Remember When: The Spitting Incident that Inspired Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’

When Roger Waters created The Wall for Pink Floyd, he drew on his own life, the issues faced by former band member Syd Barrett, and the state of human nature as he saw it. But it was one specific incident that launched Waters, one in which he spit on a fan at a Floyd concert.

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What brought Waters to that point? And how did he use that moment of frustration as the basis for an album that, for all its dark moments, ultimately makes a plea for empathy and human connection. To fully understand that eventful night in 1977, you have to know the context of where Pink Floyd stood at that momentous point in their career.

A Changed Band

In January 1977, Pink Floyd released the album Animals. Longtime fans of the band couldn’t help but notice a drastically changed band. Largely absent were the dreamy musical textures that characterized records like Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. In their place stood aggressive guitars and drums. Many people thought the album was Floyd’s answer to punk (although the band had actually been fooling around with the musical pieces that comprised Animals for several years before recording them).

In addition, Waters’ lyrics had taken a more strident, in-your-face turn as well, as he worked through an allegorical tale about different animal classes, all in a mad scramble to outdo the others instead of coming together in any kind of harmony. The album polarized fans and critics, but Floyd used it as the basis for a six-month tour beginning in January 1977.

The tour brought the band to the biggest audiences of their careers with a stage show that was massive in scale and ornate in detail. (One of those details: the inflatable pig that would become a legend in its own right.) Unfortunately, Waters immediately flinched at the way the crowds seemed to be there to party and cause a ruckus rather than actually listen to the music.

By the time the tour rolled to a close on July 6, 1977, in Montreal, Waters was spoiling for a fight. He spent much of the performance complaining about the behavior of the audience and staring directly at a young man in one of the first couple rows. (Some reports claim this fan was setting off fireworks during the show). As the concert neared its conclusion, Waters spit on the young man. During the encore, disgusted Floyd guitarist David Gilmour left the stage, and Waters refused to play any old songs, instead leading the other members in a bluesy improv as the show ended.

Construction Begins

To his credit, the album Waters wrote based on this incident didn’t turn out to be some kind of diatribe against obnoxious rock fans. Instead, it caused him to look both inward at his own demons and backward at the events in his life that formed those demons in the first place. The Wall, when it arrived in 1979, blossomed into a complex meditation on humanity as a whole. The character Pink stood in for anyone who gets so battered about by life that they can no longer locate who they are and what’s truly important.

But the spitting incident certainly begat the concept of a band performing behind a wall, as Waters had felt a figurative barrier between himself and his audience on that tour. It’s not for nothing that there are two songs on the album called “In the Flesh,” which was also the name of the Animals tour.

One can only wonder if the young man who took the brunt of that expectoration had any inkling what he wrought that evening. Perhaps he was even too inebriated to remember. Whatever the case, he played a small role in one of the most hallowed albums in rock history.

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Photo by Jeff Fusco/Getty Images

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