So this weekend Steen and I are off to the O2 in London to see Roger Waters perform Pink Floyd’s classic album The Wall in its entirety.
I can’t remember the last time I was this excited about a gig – probably 2002, the last time I saw Roger play live (at the MEN, Manchester – and oh my, what a gig that was: but that’s another blog in itself), come to think of it.
The simple fact is that Pink Floyd and Roger Waters occupy an exalted place in my musical lexicon. I always cite Pink Floyd as my favourite band. I’ve seen some bands (Marillion and All About Eve most notably) a huge number of times – well over 100 in both of those particular cases – but whilst I would describe myself as a huge fan of both bands, I’ve yet to discover a band who do it for me as consistently as Floyd.
Of course it’s all about the music first and foremost, but – like Jean Michel Jarre – the Floyd experience is so much more than that, especially live. When I rave about the sheer inventiveness that Floyd have displayed in their time when it comes to their live shows, some folks turn around to me and say, “But surely it should be all about the music – isn’t all this stuff unnecessary and a distraction from what’s really important?” What they fail to understand is that whilst the extravagant stage shows aren’t at all necessary, it totally enhances the music. I can’t think of any other band where the staging of the shows is so sympathetic to the music being played: far from a distraction, it amplifies the meaning of the material. More often than not it’s thought-provoking and is done with such care that you can’t imagine the music without the visuals, and vice versa.
Roger’s decision to tour with the lavish production of The Wall again is a real thrill for me. Floyd performed the album in full at a handful of shows in a handful of cities back in 1980/1981, but the show was so elaborate and expensive that it proved cost-prohibitive to actually take it out on a ‘proper’ tour. Now, with more suitably-sized venues available and with new technology on hand to make the production less hasslesome and more effective, I’m very excited about getting to see it ‘In The Flesh’ (sorry).
Why? Well, there are a host of reasons. I’ve already mentioned that Floyd are my favourite band. “Yes, but this isn’t Pink Floyd”, the doubters would say – and yes, I’m still rather sad that Roger’s departure from the band led to such rancour and a lengthy and very public ‘divorce’. But for all that I continued to love Floyd’s work without Roger, and Roger’s work without his ex-bandmates, Roger has always been the soul of Pink Floyd for me. It goes far beyond his writing credits (which include the vast majority of Floyd’s best known and best loved songs); his crucial role in writing lyrics and providing concepts for the albums and the live shows means that however superb Floyd’s work was without him, Roger has always been The Man as far as I’m concerned. As far as The Wall itself is concerned, Roger wrote and demoed almost all of the album on his own before bringing the album to the band in its rough state – and whilst there’s no denying that the band’s input worked some real magic on it and it is surely better for that (after all, without Dave Gilmour’s input, we’d have no Comfortably Numb, Young Lust or Run Like Hell – there’s a sobering thought right there), the album is most definitely Roger’s baby. So who is better qualified to take it out on the road?
Roger frequently refers to the album as his best work. Ever since the album was released, I’ve had a constant debate with other people (often Floyd fans themselves) who hear this and say: “The Wall? His best work? Floyd have done far better! What about Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here, etc, etc? The Wall? That’s just a big whinge. It’s too dark/too depressing/too bleak/needs more tunes!” Even Gilmour has been moved to remark that he finds the album deeply flawed and “a bit of a whinge”. To which I can only shake my head: these people just don’t get it.
Why do I love The Wall so much? There are a whole host of reasons. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, both directly and indirectly, it was the album that introduced me to Pink Floyd: I hadn’t heard a note of Floyd’s music until the tender age of 7, when I heard Another Brick In The Wall Part 2 played on Top of The Pops (complete with a promo video that was suitably anti-establishment and a little disturbing – I still wince when I see Gerald Scarfe’s animation of the kids being pressed into the mincing machine). I never did much care for school, even way back then, and though I had some great teachers, there were also some monsters, and even at age 7 I was impressed by how Roger’s tales of “dark sarcasm in the classroom” mirrored my own experiences, but laid the blame squarely at the feet of teachers who treated kids almost like playthings, or as tasks to be overcome. I badgered my mum to let me pick up a copy of The Wall on LP, but it would have taken me ages to be able to pay for it with the pocket money I was receiving, and she (perhaps understandably in retrospect ;-)) refused to buy it for me herself, as she felt it all sounded a bit dark and had been told that there was swearing on it. Consequently I gave up on that idea and ended up picking up a copy of Meddle instead the following year, which led to the thriving obsession with Floyd (and indeed rock music, and ultimately just music, period) that I’ve enjoyed ever since. But that’s another story.
The truth is, I identified with The Wall very closely for a number of reasons. Roger lost his dad very early in his life, courtesy of the Anzio bridgehead in the latter stages of the 2nd World War, and the spectre of this loss loomed large over The Wall. I was even more disconnected from my father, who had fled the scene before I was even born – consequently I always held a rather jaundiced view of him and found it easy to identify with The Wall‘s central theme of disconnection and loss. Although I always got on well with my mum and her parents, I did sometimes feel that they didn’t really understand me. At school, I found that it was the same with many of my peers – I had no trouble getting on with people, but so few of them really seemed to share any of my interests. This feeling only grew over time, too, and as my classmates split into factions with particular interests, I often found myself standing somewhat apart from it all. By the time I was coming to the end of my time in high school, I felt more disconnected than ever: everyone else seemed to have settled into little social groups, but trying to fit in with them was pointless. Not only that: I was a square peg, and didn’t want to be pushed into a round hole. Thankfully I did have a few mates who were similarly distrustful of ‘the norm’, bless ’em.
But that’s why The Wall hit such a chord with me: it’s about people disconnecting from each other, ceasing to care about each other and the problems which communication breakdown can cause. Obviously it was a very personal record for Roger, and I took it all to heart for the same reasons: I felt like it had been written for me. It was simultaneously a description of how I was feeling, what led me to feel that way, and a warning not to allow myself to disengage from people. The fourth ‘act’, or final ‘side’, of the album illustrates the danger of disconnecting from people altogether. It’s a nightmarish experience that takes place in the unconscious of the central character (the fictional rock star, Mr. ‘Pink’ Floyd). Allowing the last shreds of his own empathy to be eroded, Pink takes out his rage and alienation on his audiences, resulting in scenes reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Then, aware that he has gone too far, his own subconscious judges him to be a monster, created by the wall he has built between himself and the people he loves. The judgement made, Pink realizes this is true and his internal ‘wall’ is destroyed. However, even as the album ends on a positive note, there is an indication that events might unfold all over again: the album ends with spoken words that simply say, “Isn’t this where…” This might not seem too ominous until you play the album again, and realise that it starts with the words, “…we came in?” The message, I suppose, is that whilst such ‘walls’ are potentially destructive, it is in our nature to build them.
The Wall has had a powerful hold on me ever since I first heard it (ironically in 1988, a whole 8 years after I first heard Another Brick In The Wall Part 2 – in the meantime I’d bought all but a couple of the band’s other albums. Still, better late than never!). It totally captured my imagination. It reflects my life and my concerns in ways that very few other albums have. It contains possibly my favourite Floyd song (perhaps inevitably, Comfortably Numb). It was my introduction to Pink Floyd’s back catalogue, and epitomises the idea that often the most human and healing albums confront and deal with our heart of darkness. It’s not a happy album: jolly tunes would trivialise the subject matter. That isn’t to say that’s without hope, though, even if that hope is marked by the acceptance that bad things continue to happen. I find the albums that are willing to address that ‘heart of darkness’ are among the most emotionally powerful I’ve heard: Marillion’s Brave and Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile are good examples of albums that aren’t afraid to be bleak, but which are all the more emotionally powerful as a result.
With all of the above in mind, I’m expecting the two shows on Roger’s tour that I’m attending to be pretty emotionally powerful (overwhelming, even), and – given that I was just too young to see the original tour in the early 80s – the fulfilment of a long-held dream and the culmination of my rather intense relationship with one of the most personally significant albums I’ve ever heard, recorded by my favourite band. There will be awe, there will be tears – I feel drained just thinking about it, but there’s nowhere else I’d sooner be than at the O2 in London and the MEN in Manchester, on the two days in question.
More when I get back from London. Hopefully what follows will be coherent enough for anyone reading this to make sense of it ;-).