Pink Floyd - Behind The Wall

Kevin Whitlock deconstructs the greatest concept album of all time
Record Collector, March 2000

On the evening of 7th February 1980, Master Of Ceremonies Cynthia Fox told the excited sell-out crowd at the L.A. Sports Arena about the show they were about to see. So began arguably the most complex, ambitious and technologically dazzling series of concerts ever staged.

Two-and-a-half hours later, a quartet of musicians acknowledged the applause from their ecstatic audience. The band was Pink Floyd, and their then leader, Roger Waters, smiled broadly. More than two years of writing, editing, planning, recording and rehearsing had come to fruition. Sixteen months later, the same quartet of musicians took their bows after another sell-out show at Earls Court, London. But the display of unity was a sham. Unknown to their fans, one of the four was no longer a group member but a session musician on a wage. And it was the last time that the Floyd's leader would perform with his colleagues.

Pink Floyd were rock's leading technocrats throughout the 70's, masters of the concert spectacle; and "The Wall" shows were the pinnacle of their art. The foursome, plus ancillary musicians and singers, performed the album while a huge makeshift wall was erected before them at the front of the stage. There were giant inflatables, back-screened films and all manner of technical wizardry, culminating at the end of the show with the just- completed structure crashing down, to the sound of "Outside The Wall". Although it was immensely spectacular, there was a point to the pyrotechnics. "The Wall" album was, arguably, marred by fuzzy narrative and Waters' desire to cram in as many 'big themes' as possible. The story made much more sense in the live arena and, despite the fact that, musically, "The Wall" was one of the less adventurous Floyd albums, the show was still a remarkable piece of sonic theatre.

Floyd performed "The Wall" just 29 times, appearing in four American and European cities, in front of around 300,000 people. For the vast majority of fans, though, the only way to experience the shows was via bootlegs, such as White Knight's "The Wall Comes Alive" US double-album.

But, with EMI's imminent release of "Is There Anybody Out There? The Wall Live 1980-81", there's a chance to hear the event in stunning stereo sound. James Guthrie (who engineered and co-produced "The Wall", and who mixed the live shows) ploughed through over 100 reels of two-inch master tape, selecting the best songs to make up a seamless show.

The new release comes as a limited edition, casebound 2-CD set, with a book, as well as a standard CD. But, for Floyd fans, the real lure will be some unreleased material, including extended versions of "Another Brick In The Wall Part II" and "The Show Must Go On", plus the otherwise unavailable "What Shall We Do Now?". There's also an instrumental piece sandwiched between "Another Brick Part III" and "Goodbye Cruel World" (titled "Almost Gone" by many bootleggers).

Twenty years on, with the release of "Is There Anybody Out There?", the "Wall" story has come full circle. So what better reason for getting the Floyd to talk about a controversial and remarkable piece of work that so nearly destroyed them? RC met up with guitarist David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason in London to talk about the latest release and the making of "The Wall".

David Gilmour - DG:
Nick Mason - NM:

The new album is taken from more than one show?

DG: Yes. But there are no re-recordings.

Is there going to be an accompanying film? I think you shot all the Earls Court gigs for possible use in the film by Alan Parker.

DG: The '81 shows were put on for the film, but by the time we got to do them they'd already decided they didn't want to use very much. About 20 minutes were shot - for example, "Hey You", where the camera was behind the wall focusing on us, then it went up and over the wall onto the audience. That's a great bit of footage. But only three tracks were filmed.

So there's not enough for a film of the show?

DG: n 1980, four, maybe five, nights were shot on video with several cameras. We had a try-out in New York with two cameras, but there was an argument between our lighting director, Marc Brickman, and the people who were shooting it on video, as the light levels were so low. We've got it all on video, but it's grainy and not very good. And it's under Roger's control, so I don't have any say over it. I'm very interested to see whether it could be digitised, enhanced and turned into something worthwhile. That's what I'd do if I had control.

Are the rumours of a vault stuffed with audio and film recordings of every Floyd gig since 1968 false?

NM: Absolutely. We did reference Hi-8 recordings of the most recent tours, but those are no good for commercial release. Originally, the live album was scheduled for release in December 1999.

Was it delayed, as usual, by sleeve difficulties?

NM: (laughs) To be fair to Storm Thorgerson (Hipgnosis designer), who we always like to blame, it's two things. First, the sleeve is very elaborate, and we all wanted it right. But mainly, James found so much good tape, an awful lot of hard choices had to be made. We had over 16 hours, and getting it right takes time.

What was it like when Roger presented "The Wall" demos to you in mid-1978?

NM: He presented them to us individually in the summer, along with "The Pros & Cons Of Hitch-Hiking". We all felt "The Wall" was the more viable project, though it was very rough and ready, as Roger made the most appalling demos. He'd always overload his recorders, so the songs needed developing. But what an idea!

How did the structure compare to the finished work?

NM: The basic structure was there - like a skeleton with lots of bones missing. The story was roughly laid out, but we grasped what was going to happen. A few numbers needed chucking and Roger spent a lot of time with the producer, Bob Ezrin, making the story comprehensible, then we reconvened at Britannia Row in October 1978 and started turning it into something good.

Was the recording process drawn-out?

NM: In typical Floyd fashion, it was very desultory to start with, but ended in a frenzy. Pre-planning was done at Britannia Row, then we moved to France, with one studio for guitar overdubs, another for vocals, and another in L.A. We also had Nick Griffiths recording the kids at Islington Green School, because none of us were allowed into the UK as we were tax exiles. We were working on it in mid-November and they wanted it out on the 30th.

Was there much material left over?

DG: Nothing that was usable.

Do you think you got the credit you deserved for your overall contribution?

DG: I got a production credit, and there's a feeling in some quarters that not everyone got the credit they deserved. Roger has spent too much time trying to denigrate the efforts of myself, Ezrin and just about everyone else. But those who deserved credit got it. Rick was a hired hand for the shows, yes, but he was a full band member for the sessions. Michael [Kamen] or Bob [Ezrin] might've come in and played a few keys if Rick wasn't around, and Freddie Mandell played Hammond on "In The Flesh, Parts 1 and 2", because Rick for some reason wouldn't get his elbow on the keyboards. Jeff Porcaro drummed on "Mother" because it wasn't working with Nick, and Jeff's father, Joe, played snare on "Bring The Boys Back Home". Lee Ritenour played one of the two high strums on "Comfortably Numb" and some rhythm guitar on "Is There Anybody Out There?". I tried it with ten different leather picks and I just couldn't pick it smoothly enough. I'm not masochistic and sometimes I get a guitar part out of here (points to his heart) that these things (fingers) won't fucking do!

NM: I think Roger deserves the lion's share of the credit, especially for the writing and the idea. But Dave isn't given enough credit, and Bob Ezrin probably did more than he's given credit for, but everyone was so pissed off with him by the end!

DG: Another crucial figure is James Guthrie. The album's wonderfully clear and punchy, and very modern-sounding. He did a fantastic job mixing the sound for the shows, and he's mixed the live album. On "Animals" we continued with the pretence that all four of us were record producers. When it came to "The Wall", Roger didn't want to share producing credits, but we got Ezrin in to mediate between myself and Roger. We also thought we'd got the best engineer possible, and James's name turned up.

NM: James brought a young ear, whereas we'd used people like Brian Humphries and Peter Brown, who were great, but real old school. James was into all this top-end stuff - "The Wall" sounds like that partly because it was an analogue recording, partly as Ezrin and James said "record the drums and bass on a 16-track to absorb more frequency response. Then synchronise a copy with a 24-track where you've got everything. When you mix, use the pristine 16-track and it all sounds pristine".

DG: We got hand-built 16-track recorders from L.A. and carted them at great expense to France. And they kept breaking down every two minutes. There was a whole range of new technology and all these new people we'd brought in to make this record a huge sonic advance.

NM: In the past, if anyone was getting impatient, we'd move on, whereas with Bob Ezrin, and because of multi-tracking, it meant that I could spend a week getting my drum parts right. Meanwhile, Dave would be elsewhere working on his guitar parts. It was a completely different way of working for us. "The Wall" was very "un-Pink Floyd". Shorter songs, much less trippy, more intense.

What did EMI (and CBS in the USA) make of it?

DG: We don't present demos or let record company people into the studio. It's their job to market and sell what we do. When we did the "Momentary Lapse Of Reason" there was some lack of confidence within the record company and we let a few of the top execs come to the studio and listen to about four tracks and they went away very happy. That was a necessity, but other than that, they don't get invited.

NM: We all thought "The Wall" was pretty far out. We played it to a group of CBS execs in America, at least one of whom said, "This is terrible, what are we going to do?". I certainly was a bit worried at some of the orchestral stuff, like "Bring The Boys Back Home". But you have to be into the whole concept of "The Wall". It's not a collection of great singles like Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" or "Sgt. Pepper".

Did you imagine it'd be your biggest seller after "Dark Side"?

DG: Yeah, we all did, even before we finished. That day, we sat down and listened, and it was quite a mindblowing experience. We thought, "Fucking brilliant".Then we went straight into rehearsals for the February shows.

For them and the feature film, you were credited as "musical director". What did that entail?

DG: For the shows, I got the extra musicians together and took charge of rehearsals, so that Roger could concentrate on getting the show together - it was in bits all over the place, film, the wall, projectors. My job was to make sure everyone's DDL [digital delay line] technology was synchoronised. I had to count everyone in and know exactly what was going on and be a performer and singer! For the film, I was general factotum, trying to help translate the music onto film.

What happened if the roadies lagged behind in building a section of the wall on stage?

DG: We created a piece, which is on the new album but wasn't on the original, between "Another Brick III" and "Goodbye Cruel World", for exactly that purpose.

NM: There was one hitch on the first night in L.A. At the beginning, there's an explosion. It ignited a curtain at the top of the auditorium. We carried on for a while, then there were carbon dioxide canisters going off and we put the house lights up, and stopped the show until they'd put the fire out.

DG: But apart from that, nothing went wrong - great credit to Fisher/Park [co-designers of the show] for that.

How did audiences react to "The Wall" live?

NM: I think they were gobsmacked. I was! It was far more rehearsed than anything the band had ever done before.

As musicians, was it fun to play such a tightly choreographed show?

DG: No-one was unhappy with it. It would have been nice to have a little blow-out here or there, but it was so technically difficult to do, we had no time to think. Two and a half hours went by - whoosh!

What was it like playing with surrogate musicians?

DG: Great. I had Snowy White in '80 and Andy Roberts in '81. Snowy had done the "Animals" tour, so I was used to having a second guitar player. He can do some of those complicated parts that you've written and you can do simpler rhythm and concentrate on singing.

The shows were a long way from the improvising tradition the Floyd were famed for.

NM: We'd been on a long, hard march from the Syd Barrett era to "The Wall". I think that when Roger started writing songs on his own, he was interested in giving them as much shape and form as possible. But Games For May [a famous London concert played by the Floyd in 1967] was, in a way, the starting point for "The Wall" shows. What was unusual for the time was that the band did the whole show themselves. I'm pretty sure that concert was the first ever full length show without any support acts.

Do you regret that more people didn't see such legendary shows?

DG: That's probably one of the reasons why it's so legendary! Roger was against us doing stadiums, and while it would have been nice to do a few more shows, it was unworkable to do it any other way than indoors. Plus the day-to-day running costs were enormous.

What do you think about your partnership with Roger for the quartet of LP's from "Dark Side" to "The Wall"?

DG: Terrific. Roger is highly intelligent and a very good lyric writer, a very hard worker and thoroughly into his subject. He's got some very good production ideas and he's great at looking at the big picture. I've got some qualities which are complimented by Roger's. The best of our work came when that was the case. The most collaborative song on "The Wall" was "Comfortably Numb". QED. My favourite album is "Wish You Were Here", but "The Wall" is brilliant.

NM: "Dark Side" comes higher in my estimation, partly because it was more pleasurable - we were all interacting; a true collaborative effort. But "The Wall" is an extraordinary piece of work. Some things I don't like - Roger moaning about his wife. But I think it still stands up today.

On your last tour you performed "Dark Side Of The Moon" in its entirety a number of times. Would you do the same for "The Wall"?

DG: Not really. It's an enormously long, complicated thing, and it wouldn't be fun without a lot of the stuff. On "The Wall" there's too much of Roger singing for me to try and cover. It wouldn't be right.

What did you make of Roger Waters' "The Wall" in Berlin?

NM: I was rather entertained by it. When Roger first performed our old songs on his solo tours in the 80s, I was rather upset that someone else was playing music I'd played drums on. But, by 1990, it was fun listening to a different interpretation. If I had a criticism, it would have been that I'd have liked a different guitarist. Sinead O'Connor and all those people offered new interpretations, which was great. But then you had [Andy Fairweather-Low] aping Dave's style, which is something you can't do.

Once the new record's out, what next for the Floyd?

NM: No plans. Hopefully, we haven't retired. We still have a lot of material left over from the last album, which could be viable after some work. There won't be any touring unless we produce some new music. It's very important to make the audience eat their meat before they can have their pudding!

And now, the two insets on two of the pages. First...

The Wall: A Chronology

6th July - During the last concert of the "In The Flesh" tour, at Montreal, Roger Waters becomes so irritated with one noisy fan that he spat at him. This inspires the concept of "The Wall".

September - Roger Waters begins writing songs for "The Wall".

January - Waters starts working on home demos.

Summer - Waters presents his demos to the rest of the band

November - The Floyd convene at their Britannia Row studios in London to begin preliminary work on "The Wall".

April - Studio work proper begins, first at Super Bear Studios and Miravel Studios (where Waters' vocals were recorded) in France; then CBS studios, New York.

6th September - The Floyd move to Cherokee Studios, Los Angeles, for three days' work on "The Wall".

12th September - Sessions begin at the Producer's Workshop, L.A.
6th November - Final sessions.

16th November - "Another Brick In The Wall Part II" is released as a single in the UK. It sells 340,000 copies in four days and is the first number one of the 80s.

30th November - "The Wall" is released in the UK. Tommy Vance devotes his entire two-hour Radio One show to an interview with Waters, in which he talks about every track on the album. The BBC later wipes the tape.

19th January - Roger Waters tells listeners to Tommy Vance's Radio One programme that the Floyd will be performing "The Wall" at Wembley Arena from 9th to 18th June inclusive. Rumours abound that a "Wall" show is planned for Milton Keynes Bowl, plus another devoted to the Floyd's greatest hits, are unfounded. The Wembley shows are moved to the larger Earls Court arena.

7th-13th February - Pink Floyd perform "The Wall" seven times at the L.A. Sports Arena.

24th-28th February - "The Wall" is staged five times at New York's Nassau Coliseum.

4th-9th August - "The Wall" runs for six nights at Earls Court, London.

13th-18th February - At the Westfalenhalle, Dortmund, the Floyd perform "The Wall" six times.

13th-17th June - "The Wall" is performed five times at Earls Court, ostensibly for filming purposes.

These are Waters' last gigs as a member of Pink Floyd (though he decides to stay in the band until 1985, announcing his departure in 1986.

14th July - The Wall movie premieres in London.

26th July - "When The Tigers Broke Free" is released as a single in the UK and reaches No.39.

21st March - "The Final Cut" album is released. Contrary to rumour, it is not the soundtrack to the previous year's film, nor is it the much-rumoured "spare bricks" project.

21st July - Roger Waters, his Bleeding Heart Band, and a host of guest musicians perform "The Wall" at Potsdamer Platz, Berlin. It is attended by up to 400,000 people.

10th September - "Another Brick In The Wall Part II", performed by Waters and the Bleeding Heart Band, with Cyndi Lauper on vocals, is released.

17th Spetmeber - A live album and video from the Berlin concert are released.

1st December - Planned release date for "Is There Anybody Out There?": a live recording of the 1980-81 Earls Court shows, to mark the 20th anniversary of "The Wall".

1st February - Revised release date for the live album, which is delayed again as James Guthrie puts the finishing touches to it.

27th March - Rescheduled release date for the "Is There Anybody Out There?" album.

And finally...
Ten things you may not know about "The Wall"

  1. The three best songs, "Young Lust", "Run Like Hell" and "Comfortably Numb", were co-written by Waters and Gilmour. The latter two songs had their roots in the sessions for Gilmour's eponymous debut solo album, recorded in France in January 1978, but subsequently omitted from that album.
  2. According to CBS logs, the recording of "The Wall" took the Floyd 1,279 hours (or more than 53 days) at Producer's Workshop alone!
  3. "The Wall" sound system - a 109dB, 150kW quad affair - was the most advanced of its time, while the on-stage wall edifice itself was 160 feet wide, 35 feet high, and comprised 340 bricks "laid" by roadies and concealed hydraulics. The 45 tons of stage equipment included a crashing plane, and giant puppets and inflatables, with the pig hauled out every night just before "Run Like Hell".
  4. "In The Flesh", which introduced each show, was played not by Pink Floyd but a "surrogate band" wearing masks, with Waters singing. The band consisted of ex-Status Quo's Andy Bown (bass), Willie Wilson (drums), Peter Wood (keyboards) and Snowy White (guitar; later Andy Roberts). Backing singers were John Joyce, Joe Chemay, Jim Haas and Jim Farber. Apparently, Wilson was taken ill just on the first night of the Earls Court run and had to be replaced by a roadie named Clive.
  5. Each show was 'compered' by a MC. In L.A., it was Cynthia Fox and Jim Ladd; Dortmund, Wili Tomsik; London and New York, Gary Yudman.
  6. Within a year, "The Wall" sold over two million LP's and tapes in the UK. Worldwide sales are now in excess of 22 million, and "The Wall" is the biggest-selling double LP ever.
  7. The single from The Wall film, "When The Tigers Broke Free" (originally titled "Overture") was released at the time in a triple-gatefold sleeve, and remains unreleased on commercial CD. It was backed with a re-recording of "Bring The Boys Back Home".
  8. The Floyd rehearsed their shows at Paramount Studios in L.A. 90 minutes' worth of these rehearsals (from 1st February 1980, taking in "The Thin Ice" through to "The Show Must Go On") have appeared on bootleg CDs. These recordings offer a fascinating insight into the complexity of the staging, while Waters remains remarkably calm throughout.
  9. There are several collectable "Wall"-related publications, including concert programmes from 1980/81; a programme for the Berlin show; and a book of photos from the film.
  10. The Wall movie has been transferred to DVD and, reportedly, Roger Waters worked with James Guthrie on the sound mixing.