All words by Andy Johnson
All photos by Shauna Alexander
“So ya, thought ya, might like to go to the show?” is of course the opening line to Pink Floyd’s 1979 rock opera The Wall. The partner lyric to “We don’t need no education” is identifiable by even the most basic fan of classic rock. The band’s striking imagery—the pig over Battersea Power Station, the prism, the fiery handshake—remains iconic 30 years later. Floyd was definitely a progressive act—a listen of The Dark Side of the Moon verifies the band’s studio wizardry—but they also proved their mettle with legendary live performances. The construction of a massive bricked wall between the band and the audience during their early ‘80s concerts best represents the wild, mercurial genius of Roger Waters.
I could wax nostalgic about this album’s importance in musical history for paragraphs. The Wall still sounds stellar 33 years and two generations removed from its release. However, I do question if a 68-year-old Roger Waters could replicate not just the quality of musicianship of his lost comrades, but also match the sense of awe that the initial tour of The Wall commanded. Despite the opening lyric, I want to emphasize that this was much more than a mere “show.” This was a full-on audio-visual feast.
In my travels, I’ve found Pink Floyd fans tend to be a little weirder than regular folk. I guess The Wall’s themes of isolation and anti-capitalism resonate with the self-proclaimed weirdos of the world. (I should note that conformists always prefer Genesis.) However, the incredible ticket prices kept the freaks confined to the nosebleeds. Looking around my section in the lower tier, the majority of concertgoers were doughy middle-aged suburbanites who could drop $400 on tickets without it cramping their lifestyle. Then again, if you only leave McLean once a year to see a show, you might as well drop a half rack on Roger Effing Waters.
To my immediate left was a little person, rocking a “Pink Floyd ’81 World Tour” t-shirt, accompanied with his regular-sized family. To my immediate right was an aging, jolly overweight man in a bucket hat, wearing a fanny-pack that contained a device that snaked up his collar. Seated directly in front of me were a couple in dreadlocks and piercings. Behind me was a woman seated on her grungy boyfriend’s lap who occasionally kicked me while they made out. We were all a little drunk. We were all very excited.
At 8:15, a recording of slaves shouting “I’m Sparactus” from the Kubrick classic blared over the darkened arena. Spotlights circled the crowd. As our shouts joined the chorus, fireworks exploded above the stage and the band launched into the jarring chords of “In The Flesh?” The band was fully visible; only the extreme sides of the wall were bricked in. A spry Roger Waters dressed in all black emerged from the back, asking the audience, “Tell me is something eluding you, sunshine? / Is this not what you expected to see?”
The 40-foot-high, football-field-long wall has been called one of the world’s biggest video screens. It lived up to the hype. At the culmination of the song, more sparks erupted and a model of a Stuka Dive Bomber dove from the ceiling into the wall, bursting into a fiery ball. I’ve been to many concerts in my day, but this was the first to stylize a plane crash.
Much of the imagery from the original tour of The Wall and the 1982 feature film were recycled. A giant marionette resembling the schoolmaster unfurled from the ceiling, dangling over the persons in the expensive seats. The band recruited local elementary school students (they did this in every city) to lip-sync the children’s vocals during “Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 2.” The kids even helped Roger battle the creepy puppet during the song’s rousing guitar solo.
Waters’ voice remains acceptable, but several songs were played a key down to accommodate his age. Vocalist Robbie Wyckoff successfully mimicked Gilmour’s vocals. Each of the 11 members of Waters’ band were on point, not flubbing a single note. Still, it’s a testament to his skill that it takes three guitarists—Dave Kilminster, GE Smith and original Floyd touring guitarist Snowy White—to replace a single David Gilmour.
The Wall focuses on the eponymous Pink Floyd character’s struggle with isolation, drug addiction and disappointment after becoming a successful rock star. Pink achieved his dreams, but the dreams only brought misery. A rich white man withdrawing behind an emotional “wall” is a pretty pedestrian plot device in hindsight (and oddly similar to Tommy, but I digress), but the band’s translating the idea to the stage is what makes the album and this performance tingle. Furthermore, the themes of loneliness remain relevant in today’s distanced-by-technology society. I know I am not the only one who occasionally feels vacant even though I have infinite access to socializing, music and information.
Waters warned that giving governments and soldiers too more power is “a very steep and slippery slope to tyranny.” The anti-war message dominates the show. The “walking hammers” logo was broadcast throughout the night. Waters included a new acoustic interlude dedicated to the murder of Jean Charles de Menezes. “Mother” featured a roving animation of a CCTV camera and a giant blow-up of the overprotective Mother doll. After he sang, “Mother, should I trust the government?,” the words “No fucking way” were projected in blood red ink. This led to one of the loudest hoots-and-hollers of the evening.
Projections during “Goodbye Blue Sky” showed airplanes dropping bombs in the shapes of religious imagery and corporate logos. Throughout the set, stagehands assembled the wall. Each large rectangular brick was plugged into to an adjacent one, widening the video screen. Semi-nude woman danced during the red-light-tinged “Young Lust.” A giant green demon—a reference to Pink’s wife—descended from the rafters while the screen dripped green slime during “Don’t Leave Me Now.” The first half of the show ended as Waters sang “Goodbye Cruel World,” the final brick sealing him inside the wall.
During the intermission, I grew tired of the couple kicking my head and the fat guy puffing on a vaporizer (No, he didn’t share), so I went looking for a better seat. The wall, now fully intact, scrolled through images and dossiers of men and women killed as a result of state terror. This included Americans, Iraqis, Afghanis—people of all colors and backgrounds. After sneaking onto the floor in between a sea of grown men wearing Big Lebowski t-shirts (I counted four in 15 minutes and I wasn’t really trying), I wiggled my way up to the second row, following alongside a woman in an electric wheelchair. She realized my scheme and smiled. No snitching. I respect that.
The wall was even more incredible up close. I could see the diodes on each brick pulsate. I was also disappointed with the clientele at the front. During Floyd’s last go-round, the most die-hard fans, the ones that camped out overnight and smoked skunk weed, would get the best tickets. They deserved it. This time, I did not spot any tie-dye. There were no clouds of pot smoke. The most shameful moment was when the woman sitting next to me sat down during “Comfortably Numb.” I would have gave her guff, but it’s hard to sass a grandma in the shadow of an enormous image of George W. Bush.
Waters reappeared in a small, mock hotel room on the left side of the stage, singing “Nobody Home.” Images of Vera Lynn and veterans reuniting with their children upon returning home from war were shown during “Vera.” An anti-war quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower appeared during “Bring The Boys Back Home.”
As expected, “Comfortably Numb” was the evening’s climax. The audience howled each word, gasping an “Aaahh!” after Pink’s pinprick. As Waters strutted around stage, Robbie Wyckoff appeared on the wall, singing Gilmour’s chorus. Dave Kilminster joined him, surgically recreating the monstrous solo. The score of middle-aged lobbyists and small business owners around me dropped any semblance of restraint and began air-shredding. Recognizing the elites were on parade, I glanced around in hopes of identifying a politician behaving badly. Oh, what would I have given to catch GOP boogyeman Paul Ryan hitting a blunt!
This solo remains a personal favorite; an achievement of mankind’s fulfilled potential. Each note is perfect. I imagine that a higher deity came down to David Gilmour in a dream one night and told him, “I love you, you are my chosen son and I gift to you this spectacular work of staggering genius to share with humanity.”
The song climaxed with Waters pounding the wall, making it explode into a kaleidoscope of colors. Pillars rose in the background. The band reappeared for “The Show Must Go On” clad in black fascist attire and Marching Hammers armbands. The trademark floating pig (now a black boar with tusks marked with anti-religious imagery) was released above the crowd during the reprise of “In The Flesh.” The song ended with Waters shouting before laying waste to the audience with a machine gun.
“Run Like Hell” was another extravagant barnburner. The band bulldozed through the hit while anti-capitalist images peppered the screen, including the WikiLeaks footage of the 2007 Baghdad airstrike that killed several Iraqi war correspondents. Gerald Scarfe’s disturbing animations reappeared in “Waiting for the Worms” and “The Trial,” including the endless hammer march and the appearance of The Judge/The Mother before Pink at a sadistic tribunal.
The powerful stadium-sized show ended with a bang, the audience shouting “Tear down the wall!” over and over again. The resulting explosion was impressive—up this close, dust got in my eyes—and there was a genuine sense of chaos between the guitars, smoke, confetti and horrendous cartoons. The entire band came out and gave an acoustic rendition of “Outside The Wall” to conclude the night. Waters introduced the band, they took a bow, and they left the stage leaving the audience exhausted and satisfied.
Roger Waters considers The Wall a singular piece, like how a composer views a symphony. It should be judged as a whole work rather than a sum of its parts. The initial concept of building a wall on stage was a transformative moment in rock history, so the evolution into the wall into a titanic video screen was the obvious next step. If you wanted a $400 performance, you got your money’s worth. By any metric you want to come up with—artistic ambition, technological advancement, musical achievement—The Wall remains an incomparable classic.