When I first heard Pink Floyd’s The Wall, a year or so after it was released in 1979, I was floored. Until that point, my listening habits were limited largely to WPDH, a new-wave radio station broadcasting from Poughkeepsie. I’d rebelled against my peers’ steady diet of Southern rock and popular British metal by embracing the punk and art pop of the Clash, XTC, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Adam & the Ants and the like—bands whose strengths were obvious in their singles. (Which was important to me as I was both an elder sibling with no records to inherit and completely broke; it was radio singles or nothing.)
So, when a neighbor brought over the beautifully twisted, Gerald Scarfe-illustrated double album, it was presented and received not just as a collection of songs but, firstly, as an objet d’art, and, secondly, as an organizing principle heretofore unknown to me: the concept album.
“Holy shit,” I thought. “You can do this?!”
Roger Waters’ obsessive narcissism was shocking. The songs my friends listened to were most frequently celebratory and libidinous; the songs I listened to were often barbed, critical, even satirical, but even in that arrogance there was a kind of joy. The Wall was despairing, unheroic, unsympathetic. It was an epic, selfish whine—nearly an hour and a half of Waters’ reedy, nasal self-pity.
I thought it was glorious.
So, there was no way I could miss this show, my first opportunity to see the work performed live. Over the years, Waters, both with Pink Floyd and later with various collaborators, has staged The Wall in elaborate theatrical style. Somewhat ironic, in that the original impetus for the work is said to have been Waters’ disdain for the crowds at some of Pink Floyd’s early stadium shows. But the upside of the practice is that the spectacle is now airtight. This is an arena show that justifies the existence of arena shows. Only a handful of performers can fill such a space with anything other than bombast and platitudes. Waters, by this point, has it down.
The lights, pyro and staging are delightfully overwhelming; the inflatable puppets—from the glowering matron, the insectoid wife, the skeletal schoolmaster to the dirigible capitalist piggy overhead—are ludicrous and hilarious. The animations—both the Scarfe-inspired and the more recent, which seem to take their cues from athletic-shoe promotions and authoritarian propaganda equally—are captivating and still serve the songs. And Waters put together a back-up band well capable of reproducing the iconic album live. (One guitarist in particular nailed David Gilmour’s distinctive tone.)
If there was any fault to be found, it was the expansion of the album’s original focus: This current production references the original plot point in which Waters’ stand-in character, Pink, loses his father in the second world war, but expands upon it. Projected graphics depict those lost in this and the last centuries’ wars, both allies and enemies. It’s an, at times, touching appeal to the universality of loss. It’s an appropriate perspective for a 68-year-old man to have, and it’s hard to begrudge Waters his maturity.
However, it does mitigate, somewhat, the amazing, artful self-absorption and prickishness of the original. Thank heavens we’ve still got the album for that.