We've got to admit, there's a lot to this criticism. It's true that "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2" is not a typical Pink Floyd song. And the band's producer and his interest in producing a market-pleasing single did play a large part in the final product. But perhaps Pink purists should cut the band some slack. The song has become as important as it is popular; maybe it's not such a bad thing that a great, brainy band made a great, brainy single.
"Another Brick in the Wall," actually a mini-trilogy, was inspired by an incident on Pink Floyd's 1977 In the Flesh tour. A loud-mouthed fan, evidently more interested in his own noise than the music he paid to hear, drove cerebral bass player Roger Waters temporarily insane. He summoned the mock-rocker toward the stage, and then he spat in his face. We can only imagine the satisfaction this gave Waters in the moment, but as it faded, Waters began to reflect on the growing distance he felt between himself and his fans, and on the circumstances in people's lives that lead them toward self-isolation.
The result of this reflection was the album-slash-rock opera The Wall. According to the band, the "wall" is the self-isolating barrier we build over the course of our lives, and the "bricks in the wall" are the people and events that turn us inward and away from others. Waters took the conceptual lead on the project, and he got much of the material from his own life. Like the album's protagonist, "Pink," Waters lost his father to war ("Daddy's flown across the ocean / Leaving just a memory"), was raised by an over-protective mother ("Mother's gonna keep you right here under her wing / She wont let you fly, but she might let you sing"), and had miserable memories of his schooling ("When we grew up and went to school / There were certain teachers who would / Hurt the children in any way they could"). But the rest of the band contributed to the album as well, and the final product was far from narrow autobiography.
There was another ingredient in the mix, too. On The Wall, producer Bob Ezrin played a larger role than was typical for a Pink Floyd album. He was the one who suggested the uncharacteristic disco beat for "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2." (How he got the band to go for that idea remains one of music's biggest mysteries – the band famously believed their music was for listening, not dancing.) Ezrin also recognized that the song had potential as a single. The band adamantly opposed the idea at first; they wanted "Part 2" to be a short, one-minute connector between "The Happiest Days of Our Lives" and "Mother"—and that's what they recorded. But Ezrin, recognizing that a single had to be longer than 1:14, merely duplicated the track to add length and then came up with the idea of getting some kids to sing another verse. North London's Islington Green School had a willing choir, and the youthful but edgy addition convinced even the initially reluctant Waters.
Ezrin's instincts proved sound. The song was a huge hit, and Pink Floyd's only #1 single. In 1980, it topped the charts in the United States, the UK, and half a dozen other countries. It was nominated for a Grammy and found a place on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time (#375). The success of the song and the album provided some welcome good news for the band. Over the past year several investments had gone south, forcing band members to flee Britain's hefty taxes, and disagreements within the band had led piano and keyboard player Richard Wright to quit.
And this brings us to the bigger picture. It's no accident that the song equates "education" with "thought control" – that's exactly how education is used in pretty much every dystopian piece of literature ever written (think 1984), and in all kinds of real-life situations throughout history. And while Roger Waters may have suffered at the hands of teachers, the song also spoke to people who had problems were of a much larger scale. "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2" found larger importance not in Pink Floyd's struggles, or in the dance moves of new fans, but in the struggles of South Africans half a world away. We know – this is quite a leap from England. But stick with us.
The themes of "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2" – frustration with oppressive authority figures, fear of brainwashing through the education system – struck a chord in a country where much of the population had no voice. In 1979, when The Wall was released, South Africa had in place a system of formal segregation known as apartheid: black South Africans lived completely different lives from the white descendents of European colonists.
Opposition to apartheid had grown over the previous few years, and leadership of the opposition had shifted from political organizers to students. A critical moment occurred in 1976, when students in Soweto, an area of Johannesburg, took to the streets. They were protesting a government requirement that at least half of all instruction be offered in Afrikaans, the Dutch-derived language of white South Africans. Police attempted to tame the teenage protestors, first with tear gas and then with attack dogs. When these tactics failed, they fired live rounds.
The "official" count was 23 dead. But international reporters on the scene estimated that close to 500 people were killed and 4000 were injured. As shocking as the number was the photograph of dead thirteen-year old Hector Pieterson being carried away by his friends.
The Soweto uprising proved a watershed in the anti-apartheid campaign. Since the 1960s, the movement had been held back by the government crackdown on the African National Congress. Key leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, had been arrested and sentenced to long prison terms. Lacking leadership and intimidated by government brutality, the anti-apartheid movement had begun to fade. But after Soweto, students brought a new energy and courage to the resistance movement. Inspired rather than intimidated by the Soweto violence, they enlisted in the anti-apartheid movement in unprecedented numbers.
The students who joined the resistance focused much of their criticism on the Bantu Educational Act of 1953. This law segregated black students into separate schools, which were poorly funded and understaffed (the teacher-pupil ratio in white primary schools averaged 1:18; in black primary schools, it was 1:39). More ominously, it outlined the curriculum that would prepare them for lives as second-class citizens. "What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?" the minister of education reasoned. "There is no space for him in the European Community above certain forms of labor."
As a result, students aimed much of their activism against the schools that prepared them for second-class lives. Acts of vandalism and arson were common; many students simply refused to attend. "Liberation before education" was their new slogan. (Are you starting to see where Pink Floyd might come in?)
In 1979, the government responded by introducing some revisions to the 1953 Bantu Educational Act. But the students were far from satisfied. In June 1980, students in the Cape Town suburbs of Elsie's River and Ravensmead defied a government ordinance banning public assemblies and held a demonstration to commemorate the four-year anniversary of the Soweto uprising. The event followed a familiar script—the police responded with dogs and tear gas; the students answered with rocks and arson.
But they also added something new at this demonstration—a short song with a disco beat and memorable line: "We don't need no education, We don't need no thought control." The catchy single that Pink Floyd hadn't wanted to make had been transformed into a compelling, serious call to action. The South African government even went so far as to outlaw Pink Floyd's The Wall following its adoption as an anthem for change. But the government could not hold back the march of history forever. By 1990, even white South African leaders recognized that the system of apartheid could not be sustained. Its provisions were gradually rolled back, and in 1994, the students who had protested at Soweto and chanted a Pink Floyd mantra at Elsie's River joined together to elect Nelson Mandela president of the restructured government of South Africa.
In 2002, Roger Waters opened his first world tour in more than a decade in Cape Town, South Africa. Much had changed there. Apartheid was no more; the president was a black man, Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki. Waters had changed, too. Old songs from The Wall opened his playlist, but the alienation from his audience that had inspired them was gone. Instead he found himself "directly addressing audiences, reaching out to them . . . in ways I hadn't attempted before," as he describes. Instead of propping up both a metaphorical and literal wall between artist and audience, he now felt a "bond established between us, one which is very precious, and one from which I now derive tremendous pleasure."
Waters never described all that went into this transformation. But in Cape Town, at least, one would think that the memory of young fans singing his words as they struck out against "thought control" must have played a part. Sure, Pink Floyd was all about albums as coherent and complex musical statements, and sure, their cerebral music may be best for listening, not dancing. And maybe the disco beat was not true Floyd, and maybe the kids' choir was a little gimmicky. But this song wouldn't have stuck around this long if it was only a catchy beat. It's got a message, and an important one.