PINK FLOYD'S THE WALL
Part One of Mark Cunninghams profile of the classic 1980 production
The Floyd's original concert production of The Wall was a milestone in rock history. Featuring many previously unpublished photographs by mark fisher, Mark Cunningham re-discovers its creation, brick by brick.
Theatrical rock’n’roll is a commonplace beast in the 21st century. Quite often, even mediocre talent is transformed into something superhuman with the aid of impressive set architecture and video screen enhancement. It wasn’t always like this.
In the mid-1970s, artists like David Bowie and Alice Cooper, though their respective Ziggy Stardust and Welcome To My Nightmare tours, added special props and set pieces to contrive a theatrical flavour that was unusual for a live rock show.
However, multimedia rock theatre took several mammoth leaps forward when, in 1980, Pink Floyd transferred their new double album The Wall to the stage for the first time and produced a truly multimedia production that more than a quarter of a century later is still regarded as a highlight in rock concert history.
Written by the band’s bassist and foremost songwriter of that period, Roger Waters, The Wall was a story of alienation and withdrawal, largely fuelled by his experience of touring the Animals album in North American stadiums during 1977.
Whilst on the road, Waters had reported his frustration at the “meaningless ritual” of live performance, where his intensely personal songs were treated with a lack of respect by “whistling, shouting and screaming” audiences. In Montreal, at the end of the tour, he took it out on an innocent fan in the front row by spitting in his face.
“By that time, we were playing in stadiums to enormous numbers of people, most of whom couldn’t see or hear anything,” says Waters. “A lot of people were there just because it was the thing to do. They were having their own little shows all over the place, letting off fireworks and beating each other up. As the tour went on, I felt more and more alienated from the people we were supposed to be entertaining.”
Stadium rock had become such an isolating experience that he imagined building a wall between the band and its audience. Now, there was an idea... In Waters’ mind, The Wall was never going to be just another Floyd album followed by yet another tour. He says: “I always knew it would be a multi-faceted project — a record, followed by shows in just a few cities, and then a movie [directed by Alan Parker]. It couldn’t possibly travel because of the sheer expense of getting this thing to move. It was miles ahead of anything that had been done in rock’n’roll and the amount of effort that went into every single detail was unheard of. It was very f**king difficult to do but we had some very good people on board who made it happen.”
Recording sessions for The Wall began in 1978 at the band’s own Britannia Row Studios in north London but moved to Superbear in France and then Los Angeles and New York when they were forced to spend a year in tax exile. During the sessions, Waters’ concept for a live show started to take place and he would often break off to discuss design ideas with set designer Mark Fisher and Sunday Times cartoonist and illustrator Gerald Scarfe, both of whom had worked with the Floyd for several years.
Conversations also extended to promoter Harvey Goldsmith who was consulted on the practicalities of staging the shows. “Roger took me out for dinner one night and said, ‘I’ve got this idea’, and he started to tell me about this story. He said, ‘As the show progresses, this wall will build up and up and up...’. We talked it through and he pretty well had the whole show in his mind. It marked a big turning point in the history of live shows.”
Robbie Williams, who had been part of the Floyd entourage since 1972 and was the band’s sound crew chief at the time of The Wall, says: “Most of us assumed that these concerts would just involve a slightly bigger PA system and a few lasers. I don't think anybody had any conception of what was going on in Roger’s mind, and when we first heard that he wanted to build a this wall with the band performing behind it, we all said, ‘You’ve got to be f**king mad!’. We thought the audience would storm the stage and that the poor guys at front of house were going to get killed. Fortunately, it didn’t turn out that way!”
As well as a number of massive inflatable puppets based on Gerald Scarfe's distinctive Wall cartoon sketches of the Teacher, the Mother, and Girlfriend/Wife, the central ‘prop’ was the Wall itself. As early as December ’78, Mark Fisher sent a dozen examples of “genuine Britro brand kiddie bricks” to Graeme Fleming, Britannia Row’s head of lighting and the man who would become production manager on the Wall shows when they went into production. A covering note explained that “although a bit of care may be necessary to assemble them, they do form an elegant executive paperweight... when completed and interlocked”.
Containing 420 white, cardboard bricks, and measuring 31 feet high by 160 feet wide, the wall was slowly constructed in front of the band during the first 45 minutes of the show by a six-man team from the Britannia Row crew — a.k.a. the Britro Brick Company — until Waters slotted the final brick into place at the end of ‘Goodbye Cruel World’ to signify the intermission. The show climaxed with the collapse of the wall against a volley of explosive sound effects and smoke. Under such circumstances, a traditional encore would have been a trivial irrelevance. Instead, the audience was greeted by the final song, ‘Outside The Wall’, performed by the entire cast (with Waters and Gilmour unusually on clarinet and mandolin) in front of the remains of the wall.
Fisher credits Graeme Fleming as the main influence for making the shows happen in the first place. “Graeme was very instrumental, It actually took a lot of effort to persuade the band and Steve O’Rourke [Floyd’s manager] that the show could be done at all,” he says.
“The possibility of the show had been discussed ever since the end of the 1977 tour. In the winter of 1978-79, I made a series of drawings showing how the technical process of building the wall might work, and how the bricks might be transported and assembled because of the huge volume required to build the wall, it was essential that they could pack flat. Around this time, the project was heavily side-tracked by Steve O’Rourke’s idea of touring the show with its own venue, which was to be a giant inflatable slug. I made a number of studies of the building, along with the show.
By late spring, reality prevailed, the slug was abandoned, and the band agreed that if live shows based on the album were to be done at all, they would be performed in arenas. “But there was a lot of skepticism about the feasibility of building up a wall during the show, and then knocking it down at the end, which was what Roger’s vision demanded. Roger, of course, was very keen on building the physical wall rather than relying on animation to tell the story. But plenty of other people thought it would be impossible (or impossibly expensive) and advocated a more conventional Floyd show in which the building and demolition of a metaphorical wall would be portrayed on the signature circular screen.
“In the early summer of ’79, Graeme and I researched the practical side of building and touring a physical wall and came up with some numbers. The numbers were, of course, hopelessly unrealistic. But Graeme became a booster for the project, and in the end it was he who put his neck on the line and persuaded the band to go ahead with the project.”
Concurrently, Gerald Scarfe worked on the show animation of the metaphorical wall, and on the main characters which Waters decided he wanted to be represented by inflatables. Fisher explains: “I met with Gerald and in the early summer I sculpted a maquettefor an inflatable character and sewed up the full-size head. The band were recording the album at Superbear Studios outside Nice at this time. Graeme and I stuffed the inflatable head in a hamper, gathered up the drawings, and headed to the south of France for a final sign-off meeting in September 1979.”
With Scarfe’s approval, Fisher and assistant Sue Donaldon sewed the fabric for the eventual inflatable puppets of the Teacher, Girlfriend/Wife and Mother in a back room at Britannia Row’s warehouse. A larger and more animated version of the Teacher, using microprocessor activated electric motors, was later built by Rob Harries at Air Artists for the original film version of The Wall, directed by Michael Seresin. Although briefly filmed, the footage was never used in the final 1982 Alan Parker-directed movie. Harries also fabricated a new version of the Floyd pig. These were all rigged by Rocky Paulson, who had previously been the rigger for the North American leg of the Animals tour.
After the successful meeting in France, Fisher and Fleming returned to London and one of the latter‘s first moves was to hire Jonathan Park as the project engineer. Fisher continues: “The project had always divided into three distinct parts: the design of the bricks, the process of building the wall, and knocking it down. In my first sketches I proposed using triple Genie lifts rolling on tracks to raise the men and bricks up to the top of the wall, which was to be 12m tall and 70m wide when completed. Jonathan developed the Genie idea into a safer and more efficient system of five 6m long bridges that spanned the 30m wide centrestage preset opening in the wall. In the process, he invented two new products for Genie that have become industry standards — the double lift containing two telescoping masts mounted back-to-back, and the platform lift. “To develop the design and supervise the construction, Jonathan worked out of Genie Industries’ factory in Seattle. Through the autumn and early winter of 1979, he commuted between London a
nd Seattle, which was not much fun under Graeme’s rigorous travel regime. Back then we all flew stand-by economy, which meant turning up at the TWA office in Victoria at 05:00 to wait in line for tickets before heading to Heathrow to catch the flight.
“Jonathan developed his bridge system so that when it was assembled the bases became an integral part of the stage, with the bridge decks flush to the stage decks. The bridges elevated to 7m above the stage, allowing crew to place the top row of bricks.”
The design of the bricks went through a number of changes, starting with a slot-together Styrofoam design, and ending up with a flat-fold brick made from fireproof dual-wall corrugated cardboard. The final brick design was 1.5m long, 0.75m high, 0.3m deep, and weighed 11kg. To fill the gap during the first half of the show, over 300 bricks were placed during the 30 minutes of wall building.
Says Fisher: “When the wall was complete it stood 9m above the stage and was very slender for its height. Therefore, to prevent it from toppling over, it was stabilised by telescoping masts set at 3m intervals across the stage. The brick boxes were open at the top and bottom, and the masts rose up inside the boxes to stabilise them. The telescoping masts were integrated into the base structure that supported the bridges. Jonathan designed a very elegant device that attached to the top of each mast to solve the third part of the puzzle — how to knock the wall down without wiping out the front rows of the audience. “When a simple wall falls over, it breaks at a point about one third of its height above the ground.
The top two thirds of the wall tip over as a flat slab, and then fall downwards and away from the base. Left to itself, a wall rising 12m from the arena floor would require a safe area of 15m downstage of it to protect the audience from harm, however, no promoter would have accepted the loss of seats that would be ‘killed’ by such a wide safety zone. “The device that Jonathan designed was a knocker (we called it the ‘elbow’) that elbowed the bricks off the top of the wall, row by row, as the telescoping mast was retracted. The elbow could knock the bricks either upstage or downstage. Thus the number of bricks falling downstage could be controlled, and they all fell very close to the base of the wall. In the end, we allowed a safety zone of just 10ft between the face of the wall and the front row of seats.” The original lighting and pyro effects design came from Fleming who specified an overhead lighting truss fitted with PAR cans and ACLs (the advent of the ‘intelligent’ moving light was a year away), the circular ‘Mr. Screen’ with perimeter lights and a further two hydraulically-moveable rigs on cherry pickers containing PAR 38s, pin spotlights and manual follow spots.
There were also several floor cans pointing up at band members. When the band reappeared from behind the wall in the second half, a further pair of trusses and manned spot positions were revealed, containing more than 200 PARs. As the pressure mounted in the final weeks running up to the opening show, Fleming’s dual role as production manager and lighting designer grew from a challenge into a logistical nightmare. By the time the entourage gathered at the Los Angeles Sports Arena to load-in, it became clear that it was impossible for Fleming to deliver on two full-time jobs simultaneously and O’Rourke invited LD Marc Brickman (who had impressed with his recent Springsteen work) to take a look with a view to him relieving some of the pressure.
The following 18 hours saw Brickman continuously play the album until he had re-mapped the lighting scheme, re-cueing and re-gelling as he saw fit, with the on-site assistance of head electrician Mick Treadwell. Brickman, who has remained a Floyd associate ever since, says: “They can do Tommy on Broadway and call it a rock opera, but Roger’s piece is the ultimate theatrical piece ever in rock’n’roll, and I was really fortunate to be a part of that. No one will ever top it.”
IN THE FLESH
Pink Floyd held the live premiere of The Wall at L.A. Sports Arena on February 7 1980, then moved to Nassau Coliseum in New York for five shows, before crossing the Atlantic later that year for six consecutive sold-out nights at London’s Earls Court on August 4- 9.
Few bands had dared to even think of staging such an ambitious show. Inevitably, The Wall grew into a logistical nightmare that required setting up specialist teams within the crew to ensure precision — a commonplace procedure today. The complex music also determined that each Floyd member was duplicated a ‘surrogate’ band (Andy Bown, Snowy White, Willie Wilson and Peter Wood) and enhanced by four backing vocalists (Jim Haas, Joe Chemay, Jon Joyce and Stan Farber). It was also Waters’ idea that the Floyd members would each have a ‘shadow’ and this was reflected in the positioning and lighting of the musicians.
It was Brickman’s idea to uplight the Surrogate Band and project their shadows onto the wall in the ‘In The Flesh’ reprise to make them appear ghostly. Waters’ vision necessitated two custom-built stages, one in front of the other at slightly different heights, which were separated by a large, black Duvetyne drape. The task of placing the building of the wall between the two stages and isolating the band from the audience while the show was in motion was no mean feat in itself. Add to this the operation of the Scarfe inflatables, the flying pig and crashing Styrofoam model Stuka (built by Don Jose), Fleming and Brickman's imaginative lighting, film projections, and copious pyrotechnics, and one begins to appreciate the intensity that built up behind the scenes while the audiences sat there agog.
All senses were sent reeling from the very beginning of the show, which began with a quite startling piece of deception. Despite being introduced as Pink Floyd by a deliberately tacky MC, the first number, ‘In The Flesh?’, was performed at the front of the stage by the ‘surrogate’ four-piece who wore perfectly formed latex Floyd masks modelled for by the genuine band at the Hollywood film studios during rehearsals.
Bass guitarist Andy Bown — who was taking a break from his regular job as Status Quo’s keyboard player — recalls: “I’ll never forget the looks on the faces of the people on the front row when we finished that first number with our masks on, and then stepped back as the real Floyd members came forward... like they’d been totally conned!”
‘Surrogate’ guitarist Snowy White’s role was made all the more difficult by his commitments with Thin Lizzy. He says: “It was a crazy period where I was learning two bands' material, which were totally different to each other, all at once. Floyd were rehearsing at L.A. Sports Arena, and every morning in my apartment, I would spend a couple of hours going through Lizzy songs, then polish up on the Floyd stuff before going to rehearse. It was a very busy time!”
The presence of the Surrogate Band meant that on-stage devices instantly multiplied, as crew chief Phil Taylor explains: “I was with the band while they were recording in America, and had to work out how many pedalboards I needed for the show. I ended up with 11, and because there were no faxes back then, I had to send drawings to Pete Cornish [famed custom equipment designer] by express mail and discuss them with him on the phone.
“We were not only adding a second guitarist — we also now had a second bass player who needed his own board, plus we had a complete second stage to equip and I needed another four mini pedalboards for this. I already had some spare send and return units to cover unseen eventualities. I put it all together by working out with David and Roger exactly which effects would be needed for the songs performed on each stage, and then making the boards as compact as possible by including only the necessary effects for each situation.
“Getting all those made when we were thousands of miles away from Pete was a bit of a headache, but he is someone who can always be relied on to deliver the goods.”