NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Welcome back to the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I’m Comfortably Numb.
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I have a cool trivia question for you: With the release of the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody,the SONG “Bohemian Rhapsody” has entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart for the third time, entering the chart at Number 33. It was last on the chart in 1992,when it got a boost to the Number Two position from the film Wayne’s World, and of course it charted on its original release in 1976, when it topped out at Number Nine. But there’s another song, by another artist, which has reached the Hot 100 chart FOUR times over the years. Name the song and the artist. Once again, “Bohemian Rhapsody”has charted three times; name the song that’s charted four times. I’ll have the answer at the end of the show.
[PIGS—THREE DIFFERENT ONES]
In 1977, Pink Floyd released their tenth studio album, titled Animals. And, as bands do, they did a concert tour to support the album. This tour, formally titled the “In the Flesh Tour,” was their first one that took place in large venues such as stadiums,and there were aspects of it that the band especially disliked. In an interview with the Radio Times, songwriter and bass player Roger Waters said that he was especially upset that concerts, quote, “became a social event rather than a more controlled and ordinary relationship between musicians and an audience …The front sixty rows seemed to be screaming and shouting and rocking and swaying and not really listening to anything. And those further back could see bugger-all anyway.” Unquote. Gerald Scarfe writes that on the final date of the tour, in Montreal, some of the fans irritated Waters so much that he actually spat at them, and at that same show, guitarist David Gilmour refused to play a final encore. He just sat at the soundboard and did nothing, which basically forced the rest of the band to improvise a slow blues bit. Later that night,Waters spoke with music producer Bob Ezrin and Ezrin’s friend, who happened to be a psychiatrist, about a sense of alienation he was getting from playing the shows. He said something about wanting to build a wall across the stage between the performers and the audience.
The band took a planned break from each other after the tour.A couple of them worked on solo projects or helped with other musicians’projects, and Roger Waters in the meantime started writing some songs that were inspired by the spitting incident. He conceived of a series of songs that chronicled the protagonist’s growing isolation as the result of years of abusive or otherwise traumatic interactions between himself and the adult authority figures in his life.
After about a year, the band re-convened to talk about their next project, and Waters had two concepts in mind. This was one of them, which had the working title Bricks in the Wall,and the other was a series of a man’s dreams. The band chose the first project and the second one ultimately became Waters’ solo album The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking.
Later that year, the band got caught up in some serious financial trouble when their financial planners made some risky investments that didn’t go well, and while they weren’t held responsible for the deals,they were still hit with a huge tax bill. David Gilmour became more personally involved with the business side of things, and so Roger Waters decided to bring someone in to help manage the album project. At his girlfriend’s suggestion, he hired Bob Ezrin, who had previously worked with Lou Reed, Kiss, Peter Gabriel,and if you remember Episode 49 of this show, Alice Cooper. That’s actually an important detail later in this story. Waters gave Ezrin a lot of latitude to work on the album, but he also noted that Ezrin wouldn’t be getting any credit.But with Ezrin’s input, Waters and Gilmour managed to both broaden and focus the story into less of an autobiography and more of a cohesive rock opera where a wall is built metaphorically by the music, and literally during the show.
[RUN LIKE HELL]
The storyline of the album is pretty straightforward: a character named Pink, who was based loosely on former band member Syd Barrett,loses his father during a war, and he starts to build a metaphorical wall around himself. He’s oppressed by his mother, and further tortured by abusive teachers, but eventually becomes a rock star, with the attendant accoutrements of sex, drugs, infidelity and violence. At one point, Pink, realizing that his wife is being unfaithful to him, takes a groupie back to his hotel room but he winds up in a rage, trashing the room and scaring her away. Shortly after this,the wall itself is complete and he’s thoroughly isolated from everyone. He becomes severely depressed and it takes medical intervention to get him to perform on stage. Unfortunately, the drugs lead him into a hallucination where he becomes a fascist dictator, setting an army of brown shirts against audience members he finds to be unworthy. As he starts emerging from the hallucination,he realizes what he’s done and places himself on trial, where the judge wall to be torn down. Musically, the album ends in such a way that it could be conceivably rejoined to the beginning, suggesting that there’s an ongoing cycle going on.
And the entire thing is pulled together by the title track,“Another Brick in the Wall,” which is presented in three parts. Each part has a similar tune and lyrical structure, but as the album progresses to each part,the singer becomes louder and angrier.
So in Part One he’s kind of sad and resigned…
…and shortly after that we move into Part Two, where Pink is a schoolboy and feeling a little more defiant…
[PART II CLIP]
…and finally we get to Part Three, which takes place after the breakdown in the hotel room. He’s sad, angry, and defiant, and it’s at this point that Pink decides to put the last few bricks in his wall.
Now, The Wall is a double album, and as I mentioned this three-part song ties the whole thing together even though we’re barely out of Side Two, but that doesn’t really matter, because the rest of the album is dedicated to the steps that bring the whole thing down. The song itself is about the construction of the wall.
But let’s concentrate on Part Two, which is the first single to come from the album, and became Pink Floyd’s only Number One hit in the United States, the UK and many countries around the world.
There are two big differences between this track and the other two, and both of those differences can be attributed to Bob Ezrin. The first would be the beat of the song, which has a bit of a disco flavor to it. Ezrin was a fan of the band Chic, and suggested to David Gilmour that they set the song to a disco beat, and encouraged him to visit a couple of clubs and see what they’re doing with disco music. Gilmour took his advice and didn’t really like what he heard in the clubs, but agreed to add the beat to one of the parts to make it a little more catchy. The rest of the band was resistant as well,but Waters let Ezrin have his head to play around with the song for awhile. Ezrin added the disco beat and thought he had something going on, but he also thought the song needed to be longer, with two verses and two choruses rather than the one of each that it had. And here’s where Ezrin’s other idea comes into play. Because the song is about school children, Ezrin lifted an idea he used in Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”, where a children’s choir sang part of the song. He went to the Islington Green School, which was close to the studio where he was working, and had the school chorus come in to sing the second verse and chorus of the record. When Roger Waters heard the new version afterward, he was completely turned around on the whole thing and realized that this was truly going to work. David Gilmour was still skeptical, but he did agree that the song still sounded like a Pink Floyd track, so he was on board.
Now, there was a little bit of controversy surrounding the song, as it turned out. I mean, sure: teachers didn’t really like the surface anti-education theme, which I get when the song is presented without context,but the other problem was that the Islington chorus wasn’t paid for their work.Eventually they received a lump payment of a thousand pounds, a platinum record and some recording time in a studio, but that all came several years later.
And in a related event, in 1994 a royalties agent named Peter Rowan recognized that under a copyright law from 1996, the chorus members were eligible for royalties based on broadcasts, so he went to a website called Friends United and tracked down the choir members—who by then were in their thirties—to put in a claim for royalties. Supposedly Rowan was more interested in a reunion of the choir than he was in the money, but you can make that call.
Now, there are two versions of the song out there. One is the single version, which has a nice, clean little introduction before moving into the first verse:
And the other one is a sudden cut from the previous track, called “The Happiest Days of Our Lives”…
Nowadays, since radio stations often work from the album cuts, they usually play “Happiest Days” and “Another Brick Part 2” together,because the single version isn’t broadly available. “Another Brick Part 2” just segues into the final track on the side, called “Mother,” but it’s easier to fade the song there than it is to come in on the sudden cut.
Finally, just because it took me forever to decode what was going on, I’m going to give a little boost to those of you who haven’t been able to figure out what the adults are saying in the song. First, all of the voices are provided by Roger Waters, who’s been quoted as saying he’s pretty good at doing mad Scotsmen and high court judges. So let’s go with the radio airplay, which start with “Happiest Days of Our Lives,” which opens with an adult shouting:
[YOU, YES YOU]
He’s shouting “You! Yes, you! Stand still, laddie!”
Now, we move to the end of the track and we hear this:
Now, everyone can hear the meat and pudding thing, but in the background we’re also hearing someone shouting “Wrong! Do it again!” over and over. And then finally as it fades out altogether to segue into “Mother”, that original shout comes back, but he’s added something. Now, it’s “You! Yes,you behind the bike sheds! Stand still, laddie!”
It’s time to answer this week’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I noted that the Queen song Bohemian Rhapsody has made it to the Hot 100 three times since its original release, but another song has done it four times. The song is by Prince, and it’s his song “1999”. In October of 1982 it first reached the chart, and it peaked at Number 44 by December. Then it dropped off the chart for a few months. But when “Little Red Corvette” became his first Top Ten hit, “1999” re-entered the chart in June of 1983 and reached Number 12. Then, of course, in January of 1999, the song came back again for a single week at the Number 40 position. That one came as a little bit of a surprise to me, only because I thought it would have charted in December rather than January. And the fourth time we saw “1999” on the Billboard Singles chart was in May of 2016, just a few weeks after Prince’s death.
And, that’s it for this edition of How Good It Is.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is to return to Shel Silverstein.
Thank you so much for listening, and I will talk to you then.