Pink Floyd had a choice in July of 1977.
As the band convened at Britannia Row Studios in London, bassist Roger Waters presented his bandmates with two concept album ideas. One, then titled "Bricks in the Wall," dealt with a touring rock star's descent into alienation, isolation and depression. The other charted a man's single night of dreams and ideas about marriage, family and fidelity.
"Roger had prepared more or less complete demos of both concepts, and said, 'One's my solo album, one's a band album," recalls Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. "And it's interesting because although 'The Wall' was a bit more autobiographical, we all could relate to it. I think the way the subject was tackled and what it was about and so on sort of hit a nerve with all of us and made it really easy to go, 'Well, we'd like to do that one.'
"It was pretty unanimous, actually. Everyone went, 'Oh, let's do 'The Wall.' "
Good choice, that.
Released in November of 1979, "The Wall" has gone on to become one of Pink Floyd's signature albums -- arguably as popular as 1973's landmark "The Dark Side of the Moon" -- and one of the top-selling albums of all-time at more than 25 million worldwide. It went No. 1 in eight countries, including the U.S. and Great Britain, and gave Pink Floyd its biggest hit single, the chart-topping "Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)," and a Grammy Award for Best Engineered Recording -- Non-Classical. It also ranked No. 87 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
"The Wall" is still standing strong more than 30 years after its release. In 2010 Waters began presenting it in its entirety with a critically lauded show, a $60 million production that played to more than 1.6 million people in North America and Europe and is spending 2012 in Oceania, South America and back in North America -- including a return to the Detroit area this week.
And earlier this year, as part of the Why Pink Floyd? catalog campaign, the group issued "Immersion" and "Experience" editions of "The Wall," adding Waters' original demos and subsequent unreleased recordings by the band, as well as a documentary, live recordings and other materials.
The album's long life does not surprise its creator, however.
" 'The Wall' is tremendously symbolic, maybe moreso now, even, then when I wrote it," explains Waters, 68, who left Pink Floyd in 1985 and unsuccessfully sued Mason and guitarist David Gilmour when they opted to continue the band. "It was written about this kind of youngish guy who is so fearful that he inures himself. His defenses are so powerful because of his feelings of inadequacy and so on and so forth that...he builds a wall around himself and keeps the world out.
"But it's strange how the macro and the micro often mirror each other, so the story of one man and his failed relationships and his shame and his problems can somehow mirror a more macro kind of global-political-religious situation. There's a wall between the north and south. There's a wall between the rich and the poor. There is, with all due respect, a wall that we call the media that lies between we citizens and reality of our lives.
"It describes a broader, more universal condition than maybe we imagined in 1980, but I think that's what still connects it to an audience."
Waters does, however, recall "The Wall" as "difficult to make. There were all kinds of politics going on in the band that didn't help things." It was, in fact, made with a strong-willed co-producer -- Bob Ezrin, who'd worked with Alice Cooper, Kiss, Lou Reed and Peter Gabriel -- and resulted in the ouster of keyboardist Rick Wright.
But Mason counters that the album was "actually one of the more creative times we had."
"The sort of concept people have is that this was a record hewn out of rock by very angry people, and I think that's not really the case," contends Mason, 68, who along with Gilmour joined Waters for the May 12, 2011 performance of "The Wall" at London's O2 Arena. "A lot of the album was pretty civilized in terms of people getting on with it. I think it all felt fairly positive. Things fragmented later on, quite late in the recording. There was a big blowup, particularly between Roger and Rick towards the end of the process.
"But the majority of that process I remember as being pretty creative and businesslike, really."
Mason says "The Wall" benefited from being "more prepared...and prepared more carefully" than the group's other albums. "There was a lot more production than previous albums in terms of thinking through the parts very carefully and then playing them more section by section in the studio than going for the complete song, as we did before." And while the group also fragmented and worked in studios during the seven-month process, mostly in France, Mason says that was primarily to get the work done in time for the planned release date.
"We were halfway through the album and there was a decision that to get it ready for a Christmas release, we would have to do it that way," the drummer explains. "So someone would be writing in one place and David would be playing guitar somewhere else, or we'd be doing tracks in one studio and Roger would be 20, 30 miles away doing vocal overdubs. It wasn't because we couldn't stand to be in the same place."
Ezrin -- brought in at the suggestion of Waters' then-girlfriend, Carolyne Christie, who had been the producer's secretary -- was charged coordinating the different locations and, according to Mason, brought with him an exacting attention to detail as well as an inclusive approach that occasional butted against Waters' vision. But Mason says the producer was essential to "The Wall's" success.
"I think Bob was invaluable in lots of ways," he recalls. "He was constantly producing ideas and felt that sometimes even a bad idea is a good idea because it makes someone else go, 'That's a bad idea; here, I've got a better idea.' " And one of the latter was a rhythmic twist that Ezrin suggested for "Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)," which is tracked from demo to familiar finished version on the reissues.
"Bob was absolutely adamant we had to do a disco single, with that (beats per minute)," Mason says, adding with a chuckle, "God knows why we decided to indulge him. Our nature would have been, 'Absolutely no way! You're clearly out of your mind.' But I think we were intrigued by the idea of doing it, and once we started working on it we sort of got it. We thought, 'Yeah, maybe this will work after all...' "
Waters adds that, "I was a bit surprised it was so successful, but I was really proud of it. I was proud of everything we did on it. It was ridiculously successful...and still stands up musically, I think."
Mason does, however, express some regret over the machinations that led Waters to force Wright out of the band -- and Gilmour and Mason to agree with him. "I think we shouldn't have allowed it to happen," Mason concedes now. "We were all in a bad place, you could perhaps say. I think even Roger might feel that it was a little unfair.
"But having said that, whether one could've dealt with it differently and made it work, I have no idea. I think we'd have still ended up either threatening each other or doing something drastic. So while it's regrettable, I can't see, practically, how we could have made it work."
Wright stayed on as a hired hand rather than a full-fledged member for the subsequent tour in support of "The Wall," a massive production that played just 31 shows in four cities during 1980-81 and is preserved on "Is There Anybody Out There: The Wall Live 1980-81," a 2000 album that's also included in the new "Immersion" package. There was some ironic justice in that, since his former bandmates lost money on the tour while Wright -- who was reinstated into the band during the late 80s and passed away in 2008 -- was able to cash a paycheck.
"The Wall" went on to be adapted into a film in 1982, directed by Alan Parker and starring the Boomtown Rats' Bob Geldof, while Waters staged an all-star performance of the album during July of 1990 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And after playing "The Dark Side of the Moon" in its entirety with his own band during 2007-08, he began entertaining thoughts of taking "The Wall" on the road once again.
"I started to think about it," he recalls, "and when I'd recovered from that last tour I got that feeling that I probably had at least one more (tour) left in me and started to think, 'Y'know, maybe there is something there...' "
The centerpiece of the Waters production is, again, an actual wall -- 240 feet wide and 35 feet tall -- that's constructed during the first half of the show and knocked over towards the end. The show makes extensive use of puppets designed by original "The Wall" collaborator Gerald Scarfe, projections and special effects (including Pink Floyd's famous floating pig) as well as socio-political imagery that helps give the show a broader meaning.
"It's a piece of theater," Waters explains. "But the engineering and technology has gotten better, especially the projection techniques," Waters notes. "We can make a very bright image across the width of the arena, which we couldn't do before.
"Because it's so visual, it means playing to (click tracks) a lot. I personally don't mind that' I'm happy to sacrifice the freedom of guitar players flailing about, doing anything they want, on the altar of creating a show that moves people and that's political and so on."
All of the new activity around "The Wall" has come during a period of renewed peace between the surviving band members. All four of the Floyd members reunited for a performance at Live 8 in 2005, while Mason says the reunion of he, Waters and Gilmour in London last year "was nice...It showed we still could work with each other and actually be in each other's companies and that there was still that...I suppose it is a friendship.
"I think we've all grown a little bit brighter as we've all grown older. If one had a regret it might be we hadn't grown up a lot earlier...and then been able to work and do more of the odd things together. But, sadly, the music business isn't the best place to grow up."
None of the Pink Floyd members dare to predict any further reunions, though Waters -- who will bring his "The Wall" tour to a close by erecting an even larger wall on July 21 in Quebec City -- notes that "at this point I think we're open to the possibility if it's for the right reason." They do, however, actively cooperate on a business level thanks to the recent decision to license Pink Floyd's music to iTunes and then launch the Why Pink Floyd? campaign. "The Wall" reissues -- which followed similar treatments for "The Dark Side of the Moon," "Wish You Were Here," a boxed set of the group's entire catalog and a new best-of compilation -- are the last scheduled releases, but Mason says the band and its engineers are still reviewing the archives for potential other projects.
"The idea was always to see whether people like these things or not first," he says. "If they do, of course we could do more. I think it's an exercise that bears repeating...but I think there might be things to be done that would be rather different to what we've done so far. I expect there will certainly be some discussion about that sooner rather than later."
Roger Waters performs "The Wall" at 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 5, at Joe Louis Arena, 600 Civic Center Drive, Detroit. Tickets are $58-$202. Call 313-471-6606 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com.
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