Nobody ever dismissed The Wall, the 1979 marathon rock opera by Pink Floyd, as mere three-chord rock. It’s much too arty, and speaks much too trenchantly about oppressive parents, teachers, and governments.
But three-chord rock, at least of a kind, is what this opus amounts to. The Wall’s harmony is simple; its melodies simplistic. So why not dress it up, as former Pink Floyd lead singer Roger Waters did in Berlin on July 21? Why not spice its original art-rock sound with the symphonic zing of the East Berlin Radio Orchestra and Choir, and the Military Orchestra of the Soviet Army (actually an extravagantly named concert band)? Why not brighten it with stars like Sinead O’Connor, Cyndi Lauper, Joni Mitchell, Bryan Adams, Tim Curry, Thomas Dolby, Van Morrison, and even Albert Finney, who shows up to play a speaking part in the trial scene that brings the piece to an end?
Of course, Waters had more than musical color in mind. The songs tell the story of a symbolic wall that rises and is then destroyed. In Berlin, a very real but equally symbolic barrier had recently fallen; Waters staged his show on the site of that Wall, in the former no-man’s land between East and West. But when you listen to this document of the massive event, it’s sound rather than significance that counts. And the music actually sounds better than it did before.
The show starts with a bang as Scorpions, West Germany’s heavy metal champs, give ”In the Flesh” more kick than Pink Floyd ever could. West German cabaret whiz Ute Lemper is the next star up, adding a taste of bitterness to ”The Thin Ice.” O’Connor, suprisingly, doesn’t bring much to ”Mother,” and Lauper mostly gets lost in the background vocals during ”Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2).” So it’s Joni Mitchell who emerges as the female vocal star, singing ”Goodbye Blue Sky” with an unexpected edge — and a playful accompaniment tootled by classical flute-meister James Galway, who has hyped himself as a serious-music pop star.
The male vocal standout is Waters himself, who of course plays Pink, the rock star antihero, and rants with just the right touch of megalomania. Instrumentally, the East German orchestra and the Soviet military band add their plush weight to the second half of the piece. They make a welcome appearance just when, in the original version, the stately pace of the music would be starting to pall. A guest appearance by three people called the Band doesn’t live up to its billing, which is no big surprise. In its great days in the ’60s, the Band was a five-member group. Pianist Richard Manuel, though, is dead, and guitarist Robbie Robertson didn’t play in Berlin. What we hear on the record should have been called ”three guys who used to be in the Band.”
So Galway emerges as the instrumental star, and ”Goodbye Blue Sky” turns out to be the extravaganza’s musical peak. But then, who’d have thought an inflated Wall would sound far more pointed and precise than the original, and more genuinely dramatic, too? Against all odds, Roger Waters has brought us the most satsifying classic-rock record so far this year. B+