Photo: Flickr

Defining the Cold War and more

What’s over ‘The Wall’?

Plenty of popular bands and records define the Cold War era but if I were asked to choose one particular standout soundtrack of high international renown that still captures and delivers those times with ease, then it must be “The Wall” by Pink Floyd.

This timely magnum opus from 1979 simply and effectively defined much in its wake, including the Iron Curtain, the Eastern bloc and the USSR – as well as the musical mainstream – and it remains hugely popular on all sides of many walls today. The bleak but moving double album has symbolically qualified as a “Cold War classic” regardless of its many past and present critics. Not that these matter, as main composer Roger Waters achieved his aim regardless, culminating in concerts and “The Wall” film that followed in 1982.

What makes this dark, moody and cryptic record unique and alluring is that it remains distinctly edgy and cool. The story involves the character “Pink”, who is theoretically Waters and who lives through post-war traumas in bourgeois Britain – family relationships, school, insecurities, paranoia, escapism, dictatorship, a trial and eventual freedom.

Clearly it’s not Abba, Queen, Take That and so forth, though it has to be said that nowadays Pink Floyd have become – even if accidentally – as mass-marketed as they are. Partly, blame the very overplayed “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” anthem, which was a number 1 single almost everywhere and no doubt is still broadcast somewhere around the world every day.

But while “The Wall” was playing out “freely” without restrictions on crackly vinyl and then compact discs to the consumerist West, it was a far trickier matter to hear this and others in the East. Much popular music had to be smuggled over borders and then sold at black-market prices. A Budapester proudly told me it took him a whole week’s wage to buy a copy of “The Wall” back then. Clearly, it appealed not only to listeners from comfortable English middle-class backgrounds but also to countless others from many different circumstances.

Even so, at the time of writing and recording, mostly in a plush Los Angeles studio, this dark, reflective imposement was still a difficult record to make. It was a tough time for the band personally and financially. Although remarkably they created a most powerful composition at the height of their popularity, there had been no knowing how well “The Wall” and its subject matter would be received.

In fact, it was an instant flier, generally welcomed in East and West but ultimately backfiring on the band because of their conflicts with each other – their own personal walls – and with the music industry as a whole. Life for them beyond this point was unexpectedly never the same again.

Musically Pink Floyd went “quiet” in comparison during much of the 1980s as solo careers took over. But all changed 10 years later in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the following year Waters, with new recruits replacing his former bandmates, took to Potsdamer Platz to celebrate the collapse of the Iron Curtain. His solo version of “The Wall” was a historic rock theatre event played out to unite East and West of the city and the region as a whole to an audience of some quarter of a million. It was also broadcast world-wide to much acclaim.

Waters was certainly the creative genius behind “The Wall” double album and he duly took much of the credit, but it would have amounted to far less without the highly accomplished David Gilmour and his legendary guitar playing, the excellent precision drumming of Nick Mason and the keyboards of Richard Wright. Gilmour’s “Comfortably Numb” guitar crescendo is considered to be one of rock music’s most masterful guitar solos. No one can play it as well.

The ironies were many. Although East and West Europe were finally united and free to move on, the band was not. History has it that Gilmour was never too fond of the record, perhaps more due to his personal vendetta against Waters during that fraught time. A monumental bust-up between them ended up in the High Court in 1983 after Waters had left and opposed Gilmour’s plan to carry on under the name Pink Floyd.

Waters lost the case and Gilmour’s version of the Floyd produced the pleasant but not vigorous comeback albums “A Momentary Lapse of Reason” in 1987 and “The Division Bell” in 1994. Both were well received and world tours resumed but it was fairly obvious that previous dizzying heights would not be reached without the vain and overbearing main man. However, no doubt the three surviving band members were relieved to distance themselves from Waters and his imposingThe Wall”, and simply play as humbler musicians.

One apparent struggle for Gilmore was the rousing sing-along opening line of their highest selling single, “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2”, which became a band trademark and opens with the controversial line, “We don’t need no education… ” It’s certainly odd that one of the world’s most successful bands, and from privileged Cambridge backgrounds, should be singing this line to their audience.

I always felt it delivers more like Bertie Wooster and clumsy champagne socialism rather than anything credible. The true, hidden meaning of this lyric was never entirely clear (to me), and perhaps even Waters might rethink it after receiving an honorary degree in later years and finally declaring to the world media that “We all need lots and lots of education!” Thanks Roger.

Meanwhile, the defiant Waters re-resurrected himself in post-millennium times as the Phoenix from the Floyd, and delivered “a whole new Wall show” with high cinematic effects in stadiums world-wide. This time the show was less about him and more a dedication to fallen soldiers and civilians in recent conflicts. The elaborate spectacle played in Budapest in 2013, as witnessed by many thousands at the local stadium, an event that would have been unthinkable two generations ago.

Should there be another Cold War coming up, which there could well be, then a return to “The Wall”, but this time with more education, still qualifies as an obvious requirement.

Leave a Reply