Did You Exchange A Walk On Part In The War For A Lead Role In A Cage?

Believe it or not, there is something marketers can learn from Pink Floyd’s album, Wish You Were Here. It stems from this important question, “Did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?”

Syd Barret

How Syd Appeared While Fronting Pink Floyd

Wish You Were Here is a concept album about absence, about not being there. You see, Pink Floyd’s original singer, Syd Barrett was the band’s driving force. He was a powerful frontman who both the fans and the record company loved. But something happened to him that, back then, nobody could have predicted.

Barrett began taking extreme amounts of acid and something in him changed. He simply wasn’t there anymore. He would stand on the stage and stare out into space. This took a toll on the band and eventually they just had to continue on without him. They always hoped he would get well and “come back.”

After the band released Dark Side of The Moon, the album that made them a household name, they were struggling to record their followup record. They started writing a few songs about Syd and what had happened to him, which they felt was brought on by the pressures of fame and the greed of the record companies.

During the recording of the album, someone brought Syd into the studio hoping that it would serve as a form of therapy. What the band’s members saw was unrecognizable. He had gained over 100 pounds and lost most of his hair. This lead singer, this diamond that shined, had turned into something he would have never wanted or even imagined it possible to become. He was a casualty caught in the crossfire between childhood ambitions and fame.

How Syd Appeared During The Wish You Were Here Sessions.

In the lyrics of the song, Wish You Were Here, Roger Waters asks, “Did you exchange, a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?”

What he’s asking here is are you doing the things that you want to do? Are you doing the things that you believe in, the things that you feel will be successful? Are you fighting the good fight? Or are you just doing what’s expected of you in exchange for money, an important title, etc. Is someone else controlling your future and your contribution to this world?

As people, we can’t thrive in an environment where we are caged, where we don’t have a say in what we are doing. Ultimately, it’s healthier to struggle and do what you believe in than be comfortable doing only what others say. We must choose a walk on part of in the war over a lead role in a cage.

So, here is the question I want you to think about.

[quote]Did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?[/quote]


  1. Matt, ah, yes, one of the most important lessons in life — one which I learned somewhat painfully after I returned from Africa. There, I had achieved my dream by living through a real war (exceptional for a Canadian) — working as a journalist by snagging a sub-editor’s job on the Bulawayo Chronicle as Rhodesia turned to Zimbabwe. On returning home, facing the Reagonomics recession, I ended up at a government employment centre (administered federally in Canada), to find — with my recent African experience in mind — a job offer with the employment ministry.

    The government certainly paid a great salary for the time, the job had wonderful benefits, and the employment allowed me to move to Ottawa (something I wanted to do). But I quickly realized I was in a cage — and it is hard to break out of a “secure” cage for an uncertain life. Fortunately, I recalled the courage and adventure in Africa and ultimately made the break to self-employment.

    (This is much easier to do, oddly, in Canada than the U.S. We don’t have to worry about losing all our health insurance coverage and in a relatively high tax jurisdiction, self-employed people have a real advantage because of our ability to claim business expenses as 100 per cent deductions.)

    • Mark,

      Thank you for commenting. I’m glad you got something out of the post. It was a little bit of a departure for me. But after hearing this story, I felt there was something everyone could get from it.

      You only have one life, so make it great! More people should follow your example.

    • Gary Yarker says

      OK a little abstract for me but if you see that and the connection then I guess that’s great. At first I sure didn’t get it though. You may now class yourself as a crazy diamond! Best regards from NE UK.

  2. Gary Yarker says

    Oh Syd! A walk on part………… A lead role……….

    he could never be a lead role tied into dancing to the tune of the financial forces, he just wanted to send the message in song and lyric.

    Or am I wrong?

  3. Gary Yarker says

    Shine on.

  4. It was written after Syd’s breakdown about Syd.

    Syd “retired” to a life of isolation, a world where he was the lead role and a “cage” of his own making.

    The walk on part in the war was just simply a generally a reference to life itself and specifically his position in the band.

    If Waters had been writing about the greed of record companies or selling out then his comments about Syd would have been positive because he walked away from it.

    • Curtis Scott says

      I disagree. I think it was written about his father who died fighting in WWII. I have read that the choice was going off to war or putting up with Roger’s mother, hence: the walk on part in the war or a lead role in a cage.

  5. I love PF. One of my marketing profs in college used their lyrical lessons extensively. I remember him opening class one session with the line “Then one day you find 10 years have got behind you….”

    The memory of his opening line remains, but the lesson which followed was less memorable, as I can’t remember what class was about that day.

    Give me a break, it was 1988!

  6. Dan Steiner says

    This line has always had me. In the most blunt way I’ve heard, it is simply a challenge to the listener. Only you can choose your path, and choose wisely. In the end you can be an idealist and a dreamer at heart, but if the life you live is in contradiction to what you love, you will never find joy.

  7. To me the song is asking of which is better, God, order, direction and obedience or the devil, freedom, do what ever you feel like and what ever makes you feel good. In life we are told we must chose God and a lack of choice means we “take the lead roll in the cage”. I wonder why must we chose one or the other? Why if we Don’t pick God must we follow the devil. Nibbles for thought.

  8. Anthony Lojo says

    Syd Barrett was indeed a mastermind in his early years with the band. What some people are overlooking is that he had no choice anymore. So the question ‘Did you Exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage ?’ was something unavoidable for Syd. He was unfortunately afflicted with mental illness which wasn’t brought forth until his years with Pink Floyd. Most likely, he was pre-disposed to mental illness (probably schizophrenia) and it’s quite possible his heavy drug use was the trigger for making it rear it’s ugly head. However, the question is a valid one because sometimes the mere fact of someone being thrust into the spotlight and being on the receiving end of fame and attention is enough for a psychological illness to become reveal itself .. especially if that person has a pre-disposition or genetic marker in place. then again, maybe that’s a little too much thinking on my part. RIP Syd Barrett.

  9. Syd, was a genious, and most genious have some tremendous problems in handling their ups and downs. As John Cliff the famous English actor from Faulty Towers, many suffer from manic depressive mood swings. When the manic is up, it is all about creativity and talent, some don’t even eat because it breaks the flow of creativity, and it is very intense, then after that comes the depressive state and the genious can’t even get up from his bed. It happened with the band Beach Boys, the most talented one, fell very ill. So I believe that these blessings comes with a price. RIP Syd, we love you wherever you are, I WISH YOU COULD HEAR US!

  10. Rip Syd you are not in a cage. not with what the acid did or illness or even death. you are and will always be free… thank you for your mind

  11. For years I’ve always interpreterd the walk on part in the war as going off to the army through conscription where you are just a number, an expendable part of society doing what you are told, but a lead role in a cage is refusing to fight and instead risking jail time and standing up for peace, having the guts to lead society to a better place. At the time there it was very difficult to speak out against conscription and fighting in wars.

    I appreciate the other take as being popular but Roger was strongly anti war and for him Pink Floyd was about protesting the evils of war and society.. visualized by his tirade against Trump with floating pigs at his recent world tour.

  12. Walk on part literally means playing a small insignificant role… hardly the epitome of living your life to the full.

  13. Roger said that the only song about Syd in the album was Shine On You Crazy Diamond. The song Wish You Were Here was not about Syd, and the “lead cage” sentence was for everyone, starting from Roger himself.

  14. Donna Votra says

    Chris, That has always been my interpretation, also, especially given the song’s proximity to the Vietnam war.

  15. Jorge McGulicuddy says

    Really isn’t up for debate what the songs about. Both the songs writers have done interviews where they admit blatantly, the song is about Barrett. The line itself may be debatable, as I know of no remarks about specific lyrics quoted. However, it is undoubtedly an ode to Barrett and the loss felt due to his debilitating illness. Not anti-war, military service, good or evil, devil or god (uh, just wow on that one), or even waters father (that was the wall).

  16. I think Curtis Scott has got the most accurate understanding of these lines. ‘The war’ would refer to WWII. It’s specific. Waters’ father was killed in that war. The biggest tragedies are the loss of life in a war, loss of a father and right in their faces, Syd Barrett loses his sanity. Tied in with Syd’s loss of a vibrant life is the band’s loss of him. On top of that band members are facing record companies interested in profits and not in personal stories and the powerful way one can express their experience through lyrics and music. I find the song, Wish You Were Here a powerful love song to a father Waters may never have known or if you like to a dear friend the band lost to psychosis.

  17. Diane Inda says

    This is in response to Art Baur’s comment about “In life we are told we must chose God and a lack of choice means we “take the lead roll in the cage”. I wonder why must we chose one or the other? Why if we Don’t pick God must we follow the devil” I agree that some will tell us this is the choice, and that there is no middle ground. I do not think that is true. I think that choice; the whole concept of it is to ask one’s self how conscious are our decisions? I also think that believing in/having a relationship with a spiritual deity/entity/god does not inherently require or foreclose certain options in life.

    For me (and part of this is what I pick up from working in the mental health field) the choice in the song is between “a walk on part in the war” – basically participation in the joys and sorrows of the world (yes, I’m a fan of Joseph Campbell) and the realization that in the “grand scheme of things” we are NOT the center of the world’s focus.

    Conversely I see the “lead role in a cage” as someone who is the center of their own little world/perception, AND that role/experience is a tiny little nonfunctional box not really connected to the rest of the world. It’s the .. well the potentially unhealthy extreme of the line from Roger’s and Hammerstein’s Cinderella song about “in my own little corner in my own little chair, I can be whoever I want to be” and yes, that’s true, but it’s also “only in your head”.

    To me this song compares and contrasts the tragedy of participation in life with the tragedy of not participating in life.

  18. Nice work Matt. This is one of my ‘foundational quotes’. I did not know all the details about this song’s relationship to Syd. Thank you for the research. On a personal note, this song has always resonated with my view of ‘…wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leads to destruction. But strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which lead to life.

  19. I had a lead role in the war though. meant literally 🙂

  20. I always thought the lyrics were a reference to Ali… how he could have had a minor part in the war (being a boxing star and all – not have to go to the front lines to die like all the other disposable heroes) yet he chose to remain defiant and refused to go to war in exchange for prison time.


  21. From where I’m standing, the writer asks the subject if he compromised an albeit small role (walk-on part) in a bigger cause (war being synonymous with fighting for a cause greater than oneself), for a leading role where he would ultimately be held captive in a cage. So it suggests that the walk-on part is more noble than the leading role because one retains one’s freedom in the process.

  22. Warburrito says

    I very much agree with La Roux and feel these lyrics will always be pertinent to what’s going on in the world. Right now they seem more relevent than ever. We are often given the choice to sacrifice our freedoms and dreams in exchange for minor conveniences like a comfy job, income, and a false sense of security. Those decisions start off small, but in order to keep your position you will increasingly be asked to sacrifice more of your freedoms and dreams. Resistance to this is only met with increasingly hostile and restrictive measures. How I wish to break free from this system, but I know how very difficult it is going to be on my family and the strain it will put on our relationships. I believe these struggles will always be fundamentally human and I love how Pink Floyd gave them such life through their lyrics.

  23. Lucy Grech says

    I actually can relate to this saying as a Christian. “Did you exchange a walk on part in the war” – meaning that one makes themself available and submit to God’s will – spiritual warfare, serving God and others, praying, living life with an eternal perspective, not a temporal, earthly perspective. Colossians 3

    “for a lead role in a cage”. Choosing a comfortable life, doing what is expected. There is a saying: “If God calls you to be a missionary why lower yourself to become a king.”

    The story of the rich young ruler in the Bible illustrates this perfectly. Jesus was calling him to forego his wealth, possessions and his standing in society, give all to the poor and follow Jesus. But he didn’t, and therefore I believe chose “a lead role in a cage”. Matthew 19:16-22

    Loving God, loving others, serving God, serving others. The high call on people’s lives.

  24. dennis J sloand says

    Lucy Grech – Roger is a staunch atheist and I can guarantee that was not what he meant.

  25. In my mind a “walk on part in the war” is enlisting or joining the Armed Forces and risking your life for the freedom of your fellow countrymen. And, “A leading role in a cage” is for those who refuse to fight for freedom and are subjugated by their conquerors – forever in a cage and never again free.

  26. I am a Christian too, but why must you preface every statement in life with such a disclaimer? Does it make your words more relevant or help spread the gospel? Do you ever wonder if maybe you are excluding yourself from rational discussion among humans by professing to be holier than us? Does every story need to be related to the Bible to be relevant? Have you ever wondered if maybe your behavior cheapens the word of God and makes his followers look like a bunch of arrogant fools who proclaim to evangelize yet do nothing but exclude others by not looking at anything from any lense except from those profess their faith like it’s a nursery rhyme? Have you ever wondered if maybe those with the strongest faith don’t feel the need to constantly sing a song about it, and bring others to it by example of virtue not by tying religion into every place where it can be cheapened and diluted?

    If you want to be a real Christian you need to read the book and follow your own path to God, not the path of man and a broken system created to extract earthly wealth from those who know not how to find him directly. For years I walked the path as far from him as possible bc of the exclusionary and total rudeness of the evangelical sort. It’s not enough to call yourself a Christian you should actually read the book and understand it personally not in a diluted lukewarm fake version that excludes the righteous and sounds more like the tongue of a serpent than anyone of virtuous character. If you want God’s redemption it may be more difficult than your mega bucks tax exempt fool church has led you to believe, and you may very well be working for you adversary by being so self righteous you drive the men of virtue as far away from his grace as you can. Before you speak as a Christian remember you are talking to humans, and it does no good to only make it relevant to those who already profess their faith. In your folly you are driving away those who really matter, the people who need to be brought to it but with respect not insult or by being spoken down to by your very nature of exclusion and forcing God’s word upon every box you can find.

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