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"The Wall" is an album that I have been putting off reviewing for many years, primarily because I fear that writing a review, even a positive review, would prove counterproductive in demonstrating that record's greatness. But reading these reviews on Amazon.com shows that all my doubts were for nothing. It proves without a doubt that while most of the classic rock albums in the 1970s have dated horribly, "The Wall", far from aging, far from becoming a dated artifact, has grown more relevant through the passage of time. Selling nearly 25 million copies and STILL a profound influence on today's boldest and most compelling rock and rap artists, "The Wall" is not only one of Pink Floyd's greatest achievements; it's one of the undisputed masterpieces of rock n' roll.
Where to even begin to talk about my love for the album? During the "Animals" tour, Roger Waters became increasingly disenchanted with the enormous success and growing popularity that Pink Floyd was getting. Waters' disgust at the mindless masses culminated in the infamous incident during one of the tour's final shows, when Waters angrily spat at a disgruntled fan. The incident became the seed for Waters to write numerous demos and songs detailing the feeling of isolation between a music artist and his fans, the past emotional traumas inflicted on him, and, indirectly, the parallel between fascism and rock stardom. The result was "The Wall", an ambitious, emotionally confessional two-disc odyssey about the mental and emotional disintegration of a gifted rock star.
Even compared to great concept albums like The Who's "Quadrophenia" and the Beatles' "Sgt. Peppers", there was nothing like "The Wall" before. Each song from top to bottom was so meticulously detailed, so strongly integral to the album's story and themes that Roger Waters treated even the most slighted tracks with the care and detail often given to the more elaborate, radio-friendly singles. Each of these tracks were essential listening; you cannot fully grasp the meaning of "The Wall" by skipping some of these tracks. Sound effects and voices were abundant and extremely vivid, giving the album a cinematic fervor. Orchestra, last heard in "Atom Heart Mother" was now back with a vengeance on songs like "Bring the Boys Back Home" and "The Trial". Most of all, the potent themes of madness, alienation, oppression and anti-authoritarianism, subtly sketched in "The Dark Side of the Moon" and "Wish You Were Here", were now pushed to the forefront. This wasn't a rock album anymore; this was rock opera.
Equally intense was the growing frictions within the band during the making of "The Wall". Richard Wright, the band's keyboardist, was falling to the wayside (and eventually fired in the last days of recording); drummer Nick Mason became less of a band member and more of a studio session musician; and the relationship Roger Waters and David Gilmour, two of the band's major creative forces, was slowly and painfully deteriorating before our ears. That tension is audible throughout "The Wall". Yet it's also that same tension that gives the album an emotional depth and dramatic intensity that neither Pink Floyd nor the fans could have expected. Just as how the "Wall"'s protagonist was disintegrating, so was this great legendary rock band. It's painful to listen, yet hard to ignore and, when the experience is over, extremely impossible to forget.
And indeed, it's hard to forget some of the "Wall"'s most popular and memorable songs - the irresistibly catchy anti-school anthem "Another Brick in the Wall Part II"; the macabre country-tingled ballad "Mother"; the scorching sexual drive of "Young Lust"; the haunting acoustic/electric hybridity of "Hey You"; the eerie menace and pulsating paranoia of "Run Like Hell"; and, of course, "Comfortably Numb", probably the grandest of all Pink Floyd songs, featuring some of the grandest of all guitar solos. These songs are forever etched in our minds, while the more popular and critically acclaimed singles released at the time have fallen into obscurity.
But to focus on the more popular songs of "The Wall" is to overlook some of the dazzling, undervalued gems pestering throughout the two discs. Besides "Young Lust" and "Run Like Hell", both versions of "In the Flesh" are some of the most electrifying hard rock songs Pink Floyd has ever made (and indeed probably the closest to hard rock Floyd will ever get). "Waiting for the Worms" takes a Beach Boys choir and turns it into a riveting parody of the fascist mentality of a music cult. "Is There Anybody Out There?" begins as an aching distress call, only to transit into a beautiful classical guitar solo (it was sadly revealed that Gilmour did not play the instrument). "The Thin Ice" and "Nobody Home" are two of the album's most haunting ballads - the former begins somber doo-wop song before turning into a distorted rock song with a memorable power chord and the latter is a gentle piano ballad dealing with isolation and heroin addiction. "Don't Leave Me Now" avoids being potentially schmaltzy pity-party and becomes an ode of emotional heartbreak. And then there's "The Trial", an exhilarating blast of symphonic rock where our hero is put on trial for "showing feelings of an almost human nature" - the crashing choir in the end is just awesome.
But these songs would probably never have been given great weight if it wasn't for Roger Waters' emotionally naked songwriting. There is no doubt that "The Wall" is Waters' baby, unsurprisingly since he was dominating the band at the time. That's what makes "The Wall" such a riveting experience - these songs are written and told by a man expressing his inner demons and repressed sentiments at his peers, at his enemies and, most of all, at his audiences. Waters' fingerprints are everywhere in "The Wall", lashing out at the audiences in "In the Flesh?", dismissing his school teachers in "Another Brick in the Wall Part II", lambasting his oppressive mother in "Mother", detailing his anguish at being betrayed by his love one in "One of My Turns" and "Don't Leave Me Now", pleading the government to "Bring the Boys Back Home" and even dabbing into theatricality in "The Trial". Rarely has one man so effectively transformed his personal feelings into stuff of musical legend.
It's no surprise that an album as indispensable and as groundbreaking as "The Wall" was poorly received upon initial release. Rock journalists chided the record for its supposed kitsch, hedonistic production and overwrought songwriting. Nor did it help that "The Wall" came out at a time when punk rock and disco were at the height of their popularity, leaving progressive rock and hard rock behind in their own dust. To these critics, bands like Pink Floyd were the antithesis to what they felt was good, passionate rock n' roll such as the Sex Pistols, Crass, the Skids, the Damned, Generation X and the Vibrators. Of course, nowadays, most rock fans have either forgotten about these bands or express little desire to listen to them again.
This is nothing new when a trailblazer like "The Wall" is disdained by music critics. Some of the greatest rock albums - "The Velvet Underground & Nico", "Disraeli Gears", "Paranoid", "Exile on Main St.", "Raw Power", "New York Dolls", "Bat Out of Hell", "Back in Black", "Nevermind" and the records by Queen, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple - were initially met with either critical apathy, commercial indifference or both. Even the positive reviews for "The Dark Side of the Moon" were more out of begrudging respect than sheer enthusiasm. Naturally, when critics talk positively about these albums these days, it is usually out of historical revisionism rather than genuine honesty. Just read the negative Rolling Stone review of "Wish You Were Here" and then its retrospective five-star review today to illustrate my point.
But like the best of all rock albums, "The Wall" has been discovered again and again, not by writers but by people aspiring to become rock artists. The emotional potency, electrifying production values and anti-establishment themes of "The Wall" can be traced on some of the greatest of all modern rock acts, from Nine Inch Nails, Oasis and Guns N' Roses to My Chemical Romance, Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against the Machine, from Queensryche, Public Enemy and the Flaming Lips to Radiohead, the Orb and Marilyn Manson. These artists and bands understood that "The Wall" spoke more about their sensibilities, their personal feelings and their ambivalent attitude towards stardom than their critics thought. When you're listening to Queensryche's "Empire", Smashing Pumpkins' "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness", Marilyn Manson's "Antichrist Superstar" or Radiohead's "OK Computer", you are listening to the children of "The Wall". When you hear N.W.A. yelling out "F--- the police", Chuck D comparing prison time to slavery or Ice-T, Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur discussing their struggles within the ghetto neighborhoods of Los Angeles, you are baring witness to the influence of Pink Floyd's masterpiece.
Pink Floyd's music is unquestionably timeless - the kind of music that leaves listeners with an emotional high, a great feeling of discovery. Some people dismiss their work as old hat, yet the best of Pink Floyd - "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn", "Meddle", "Obscured by Clouds", "The Dark Side of the Moon", "Wish You Were Here", "Animals", and, of course, "The Wall" - doesn't get old; it grows newer year after year. It is essential that you not only purchase "The Wall", but especially their other classics. It's true that they've had some duds ("A Momentary Lapse of Reason", "The Division Bell"), some bizarre oddities ("Ummagumma", "More") and follies that are more interesting to talk about than listen to ("Atom Heart Mother"), but classics like "The Wall" prove without a shadow of doubt that Pink Floyd were one of the greatest and most interesting rock bands on the planet. The rest were just bricks in the wall.
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