Revisiting and Rebuilding The Wall

Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason and I have previously discussed the band’s pioneering live quad shows of the late 1960s and the amazing Immersion box sets for Wish You Were Here and The Dark Side of the Moon (the subject of our November 2011 cover story), and we connected again recently to chat up the 7-disc Immersion set for the band’s seminal 1979 masterpiece, The Wall. “One of the great things is that you can now hear the details you may not have caught the first 50 times you listened to these songs,” he says. The best example of that for me personally is following the arc of "Comfortably Numb,” then dubbed “The Doctor (Comfortably Numb),” from the Roger Waters Demo to the Band Demo to the David Gilmour Demo — all presented on Disc 6 — to the more familiar finished classic on Disc 2. Notes Mason, “There’s a certain dynamic to the high-strung guitar and how the rhythm tracks start out minimalist before going full-out rock that I love.” Me too!

When we last spoke in New York, we spent an exorbitant amount of time talking about live quad and surround sound. Was there any discussion to include any surround elements when you were putting The Wall Immersion box set together?

Oh yes. There’s always a lot of discussion about surround sound and SACDs. The problem with The Wall is the time effect and when it was set to come out. I suspect that there are one or two more things that we feel, and James [Guthrie, who mastered the Immersion sets] feels, are unfinished business.

Are you talking about supplemental updates and additions to the package, like a Wall Immersion 2.0, or something that you can add to what you’ve already bought?

For The Wall, I could see enhanced/surround audio to be done at some time, yes. We talked about this before — if we’re going to do these physical releases, we should do it while we’re still alive [chuckles], and while people are still actually buying them.

What’s great about this package is that we have much more early material than we did with some of the other releases. With The Wall, you can follow the thread between Roger’s very early demos where it’s just him to the Band demos [on Discs 5 and 6] where we’re working up to the completed versions.

I bought the vinyl LP of The Wall in November 1979, and always loved the sound of it. Did you have a sense that it sounded better than a lot of what was out at the time?

Well, I think we knew, yes. And that was very much due to [the album’s original co-producer and engineer] James Guthrie. The thing that he brought to it was what I call “young ears.” He really loved that high-fidelity sound. That influence came directly from him, particularly where the drum sound was concerned.

The period that was pre-digital was fantastic from a sound quality point of view. Everyone was running Dolby, Aphex, and everything that would get analog to the ultimate point. There’s a certain softness you get with analog. At the time, everyone had those fantastic home hi-fi systems. It’s sad these days that everything comes off an iPod in a smaller form, but I guess that’s the way we live now. The days of having the two coffin-sized speakers in your living room are mostly gone. It’s still a niche market, but it’s nice when people buy the hi-def versions and the SACDs that reflect the care that went into making them.

Speaking of vinyl, we get a newly remastered Wall LP set too.

That’s right, on 180-gram. It just has that “other” quality, doesn’t it — slightly limited compression, softer. One of those weird things where the human ear just prefers that sort of twist to the sound. Makes the transition to digital that much more suspect, I suppose.

There’s a brief video clip included of “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” from Earls Court in 1980 on Disc 7, the DVD. Was there any thought of showing an entire performance?

It’s not really possible. I don’t think we’ve got enough material to make it.

The February 1980 Long Island shows have long been bootlegged, but the quality is poor and probably not good enough for an official release.

Oh, absolutely. On our end, a lot of filming was done, but it was more like test filming and not final versions. The cameras were either inefficient or things just wouldn’t take.

So can we vote for the next Immersion set? What would you like to see get done?

I would love to see the early stuff — not just Meddle on its own, as we’ve discussed before, but all of the early albums together, because finding demos is difficult. That said, we do have the early demos that go with Piper [at the Gates of Dawn], and the Syd Barrett demos [such as 1965’s “Lucy Leave”]. Something like that would be great and really fun to do. But what we would have to do is just the first 5 years of the band rather than try and do Piper or Meddle on their own.

I think I have the perfect title for it, and you can update the cover art again: Relics 2.0.

[laughs heartily] Good idea! I’m looking for my pen to make a note. That’s a great idea. I’ll start work on it this afternoon. [both laugh] It’s an ongoing discussion, something that gets talked about every time.

Finally, please give us your historical assessment of The Wall — why does it stand the test of time?

It’s got a relevance to any age group. There are elements to the writing that still means something to both younger and older audiences. And it’s helped enormously by Roger revitalizing it with the Wall Live show.