The dark side of The Wall

Twenty-five years ago, a group of schoolchildren got an afternoon away from the classroom to lend their voices to one of the best-known pop songs of our time. Malcolm Macalister Hall hears how it changed their lives

"Got chucked out of there a few times," says Peter Thorpe, smiling, as we pass the caff on Essex Road in Islington, north London, where, 25 years ago, he and his mates would all pile in during their school dinner-hour and create havoc. Around the corner, his school - a monolithic 1960s-style comprehensive - still stands. "That's where we used to smoke," he reminisces, fondly, pointing through the railings and across the playground towards a discreet spot behind a wall. But this puffers' den was at the side of the school's music department, a much more significant landmark.

"Got chucked out of there a few times," says Peter Thorpe, smiling, as we pass the caff on Essex Road in Islington, north London, where, 25 years ago, he and his mates would all pile in during their school dinner-hour and create havoc. Around the corner, his school - a monolithic 1960s-style comprehensive - still stands. "That's where we used to smoke," he reminisces, fondly, pointing through the railings and across the playground towards a discreet spot behind a wall. But this puffers' den was at the side of the school's music department, a much more significant landmark.

One day in the autumn of 1979, a harassed recording engineer, Nick Griffiths, turned up here, at Islington Green School, asking to see the music teacher. He said that he was up against a deadline and needed some children to sing on a record that he was mixing at a studio nearby. Alun Renshaw, the school's head of music, rounded up a dozen children that he knew could sing, and put it ti them: would they like to be on a record by one of the greatest British bands of the era - Pink Floyd?

"I thought, 'Pink who?'. I'd never heard of them," says Thorpe, who was 13 at the time. "But I was keen on singing, so I put my hand up anyway, like you do..." Then, when they'd all trooped round the corner to the Floyd's recording studios in Britannia Row, Griffiths handed out the photocopied lyrics, which had just arrived by courier from the band, who were then in California. As Griffiths recalls it, this was the first time that either he or Renshaw had seen what the pupils were going to have to sing. The first line, now famous across the world, was: "We don't need no education..."

"I remember that Alun baulked a bit, he turned slightly ashen," says Griffiths. "I could see on his face that he was thinking, 'Oh, my God!'. But he obviously decided, 'Well, we're here now, we might as well do it'. Of course, the kids read the words and just went, 'YEAH! This is FANTASTIC!'."

This Saturday is the 25th anniversary of the release of the Pink Floyd double album The Wall, which has since achieved global sales of over 30 million, making it reputedly the third-bestselling album ever. Depending on your musical taste (and, probably, your age), it's either one of the greatest concept albums ever produced - on a theme of isolation, fear and tyranny - or a load of pretentious old bollocks. But Roger Waters' moody lyrics, the band's soaring guitar-work, Gerald Scarfe's chilling graphics, and the Islington Green pupils' rebel chorus all play their part in making it an iconic work. The children's vocal on that one track - "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2" - remains one of the most memorable cuts.

"I did Richard & Judy about a month ago," admits the Floyd drummer Nick Mason, "and they ran a piece of footage in which they'd gone out into the street to ask people how much they remembered of the song. Interestingly, they remembered all of it, even people in age groups that weren't around at the time. The kids were perhaps not critical to the success of the album, but they were really important to that song."

In his recently published book, Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd, Mason recounts how, while the band were fretting in California, Nick Griffiths was working all hours on the album in the Britannia Row studios, adding a long list of sound effects, including crockery being smashed, and buildings being blown up. In one 2am call from the band, he was asked to record two or three kids singing some lyrics "in a rather pathetic voice". Griffiths suggested doing something bigger.

"I said, 'Is it all right if I also do it as a sort of massed choir?'," he recalls. "I'd finished very late the previous night, and this was like, Christ, we've got to get this done in the morning and then ship it off to the guys in LA. So I just went to the nearest school. The kids were pretty good - but you could tell that they were up for having the best time that they could.

"It was pretty swift - we tracked them up a load of times. They absolutely loved it, especially the line, 'Hey teacher, leave us kids alone'. I was conducting them, and I leapt up and down at that point. They all did the same; they were really going for it. I had a 24-track tape, and I think we built it up with about nine takes."

When Griffiths combined all the takes, it sounded like a huge choir. "I sent it to the States by courier, and then I heard nothing. I had no idea that it was going to be so big." The next time he heard it was on Radio 1. "I thought, 'Christ, that sounds huge! That's a hit!', he recalls. The song was released as a single in mid-November, and it and the album went straight to the top of the charts and didn't move for weeks.

Like Peter Thorpe, Sybilla Agasee was also 13, but, unlike him, she knew all about Pink Floyd. "I was really into Dark Side of the Moon, so I was excited," she says. "But I remember arriving at the studios and thinking, 'Is this it?', because it looked like a factory or something. Then we went inside and it was, like, wow! There was carpet up the walls, spotlights in the ceiling - back then, you never saw things like that. It was very swish. I thought, 'Hey, this is good...'."

She remembers that they all had to squeeze on to a bench in a tight semicircle. With all the excited pushing and shoving, the children at each end kept falling off on to the floor. "We were pretty raucous," she says, with a smile. "Nick Griffiths kept saying: "Now, we've got to do it again, and you've got to really sound like you're shouting. You're singing, but you're shouting. You've got to belt it out."

And she recalls that she and the others were all smirking at each other. "It was, like, 'Yeah! We like this!'. We understood that we were singing something that was a bit cheeky. And 'Hey teacher, leave us kids alone' - that meant something to us."

Peter Thorpe, too, recalls not really understanding the import of it all. "At the time, we just thought it was a laugh, and it brought out the rebel in us, and we were quite happy to sing it. Alun Renshaw marched us out of school and into the studio, and an hour later, we were going home early - that was our reward."

It was when the song became a huge hit that the disappointment - and the trouble - started. Though the video for the single was shot in and around the Britannia Row studios, the children who appeared on it (and on Top of the Pops) were not the Islington Green pupils, but children from a London stage school, miming to the track. "It was decided that we had to have kids who looked the part, rather than just sounded the part," Nick Griffiths explains.

"We got no recognition - none at all. We were completely anonymous," says Peter Thorpe, now 38 and working for a* *charity for the homeless in London. "We each got a free copy of the album - unsigned - and a ticket to see Pink Floyd live at Earls Court. At the concert, we all sat near the front, but we weren't invited backstage, and on the video, it was other kids miming to our voices, so it was a complete swindle really."

Now a solicitor and head of the family- law department at a legal firm near Southend, Sybilla Agasee says that she has only good memories of the whole thing - apart from the video. "It was nice because we felt that we'd been picked because we were the best singers. It probably wasn't true, but I chose to believe it. And it was really a letdown when we didn't do the video. When we saw these other kids on Top of the Pops, we were really cheesed off. We thought it was really unfair."

Nick Griffiths and the school's then head, Margaret Maden, had their own problems. Scenting a story about angel-faced kiddies being cynically exploited by millionaire pop stars, the press had camped outside the Britannia Row studios. "A couple of articles used the word 'exploitation'," Griffiths recalls, "but it certainly wasn't done in that spirit. In fact, exactly the opposite. They were round the corner, and I thought that it would be a good experience for them. I did it on the spur of the moment, without even thinking of the legal implications. But the record company told me to avoid the press at all costs." He was reduced to climbing through a back window to get in and out of the building.

Now Professor of Education at the University of Keele, and on the board of the Royal Opera House, Margaret Maden was then head of Islington Green in what was perhaps its heyday as a popular, progressive, successful school. Former pupils recall many wonderful and inspirational teachers. Among them was the brilliant - but maverick - Alun Renshaw. He didn't tell Margaret Maden about the recording until afterwards.

"I've often wondered what I would have done in the unlikely event that this very creative but rather anarchic teacher had asked my permission in advance," says Professor Maden. "It's probably just as well that he didn't. But I remember that he sheepishly told me at the end of that day what they'd been up to, and said, 'Oh, and by the way, I don't think you'll like the lyrics very much...'. And I said, 'Get on with it! Tell me!'. When I saw the words, 'We don't need no education', I thought, 'Oh, God... we can do without this'."

Predictably, the media went for her. "There was some very nasty tabloid criticism," she recalls. "The News of the World ran a leader saying that I should be sacked for allowing such a thing." She found herself appearing with three pupils on Nationwide, the teatime TV news show, defending the recording to the nation. "I just had to keep my chin up, and stress what a good experience it had been for the children, and put the best face on it that I could," she says. "Pink Floyd were a fantastic group, and we should all be proud of them; but for a school to be directly involved in that way was a double-edged sword.

"I squared it with my governors - some of their children were involved - and although I was upset and a bit cross, I backed Alun up totally because I was so appreciative of the work he was doing with the children, which was the only thing that mattered. The children had had a great time, and, on balance, I think it was a good thing."

She was delighted when, later, the school received a cheque for £1,000, which, she says, was put into the music department's budget. While there is no suggestion that Pink Floyd or their record companies treated the children anything other than fairly (even professional session singers and musicians are almost invariably paid a one-off fee, which, in this case, was paid to the school, even though the children were not professionals), there was a press scandal at the time over the fact that the children themselves had not been paid.

"It was probably a no-win situation," says Sybilla Agasee. "If they'd paid us children, they would probably have been criticised for that, or for something else." But under new royalties legislation that took effect in December 1996, session performers can benefit, not from sales but from radio airplay and public performance (such as background music in bars).

Through his company RBL Music, Peter Rowan, an Edinburgh-based musician and royalties agent, has been trying to contact the Islington Green children, offering to manage claims for the royalties. "We think it will now amount to a few hundred pounds for each of the former pupils," he says. But, after three years of trying to contact them, only three have come forward.

Because Alun Renshaw picked them on their singing ability, from different classes and years, few of them were classmates or even friends, and did not keep in touch. No list of names exists. Neither Peter Thorpe nor Sybilla Agasee now know who any of the others were. "I think it's weird that we can't actually identify who they were," says Agasee. "One of my friends thinks that one of her friends was on it. We've tried to get in touch with her, and another girl, but I don't know any of them. We should have a reunion - but I don't know how we'd do it."

Meanwhile, Peter Thorpe is the only one who is pursuing his airplay royalties via RBL Music. "It's the principle of the thing," he says. "But it seems odd that you can get royalties for airplay, but not for record sales. You could argue that without us on that track, The Wall would not have been so successful - because if you ask almost anyone on the planet, they know that song."

He adds that he still feels that they were exploited in some ways. "I don't know whether I felt more exploited by the music industry or by the school, because no parental permission was asked for, and we were just marched into the studio. It has been a mixed blessing - it's something that I'm proud of having been a part of, but there's the constant reminder of what might have been. And being told to sing, 'We don't need no education', at the age of 13 is kind of ironic, isn't it? I suppose my only real regret is that I don't sing anymore."

Neither does Sybilla Agasee. Married to a musician, she describes herself now as a "frustrated singer". Meanwhile, perhaps surprisingly, Islington Green School has readopted the song. After a bad period as a "failing" school in the 1990s, it is now officially "improved", having passed its 2003 Ofsted inspection with flying colours - though it is probably doomed to be known for the forseeable future as "the school that Tony Blair didn't send his children to". When the current head, Trevor Averre-Beeson, took over three years ago, he found no record of the school's part in The Wall - apart from a rumour of a platinum disc that had been presented ages ago. "I sent out a search party, and it was found covered in dust, locked away in a cupboard," he says. It now sits proudly on his desk. And at the school's last two annual presentation ceremonies at Sadler's Wells, the song has been played to the assembled throng as the opening theme. "It's as if to say, 'Look what we are now'," says Averre-Beeson. "The song is still a source of daily conversation, and we're never going to be allowed to forget it - and we wouldn't want to forget it, because there is a certain pride in it. It was recorded in what was regarded as the school's heyday. But now, once again, things have really turned around at the school. We've improved quite dramatically."

At his home outside Sydney, Australia - where he settled permanently a few months after the recording - Alun Renshaw, the maverick music teacher, looks back on the whole episode with nostalgia. After a distinguished career as a composer and in music education, he still lectures at Sydney Opera House and runs a corporate training company. "I was so excited when Nick Griffiths came round to the school, because I just thought it was a wonderful opportunity for these kids to learn about the music industry," he says. "I always believed that I had to make what I did in the classroom relevant to the outside world, so anything like this was a plus.

"There was never any question that we weren't going to do it. Then I saw the lyrics, and thought, 'Uh-oh...'. But I was more interested in it as an experience for the kids, getting them into a recording studio, and making music come alive for them. Margaret Maden took all the flak, but she forgave me. She was wonderful."

He still hears the song, now and then, on the radio. "When I hear it, it makes me cry," he says. "I get upset and homesick. Those kids were wonderful. I kept in touch with some of them for quite a few years, and I think they all did well. It was a very caring school, and I remember it fondly - even though I used to upset everyone with my ideas. I still upset people here, too."

How I became a rock 'n' roll artist

Working on The Wall was a wonderful time. Living with the band, experiencing the adulation they endured was a huge kick. The whole idea behind the album was that the wall is a barrier we build up inside ourselves to protect us from those who can hurt us - mothers, wives, husbands and teachers.

In my studio, I covered a huge wall with drawings inspired by that idea and they then became the artwork for the album, concerts and, eventually, the film. Of course, everyone always remembers the line "We don't need no education" but Roger Waters wasn't saying that we didn't want any education; he was saying that we didn't want education of the type where the teacher visits all his ills on his pupils.

My drawing of the teacher shoving the children into a mincer was, to a certain extent, influenced by my own experience of education. The flame-haired lady is an unfaithful wife. Roger saw her as a very unpleasant woman and I depicted her like a praying mantis. The danger of building a wall inside yourself is that you become cut off; you become insensitive, relentless and unthinking.

I thought about what would happen if you walled yourself off and came up with the hammer drawing. The hammer was the most relentless, unthinking instrument I could think of.

When the band went on tour, it was fantastic seeing 40,000 people cheer when my animation appeared on the screen. I remember saying to Roger, "I'm not rock and roll like you." And he said, "Yes, you are. You're a rock'n'roll artist now."

Gerald Scarfe

'Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd', by Nick Mason, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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