Building a Wall
Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2009
Original album - Yes
Producer - Brian Higgins, Xenomania
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)
A vaguely political song in which Chris makes a few vocal appearances, including two "call and response" sections:
Neil: "There's nowhere to defect to any more!"
With its lyric "I'm building a wall, a fine wall, not so much to keep you out—more to keep me in," this track expresses the desire to "cocoon"—to escape from the world's travails by removing oneself as much as possible from it all. Paralleling the "not so much … more to" structure, the narrator adds that he wants to leave the world because—
It's all wrong
Not so much what men are doing
Much more what they're not
In other words, the wrongs of the world are as much if not more the result of inaction—sins of omission—than of sins of commission.
Neil has stated that this song indeed arose from his occasional desire to "block out" the rest of the world from his day-to-day existence (who among us hasn't felt that way from time to time?), especially these days in which government surveillance seems more common than ever before. His lyrics seem to express a longing for the simpler, more innocent days of his childhood, when he could look up without ambivalence to heroes like Jesus, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (a popular 1960s TV series), and Julius Caesar. Despite living then "in the shadow of the war," he prefers it because "it was a free country"—thereby suggesting that it's not so free anymore. Despite the much more generally upbeat tone of Yes, the same spectres that haunted the previous studio album Fundamental continue to exert their dark influence.
On the other hand, with Chris on hand to utter a deflating "Who d'you think you are, Captain Britain?" in response to Neil's pontifications, even these dusky tones are ultimately cast in a considerably lighter shade. In case you're not aware, "Captain Britain" is Marvel Comics' U.K. "analog" to Captain America. It's an especially intriguing reference considering that, pre-PSB, Neil worked as the London editor of Marvel Comics from 1975–77, during which he supervised the launch of Captain Britain in the U.K. (although Marvel didn't accept his critique of how the concept and scripts were "too American" to resonate with a British audience). So Chris's seemingly snarky comment doubles as something of an inside joke.
- "Back then on a bomb-site we were spies among the ruins…. On TV we saw cold war" - The song is replete with references to memories from Neil's childhood. Even into the late 1950s and early 1960s there were parts of Britain where the effects of German air raids during the Second World War were still visibly apparent.
- One of my site visitors has astutely observed that that aforementioned references to the aftermath of World War II, including the Cold War, as well as the opening lines referring to defection, strongly suggest that Neil may have had the Berlin Wall in mind as partial inspiration for the song, or at least for much of its imagery. Neil has, in fact, confirmed this (see the discussion of Hadrian's Wall below). The Berlin Wall—called officially by the Russians and East Germans the "Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart"—was implemented in 1961 to divide East and West Berlin. It was ultimately torn down in 1989 with the collapse of Soviet communism and the subsequent reunification of Germany.
- The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a successful 1960s American television show that obviously gained some popularity in Britain as well. Like others of its "spy genre," it hinged greatly on the Cold War, mentioned earlier in the song.
- "Caesar conquered Gaul" – The ancient Roman general Julius Caesar conquered Gaul (modern-day France) in the 50s BCE. But this line may have special significance arising from Neil's well-known appreciation for the work of Noël Coward. As it so happens, Coward's famous song "The Stately Homes of England" from his 1938 musical Operette includes the following lines:
We know how Caesar conquered Gaul
And how to whack a cricket ball
Apart from this, our education
Overall, the Coward song expresses in a lighthearted and rather satirical manner English pride in country, history, and traditions, managing the deft trick of conveying genuine patriotism while similtaneously poking gentle fun at it. It's probably no coincidence that the Pet Shop Boys' "Building a Wall" does much the same thing. Indeed, it seems more than likely that the "Ceasar conquered Gaul" line is Neil's very intentional echo of Coward.
- "Scouting for centurions on a Roman wall" – A reference to Hadrian's Wall (commonly also referred to simply as the "Roman Wall" in Britain), built by the Romans under the Emperor Hadrian primarily during the years CE 122–128 to protect Roman-occupied Britain from the "barbarian tribes" of the far north of the island. Neil has described this line as part of the song's "schoolboy reminiscence": "Growing up in the North East of England, I frequently visited and walked along Hadrian's Wall—still do!" He has also noted that he mainly had two walls in mind in writing the song: Hadrian's Wall and the Berlin Wall—the first "to keep out the Picts and Scots" and the second "to keep in the East German population."
- "Sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea" – The twentieth-century British poet (and poet laureate) John Betjeman's poem "Trebetherick" includes this exact same line, raising the spectre of a direct connection. Neil, however, has suggested that this apparent allusion is more or less coincidental, describing it as one of those "typical experiences of a British picnic which Betjeman will have experienced, too." While it's quite possible Neil may have been unconsciously influenced by the Betjeman poem, it's also possible that the poem and the song simply draw upon the same common British expression.
- While we're on the subject of literature, there are also perhaps unconscious echoes in this song of the famous 1914 poem "Mending Wall" by American poet Robert Frost. In particular, that poem's narrator's desire to know "What I was walling in or walling out" is somewhat paralleled by the song's assertion that its narrator's wall is "Not so much to keep you out—more to keep me in." And, as one of my site visitors has pointed out, the Frost poem's repeated (and rather critical) evocation of the proverb "Good fences make good neighbors" suggests a possible added dimension to the political implications of the PSB song. That is, perhaps the "protection" and "prevention" that Britain's figurative walls offer help make it a "good neighbor" to other countries—and, of course, vice-versa.
- "Who d'you think you are? Captain Britain?" - As noted above, Captain Britain is essentially the U.K. answer to the Marvel Comics superhero Captain America, and a character whom Neil launched during his brief tenure as editor with Marvel.
- "More work for the undertaker means there's less for me" – Inspired by the title of the 1948 novel More Work for the Undertaker by British author Margery Allingham.
- Mixer: Jeremy Wheatley
- Album version (3:49)
- Instrumental (3:49)
- On the special limited-edition Yes box vinyl set
- Other songs in which Chris's voice can be heard
- The key signatures of selected PSB songs
- PSB songs with literary references
- Johnny Marr's guest work on PSB recordings
- Real places mentioned by name in PSB songs
- Real people mentioned by name or title in PSB lyrics
- PSB songs for which the Boys have acknowledged the influence of specific tracks by other artists
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