Yeah, I don’t really have anything to say about the piece you are about to (hopefully) read since I already wrote it, and at this point it all seems a lot longer and more self-indulgent than it needed to be. But hey, that seems more than appropriate considering the nature of this latest addition to The People’s Albums.
Album: The Wall
Artist: Pink Floyd
Release Date: November 30, 1979
Copies Sold In The U.S.: 13.4 Million
Why Was This Popular?
Because America Loves An Unexpected Hit Single
For me, Pink Floyd’s The Wall is one of the more perplexing albums to sell more than 10 million copies in the United States. Not because it didn’t deserve to necessarily, but more just because it’s an album that is so inherently dark, with themes revolving around isolation and alienation and the idea that fame is just a desperate cry for acceptance that will inevitably suck your soul dry. Really, the only People’s Album I can think of that goes into even remotely as dark a places is Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, and I feel like the whole point of that album was how carelessly it flaunted its darkness. The Wall on the other hand, and its unrelentingly cynical view of the world, is certainly what makes it a remarkable artistic achievement, but I’m not sure is what necessarily made it a colossal success.
Just prior to The Wall’s release, Pink Floyd was facing financial trouble due to some high-risk venture capital investments (yeah, I don’t know what that means either), though luckily for them, they already had a well-established audience that might go for The Wall’s misanthropic histrionics. Since as you probably know (assuming you know a very base amount about ‘70s rock music), Pink Floyd spent much of the decade as one of the biggest, most ambitious bands in the world, which all started with their 1973 masterwork Dark Side Of The Moon. They then somehow continued to retain their popularity with their two follow ups, 1975’s Wish You Were Here and 1977’s Animals, even despite the fact that both of these albums are basically about how much it sucks to be a human.
Now considering the fact that The Wall’s rock opera premise centered on a rock star who aimed to build a metaphorical wall between himself and an audience that he could no longer connect with, I don’t think this is the aspect of The Wall that lured in millions of new fans for the band. Instead, I have to assume that what ultimately led The Wall to become Pink Floyd’s biggest-selling album since Dark Side Of The Moon was its lead single “Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2”. Because despite the “woe is me” rock star indulgence of The Wall’s overarching story and its slight unrelatability, I can’t imagine there was a single kid in America who couldn’t relate to that song’s iconic refrain of “We Don’t Need No Education / We Don’t Need No Thought Control”. I also have to assume that this kiss-off to the academic powers-that-be was what ultimately led “Another Brick In The Wall” to hit number 1 on the Billboard charts, and thus propelled The Wall towards its status as a mega-selling album. It’s a feat that probably seemed inconceivable at the time, considering this was a band that tended to have a hard time keeping their songs to under ten minutes or having actual words in them, let alone words you could sing along to on the radio.
Did It Deserve To Be Popular?
It is possible, however, that maybe there was something about The Wall’s dark personal reflection that struck a chord with people. After all, it is a story that often focuses on a guy trapping himself in his room, staring at the TV, and not wanting to come out and face the horrible world waiting outside. I think the first time I heard it as a somewhat alienated teenager in the mid-00s, I could certainly relate to The Wall on some level, even if my teenage alienation rock opera of choice had always been The Who’s Quadrophenia. Also, you have to admire the way Roger Waters, who had more or less taken the reigns of Pink Floyd at this point, was able to turn such insular feelings into an album that often exudes a kind of bombastic and anthemic quality.
I’d say producer Bob Ezrin would be the one to thank for these qualities I just mentioned, since the orchestral interludes and occasional embrace of David Gilmour-fueled hard rock is what keeps The Wall from crumbling under the weight of its own self-loathing. Instead, what we get is an album that truly feels like a rock opera, with “The Trial” even feeling like something that begs to be seen through the lights of broadway rather than the weed smoke of a Pink Floyd concert. Yes, this is the sound of a band truly throwing everything they had ambition-wise into an album, and much like a surprising amount of great rock albums of this era, it was done just as the band was falling apart.
To that end, you could definitely look at The Wall as Pink Floyd’s last hurrah (it would be keyboardist Richard Wright’s final album with the band and Waters would exit a few years later), but you could also look at it as a swan song for 70s arena rock in general. Which seems appropriate, considering the album ends with its protagonist showing utter contempt for its audience and having no idea how to deal with these masses of faceless fans. And when you pair Pink Floyd’s interpersonal deterioration at the time with other factors like Keith Moon and John Bonham’s deaths, along with the rise of punk, stadium rock’s demise seemed imminent, and The Wall feels a lot like a bloated and glorious effigy to these axe-wielding dinosaurs.
Speaking of The Wall’s bloat, it’s probably the easiest criticism you could throw at it. Upon it’s release, one critic from the UK’s Melody Maker said of the album, “I’m not sure if it’s brilliant or terrible, but I find it utterly compelling,” and The Wall to me is one of those works of art that tries to do so much and bites off such an unbelievable amount that it couldn’t possibly chew, that I also find it hard not to be compelled by. Because put simply, it is an imperfect album. You can see this from the fact that most of its songs don’t work well when you’re just shuffling around through songs on your iTunes. I mean who wants to listen to “Don’t Leave Me Now” or “Nobody Home” on their own? I don’t. They’re super eerie and depressing. But taken along with the greatness of “Comfortably Numb” or “Run Like Hell” they’re all just another brick in The Wall’s unwieldy, and ultimately thrilling ambitions.
Would I Pay Money For This?
I would. Especially on vinyl so I could look at The Wall’s original minimalist cover art, which of course was designed by that Storm Thorgeson dude. Instead, I just have the CD version that I got for Christmas of, I wanna say… 2004? I can’t remember. Anyways, photographic evidence:
Next Time On The People’s Albums: I only wanna be with you, listening to me, talking about Hootie And The Blowfish’s Cracked View Mirror.