November 30th is a big day for releasing big albums. In 1982, Michael Jackson put out his game-changing Thriller, and three years before that, Pink Floyd released their 11th album, The Wall this day in 1979.
The band was using the same lineup they’d had since 1967, but there was a growing disconnect between the co-leaders, Roger Waters and David Gilmour. Evidence of that could be seen in the fact that all 26 songs (it was their most monumental work, running over 80 minutes in length) were written by Waters, 22 entirely by himself. As one reviewer noted, “how do you reason with two guys who once went to court over the artistic ownership of a big, rubber pig? That was Bob Ezrin’s mission when he agreed to co-produce.” Waters came up with the idea for this album in 1977, after a particularly bad concert in Montreal in which he spat on the crowd. He said after the show he “loathed” playing stadiums and was “not really enjoying this.” He had the idea of a psychological wall between the band and the crowd, and expanded on that to a whole story of a character named “Pink” who felt alienated by everything and everyone around him, from war to abusive teachers to a bad marriage and built a virtual “wall” around himself. The album follows his story. It remains best remembered for the anthem of bored schoolkids everywhere and posed the question we all had asked so many times – “how can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?” – (“Another Brick in the Wall, Part II” , their only #1 single at home or in the U.S. and their first top 10 anywhere in 13 years) – and was full of glum, somewhat unremarkable numbers. However, its few lasting highlights were likely the ones in which Roger had some help writing, like the trio of songs David Gilmour co-wrote: “Young Lust,” “Run Like Hell” and most of all, “Comfortably Numb.” That one, at 6:23” is not only the longest track on the album but by most accounts, the pinnacle of the record. For instance, it’s on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 greatest songs of all-time and Guitar World have it pegged as the fourth greatest guitar song of all-time (right behind “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.) They quoted Ezrin talking about Gilmour’s guitar work : “you can give him a ukulele and he’ll make it sound like a Stradavarius.”
Despite it being about the disconnect between the artist and the fans, fans connected. Especially away from their homeland. In the UK, it reached #3 on the charts (their first since ’72 not to get to #1 or 2) and went double-platinum. Not too shabby but only a shadow of what it did in other places, especially here in North America. In Canada, it went to #1 and is by now one of an elite few albums to have gone double-diamond, or 20X platinum. In the U.S., it was the biggest-seller of 1980 in the U.S. and spent 15 weeks on top of the album charts and is 23X platinum. All that even though reviews were middling – Rolling Stone gave it 3-stars and Melody Maker weren’t sure if “it’s brilliant or terrible.” The Village Voice gave it an average grade saying it was “dumb tribulations of a rock star epic.” Gilmour said it showed the last embers of him and Waters being able to work together.
But the album lives on. In time, Roger Waters would play the whole album live while touring post-Pink Floyd. That was after he’d turned the concept album into a movie, which drew similarly middling reviews. Bob Geldof, pre-Live Aid fame, starred as “Pink” in it. While it only turned a smallish profit at the box office, when one considers the relative debacle that was made of making another classic concept album – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – into a film, Roger probably could be said to have ended on the right side of the wall.
Oh, and at the start we noted that it came out on the same day of the calendar as Thriller. The two albums have another thing in common besides that and both being mega-sellers. Yep, those “everywhere you look” guys – Toto. Drummer Jeff Porcaro of that band was the drummer on about half of Jackson’s record and for some reason, also was the drummer Pink Floyd used on the song “Mother” on this one.