It’s safe to say that Roger Waters was not entirely satisfied with his childhood education.
“Oh, it was awful, really terrible,” the then-principal songwriter, singer and bass player for Pink Floyd told BBC Radio 1 in 1979, upon the release of a new single by his band drawing on those classroom experiences. “It’s not meant to be a blanket condemnation of all teachers, but the bad ones can really do people in.”
Waters first presented his demos for Floyd’s 1979 double-record conceptual work The Wall to guitarist David Gilmour, keyboardist Richard Wright and drummer Nick Mason in July 1978. Among the inchoate songs was a triptych of tunes titled “Another Brick in the Wall”—“Part II” of which was a simple verse and chorus, a schoolboy’s plaint about his desire not to be brainwashed by the school system: “We don’t need no education / We don’t need no thought control,” Waters sang.
The group left its own Britannia Row studio in London behind for tax reasons, convening at France’s Super Bear facility in April 1979 to begin recording. Producer Bob Ezrin joined the project fresh off the recording of Nils Lofgren’s Nils album at the Record Plant studio in New York City, where disco giants Chic were also at work. Overhearing the group’s disco stomp echoing through the halls, Ezrin found himself wishing he could take part in the making of something even half as funky. When time came to record “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II,” he saw his chance to do so.
The song was at first, Mason later recalled, “a funereal, gloomy thing.” But when Ezrin heard the funk inflections in Gilmour’s guitar part, he seized the opportunity to suggest marrying the song with a Chic-style disco groove. Gilmour was dubious, but Mason’s keep-it-simple approach to timekeeping was right in line with disco’s four-on-the-floor rhythmic philosophy. He happily laid down the insistent drum track Ezrin wanted.
Either Waters or Ezrin—just which is lost to the mists of time—suggested that the track would be livened up by adding a chorus of actual schoolchildren. The tapes were shipped to engineer Nick Griffiths at Britannia Row, who found himself with 20 tracks of the 24-track tape open and orders to fill them with young voices.
Griffiths contacted the nearby Islington Green School, where he found a willing co-conspirator in anti-establishment-minded music teacher Alun Renshaw. Without consulting the headmistress, he enlisted 23 students to sing in exchange for free recording time at Britannia Row for the school orchestra. “Everybody had a whale of a time,” Griffiths later recalled of the subsequent recording session. “It took just half an hour to do, then I tracked the voices about a dozen times.”
He sent the completed tape to Los Angeles, where by now the band had relocated its recording efforts. “I feel shivery now remembering the feeling of hearing those kids sing that song,” Waters recalled years later about the first time he heard “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II” with the added children’s chorus. The original intention had been to keep the voices of the children well in the background, but now they were made the main attraction.
Finishing touches were added, including a lyrical, double-tracked lead-guitar solo from Gilmour on his 1959 Gibson gold-top and an overdubbed schoolmaster’s voice offering the memorable warning, “If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding.” The single version, issued several weeks ahead of the album’s December 1979 release, truncated the ending and added an eight-second guitar intro to make up for the absence of the album’s quick cut from the preceding Wall track, “The Happiest Days of Our Lives.”
On March 22, 1980, the song became Pink Floyd’s one and only U.S. No. 1 hit. It also engendered controversy for its lyrical stance, although Waters was quick to point out that the song doesn’t oppose all education—just the sort that closes the minds of children instead of opening them. “People were driven to frenzies of rage by the song,” Waters remembered later. “They thought that when I said, ‘We don’t need no education,’ that it was a kind of crass, revolutionary standpoint—[but] if you listen to it in context, it clearly isn’t at all.”
Disenchanted with changes in the English education system, music teacher Renshaw—just the sort of forward-thinking educator Waters would likely have preferred to the “mind control” advocates he rebelled against—moved to Australia. “There was a political knee-jerk reaction to a song that had nothing to do with the education system,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2004. “It was one man’s reflections on his life and how his schooling was part of that. I saw the bigger picture. And the parents saw the bigger picture, because they went out and bought it.”
—By Chris Neal
Photo by Michael Ochs/Corbis