You could say The Wall started taking shape the night Roger Waters leaned over the edge of the stage and spit in a fan’s face. This was July 1977: The band was finishing out their lengthy In the Flesh tour to stadium-size crowds, working at scales unfamiliar and uncomfortable to everyone involved. Risky investments had put them under major financial pressure; audiences seemed more interested in the party than the show; band rapport had gotten so strained that Waters started referring to the rest of the members as “the muffins.”
And so, alone in a crowd of about 80,000 people, standing under the 40-foot-long inflatable pig that had become a central prop of the band’s set, Waters spit. Later that night, he told the producer Bob Ezrin and a psychiatrist friend of Ezrin’s that he sometimes fantasized about building a wall between himself and the audience—an embodiment of how isolated he already felt, and a device by which he could protect what little of himself he thought he had left.
What emerged from that mental image was one of the last, and one of the greatest, gasps of the concept album—that naively romantic idea that music could somehow reach out of the confines of the recorded medium and tell a story that would resonate with the metaphoric heft of a novel. At 80 minutes, The Wall didn’t spare listeners any of Waters’ creative largesse. If anything, it laid bare his inner turmoil (and outer critique) with almost forensic precision: The album traces the long arc of a fictional rock star named Pink Floyd, who evolves from lonely boy to maniacal fascist. Pink starts pointing fingers at everyone from Mom (“Mother”) to the education system (“The Happiest Days of Our Lives,” “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2”) to blacks, gays, and Jews (“In the Flesh”) to modern life in general (“The Thin Ice”) before realizing that maybe the problem was him all along (“Stop,” “The Trial”)—an arc even more resonant in light of our societal reckoning with the evil men do.
Yeah, it’s a lot, especially as a morality play put on by the rich and famous. But despite their popularity, Pink Floyd was never exactly a friendly band. If anything, The Wall holds up in part because of how profoundly ugly it is, the externalization of feelings so cruel and noxious that people hate to admit even having them, let alone mining them for art. (In that respect, they had more in common with punk than the punks would probably admit.) What had once felt expansive (take the long song-suites of Animals or The Dark Side of the Moon) now felt claustrophobic and fragmented, a picture rendered in shrapnel. In nudging Waters toward his most theatrical impulses, producer Ezrin—famous in part for helping create Alice Cooper—gave the album a narrative through line as comforting and familiar as an old myth (the traumatic rise and tragic fall, the superhero rendered human once again), but gave the impression of wholeness where Waters’ collage-like vision didn’t necessarily imply one. At one point, Ezrin suggested that guitarist David Gilmour go to a club to hear the then-new sound of disco. Gilmour hated it, but got the point: Listen to the rigid pacing of “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” and “Run Like Hell”—this wasn’t music about freedom, but about being martially locked in place. By the time you get to “Comfortably Numb,” a life without feeling doesn’t sound half bad.
In addition to elevating them to implausibly greater levels of fame, The Wall marked the last time Waters and the rest of the band would work together in a meaningful way. During the album’s sessions, Waters effectively forced keyboardist Rick Wright out; shortly after 1983’s The Final Cut, Waters quit. In between, they managed to take The Wall on tour. Waters got his wish: During the first half of the show, roadies constructed a wall, brick by cardboard brick, approximately 40 feet in the middle and 130 feet across the top—an embodiment not just of Waters’ concept, but of the band’s general ability to strong-arm reality to suit their dreams. Ezrin, who had run afoul of Waters after unwittingly telling a journalist friend what the conceit of the show was going to be, was forced to buy his own ticket.