In 1977, record company executives, alerted by the success of bar-room bands such as Doctor Feelgood realised that a gap had been left in the market by the dinosaurs of LP-oriented rock and opened the doors to a back to roots revivalist movement. No more noodling around in studios trying to find the perfect chord progression for your 8-part symphonic triple album. They demanded hit records and raw energy. In the face of this onslaught, Pink Floyd, deemed one of the guilty parties by the music press, released Animals, an Orwellian vision of outstanding, unremitting bleakness to mixed reviews. There were no hits, a lot of the music wasn't even new having appeared in Pink Floyd shows in different guises over the years, but the rock was decidedly raw. Gone, the bucolic raging against the dying of the light, hanging on in quiet desperation. This was a full bodied political assault on just about everything, including bus stop winos and the passive politically inactive herd. In the course of the promotional tour that followed, bass player and lead angry man, Roger Waters spat at a fan who just thought they might like to go to a show. An act of massive unpleasantness, but one which was very much of the time.
Appalled at what he had done, Waters sat down to dissect what sort of creature he had become and how he had got that way. The resulting double album, The Wall was unveiled by the band in a 2 hour special interview and prompted one of the most public and acrimonious feuds in rock which to this day shows little sign of cooling. It was the end of Pink Floyd in the classic line-up and for many fans, myself included, it was also the end of the road. In 1979 it wasn't OK to not be OK. From post-industrialist Northern Europe in the middle of a political and economic revolution some pampered musician whining about how his multi-million dollar existence and drug abuse was affecting his mental well-being while mines were closing and strikers being trampled underfoot, all because he had an over protective mother and bullies for teachers just wasn't ticking any boxes. Everyone else had rubbish schools and intrusive mothers but weren't inclined to treat themselves to a mock comic opera show trial.
Seventeen year old me, listening on headphones under the duvet, my own wall hardly past the first brick tried to make sense of it all. Perplexity at what sounded like the St Winifred's school choir on estuary English gave way to shock as Mother came at you like a hatpin to the heart, exalted by Comfortably Numb excited by the power of Run Like Hell harking back to the power of the Nile Song - that raw rock.n.roll again! - and then bamboozled, appalled at the joy in profanity - he's enjoying using those words lovingly flung out like that great gob of spit! And ultimately educated. Tonight's lesson being don't have heroes because they will let you down in the end. What the hell was all that about after he OD'd? Goodbye Cruel Floyd.
But The Wall has been a wild success. An iconic album in the canon of rock and roll no less. Turned into a movie by Alan Parker, Waters' symbolic tearing down of his own wall became synonymous with the breaking of the physical wall in Berlin and will hopefully outlive any Wall of Trump. Four decades on the World is awash with mini-Pinks, indulged individualists stirring the pot of populist nationalisms and pointing their gammony fingers at anyone different to themselves. Today celebrities queue up to reveal their flirtation with depression. I like to think that Waters is amused, though hopefully not to death.
Scarred by that first listening experience, a brick that Mr Waters never had to apply mortar to, I had only ever listened to The Wall in its entirety that one time. However Roman prog-rock opera specialists RanestRane displaying kahunas the size of the forum have re-recorded the entire thing with a gas mask cover for the covid-19 generation. In truth this can be argued to be as much a homage to the film version as the original album. This version reinstates When The Tigers Broke Free to its rightful place. Churlishly vetoed from the original release by the band for being 'Too personal,' allegedly, I'm not sure how impersonal they thought the rest was. Waters lack of a relationship with his father who died at the Anzio bridgehead is such a massive part of his personality that without this section, it is almost as though there is only half a wall. It is only a short drive from Rome to the spot where Lt Waters lost his life as my always gracious Italian hosts were proud to point out, proudly informing me that the man himself had visited and placed a memorial on the site. Tracing the route from Anzio, the sector of coastline where the Fusiliers landed is significantly more challenging than that afforded to units further north. It must have been extremely hard fighting through, so I can imagine how this episode affected not only the young Roger Waters, but also the professional musician on tour and passing through the countryside, not knowing how his father had progressed until the site was identified a few years ago. Coming in the early part of the work, it's a major test for these pretenders, and one they pass with flying colours, managing to inject this particular brick with the right degree of personal angst (that is to say 'a lot'). Suffice to say, they had me convinced from that point on.
Elsewhere, some instrumental interpolations such as Train Of Masks reference to imagery used in the cinema treatment where a young Pink places a bullet in a railway line. A passing cattle train is packed with masked schoolchildren. In truth, RanestRane (the name means 'Strange Frogs') have done an excellent job of curating this masterwork and it would be churlish to criticise. Of course they aren't Pink Floyd, but then no-one is these days, depending on who's side of the argument you prefer. Waters himself has celebrated the 40th anniversary of his work by generously releasing some excellent Zoom footage of songs used as encores, including Mother and Vera (hopefully someone somewhere got paid out of them) and less generously stoking the flames of discord, though with some justification, I must say. Clearly that's one brick that won't be dislodged. Being a non-person on your own band's website would send many an artist distracted, but though he remains politically volatile, he doesn't seem minded to go building any more walls.
So it's down to fans and talented curators such as this. Given the divisiveness around the album and its blatant refusal to go away; taken together with Animals there is almost a prescience about the two, reappraisal is probably in order, and so this rework is most welcome. I approached with trepidation. I've long ago come back to the fold after decades of chasing shiny objects, and made my peace with Pink Floyd, but have kept away from The Wall fearing to dislike it a second time. That's the thing with walls, their stubborn persistence. RanestRane have, with the minor exceptions already noted produced an almost reverently authentic reproduction. It's in their own idiom of course, but recognisably taken directly from the original. I don't need to rehearse the arguments for and against, and whether a reworking should be more imaginative and introduce new arrangements or take it into a whole different genre and you can all figure out for yourselves whether a copy brings merit. It's a matter of individual preference, knock yourself out. Suffice to say that they've done an excellent job. For me, I hope that in the future, when our heroes can no longer tour or record, then there will be ensembles who will keep the music alive and perform it in recital.
One other argument in favour. A personal one this time. It made me listen to The Wall again. I don't hate it any more. I can't forget the disappointment of 1979 and I still don't like the trial scene, but it doesn't weigh so heavily in the great scheme of things. It has stood the test of time, and rightly so, becoming more relevant if anything. People still need to confront their own walls on a daily basis, and get angry at the wall builders who divide us. And mothers will still find out where you've been and check out all of your girlfriends for you, Mother will make sure nobody dirty gets through. Let's hope so. Somebody has to.
***** Andrew Cottrell
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