For some, Pink Floyd’s ‘the Wall’ is a pinnacle of the band’s many achievements, for others it represents the dramatic end of the group, with Richard Wright side-lined by an increasingly dominant Roger Waters and David Gilmour reduced to little more than a session musician – a feeling that came markedly closer to fact on follow-up ‘The final Cut’. A sprawling, two-disc set (at a time when double albums were still a rarity), released when punk was supposed to have killed-off the hedonistic progressive acts of the seventies, ‘The Wall’ contains all those elements that followers of the band love (stunning vocals, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink arrangements and unmatchable lead guitar work) and equally all of the annoying traits that the band’s detractors loathed. As a study of alienation and rock-star-turned-megalomaniac it remains peerless and it has been interesting to witness how Roger Waters has taken his tale of introversion and self-loathing and turned it into a mirror for our times with themes of consumerism, the ascendancy of the military-industrial complex and the simple emotion of loss shot through the bleak central narrative. That process began when ‘the Wall’ was staged in Berlin less than a year after the real and metaphorical wall of the Cold War came tumbling down and it has now run its course with this staging of ‘The Wall’ proving to be the most humane rendition yet of a story that began with a disillusioned bassist spitting into a fan’s upturned and adoring face.
With an overwhelmingly successful run of shows across the UK, the 02 arena in London seemed to be the most fitting venue to witness what proved to be one of the greatest rock music spectacles of this era. With its state-of-the-art projectors, relatively comfortable seating and a sound system that shames older venues, the 02 is one of the few large venues that is actually worth visiting and when you have a show the size of ‘The Wall’ to put on, nothing less but the biggest and the best will do. Playing to a sold-out crowd, there is no support and entry to the arena reveal the infamous circular screen that has been the mainstay of both Pink Floyd and Roger Waters shows, bookended by the beginnings of the wall, and beneath it a stage littered with guitars and equipment. The atmosphere is nothing short of electric and the crowd grow noticeably more excited as the magical hour of eight O’clock approaches.
A dimming of the lights and a pre-recorded voice urging the audience not to use flash photography announces the beginning of the show and a roar, the like of which is rarely heard at a rock show these days, greets the opening blast of ‘in the flesh’ which comes roaring out of the speakers in a way that belies the fact that this piece of music is some 30 years old. Roger is in fine form, bounding about the stage like a man half his age and clearly revelling in the very adulation which decades previously had caused him to compose the piece in the first place. When he finally begins to sing, his voice is in perfect shape – razor sharp and still slightly unhinged – it’s the best he’s sounded and his backing band have found the perfect sound to match with the guitars, in particular, blazing away with a fire that was only hinted at on the original recording. The song ends in a blaze of light, a massive explosion of fireworks and an aeroplane crashing into the wall in a blaze of fire. Subtle it is not, but grand showmanship of the first order and like that Roger has the entire audience eating out of the palm of his hand right up until the climax.
From there we are treated to a tour-de-force display that makes maximum use of modern technology, particularly a huge band of HD projectors which turn the rapidly expanding wall into a giant canvass upon which to display a combination of Gerald Scarfe’s original (and still astonishing) animations as well as modern additions to bring the story-line up to date. And yes the Jewish star still falls from the Aeroplane (albeit no-longer next to the dollar sign), the flowers still mate in one of the most hypnotic pieces of animation ever created and Roger still appears in a number of guises although nowhere more impressive than when he stands alone upon the stage during ‘the trial’, characterising all the voices in a performance that is part rock show, part opera part acting-school master-class.
Musically there are no highlights and no low points – the band are spectacular with long-time companions John Carin and Snowy White once more providing keyboards and vocals and lead guitar respectively although sneaking ahead of the pack slightly you have the monstrous ‘in the flesh’, a stunning ‘hey you’ and the epic ‘comfortably numb’, but so theatrical is the nature of the show that the tracks form a seamless whole, providing the soundtrack to a timeless story that resonates deeply, still, with hundreds of thousands of people around the world, a fact testified to by the number of pictures and video footage submitted by ordinary members of the public for inclusion upon this touring memorial wall and as Roger originally envisioned all those years ago the band do become immaterial next to the impact of what is being displayed in front of them.
The plot and pacing is little changed with many scenes unchanged from the original Wall and thus familiar to those who were lucky enough to witness the vent the first time round or who have seen the ubiquitous ‘the Wall live in Berlin’ DVD, although the new look inflatable models are even more grotesque than the originals and the pig now flies around the auditorium via remote control seemingly oblivious to the weight of the slogans scrawled across its back and flank. Thus, although Roger is far happier in his shoes these days (a fact testified to by the various trips around the stage he makes to guarantee that everyone has the chance to cheer his name and raise their hands aloft in the now-classic hammer symbol) he still has one hell of a story to tell and one hell of a point to make and if his anger has turned outward rather than in, then that is surely only to the benefit of a society that needs socially aware musicians such as Roger Waters more than ever.
As the smoke clears and the crumbling debris of the wall drifts down, one can only sit back and reflect upon the immensity of the show that’s just drawn to a close. With multiple projections, intense lighting and tight performances, elements of the performance reach sensory overload proportions, and there’s so much to take in that writing a review seems strangely banal no matter how much I would like to recreate the feelings and thoughts that were racing through my head during the show itself. This truly was the type of show that only those who witnessed will ever truly understand and for someone, like myself, who missed it all the first time round (perhaps having just been born I was a little young) it was the chance of a life-time. Thoughtful, fascinating, exciting and often quite beautiful, ‘The Wall’ remains a remarkable work of art that no one has come close to matching and this staging was the most extravagant and exciting version yet.