A man sits alone in a hotel room, his cigarette burning down to the filter. Staring into the darkness he reflects on the victories and tragedies of his life, his recollections shrouded in fantasy as he feels his madness slowly engulfing his mind. To Roger Waters, the man responsible for the creation of this lonely soul, the character in many ways represented himself; the tortured rock star who felt alienated from the world around him, as if a wall had been built to keep him isolated from his family and friends while his life slipped away one moment at a time.
This sadness would provide the basis for The Wall, the eleventh studio album from British rock legends Pink Floyd, which itself would become the starting point for one of the most acclaimed rock musicals of all time. ‘All those years ago when I wrote this piece I thought it was about me and about feelings that I had about my Dad being killed at Anzio, how much I missed him and the fact that I’d made some really poor choices in relationships with women,’ Waters later confessed to Billboard. Yet its journey to the big screen would be a long and tortuous one, starting in the last years of the Second World War and finally coming to an end almost forty years later.
In January 1944 Allied forces were dispatched to Anzio in western Italy to weaken the Gustav Line, thus enabling British troops to defeat the German military in the region. But the Nazis issued a counter-attack, trapping their enemy in a beachhead and surrounding them, where many of the British soldiers were slaughtered. Thirty-one-year-old Eric Waters was Second Lieutenant in the C Company of the 8th Batallion of the Royal Fusiliers and tragically perished on 18 February during the ill-fated Operation Shingle, which in total took the lives of an estimated seven thousand Allied troops, many of whom were never recovered. Waters left behind a five-month-old son Roger and his widow Mary, who relocated the family to Cambridge later that year to teach at a local primary school. Despite having no vivid memories of his father, Roger Waters was left with a sadness from the loss and this would later play a significant role in the development of The Wall and its cinematic adaptation. As he would recall in the song When the Tigers Broke Free, ‘They were all left behind, most of them dead, the rest of them dying. And that’s how the High Command took my daddy from me.’
Pink Floyd had formed in the mid-1960s, performing under such temporary monikers as Leonard’s Lodgers and The Spectrum Five, with the line-up regularly changing until finally settling on Waters, Syd Barrett, Richard Wright and Nick Mason. Taking the name of Pink Floyd after two of Barrett’s favourite blues guitarists, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, the band signed with EMI in February 1967 and released their first single Arnold Layne the following month. By the end of the year they had issued an album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, with Barrett as the principal songwriter. Over the next decade the band would undergo a significant change, with Barrett’s unpredictable behaviour resulting in his dismissal after their second full-length record and the arrival of David Gilmour, with Waters taking centre stage as the frontman and key creative force.
It made me think of how alienated I had become
The 1970s would prove to be the most successful era for Pink Floyd, both commercially and critically, with 1973′s The Dark Side of the Moon becoming one of the best-selling albums of all time, second only to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, while other notable achievements would include Atom Heart Mother and Wish You Were Here. But the catalyst for The Wall would come on 6 July 1977 at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, as the band were touring the United States and Canada in support of their latest release Animals. Feeling out of touch with his audience and losing passion for performing night after night Waters witnessed a young fan screaming and clawing out from the crowd. An anger rose from deep within and before he realised what had happened Waters spat in the kid’s face. Taken back by his own actions Waters paused to analyse what he had become and found a bitter and isolated star who had lost himself among the noise and chaos of the music industry. ‘It was a life-changing moment for me, only insofar as my response to it made me think of how alienated I had become,’ he would later admit. ‘Suddenly a lightbulb went on and this showman in me went, ‘What about doing a rock show and building a wall between the band and the audience, as a physical expression of alienation that caused me to spit on that bloke?”
That one event would take root inside Waters’ mind and soon a concept began to grow, in which a disillusioned rock star looks back on his tragic life, from the premature death of his father during the Second World War to his own struggles with fame and fortune. His own struggles with fame and the pressures of constantly touring and caused a divide within the ranks, with Waters isolating himself from his bandmates and distancing himself from his audience. Much of what would become the narrative for the motion picture The Wall was first established on the album of the same name, issued by EMI on 30 November 1979 and providing the band with their third multi-Platinum release, although it would fail to come close to the sales of The Dark Side of the Moon. Regardless, over time it would arguably become their most recognised record and often considered the greatest concept album ever made. Throughout its twenty-six songs The Wall would explore its protagonist’s loss as his father is sent away to war (‘Daddy’s flown across the ocean, leaving just a memory’), his mother’s overbearing dependancy on him (‘Mama’s gonna put all of her fears into you’) and his frustration with his life as a rock ‘n’ roll star (‘I wanna go home, take off this uniform and leave the show’).
To help develop the overall theme of The Wall and the operatic sound of the music the band turned to producer Bob Ezrin, whose work with Alice Cooper during the first half of the decade had transformed the fledging group into rock superstars. Ezrin himself had been present at the Montreal show. ‘I always thought it was a wonderful coincidence that I had a psychiatrist with me that night,’ he stated. ‘So we drove Roger to the emergency room to get his foot looked at and then, as we’re heading to the hotel, he starts talking about his sense of alienation on the tour and how he sometimes felt like building a wall between himself and the audience. My friend, the shrink, is fascinated. And, for me, there was a moment’s spark. I don’t know whether it was me or Roger or the shrink that said it first but one of us went, ‘Wow! You know, that might be a really good idea.’
With the future of Pink Floyd seeming uncertain both Gilmour and Wright had embarked on solo projects, leaving Waters with full creative control to develop The Wall and so the songs that he began to compose would touch upon his hatred of performing in stadiums, the pain of growing up without a father and the rising anger that he felt building inside him towards the world he was feeling increasingly isolated from. With the concept having been formed Waters would record a ninety-minute demo which he had entitled Bricks in the Wall and presented it to the band, yet the other members had mixed feelings about both the themes and lyrical content, with Gilmour in particular dismissing the material as being too depressing. But the overall concept of a rock star being haunted by his regrets and feeling closed off from his audience would arouse their interest and so work would commence on what all parties agreed would have to be a double album if they were to explore its full potential.
One key aspect in how viewers interpret the songs was the memorable and often disturbing artwork created by Gerald Scarfe, a satirical cartoonist whose 1973 animation Long Drawn Out Trip, which had been produced by the BBC, brought him to the attention of Pink Floyd. ‘Gerry is similarly obsessed with alienation, as witnessed in his Vietnam works and also in the drawings of the moment in August 1962 when an eighteen-year-old East German bricklayer called Peter Fechter climbed over the Berlin Wall,’ explained Waters. ‘He was shot by the border guards and lay beside the wall for hours screaming before he bled to death. Gerry’s work was full of alienated beings and tortured souls and it was obvious to me and Nick that he had just the right dark-but-humane imagination we needed.’ From there he became a regular collaborator of the band, even going so far as to design elaborate animation for their live shows and so when Waters developed the story for The Wall it was inevitable that Scarfe would be heavily involved in the artwork.
‘In the early days Roger explained the whole of the music and lyrics of The Wall to me and over the following weeks retraced his steps, telling me which part of The Wall echoed his own life; his father’s death, his girlfriend’s infidelity, etc., what was fantasy and what was fact. Gradually I built a picture up of what I felt I could contribute,’ recalled Scarfe. ‘Later, for The Wall stage show, Roger decided to build a wall, physically, a wall onstage in order to express the sense of isolation and alienation from the audience that he was feeling. It was also to represent the walls that we all build to defend ourselves against those who know how to hurt us; against the attacks by those close to us – first of all by our mothers and fathers, then by our teachers, who can ridicule us in front of a class and make us feel like dirt, then by our wives and lovers, who can do worse. These are the walls which we all build up to protect our vulnerability.’
Read my lips, motherfucker, you cannot talk to me like that!
While the story’s protagonist Pink had in part been based on Waters’ own sense of loneliness and despair, the character also drew inspiration from Barrett, whose own struggles with psychedelic drugs, depression and an unpredictable and occasionally volatile personality had resulted in his dismissal from the band a decade earlier. Creating a character whose thoughts and feelings would provide the lyrics for the record would allow Waters to express his own anxieties and anger without having to admit that the songs were in many ways autobiographical. Perhaps the fact that as the narrative progresses and Pink takes on the role of a dictator was a reflection on how many within the band’s circle viewed Waters, as the singer had gained a reputation for being opinionated. ‘Roger was very much the head boy and sometimes he could be a bully,’ admitted Ezrin. ‘I was the new kid so sure, I got tortured. But I came to London with a New York punk attitude. So very early on there was a moment when Roger was pushing me and I turned around and said, ‘Read my lips, motherfucker, you cannot talk to me like that!’
‘So you thought you might like to go to the show, to feel the warm thrill of confusion,’ declared Waters during the album’s opening song In the Flesh?, which would take its name from the stadium tour that had almost broken the frontman. The narrative for The Wall would begin with the introduction of Pink, a jaded rock star who feels that his true self is hidden behind his cold eyes and disguise and so his audience are unable to connect with him on any emotional level. The story then travels back to Pink’s childhood when his father is deployed overseas, leaving the young boy at home with his overprotective mother and abusive teachers, forcing him to build a metaphorical wall around himself, something that would haunt him for the rest of his life. When he finally grows up he leaves home and becomes a rock singer, soon finding fame and success but during his time on the road he would indulge in the usual rock ‘n’ roll clichés of failed relationships and meaningless sex with groupies.
‘Roger had the idea of the main character, the one that later became Pink, being Punch and his wife would be Judy,’ recalled Scarfe. ‘I remember Roger and I in the kitchen downstairs at his house talking about worms for a long time; worms as a symbol of decay. Apparently there were lots of worms in Roger’s life. Here they are eating into Punch’s brain, enough to put you off your dinner. I think I must have done two months work on Punch and Judy all the way into the Punch story where Punch is hanged and then Roger came to me one day and said he had decided Punch wasn’t right, so we came up with the idea of Pink to replace him…The vulnerable, shell-less prawn of a creature which replaced Punch is very loosely based on Roger and his personal life: Pink’s father is killed in the war, is abused by teachers, grows up with a controlling and overprotective mother and his wife leaves him. All of these events increase Pink’s sense of isolation and alienation from society personified by the building of The Wall.’
With the wall having finally been built around his mind he desperately tries to connect with someone but feels that no one can hear him, leaving Pink feeling lonely and unloved. He soon imagines himself as a dictator, declaring that any homosexuals in the audience should be placed up against the wall and, along with Jews, blacks and anyone who fails to fit into his image, be shot. This would all culminate in a mental trial in which Pink would condemn himself for showing feelings, while being forced to face the destructive influences in his life that had helped to build the wall, from the abusive teachers to his overbearing mother. After the judge declares ‘Tear down the wall’ his metaphorical prison is finally demolished.
It had always been Waters’ intention for The Wall to become a multi-media concept and so once the album gained critical acclaim and the band embarked on an extensive tour discussions would soon begin on adapting the concept to a visual medium. The first director considered for the motion picture was Ridley Scott, whose acclaimed debut The Duellists had brought him to the attention of Hollywood, ultimately leading to the science fiction blockbuster Alien. Finally, however, Waters settled on Alan Parker, fresh from his Academy Award nomination for Midnight Express. In retrospect, Parker was the perfect choice to helm a musical with strong ties to the Second World War. He had directed a TV movie in 1975 for the BBC called The Evacuees, portraying the lives of two Jewish children in England during the early years of the war, while the following year he had given both the American gangster and musical genres a spin with Bugsy Malone, a playful homage with an all-child cast. Despite seeming an ideal candidate Parker was somewhat reluctant to take on the material, as with Scarfe’s storyboards and Waters’ notes being so detailed he felt there was little he could bring to the film that had not already been considered.
‘I first came to Pink Floyd’s album The Wall as a fan. I’d been a Floyd devotee since A Saucerful of Secrets and over the years had played Dark Side of the Moon so often it ended up scratched and unplayable in its vinyl manifestation,’ claimed Parker. ‘And as I listened to The Wall album it was clear that it had dramatic possibilities. The whole album had a narrative sense, although in those days what exactly the sense was, I can’t say that I, nor anyone else, really understood. I had been in New York when the concerts were performed at the Nassau Coliseum and I remember reading about it in the New York Times whilst filming Fame. A casual telephone conversation with Bob Mercer, an executive with EMI, led to me meeting with Roger Waters, who lived nearby in Richmond. As we sat in his kitchen talking over the history of the piece, it was obvious that he wasn’t the typical zonked out rock star. He demonstrated the evolution of the work with snippets of original demo tapes. These were raw and angry; Roger’s primal scream, which to this day remains at the heart of the piece.’
Waters had given some thought to playing the central role himself but due to the story featuring too many moments cultivated from his own personal experiences and memories it was eventually decided that an actor would be cast instead. Thirty-year-old Irish singer Bob Geldof, best known as the frontman of the Boomtown Rats, was approached regarding the role. Despite having little acting experience, Geldof had the right balance of intensity and vulnerability required to portray Pink, the doomed protagonist. But as Scarfe recalled in his excellent retrospective, Geldof was reluctant to sign onto the picture, ‘When he was offered the role he was in a taxi with his manager and said, ‘I’m not interested, I hate Pink Floyd‘ and his manager said, ‘I think it’ll be good for your career, you should at least consider it,’ but he was completely disinterested.’
Just four years after his experience working with Pink Floyd Geldof would express his initial reservations about being approached for the project. ‘On my knees in the back of the car was a film script,’ he would recall in his memoir Is That It? ‘I’ve read the script. On every facing page it has the lyrics of the Pink Floyd song pertinent to the scene. They are awful. Okay, I’ll open this at random and read what’s on the page and if you don’t laugh I’ll do it…Bloody hell! It could only be written by social-conscience-stricken millionaire pop singers. It’s salon bar leftism…Throughout the recording Alan Parker kept ringing me, which was a nuisance as the nearest phone to the studio in Ibiza was twelve miles away and I would have to travel into town to return his calls.’
The Wall opens with a long tracking shot of the empty corridor of a hotel, only the sound of a vacuum cleaner and a recording of Vera Lynn’s The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot indicating any kind of life. The narrative then cuts to the Second World War, where an unnamed soldier lights a candle to ignite a lantern as bombs can be heard overhead. With the movie featuring little conventional dialogue the story is told through music, the first composition being the previously unreleased When the Tigers Broke Free. The film then cuts to modern day, in which Pink sits in the hotel room, his sullen eyes reflecting on old memories as the chambermaid continues to vacuum outside. She bangs loudly on the door but he refuses to acknowledge her presence and as he hears her trying to push against the chain he imagines fans bursting through the locks of a door and running towards a show like an angry mob, resulting in many of arrests by riot police while, simultaneously, British soldiers at the Anzio bridgehead charge across the battlefield, desperately trying to avoid the falling bombs.
You’ll just have to claw your way through this disguise
It could be argued that with the breaking of the chains this is symbolic in representing the hold that had kept Pink together had finally come apart. The crowd sit almost emotionless and brainwashed as Pink, dressed in a uniform similar to that of a Gestapo office, declares that ‘if you’d like to find out what’s behind these cold eyes you’ll just have to claw your way through this disguise.’ The soldiers continue to charge across the Anzio wasteland as planes swoop down and drop their payloads, the last one resulting in the death of the soldier. Back in England, his wife waits patiently with her infant son Pink for her loved one to return. A few years later she visits the church to pay her respect for her late husband while Pink plays innocently with a toy plane.
Walking through the park he watches other children playing with their fathers and longs to be like them, even trying to hold the hand of a man as he walks away with his own son. Rejected, he sits alone on a swing and continues to watch the children around him. Pink slowly starts to show signs of coming-of-age, particularly when he turns off his table lamp so he can watch the girl next door undress while enjoying a smoke. This scene is undercut with a similarly looking woman undressing and joining the adult Pink in bed. Moments later the child Pink develops a serious fever and decides to climb into the bed of his mother for comfort. Lyrically, the song Mother continues to explore the protagonist’s resentment over the loss of his father and his fear that it could one day happen again; opening with the question ‘Mother, do you think they’ll drop the bomb?’ and then later asking ‘Mother, will they put me in the firing line?’
The focus of the cinematic adaptation of The Wall would mostly rely on the performance of Pink, whose sanity slowly crumbles in front of the viewer. With their lead actor having no prior experience the pressure of taking on the role would prove to be considerable for the singer. ‘I possessed, apparently, a dangerous quality, a physical unpredictability which was especially needed because my character in The Wall had no dialogue and had to convey everything through his appearance,’ Geldof would later state. ”The film was originally to have been directed by the political cartoonist Gerard Scarfe, with Parker simply involved in production and general advice-giving. But Parker had gradually become more and more involved in the direction. What he said didn’t alter my conviction that the music was overblown and old hat and that the script was corny.’
Pink’s later relationship with the woman, whom he has married, is slowly beginning to unravel while Waters expresses his paranoia of a broken heart through the passage, ‘Mother, do you think she’s good enough for me? Mother, do you think she’s dangerous to me?’ Later when he phones his wife while on the road he is devastated to hear the voice of another man and so loses himself in the hedonistic world of rock ‘n’ roll, bringing back groupies and smashing up his hotel room. As he is taken from the hotel he begins a metamorphosis and eventually hatches from his cocoon, now resembling a more focused and evil Gestapo-like politician. Taking to the stage in front of an enthusiastic crowd, who cheer and applaud at the mere sight of him, he walks over to the stage and asks ‘Are there any queers in the audience tonight? Get them up against the wall!’ Officers drag homosexuals, blacks and Jewish members of the crowd to the front of the room as he declares, ‘If I had it my way I’d have all of you shot!’
This would be an explicit reference to the Nazis and their leader Adolf Hitler, who condemned to death those who he felt betrayed the Aryan master race. Continuing with the Nazi theme Pink’s officers break into homes and attack ethnics, while even molesting a white woman for daring to have sexual relations with a black man. Pink then leads his army through the streets, continuing to preach his beliefs through a megaphone while being parading through the town. During an animated sequence Pink is placed on trial, with the final verdict being for the walls around him to be torn down. After it has been destroyed the movie ends with children cleaning up the street after a riot.
‘I’ve realised that because of the theatrical construction of the wall, which was an idea that I had back in ’77 because of my disaffection with big audiences and stadiums and all that, the power of the metaphor lends the story a much more universal vision and appeal,’ claimed Waters many years after the release of both the album and motion picture, as well as the numerous live performances that have centred around its concept. ‘I’ve come to realise it’s not about me. It’s about anybody that has suffered the loss of a loved one in some kind of conflict, whether it be war or something else. It’s about the problems we all face with errant authority or all the difficulties we all have in relationships with one another, whether they’re sexual relationships or political/international relationships.’
The Wall is often hailed by critics for its striking visuals and surreal and disjointed narrative, particularly in the United States where it proved to be a critical success. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times praised the movie and awarded it full marks, with his 2010 retrospective stating, ‘It’s disquieting and depressing and very good.’ Janet Maslin’s more cautious review for the New York Times warned readers that, ‘Mr. Parker has brought plenty of energy to this project and he has done his resourceful best to make it an overpowering experience. However, not every viewer may care to be overpowered in quite this way.’ Even Pink Floyd themselves seemed conflicted on how they felt the movie stood next to their classic album, with Gilmour admitting, ‘I don’t think in the end Parker did it justice myself. But once you’re that far down the track of something of that scale what can you do?’