How Pink Floyd Built The Wall: The Album, Tour & Film

The mak­ing of Pink Floyd’s 1979 rock opera The Wall is rife with the kind of rock star ironies exploit­ed a few years lat­er by This Is Spinal Tap. Their fall into frac­tious­ness and bloat began when Roger Waters firm­ly estab­lished him­self as cap­tain on 1977’s Ani­mals, his trib­ute album for George Orwell. Stage shows became even more grandiose, lead­ing key­boardist Richard Wright to wor­ry they were “in dan­ger of becom­ing slaves to our equip­ment.” Cer­tain moments dur­ing the 1977 In the Flesh tour in sup­port of the album seem right out of a Christo­pher Guest brain­storm.

One night in Frank­furt, “the stage filled with so much dry ice that the band were almost com­plete­ly obscured,” Mark Blake writes in Com­fort­ably Numb. Fans threw bot­tles. Crowds felt fur­ther alien­at­ed when Waters start­ed wear­ing head­phones onstage, try­ing to sync the music and visu­als. Dur­ing a five-night run at London’s Wem­b­ley Empire Pool, “offi­cials from the Greater Lon­don Coun­cil descend­ed on the venue to check that the band’s inflat­able pig had been equipped with a safe­ty line” (due to a minor pan­ic caused by an ear­li­er escaped pig). “Roger Waters over­saw the inspec­tion, bark­ing orders to the pig’s oper­a­tors… “ ‘Halt pig! Revolve pig!’ ”

Moments like these could have added lev­i­ty to Alan Parker’s 1982 film of The Wall, star­ring Bob Geld­of as the main char­ac­ter, dis­af­fect­ed rock star Pink. Waters hat­ed the movie at the time, though lat­er said, “I’ve actu­al­ly grown quite fond of it, though I very much regret there’s no humour in it, but that’s my fault. I don’t think I was in a par­tic­u­lar­ly jol­ly state.” A pris­on­er of his own suc­cess, Waters resent­ed ine­bri­at­ed fans who were (under­stand­ably) dis­tract­ed by stage shows that threat­ened to over­whelm the music. See­ing fans singing along in the front row instead of lis­ten­ing intent­ly sent him into a rage, lead­ing to the infa­mous spit­ting inci­dent, as recalled by tour­ing gui­tarist Snowy White: “It was a fun­ny gig. It was a real­ly weird vibe… to look across the stage and see Roger spit­ting at this guy at the front… It was a very strange gig. Not very good vibes.”

This is still only back­sto­ry for the album and tour to come — the mak­ing of which you can learn all about in the three-part Vinyl Rewind video series here. Waters based the jad­ed Pink on him­self and for­mer Pink Floyd front­man Syd Bar­rett, who did not return from his own onstage melt­down. Waters found him­self wish­ing he could build a wall between him­self and the fans. The band liked his demo ideas and vot­ed to move for­ward with the project. Then things real­ly went sour. Pink Floyd began to fall apart dur­ing the record­ing ses­sions. As engi­neer James Guthrie remem­bers, at the start, “they were still play­ing togeth­er, rather than one guy at a time, which is the way we end­ed up record­ing in France.” Frac­tures between Waters and Richard Wright would even­tu­al­ly lead to Wright’s fir­ing from the band.

Most of the per­son­al dis­putes were already estab­lished before The Wall. Cer­tain­ly Roger’s rela­tion­ship with Rick, but things did dete­ri­o­rate fur­ther on that lev­el dur­ing the mak­ing of the album. There were some very dif­fi­cult moments, but I don’t think there was ever a ques­tion of Roger not fin­ish­ing the album. He’s a very strong per­son. Not eas­i­ly deterred from his path. If every­one else had walked out, he would still have fin­ished it.

Waters would have toured the album by him­self as well — as he did after he left the band fol­low­ing 1983’s The Final Cut, a Pink Floyd album in name only. As it was, The Wall tour end­ed up send­ing the band into debt. Only Richard Wright made a prof­it, play­ing with the band as a salaried musi­cian. For all the stage mishaps and inter­per­son­al feuds — despite it all — Pink Floyd did what they set out to do. “We knew when we were mak­ing it,” says David Gilmour, in rec­ol­lec­tions mel­lowed by time and age, “that it was a good record.” It still stands, some forty-three years lat­er, as one of the greats. Learn how it earned the dis­tinc­tion, and what that great­ness cost the band that made it.

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Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Pink Floyd Adapts George Orwell’s Ani­mal Farm into Their 1977 Con­cept Album, Ani­mals (a Cri­tique of Late Cap­i­tal­ism, Not Stal­in)

Pink Floyd’s First Mas­ter­piece: An Audio/Video Explo­ration of the 23-Minute Track, “Echoes” (1971)

Pink Floyd’s Entire Stu­dio Discog­ra­phy is Now on YouTube: Stream the Stu­dio & Live Albums

Pink Floyd Releas­es Its First New Song in 28 Years to Help Sup­port Ukraine

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

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