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