Is There Anybody Out There? Forty Years Trapped Inside Pink Floyd — The Wall
By Patrick Macias
I was 7 years old at the end of 1979. I was obsessed with Godzilla, watched Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica religiously on TV, and ran around the playground singing “WE DON’T NEED NO EDUCATION!” If you saw my first-grade class picture you’d probably never guess which kid had Pink Floyd — The Wall in heavy rotation. It was me. But maybe it was all of us?
For a while, it felt like everyone in school sang along with Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2), a number one hit around the world, built around a chorus of “HEY! TEACHER! LEAVE US KIDS ALONE!” sing by actual school children. I never knew how my mom, who was an English teacher, felt about that.
Fast forward to 2019… Is there anybody out there?
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the release of The Wall LP and the Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) single, both of which first arrived in record shops on November 30th, 1979. Yet somehow, the 40th anniversary of The Wall — one of the best-selling rock artifacts of all time — has received little to no fanfare.
Yet four decades of The Wall can’t help but feel like a major milestone to me. The music, words, and images surrounding this colossal concept album — and later, a tour and a film — about an on-the-edge rock star facing his troubled past and inner demons through a haze of drugs and fascistic power fantasies, has influenced my life in ways that I am only beginning to understand and admit.
At the age of 10, my older brother Chris was already a seasoned rock LP shopper. With no age gates or Parental Advisory stickers barring his way, he managed to get both the Another Brick in the Wall single and The Wall itself soon after their original release in ’79. He remembers kids chanting “we don’t need no education”, like savages at the gates, in the halls of our elementary school in suburban California. Can you imagine what would happen if that song came out today?
Prying open The Wall’s seemingly austere white gatefold sleeve as a child was like stepping into another world. Inside was artist Gerald Scarfe’s immense and grotesque illustration of The Trial; mapping out what the music inside looked like and who the characters were: monstrous authority figures like the Judge, the Mother, the Wife, the Teacher, all ready to abuse and tear apart tiny helpless Pink himself. Other design motifs, like the Worms and Marching Hammers, were like “here be monsters” markers on a map that showed what adulthood might have in store for us: bitterness, rage, bad relationships, abuses of power, perfect isolation.
These, of course, were all just bricks in The Wall. But you had to start somewhere.
The first rock LP I probably listened to was Destroyer by KISS (1976), another one of my older brother’s prized possessions. Both Destroyer and The Wall were produced by Bob Ezrin who made records with a sense of massive scale, spoken word passages, sound effects, orchestral flourishes, choirs, and other over-the-top trappings of ’70s excess. The Wall was less like a collection of songs and more like a widescreen movie for your mind. But what was the story it told?
Being little kids who didn’t read Rolling Stone or Pink Floyd press interviews, there wasn’t much information to help understand what was actually going on across those four imposing sides of pitch-black vinyl. Other kids in our neighborhood were into The Wall and we traded notes. We thought that Vera Lynn, as name-checked on the album, was Pink’s wife (not only were we kids, we were American, and didn’t get the British references). We didn’t know the Groupie and the Wife were two different characters. We didn’t know that Pink’s (and, of course, Roger Waters’) father died in the war; since the lyrics only cryptically referred to him going “across the ocean”. It wasn’t until I saw The Wall movie on VHS tape in 1983 that the story began to make some kind of sense.
My brother didn’t want me handling his prized Wall LP any more than I had to, so I made a cassette of it to playback on one of those old tape machines that looked like a Tricorder from Star Trek. I remember regularly playing Side 4 of The Wall while getting ready for school, bathing in the high drama and bombast of Waiting for the Worms and The Trial in between bowls of Lucky Charms and brushing my teeth.
If I could travel back in time, what would I say to that little kid listening to wildly age-inappropriate songs like Goodbye Cruel World and Young Lust? “Go outside and ride a bike”? “Buy a Juice Newton record”? Or would I just wordlessly pass through this point in time and memory without saying a word; like that scene in The Wall movie where Young Pink comes across himself as a blank-eyed adult in the wasteland?
By the time I’d finished fifth grade, I’d gone through the Pink Floyd catalog and discovered the musical roots of The Wall: the “the thin ice of modern life” soundscapes of Dark Side of the Moon, the specter of Syd Barret going “crazy… over the rainbow” haunting Wish You Were Here, and the dour dehumanized caricatures of Animals. But nothing could compare with Nick Mason’s bludgeoning drums and Dave Gillmor’s stratospheric guitar solos on Mother and Comfortably Numb — the cornerstones of the thrilling confusion and space cadet glow of The Wall
As I got older, listening to The Wall in the dark with headphones became my go-to ritual for bouts of teenage doom and gloom. Did I feel better after putting myself through the emotional ringer with “Old Pink” time after time? I think it did. The bleakness and despair on the record was so intense that it couldn’t help but siphon away some of the bad stuff.
Yet I spent my fair share of my late teens and 20s in a state not unlike Pink himself: bombed out, staring at a TV, and wondering why people I loved had run away. By this point, I’d probably internalized The Wall, or built several of my own. Were others doing the same thing? I looked out across a sea of fellow Gen-X faces and found lots of dark sarcasm, nihilism, and numbness. Nirvana’s In Utero (1993) could almost be a sequel to The Wall with its corrosive mix of sourness, strings, soft-loud attack, and no-prisoners primal rage playing out in front of a stupefied audience. Teenage angst has paid off well. Is this not what you expected to see?
Obviously, that’s not going to work for everyone. The Wall has always had a mixed reaction, with critics and listeners alike calling it pretentious, too long, boring, and the unbearable whining of a rich rock star — the ultimate myopic statement of the Me Generation. And yet the album sold incredibly well, moving over a million copies within a month of its release. How does a work of Feel Bad entertainment connect so quickly with the mainstream? Probably because, while it does a lot of other things, The Wall takes aim at things that have made kids miserable since time immemorial: school, teachers, parents, someone knocking at the door telling you it’s time to go… reality, basically. Who dares to make this kind of entertainment now?
Here in the present, it would be easy to look at The Wall now through a punishingly contemporary lens: to dismiss Roger Waters’ and the Bleeding Heart Band’s BIG STATEMENTS with OK BOOMER or try to cancel it with clickbait to the tune of “Isn’t It Time We Had a Discussion About The Wall’s Depiction of Women and Minorities?” Then again, which Wall are we talking about? Over the years, the piece has continued to evolve via Roger Waters’ live performances to comment on current (usually political) events: Berlin, Israel, Trump, and probably whoever else tries to build a wall next.
But for me, The Wall will always be a work about time and memory and feelings of an almost human nature. I’ve spent this much time over the last forty years banging my heart against some mad bugger’s double-LP concept record, so why quit now? Try and tear down the wall all you like. It will be here for a while still.
Patrick Macias is a writer, editor, and art director who lives in Tokyo, Japan. He’s not sure what he would do if his 7-year-old came home singing Another Brick in the Wall (Part Two).