The Making of Pink Floyd’s The Wall

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Pretty much every conversation about Pink Floyd inevitably ends up at one of two places, either the impact of former founding member Syd Barrett, or a dive into Roger Waters’ allegedly extreme egoism. The former is understandable, given Barrett’s influential role shaping the band and (along with some good fortune) setting it apart from other acts at the time, but the latter is a bit more complicated. Waters contributed to the legend by breaking his usual stance of remaining largely silent in public as the band started splitting up — claiming it was his creation and that everything from the band’s name to the flying pigs used for props belonged to him. He wasn’t necessarily wrong though, and nowhere is that more apparent than the making of Pink Floyd’s landmark rock opera, The Wall. Yet the story of The Wall is as much about Waters’ own struggles to make his creative voice heard as it is the entire band’s struggle to escape from Barrett’s shadow. Clichéd as it may sound, those struggles actually stretch back to before the band first formed in Cambridge, England, and they're undeniably built in part around social class. All Floyd members except Waters and Nick Mason came from established middle or upper-middle class backgrounds, according to Floyd biographer Mark Blake. Rick Wright, David Gilmour, and Syd Barrett all had fathers with careers in research or academia, whereas Waters’ father died during World War II. Gilmour, Barrett, and Waters met at Cambridgeshire High School in the mid-1950s and — despite the wave of rock rebellion sweeping each of them up — pursued very different careers following high school. Gilmour and Barrett studied at Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology, whereas Waters and Wright studied architecture at the University of Westminster, where they met fellow architecture student and future Floyd drummer Nick Mason.
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Both Blake and biographer Nicholas Schaffner claim these distinctions factored heavily into Pink Floyd’s later creative friction. Waters keenly felt the lack of a father figure in his life and gravitated towards heavy social and philosophical issues in his works. Academic careers may have played a role in that division too, as Mason, Wright and Waters all said there was a dividing line between the Cambridge set and the “architecture students” when it came to making decisions and establishing creative direction. How often that distinction existed and whether it was just in their minds or not is another matter. Gilmour pursued his own musical adventures separate from his high school friends. After Barrett transferred to Camberwell College of Arts, he lived near Waters, Mason, and Wright who’d joined a band called Sigma 6. After some shuffling of band members and a few renames, Pink Floyd was born — and Barrett was undeniably the creative force behind it. According to Blake, Barrett took the ideas of rebellion, rule-breaking, and experimentation very seriously at Cambridgeshire High. He was intent on pushing the boundaries however possible and experimenting with sound and visuals to create something entirely new and unheard of, and then moving on to do it all over again. Of course, he had some outside help in his efforts thanks to a variety of different drugs, most notably LSD — although he certainly wasn't entirely alone in this. Every Floyd member tripped on acid at some point, though Waters claims he only did once while the band vacationed in Greece. It was an incredible, 8-hour experience that opened his mind, he said, but one he claims he never repeated. Barrett’s artistic drive supplemented with acid quickly established Pink Floyd as one of London’s hottest underground psychedelic bands. In what would become a staple for Floyd, Barrett and the rest, the band distinguished themselves with flashy and dramatic live shows (which Barrett disciple David Bowie would later recreate with his own twist for Ziggy Stardust) as well as unique sound variations. But they were far from the only local psychedelic act at the time, playing alongside the likes of the more popular Soft Machine at various clubs.
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Yet Schaffner suggests that not being the top act was a boon for Floyd, as London’s fringe might have welcomed psychedelic music with open arms, but the so-called establishment certainly didn’t. Floyd managed to avoid being targeted and arrested and continued attracting audiences while their more famous counterparts were locked up. In 1966, they caught the interest of would-be manager and producer Peter Jenner (who was also a part of London’s fringe culture) looking for an act to sign to his new label, Blackhill Enterprises, formed with counterculture activist John “Hoppy” Hopkins. Jenner realized Pink Floyd had potential to sell like The Beatles and asked if they wanted a record deal, but the band said they wanted a manager more than anything. Jenner asked his friend Andrew King to manage the band, and Pink Floyd signed its first label deal.

Though Jenner told Louder it was the entire band and their look that first attracted him, he was later very vocal about how Barrett was the one who sold him on the band’s potential according to Schaffner. His drive, wild energy, and innovation created performances like nothing Jenner had ever seen before. While he recognized the band’s potential after Barrett’s departure (even saying he picked the wrong one to back originally), Jenner admitted that he just didn't think Floyd was as good without Barrett.

Yet signing with Blackhill was ultimately what kicked Barrett’s drug use into overdrive and led to his demise.

Blackhill moved the band into a new set of apartments where they'd meet (among others) Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis, the man who designed all the Floyd album covers up to The Wall. As the band continued performing in clubs, especially the famous UFO Club in 1967, they started attracting more and more fans. Barrett in particular was the band’s most popular member, according to Schaffner’s interviews, and follower Susan Wynne-Davis — who shared an apartment with Barrett and her future husband — recalls women routinely flocking to the apartment and begging for Barrett’s attention. For his part, Barrett was somewhat overwhelmed with this attention and fame in general, retreating into himself more regularly as a coping mechanism.

But it wasn’t affecting his performances and public persona yet, and 1967 was a very busy year for Floyd. On top of gaining even more exposure and popularity thanks to Hopkins’ free concerts in Hyde Park, Jenner signed the band to EMI and helped them work on their first single, “Arnold Layne.” It was almost entirely a Barrett song, and it generated a good deal of controversy thanks to covering taboo topics like cross-dressing. It was also the first time the band had focused on a deep character study and tackled social issues, albeit more with the intent of breaking rules than providing commentary of any kind.

That same year, Floyd worked on its first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, named after Kenneth Graham’s rather ethereal chapter of the same name in The Wind in the Willows. This too bore plenty of Barrett’s trademark wild psychedelic style and bold sound experimentation, elements the band wouldn’t really know how to move away from in the future.


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But it was also at this point when Barrett’s acid problem was developing into a serious situation for him and the band.

Schaffner (based on interviews with Wynne-Davis and others around Barrett at the time) said the band and Barrett’s apartment-mates regularly antagonized him. He was becoming paranoid and routinely disconnected from reality, and Schaffner says no one did anything to help. The biographer says part of that was because the rest of the Floyd wanted him out, though why that was the case isn’t quite so clear. As the band started touring — buoyed by the success of their single “See Emily Play” — it became clear that Barrett wasn’t capable of performing anymore. He’d randomly stop singing and just stand there on stage, and his behavior off the stage was becoming increasingly erratic.

Blake’s version of the story is a bit different. What he says happened to Barrett was a tragic series of events that started when the songwriter first started doing drugs, compounded by his penchant for rule-breaking and determination to push boundaries. Barrett’s mother blamed Waters, allegedly for not doing enough to keep Barrett out of harm’s way and keeping him in unhealthy environments for someone in his condition — though Blake says that isn’t what happened at all. Jenner said Wright was close with Barrett as well, having regularly collaborated with him creatively while the rest of the band essentially left them to their own devices.

Whether the rest of the band was pushing him out or not — if collaborations had turned to rivalry or whatever the case may be — Pink Floyd officially replaced Syd Barrett with David Gilmour in December 1967.

Their next album, A Saucerful of Secrets (1969), broke the U.K.’s top ten just like Piper had, but most of it seemed like leftover Barrett material. The band struggled creatively for the next several years, with albums like More and Ummagumma turning out like strange hybrids. In part, they were still  focused on Barrett-esque boundary pushing, which is understandable given Waters’ admiration for Barrett’s style and his role in writing most of the albums’ lyrics. Despite Waters’ dominant role there, the albums were also an “every man for himself” effort with each band member taking turns with their own style.


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These two albums still landed in the U.K.’s top ten and earned the band a devoted cult following, but critics dismissed them as retreads that failed to push the band forward while relying on the appeal of the band’s characteristically bombastic, wild live performances.

Atom Heart Mother in 1970 was the start of something different though, as Waters brought in his friend and erstwhile collaborator Ron Geesin to help compose the album’s score — and by "help," Schaffner said Geesin was basically responsible for a good deal of the album’s sound. It was another attempt at experimentation, and one that’s noteworthy for introducing the idea of improvisation alongside the main sound and for bringing in big, bold orchestral sounds as well. The album as a whole was still mostly regarded as lacking cohesion, but it was also the band’s first trip to the top of the U.K. charts. 

It was also the last album their EMI producer Norman Smith had any input on, as the band would oversee its own production from that point forward. According to Nick Mason, Smith was responsible for the band’s lack of direction since he and EMI made a number of business-oriented decisions trying to increase the band’s presence and popularity. However true that might be, struggles with every album after Piper suggest the band had problems working as a unit from the very beginning, regardless of what directives their management passed down.

That unity issue started to change with the Meddle (1971) sessions. Instead of working independently on their own parts of of the album, Gilmour, Wright, Waters, and Mason actually worked together on the majority of Meddle’s pieces. Gilmour told Guitar World it was when the members were “finding our feet, the way we wanted Pink Floyd to be.”


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Wright concurred in a 1987 Rolling Stone interview, saying  "Things like 'Echoes' would be all of us in a rehearsal room, just sitting there thinking, playing – working out ideas to see if they went anywhere. It's a nice way to work – and I think, in a way, the most 'Floyd-ian' material we ever did came about that way."

The camaraderie makes it all the more ironic that Dark Side of the Moon — the band’s biggest success and the album widely regarded as Pink Floyd’s most cohesive album ever — was what ultimately ended this unity and laid the foundations for The Wall.

Why Dark Side of the Moon was successful goes beyond just the band finally working and playing like an actual band instead of four musicians with a grudge against each other, and Schaffner says this was when Pink Floyd’s sound experiments reached their zenith. Atom Heart Mother’s improvisation made a return — augmented this time with the spoken word recorded from multiple interviews with “regular” people on topics like violence, fear, and life in general. The overall sound production was so high, Schaffner claims owning Dark Side of the Moon became a sort of rite of passage for consumers wanting to show off their new stereos’ capabilities. That and the inevitable record scratches meant many consumers actually bought the same album multiple times.

Another substantial reason is the album’s content. It’s a dark introspective look at humanity and despair released when most audiences were feeling exactly the same way thanks to the Vietnam War, mass unemployment, and a general feeling that the promises of the swinging '60s just faded away. In other words, it spoke to people’s needs in what Stephen Erlewine called “rite of passage” music for discerning people — which was due in large part to Waters’ influence. He was the sole songwriter on Dark Side of the Moon, and it shows in the philosophical twist and deep look at madness and despair (both of which played foundational roles in The Wallwere very much his primary interest.

Whatever the reason, it finally made Pink Floyd a massive international success, which also meant Pink Floyd turned into a business. On the production side, labels were interested in pushing products rather than making music, which meant Pink Floyd turning mainstream had repercussions in how the band interacted with fans who cared less for the content and more about just being there for the ride.


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That ended up being a major problem for Waters, mostly because Waters was the only one who really cared anymore according to Schaffner and Blake. Schaffner and Blake (to an extent) say the goal for Gilmour and the rest was always about making it big and getting rich. The middle class rebels finally recreated their parents’ success and could live however they wanted, so that’s exactly what they did. As Mason put it, the other band members became more concerned with perfecting their squash game than they were with continuing to exist as a band.

Schaffner theorizes that Waters’ working-class background brought about his devotion to making music like Brit rock’s other luminaries, though he admits that Waters was also less financially stable than Wright, Mason, and Gilmour. His first wife, Judith Trim, was a hardcore socialist, and the two regularly gave the majority of their money away. The band spent most of its time away from each other, pursuing their own (not always squash-related) interests and musical niches, but they knew they still had to make something else.

So Pink Floyd headed back at the renovated chapel studio on Britannia Row to work on their next album, Wish You Were Here. Yet it took a full two years to complete because — aside from their lack of motivation — the band was once again at a creative impasse.

This time, Floyd set out to deal with Barrett’s shadow by making the album a partial tribute to him. But what may have seemed like a random act of sentimentality at first changed on June 5, 1975, when the band was preparing to record one of the songs meant for Barrett. The former member himself turned up at the studio, but no one recognized him at first. After they realized the "fat, balding man" was Barrett, Waters and the rest couldn't proceed with the album without grappling with the implications of what they just saw — how and why Barrett's fame and glamor faded so quickly, leaving a wreck in Barrett's place.


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As always though, Waters had a number of topics he needed to include, particularly his own disillusionment with the music industry and themes of loss and absence in general. Louder says the (very expensive and hugely popular) international and U.K. tours Floyd went on during this period only increased the band’s general dissatisfaction with their lot and the idea that they were disconnected with their audiences. While these experiences added to Waters’ creative fuel for Wish You Were Here, the idea of being separated from the audience also played a part in what would become The Wall.

There were other Wall influences during 1975 as well, as friend and sometimes collaborator Roy Harper was roped in to work on the album and Wish You Were Here’s live debut. The lone performance itself also brought about some inspiration, as Schaffner said someone changed Harper's set without informing him and he promptly threw a massive tantrum — inspiring Waters’ ideas for the fictitious rock star Pink’s mental breakdown and egoism. That same year, Waters’ first wife left him, “adding another brick in the wall” as Schaffner puts it and giving Waters the idea of the cold, hard wife in Pink’s story.

While all this was taking place, the music media soured on Pink Floyd. It wasn't entirely surprising given that the band typically passed up press opportunities and developed rapport directly with fans instead. Now, though, critics attacked Floyd as out of touch, old-fashioned, and in need of replacing by up-and-coming punk bands who (unlike Floyd) weren’t actually part of the establishment they railed against.

This disdain created Animals (1976), a not entirely original concept pieced together from definitely unoriginal materialAnimals drew on George Orwell’s Animal Farm and David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, but instead of criticizing an outside force, Waters' criticism was directed at capitalist society in general. Though the album charted well (as they always had since Dark Side), the live productions — complete with live animals this time — were what really proved that Animals had clout.


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They also pushed Waters over the edge, as he’d had troubles with hecklers and disengaged audiences before. But in 1976, he actually spit on an audience member he was having an argument with, which is the event that prompted Waters to claim there needed to be a wall between audiences and performers — a notion quite the opposite of his feelings a few years prior when the idea of separation between audiences and the band so rankled him.

Performance success or not, the band wasn’t pleased with Animals anyway. Much of it was compiled from existing material created during the agonizing two-year Wish You Were Here sessions, and it seemed plain the band was drifting apart yet again. Schaffner said they embarked on their own ventures once more and — although none of them saw much success — one of Waters’ solo efforts was a project he called The Wall. It was a concept album built around the idea of a deep character study into one person’s psychology.

After a disastrous incident where the band’s accountant made a terrible investment decision, Pink Floyd was once again in need of more money. Between that and the exorbitant costs of the band’s live productions, Waters’ idea seemed like the only chance to keep the band afloat.

Peter Jenner said any success Pink Floyd saw was entirely down to Waters' tireless energy and determination overcoming the group's various other problems. That didn’t mean Waters was a stellar songwriter though, and Gilmour said The Wall demo was completely impossible to listen to. Fortunately, Floyd’s new producer Bob Erzin completely rewrote The Wall, turning it into 40 new pages of material.

Waters met Erzin partly by chance and partly by accident, as his new wife, Carolyne Christie (a member of the British aristocracy), once worked for Erzin as his secretary and encouraged Waters to choose Erzin as The Wall’s producer according to Schaffner. Blake expands on the story of that first meeting a bit, saying that Waters had an unexpected chance to meet Erzin during an Animals show where Erzin was in attendance with Christie. Waters accidentally cut his foot during a mock fight backstage, and Erzin ended up driving Waters to the hospital.


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Even though Erzin was responsible for The Wall’s sound and style, it was still Waters’ project through and through — featuring his bitterness at the industry, dealing with his father’s death and his overbearing mother, divorce, and (thanks to Barrett) the ever-present fear and fascination of madness. It was probably the most unified Floyd album since Dark Side of the Moon and the first time Waters was finally able to explore all of these many ideas that had been swirling around for years, fermented by seeing what the band had turned into. The idea of The Wall, as Schaffner quoted Waters, was showing that Pink Floyd had turned into its evil alter egos.

This time, though, the band’s characteristically huge performances and skillful control of sound eclipsed the songs themselves. The Wall is a distinctly theatrical rock opera of a production, so while Waters’ intent might be focusing on the need to empathize with other people and connect on a deeper level, the show’s theatricality often meant audiences focused less on that and more on the sweeping emotion — sometimes even sympathizing with the fascist and “evil alter ego” elements more. In fact, Schaffner said extras in some of the crowd scenes in The Wall film forgot the intent behind the “In The Flesh” concert and turned it into an actual fascist rally.

That level of misunderstanding wasn’t always the standard, though. “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)" was the album’s fantastically successful single that made a bigger splash than usual because anti-apartheid groups used it as a protest song.

While The Wall is usually seen as the point where Pink Floyd finally fell apart, Gilmour told Louder that’s not actually true. The band was apathetic during The Wall’s recording because Gilmour and the others didn’t feel “moved” by the album or its ideals, but everything was still more or less fine. Waters was in complete control, ousting Storm Thurgenson as album designer and generally having everyone defer to him on creative matters. The real trouble started when Waters tried doing the same during The Wall’s film version.

Waters clashed regularly with the film’s director to the point where nothing was moving forward. Gilmour and the others decided they'd had enough. They were done deferring to Waters, done feeling like his concerns didn’t represent theirs, and done letting him control Pink Floyd’s creative direction. That's why when Waters later said that everything in the band — from the name to the pigs — belonged to him, he was technically right. After years of being the band’s primary driving force, Waters had successfully alienated himself from Gilmour and the rest of the group.