The Wall is a rock opera by the British psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd, released on November 30, 1979. It was written and composed primarily by Roger Waters. It was conceived after an incident during Floyd’s In the Flesh tour, where Waters became so angry at a rabid fan that he spat in his face. In the hotel room later that night, the weight of his actions crushed him and he started looking back on his life for the roots of this behavior, eventually drafting a story about a fictionalized version of himself being screwed up by a bad childhood and isolating himself from society. This grew into a double album, receiving positive reviews at time of release and gaining an even better reputation as time went on. It contains three of Floyd’s most famous songs (“Another Brick in the Wall Part 2,” “Comfortably Numb,” and “Run Like Hell”) and is their best-selling album behind Dark Side of the Moon. It was adapted by Alan Parker into the cult classic film Pink Floyd – The Wall.
The story of The Wall can be confusing and inaccessible to people who aren’t used to albums as a format of storytelling, and even then there’s a lot to dig into. This is a guide to help people who aren’t freaks like me understand and enjoy this album. It contains subjective interpretations, but is by no means an exhaustive analysis, just a plain language summary. Enjoy.
There’s a guy named Pink. His childhood is crap. He gets married and becomes a rock star. Neither of these things go well. The terribleness of his life crashes in on him, so he uses those events (the bricks) to build a metaphorical wall around himself. It turns out complete social and psychological isolation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. He turns to drugs. He gets so high before a concert that he becomes a fascist dictator. After a political rampage, he realizes that it’s not his upbringings fault he’s such a terrible person, it’s his. He puts himself on trial, and concludes that his only suitable punishment is to tear down the wall. Then this happens all over again. Forever. OR DOES IT?!?
Song By Song Breakdown
This is covering the album. The movie is a whole different beast with additional symbolism I don’t have the time or brain power to get into. Even the album is a lot more complex than this, but hopefully this will give you a head start on figuring it out.
In the Flesh?
A revisionist flash forward, if that makes any sense. Pink, as a fascist dictator, bellows at his audience. In this case, the audience is not only his loyal supporters but the listener of the album. He invites you to “the show,” a tour of his life. He doesn’t just tell you, he DROPS it on you.
And yes, that WAS a faint voice at the very start saying “…we came in?” The album ends on the same faint voice saying “Isn’t this where…” Bookending is very common in Floyd’s 70s catalogue, and The Wall’s hidden message of “Isn’t this where…we came in?”, besides making an endless loop of the album feasible, is also what splits pessimistic and optimistic interpretations of this album.
None of that matters right now. Basically, welcome to the show.
The Thin Ice
Pink is born in 1943. An extremely helpful narrator (possibly himself, speaking in hindsight) tells him that he shouldn’t expect much out of the ice of life, just a lot of cracks.
Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1
Pink’s father is killed in World War 2. To cope, Pink puts up a mental defense mechanism: distance and apathy. This initial pain provides the first bricks for his mental wall, a wall that will gather more and more bricks from the pains of life, causing Pink to retreat deeper and deeper into himself.
The Happiest Days of Our Lives
Pink elaborates on his unpleasant childhood by turning from one government institution (the army) to another (school). His teachers were psychologically abusive, putting down and humiliating their students whenever they were given the opportunity. As some measure of compensation, they got smacked around by their wives a lot. More than anything, they suppressed individualism, forcing their students to conform into…
Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2
…uniform, faceless bricks. The “wall” this time is twofold: the wall of society, which tries to squish Pink into a meaningless statistic like his dead father, and Pink’s personal wall, which this process has provided bricks for. If he can’t trust society, who can he trust?
Not his mom, apparently. Pink strives for some kind of individuality at home. He is an artistic spirit, after all, plucking away at his guitar. He peppers his mother with questions about the outside world. His mother, paranoid and overprotective after the loss of her husband, clamps down on all his attempts to come out of his shell, unmaliciously but still substantially adding bricks to his wall. Pink does gain a romantic interest, a nebulous “she.”
Goodbye Blue Sky
Pink leaves home, presumably marrying his romantic interest. He’s concerned about how this “brave new world” is seeking to conform its citizens. Conformity hasn’t worked too well for Pink, if you’ve been following.
Pink’s marriage is unfulfilling and presumably pushes his wife to infidelity. Pink has no idea what to turn to for recovery, satisfaction, or self-defense. Then he remembers he’s a rock star.
As such, he jumps straight to the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll while away from home. Surprise surprise, it doesn’t work that well, but he still brings a groupie to his apartment.
One of My Turns
Pink is suddenly hit with the impact of his wife’s (as well as his own) infidelity. He completely explodes, smashing the room, all while trying to justify his “turn” to the terrified groupie, who runs away.
Don’t Leave Me Now
In his fragile mental state, Pink flips between chastising his wife and begging her to come back. He’s so messed up that he mentions sending her flowers and wanting to put her through “the shredder” in the same breath. Pink really can’t trust anyone except himself. Sounds like a brick, doesn’t it?
Another Brick in the Wall, Part 3
You would be right. Pink decides that the outside world is filled with nothing but pain and betrayal, so he locks himself in his hotel room and uses this last brick to seal himself off. The wall is now complete.
Goodbye Cruel World
See ya, Pink.
After an indeterminate amount of time behind the wall (possibly right after he finished it) Pink starts questioning whether this was a good idea. He yearns for some kind of outside contact, but his self-inflicted mental imprisonment is too much. His brain starts decaying, complete with worms.
Is There Anybody Out There?
Pink’s timid plea echoes through the massive boundaries of the unclimbable wall.
Pink’s hotel room starts getting to him. Having felt pushed and smushed all his life, he finds some coping in the meaningless trinkets that surround him, of which he has complete control.
Pink’s thoughts turn to his home, his childhood, his past. He frames these thoughts in the terms of World War II era singer Vera Lynn. He wonders if anyone else is longing for simpler times.
Bring the Boys Back Home
Why yes, yes they are! It’s unclear whether this is a flashback, a separate narration, or a drug trip, but it brings Pink momentary comfort. Unfortunately, it breaks as the sound of his mental bricks push down on him again.
Pink is totally crashed from drugs, which is unfortunate because he’s got a performance this evening. A doctor is here to help, shooting him with something to help him recover. Pink’s mind is still in the past, reflecting on a sickness he had when he was a kid. This fever sucked all feeling out of his body, similar to how he’s feeling now: apathetic, isolated, pathetic, and sick.
The Show Must Go On
Despite what the doctor says, Pink is still feeling like crap. He’s got approximately fifty thousand different drugs mixing in his system, a brain full of regret and nostalgia, and worms of decay in his brain. He eventually shrugs, goes “enh,” and decides it’s perfectly cool for him to perform.
In The Flesh
It’s not. Pink’s brain decides that the most satisfying fantasy it could go for is doing exactly what a society he has grown to hate has done: making people bend to your will. Pink is not a rock star performing at a concert, he’s a dictator giving a rousing speech to his loyal, indistinguishable subjects. He demonstrates that he means business, in his own words, by sifting the queers, Jews, coons, and riff raff out of the room. If he had his way, he’d have all of them shot. Wait…dictators DO get their way, don’t they…
Run Like Hell
Pink takes his new army out of the concert to the streets, establishing imaginary dominance over society.
Waiting for the Worms
Pink’s normal personality kicks in along with his dictator personality, and the two conflict with each other in a schizophrenic matter. Pink has evidently realized the irony of becoming a poster child for the same kind of regime that caused the war that kicked off his wall in the first place. Suddenly, his own decay and guilt becomes apparent.
What if his bricks are NOT the fault of society? What if he’s been ignoring his own attitude and responsibility, responding passively to negative influences and shifting the blame onto people in his life who don’t deserve it? How should he determine all these things?
Yeah, I guess a court case works. Pink pulls out his bricks for a variety of perspectives, each causing him to realize how crazy he is.
An over-the top personification of Pink’s over-the-top guilt. More an actor then a lawyer, he calls the first witness.
Pink still doesn’t see the schoolmaster as anything other than an oppressive totalitarian…but he was the one who decided to take that persona for himself. Instead of standing up to the teacher like he did when he was a kid, he took after his teacher’s ideals. Man, he really is crazy. Toys in the attic, he is crazy.
Pink was a crappy husband. We probably could have guessed that, but now finally he sees his hand in the end of his marriage. His wife is righteously angry, but Pink doesn’t do anything to combat her or make her seem unsympathetic…it really was his fault.
Pink finally realizes he’s been gruesomely unfair to his mother as well. She did hurt Pink through her overprotectiveness, but not with the malicious intent Pink always saw. How could he jump to such a conclusion about his own mother? Crazy, over the rainbow, he is crazy.
The way Pink reacted to the hardships in his life is HIS fault, not anyone else’s. Even if it was, that’s no excuse for how he’s treated others. He doesn’t deserve any kind of protection, so the wall gets torn down.
Outside the Wall
The wall is gone. Pink’s fate as a newly opened person is left ambiguous, but he and the omnipotent children’s choir conclude that no one can deal with life’s struggles alone.
This is complicated by the fact that this song leads back to “In the Flesh?”, implying the repetition of these events. This can be taken in three ways.
The moral of the story is…
The Pessimistic Interpretation
Pink will be outside the wall for a while, but will inevitably retreat back into himself again and again. The Wall is an endless cycle, one that can never be escaped. Trying to escape from the circle of life, society, and betrayal is futile.
The Optimistic Interpretation
Pink was victorious over the wall. “In The Flesh?” shows him giving his story as an example to other people to show how they can tear down their walls too. Pink reconnected with the world, and possibly even reconciled with his wife and mother, now aware of how unjust his perceptions of them were. An interesting idea spouting from this theory is that The Wall, like, the album, was created by Pink’s band as part of this story, and “In The Flesh?” introduces the stage show. His last name is apparently “Floyd” after all, so “The Wall by Pink Floyd” really doesn’t change much.
The Realist Interpretation
Pink will build another wall. Many people will build their own walls, over and over again. Thankfully, there will always be people to help you tear them down. Building up and tearing down countless walls is a normal part of maturing as a human being, a cycle that can make you stronger. It all depends on whether you take that opportunity.