Thursday, June 25, 2009

GWVW # 77: "What a Concept!"

Gem Music Video of the Week # 77:  What a Concept!
Song:  Hey You by Pink Floyd
Covered Here by: Paul Carrack
(Songwriter: Roger Waters)
June 25, 2009

Of the many great shows I’ve been fortunate to witness among the best were beginning-to-end performances of concept albums.  These included:

• ‘Tommy’ > Deaf, dumb and blind boy makes good, sharing his musical dreams with the world (as performed by The Who in Foxboro, 1989 and as directed by Des McAnuff in the Broadway stage adaptation, 1993)

• ‘New York’ > A sobering take on life on the back streets of the Big Apple (Lou Reed, Orpheum Theatre, Boston, 1989)

• ‘Quadrophenia’ > Four personalities in one angst-ridden scooter-cruising British ‘Mod’ (as performed by The Who at Madison Square Garden, NY, 1996 and Worcester MA, 1997)

• ‘Preservation Act II’ > Mr Flash and Mr Black; corruption at both ends of the political spectrum (originally written and performed by The Kinks, covered brilliantly by Mick Maldonado and other local musicians at the Middle East Club in Central Square, Cambridge, 1999)

• ‘Pyschoderelict’ > Fictional character Ray High’s mid-life creative crisis and recovery (as performed by Pete Townshend and company, Great Woods, 1995)

• ‘Greendale’ > Small town multi-generational saga in post-911 rural California (Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Great Woods, 2003)

• ‘X-Ray’ > Ray Davies’ performing his ‘unauthorized autobiography’ in song, Westbeth Theatre, Greenwich Village, 1997

• ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ > Musical adaptation of the last days of Jesus’ life, performed at the Hatch Shell in Boston, mid 70’s (as composed by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber)

For a concept album to work on stage, the storyline needs to connect with the audience at some level.  Often, the musicians performing it are known for hits from other albums, and some in the crowd may not be receptive to the fact that they will be hearing a singular set of songs from one release (which may include very obscure cuts).  The musicians know this (either intuitively or by hearing the scattered expressions of displeasure in front of them), but put on the spot, the best of them can rise to the occasion and perform a show for the ages. 

Concept albums are often a reflection of the times in which they were written.  They may also be visionary, which can make a revival performance of them years later an intense experience.  One performance of a concept album, in particular, stands out in my mind as among the penultimate events in the past 50 years in terms of spectacle, high drama, and timeliness:  The Roger Waters-lead performance of his former band’s (Pink Floyd) 1980 recording ‘The Wall’ in Berlin in 1990 (just after the Berlin Wall was neutralized).  This was truly a concert for the history books.  A bit of background is in order.

When I first traveled Europe with Bob Mainguy (who, by the way, just announced the birth of a daughter, Andrea, this past week) in 1986, the Berlin Wall remained an enduring reminder of the Cold War and the division of Europe into Eastern Bloc and Western NATO countries.  As we scoped out our plans for travel early that summer, we were in a position to take advantage of a fairly unique opportunity:  Since Bob had dual citizenship in Canada and Belgium he was allowed to purchase the for-Europeans-only Inter-rail train pass, which included the option to travel to countries on the East side of the Iron Curtain.  He was also allowed to take a guest.  

The other option was Eurail, which was standard fare for Americans and was restricted to Western Europe.  We were torn.  Eurail was cheaper and included Ireland (Inter-rail did not).  Inter-rail involved jumping through a few additional visa-related hoops.  But the thought of traveling to the verboten hinterlands of Eastern Bloc countries like Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, and Romania was enticing, and it took us a few days to make a decision.  We ultimately settled for Eurail, which nonetheless had us traveling far and wide on a whirlwind tour of 14 countries (a few years later, I would get to travel into a less restrictive Eastern Europe <Yugoslavia> by car with Nancy).

The very thought of crossing into such an isolated region at the time seemed a bit surreal.  Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were indeed closed off from the Western world, perhaps not to the degree as North Korea is now, but close enough.  And the Berlin Wall symbolized this divide.  It was always clear who the wall was there to keep out (West) and who it was there to keep in (East).  Meeting someone from across the demarcation was a novelty:  It rarely happened. 

Roger Waters wrote the songs for ‘The Wall’ as a story line which centers on the life of fictional character ‘Pink’, a famous rock star who becomes increasingly isolated from his friends, family and audience.  The story also covers Pink’s past, and reveals the trauma of his youth (a badgering, mindless schoolmaster > “The Happiest Days of Our Lives”; an over-protective mother > “Mother”).  The ‘Wall’ slowly gets built between him and everyone else.  Eventually he tunes everything out and enters a world all unto himself.  It’s not a happy world by any means, and the closing songs on the album focus on his efforts to break down this emotional ‘Wall’ he has erected.

There is a duality in the meaning of this concept album, however, which comes out in the Berlin concert.  Pink’s isolation includes his imagining an alternative life as a dictator of a foreign land.  References to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia are unmistakable.  Isolation remains a central theme at this level as well.

The concert in Berlin was released on video in the early 90’s.  I recall walking through a mall and catching the video on a TV screen, which was showing a particularly poignant part of the story. Roger Waters, playing the character of Pink, ignores a ringing phone and tosses furniture out the window of a stage prop apartment room high above the crowd, while singing ‘One of My Turns’, as The Wall gets built below him and around him.

It was not long before I had a purchased copy of the video in hand.  I’ve since watched it numerous times (if anyone wants to check it out, I can send it your way).

At the end of the show, this immense wall comes tumbling down, much like the Berlin Wall had only months earlier just a few blocks away.  The concert was performed as a celebration of that event. 

The Gem Video, ‘Hey You’ sung by Paul Carrack (of Squeeze), is the first song that is played after the entire Wall has been erected.  All songs before and after are performed in front of the crowd of 250,000, but Carrack, in what is one of the most unique moments in the annals of live performance, gets to sing to a wall, with a quarter-million people on the other side.  Roger Waters stands behind him in the shadows (can anyone make out the singular line from the song that Waters sings?).

Following ‘Hey You’ are a few other video cuts from the concert, including ‘One of My Turns’ and ‘The Trial’ (at the end of which, The Wall comes tumbling down > note Albert Finney as the judge, Thomas Dolby as the schoolmaster and Marianne Faithful as the mother).

- Pete

“But it was only fantasy
  The Wall was too high as you can see”

Gem Video: ‘Hey You’

‘One of My Turns’

‘The Trial’

A few bonus tracks for Squeeze fans (Paul Carrack) > yes, that’s you, Becca

‘Cool For Cats’

‘Coffee in Bed’

About the Video: The one and only Roger Waters Concert at the Berlin Wall (or, what was left of it)

Video Rating: 1
Best Feedback: Tom

Hi Pete, at first I was in a rush and went down to the bottom gems you chose - and upon seeing "Hey You" right away thought of the most recent 311 hit song:

which is likely the pace of most younger folk today, no doubt

So just went back to read the entire write-up - and thanks yet once more for a most informative write-up!

Cuz Tom

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