Art comes in many forms, and a lot of the best works of art tell incredible stories through their chosen medium. For my money, some of the greatest art is that which could only achieve the effect it does in that particular format; BioShock, for example, is a game that simply could not be as effective if it were a novel or a film or anything but a game.
I’ve been introduced by my partner’s father, a man with truly excellent taste, to an album I’ve long known existed but had never actually tried listening to. It’s an album most of you will probably have heard of, this little kooky record by this little British band: it’s The Wall by Pink Floyd.
The Wall is an example – perhaps the best known and best successful example – of a concept album, but it’s also taken the form of a movie and a live tour (more than one, in fact). I haven’t listened to many concept albums in my time, but I think I might have to start changing that; I’ve been approaching it the wrong way, I reckon. See, if you ask me for a list of my favourite songs, I doubt any from The Wall would be anywhere near the top of the list, but ask me my favourite albums and The Wall has to be up there. It’s not like most music where you can consume each song one at a time; it’s like trying to take a chapter of a novel or a scene from a film out of context. Sure. some of them will be powerful and memorable on their own, but it’s only when you put the whole story in order that the true beauty of the thing comes to light. It’s gestalt.
I actually did things a bit out of order with The Wall, watching the DVD of Roger Waters’ tour of the same name – a recent live performance of the entire album interspersed with clips of Waters’ pilgrimage to the war memorial immortalising his father – before listening to the original album and finally watching the film. If you’ve never heard the album, I actually think watching Waters’ live version is a really good first introduction. The film’s a little bit… I hesitate to say inaccessible, but Roger Ebert, who loved the movie, admitted that it was only likely to appeal to a very specific audience of Floyd fans and lovers of cinematography. The live version is really more of an experience than anything else, though; throughout the show, Waters and his band perform the entirety of the album with some truly spectacular stage direction that helps to tell the story. Even sans any visual cues, the story of the album is perhaps one of the most masterfully-told tales in music, depicting the life of a man (named Pink) whose father died when he was very young – an event his biography shares with Waters’, though it’s not exactly autobiographical. As a result of oppression throughout his life from an overprotective mother, tyrannical teachers and gradual disillusionment with the world as a whole, Pink builds a wall around himself to keep everyone and everything out (as in ‘all in all, you’re just another brick in the wall’); he ends up hallucinating himself as a fascist rock star espousing the philosophy that everyone should just be shot. He then suffers a breakdown of sorts, creating a judge in his mind who sentences him to be exposed to the world and the wall torn down.
So that’s the album, and the story goes that it was inspired in part by Waters’ own realisation that the rockstar lifestyle was distancing him from fans and the world in general, an epiphany triggered by an incident in which he spat on an overenthusiastic fan. The wall itself is built by many people for many reasons, and it’s represented on stage by an actual wall built brick-by-brick between the band and the audience as the show goes on, until the band are completely separated from the crowd. It’s an unbelievably powerful visual, and it’s no surprise that the feat contributed to the show’s status as most expensive musical performance (costing around a million dollars to produce one show, so it’s said). It doesn’t stop there, though, as Waters extends the original metaphor until the show is a bona fide anti-war protest.
If you’ve maybe heard one or two songs off the album, I seriously urge you to find a video of the performance. It really is only once you get the whole thing in context that the experience hits you, but I can almost guarantee you’ll start thinking of the album form as a powerful tool for creating art. That’s how good it is.