Congratulations, you’ve survived the 2010s.
The end of 2019 also meant the end of the ‘tens’. And no, I don’t know anyone who called them that either. Then again I don’t know anyone who used the same moniker a hundred years from today, but I digress…
Kicking off another new decade in contemporary style forty years ago, on January 7th 1980 I started a new middle school, Springfield County Combined in Buckinghamshire. Springfield was a newly built modern get up slightly further away from what would become our local pride and joy, the listed Bletchley Park heritage site where Alan Turing had been that Enigma man from the future in World War II.
An educator of a slightly more pedestrian sort, in a classroom that looked out onto the compact playing fields my teacher was a Mr Pearson. I was immediately struck by his appearance. Medium brown hair, ill-fitting suit and gold rimmed spectacles half concealing rather bulging eyes, which would, as it turned out, becoming bulgier the more riled he got.
It was too easy to pretend he was the inspiration behind the giant teacher puppet in the video for Another Brick In The Wall, which was sitting atop the charts that very week, but the likeness was uncanny. That the 1980s had begun just as the 1970s had ended — with Roger Waters’ direct frontal attack on the school system and one of the most explicitly anti-establishment hits of our times— was a lesson called irony. We even discussed the song in class, among new inventions like newfound silicon chips, microwaves and the like. Does it also count as ironic that the cynical centrepiece of a dusty prog band’s concept album about the hollowness of success became their biggest-ever hit single? Nevertheless, it remains my favourite Pink Floyd song.
After the Syd Barrett era, Pink Floyd didn’t chase after hit singles, in fact they barely released any 45s to even qualify. Instead, they developed concept albums for stereophonic stoner experiences. Until Another Brick In The Wall, the only Top 40 hit the group had in the US during the 1970s was Money from Dark Side Of The Moon. In their native Britain you’d have to go back even further — the last time they’d entered the UK singles charts had been with See Emily Play way back in June 1967, two years to the week before I was even born.
There are a few versions of how Another Brick In The Wall was shaped into surprise single it became. According to producer Bob Ezrin, he felt like the song was a surefire hit, but the original recording as designated for the Floyd’s alienation epic The Wall was little more than a 90-second interlude with only one chorus and one verse. Drawing on his experience on Alice Cooper’s defiant glam anthem School’s Out, he decided to make use of a children’s voices — stand to attention Islington Green School choir — to repeat the first verse, reinforcing the theme of public education being more about discipline than intellectual advancement. For his part, the author-bassist Roger Waters has also claimed that it was his idea to have the kid’s choir. But then he would, wouldn’t he.
What is undisputed is that Ezrin somehow convinced these hoary old concept proggers to make it a thumping post-disco track. The result is a veritable wonder of a pop song that’s one of the most progressive things Pink Floyd ever did.
For the tracking of Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2 (or Part II, depending on whether you bought the single or the album) the band, as drummer Nick Mason recollected in Inside Out: A Personal History Of Pink Floyd, set the tempo “at a metronomic 100 beats per minute, which was the ideal disco beat.”
On its surface, Another Brick In The Wall doesn’t sound like the work of one of the most experimental bands in rock history. But dig deeper and your mind is blown. And for rock audiences, it expanded the narrowview that four-on-the-floor wasn’t just for a high energy club experience. Discounting little things like covert racism and latent homophobia, the criticism of disco often amounted to charges that the music’s unvarying beat was formulaic and soulless. Yet those perceived qualities made the genre a perfect addition to dad-rock diatribes about conformity.
As part of a three-part triptych on The Wall, “Part 2” functions as a protest song against oppressive rigid schooling from the perspective of the children. Along with shouted orders and mocking statements by presumed teachers, grinding conformity is represented by the dark pulse of the disco bassline, the music’s ponderousness actually helping the song build its sour, acrid atmosphere which wells into the unfettered individuality of a big old Dave Gilmour guitar solo – hurrah! It also sets up the depression and subsequent withdrawal of the main character in the 1982 movie based on the album, starring future Live Aid organiser Bob Geldof. Cue the Irishman.
The message of Another Brick In The Wall is education is thought control, uniformity is evil. The massed choir of cockney kids singing “We don’t need no…” has a creepy power as the song’s promotional video shows the flower of youthful creativity ruthlessly crushed by frustrated men grinding kids through their sausage machine. The moral of the tale? If we don’t watch out this will end up in a fascist state where we’re all ruled by robot hammers reinforcing and delivering the smack of firm government, a job the new Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher delighted in administering, herself a former education secretary notoriously nicknamed Thatcher The Milk Snatcher when she reduced the availability of free school milk for juniors, myself included.
Roger Waters’ sledgehammer politics weren’t for everyone, and his championing of the individual may not have extended to the contributions of his band “mates”, but thanks to them (and the kids) this song does a job. The one it set out to do? I don’t know – when you mix individualism and misanthropy you can easily end up with nihilism, and there’s a cackling viciousness to the cockney kids’ Artful Dodger-aping voices to remind us that life without teacher might be scarier than Waters imagines.
The former “I’m in charge” bassist’s immense bitterness and misanthropy coloured and curdled almost everything he and Floyd did after this — which, sadly, extends to the present day — and with a dash of post-rationalisation, Another Brick In The Wall can be seen as a last hurrah.
The single charted in Britain the week ending 1 December 1979 — the birthday of my occasionally oppressive (to a ten-year old ‘free spirit’ at least) father. A week later we moved into new bricks and mortar — a brand new house in a rural village on the edge of Milton Keynes — and a week after that ‘Brick’ hit the top spot, where it remained defiantly right through the Christmas* and New Year holiday, with its fifth and final week in pole position that very week I started at the new school.
Gee, education’s a funny thing. I wonder what became of Mr Pearson.
*A year later, in December 1980, I made my first known television appearance on television when I was part of our own Springfield school choir singing Christmas carols on a local Anglia TV programme. This was a full five years before my father splashed out on a video recorder so I’ve not seen the broadcast since, but if I recall correctly it was the end segment of the BBC’s Look East regional news programme. Totally coincidentally, the area where we were standing was the east end of Middleton Hall, right outside the main entrance to John Lewis, the very spot the PM so reviled by Waters, Mrs Thatcher herself, had stood to declare the Central Milton Keynes shopping centre was well and truly open.
It’s a funny old world.
Thanks to FreakyTrigger for the additional reporting