the subsequent Alan Parker film. The music was clearly lifted from the album, with only Waters adding in parts of  actual "live" vocals. But the multimedia feel was authentic and emotional enough to have everyone on their feet, screaming "tear down the wall..."

The wall began trembling, bricks shook loose, and the entire structure eventually came tumbling down. Amidst the rubble, Waters strolled out, while Gilmour, Wright, Mason and the cast of backing musicians and players followed in minstrel-like succession. A short rendition of "Outside The Wall," a quick good night and the show was over -- without an encore in sight.

Twenty years later, THE WALL remains one of my favorite records; THE WALL concert one of my most memorable. Rumor has it that Roger Waters is preparing to bring it back as a Broadway play, which could prove to be an interesting treatment. There's been talk of releasing a concert video, but it's only talk. After all, the "live" WALL album was originally slated for a November release, then a February, now a March release. As of this writing, it still hasn't been released.

Personally, I'd rather see Waters hook-up with Gilmour, Mason and Wright, and re-produce THE WALL in its most appropriate medium: as a Pink Floyd concert. But I know that will only happen when pigs fly.

 

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