The legend of The Wall is far from a brick-by-brick story; in fact, it’s about as convoluted as they come. In an equally elaborate allegory, it almost mirrors the tale of the Berlin Wall itself, where Roger Waters would eventually deliver its defining performance. But not before the original low point and “eternal shame” that would spawn the record.
In July 1978, at Britannia Row Studios, Roger Waters pitched his bandmates two new ideas for concept albums. The first option was a 90-minute demo with the working title Bricks in the Wall. As we all know by now, the pitch got the vote, and the band heeded Waters’ creative vision. The project arrived at a curious time for Pink Floyd; they had reached a period in their career where stardom was secured, but the toil of keeping it lofty was taking its toll. They were drained, and more often than not, that is infertile soil for creative fruit, but The Wall provided a mechanism whereby they could flip the drawback on its head.
After a long tour in which the strain became self-evident, tensions culminated in a multitude of mishaps. On the final night of their 1977 tour at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, David Gilmour refused to take the stage for the encore after a disastrous performance, so touring guitarist Snowy White stepped in. Once more, the performance was subpar, so they decided to take to the stage one more time, but during ‘Drift Away Blues’, the roadies had already started dismantling the stage.
However, the lowest part of the night came earlier for Roger Waters, and it may have gone unnoticed to most. As the band were midway through their set, a skirmish emerged at the front of the crowd. During which, Waters approached the front row and spat in the face of a rowdy fan.
Later, while speaking to Howard Stern, he confirmed the truth to this rock ‘n’ roll legend, declaring: “It is (true), to my eternal shame.” Waters had lost sight of himself after the tour had played games with his head, and The Wall represented the change that had gradually taken place. Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett had already succumbed to the snares of the rock ‘n’ roll realm, and Waters wanted to exorcise this bedevilment in a sonic serving of deliverance. This dark inspiration may have been creatively conducive, but it came with its own inherent pitfalls to boot.
As David Gilmour would later declare: “I think things like ‘Comfortably Numb’ were the last embers of mine and Roger’s ability to work collaboratively together.” In the end, Waters would leave the band in a bitter dispute, and The Wall’s creation was their last edifice as a whole, with the subtitle to 1983’s The Final Cut clearly indicating the end: “A requiem for the post-war dream by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd.” While the ‘end of the post-war dream’ was ostensibly a shot at Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, it could just as easily have been about the death of Pink Floyd’s flowery 1960s vision.
Four years on from his departure, in November 1989, a different revolution was underway, one that genuinely signified some sanguine hope of its own as the Berlin Wall was toppled. As the former German President Horst Köhler remarked: “The Wall was an edifice of fear. On November 9th, it became a place of joy.”
For a musician searching for symbolism, such a poetic notion was alluring enough, but for Waters, seeing that it served as a pastiche for his own record and wall toppling search for salvation, it was too much to pass up. His vision was now to create the most elaborate show in rock history, centred around the ruin of the Berlin wall and the metaphorical message that the rubble shared with his record. While, in truth, comparing the Berlin Wall and the enormity of everything it represented is a bombastic stretch. Nevertheless, in Waters’ mind, it provided the opportunity for a once in a lifetime show.
“I did an interview a couple of years ago for a guy called Redbeard,” Waters told the Radio Times. “He said, ‘Would you ever perform The Wall again on stage?’ And I said, ‘No’… Indoors, it made no sense financially; it’s too expensive. And, as it’s partially an attack on the inherently greedy nature of stadium rock shows, it would be wrong to do it in stadiums…I said, ‘Well, I might do it outdoors if they ever take the Berlin Wall down.’… The Memorial Fund was in a council meeting, and felt they needed some kind of an event to focus attention on it…so I agreed to have a meeting with Leonard Cheshire. And I was very impressed, and said I would do what I could, although I thought it was very unlikely that it would come off…then, in November , when the wall started coming down, we started negotiating.”
On the vacant terrain between the Postdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate, Waters would rebuild a wall 25meters high and 170meters long with the help of designer Mark Fisher. Then he would enlist the help of the East German Symphony Orchestra and Choir, a Soviet marching band a pair of US Military helicopters. Adding to the group was the rather more concert fare of Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Cyndi Lauper, Bryan Adams, Scorpions and Sinéad O’Connor.
The event was attended by an estimated 350,000 people in total, all watching on as Waters and a coterie of collaborators made their way through a 28-song setlist before the wall was brought down once more. It was a bid to solidify the legacy of the momentous occasion eight months early for the youth in attendance, beckoning in a new era of peace in Eastern Europe.