“Wall of Death” is the closing song of Richard and Linda Thompson’s bleak album from 1982, “Shoot out the Lights.” For those who don’t know (and I didn’t know until recently), a “wall of death” is (according to Wikipedia) actually “a carnival attraction featuring a silo- or barrel-shaped wooden cylinder, ranging from 20 to 36 feet in diameter, inside of which motorcyclists, or the drivers of miniature automobiles, travel along the vertical wall and perform stunts, held in place by centrifugal force.”
I always thought “Wall of Death” was a metaphor for suicide or something equally dark. And for all I know, it could be. However, now that I know what a real “wall of death” is, I think the song has a different meaning in the context of the album (which many take as a song cycle about the Thompsons’ impending divorce). Since the Thompsons were still together when the album was completed (they didn’t divorce until the album was released), I now see the song in a more positive light. I think the song could be an affirmation of the importance to keep things going in an otherwise strong relationship, even though the going can be tough and scary at times. The song could also be an affirmation of how many people still seem to look for love, even though it can be a scary ride, because, as the lyrics say, “it’s the nearest to being free.” Again, given the context of what was going on with the Thompsons at the time, I could be completely wrong. But I’m also happy to believe there’s possibly a more positive meaning to a great song I always thought was unbearably bleak.
The accompanying video shows some classic stills from real “walls of death” over the years.