Within the larger narrative of The Wall, Pink Floyd’s final masterpiece as a group, the three different versions of ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ each represent the major recurring motif of the album: alienation. At different points within the life of central character Pink, the jaded rock star takes stock of his lot in life and personifies the events surrounding him as bricks in his own metaphorical wall. With each new brick, Pink finds himself alienated further away from those around him.
It’s a dark theme to base an album around, but by the end of the 1970s, it was how Roger Waters was handling the Floyd’s fame. Having become one of the most popular rock bands in the world, Pink Floyd ascended to stadium rock superstardom while staving off the cultural shifts that came with new sounds like punk and disco. But success on a grand scale still made Waters feel disconnected, with the 1977 ‘In The Flesh?’ tour seemingly confirming this detachment between artist and audience.
“It became a social event rather than a more controlled and ordinary relationship between musicians and an audience,” Waters told Radio Times in 1990. It culminated in the infamous moment when Waters spit on a fan who approached the front of the stage during the band’s final performance of the tour in Montreal, Canada. Waters left that performance feeling a desire to completely shut out the audience that had made Pink Floyd into a global success. It was the first brick in his own wall.
From there, Waters took the initial kernel of an idea that stemmed from the spitting incident and expanded on it, bringing in his own experiences of losing his father to war, a restrictive upbringing, and rock star excesses to flesh out the story. The Wall began to take shape, and, with it, came a recurring set of songs that revisited how Pink’s mental wall began early in life and only kept growing more fortified as he grew older.
The first brick in the wall comes from the death of his father, a clear parallel to Waters’ loss of his own father as an infant. With only a snapshot in the family album, the death of his father left early emotional scars for Waters, which he then passed on to Pink. ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Part I’ indicates that Pink’s mental deterioration had its roots from the very beginning of his life, and after setting the stage the next brick comes from the experiencing of dealing with abusive schoolteachers.
In the UK, Pink Floyd hadn’t released a single in over a decade, with their last effort being 1968’s ‘Point Me at the Sky’. The band were emblematic of the “Album Oriented Rock” format, and while songs like ‘Money’ and ‘Have a Cigar’ found their way onto American singles, the band were more restrictive with their output in their home country. A song about an oppressive totalitarian rule in primary school was certainly a relatable subject for the British populace, but it would take more than just a sympathetic topic to get Pink Floyd a radio hit. It would take the unstoppable force of disco music.
For the production of The Wall, Pink Floyd brought in Bob Ezrin, who was already comfortable with theatricality -astute, mainstream-averse acts like Alice Cooper and Kiss to bring their unique styles to the masses. Ezrin was able to balance what made a band unique with what a band needed to do to compete with contemporary tastes. It was Ezrin who suggested the Floyd write a song with a disco beat, something that was especially detested by David Gilmour.
“He said to me, ‘Go to a couple of clubs and listen to what’s happening with disco music,” Gilmour recalled to Guitar World in 2009. “So I forced myself out and listened to loud, four-to-the-bar bass drums and stuff and thought, ‘Gawd, awful!’ Then we went back and tried to turn one of the parts into one of those so it would be catchy.”
Despite the unmistakable disgust in Gilmour’s recollection, Ezrin managed to prevail and shaped the song with the idea of singles chart success in mind. That meant extending the song beyond a single verse and, most notably, bringing in a children’s choir to sing the song’s second verse. The results were undeniable, and the Floyd acknowledged the song’s potential by releasing it as a single. Quickly picking up momentum, ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Part II’ became Pink Floyd’s one and only chart-topper in both the US and UK.
But there was one more brick to be laid. Waters returned to his initial inspiration of rock star alienation on ‘Another Brick in Wall, Part III’ – as he discovers his wife’s infidelity while on tour, Pink finally has enough bricks to build his entire wall.
“From the beginning of ‘One of My Turns’ where the door opens, there, through to the end of side three, the scenario is an American hotel room, the groupie leaves at the end of ‘One of My Turns’ and then ‘Don’t Leave Me Now’ he sings, which is to anybody, it’s not to her and it’s not really to his wife, it’s kind of to anybody,” Waters explained to BBC Radio 1 in 1979 during the initial promotional cycle for The Wall. “If you like it’s kind of men to women in a way, from that kind of feeling, it’s a kind of very guilty song as well. Anyway at the end of that, there he is in his room with his TV and there’s that symbolic TV smashing, and then he resurges a bit, out of that kind of violence, and then he sings this loud saying ‘all you are just bricks in the wall. I don’t need anybody.’ So he’s convincing himself really that his isolation is a desirable thing, that’s all.”
As the album’s first half comes to a close, Pink bids a farewell to the outside world with ‘Goodbye Cruel World’. During the band’s elaborate stage show, the song’s abrupt end came with the literal final brick in the wall, with the audience now completely separated from the band on stage. The rest of the album would cover Pink’s desperate attempts to escape the wall that he build for himself, with his deteriorating mind eventually putting himself on trial. The irony to The Wall, and to the three parts of ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, is that they created an even bigger connection between Pink Floyd and an ever-growing audience.
With a number one album and a number one single both about alienation and separation, there was sure to be a sizable part of the Floyd’s audience who didn’t pay terribly close attention to the meaning behind the material. During the album’s production, Richard Wright was fired by Waters, showing that the disconnect had not just been established between band and audience, but within the band itself. Despite releasing The Final Cut four years later, the classic era of Pink Floyd was brought to an end with The Wall, and album about alienation that somehow connected with the entire world.