The 1970s was hands down the best decade for rock and roll, but one band, in particular, stood out from the rest. From 1973, British rock sensation Pink Floyd went on to have one of rock and roll’s greatest four-album streaks of all time: “The Dark Side of the Moon,” “Wish You Were Here,” “Animals,” and “The Wall.” While all albums are incredible in their own right, nothing came close to the experimental and innovative rock opera that is “The Wall.”
Since its release in 1979, the album has gone platinum 23 times and is still considered one of rock’s greatest works of art. But what happened behind the scenes, however, is the real story. Let’s take a look at how Pink Floyd’s masterpiece “The Wall” ultimately tore the band apart.
The year was 1977, and bassist and songwriter Roger Waters was feeling frustrated. The band was on the ‘In the Flesh” tour, which was their first tour playing in stadiums. But Roger was not enjoying the experience. He felt that the venue created an atmosphere where the audience was standing too far away to either see the band or hear the music.
As the tour went on, the disconnect between the band and the audience grew. Roger got so frustrated that during their final performance at the Montreal Olympic Stadium, he spat on an excited fan. Roger felt so alienated during the tour that he told the band’s future producer, Bob Ezrin, that he wanted to build a wall between the band and the audience.
After the tour, Roger began to develop two concepts for the band’s next album. The first concept, which used Roger’s spitting incident in Montreal as a starting point, was a rock opera that would explore the story of a cynical rock star who self-isolates after years of traumatic experiences with society. The second concept was about a man’s string of dreams that dealt with the pros and cons of marrying and having a family.
Roger presented his ideas to the band in July 1978, and they collectively decided on the first concept. Roger’s second idea eventually became the concept behind his first solo album, “The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking.” The band soon began working on their next album under the working title, “Bricks in the Wall.”
By that September, Pink Floyd’s financial situation was the worst it had been since the band’s formation in 1965. The band’s financial planners, the Norton Warburg Group (NWG), had invested most of the band’s money into high-risk portfolios in an attempt to reduce their tax liabilities. But the plan backfired. Not only did the portfolios decrease in value, but the band potentially faced incredibly high tax rates, with some rates reaching a whopping 83 percent.
All the money they made from “The Dark Side of the Moon” was wiped clean. The band realized that they needed to produce their next album as quickly as possible to avoid going bankrupt. Roger brought in a producer and collaborator, and Pink Floyd got to work.
But by the time the band started working on “The Wall,” no one was getting along. The members of the band, who had been fighting for years, were starting to get really sick of each other. The tension started in 1973 when the release of their eighth studio album, “The Dark Side of the Moon,” rocketed the band to stardom.
Because the album was, and is, still to this day critically acclaimed, it put a lot of pressure on the band to produce another album of the same caliber. This caused tension between the band members. This same pressure continued to impact the band with the release of their next two albums, “Wish You Were Here” and “Animals.” Roger took over the entire band’s process. This meant that Roger alone made decisions about the album’s direction, theme, sounds, and tracks.
There were actually two songs that guitarist David Gilmour wanted on the band’s album, “Wish You Were Here,” “Raving and Drooling” and “Gotta Be Crazy,” but Roger refused to put them on the album. Roger’s dictator-like approach caused a lot of tension and resentment among the band members. Roger’s attitude got so bad that Richard Wright, the band’s keyboardist and vocalist, and David tried to start solo careers in 1978.
When asked about his first solo album, David said, “Being in a group for so long can be a bit claustrophobic, and I needed to step out from behind Floyd’s shadow.” It was clear that by the time the band started recording “The Wall” in 1979, the band members were not on the best of terms.
To keep the band from fighting, Roger brought in help from the outside. But because of his controlling personality, it was important for him to hire someone who was on the same page as him, both intellectually and musically. Roger’s girlfriend, Carolyne Christie, worked as a secretary for Bob Ezrin and thought he would be perfect for the job.
Bob had previously worked with Kiss, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, and Peter Gabriel. The band decided to hire him, but Roger made it clear that this was not Bob’s project. He could help write songs if he wanted to, but he wasn’t going to get any credit for his work. Bob accepted and began to develop Roger’s concept. After weeks of developing and editing, Bob presented a 40-page script to the band.
The next day, the entire band met to do a table read of the script, just like for a play or movie. The band loved the script, even though Bob had changed a few details from Roger’s original idea. Instead of keeping it as an autobiographical piece (as Roger had initially written it), Bob decided to base the story on a character named Pink.
Recording engineer Nick Griffiths later commented on Bob’s contribution to “The Wall’s” success. “Ezrin was very good in The Wall because he did manage to pull the whole thing together. He’s a very forceful guy,” Nick was quoted saying. “There was a lot of argument about how it should sound between Roger and Dave, and he bridged the gap between them.”
As a rock opera, “The Wall” tells the story of Pink, a depressed rock star struggling with fame and other problems. His story is told in chronological order, starting with a flashback of his childhood. We learn that Pink’s father was killed in World War II while defending the Anzio bridgehead, leaving his mother to raise him alone. This is the first time Pink starts to build a “wall” around himself.
As Pink gets older, he is teased and tormented by abusive teachers, with each memory from this traumatic time becoming a “brick in the wall.” Pink then brings up memories of his overprotective mother and what his childhood was like during the Blitz, a German bombing operation against the United Kingdom during World War II.
Pink eventually gets married, but his happiness is short-lived. While on tour in America, he learns about his wife’s infidelity. He brings a groupie back to his hotel room, but instead of sleeping with her, he trashes the room, leaving the groupie terrified. She leaves the hotel, and Pink, who can’t stop thinking about his wife, feels trapped.
Pink now considers every traumatic experience he’s ever gone through as a “brick,” completing his wall. He is now totally isolated from human contact, but almost immediately regrets his decision to separate himself from society. Now more depressed than ever and with no one to turn to, Pink looks towards possessions for comfort, which pushes him even closer to the edge.
Pink’s mind begins to unravel after his manager finds him unconscious and drugged in his hotel before a concert. His manager tells a paramedic to inject him with medicine so he can get up and perform. But this makes Pink start to hallucinate, making him believe he’s a fascist dictator and that his concert isn’t really a concert at all, but a rally.
As his hallucination continues, Pink attacks minorities and holds another rally in London. At this point, Pink can’t take it anymore. After the hallucination is finally over, he begs for everything to stop. Pink is craving human interaction, and after putting himself on trial, he forces himself to tear down the wall he has built.
The sound engineers working on “The Wall” also added a fun, and often overlooked detail, to the album’s story. The album is actually a record that plays on a continuous loop. Once Pink breaks out of his self-imposed wall in the final song “Outside of the Wall,” the song turns into the album’s first song, “In the Flesh?” and the words “Isn’t this where…” can be heard.
This connects to the album’s first song, where the words “…we came in” can be heard. When you listen to the two songs one after another, you hear the phrase, “Isn’t this where we came in?” The continuous loop adds another detail to Pink’s character. Just like the album, Pink is also stuck in a continuous loop of destructive behavior.
Pink’s story is loosely based on Roger’s. Like Pink, Roger also lost his father in World War II during the Battle of Anzio, and he didn’t like the strict way the British ran their schools. Roger was also injected with a muscle relaxant during the “In the Flesh” tour because he was dealing with the effects of hepatitis, which inspired the events from the song “Comfortably Numb.”
But Roger’s life wasn’t the only source of inspiration for “The Wall.” The life of Syd Barrett also contributed to Pink’s story. As Pink Floyd’s co-founder and former guitarist, Syd destroyed his career as he slipped deeper and deeper into drug addiction. Sometimes Syd was so high during the band’s concerts that he would repeatedly strum just one chord, or not play at all.
The band began recording “The Wall” in January of 1979 in France, with Roger recording most of his vocals at Studio Miraval and the rest of the band at Super Bear Studios, near Nice. The London recording studio that the band had built itself, Britannia Row, was considered outdated for the vision and type of album Pink Floyd wanted to record, forcing the band to update most of its equipment.
By March, the band had recorded a set of demos, but their former relationship with NWG kept the fear of bankruptcy at the front of their minds. To avoid paying up in the United Kingdom, the band was advised to leave the country for a minimum of one year, starting on April 6, 1979.
Within a month, the entire band and their families left the UK. Roger moved to Switzerland; Nick Mason (the band’s drummer) moved to France and then Italy, and David and Richard moved to the Greek Islands. Some of the band’s equipment was also moved from Britannia Row to Super Bear Studios.
By now, tensions were rising between Roger and Bob, who had until now acted as a buffer between Roger and the rest of the band. Roger ran a tight ship with an even tighter schedule. But Bob was notoriously late, causing resentment to build up between the two. Not only was Bob’s share of the band’s profits less than the rest of the band, but he saw Roger as a bully.
Although Roger and Bob’s relationship was ego-driven and caused a lot of tension, they still managed to produce a new and innovative sound that the album was known for. In a rare moment of compromise, Roger actually agreed with Bob about having an orchestral accompaniment for a few of the tracks. The band then hired American composer Michael Kamen to oversee the orchestra’s recordings and turn Roger and Bob’s vision into a reality.
Michael, who had worked with David Bowie in the past, brought in musicians from the New York Philharmonic, the New York Symphony Orchestra, and a choir from the New York City Opera to record some pieces. The band wasn’t present for the recordings and didn’t actually meet with Michael until the recordings were completed.
Roger and Bob also oversaw the capture of all of the album’s sound effects. The phone call used for the original demo “Young Lust” was recorded by Roger. Roger called Nick Griffiths, who assumed it was a prank call and hung up the phone angrily. Roger also recorded ambient sounds from Hollywood Boulevard, by holding his microphone out of the recording studio’s window.
Other sounds like a screeching tire and television being destroyed were used in songs such as “Run Like Hell” and “One of My Turns.” News broadcasts were also used. In one instance, an actor recognized his voice and sued the band for not asking for his permission. The band ended up paying the actor an undisclosed amount of money.
“Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” was one of the band’s most successful singles from the album, but it wasn’t a success without a bit of drama. First of all, Roger disagreed with the idea of a single. He didn’t think that Pink Floyd was the type of band that released singles and was reluctant to make the song longer (it was originally supposed to be only a minute and twenty seconds).
Then Bob decided that he wanted the song to have a disco-style beat, something that the band didn’t agree with. But after hearing Bob’s mix, they agreed to the beat. David even went to some night clubs to get a feel for disco music that was popular at the time.
“But Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”’s most memorable bit was the children’s choir vocals. Bob had just used children’s choir vocals on Alice Cooper’s hit song, “School’s Out,” and wanted to do it again for this song. He sent sound engineer Nick Griffiths to the Islington Green School in London to speak with the school’s music department.
Nick explained that he needed kids’ voices and was under a tight deadline. The school’s head of music, Alun Renshaw, grabbed around two dozen kids that he knew could sing and asked them if they wanted to be part of history. The kids, who didn’t know who Pink Floyd was, had fun singing, especially the line “Hey teacher, leave us kids alone!”
It actually only took Nick nine takes to record a 24-track tape of the kids singing. When he combined all of the tracks, it sounded like an entire children’s choir, which added a deeper element to the track. Although the sound was great, it took Columbia executives a little more time to soften up to the idea. They thought that the track didn’t sound like a Pink Floyd song.
Tensions became so intense that the label actually sent their secretary to pick up the tapes. This caused Bob to take the tapes home at night instead of leaving them at the studio because he was scared that the band’s label would steal them. In the end, Columbia came to its senses and agreed to the track’s different sound.
Although the children’s choir was the cherry on top of another amazing track, it came with some controversy. Soon after the song’s November 1979 release, the British press reported that the kids had not been paid for their contribution to the song. This was not a good look for the band, who later decided to send the kids copies of their album and the school a £1,000 donation.
However, the kids themselves were never compensated. In 2004, royalty’s agent Peter Rowan tried contacting the ex-students to help them finally get paid. Unfortunately, the whole recording situation was so last minute that there was never an official list of participants’ names. This made it very hard for Peter to track everyone down, and as of today, only three students have come forward to make their claims.
Soon after its release, “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” became the anthem for students all around the world, but especially for students in South Africa. When the album was released in 1979, South Africa was at the peak of apartheid, and students around the country related to the song, leading the government to ban the entire album on May 2, 1980.
When asked about South Africa’s decision to ban the song, Roger said that the government thought the song was calling for anarchy, but that wasn’t the case at all. He added that if the song was popular among school children, then it clearly expressed feelings that the kids had themselves. Instead of banning the song, South Africans should have used, it has a starting point for discussion.
Although things were always rocky between band members, relationships further broke down when Roger and Richard began to fight. Richard was battling depression and the effects of a failed marriage, on top of being forced to live in a different country. Other band members brought their children, but Richard’s kids were older and couldn’t join him for recording sessions because they were in school.
The band initially scheduled their vacation time for August, before their recording session at the Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles. But Columbia offered the band a deal for a Christmas release album, pushing up their release date and forcing the band to cut their vacation ten days short. But Richard, whose parts had not yet been recorded, refused and left the band.
There are a few different versions about Richard’s departure from the band. In drummer Nick’s autobiography, he said that Roger called the band’s manager, Steve O’Rourke, and demanded that Richard be removed from the band immediately. In another version by a band historian, the fight between band members dragged on for a bit longer.
After Richard was told he needed to cut down his vacation time, David tried talking to him, but Roger was adamant that if Richard didn’t leave the band, “The Wall” was not going to be released. Frustrated by band politics and overwhelmed by problems in his personal life, Richard quit. Although he was employed as a session keyboardist on the band’s “The Wall” tour, his name was not on the album.
When “The Wall” was completed and finally played for Columbia executives in Los Angeles, they were reportedly unimpressed. But those concerns were put to rest when the track “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” reached number one in the US, UK, Portugal, West Germany, and South Africa. The album was certified platinum in the United Kingdom in December 1979 and in the United States only three months later.
Although the album topped the charts around the world, it received mixed reviews from music critics. One of America’s greatest critics, Robert Christgau, even called the album “tribulations-of-a-rock-star epic” backed by “kitschy minimal maximalism with sound effects.” But regardless of the critics’ initial reactions, “The Wall” topped the Billboard Charts for the next 15 weeks.
By the time Pink Floyd went on tour in February 1980, they were $1.5 million in debt. Because the album was doing so well, the band felt pressured to create a live experience so elaborate that it would match the musical power of the album. As the band played their set, a 40-foot wall of cardboard bricks was slowly built between them and the audience.
There were also explosions, giant inflatables of weird characters, and nightmarish animations projected onto the wall. Although the experience for the audience was exactly what the band had hoped for, the band finished the tour with a $400,000 debt. The sheer amount of work that went into setting up and disassembling the stage made the show very expensive.
Relationships between band members hit an all-time low during their tour. At one point, all four members of the band would park their Winnebagos in a circle, with a communal drinking area in the center, but Roger’s Winnebago would be parked in such a way that his front door faced away from the rest of his bandmates.
The fact that no one made money during the tour, except for Richard, also contributed to the deteriorating relationships. Richard, who had left the band before they finished recording the album, was invited back only as a session keyboardist. Regardless of the circumstances that surrounded Richard leaving the band, the fact that no one else made money except for him left a bad taste in the band’s mouth.
During the tour, the band also filmed concert footage to be used in the upcoming movie, “Pink Floyd – The Wall.” Like the album, the film was based on Pink and his struggle with depression and his self-isolation from society. But when the film’s director, Alan Parker, decided against Roger playing Pink, he decided to scrap the entire concert footage.
Roger didn’t have the stage presence Alan was looking for and decided to replace him with actor Bob Geldof. Given Roger’s dominating personality, many people assumed that Alan’s decision to go with a different actor sparked a huge fight between the two. But, when asked about the situation, Alan said it was actually a really easy conversation. Roger was uncharacteristically cool about the whole situation.
The film, which premiered in 1982 in Cannes, received mostly positive reviews and has even gathered quite the cult following. But when asked about the film, Alan said that he regrets the entire thing. Though it wasn’t the final product that upset Alan, it was dealing with two, strong-willed members of the Pink Floyd camp.
Dealing with Roger and cartoonist Gerald Scarfe made Alan so miserable that he doesn’t have one happy memory from that time in his life. Both Roger and Gerald were adamant in their vision, and they refused to compromise with Alan. This made the process very difficult for everyone involved, and it’s a surprise that Roger, Gerald, and Alan even accomplished anything at all.
Today, “The Wall” has gone platinum 23 times and is still considered to be one of the best albums in rock and roll history. Although it reached astronomical success, “The Wall”’s creative process ultimately tore the band apart. The album was the last time that the four members of the band (Roger, Richard, David, and Nick) would ever record an album together.
Richard left before the album was fully recorded, only to come back to play during the band’s 1980-1981 tour. The rest of the band went on to record The Final Cut in 1983, but Roger left the band in 1985. He later ended up suing Nick and David to stop them from using the band’s name, claiming that Pink Floyd was a collaborative effort.
Roger ended up losing the lawsuit, and Nick and David recorded another three albums with the band name Pink Floyd: “A Momentary Lapse of Reason” (1987), “The Division Bell” (1994), and “The Endless River” (2014). After going through over a decade of creative tension and competing visions, the remaining band members tried to restore the creative balance between the artists.
But with Roger’s exit, the main force behind the band’s unique sound and style was lost. David and Nick’s next three albums were decent, but nothing the band produced ever matched the innovative sound and success of “The Wall.” Good thing the band held it together long enough to record one final masterpiece.