Pink Floyd’s The Wall: An Experiment in Surrealism
Anyone familiar with Pink Floyd’s discography will be well versed with the band’s fascination with the human condition. This includes the demons that accompany fame and their love for creating metaphorical songs and concept albums. The Wall, their 1979 release (and last great album), is the epitome of these traits that characterized a number of their songs and releases, and it spawned a cult classic film adaptation in 1982 written by the band’s main songwriter and bassist, Roger Waters.
The narrative of The Wall follows a jaded rock star named Pink, who in many ways is a representation of Waters, as well as Syd Barrett, one of the founding members of the band who left at the very start of their career. The story is about Pink’s isolation which is represented by a metaphorical wall that is constantly being built over time by different people and events in his life such as the death of his father, his overprotective mother, his abusive teachers, and his tumultuous life as a successful rock star with marriage and drug problems.
Both the album and film are experiments in surrealism. With surrealism, what you see is never what it seems to be; rather, it is a representation of something more visceral, an indescribable, overwhelming feeling that overtakes you.
The album takes advantage of its soundscape and the film takes advantage of its visual presentation to create this desired overwhelming feeling, and the band is able to say much more and strike a deeper nerve than any words possibly could.
The soundscape is filled with reverb and airiness, which is simultaneously relaxing and oppressive. It’s a common trait of Pink Floyd’s sound, but The Wall takes advantage of this for the narrative. With each song, there is a constant feeling of claustrophobia, like walls are closing in, which helps the listener understand the mental state of Pink. An example of this is one of the band’s most iconic songs, “Comfortably Numb”. At this point in the narrative, Pink is heavily medicated and he’s putting on a show while incredibly high. Pink needs drugs to give him any sense of freedom, which ironically shows how trapped he is by the mental wall he has built for himself all of his life. The song sounds like something comforting and inviting, but as it crescendos to an incredible guitar solo at the end, there is a sort of existential oppression that the song gets at.
The band also samples random sounds throughout several of their songs. This is another staple in Pink Floyd’s style, but it is used for excellent narrative effect here. From sampling teachers screaming at kids in “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” to a child exclaiming to his mother about an airplane in the sky in “Goodbye Blue Sky,” the effect it creates is that of random hallucinations or memories. It is an auditory representation of how the protagonist is affected by his memories, which can sort of come and go at any moment, or can be enhanced via drug use. It’s part of the organized sound that characterizes the album that’s built with very specific pieces, similar to how Pink fits the pieces of his metaphorical wall.
The film takes the surrealism a step further in the visual department by switching between powerful animation and imagery, elevating the lyrics of specifically chosen songs on the album. There is one scene in the film, which adapts the lyrics of “In the Flesh” and “Run Like Hell," where Pink hallucinates himself as a Nazi-like dictator ordering his audience to attack ethnic minorities. Both the songs and lyrics seem to have nothing to do with anything meaningful at all, but that simple scene is able to say so much. On one level, it shows just how Pink had effectively lost touch of reality at this point. On another level, this sequence showed contempt for celebrity culture and blind celebrity worship. Despite all of Pink’s very public flaws, the audience sticks by him through thick and thin, like members of a cult, or, as the film depicted, followers of a fascist dictator. In Pink’s mind, he could tell them to do anything, and they’d do it, even attacking minorities, as he commanded the audience to do. The film is peppered with moments like this that build on the original album so well. One of the most iconic images that is shown is a picture of animated marching hammers, which symbolize how, in order for Pink to truly ever feel free, he has to inevitably break the mental wall he has built around himself.
Surrealism, when done incorrectly, comes off as pretentious and stale. However, The Wall, both the album and film, does it so well, which makes this and other prior Pink Floyd albums iconic. The band gives listeners a cathartic experience in the album. By the end, if you really listen to all the songs or watch the film closely, you’ll be drained in the best possible way.