Overcoming the Wall
Pink Floyd: A Retrospective
Dustin Saldarriaga


In March of 1973, Pink Floyd released what would become one of the most popular albums in the history of rock and roll. Dark Side of the Moon was Floyd’s epic album that, for the first time, truly highlighted the musical and lyrical talents of David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright. Through its psychedelic sound and powerful lyrics, Dark Side of the Moon has today sold twenty-nine million copies and holds 15X platinum status. However, the release of Dark Side of the Moon found most listeners unaware of the band’s struggles that led up to the album’s release, and of the loss that would affect the band throughout its entire career.

Five years before the release of Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd was largely under the leadership of friend and musical innovator Syd Barrett. Barrett assisted in initially instilling into the band the psychedelic sound prominent in Dark Side of the Moon and other albums. Unfortunately, Barrett’s innovations came at a large cost as he increasingly became affected by an addiction to acid. The fact that Barrett was schizophrenic added to the rapid deterioration of his mental state caused by drug abuse. As Barrett’s actions became increasingly erratic, the quality of both Floyd’s albums and concerts fell. Pink Floyd was eventually left with no other choice but to replace their good friend and pioneer. As the band would sometimes recall in later interviews, Barrett’s dismissal occurred when the band simply did not pick him up for practice one day. Ironically, the passive way in which Barrett was dismissed and forgotten that day resembles the following decades of the artist’s life—decades lived in solitude reinforced by schizophrenia and depression. Barrett currently lives as a recluse in Cambridge, England, and avoids any contact with people who remind him of his past. After his dismissal from Pink Floyd, his own childhood friend, David Gilmour, replaced him. Gilmour would become the leading voice in Dark Side of the Moon and a primary contributor, along with Roger Waters, to the band’s success.

Although these struggles and others were a large influence on the music of Dark Side of the Moon, it was not until the release of Wish You Were Here about three years later that the band explicitly voiced their feelings toward Syd Barrett. “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” a twenty-minute tribute to Barrett, revealed the band’s emotion through lyrics such as: “Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun. Now there's a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky. Pile on many more layers and I'll be joining you there. And we'll bask in the shadow of yesterday's triumph, and sail on the steel breeze.” Pink Floyd calls Barrett to “Come on you target for faraway laughter, come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine!” While recording this song, the band noticed a man sitting and listening just outside the recording studio. As later interviews would reveal, no one recognized the man, who had removed all the hair from his head and face. To everyone’s surprise, Syd Barrett, whom the band had not seen since his drug-induced mental breakdown seven years before, had mysteriously arrived at the exact moment that the band began recording their most heartfelt tribute to him. The sight of the unrecognizable man who had been a leader and best friend caused Pink Floyd to later recall the experience as one of the saddest in their lives. In a 1975 interview with Nick Sedgwick for the ‘Wish You Were Here’ Songbook, Roger Waters recalled, “When [Syd] came to the Wish You Were Here sessions—ironic in itself, to see this great, fat, bald, mad person—the first day he came I was in f---ing tears.” In the same interview, Waters, in response to a question concerning the album’s sadness, responded, “I think the world is a very, very sad f---ing place.” This perspective would be a primary influence in Floyd’s music for years to come.

For Pink Floyd’s bassist, Roger Waters, the strong emotions resulting from the loss of Barrett would be apparent in many of the lyrics he would later write for Pink Floyd. In the ‘Wish You Were Here’ Songbook interview, Waters noted Barrett’s role in his lyrics by stating, “He's just a symbol for all the extremes of absence some people have to indulge in because it's the only way they can cope with how f---ing sad it is—modern life.” Yet the loss of Barrett was not the only primary influence in his lyrics; the loss of Waters’ father in World War Two and increasing frustration resulting from life as a megastar, which became apparent when Waters spat in the face of a fan at a concert in Montreal, were beginning to come to the fore of his music. Simultaneously, Waters was gradually moving upward as the band’s primary writer and leader. About four years after the release of Wish You Were Here, the culminating emotions of Roger Waters were made evident in the music and lyrics of another Floyd megaseller—The Wall.

While Dark Side of the Moon is today’s nineteenth highest-selling album of all time, The Wall, released in 1979, stands as number three with 23X platinum record status. The album’s popularity is reflected in the fact that it is not difficult to find someone who is able to recite the anthem “We don’t need no education” and declare, “You can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat!” But these catchy tunes easily distract the listener from the true focus of the album—the isolating and self-destructive life of a rock and roll star. In an interview with Matt Resnicoff, titled Roger and Me - The Other Side of the Pink Floyd Story, Roger Waters explained the album’s success by stating, “The reason The Wall is a good record is because it's an honest autobiographical piece of writing of mine.” Although Waters wrote lyrics for The Wall as an autobiography, he also largely focused on the example of Syd Barrett as a ‘fallen star.’ As an ‘epic’ rock album, The Wall, in its entirety, tells the story of a struggling rock star, to whom the album refers as Pink, from his childhood through his success and, finally, his depression. Thus, because Pink’s experiences directly reflect those of both Roger Waters and Syd Barrett, The Wall contains songs that explicitly describe the struggles Waters and Barrett so desperately sought to escape throughout their lives. In the album, these struggles and the resulting sadness and emptiness cause Pink to move toward the only mode of escape he knows—the construction of a wall around him to shield himself from the rest of the world.

Waters begins his story on The Wall by recalling several powerful influences in his life, beginning with childhood. Waters, who lost his father in World War Two, continually lamented his father’s death and questioned the existence and necessity of war. In “Another Brick in the Wall, Part One,” Waters sings, “Daddy's gone across the ocean, leaving just a memory—a snapshot in the family album. Daddy, what else did you leave for me?” Waters also expounds his own feelings toward the war in “Goodbye Blue Sky:” “Did you see the frightened ones? Did you hear the falling bombs? The flames are all long gone, but the pain lingers on. Goodbye, blue sky.” Additionally, Waters also recalls the role of an overbearing mother in the lyrics of “Mother:” “Momma's gonna make all of your nightmares come true. Momma's gonna put all of her fears into you. Momma's gonna keep you right here under her wing. She won't let you fly, but she might let you sing. Oh babe, of course Momma's gonna help build the wall.” The most recognizable line from the album—“We don’t need no education”—refers to Waters’ scarring memory of his childhood education.

With each scarring experience, Waters, as shown through Pink, places another brick in his wall. Repeatedly throughout the album, Floyd chants, “All in all it's just another brick in the wall.” Gradually, Pink becomes numb and indifferent to the world around him. During the next stage of Pink’s life, as revealed in the song “Young Lust,” he attains rock star status and is able to temporarily stifle his sorrows with sex as he sings: “Will some woman in this desert land make me feel like a real man? Take this rock and roll refugee. Babe, set me free. I need a dirty woman. I need a dirty girl.” But Pink’s excitement is short lived, and the following song on the album, “One of My Turns,” reveals Pink’s thoughts in the words, “Day after day our love turns gray, like the skin on a dying man. And night after night we pretend it's all right. But I have grown older, and you have grown colder, and nothing is very much fun anymore.” Pink’s mental deterioration only accelerates from this point in the album. His struggles eventually push him into a state of isolation as he bids farewell in “Goodbye Cruel World.” Pink’s determination for isolation reveals that his wall is almost complete.

However, Pink does not yet fall into complete hopelessness. “Hey You” is a beautiful song that reveals the protagonist begging for help from someone “outside the wall.” He cries, “Hey you, would you help me to carry the stone? Open your heart. I'm coming home.” Sadly, before Pink finds consolation, the narrator reveals, “But it was only fantasy. The wall was too high, as you can see. No matter how he tried he could not break free, and the worms ate into his brain.” Since the release of The Wall, Waters has revealed in several interviews that “the worms” signify decay, thus further underlining his emphasis on isolation as leading to deterioration. Thus, at the finish of “Hey You,” Pink still remains in a state of isolation, behind his self-constructed wall.

Pink does not end his attempts to escape from his pain at the end of “Hey You.” “Comfortably Numb,” which is told through the eyes of a person attempting to rehabilitate Pink before a concert, portrays the drugged Pink as almost at the point of unconsciousness. The song alludes to the early days of Pink Floyd and their lost leader, Syd Barrett. The initial words of the narrator reveal Pink’s mental state and also reflect Floyd’s earlier references to drug abuse in “Shine on You Crazy Diamond:” “Hello? Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone home?” Pink is apparently able to at least think, if not speak, as he recalls his childhood and his current state: “The child is grown, the dream is gone. I have become comfortably numb.” In the album, Pink does partially recover from his drugged stupor and goes on to play a concert. However, he does not escape his own self-inflicted torture. He continues to live behind his wall and attempt to carry his suffering on his own shoulders. The album concludes with the consideration of those outside Pink’s wall who have attempted to break through to him: “And when they've given you their all, some stagger and fall. After all, it's not easy banging your heart against some mad bugger's wall.” In a 1979 BBC and Radio One interview with Tommy Vance, Waters described the conclusion of the album and its relationship to his own life and the lives of its listeners: “That is the completion of the wall. It's been being built in my case since the end of the Second World War, or in anybody else's case, whenever they care to think about it, if they feel isolated or alienated from other people at all, you know, it's from whenever you want.”

Thus, at the close of The Wall, Pink does not reach a conclusion. He is still suffering and isolated, and no closer to relief. This observation directly reflects Waters’ own life and also that of Syd Barrett. At the conclusion of the album, Pink Floyd merely diagnosed the problem, without finding a solution. Thus Roger Waters and Syd Barrett, as reflected by Pink, find themselves in the position defined earlier by Waters: “[Syd is] a symbol for all the extremes of absence some people have to indulge in because it's the only way they can cope with how f---ing sad it is—modern life.”

Interestingly, the primary focus of Christianity is on exactly this—man’s inability to cope with the struggles of life. A component of Christianity much more significant than the legalistic component so frequently focused upon today is that which focuses upon the role of Christ. Christ simply asks to share the ‘heavy burden.’ As a result, man may experience the unparalleled freedom that forgiveness allows. Although Roger Waters and Syd Barrett sought refuge in many places, including drugs, sex, and isolation, one option they never once explored was that of Christ, who continually promised to relieve their burdens and allow relief. Christianity is not primarily obedience to various rules and laws, but instead is the ability and willingness to acknowledge that there is something larger than this world and our problems. The most significant part of this story is that this something—this God—specifically wants to share in carrying the weight of our daily lives, because He knows we cannot do it on our own.

Dustin Michael Saldarriaga 06 is a History concentrator in Cabot House.