Pink Floyd’s 1979 double-album opus The Wall is one of rock ‘n’ roll’s great paradoxes. It’s a conceptually dense, often disturbing song cycle that nonetheless yielded the British prog-rock patriarch’s only No. 1 pop single, “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.”
And while The Wall was initially inspired by founding member Roger Waters’ growing disillusionment with the arena-rock lifestyle, the album spawned one of the most legendary arena-rock stage shows of all time with Pink Floyd’s 1980 world tour, where the band was gradually distanced from the audience by a wall being built before them mid-performance.
Likewise, Waters’ current North American tour-which sees him and an 11-piece band recreate The Wall spectacle song-by-song, brick-by brick-stays true to the album’s contradictory spirit: The production is an exercise in boomer-baiting nostalgia that still feels remarkably contemporary and uncannily relevant.
After all, The Wall‘s Big Themes-celebrity megalomania, authoritarianism, the brutal futility of war, the numbing effects of television, all playing out in the drug-addled mind of the album’s protagonist, Pink-haven’t exactly gone out of style in the 30 years since its release. At Wednesday night’s tour opener at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, the many elaborate theatrical set pieces, aerial props, and dazzling video projections all served to redefine The Wall in 2010 terms.
Looking remarkably gangsta in black hoodie, shades, and white sneaks, Waters delivered the album’s introductory address “In the Flesh?” amid a torrent of fireworks, while the song’s plane-crash climax was thrillingly brought to life with machine-gunned trails of sparks zipping across the stage, and a replica fighter jet flying out of the rafters and exploding into a fireball. (This is how you open a rock concert.)
But the show immediately assumed a more sobering tone during piano ballad “The Thin Ice,” when images and biographical details of Waters’ father-whose death during World War II looms large on the record-were projected onto the surrounding white bricks alongside those of American soldiers and indigenous civilians lost in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Where The Wall was once a metaphor for the disconnected relationship between Pink Floyd and their fans, in this iteration, it seemingly represents the barriers that hinder cross-cultural dialogue; it was no coincidence that the kids brought on stage to sing-or, rather, lip-synch-the second verse of “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” were all of Arab or South Asian descent.
As stagehands continued to add more bricks to the stage perimeter, the show naturally became more reliant on video sequences, many of which were updates on the compellingly grotestque Gerald Scarfe animations seen in Alan Parker’s 1982 film adaptation of The Wall. The bomber jets that once dropped crucifixes now unload Shell and Mercedes-Benz logos; the predatory flowers that depict the ominous creep of “What Shall We Dow Now?” now sport tentacles that extend out from the centre overhead screen onto the blank white-brick canvas of the encroaching wall.
By the time the show reached its second act (or, in geezer terms, side three), the band was completely hidden behind the wall. This distancing tactic only seemed to rouse the audience more: The chilling “Is There Anybody Out There?” became an unlikely call-and-response routine, and when Waters finally reemerged for “Nobody Home”-seated in a faux-hotel-room set that opens out of the wall’s left side-the solitary serenade yields the evening’s first real crowd sing-along.
As much as The Wall was Waters’ brainchild, Floyd guitarist David Gilmour was undeniably responsible for some of the album’s most affecting moments, and in Waters’ current band, it takes no less than four guys to replace him: three guitarists (Dave Kilminster, Snowy White, and SNL vet G.E. Smith) and a vocalist, Robbie Wyckoff. But while Wyckoff was occasionally encumbered by opening-night rustiness (particularly on a flat reading of “Mother”), he delivered where it counted-i.e., on album centerpiece “Comfortably Numb”-while Kilminster, perched alongside Wyckoff high atop the wall, ably replicated Gilmour’s climactic guitar solo.
Ironically, when Waters and his band set up in front of the wall to perform The Wall‘s fourth side-a.k.a. the fascist-rally suite-the show sacrificed some of its mystique: the black-hoodie get-ups worn by Waters’ “surrogate band” were several degrees less intimidating than the skinhead armies depicted in Parker’s film, and their air of menace was further dissipated by less-than-incendiary versions of “Run Like Hell” and “Waiting for the Worms.”
And yet, the fact that so many in the crowd eagerly shouted along to Waters/Pink’s delusional demands to round up the “queers” and “coons” (on the “In the Flesh” reprise) only proved that The Wall‘s cautionary messages about blind idolatry and conformity still hold true after all these years. And therein lies The Wall‘s most enduring contradiction: No matter how loudly Waters screams “tear down the wall”-and down she goes in the show’s arresting conclusion-the show’s relevanceis ultimately dependent on the institutional forces that keep the bricks in place.