Pink Floyd: Goodbye Blue Sky
Originally published in Guitar World, October 2009
Stressed out by power struggles and creative differences, Pink Floyd were near the breaking point when they created the greatest album of their career, The Wall. In this extraordinary oral history, the members tell how it all came crashing down.
The Wall is the concept album of concept albums. If the majority of Pink Floyd fans consider Dark Side of the Moon the best album to listen to while having sex or consuming drugs, then one can only speculate on the practical use The Wall serves for the millions who made it a No. 1 record for five weeks in Britain and 15 in the U.S. Bleak, claustrophobic and punctuated by moments of flesh-tingling beauty, The Wall is built upon the themes of paranoia, megalomania, betrayal, breakdown and collapse, any of which may have described the mood of its myriad fans. What is certain is that The Wall reflected the state of mind at that time of the people who made it: bassist Roger Waters, guitarist Dave Gilmour, drummer Nick Mason and the late keyboardist Rick Wright.
Rewind to July 1977: increasingly disillusioned by playing what he later described as “oppressive” stadiums, Roger Waters set his sights on writing a concept album that would address the separation that these venues created between bands and their audiences. Certainly, fame was one aspect of the problem: the more popular the band, the larger the venue and the greater distance between the performer and fan. And in 1977, Pink Floyd were among the biggest bands in the world. But Waters experienced the division personally when, while performing that year on tour for the Animals album, he spit in the face of a fan that attempted to climb onstage. His response shocked and dismayed him, not only for its callousness but also because it demonstrated to him how fame and egocentricity had affected his regard for others.
But from this episode, Waters would conceive his greatest creative achievement. In the aftermath of the incident, he developed the theme for The Wall and over the following year began to shape it into an album. In the course of that time, Waters made the acquaintance of the man who would play an important role in creating The Wall: producer Bob Ezrin. He had met the former Alice Cooper producer while in Toronto during the Animals tour. Ezrin says, “Eighteen months later I got a call from Roger asking me to come to his home and talk about the possibility of working together on a project called The Wall.”
The story centers on Pink, a youngster whose father dies in World War II while Pink is still young (an episode that mirrors the death of Waters’ father). Smothered by his overly protective mother and beaten down at school by abusive teachers, Pink responds by building a psychological wall to isolate himself from social contact. He eventually becomes a rock star, living a life fueled by drugs and violence. With his marriage destroyed by his infidelities, Pink finds himself alone, cut off from humanity. His personal crises lead to hallucinations, including the delusion that he is a fascist Hitler-like dictator whose concerts become hate rallies. As Pink’s conscience begins to assert itself against the violence, it places him on trial for his actions, and his internal judge orders him to tear down the wall, freeing Pink from his seclusion and initiating his return to the outside world.
The ambitious story made for a demanding and grueling production. Given the already fractious nature of Pink Floyd, the sessions for The Wall were marred by arguments, creative battles and psychological walls of its own, and led to the dismissal of founding member Rick Wright. Out of the emotional wreckage came one of rock’s greatest milestones, but the damage to Pink Floyd was irrevocable.
Thirty years after The Wall’s release, the making of this monumental album and its subsequent tour are recalled in the following oral history. Although their recollections on the subject frequently disagree, the words of the band members—as well as those of Ezrin, engineer and co-producer James Guthrie and album designer Gerald Scarfe—deliver a provocative behind-the-scenes look at how Pink Floyd created their most ambitious record.