In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1980: Pink Floyd’s The Wall
When an important member leaves a band, that’s a lot for the other members to deal with. This person has been a or possibly the main creative force helping to establish the band in the public identity leaving a huge vacuum at how to move forward. It’s even more difficult when that person leaves due to debilitating health problems moving on while feeling bad for their declining state. That’s essentially the story of Pink Floyd.
Pink Floyd originally began around 1963 as Sigma 6 when Roger Waters and Nick Mason met while studying architecture at London Polytechnic. Soon, they started performing as a band with new members coming in including Waters’ childhood friend Syd Barrett. Together, the band went through various name changes before settling on Pink Floyd, a mashup of American blues musicians Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Like most of their ‘60s British rock contemporaries, Pink Floyd were heavily influenced by American blues performing such songs in their shows but soon began to grow more experimental thanks to Barrett which involved more complex arrangements and light shows helping them become an underground sensation in London.
The attention from their shows led to the band signing to EMI Records where they released their first album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The album went Top 10 in the UK but right as the band began taking off, Barrett’s mental health began to decline not helped by his use of LSD. Eventually, it became too much that Barrett was let go from the band and replaced by another friend David Gilmour in time for the sophomore effort 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets. From there, Pink Floyd soldiered on with Waters taking over creative control and began to move from bugged-out psychedelia to the growing progressive rock sound of the ‘70s forming concept albums that at some level dealt with Barrett’s departure and deteriorating condition.
After a few years of more UK album and singles success, it was 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon that broke them out worldwide where it was their first US #1 album and never stopped selling remaining continuously on the Billboard 200 chart for 14 years breaking the record set by of all things a 1958 Johnny Mathis greatest hits album. Current estimates put sales of Dark Side at over 45 million worldwide with 15 million copies sold in the US. The album also gave Pink Floyd a hit single with a single edit of “Money” peaking at #13 on the Hot 100 even though like all prog-rock acts, Pink Floyd was never big on releasing commercial singles opting for albums as their main form of expression. Pink Floyd followed up Dark Side with more concept albums. 1975’s Wish You Were Here and 1977’s Animal continued their success selling millions of more copies.
As Pink Floyd got bigger, so did their dislike of each other and the experience. Waters in particular didn’t like the band’s 1977 In The Flesh tour so much so that at the final concert in Montreal when fans gathered near the stage Waters got so angry that he spat on one of the audience members. Clearly, he was reaching a breaking point but it was where he started to come up with a concept for a new album that dealt with feeling disillusioned and isolated from everyone around you inspired by Syd Barrett and his own life troubles including his father dying when he was a child in World War II.
When the band began to record a new album, Waters gave them the choice of his new concept of a rock star who closes the world around him or another concept about dreaming and family issues. Even with all the tensions, they were unanimous in picking the first option which would become The Wall. A lot was riding on this new album not just for personal reasons but also for financial reasons with bad deals leading to the members having to pay a very high tax rate so they needed the album to do really well to pay it all off. All this on top of more band infighting leading to members recording separately and Waters firing keyboardist Richard Wright during the sessions though he stayed on as a session player.
Up to this point, Pink Floyd were a self-contained unit when it came to making music producing the albums themselves. But for The Wall, Waters brought in outside help who could help realize his vision. That outside help was Bob Ezrin who’d made a big name for himself as a producer for rock acts. By the time he came on to produce The Wall, Ezrin’s resume included producing all the big Alice Cooper hits as well as the first Peter Gabriel solo album and KISS’ Destroyer among many other credits. Ezrin wound up making a lot of crucial contributions to the album co-writing “The Trial” and for the big hit “Another Brick In The Wall (Part II)” suggested the driving disco beat and got a bunch of kids to sing the second verse, a trick he picked up producing Alice Cooper’s classic “School’s Out.”
While Pink Floyd were a known commodity by the turn of the ‘80s, the massive success of The Wall is still a weird thing to consider. Prog rock acts could sell lots of albums but not to the overwhelming numbers that Pink Floyd managed to pull off. In many ways, this was intentional. These acts largely avoided the mainstream selling lots of albums and filling arenas without much radio play or commercial singles. Prog rock operated as its own industry separate from the pop mainstream. Yet that didn’t stop The Wall from becoming an all-around phenomenon where it reached the top in January 1980, two months after its release, and stayed there for fifteen straight weeks. Sales of The Wall are currently at 15 million copies nationally meaning it’s in the Top 20 of the best selling albums of all time. Singles-wise, “Another Brick In The Wall (Part II)” was a major #1 hit later in the spring finishing behind Blondie’s “Call Me” as Billboard’s #2 biggest hit of 1980.
Before this review, I’ve never actually listened to The Wall all the way through though it feels like I have all this time. Along with Dark Side, The Wall is one of those albums that you feel like you have to listen to when you’re getting into music. I’ve heard “Another Brick” and “Comfortably Numb” a lot on classic rock radio. People will always talk up The Wall as one of the greatest albums ever. But Pink Floyd for me has never been a must listen to act for me. As much as I like my classic rock, drawn-out concept albums and songs aren’t my usual cup of tea.
The Wall is an album that requires a lot of endurance in listening with 26 tracks totaling to around an hour and 20 minutes with each song running into the next. I’m not the type of person who can analyze all the meanings of the album and its story but the description above gives you a good indication. We have a rock star that like the band is called Pink Floyd who grows up depressed while raised by a single mother due to his father dying in World War II. Throughout his life, Floyd is traumatized not just by growing up without a father but also by strict teachers and his overprotective mother. He starts building a metaphorical wall around him as his way of coping with this depression and life. He gets married, becomes a rock star, and gets himself involved in the typical debauched lifestyle making him feel further isolated almost overdosing on drugs. He then becomes hallucinated imagining himself as some fascist leader and by the end is freed from his wall back into interacting with the larger society. That’s a lot for the biggest album of the year.
Judging between The Wall and Dark Side, Dark Side is by far the better album. It’s not as long both track-wise and time-wise. It’s 10 songs at 40 minutes helping to get you more invested in the concept while keeping you engaged. It doesn’t overstay its welcome. The Wall certainly has its moments that suck you in but after a while, it can get tiring and boring that you stop caring about the story. I’ve listened to The Wall about twice for this review and after the first half, it starts to lose my interest. It’s clearly a well-made and put-together piece of music but sometimes that’s not enough. If you wanted a case of an album filled with massive pretentiousness and indulgence then you won’t have to look far in The Wall.
Really, Bob Ezrin made a good call to include a children’s choir on “Another Brick In The Wall (Part II)” as it makes the song more memorable and hearing kids sing in exaggerated Cockney accents about how bad teachers are helps make the song and the album as a whole more relatable than had it just been Pink Floyd singing all of it. The idea of adding a disco-like beat while not fully giving into disco is probably what also helped the song become a big hit even amid the disco backlash that had taken over the US charts by 1980. Outside of “Another Brick,” Ezrin also makes some cool choices with one other song that stood out being “The Trial” which honest to God reminds me of one of those villain songs they play in Disney movies. It’s at least something interesting.
The Wall is so out there from what normally sells that you can’t really compare it to what else was coming out in 1980. The nearest competition it had that year was another band whose members hated each other, the Eagles’ The Long Run. That album wound up being the last album of their classic run continuing on their brand of California-based studio rock and yet that album only sold 8 million copies. Elsewhere, albums like Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedos helped to serve as an introduction to future big acts of the decade while Billy Joel’s Glass Houses and Bob Server’s Against The Wind continued each artist’s momentum. And yet none of these albums were as conceptually ambitious as The Wall was.
Considering all that, I find it hard to point my finger as to how The Wall managed to connect with so many people in 1980. Prog rock was in decline by that point as many of its biggest acts faltered. Punk music had risen up in part as a reaction against all the decadence and virtuosity of prog rock. On that level, it’s amazing that Pink Floyd could sell lots of records while not caving into mainstream tastes. Perhaps people in 1980 could relate to the story of a rock star isolating himself from the turmoils of the outside world especially in an America that was dealing with economic stagflation, gas shortages, and the humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis leading to the election of a former actor as President that year. But that’s probably a bit of a stretch there. But that’s probably a stretch. People most likely bought The Wall because they like Pink Floyd rather than any relation to the politics of the day.
A couple of years after the album hit, it only made sense to turn it into a movie. Directed by Alan Parker, Pink Floyd-The Wall had Roger Waters write the screenplay and Boomtown Rats singer and future Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof in the lead role of Pink Floyd. The film got good reviews but only did OK at the box office where it had the misfortune of competing against some of 1982’s biggest hits like E.T. and An Officer and A Gentleman grossing $22 million over a $12.2 million budget. (On 1982’s year-end list, Pink Floyd-The Wall is at #33 between re-releases of Bambi and Raiders of the Lost Ark.) Despite that, the film has gained cult status in the decades since. I haven’t seen it but judging from the trailer it looks crazy.
For Pink Floyd, The Wall wound up as their true peak since they wouldn’t be anywhere this big again. They capitalized on their newfound success by staging an elaborate arena tour behind The Wall featuring big balloons which only furthered tensions in an already volatile band. Members wouldn’t speak much outside the shows and the tour wound up costing the band lots of more money. Their next album, 1983’s The Final Cut, wound up peaking at #6 and going double platinum which would be a fine enough figure for anyone but Pink Floyd following up an all-time best seller.
The Final Cut turned out to be enough for Roger Waters who quit the band soon after releasing solo music almost immediately while getting into lawsuits with his former bandmates over the use of Pink Floyd’s name. Gilmour took control of the band releasing three more albums up to 2014’s The Endless River under his leadership but haven’t gotten the overwhelming success of their previous albums. The band stopped touring after 1994 but have played one-offs here and there including a reunion with Waters at the Live 8 concert in 2005. Waters still tours playing his songs from Pink Floyd and solo while also getting involved in various political causes.
Pink Floyd may have helped to bring progressive rock into the mainstream but they weren’t the last. Going into the ‘80s, many other prog-rock acts crossed over to great success but unlike Pink Floyd had to stop being prog rock to do so.
Honorable mention: Despite the aforementioned disco backlash in 1980, one such album was too big to deny. Off The Wall was Michael Jackson’s fifth album but it was the first album where he introduced himself as a proper solo artist separate from his brothers enlisting the help of legendary producer Quincy Jones to create their own take on the disco sound. On the album, you can hear some of the signature Jackson trademarks forming but for the most part, he’s all full of youthful joy without the harder-edged style he would develop later on. Jackson’s singing and Quincy Jones’ lush productions make for a fun album full of instant bangers that’ll get you onto the dance floor.
Off The Wall was the solo breakthrough Jackson needed finishing as 1980’s #3 album selling nine million copies and landed four Top 10 hits, a record at the time for a solo artist and only the second artist after Fleetwood Mac. But of course, that was just the beginning of the cultural domination Michael Jackson would exude throughout the ‘80s which this column will be getting into soon enough!
Next time: REO Speedwagon hit it big with their brand of arena rock with Hi Infidelity