Pink Floyd’s double album rock opera The Wall came at the tail end of a streak of four nearly perfect albums, each distinctly different from what they’d done before: 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon, 1975’s Wish You Were Here and 1977’s criminally underrated Animals.
Some of the themes these albums dealt included madness, loneliness, isolation, capitalism and the decline of civilization (and how that decline influences the way people treat each other). All of those themes were focused into a single narrative on The Wall, released on November 30, 1979. The resulting album breathes rarified air: it’s a concept album that holds up, musically and lyrically, four decades later. The concept never weighs the album down; there are at least eight songs on The Wall that are familiar even to casual rock radio listeners. It’s a double album with not a wasted second. And it’s a Pink Floyd album with a disco-influenced #1 single.
Much of the story of The Wall is well known: Floyd’s leader Roger Waters began experiencing serious feelings of isolation from the audience on the Animals tour. The main character in The Wall‘s narrative, “Pink,” seemed to be partially based on Waters, but also on former Floyd frontman Syd Barrett. The band began splintering during the recording of the album, with Waters firing founding keyboardist Richard Wright and re-hiring him as a touring musician. The album led to an incredibly ambitious mini-tour, where a wall was built around the band during the performances – which only included songs from the album, played in sequence. And of course, there was the 1982 film starring Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats (and future Band Aid/Live Aid founder) as Pink.
The album holds up remarkably well, forty years later, and will surely hold up for at least forty more. Waters’ lyrics didn’t outweigh the music (which would often be the case on Floyd’s 1983 album The Final Cut and throughout Waters’ solo career). Almost every song stands alone. The lyrics hit hard, even if you don’t identify with the things that led Pink to madness: losing a father in a war, being an isolated rock star. In the 2010s, society has finally accepted depression as a disease to be acknowledged and dealt with. That wasn’t the case in the 1970s, which made Waters’ unflinching look at depression on songs like “Mother,” “One Of My Turns” and “Hey You” even more daring and brave. On the album’s second song, “The Thin Ice,” Waters sings, “Don’t be surprised when a crack in the ice appears under your feet.” And when that happens, he warns, “You slip out of your depth and out of your mind.” This wasn’t “White Rabbit”; it wasn’t just about the drugs. It was about what leads you to them, and what happens next. It’s not romantic and it’s not pretty.
Musically, Waters and Pink Floyd were never more ambitious: any genre seemed fair game. From acoustic music that recalled some of Wish You Were Here‘s delicate moments (“Mother,” “Goodbye Blue Sky”) to raging hard rock (“In The Flesh?”) to Beach Boys pop (“The Show Must Go On” actually featured Bruce Johnston) to “Nobody Home,” which one could imagine Frank Sinatra crooning in the wee small hours, when he was down on his luck and at his lowest. “Waiting For The Worms,” “Stop” and “The Trial” really did feel like rock and opera. “Young Lust” and “Run Like Hell” were the most mainstream rock songs in Floyd’s catalog. And then there was “Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2,” a disco-rock hybrid that featured a children’s choir. While guitarist David Gilmour initially wasn’t keen on producer Bob Ezrin’s suggestion to appropriate disco, both Gilmour and Waters soon realized that it worked. It was likely one of the last things that the two did agree on.
Gilmour has said that “Comfortably Numb,” one of the album’s highlights, was one of “the last embers of Roger and my ability to work collaboratively together—my music, his words.” Starting with 1971’s Meddle, Waters and Gilmour collaborated on many of the band’s greatest songs. By Animals, Waters was mainly writing on his own; Gilmour co-wrote just one song on the album. On The Wall, they co-wrote seven out of twenty-six songs. But the collaboration went beyond songwriting; the way they trade off vocals is one of the album’s secret weapons.
If you listen to the post-Waters Floyd’s live version of “Comfortably Numb” from 1988’s Delicate Sound of Thunder, it lacks the pain that Waters brings to the song.
Waters’ version from his 2015 The Wall Live album comes a bit closer; his bandmates’ vocals are solid, but they don’t have the sadness that Gilmour’s vocals express (and his guitar solo is irreplaceable, too).
That was the case with much of the music that both men made after The Wall. The Final Cut, Waters’ last effort with the band, felt like a solo album that Gilmour and Nick Mason guested on (Waters wrote the entire album, and Gilmour only sang one song). His subsequent solo albums missed the musicality that Gilmour brought; similarly, the Waters-less Floyd albums missed Waters’ venom and narrative focus. Both sides certainly recorded some interesting music after the split, and Gilmour’s Floyd racked up an impressive amount of radio singles. But neither would reach the heights that they did during Floyd’s greatest era, which ended with The Wall.
Was it Floyd’s greatest album? Some would argue that Dark Side Of The Moon or Wish You Were Here deserve that title; some might make the case that 1967’s Piper At The Gates of Dawn marked the band’s peak. But The Wall is as ambitious a project as any major rock band has ever attempted. Even if Waters, Gilmour, Mason and Wright had never recorded another note, their legacy would still be untouchable.