Without Montreal, Pink Floyd’s album The Wall may never have been

October 16, 2022

Every artist has that one moment that inspired them to create greatness. Often these moments arise from trauma. For Roger Waters, the spark that inspired The Wall was on July 6th, 1977, during Pink Floyd’s final concert of their In The Flesh stadium tour, at the Big O in Montreal.

The July 6th, 1977 concert at The Big O in Montreal. Photo by Len Sidway (The Gazette)

An extremely rowdy crowd and one obnoxious fan, in particular, pushed Roger Waters over the edge that night. After the concert ended, while flying back home, Roger felt that a wall had developed between himself and the audience he was performing for. Clearly, Montreal had changed him. The series of events that unfolded that night led Roger down a spiritual introspection, which he poured into one of the most influential rock albums of our time The Wall.

During a press conference 39 years later, in march 2016, at the Big O in Montreal, Roger made a full confession.

I was pissed off or disaffected because of a large number of people who, with all due respect to the population of Montreal, were drunk and not really paying much attention to what was going on on stage and some kid was scrambling up the front (of the stage) and I think that I spat at him… I realized I was at the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing. And I needed to express that I didn’t feel human and we all want to feel human. My response to that was to write a show that involved building a huge wall between me and the people that I was trying to communicate with.

Roger Waters in March 2016

In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the story of how Montreal played a leading role in the creation of one of Pink Floyd’s most iconic albums and why the french Canadian city is the perfect backdrop for the critically acclaimed Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains which opens at Arsenal Contemporary Art Montreal on November 4th, 2022 and features an unseen section dedicated to Pink Floyd in Montreal.

Pink Floyd in Montreal – July 6th, 1977

It was the first big concert at the unfinished Big O after the Olympics, and with attendance estimates between 80,000 and 100,000, it was going to be the largest stadium show in Canadian history at that time. The spectacle was scheduled on a Wednesday night. The venue opened its doors for general admission ticket holders to begin entering the O late in the afternoon because they were expecting such a large attendance.

The party started long before the show was scheduled to begin at 8:00 pm that night. By 6:00 pm, there were already 30,000 people inside the stadium, all of whom were anxiously awaiting the show that had been advertised as “the best show of their lives” to begin. What do 30,000 young adults from the ’70s do when they have 2 hours of “doing nothing” in front of them? They get rowdy and drink tons of beer. One man actually found his way onto the inner ring of the roof. Many people thought this was a spectacular entrance by one of the band members. Plenty more disorderliness followed until the show actually started.

Man on the roof of the Big O in 1977. Photos from Guy Menard

Remember that this is the first event to take place at the Olympic Stadium since the actual Olympics and the security DOES NOT know how to handle big events of this type. This means people were able to sneak in glass bottles of alcohol, recorders, and fireworks.

The night’s opening song, Sheep, was greeted with enthusiasm as soon as Waters sang the first few vocal lines. The band seemed to be enjoying themselves but when Waters began to strum Pigs On The Wing Part 1, the tension in the stadium rose. Waters played through the minute-and-a-half song without incident and there was a brief pause before the next song, Dogs. Unfortunately, once that song ended, the night turned sour. 

Waters played the opening G chord of Pigs On The Wing Part 2 once, then stopped, then a second time, then stopped again. At that moment a bang pierced the silence and the audience began murmuring about the self-indulgent fireworks. Waters was persistent and began a third time, this time making it to the lyrics. No sooner had he gotten out the first line “you know that I care…” the air was split by another loud firework. Waters had had enough.

Aww, for fuck’s sake, stop lettin’ off fireworks and shouting and screaming, I’m trying to sing the song!

Roger Waters during the 1977 concert in Montreal

This outburst was met with an approving roar from the audience, but he wasn’t finished. You can tell from his tone that he had simply grown tired of the crowd.

I mean I don’t care…if you don’t want to hear it, you know. Fuck you. I’m sure there’s a lot of people here who do want to hear it.” The audience cheered in agreement as Waters continued. “So why don’t you just be quiet? If you want to let your fireworks off go outside and let them off there, and if you want to shout and holler, go and do it out there…I’m trying to sing a song that some people want to listen to. I want to listen to it.” 

Roger Waters during the 1977 concert in Montreal

He then slowly began the song a fourth time, to which the audience quieted down but after that kind of interruption, it was impossible for things to be as quiet as Waters had hoped. The band played on reasonably well, after all these are professional musicians we are talking about, but the audience’s murmuring and intermittent whistles can be heard over his straining voice in this bootleg recording of the events on Youtube.

Roger Waters telling the crowd off during the 1977 concert at the Big O.

Sure enough, nothing was warm and fuzzy after that. A drunken man right at the front row tossed a firecracker at the stage and it went off near Waters’ microphone. 

That’s when Waters went to the back of Mason’s drum set, grabbed his glass of beer, filled his mouth and then proceeded to spit it all out on the culprit, right in the face! The young man was laughing! He was happy, but Waters wasn’t…

Jean Tremblay from Alma, Quebec who was present during the 1977 concert and witnessed first-hand this historic event take place.

Although he later described himself as “shocked” by his own behaviour, he certainly did not show any remorse during that set. The tense atmosphere remained throughout the performance. When the band was called back for a third encore by a roaring audience that clearly wasn’t leaving, guitarist David Gilmour was so angry at the crowd’s behaviour that evening that he refused to go back on. In order to prevent a riot, the other band members played a 12-bar blues improvisation that went on for a long time. This allowed the road crew to take away the equipment, piece by piece. 

Roger Waters during load-in at the Big O in 1977. Photo by “Nick”.

Last to leave was Nick Mason, still sitting on his drum stool. He was carried off the now-empty stage by two large roadies. This was the last concert Pink Floyd would play before recording The Wall in 1979. And if you missed the reference, the tour’s title, In the Flesh, would appear on The Wall as the opening track.

While it’s certainly true that Waters was thinking about his own relationship with Pink Floyd’s fans when he came up with The Wall, it’s also clear that the events of July 1977 in Montreal at the Big O were still fresh in his mind.

Waters has said he got the idea for The Wall while flying home from Montreal. “It suddenly struck me that what we were doing was like building a wall between ourselves and the audience,” he told Rolling Stone in 2010. “And I thought, ‘I wonder if there’s something in that?’”

The album’s working title had been “Bricks in the Wall“. But as Waters wrote parts of the album, he began to see that “the wall was me.” The wall became a metaphor not only for the barriers between Pink Floyd and their audience but also for the divisions we erect within ourselves. And it all started with that fateful night in Montreal.

A little over two years later, on the 7th of February 1980, Pink Floyd took The Wall onstage for the first time in Los Angeles. This time, there was an actual wall built across the stage, slowly erected brick by brick during the show by a team of roadies dressed as construction workers. As the wall went up, so did Waters’s feelings of alienation and paranoia, until he was finally “trapped” behind the wall at the end of the show.

Crowds survey the aftermath of Pink Floyd’s Wall show in August 1980. Photo: Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty Images

While The Wall was all intents and purposes about Waters’ personal demons, it also tapped into a zeitgeist of alienation and anxiety that was palpable in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Cold War was in full swing, nuclear Armageddon felt like a real possibility, and society seemed to be crumbling all around us. In that context, Pink Floyd’s album struck a nerve, resonating with millions of people who felt like they were living behind their own walls.

Every popular band experiences some problems with their fans, but Pink Floyd had come to expect a certain decorum during their shows that eroded as their popularity rose. A Pink Floyd concert is more than just a string of songs played live–it’s a musical and visual presentation of ideas, concepts and themes. This was most true during the 70s when the band abandoned their “hits” and was intent on performing an entire album in sequence. As good as shows may be, and as loyal as the fans were, the fallout between the band and their audience was inevitable.

Ultimately, Pink Floyd’s fans should have shown more respect for the group they worshipped, but some blame must be shared by the band members. One can’t sell millions of albums, book stadiums with flying pigs and lasers, and then expect 80,000 fans to sit quietly in their seats.

In the Old Days, pre-Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd played to audiences which, by virtue of their size, allowed an intimacy of connection that was magical. However, success overtook us and by 1977 we were playing in football stadiums. The magic was crushed beneath the weight of numbers. We were becoming addicted to the trappings of popularity. I found myself increasingly alienated in that atmosphere of avarice and ego until one night in the Olympic Stadium, in Montreal, the boil of my frustrations burst. Some crazed teenage fan was clawing his way up the storm netting that separated us from the human cattle pen in front of the stage screaming his devotion to the demi-gods beyond his reach. Incensed by his misunderstanding and my own connivance, I spat my frustration in his face. Later that night, back at the hotel, shocked by my behaviour, I was faced with a choice. To deny my addiction and embrace that comfortably numb but magic-less existence or accept the burden of insight, take the road less travelled and embark on the often painful journey to discover who I was and where I fit. The wall was the picture I drew for myself to help me make that choice.’ That’s a good summation of it.

Roger Waters

The Wall remains one of Pink Floyd’s most iconic albums, selling over 30 million copies worldwide. Who knows what would have become of Pink Floyd if they had never played that fateful concert at the Big O in 1977? We may never know, but we can be sure that The Wall would not exist as it is today without it. Thanks Montreal! You inspired one of the greatest albums of all time.

At the end of the day, The Wall is about a journey from spitting in someone’s face towards a position where love becomes more important and our responsibility to those that share this planet with us becomes more important than our desire to engage in things that make us richer.

Roger Waters

To relive the band’s journey in chronological order from 1967 to the 2000s you can visit The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains which is in Montreal from November 4th, 2022 until December 31st, 2022. Each chapter of the Pink Floyd story is represented, with objects and artifacts on display, many unseen before the exhibition. A new addition to the exhibition is an unseen section dedicated to Pink Floyd in Montreal. Tickets are on sale now and selling very quickly.

The exhibition features 350 artifacts and objects collected over the years, including handwritten lyrics, musical instruments, letters, stage props, and original artworks, to name a few. Some of these items have long been held in storage facilities, film studios and in the personal collections of band members before being “dusted off” for this exhibition.

Win a pair of tickets to the exhibition: do you have a story about the Pink Floyd show in Montreal? Share it with us here for an opportunity to be featured on the blog and win a pair of tickets! We would love to hear from you.