By ProgBlog, Mar 20 2016 11:29PM
Pink Floyd The Wall – Earls Court, London, 14 June 1981
Well they say “better late than never”, but almost 35 years after this seminal event may be pushing
it a bit. This show is probably the best known live show to prog fans the world over, although some
don’t consider The Wall to be prog, and there are no less than THREE officially released (different)
live shows on CD (from 1980/1, 1990 and 2010-13) and two different DVD releases. So I probably
don’t really need to tell you much about the show itself, who played what, track listing etc but let
me tell you about the experience of three fourteen year olds marking a rite of passage with their
first gig, because that was something really special.
I’ve often thought about this show, and I didn’t realise how big a deal it was at the time, nor how
significant it would be afterwards. My gig debut was the fourth from last gig the Roger Waters’
Floyd played, notwithstanding their fleeting and triumphant swansong at Live 8 some 24 years
later. Of course we didn’t know that at the time, nor of the enmity in the band, and we thought
seeing PF may become a regular event. Since this show there’s only been one gig in amongst the
hundreds of shows I’ve seen that can compare for the sheer spectacle – and that was the Wall tour
that Waters brought to the UK in 2011! When you consider the technology and the money available
for all the mega tours undertaken since 1981 I guess that’s quite something.
My first introduction to this live show was when my brothers and some friends (including your blog
host Gareth) went to London to see the first round of Wall gigs in August 1980. The very next day I
became the proud owner of an official tour T Shirt, costing about £4, which I barely took off for the
next couple of years. There was excited talk of building a wall on stage, then demolishing it and
lots of inflatables, projections, crashing planes, flying pigs and the like. About a month later I
bought a triple album bootleg from the ‘tour’ (if you could call 4 cities - New York, LA, London and
Dortmund - a tour) and immediately became aware of the audio treat that I’d missed out on,
including the great track “What Shall We Do Now?” which was missed off the studio album, but
tantalisingly had the lyrics printed on the inner sleeve. I remember being really struck by the guitar
solo on Comfortably Numb, which was just out of this world. It still makes the hairs on my neck
stand up even now, and is probably (well almost) the only song I will play air guitar to in the privacy
of my own home.
It all went a bit wrong for Floyd soon after those original shows, and they lost a lot of money when
a company they’d heavily invested in (Norton Warburg) went into receivership. The rumours at the
time were that the set of Wall shows in June 1981 were arranged to recover some of their lost
millions. I can’t see they were ever facing a life on the streets, and in hindsight the cost of re-
convening for just five more shows in London to 90,000 people (at £8.50 a throw, so about
£750,000 of ticket sales) was unlikely to fix it, but it seemed vaguely plausible at the time. It’s well
known now that the only band member to make any money from The Wall tours was Rick Wright,
and that’s only because he’d been sacked and was paid a fixed fee.
So, back to summer 1981. Derek at Earthquake records in Barrow sticks the hand scrawled piece
of paper in the window “Pink Floyd, London, £20 coach and ticket”. My friends and I discuss it and
decide we want in, then I recall lengthy discussions with mums and dads and a few days of
deliberation. I must give credit to my folks, because I doubt that I’d have let my 14 year old son and
two of his mates go on a 600 mile round trip on a bus to London, but finally we were given the go
We set off down to London at midnight, and arrived at Victoria coach station about 6.30am. After a
couple of hours surfing the tube, and then checking out the museums, we ended up sitting outside
Earls Court in the sunshine for much of the afternoon with lots of other PF fans, soaking up the
atmosphere, avoiding a lot of dodgy blokes selling bogus merchandise, and hoping for a glimpse of
the band. Actually I can’t remember if there was any atmosphere or whether it was just loads of
other travelling fans that had nothing better to do and nowhere else to go. Earls Court was a beast
of a place, and I remember looking up at this massive concrete monolith and struggling with its
scale and its 18000 capacity, a quarter of the population of my home town, and by far the biggest
indoor music venue in the country until the O2 came along.
After hours of waiting we were allowed in and promptly spent months worth of savings on T shirts
(3!), a large poster of a massive arse, programmes, postcards, badges etc – young fans well and
truly relieved of all of their cash. After taking our seats the opening bars of In The Flesh finally rang
out, and I swear the whole building shook, then it all really kicked off with smoke bombs and the
crashing Stuka. What a start. The show was immense and totally immersive, and the sound was
just wonderful, with the band allegedly spending half a million pounds perfecting it. We had pretty
reasonable seats, half way up the left hand side about a third of the way along from the stage, but
for a show of this scale it wouldn’t have mattered that much where you sat. The audience was
fascinating, a few kids like us and a lot of people five to fifteen years older and then some quite
respectable looking “old” people (around 50 – 60!) who were there to see the show as they would
any other piece of theatre. That really surprised me at the time, I was expecting a rock gig not a
west end show.
We knew the show was being filmed, but some of us were nervous about seeing our acne covered
selves at the Astra in Barrow some months down the track, ah the insecurity of youth. The Wall film
that arrived a year later in 1982 turned out to be something different to what we’d expected, so we
were spared, and so was everyone else. If you look on Youtube you can find some very low quality
footage of this tour, much to the band’s chagrin I’m sure, but there’s no pimply teens to be seen.
The show went all too quickly and the highlight for me was, of course, Comfortably Numb, during
which Dave Gilmour stood on top of the wall, heavily backlit, and drowned the place in that guitar
solo. The crowd went nuts at the end of it, so I don’t think it was just my highlight. A side and a bit
later the wall came down, looking a bit battered after being torn down almost thirty times before.
The band were cheered off and someone close by called for an encore of something from
Dark Side. Optimism beyond belief.
After that it was the long trip home on the coach, with it seemingly taking hours to get out of
London, and a return home about 6.30am. I’m pretty sure I got the day off school that day, which
after seeing the Floyd the night before was the icing on the cake.
Ten years later I met my future wife Jayne, who had also been to one of the 1981 shows. Her
experiences of the day were very similar to mine, we might have met, and it turned out that she’d
decided afterwards that the man she would eventually marry would need to have seen Pink Floyd
at least once. I’m still undecided whether that was a quest to find someone with a deep seated
synergy in life’s outlook, or just someone who is a bit cynical.
So how did it all compare to the RW tour thirty years later? That one entailed a more stylish arrival
(at the O2) by Thames Clipper. Well old Rog had certainly cheered up immeasurably by 2011 with,
and these are his words not mine, “poor sad fucked up little Roger” from last time left behind. You
could see he was bouncing and really enjoying what he was doing, free of the shackles of having
to fight anyone to be in charge and (mostly) rid of a few other demons too. The great show of 1981
had become a stratospheric $60m production, and the 32 shows of 1980-81 were eclipsed by the
219 between 2010 and 2013, grossing $458m and leaving the Norton Warburg worries a distant
memory. I was right at the back of the O2 for that one but it was the same feeling when In The
Flesh started, transported back thirty years but with the special effects cranked up an order of
magnitude from the first time, jaw dropping stuff. It didn’t disappoint. If you’ve not seen Roger’s
recent film I strongly recommend you do, ideally in your own private cinema with the volume
cranked up very loud, because your average 40” screen in the comfort of your living room isn’t
going to do this show justice.