Pink Floyd began their career as an experimental, psychedelic rock group of the late sixties, but by the seventies the band had shifted directions to progressive, conceptual art rock under the newly assumed leadership of Roger Waters. In 1979, Waters and Pink Floyd would record and release their most ambitious project – a rock opera called The Wall. From the heart of this album came a revolutionary single, “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2,” bringing together progressive grooves and production alongside iconic rock sounds and provocative themes and lyrics, and topped off with a haunting, unforgettable children’s chorus.
Pink Floyd was founded in London in the early sixties when several architecture and art students began playing music while attending school together. Guitarist and singer Roger “Syd” Barret, bassist Roger Waters, keyboardist Rick Wright and drummer Nick Mason form the first consistent lineup of the group as they started gigging regularly together in 1965, building their name out of two blue musicians: “Pink Anderson” and “Floyd Council”
By 1966 they had combined their rhythm and blues repertoire with an innovative light show, establishing themselves as leaders of the progressive psychedelic scene in England. Their early performances and recordings were centered on free improvisations, and songs written by Barrett. This can be seen in their debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in 1967. But as the band’s relationship with Barrett dissolved by decade’s end, they moved in new directions under the leadership of another founding member – Roger Waters.
As the new primary lyricist and creative, conceptual force behind the band, Waters pushed Pink Floyd in new experimental directions. The addition of David Gilmour on guitar in 1967 also contributed to this development in the band’s sound and creative output.
1973’s release of The Dark Side of the Moon kicked off what is often viewed as the band’s classic period. Certainly, it is when they started to receive more international, and especially American attention. The period also reflects the darker turn in Waters’ own creativity which he brought to the band. Themes of alienation, insanity and death became recurring elements of his writing, epitomized in the band’s 1979 double album The Wall.
A semi-autobiographical reflection on Water’s own life, trauma and success, The Wall is often viewed as a rock opera, in which the songs work together to tell a story of a depressed rock star, Pink, who falls into a nightmarish hallucination as he builds a metaphorical wall of isolation around himself. The key musical composition that builds this wall is the triptych of “Another Brick in the Wall.” Each part acts as its own song detailing a specific moment in the plot.
Part 1 of “Another Brick in the Wall” centers on the death of Pink’s father in WW2 and the resulting overprotective parenting of his mother. The longing for a lost father is plot detail which has clear autobiographical connections to Waters whose own father was killed during the war when the future musician was only 5 months old. The details of Water’s father’s death were only recently discovered, in 2013, and The Wall represents the musician’s struggle with growing up without ever having known his father or even what happened to him. Waters later explained: “I was very angry….Because he was missing in action, presumed killed, until quite recently I expected him to come home.” In the final part of “Another Brick in the Wall” Pink’s character devolves into a violent breakdown in which he completes building his metaphorical wall, and thus, his isolation from the world around him
But it is the middle section of the composition, “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2,” which has gone on to achieve a life of its own. In the context of the album’s plot, it reflects upon the trauma of an oppressive school system and manifests as a haunting protest against educators who would suppress and control student thinking in an effort to force conformity on their generation.
Waters first developed and presented his ideas and music demos for The Wall to Gilmour, Wright and Mason in July of 1978. Wright later recalled thinking when he first heard the tapes: “Oh, here we go again—it’s all about the war, about his mother, about his father being lost.” It took the efforts of Producer Bob Ezrin to get the band excited about the project. He took Water’s demos and managed to translate them into a coherent storyline for the band to read through before recording the album. Ezrin explained: “…I ended up producing like a forty-page book that night … The next day at the studio, we had a table read, like you would with a play, but with the whole of the band, and their eyes all twinkled, because then they could see the album.”
Waters’ demos for The Wall began at Britannia Row studio in London – a studio which Pink Floyd had built in 1975, after the completion of their album Wish You Were Here. They had used it to record their 1977 album Animals. In January of 1979, the band travelled to France to record much of The Wall working between Super Bear Studios and Studio Miraval. In September and October of 1979, production switched to New York’s CBS Studios. Here they worked with conductor and arranger Michael Kamen and the New York Philharmonic to fill out the album’s orchestration.
The band also used Los Angeles’s Cherokee Studios and the Producer’s Workshop to complete some of the recording and the mixing for the album. When it came to recording “Another Brick in the Wall – part 2” the initial tracks sounded, according to Mason, like “a funereal, gloomy thing.” Ezrin looked back to his recent work at Record Plant in New York where he had been working with Nils Lofgren at the same time that the disco band Chic was recording in the studios. He suggested that the band bring in a Chic-style groove to the track – a surprising and yet phenomenal juxtaposition of brightness against the dark, traumatic theme and haunting, repetitive vocals. Gilmour’s funky and edgy guitar solo pairs the perfect sound with this now iconic groove.
The final touch, of course, is the addition of the children’s chorus. In a song which repeatedly declares
We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teacher Leave them Kids Alone
The power of adding children’s voices to the sound of protest is undeniable. To achieve this effect, engineer James Guthrie sent the tapes to Britannia Row engineer Nick Griffiths with the request to fill in with youth voices. He explained:
“we actually sent Nick a 24 track tape, with a stereo mix of the song on 2 tracks and asked him to fill up the rest of the tracks with different performances of the kids. That way we would have plenty of choices when making a balance, which we then transferred to the master tape. On one take, he put some of the kids into an echoey stair well. I used a lot of that one in the mix. It really helped to increase the size of the chorus”.
So Giffith contacted the nearby Islington Green School, where he was lucky enough to find a music teacher, Alun Renshaw, who was equally as anti-establishment as the song’s lyrics. Without asking for permission from the school administration, he brought in 23 students to the studio – under the agreement that the school orchestra could have some recording time there. Griffiths reflected positively on the experience: “Everybody had a whale of a time. It took just half an hour to do, then I tracked the voices about a dozen times.” The effect was brilliant. Waters recalls the first time he heard the children’s voices in the mix: “I feel shivery now remembering the feeling of hearing those kids sing that song”
“Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” was released as a single on November 23, 1979, a week ahead of the full album on November 30. Guthrie recalls the the decision to release the song as a single: “As the album took shape, ‘Brick 2’ was clearly the best choice for a first single. We were not trying to make it blatantly commercial, just a good groove. But the commerciality of Roger’s chorus hook was already clear on his demo and the school kids certainly helped”. Ezrin, too, was convinced that the song would be a hit single. He explained: “I pushed it through because I knew that it was an undeniable hit song. The band was not interested in singles but that was the culture I came from and so I was determined to make it into one.”
The song hit number 1 on both the UK singles Chart and the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart as well as in several other countries including: Switzerland, Sweden, South Africa, Portugal, Norway, New Zealand, Germany, Austria, France, Finland, Ireland and Canada. And in the top 5 in Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Belgium and Australia. The response was powerful and lasting, although there was some pushback to the song’s critical lyrics. Water’s recalled: “People were driven to frenzies of rage by the song. They thought that when I said, ‘We don’t need no education,’ that it was a kind of crass, revolutionary standpoint—[but] if you listen to it in context, it clearly isn’t at all.”
Despite this critique, the song’s legacy has extended for decades, as has that of the album. In 1983, the song won a British Academy Award for the Best Original Song for its appearance in the film version of The Wall. And the album was nominated for two 1980 Grammys: “Album of the Year” and “Best Performance by A Duo or Group With Vocal.” Both the song and the album have cemented the band’s legacy as one of the most creative forces in rock music history. In 1996, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 2005 they were inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame.
Written By: Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Watch the video below to learn more about Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2!