Mar 24, 2011

So, it came about


I wanted to make a super-fun Pink Floyd playlist that I could enjoy on my walks to and from work.  I already owned the necessary albums:  Piper (I prefer the original mono mix); Meddle (I think Saucerful, Atom Hart, and Ummagmma are all awful); Dark Side; Wish You Were Here; and Animals.  

Uh, you say, Where is The Wall? I have had a difficult relationship with The Wall over the years.  When I was younger and Another Brick in the Wall (Part Two) was a massive hit I loved it, natch.  I was in the 6th grade; the boys chorus, the anti-school sentiment was perfect for kids my age.  Plus, it was a disco song! Which was something I could throw back in the faces of those kids who hated my beloved Beatles.  Those disco kids, in love with the BeeGees, Michael Jackson, John Travolta, Grease, etc, ... always fought with me and my friend, Rick Minor, on Fridays in our music class.  Fridays we could bring records and play them.  Finally, here was a song that all of us could enjoy.  (And just how brilliant of the Floyd was it to make their first US hit single a disco song?) 

Anyhoo, I promptly forgot about the Floyd right after that and went right back to my steady diet of Beatles, solo Beatles, Supertramp, and other bands that sounded just like the Beatles.  

Then in junior high I got turned on to prog rock.  This kid, we called him Goat Roper, I do not remember his real name, loaned me his super-pricey Walkman with In The Court of the Crimson King in it for a long drive to San Antonio for a drama/Texas history contest Goat Roper and I were competing in.  (We lost.  Some of our friends were also competing with a "scene/piece/?" about what a great dude Ross Perot was.  1981! They lost, too, but did better than Goat Roper and I.  One of the kids in the Ross Perot lovefest is now a movie critic for the Dallas Observer, part of the Village Voice family of weeklies.)  I was hooked.  The next year became a prog rock wonderland for me.  I liked Yes and King Crimson the most but finally got Dark Side of the Moon for my birthday in 1982.  Pink Floyd ruled my life for the next year.  I got Wish You Were Here next and finally right before I started high school, The Wall.  

I loved The Wall.  I am sure I drove my parents crazy with it.  I loved the "sexy bits" of tracks like Young Lust and Run Like Hell ("picking her locks"), Comfortably Numb and Hey You were no brainers for a smart, sensitive fourteen year old like myself.  I loved learning what defecate meant from The Trial.  Both versions of In the Flesh were great, especially the "suurogate band" Part Two.  I lost myself in it.  In fact, I was so  besotted that when I heard about the "secret message" at the start of the second side (between Goodbye Blue Sky and Empty Spaces) I dutifully played the record backwards on my turntable, using my finger, to receive the Word From On High.  The secret message  truly does exist but it is really just a joke from the band. (I think to see who would be silly enough to do something like that at home.  Who would, anyway? Someone like me, obviously!)

In the spring of 1983 I kind of sort of went out with a girl from my high school who changed all that.  She turned me on to The Pyschedelic Furs, David Bowie, XTC, The Cure, and a little U2.  Pink Floyd, Yes, King Crimson were now thrown upon the dustbin.  Now, I was obsessed with David Bowie.  By the time I saw the movie of The Wall with my friend, Willy Bogie, at the Lakewood Theater, I thought the Floyd were overblown and ridiculous.  I hated The Wall.

I moved to Austin the summer of '83 and devoured every single Bowie record I could get my hands on.  But eventually, even that kind of devotion to Pop starts to fade.  Right before I discovered REM in 1984 I recall I had started listening to a lot of King Crimson and Yes again.  

I did not really rediscover Pink Floyd though until I had moved to the Bay Area.  In the late 90s (I do not remember why) I became infatuated with Floyd's record, Meddle.  I was familiar with two of the tracks before this infatuation:  One of These Days (which I liked okay back then but love now) and Echoes.  The first two times I heard Echoes I was on drugs.  The hearings were years apart and the drugs were different, too.  (LSD the first time, Ecstacy the second.)  I still think Echoes is one of the Floyd's finest moments.  For a very long period of time Meddle was the only Floyd record I would listen to.  I particularly like San Tropez (maybe the only Floyd song Renee likes) and Fearless.  Still, a few years ago I bought Dark Side, Wish You Were Here, and Animals again.  I think all three records are great, especially Dark Side and Animals.  Animals is prob my fave Floyd record right now.  

Anyhoo, (and is this not the longest fucking introduction evah for an album review? I'm channeling the mighty Lester Bangs!) in order to finish off my playlist I just needed a few tracks from The Wall.  I wanted Another Brick in the Wall Part Two, Run Like Hell, and The Trial but I accidentally hit the wrong button on iTunes and bought the whole album.  UGH.  I decided to make lemons from lemonade and give The Wall another chance.  I listened to it non-stop on a trip to and from work.  

Here is what I think:  The Wall, though ambitious, is, when you look at the whole sweep of it, pretty awful.   It is a self-indulgent, overblown, pompous, way too long, soundtrack to a rock movie opera.   Plus, it is depressing.  And not good depressing like Billie Holliday, Todd Solondz or Other Lives, but instead, self-indulgent soul killing depressing.  We are asked to endure Roger Waters' pain that is in no way enriching or illuminating to us.  Roger Waters ruined The Pink Floyd.  He took over all the songwriting, relegated his "mates" to sidemen, incl David Gilmour, a fantastic guitar player and pretty good singer.  Waters' egomania and obsession with his dead soldier father destroyed the group.  One member of the group was sacked during the sessions, Richard Wright.  Wright did the "tour", though, strictly as a sideman.  Wright, a founding member of the group, did not even receive any credit for his work on the album.  

Let me issue a disclaimer:  I think "rock operas" for the most part are awful.  I believe that The Who's A Quick One While He's Away (as wonderful as it is as a song) was an awful trendsetter.  Tommy sucks.  Do not even get me started on Quadrophenia.  I hate to get all Lester Bangs on you again but Rock(Pop) is a fucking wham-o toy, a bonusburger.  Do not get all wrapped up in to it too intellectually because when you do you spoil all the fabulous (American) disposable, transient, ephemeral magic of it.  

The best Rock(Pop) is Be My Baby on the radio in the car, mind-blowingly loud and everyone's all dressed and made up on their way to the bar or club. The best Rock(Pop) is Tom Courtnay by Yo La Tengo on headphones, alone in the near-dark, after smoking a j or drinking red wine.  

There are tracks on The Wall that approach or fulfill this sensibility but they are so few and far between.  In the Flesh? starts the album off quite well.  It announces the albums' pomposity straight out the gate but the regal, anthemic rock symphony that follows at least reminds you that Rock is a force to be reckoned with.  In the Flesh? also seems to me slightly ironic.  It is a shame that irony dies right after this.  Nope, we are now full-bored in to telling a disjointed, half-assed "Rock Opera" story complete with a dead soldier father, manipulating Mum, crazed Rock star protagonist, fascism, and whathaveyou.  By the time we get to Mother I am wondering that old question, "Is this someone I can care about for the next two hours?" 

These hoods are in the all-time Top Five album sales.
The best sides of this double are the first and the last.  In the Flesh?, The Thin Ice, Another Brick in the Wall Parts One and Two are all fine tracks.  The Thin Ice keeps up the foreboding pomposity, Another Brick Part Two is still a great punkish disco track.  

Mother is a travesty, though.  The only good thing about this track is having Waters and Gilmour "play/sing" the child and Mother parts, respectively.  The song itself is completely forgettable.  The "sexy" rock bits on side two are hackneyed and painful to listen to today.  One of My Turns is absolutely cringe-worthy, a misogynistic rock star tantrum set to music, complete with Waters' hammy vocal stylings.  Goodbye Blue Sky is much more scary than I thought of it back in the day, despite its' Beach Boy harmonies and the bathetic Goodbye Cruel World and Don't Leave Me Now are laughable.  Why on earth do we give a shit about this cruel, wretched, spoiled, abusive rock star, Pink? (Get it? And how long did the group intend on extending this joke?)

Side three contains two of the Floyd's biggest "hits":  Hey You and Comfortably Numb.  Both songs have their virtues and they are decent (if significantly over-rated) tracks.  Comfortably Numb has its' moments lyrically, though Waters' cod-Dylan singing style nearly obliterates any finer moments of the song, but is soporific to say the least and goes on far too long.  Gilmour's solos on this track are rock holy writ today.  I do not think they come even close to his earlier work, particularly on tracks like Money or his work on Animals.  Hey You, if a little hammy, and um, dramatic is just fine until Waters takes over the lead singing duties.  The old-school Dark Side-era panning organ swell leading in to the first guitar solo is a precious jewel on this gaudy trinket of riches.  

My vote for the best song on side three is Nobody Home, Roger waters mock-woeful version of I Got from the musical, Hair.  His voice is the least affected, most "real" than it will be on the entire album.  His lyrics are down to earth, honest, lacking pretension, and the song contains my favorite bit of rock poetry on the entire album, the ironic, self-deprecating line, "I've got/The obligatory Hendrix perm".  

But in between Nobody Home and Comfortably Numb are two of the most gawdawful "rock" tracks in history, tracks that were only included due to the Rock Opera conceit and that Pink Floyd, one of the biggest selling acts of all-time, put their name on them.  Those would be Vera Lynn and Bring the Boys Back Home.  If I played those tracks to my sweetie, Renee, she would say something v rude and insist I stop playing the album.  

(Side note:  I finished listening to The Wall on my walk home, climbing up The Hill.  I was so depressed and wrung-out I had to listen to some ELO to make it the rest of the way.)  

Honestly, Vera Lynn and Bring the Boys Back Home pretty much ruin the whole third side of this record for this listener.  

Side four gets off to a very good start with The Show Must Go On.  They bring back the Beach Boy harmonies and add some v odd yet pleasing doo-wop singing to the next track, In The Flesh.  The "surrogate band" (I learned what the word surrogate meant from listening to The Wall when I was a teenager) version of this song is still excellent to me today.  The fascist roll-call, though so frickin' corny, still works for me.  The whole fascist angle in this "opera" is decidedly facile and severely lacking in depth but for this one track I am not terribly bothered enough to hate it.  Run Like Hell with its' disco beat is still a fantastic track, also.  Despite its' awful title, Waiting for the Worms holds up fine for me, as well.  There's more military/fascist gobbledygook but musically it is a brilliant blend of 50s rhythm and blues and Animals period stadium rock.  

Honestly, I think I love The Trial despite itself, for purely camp reasons.  It is still fun to sing along with and just about ridiculous enough to enjoy on a purely surface, artifice level.  Finally this much too long record ends with a nearly moving decent Outside the Wall.  It reminds me of the Pigs on the Wing tracks from Animals.

Overall, this is an album that I doubt I will ever pull off the shelf again.  And I certainly will not ever listen to it all the way through again in one sitting.  I might pull certain tracks for playlists or cds, or to show off to friends what the mighty Pink Floyd actually became in the end.  It is not a pleasant album to listen to and there are just too many cringing, eye-rolling moments to absorb that overwhelm the better tracks on the record.  

And I would like to add that there was another album that came out that same year that dealt with the fascism theme in a much more local in-depth fashion than The Wall.  That would be Armed Forces by Elvis Costello and the Attractions.  Costello pointed out to splendid effect that fascism is not just a political system but can infuse every single facet of your life and actions, including relationships and the bedroom.  Armed Forces is a cramped, claustrophobic masterpiece of an album about those who wield power in their relationships and how they use that power.  And Elvis Costello and the Attractions achieved that goal in about half the tracks and thirty-five minutes total.  What is it they say about brevity? (He sed, closing this extremely long review.  Ha bloody ha.)  

Love you all, mwah, ... 

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