Friday, August 11, 2017

The Bricks that Built Pink Floyd's "The Wall"

When you look at what it took to write and record Pink Floyd's The Wall, a double-album masterpiece, you really wonder how the band managed to keep it together without blowing up.

Released on Nov. 30 1979, and produced by Canadian Bob Ezrin, with mixed critical reaction at first, it soon topped the Billboard charts for some 15 weeks, and sold 3 million copies in the US by February, 1980. An amazing feat considering those involved in the year-long recording were at wits end and each other's throats.

And when you look back, much credit for getting it done goes to Canadian producer Bob Ezrin, who, like a good Canadian, played the ultimate peacekeeper.

From the outset it was Ezrin and Waters in charge of the album's direction. Ezrin actually moved the concept from the autobiographical nature Waters presented, to be more about the Pink character.

Ezrin was also the peace-maker between Waters and guitarist David Gilmour, whose relationship had really deteriorated by that point into near-constant fighting and a battle for power over the band's musical direction. As engineer Nick Griffiths later said of the Canadian producer:"Ezrin was very good in The Wall, because he did manage to pull the whole thing together. He's a very forceful guy. There was a lot of argument about how it should sound between Roger and Dave, and he bridged the gap between them."

Waters' Genesis of The Wall

The idea of creating a concept album a la rock opera was from the genius of Pink Floyd principal songwriter and bassist Roger Waters. The main idea of building a wall arose after Pink Floyd's 1977 In The Flesh tour supporting their Animals album. During the final show in Montreal on July 6, 1977 (there is raw audio out there on the internet) Waters spat on an audience member, a culmination of his frustration with crowds not paying attention to the quieter songs throughout the tour's run. This led him to realize he'd become alienated from Floyd's fan base and he manifested that alienation through the songs on The Wall, modelling the lead character after himself and Syd Barrett, the band's former co-founder and guitarist, who went haywire because of drug use. In fact "Nobody Home" is likely about Barrett with the references of "wild staring eyes" and "the obligatory Hendrix perm", among others.

The actual story of the songs and the progression of the main character, Pink, is modelled after Waters' life with his father getting killed in World War Two in the Battle of Anzio in Italy. Then he deals with an abusive school teacher, an overbearing mother, the breakdown of his marriage and a spiral into drugs, isolation and alienation. The wall of bricks becomes the metaphor for Waters isolating himself from the fans.

Even the original album cover, with just bricks and no sign of who wrote the album or what it's even called, is a means to distance the band from fans.

Work on the songs began at Britannia Row Studios in Islington, London (which was built by Pink Floyd) in July 1978, and it was there that the famous children's chorus from "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)" was recorded. That song was Floyd's first ever No. 1 hit. But then, like the Rolling Stones and others before, the Floyd had to seek tax exile, so they were forced out of England and recording continued in Nice, France, New York and Los Angeles.

Drummer Nick Mason's parts early on were recorded in a large open space on the top floor of Britannia Row. His drums were first recorded on 16 tracks, then mixed down and then copied onto a 24-track master to act as a guide for the rest of the band to play along with. Of note is the fact the late, great Jeff Porcaro (studio session drummer and Toto member) played drums on "Mother".

The idea for orchestral accompaniment on "Comfortably Numb", "The Trial" and "Nobody Home" came from Ezrin. Members of the New York Philharmonic and New York Symphony orchestras, as well as a choir from the New York Opera recorded the parts at CBS studios in New York under the guidance of Michael Kamen. No members of the band were on hand when those parts were laid down.

Bricks in the Wall

Regarding "Comfortably Numb", the song was born out of the sessions for Gilmour's first solo record (self titled and released in 1978). The popular track became the source of huge blowup between Waters and Gilmour. According to Ezrin, the song germinated as "Roger's record, about Roger, for Roger". And Waters though it needed more work. So Waters rewrote the song and added more lyrics for the chorus, but Gilmour hated Waters' "stripped-down and harder" version. The guitarist wanted no orchestration in the body of the song, while Waters and Ezrin did. Following a full-scale argument in a North Hollywood restaurant, the two compromised – the song's body eventually included the orchestral arrangement, with Gilmour's second and final guitar solo standing alone. As Gilmour noted after the fact "I think things like "Comfortably Numb" were the last embers of mine and Roger's ability to work collaboratively together."

With Waters taking his place as the de facto band leader at this time, he wrote or co-wrote every song on The Wall, with Gilmour getting credit on "Comfortably Numb", "Young Lust" and "Run Like Hell". Ezrin received writing credit on "The Trial". In fact Waters had written enough songs to fill three albums, and many of those tracks not used on "The Wall" went onto The Final Cut.

It should be noted Ezrin was a huge fan of Gilmour and lobbied hard to get his material included on the record where there were holes in the story Waters set out.

"I really lobbied to fill it with Gilmour material, because my feeling was, at that point, we were one-sided musically," recalled Ezrin. "We were really missing the Gilmour influence and his heart. We had a lot of Roger’s angst and intellect, but we were missing the visceral Gilmour heart and swing. So then we started filling in the holes with Gilmour’s stuff. When there were certain holes left in the script, it would say, ‘To be written.’"

During the nearly year-long recording process, Water and keyboardist Richard Wright would have a major falling out that led to the latter being fired from the band. He received no credit on the original album release and was after-the-fact hired as a basic studio musician by the band.

Ezrin recalls how Waters was very tough on the keyboard player: "Rick was looking for respect from Roger and a sense that he was a valued member of the band. He was definitely feeling Roger becoming more and more distant from him. He was becoming insecure about his role. He had good reason to be. Roger was particularly hard on him". And Gilmour recalls Wright wasn't bringing much to the table back then.

In advance releasing the album, technical constraints led to some changes being made to the running order and content of The Wall, with "What Shall We Do Now?" being replaced by the similar but shorter "Empty Spaces", and "Hey You" being moved from its original place at the end of side three, to the beginning. Interestingly, with the November 1979 deadline quickly approaching, the band left the now-incorrect inner sleeves of the album unchanged.

After almost a year of recording and mixing, the band was under some pressure from their record label, CBS in the US and Harvest in the U.K., to get the album out for a Christmas release.

The Wall has since sold some 40 million copies worldwide and taken its place in music history as one of the greatest rock albums ever made.

Check out our look at how Pink Floyd made Wish You Were Here