A record executive poses that wry musical question of Pink Floyd in “Have a Cigar,” a brief, humorous respite on the band’s elegiac 1975 album Wish You Were Here. The ever-ambitious group would actually answer that wry question with The Wall, 1979’s sprawling double album. The psychedelic Dark Side of the Moon and reflective Wish You Were Here both invited listeners to create their own stories in service of the albums’ impressionistic concepts, largely dealing with isolation and absence. The Wall found primary songwriter Roger Waters making his concepts more explicit than ever before in telling the tale of Pink, who endures a traumatic childhood (including a deceased father, an overpowering mother and torment at the hands of his classmates) and builds bricks in his own personal wall with each painful event. Pink overcomes this to become a rock star, but finds life no easier as an adult, and continues building his wall as each relationship crumbles. Only after an unsettling, violent onstage performance does Pink look inward. He places himself at the center of a hellish trial and finds the inner strength to tear down his wall.
We may never know to what degree Waters was working out his own demons in song, but The Wall has remained potent onstage, on film and on record in the ensuing years. It now receives its most grandiose treatment yet via the latest of Pink Floyd’s Immersion box sets. The 6-CD/1-DVD The Wall: Immersion (EMI/Capitol 5099902943923) follows the format of the DSOTM and WYWH sets, meaning that it’s equal parts revelatory and head-scratching.
At the box set’s centerpiece (and also available as a stand-alone 2-CD set and part of a 3-CD Experience Edition) is James Guthrie’s remastering of the original album on two compact discs. Guthrie’s remastering is again exceptional, bringing out the details in the band’s intricate playing as well as the production of Bob Ezrin, Roger Waters and David Gilmour. What the Immersion box lacks as compared to the two previous sets is any kind of high-resolution mix on DVD or Blu-Ray, and that is the box’s most significant loss. The surround mixes included on DSOTM and WYWH offered the chance to hear these albums in a completely new light, indeed more “immersive” than ever before. Although a surround mix is reportedly in the works for The Wall (and any audio DVD or Blu-Ray release would likely include a high-resolution PCM Stereo track, as well), the lack of one here makes the Immersion Box Set less than definitive.
Of course, the music of The Wall is as haunting, narcissistic, exploratory and bold as you remember. Although the libretto by Waters is more concrete (no pun intended) than in the past, the album’s style is a clear continuation of the sound explored on previous albums. There’s the familiar Floyd brew of sound effects (chirping birds, crying babies, crowd noises, etc.), brief dialogue snippets, fragmentary songs and big stadium-ready rock anthems. It’s always been among The Wall’s most striking attributes that the concept of building the wall onstage is inherent to the album itself. The very first notes of “In the Flesh” serve as a theatrical Overture and the foundation of the concert framework itself, with Pink inviting (or taunting?) the audience to hear his tale. From the outset, The Wall invites comparison, too, with another famous rock opera, Pete Townshend and The Who’s Tommy. Both Pink and Tommy are confronted with the difficult reality of life in post-WWII London, and both have to confront the consequences of their parents’ own failings. Waters has said that he wrote The Wall about the loss of his own father, but over time, the album has resonated as a meditation on war and loss in general. A dark worldview permeates The Wall as Waters uses each tool in his songwriter’s artillery to bring these characters to life. “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” is ironically titled, as Pink recalls “there were certain teachers who would hurt the children in any way they could…even as it was well known [that] when they got home at night, their fat and psychopathic wives would thrash them within inches of their lives.” Yet Waters’ vocal doesn’t betray a hint of sentimentality or even sympathy for those he describes.
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The Wall offers Gilmour (guitars, vocals, synthesizers, clavinet), Waters (vocals, guitars, synthesizers), Richard Wright (organ, piano, electric piano, synthesizers) and Nick Mason (percussion) each ample opportunity to shine, musically. Of those big, crunchy anthems, “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2,” with its rallying cries of “We don’t need no education” musicalized a sentiment universal to kids of all ages. “Comfortably Numb” may the band’s most beloved song of all, with its dazzling guitar solos, sweeping orchestration and lyrics that are both relatable and opaque. The vocal interplay between the song’s co-writers Gilmour and Waters is deft. Yet both songs work within the context of the rock opera and as stand-alone songs. Melodically the palette is diverse, from the painful and sad “Goodbye, Blue Sky” (“Did you ever wonder why we/Had to run for shelter when the/Promise of a brave, new world/Unfurled beneath the clear blue sky?”) as Pink recalls the past, to the slick and attractive rock of “Young Lust” as he plunges headfirst into the hedonistic rock-and-roll world: “I need a dirty woman/I need a dirty girl…”
Muscular riffs abound as objects shatter in the harsh “One of My Turns,” and again Waters cleverly turns a cliché on its ear with “Don’t Leave Me Now.” Despite its title, it’s far from a tender plea, with a disturbing air of melancholia and looming violence: “How could you go?/When you know how I need you/To beat to a pulp on a Saturday night/Ooh babe, don’t leave me now.” Although The Wall is by nature a big album, the band doesn’t shy away from quieter and more minimalistic moments; “Is Anybody Out There” marries virtuosic guitar with subdued orchestration. But it’s those grandly theatrical moments that have earned the album its place in the pantheon, whether the all-too-short but stirring “The Show Will Go On” or the combative “In the Flesh” in which the deluded rock star viscerally attacks his audience: “If I had my way, I’d have all of you shot!”
The ethereal and often chill-inducing backing vocals were provided by a group including Toni Tennille and Beach Boy Bruce Johnston as well as the Islington Green School Choir on the iconic “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2.” A chorus plays an integral role in the most operatic track on the album, “The Trial,” with its shouts of “Tear down the wall!” The album’s coda, “Outside the Wall,” presents an almost-moral about the need to make human connection in blunt terms: “And when they’ve given you your all, some stagger and fall…After all it’s not easy, banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall.”
The third and fourth discs of the Immersion set are dedicated to the 2011 remaster of Is There Anybody Out There? The Wall Live, first released in 2000 but recorded in 1980 and 1981 in London. The live concerts actually restored a couple of songs (“What Shall We Do Now,” “The Last Few Bricks”) to the album sequence, and of course the band took the opportunity to stretch their muscles in concert, extending solos and instrumental portions with ease. The prohibitively expensive cost of the tour (due to the actual construction of The Wall each and every night) prevented it a larger life; the concerts were only performed 31 times in four cities, and contributed to the acrimony that saw Waters depart the band shortly after. The content of the two live discs will be familiar to longtime fans of the band, but listened to back-to-back with the original album, provide a different but equally valid interpretation. Waters is currently touring The Wall as a solo artist.
The true treasure of The Wall: Immersion can be found on the fifth and sixth discs. Work in Progress premieres over two hours’ worth of demos, exposing the development of the album at almost every stage. The album that became The Wall was crafted in stages, including an original demo from Waters that was presented, nearly in full, to the band. Then a series of band demos were recorded, as well as demos by Gilmour of the melodies that became “Comfortably Numb” and “Run Like Hell.” Gilmour’s wordless vocalizing on “Numb” is quite affecting, and the song’s development can be traced through multiple demos including early versions as “The Doctor.” The recording dates of each track aren’t indicated, making it into a bit of a jigsaw puzzle to fit together, but a close listen to the seven divided “programmes” over the two CDs reveals a number of rewards.
The Work in Progress tracks, though, present a bit of a dilemma. The first 14 minutes of the first disc (22 tracks, considered Programme One) are devoted to excerpts – many running just seconds’ long – of Waters’ original demo recording. It’s difficult to get any sense of the first conception from 20-second snippets; just four of Waters’ tracks (“Prelude (Vera Lynn),” “Is There Anybody Out There?,” “Vera” and “Bring the Boys Back Home”) are heard in full later in the program. This material deserves to be heard in full, and as presented here, seems like an appetizer for a future release rather than a vital part of an in-depth box set. Some songs were all but finished on the initial demo (“Mother,” “Another Brick in the Wall”) but just when a standout track gets interesting (a different approach to “Run Like Hell,” to name one), it cuts off abruptly.
The material heard in full is quite choice, however. Some titles are new, such as “Teacher, Teacher,” “Empty Spaces,” “Sexual Revolution,” and “It’s Never Too Late,” and longtime fans will enjoy playing musical detective as to where certain lyrics and melodies reappeared (both on Pink Floyd and Waters solo albums). The original Waters demo of “Prelude (Vera Lynn)” reveals that Barbra Streisand almost was heard on The Wall, as a switching radio played a snatch of Streisand’s “Jingle Bells” (!) before stopping on Vera Lynn’s World War II anthem “We’ll Meet Again.” Even in the songs’ earliest stages, Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason were creating eerie, evocative and atmospheric music; these aren’t strictly lo-fi demos, though that stark quality emerges on the stripped-down “The Trial.” It’s illuminating to hear those Beach Boys-esque harmonies intact on the early “The Show Must Go On.” The sound is also uniformly excellent, and these two discs open a rare window into Pink Floyd’s creative process. As the programmes progress, the songs become more polished, the approach more wholly confident. We all know the results were inspired, but this is a valuable peek at the ground floor.
The final disc, a DVD, is a mixed bag but ultimately a welcome addition to the set. The most important component of this disc is the 2000 documentary Behind the Wall, a comprehensive retrospective at over 50 minutes’ length. Scarfe is on hand in a 1982 interview originally produced for Getty Images. The two shortest features are the promotional video for “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” and a beautifully remastered concert clip of “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” from Earls Court, 1980. A restoration of the full concert’s footage has long been a hope for Pink Floyd fans, and (much like Waters’ demos) this brief snippet seems like a teaser to another, equally significant project.
The Immersion set of Dark Side of the Moon featured hardly any liner notes of any kind, just a brief recollection by designer Storm Thorgerson, while Wish You Were Here contained a historical essay by Mark Blake as well as Thorgerson’s remarks. Alas, it’s “one step forward, two steps back,” as the only prose to be found in this giant box is a brief note by James Guthrie about the sequencing of the demo recordings. It’s printed twice, once on the sleeve of each demo disc. So while we get no liner notes of any kind to accompany and guide our listening journey, we do get another package of coasters, three marbles (all emblazoned with the familiar wall graphic) and a scarf that just might make you the envy of all of your classic rock-minded friends. (Or not.) As before, the box itself is a dichotomy. The package is lavish in its content – from the sublime to the ridiculous, one might opine – but poorly designed in terms of actually storing that content. There are still disc spindles on the bottom of the actual box, but the discs are housed in paper sleeves that fly around the box at will. There are no storage tabs or slots for those sleeves, and once the loose marbles are inserted into the velvet pouch, it’s difficult to close the box again!
Three black envelopes contain collectors’ cards, Mark Fisher’s scenic designs for the touring show, and memorabilia reproductions, respectively, while the box also houses a poster of the handwritten album lyrics, a Gerald Scarfe print of the monstrous “Wife” and two thick, album-sized booklets filled with striking images of the concert production. English cartoonist Scarfe’s illustrations are an integral part of The Wall’s legacy and are prominently featured in the Immersion box, though one wonders if Scarfe himself was approached to contribute any memories. The Scarfe-designed puppets and animation are still a marvel to behold, but both booklets cover the same territory. That said, it’s fun to compare Scarfe’s designs to the fully-built creations. A third smaller, bare-bones booklet simply contains credits.
With the release of this Immersion Box Set, the first wave of EMI’s Pink Floyd reissues is complete. The inclusion of so much unreleased material both here and on the first two boxes has been a major boon for fans, as the band members have traditionally been so reticent to dip into their archives. That treasure trove of outtakes and alternates will likely be the lasting legacy of these box sets. But is this Immersion box the final statement on this iconic album? To underline the Who connection once again, for better or worse, the curious are directed to last year’s towering box set dedicated to that band’s concept album/rock opera Quadrophenia. That weighty set covered much of the same ground as The Wall, also emphasizing its composer’s original demos, without aid of marbles, scarves or ephemera but with a 100+ page hardcover book including a 25-page essay by Townshend touching on every aspect of the album’s creation. In fairness, Waters wasn’t obliged to provide something similar, and his music speaks volumes by itself. But that personal, intimate diary trumps marbles and coasters when it comes to true immersion. This set may come close, but all in all, it’s just another brick in The Wall when it could have been the last word.