Hear Roger Waters’ Early, Work-in-Progress Recordings of Pink Floyd’s The Wall

My first expo­sure to Pink Floyd’s rock opera The Wall left me feel­ing noth­ing less than aston­ish­ment. And though I nev­er had the chance to see the out­ra­geous stage show, with its very lit­er­al wall and giant inflat­able pig, the film has always struck me as a suit­ably dark piece of psy­chodra­ma. Over a great many sub­se­quent lis­tens, the melo­dra­mat­ic dou­ble-album can still blow my mind, but I’ve come to feel that some of the strongest mate­r­i­al are those songs penned joint­ly by Roger Waters and David Gilmour, and those are rel­a­tive­ly few. (Mark Blake quotes Gilmour as say­ing “things like ‘Com­fort­ably Numb’ were the last embers of mine and Roger’s abil­i­ty to work col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly togeth­er.) The bulk of the album belongs to Waters, its auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal details and per­son­al themes, and the album and film can some­times feel as sti­fled and claus­tro­pho­bic as its pro­tag­o­nist does. This is either a cre­ative fail­ing or a bril­liant meld­ing of form and con­tent.

Inspired by an inci­dent in which an exas­per­at­ed Waters spat on a row­dy fan at a sta­di­um show in Mon­tre­al dur­ing the band’s 1977 “In the Flesh Tour,” The Wall doc­u­ments the painful rise and even more painful fall of a fic­tive rock star named, of course, Pink (played by Bob Geld­of in the film ver­sion), whose life close­ly par­al­lels Waters’, down to the spit­ting. It has always seemed an odd irony that Waters respond­ed to the alien­ation of tour­ing mas­sive sta­di­ums by cre­at­ing a sta­di­um show big­ger than any­thing the band had yet done, but it speaks to the bassist and singer’s grandiose per­son­al­i­ty and obses­sive desire to turn his angst into the­ater. Often­times the results were spec­tac­u­lar, oth­er times bom­bas­tic and con­fus­ing (at least to crit­ics, some of whom are eas­i­ly con­fused). The record­ing of the album, as many well know, strained the band almost to break­ing, and by many accounts, Waters’ impe­ri­ous­ness didn’t help mat­ters, to say the least.

All of the behind-the-scenes dra­ma may or may not eclipse the dra­ma of the album itself, depend­ing on your lev­el of fan­dom and inter­est in Pink Floyd biog­ra­phy. Lovers of Waters’ epic rock dra­matur­gy will find edi­fi­ca­tion at the exten­sive online crit­i­cal com­men­tary Pink Floyd The Wall: A Com­plete Analy­sis, an online work in progress that deliv­ers on its title. For a very brief account of the sto­ry behind the sto­ry, co-pro­duc­er Bob Ezrin’s inter­view with Grammy.com offers per­spec­tive from some­one involved in the project who wasn’t a mem­ber of what came to seem like The Roger Waters’ Band. Ezrin describes The Wall as “Roger’s own project and not a group effort,” and his own role as “a kind of ref­er­ee between him and the rest of the band.”

In the begin­ning we had a very long demo that Roger had writ­ten. We start­ed to sep­a­rate out the pieces, and when we looked at the sto­ry­line we real­ized what we need­ed was a through line, some­thing to get us from start to fin­ish.

Ezrin recounts that he “closed [his] eyes and wrote out the movie that would become The Wall,” hand­ed the script out to the band, and marked songs miss­ing from Waters’ demo as “’TBW’—‘to be writ­ten.’” (Among those songs was “Com­fort­ably Numb.”)

The record­ings at the top of the post—which sur­faced in 2001 with the title Under Con­struc­tion—rep­re­sent a step in The Wall’s evo­lu­tion­ary devel­op­ment between Waters’ rudi­men­ta­ry demos (short excerpts above) and the com­plet­ed album. (See the Youtube page for a com­plete track­list. Con­trary to the upload­er’s descrip­tion, Roger Waters cer­tain­ly does not play all the instru­ments.) While Under Con­struc­tion has gen­er­al­ly been referred to as a “demo,” Rick Karhu of Pink Floyd fanzine Spare Bricks express­es his doubts about the use of a term he takes to denote “a fair­ly pol­ished record­ing”: “Demos are not rough record­ings or works-in-progress […]. I doubt very much that Under Con­struc­tion is a demo of The Wall.”

It’s too rough around the edges—at times shock­ing­ly so—to be strict­ly con­sid­ered a demo record­ing. At points, things are hap­haz­ard­ly edit­ed togeth­er. Songs cut off abrupt­ly, fade unex­pect­ed­ly or drop out entire­ly for a moment as if some­one at the mix­ing desk hit the wrong but­ton at some point. Vocal tracks peak-out, often caus­ing anguish to the lis­ten­er’s ear drums. Some instru­ment lines (most­ly the bass gui­tar) mean­der through the back­ground as if the per­son play­ing is mak­ing up the part as they go. Equal­iza­tion is nonex­is­tent on most tracks. Over­all, most of it sounds like a 4‑track record­ing by a band who has only the vaguest notion of how the equip­ment works.

Lest we take this descrip­tion as dis­par­age­ment, Karhu clar­i­fies: “It is pre­cise­ly for those rea­sons […] that I love them dear­ly and con­sid­er them one of the most valu­able, unau­tho­rized Floyd record­ings to be unearthed. Ever.” Many Youtube com­menters agree, some even argu­ing that these rough sketch­es are supe­ri­or to the final pol­ished prod­uct. It’s a debate I won’t weigh in on, though I will say that like Karhu, I enjoy the lo-fi ragged­ness of this ver­sion of The Wall. It seems to con­vey the emo­tion­al­ly frayed edges of these songs in a way the slick pro­duc­tion of the stu­dio album may not at times. Either as a mere doc­u­ment of the album’s ear­ly his­to­ry or an alter­nate, fragmented—and hence more traumatized—take on The Wall, this unof­fi­cial ver­sion is haunt­ing and strange. Does it per­haps bet­ter rep­re­sent Waters’ desire to make his psy­chic unease into art? We invite you to judge for your­selves. And if, like me, you can lis­ten to “Com­fort­ably Numb” (and that incred­i­ble gui­tar solo) on repeat for hours on end, you may be inter­est­ed to hear David Gilmour dis­cuss the song’s com­po­si­tion in the inter­view below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Gilmour & David Bowie Sing “Com­fort­ably Numb” Live (2006)

Watch Doc­u­men­taries on the Mak­ing of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here

Hear Lost Record­ing of Pink Floyd Play­ing with Jazz Vio­lin­ist Stéphane Grap­pel­li on “Wish You Were Here”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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