In We’re No. 1, A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be “popular” in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which went to No. 1 on Jan. 19, 1980, and stayed there for 15 weeks.

When we talk about rock history of the late ’70s, we tend to focus on music that even today resides in a subterranean bunker situated many miles below the surface of what Joe Sixpacks recognize as “real” rock ’n’ roll. For fans of punk and post-punk, the late ’70s were like a reset button on 20 years of tradition, a period when the Sex Pistols, in the words of Greil Marcus, “damned rock and roll as a rotting corpse” and used the music “as a weapon against itself.” But to everybody else—which, in spite of how it might appear to you and those you know, is a lot more people—that rotting corpse never looked sexier.


For most rock fans, the late ’70s wasn’t a period of change but of glorious stasis. It was the peak of arena (and sometimes stadium) rock, an era defined by corporate-sponsored brand names like Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Boston, Peter Frampton, and Bee Gees selling an unprecedented number of records and playing to more people in a single evening than all of the heroin addicts and drag queens and Village Voice writers that packed CBGB over the course of a whole year.

If punk really was a weapon used against the monsters of rock and disco ruling the airwaves, it clashed impotently against the cold hard steel of  “More Than A Feeling,” “Life In The Fast Lane,” and “How Deep Is Your Love.” For every safety-pinned and metal-studded true believer gobbing on Johnny Rotten in 1977, there were 20 people standing in their driveways and washing their black Trans Ams as side one of Rumours played on the cassette deck. Punk, perhaps, won the overall war, but at the time it was getting trounced in the battle against classic rock.

One of the most popular rock albums of the late ’70s and early ’80s was Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which still ranks among the most successful records ever with 23 million units sold. (That equals 11.5 million actual albums, since the RIAA counts double albums twice. In case you’re wondering: Yes, this is shady.) Superficially, The Wall represents everything that punk was supposed to stand against: A grandiose, deadly serious concept album with heavy theatrical leanings, Pink Floyd’s magnum opus consists of 26 songs that drag on for 81 minutes, each track peering with suffocating intimacy into the psyche of its principal creator, millionaire rock star Roger Waters. Live, the Floyd was even more indulgent, embarking on a series of concerts in Los Angeles, New York, and London that were widely described as the grandest concert spectacles in rock history, a designation those original Wall shows still deserve more than 30 years later.


The shows centered not on the band but on a huge wall made up of 420 white cardboard boxes that were stacked from one end of the stage to the other, and piled so high they nearly touched the spotlights hanging from the rafters. It was the pinnacle of arena-rock overload, “a startling, overpowering, eventually numbing production” that “simply knocked the audience over the head,” according to Rolling Stone. A highlight of the show occurred during “Comfortably Numb,” The Wall’s spaciest and most classically Floyd-sounding number, when guitarist David Gilmour suddenly appeared at the top of the most magnificent stage prop ever employed by a rock band, and unfurled his memorably majestic solo. It was a perfect arena-rock moment: dramatic, awe-inspiring, untouchable, and possibly a bit silly.

If ever there was an example of a rock band raising the stakes for live performance so high that no mere mortal could ever hope to mount his or her own version of it—the core complaint of the insurgent, do-it-yourself punks—it was Pink Floyd. But in his own extravagantly expensive, hopelessly larger-than-life way, Waters was just as disgusted with the status quo of big-time rock music. And on The Wall, he was prepared to offer a far more interesting perspective because he was an insider. Waters had first-hand knowledge as to why rock music needed to be destroyed. He was intimately acquainted with the alienation that comes from spending your life wandering through hotel rooms, tomb-like recording studios, and massive rock shows where 50,000 people stare at four tiny musicians traipsing about on a distant stage like dancing ants.


Broadly, The Wall is about the disconnection that all people feel toward one another. But it was inspired specifically by Waters no longer relating to his audience. In Waters’ view, Pink Floyd and its fans were dehumanized by the inescapable popularity of The Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here, which ushered the band out of its long-standing cult status and toward full-on, stadium-hopping rock stardom. The distancing effect that fame had on Waters—coupled with the Floyd’s stoner-friendly image, which clashed with Waters’ more high-minded sensibilities—contributed many bricks to the indomitable wall that his alter-ego “Pink” eventually tears down in The Wall.

In that sense, The Wall was an arena-rock record about arena rock—and possibly the last arena-rock record if Waters was at all successful at getting his ideas across. “I wanted to make comparisons between rock ’n’ roll concerts and war,” Waters later told Rolling Stone. “People at those big things seem to like being treated very badly, to have it so loud and distorted that it really hurts.” The Wall, in turn, was all about bringing those people the ultimate pain.

This is common knowledge to anyone who’s spent a good chunk of time trying to digest all the bile that Waters serves up over four sides of The Wall. Even for people who love it (and I count myself among those people), it’s not an easy record to experience from beginning to end. In many ways, The Wall is the punchiest and most direct Pink Floyd record: It has more songs than Meddle, Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals combined, mainly because those albums favor side-long suites that go on for 20 minutes. The Wall is more song-oriented; Waters has a ton of them, and he keeps underlining his themes with harder and harder strokes via pained, cracked-voiced dirges that are heavy on somber pianos and wrenching synths. I tend to cherry-pick the hits whenever I revisit the album—“Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2),” “Hey You,” “Comfortably Numb,” “Run Like Hell”—but that misses the point of The Wall, where the bloat is supposed to be the main attraction. To quote a band that’s been called the Pink Floyd of its generation, Waters hoped that you choked on The Wall.

The idea for The Wall crystallized during an epically shitty concert at Olympic Stadium in Montreal on July 6, 1977, the final date of Pink Floyd’s 55-show “In The Flesh” tour of Europe and North America in support of Animals. It was Floyd’s biggest tour yet, marking the first time (and last, with Waters anyway) it would regularly play stadiums. Waters, by his own account, spent the tour drudging through a miserable, self-absorbed snit, later telling BBC radio that he grew to resent the majority of shrieking, drunken concertgoers “who were only there for the beer.” At the same time he knew the “In The Flesh” tour was something “we [had] created ourselves, out of our own greed.” He came to see the tour as “a circus and meaningless ritual,” and rock ’n’ roll in general as “greed disguised as entertainment, just as war has become greed disguised as politics.”


Waters could almost be mistaken for John Lydon with that quote, even if he was enjoying his own forms of greed and pettiness on tour, like traveling to Pink Floyd gigs by helicopter while his bandmates arrived by relatively modest limousines. But no amount of comforts could ease the slow-motion meltdown Waters experienced during the tour, which culminated that night in Montreal, when Waters—in a telling inverse of the punk-rock practice of  “gobbing” on the band—spit directly in the face of a particularly annoying fan in the front row.

Relating the now-famous story to Rolling Stone, Waters called it “a very fascistic thing to do. It frightened me. But I’d known for a while during the tour—which I hated—that there was something very wrong.” Listening to a bootleg recording of the concert, another outburst by Waters during “Pigs On The Wing (Part 2),” which keeps getting interrupted by yahoos setting off fireworks, stands out. “Oh, for fuck's sakes, stop letting off fireworks and shouting and screaming, I'm trying to sing a song!” Waters says, sounding more exhausted than angry.

Along with the frustrating feeling that his so-called fans weren’t paying attention to the music that they had paid to hear, Waters sensed that the newly outsized scale of Pink Floyd’s live show had made the band strangely irrelevant at its own concerts. It was as if it didn’t matter that the real Pink Floyd was there at all. Waters played off this idea on The Wall’s opening track “In The Flesh?,” a goof on arena bombast performed by a look-alike Floyd live in concert, a caustic but insightful comment on how impersonal and faceless mega-selling bands like Pink Floyd had become by the end of the ’70s.

The Wall isn’t the only instance of a massively popular rock band sternly meditating on the torturous aftershocks of stardom, but it’s the most commercially successful example. That’s because Waters, for all his vitriolic rhetoric likening rock shows to combat, wasn’t really a punk. He was a populist. It didn’t matter that he hated actual people: He still sought, perhaps unconsciously, their acceptance, because like all insecure rock stars, the only thing Waters feared more than Pink Floyd being huge was Pink Floyd not being huge.


After Animals failed to sell as well as The Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd was suddenly amenable to the suggestion that The Wall, at the behest of co-producer Bob Ezrin, include a single for Top 40 radio. Lyrically, “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)” was a youth-gone-wild anthem in the vein of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” a song anyone who’s ever hated compulsory education (i.e. anyone subjected to compulsory education) could relate to. But it was the music that really made the song feel at home on the radio. With its chicken-scratch guitar and Waters’ subtly funky, disco-derived bass line, “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)” sounded like Chic with manic-depressive disorder. For the first time, you could actually dance to a Pink Floyd song, or at least entertain the possibility of dancing as you lay on the bed with your headphones on. Fittingly, in March 1980, “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)” became Pink Floyd’s first and only No. 1 hit, staying at the top of the charts for five weeks.

Funny enough, the chart success of “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)” inadvertently ended up being the most punk-rock aspect of The Wall, as far as exposing the inner rot of the music industry. As detailed by Fredric Dannen in his classic 1990 book Hit Men, the president of Pink Floyd’s record label, CBS’ Dick Asher, decided to conduct an experiment with “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2),” by not paying off the independent promoters CBS used to push singles on major radio stations in Los Angeles. The song certainly didn’t seem to need an extra push in February 1980: Floyd was scheduled to perform five sold-out Wall concerts at the Los Angles Sports Arena, and  “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)” was already moving up the charts.


Asher was trying to see if he could kill off a monster that had been created by the record industry—a monster that was now murdering his bottom line. Major labels had set up a system intended to prevent indies from getting their songs on the radio, using independent promoters as middle men to bribe station managers and program directors to play their latest product (and keep the little guys out). When I interviewed Tommy Shaw of Styx back in March, he talked about how he made pay-offs of various kinds himself, helping to make the band’s breakthrough song, 1977’s “Come Sail Away,” a Top 10 hit.

Jim and I would just be on these relentless campaigns with the local promo guys, or anyone who would come with us. And we would have a pocket full of, you know, fun-powder and cash, and we just went around and did everything that we could to get this song on the radio. We had big plans for that song, so we just went at it like a kamikaze: “We are going to get this on the radio or we are going to die trying.” We went coast to coast and gave away TV sets and VCRs and promised this and that—plane tickets, anything—and we got the bullet back.

Most artists weren’t as willing to get their hands dirty, so the labels kept independent promoters who were responsible for working dozens of radio stations on the payroll. One of these men was a native Philadelphian named Joe Isgro, a man who, as Dannen writes, “could have passed for a hood,” with his wardrobe of black shirts and custom-made suits, his pencil-thin mustache, and omnipresent bodyguards. (Isgro, who was alleged to have ties to the Gambino crime family, was later convicted of extortion.) Guys like Isgro took as much as $300,000 to promote one song, pocketing much of the cash for themselves. By 1985, labels were spending between $60 and $80 million on independent promoters.


Isgro was one of the men that Asher declined to pay off to promote “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)”; sure enough, in spite of Pink Floyd’s popularity, the four L.A. stations handled by CBS’ jilted independent promoters refused to play the song. Only when the money faucet was turned back on did “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)” become one of the most played songs on L.A. radio.

If The Wall exposed the fissures undoing the music industry, it also stands as a monument to a fading generation of bands. As the record topped the albums chart, many of Pink Floyd’s contemporaries were entering periods of decline or death—Led Zeppelin lost John Bonham and broke up; The Who lost Keith Moon and limped along for four years and two little-loved albums; John Lennon was murdered, officially making a Beatles reunion impossible; The Rolling Stones and Kinks carried into the ’80s as creatively compromised units; Bob Dylan and Neil Young would endure long fallow periods before resurging creatively in the ’90s.

As for Pink Floyd, there was no tearing down the wall that had gone up among the band members. In his zeal to express his personal vision of a rock band gone horribly wrong, Waters had poisoned his own rock band. He squeezed out keyboardist Rick Wright during the Wall sessions, and would soon direct his ire toward drummer Nick Mason. Gilmour was also estranged from the creative partner he’d eventually usurp at the head of Pink Floyd. “Back in the early ’70s we used to pretend that we were a group,” Waters told Rolling Stone. “We used to pretend that we all do this and we all do that, which of course wasn’t true. And at one point I started to get very resentful, because I was doing a lot more and yet we were all pretending that we were doing it.”


With The Wall, there was no mistaking that it was one man’s masterwork, but the bitter irony was that the creator had lost track of his own message in the process. There was no catharsis for Roger Waters, only a greater sense of disconnection. He was now encased inside a self-created world surrounded by white cardboard bricks—completely, utterly alone.

Coming up: Lady Gaga’s Born This Way