Like the best literature, Pink Floyd’s The Wall doesn’t reveal all its levels of meaning at once. Its hooks are Gilmour’s delayed echo guitar, Waters’ bass riffs, theatrical voices conducting interconnected panto scenes between tracks, the fighter jet, the helicopter, and iconic songs like Another Brick In the Wall, Pt. 2 and Comfortably Numb. My first encounter with The Wall was brief and life-changing. My subsequent listens were like a rabbit hole, leading me down into a sonic world that was so far removed from my own conservative, Christian upbringing that it was disorienting. Deeper dives showed me just how far the rabbit hole went, as I discovered the story behind the album, the larger psychological context its characters inhabit, and the echoes in the songs of a western world turning its face towards fascism despite the warnings of the Second World War.
Listening again on reissued vinyl, in the context of Trump and the west’s revived flirtations with strongmen and rightwing politics, it’s clear that those warnings, and the warnings implicit in The Wall, have been largely ignored. Which means The Wall has never been more relevant.
So, here’s a full exegesis of The Wall for these challenging times.
In the Flesh? (note the question mark) opens The Wall and, with its companion track In the Flesh (without the question mark) on Side 4, situates the album in the context of the narrator Pink preparing to address his audience. In other words, it’s the story of how Pink comes to be a fascist performer who calls out the ‘queers’ and the ‘Jews’ and the ‘coons’ towards the end of the album. The real life parallel is the famous story of Roger Waters himself, who spat on an audience member in a random moment of blind hatred, and his subsequent crisis over how he’d come to be that guy. The Wall is the result of his introspection over what he’d become, an incredibly confessional record of a man’s realisation that he’s been walled off from relationships, to the point of viewing the world, even his audience, through cold eyes and a dead heart.
But all that is yet to come. Here, In the Flesh? is merely an invitation to discover what’s behind those cold eyes, sung by Waters playing the character of Pink, with his disarmingly fragile vocal. I always loved Waters’ voice. Apparently David Gilmour always had a problem with it and didn’t believe it could carry certain tracks. But its fragility was part of its charm and an essential component of its character, lending a general creepiness to Pink.
Before we realise it, we’re in the backstory, The Thin Ice. For a song that begins warmly, with the words ‘Momma loves her baby’, its tone is the total opposite. Regardless of momma’s love, Pink is on thin ice. Life is more fragile than mother is letting on. The warm sea and the blue sky are illusions.
Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 1 introduces the signature sound of the album, the delayed echo guitar. Pink is now older, and he’s realised his dad has gone off to war and isn’t coming back. Dad is now nothing but a snapshot in the family album, and this—his absence—is another brick in the wall that will ultimately seal Pink off from everyone. I’ve always been hypnotised by the sound of this track, which never sounded as good on CD as it does on vinyl. It’s cinematically evocative, and it’s no surprise this was the sound that first hooked me in. I’ve spent many hours buried in headphones listening to this album because of this track.
The transition to The Happiest Days of Our Lives always got my adrenaline going. The headmaster screaming, ‘How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?’ evokes the worst memories of school days for us all. The title is ironic, of course—they weren’t the happiest days at all. There were certain teachers who would hurt the children any way they could, and anyone who’s been involved in education knows things are no different now. Standing at the front of a classroom is a power trip as seductive as any other. Corporal punishment may have been forbidden, but psychological wounds inflicted in the classroom are worse. This is Roger Waters at his sneering, cynical best.
Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2 follows. I remember the controversy in the UK at the time of the single’s release. It centred on the fact that actual kids had been asked to sing on the track. What do you think you’re teaching them, figures in authority asked. The answer: Pink Floyd were teaching us what the education system was meant to be teaching us—that we have the right to question any authority and that we, as persons with human rights, are more than the bits of meat in a sausage machine that the education system made us out to be.
‘We don’t need no education.’
‘We don’t need no thought control’
Note the parallelism. What’s being critiqued is education as thought control, not education per se.
I had a friend/mentor in the early 80s who owned and played (very well) a Les Paul guitar. He said the guitar break on Another Brick, Pt. 2 was the best ever. He also told my parents they were wrong to let me listen to The Wall. Go figure.
An unanswered dial tone leads us into Mother. Pink is calling his wife, who isn’t picking up. This song blames Pink’s mother for his marital breakdown, and all the ways she tried to protect her son. Her best attempts to save him from the world merely built a relational wall around him. We’re close to the album’s core message here: We are born for relational connectedness, and can’t survive or thrive without it. But Side 1 of The Wall lays out the well-intentioned but destructive ways we’re cut off from relationship from an early age. This double-edged sword is perfectly encapsulated in the instrumentation of Mother—the acoustic guitar, the easy tempo, the warm vocal from Waters and Gilmour. It’s like a blanket wrapped around a nettle. When the full meaning of the song breaks through it kicks you in the proverbial balls.
‘Ooh babe, you’ll always be a baby to me.’
We call that fusion. It results in an inability to draw effective and respectful boundaries and leads to dysfunctional relationships. Thanks mum.
The wall isn’t yet complete but we’re getting close.
Goodbye Blue Sky is a song about fear, memories of war, and the atomic threat.
‘Look mummy there’s an aeroplane up in the sky’ is another juxtaposition, holding childhood innocence up against adult anxieties.
‘The flames are all long gone but the pain lingers on.’
We are scarred by fear. Fear itself is another brick in the wall.
Empty Spaces is another track about relational breakdown. The so-called empty spaces are those that used to be filled by dialogue. That space can’t remain empty though, something has to fill it—the so-called ‘God-shaped hole’. Pink fills it like many of us fill the space where intimacy has died—with young lust.
Young Lust is the album’s heaviest track. It’s meant to resonate with the rock’n’roll lifestyle, which is both filling a hole and building the wall at the same time.
‘Ooooh I need a dirty woman.’
Indeed. It’s always been my least favourite track, but it’s perfectly placed in the narrative. It marks the transition from childhood to adulthood, the exchange of ‘mother’ with a ‘dirty girl’. This also is the result of relational fusion and dysfunctional attachments—women are objectified and relationships are transactional. Women are seen as a means to an end, as opposed to an ‘other’ who wants to be known and treasured. Whether Waters knew it or not, he tapped into some deep theories on personhood and relationality when he penned these songs.
One of My Turns was always one of my favourite tracks from the entire Pink Floyd canon—a foreshadowing of the entire The Final Cut album, in both sentiment and tone, it comes in response to Pink’s wife being out of reach, and a stranger picking up the phone. Pink brings the ‘dirty girl’ back to the apartment in the hope of feeling better, but things are as empty as ever. A ‘dirty girl’ can’t replicate intimacy, no matter how much Pink tries. The song itself is beautifully stark, just Waters and keyboard. Then it rages.
By Don’t Leave Me Now the wall is almost complete, signifying the end of the road for his primary relationship, his ‘babe’. She’s gone because he’s closed himself off, which the album has traced back to his mother, his teachers, the war, the absent father … all bricks in the wall. Now here he is at the bottom of the well, the depths of despair, realising it’s over and speaking regretfully in victim language. I love the crescendo of this track as the band breaks in—one of the best moments on the album.
As the wall is completed there’s a refrain, the return of Another Brick in the Wall, in the form of Pt. 3.
‘I don’t need …’ Pink says repeatedly. I am not dependent; I don’t need relationship. He doesn’t need arms around him, or drugs to calm him. He doesn’t need anything at all. From the victim language of the previous track to the words of self denial and individualism in this one, Pink’s journey to emotional isolation is finally complete.
A voice calls to Pink from beyond the wall.
Hey You. It’s the voice of people trying to reach him.
‘Open your heart …’ But that’s the problem. He can’t open his heart. His mother’s training was too effective. Then comes the superb musical bridge, Gilmour’s soaring guitar—not a lead break as such, but piercing and dramatic. Waters responds: ‘It was only a fantasy, the wall was too high …’ In other words, any sense of hope is an illusion. He’s trapped and the worms have eaten into his brain. The damage is done. And yet … ‘Don’t tell me there’s no hope at all.’
Here’s what futile hope sounds like: ‘Is there anybody out there?’
No one replies.
And behind the wall, Pink knows why. He has second sight, the poet’s curse: he knows there’s Nobody Home. Pink himself has slipped away, behind the cold eyes and the disguise. He’s barely human anymore, sealed off from the relationships he needs to maintain his humanity. Even so, he knows that even if he reaches out there’s no one home to hear him or pick up the call. This track is another banger.
‘Thirteen channels of shit on the TV to choose from.’ What a classic lyric.
‘I’ve got … I’ve got … I’ve got …’ but I’ve got nothing. I’m a rock star but I’m empty. I’ve got nowhere to fly, despite the urge. The only thing that’s real anymore is Pink’s devastating loneliness.
‘Because when I pick up the phone there’s still nobody home.’
I agree with Gilmour, Vera and Bring the Boys Back Home are just weird. They echo the themes of the earlier part of the album, but come out of nowhere. Even so, I get that Pink’s mind is tracking back and forward, finding people to blame. The absence of dad is profound. It also reveals Waters’ personal pain, which is given fuller expression on The Final Cut. Here, the intrusion of the war theme reflects his internal collapse, which then leads into the album’s best track, Comfortably Numb.
‘It’s time to go,’ calls the voice from beyond the locked dressing room door.
It doesn’t matter what you’re going through, Pink’s effectively being told, there’s a show to put on. In every industry, from rock music to the pastoral ministry of a church, people’s expectations are the same. They’ve paid for you to perform, so regardless of what’s going on in your personal life, put your best face on and get out there. Comfortably Numb is up there with Stairway to Heaven as one of the best songs ever written. I can’t imagine a world in which the song doesn’t exist. Everything, from the lyric, to the dual vocal from Waters and Gilmour, the strings, the way the song builds, the agony of the whole composition, the drums before the final line of the chorus … and then the guitar breaks. It’s a perfect song and the high point of a genius album. What’s devastating about the lyric itself is that ‘comfortably numb’ describes Pink’s best state. It’s like the line ‘What if this is as good as it gets?’ (from the movie of the same name). Is comfortably numb really the best we can hope for? Then why even go on?
Favourite line … ‘When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse.’ But it’s gone, the child is grown. There was hope, then I grew up. The final guitar break is the voice of hopelessness itself, a ferry boat into despair—the despair of a life where all that remains of a once fleeting glimpse of glory is a distant memory, agonisingly out of reach.
It all builds to this … The Show Must Go On. This is the only thing being comfortably numb is good for—putting on a show.
‘Oooh Ma Oooh Pa.’ Pink is still calling out to his folks, who aren’t there to help. Even so, the tone of the song sounds downright positive compared to what came before
In the Flesh returns to the theme of the opening track on Side 1, signifying that everything that’s happened between then and now has been a flashback. In the Flesh signifies the beginning of the show and the appearance of the ‘surrogate band’. It’s the stage version of the man who’s trapped behind the wall, the performer Pink. He comes across as a Nazi because that’s what the wall has produced—a fascist who can only see his audience as scum. This is what happened to Roger Waters for real, which is why he relates the experience with such authenticity and precision. The sound of this track is superb—it’s like the resolution of a piece of jazz, in which the work finally returns to its opening melody. In this case the ‘resolution’ is the fascist rock star in front of his adoring fans. It’s triumphant, exultant, worshipful.
Run Like Hell is yet another iconic track and a return to the signature guitar echo. Lyrically, it presents an Orwellian vision of a society ruled by people like Pink. Listening again, it’s scary how close this vision is to the Trumpworld of today. From what we’ve been told about Trump and his early life from biographers and documentary makers, we know he received little love as a boy, and that he strove to impress an authoritarian and distant father. How did Trump fill the empty spaces where intimacy was meant to be? Young lust, perhaps? And look where Trump ended up, walled off in the penthouse suite of his own building. Trump Tower is nothing more than a wall, from behind which an angry, isolated, lonely man was crying, Is there anybody out there? When he finally emerged, his words were hateful, full of fear and judgment, nationalistic, misogynistic, and violent. Trump is Pink.
In the background of Waiting for the Worms is a reference I used to love as a boy—Preston Town Hall—because I’d been there. I don’t think it has any significance outside of it being the scene of the riots that are breaking out as a result of the fascists coming to power during these final songs on the album.
This song has some of the most biting references on the record:
‘Waiting to turn on the showers and fire the ovens’ … a devastating reference to the holocaust.
‘Would you like to see Britannia rule again’ … an equally cynical reference to British nationalism.
To rule again, all Britain needs to do, according to Waters, is ‘follow the worms.’ What are the worms? The worms are what burrow into the brain when you’re behind the wall. In the transition from the early part of the album to these last songs, Waters takes what is essentially an individualistic, psychological predicament and makes it global, nationalistic, and geopolitical. It’s brilliant. In his creative vision, the problems we see around the world begin in the same place … with mothers and fathers, school teachers, relational breakdown, fear and loneliness.
And then comes the cry, ‘STOP!’
We enter the courtroom (I’ve been inside the Preston courts), where the chief architects of Pink’s demise are brought before the jury to testify against him. Why? Because in the previous track he raised the question of his own culpability—’Have I been guilty all this time?’ Now his guilt needs to be judged.
The Trial features the testimony of three witnesses: the schoolmaster, the wife, and the mother. As a kid I thought this was genius and I haven’t changed my mind, no matter what Gilmour thinks of it.
Ultimately, of course, Pink is found guilty and his penalty is to be exposed before his peers—in other words, to have the wall torn down. Which, ironically, will also be his redemption, even if restorative justice was never the point.
The album ends with the words ‘Banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall’, which I have always loved. It wouldn’t be Roger Waters if the word ‘bugger’ didn’t appear somewhere on the album, and there it is, right at the end, like a signature on a masterpiece, which is what The Wall is—in both musical and literary terms, a work of absolute genius, a work of art that should be regarded as such alongside the greatest works, shining a light on the human condition to this day—and perhaps more relevant now that it was 40 years ago.