An unlikely return to form: the peculiar re-emergence of Roger Waters as a viable creative force

Jean Ramsay discusses the renaissance of Roger Waters as a creative force and delves deep into Waters past to explain how we’ve got to the here and now of his latest album – Is This the Life We Really Want?

Jean Ramsay discusses the renaissance of Roger Waters as a creative force and delves deep into Waters past to explain how we’ve got to the here and now of his latest album – Is This the Life We Really Want?

Karstein Volle

For a good thirty five years, Roger Waters seemed the man least likely to.

In some ways, his retreat from the public eye seemed to mirror his former bandmate Syd Barrett’s slow descent into oblivion, but where Barrett was a casualty of the 1960’s, Waters was wounded by the very decade he epitomised – the 1970’s. It was not drugs that fried Roger Waters, but the very stuff he sang about on his band’s biggest hit ‘Money’.

The album that the single had heralded, The Dark Side of the Moon (1972), came to embody all that was admirable about the excess of 70’s rock – but also all that was despicable and alienated the very same thing. It blew Pink Floyd out of the rock clubs and polytechnics and into arenas and stadiums, and also set in motion the mechanisms within the band that would lead to their ultimate demise. Waters alienated critics and fans, clashed with band members, and eventually punched out the very man staring back from the mirror, resulting in a silence which has held it’s breath up until now.

Waters alienated critics and fans, clashed with band members, and eventually punched out the very man staring back from the mirror, resulting in a silence which has held it’s breath up until now.

In many ways, his solo career can be seen to start with Pink Floyd’s magnum opus, The Wall (1980). Thinly disguised as the story of the character of Pink, the album details – among other themes – Waters’ disenchantment with the music business and what his beloved band had become: a money making machine grossing millions of dollars a night. During the recording of the album, Waters bullied Pink Floyd’s dreamer and gentle spirit, keyboardist Richard Wright, out of the band. A staunch socialist, Waters did not take kindly to Wright’s purchase of a luxurious country house with the money he made off Dark Side of The Moon. Wright calls Waters a hypocrite, as it took him only a year and a half to buy his own country seat near Horsham in Sussex (with his new wife Lady Carolyn Christie, the niece of the 3rd Marquess of Zetland, former Mrs Rock Scully – whom Waters blamed for this extravagance). He also felt that Wright was underperforming both as a writer and a musician, and not contributing to the band.

“It was this horrible, passive-aggressive, English-style conflict, where so much was just unsaid. Roger is a tough guy, and he’s tougher on himself than anyone. But he takes the harshness and perfectionism that he applies to himself and applies it to other people, which is sometimes not the right thing to do”, reminisces producer Bob Ezrin in Mark Blake’s Pink Floyd book “Pigs Might Fly” (p.264)

Wright’s dismissal removed an integral brick from the wall, removed a corner stone from the very musical backbone of the band. Wright was an integral part of the band’s wordless communication, in many senses the glue which tied guitarist David Gilmour’s recognizable licks and drummer Nick Mason’s workmanlike drumming to Waters’ morose bleating and confrontational bass playing.

Soon Mason found his role had diminished, and after the sombre swansong of The Final Cut (1983), Waters replaced Gilmour with Eric Clapton for his first official solo effort, The Pros and Cons of Hitch-Hiking (1984). Sounding like an afterthought of The Final Cut, the record recycled some lines and melodies and even sound effects of that record, sounding like it came from the same insular and air conditioned nightmare (i.e. car) we heard at the end of ‘Two Suns in the Sunset’.

That strangely insular and static record was followed by Radio K.A.O.S (1987), which took the isolation even further through the character of a wheelchair bound radio ham named Billy. Interestingly enough, that very same year his former cohorts Gilmour and Mason returned under the aegis of Pink Floyd, sparking the third version of the band, and releasing the platinum-seller A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987), out-performing their former leader both in the charts and concert attendance numbers, which must have enraged Waters even further.

Waters’ reputation as rock’s foremost curmudgeon and contrarian stems from these years. He dragged his former bandmates though the courts, and lost. Banished from what he saw as his own band, Waters retreated, only to emerge five years later with a solo album, which at least partly came close to his former glories. An analysis of virtual reality before such a term even existed, Amused to Death (1992) took its cue from the first Iraq war, returning Waters to one of his central themes. A baudrillardian simulacra of a world seen through a screen, be it daytime TV or the then-novel video screen that shows bombs hitting targets hundreds of miles away, Waters’ vitriol was evident of the angrily throbbing single ‘The Bravery of Being out Range’.

Waters’ reputation as rock’s foremost curmudgeon and contrarian stems from these years. He dragged his former bandmates though the courts, and lost. Banished from what he saw as his own band, Waters retreated

In 2005, Waters released an opera, Ca Ira. In some sense, this seemed like a logical progression from works like The Wall and The Final Cut. On a more traditional stage, Waters seemed to be happy with touring the hell out of his greatest hits. He had restaged The Wall in 1990 on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, close to the site of the Berlin wall. This was certainly a historic and fitting re-enactment, which highlighted deeper political and societal themes within his masterpiece. On another hand, it was also the first instance of Roger Waters becoming a nostalgia artist, satisfied with staging close-enough versions of his former glories: the In The Flesh Tour in 1999 -2002 (recording released in 2000), The Dark Side of The Moon in 2006-2008 and finally returning to The Wall again in 2010-2013 (recording released in 2015).

RETURN TO FORM

None of these point towards a late blooming such as Is This The Life We Really Want? (Sony/Columbia), his fourth official solo album, released in the beginning of June 2017. It is a record which is instantly recognizable, although completely new.

With it, Waters returns to mine a vein that has seemed to be lost since the release of The Final Cut, some 35 years ago. The same merciless vitriol and profound humanity that litters his best work is strong and vibrant on this record, from the claustrophobic mutterings at the beginning of the record to the acoustic catharsis of ‘Part of Me Died’.

The same merciless vitriol and profound humanity that litters his best work is strong and vibrant on this record

The record starts out muffled, seemingly coming from the room next door – or in a pre-natal state, as perceived through a womb – until Waters’ voice pierces the space at the centre of the sonic landscape, coming into focus as sharp and pristine words whispered as an introduction, an incantation of sorts.

“When we were young, we could piss off the boys’ bog wall
A black expanse of pitch, or tar, or whatever it was
It doesn’t matter much anymore
And tussles with the girls before the advent of pubescent
Awe and confusion
Knickers thick, pasty in the roar of adolescence’s dawn

How innocent and cruel
Ran the gauntlet of first stirrings
In the changing rooms of May

Where are you now?
Don’t answer that

I’m still ugly
You’re still fat
I’ve still got spots
I’m still afraid

Our parents made us what we are
Or was it God?
Who gives a fuck?
It’s never really over”

 

 

The last line is is delivered with a defeated sigh, which releases an acoustic guitar, gently strumming the opening chords of ‘If I Were God’, or ‘Deja Vu’ as it has been rechristened for the record. And with that, the record begins.

Waters delivers these words like a curse, seemingly spitting them through his clenched teeth. The way he spits out the word “fat” speaks volumes as to who he is: it is a hurtful word, delivered in a potent blow with sadistic precision by someone who knows how to hit you where it hurts.

Waters voice, and the different dramatic ways he uses it, is one of the most idiosyncratic instruments in rock. Or was, I should say. Hearing him hiss and growl and moan and whisper is such a revelation. It’s akin to hearing Dylan sing with his 1960’s voice. As evocative and expressive, but older, almost Beckettian in tone, an old man speaking into a tape recorder, trying to make sense of lost time and the even more confusing present, stumbling onto the booby traps of time.

Hearing him hiss and growl and moan and whisper is such a revelation. It’s akin to hearing Dylan sing with his 1960’s voice. As evocative and expressive, but older, almost Beckettian in tone, an old man speaking into a tape recorder, trying to make sense of lost time and the even more confusing present, stumbling onto the booby traps of time.

 

Nigel Godrich, the producer most commonly associated with Radiohead, has created a kind of sonic theme park, which Waters’ voice inhabits comfortably. The music and the sonic palette of the record are reminiscent of classic 70’s Pink Floyd. It is there in the mechanical hisses and clicks of ‘Picture That’ that recall ‘Welcome To The Machine’. In the throbbing syncopated bass guitar – once ‘Picture That’ really kicks in just under the two minute mark – and reminds you of the same sinewy force that drives former Pink Floyd juggernauts like ‘One of These Days’ (how great it is to hear Waters play bass again!), in the way Roger Manning’s dreamy cloudlike keys and Jonathan Wilson’s Gilmour-like guitars emerge from the coda of that very song.

It is there in that unruly, impassioned howl that reeks of pain and madness, that low muttering of an angry and deranged old man.

Godrich greatest stroke of genius may be how he employs snippets of overheard conversation and vintage radio transmissions (particularly on the bizarre musique concrete collage of ‘Bird In A Gale’, which recalls Pink Floyd’s unreleased Household Objects project – how it applies the seemingly mundane as a musical structure), sounds of public transport and modern life – the very things a listener versed in Waters’ past will associate with classic Pink Floyd. Their appeal comes partly from their vintage nature: the toffee-nosed RP of the BBC newscaster, the aged tones in his markedly exact pronunciation signaling an end to the 60’s, and “Big Ben tolling out the old year, and tolling in the new year” i.e. the 1970’s is a particularly tongue-in-cheek and meaningful detail for Godrich to slip in. At times these pavlovian triggers seem even too close to the original: the hurried steps, out-of-breath breathing and ticking clocks around the two minute mark of ‘Smell The Roses’ recall Dark Side of the Moon’s ‘On The Run’ and ‘Time’ respectively – in a way that is even a tad too close the original.

WAR AND PIECES OF A MAN ON A BEACH

Waters comes full circle. He is a nihilist, he is a misanthrope, but he has the proof to back it up. His profound disgust at self-serving politicians and the faceless golem of capitalism is evident even on the most pastoral moments of this heavy record. He presents his case like a more tuneful Noam Chomsky: calm and composed, and knowledgeable to the hilt.

His profound disgust at self-serving politicians and the faceless golem of capitalism is evident even on the most pastoral moments of this heavy record

‘Broken Bones’ second verse returns to the end of the Second World War, and sees the choices made then as the groundwork of that deeply immoral strain of capitalism that has eaten out the humane core of Western society.

“When World War II was over
Though the slate was never wiped clean
We could have picked over them broken bones
We could have been free
But we chose to adhere to abundance
We chose the American dream”

 

Waters has focused his target, and found plenty to hate in our contemporary context. Margaret Thatcher may be gone, but the forces behind her remain.

“We cannot turn back the clock
Cannot go back in time
But we can say “fuck you”
We will not listen to 
Your bullshit and lies
Your bullshit and lies”

 

The allusions are clear: as ‘Broken Bones’ ends with the words ”bullshit and lies”, the record instantly cuts to a sample of Donald Trump recounting his win in the elections of 2016, spouting actual bullshit and lies. This snippet in turn ends with a deep sigh from Waters, firing off the moody bassline that carries the vehement title track.

The final verse of the song contains some of the most powerful writing of Waters’ career. He lists things we all recognize from actual news headlines, and chains them together so that they seem to interlink in some peculiar downward spiral which is integral to the culture we live in. At the bottom of a funnel Waters reduces the whole thing to ants, but backs away, showing that we are indeed worse than the ants, because we have the capacity to differentiate between good and evil, but lack the moral spine. It is superb English writing, witty and vicious.

“And every time a student is run over by a tank
And every time a pirate’s dog is forced to walk the plank
Every time a Russian bride is advertised for sale
And every time a journalist is left to rot in jail
Every time a young girl’s life is casually spent
And every time a nincompoop becomes the president
Every time somebody dies reaching for their keys
And every time that Greenland falls in the fucking sea is because
All of us, the blacks and whites
Chicanos, Asians, every type of ethnic group
Even folks from Guadeloupe, the old, the young
Toothless hags, supermodels, actors, fags, bleeding hearts
Football stars, men in bars, washerwomen, tailors, tarts
Grandmas, grandpas, uncles, aunts
Friends, relations, homeless tramps
Clerics, truckers, cleaning ladies
Ants – maybe not ants
Why not ants?
Well because it’s true
The ants don’t have enough IQ to differentiate between
The pain that other people feel
And well, for instance, cutting leaves
Or crawling across windowsills in search of open treacle tins
So, like the ants, are we just dumb?
Is that why we don’t feel or see?
Or are we all just numbed out on reality TV?”

Is This The Life We Want? is very much a record of its time, living from the political situation we find ourselves in. It is a brave record, for very few of Waters’ peers go through the trouble of addressing current issues. Dylan is busy humming along to Sinatra standards in the day room of the retirement home, and Neil Young sure does try, but ends up sounding like a parody of his former self.

It is a brave record, for very few of Waters’ peers go through the trouble of addressing current issues. Dylan is busy humming along to Sinatra standards in the day room of the retirement home, and Neil Young sure does try, but ends up sounding like a parody of his former self.

What really gives the record power is that we’ve heard this before. It is a familiar voice; if not in colour, then in tone. Waters returns to the big themes of his greatest work – The Wall, Final Cut and Amused to Death – but is not satisfied with recounting past thought patterns and conspiracy theories: he re-contextualizes them. This is the very thing he sings about on ‘Dejá Vu’: we’ve seen it all before. The Israelis are treating the Palestinians like the Nazis treated the Jews. Trump is George W. Bush is Reagan is Thatcher. The same powers that profit from armed conflict are those who pull the strings behind figures of power, now and then, as is evident on ‘The Fletcher Memorial Home’ on the Final Cut.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome, Reagan and Haig,
Mr. Begin and friend, Mrs. Thatcher, and Paisley,
Mr. Brezhnev and party.
The ghost of McCarthy,
The memories of Nixon.
And now, adding color, a group of anonymous Latin-
American Meat packing glitterati”

War is an integral part of capitalism, the lawnmower that paves way for democratization, the battering ram that divides in order to conquer.

This is very much at the heart of The Final Cut, but war is clearly audible within the cracks of the new record: for instance, the two records share the ear-shattering explosions of missiles, on ‘Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert’ (The Final Cut) and the very end of ‘Bird In A Gale’ and the dramatic moment of ‘Dejá Vu’ (ITTLWRW), when the string section kicks in, as they do on The Final Cut.

Water’s defining wound – his father Eric Fletcher Waters’ death at the Anzio beachhead landing during the Second World War – is a killer blow inflicted essentially by the same power that breaks his back during the 70’s.

Money. Power. Control.

Waters sides, as always, with the underdog. With the students crushed by a tank, the Russian mail order brides, the small boy. Always that same small boy, an echo of Waters himself, but this time the man becoming the boy, washed up on the beach.

The urgency of yearning for inclusion is evident in the lyrics to ‘Bird in a Gale’.

“The dog is scratching at the door
The boy is drowning in the sea
Can I crash out on your floor?”

The drowning boy – an obvious reference to Aylan Kurdi, the child refugee who washed up on the beach in Turkey and became a powerful icon of the 2015-16 Syrian refugee crisis – is not “drowned”, but “drowning”. With this choice of suspending the action in the present Waters seems to underline the fact that things are still happening, that the crisis is ongoing.

In one of the most heart-wrenching passages of the record Waters juxtaposes rich Westerners sunbathing on the very same beaches drowned refugees are washed up on.

“And I dreamed I was saying goodbye to my child
She was taking a last look at the sea
Wading through dreams, up to our knees in warm ocean swells
While bathing belles, soft beneath
Hard bitten shells punch their iPhones
Erasing the numbers of redundant lovers
And search the horizon
And you’ll find my child
Down by the shore
Digging around for a chain or a bone
Searching the sand for a relic washed up by the sea
The last refugee”

The gulls shrieking in the background, the loss evident in every line, the desolate skeletal loneliness of the musical backing all seem strangely familiar, and once you realise where they come from, a lot of this record falls into place. The song is ‘Southampton Dock’, off The Final Cut, that peculiar and misunderstood record that seems to lurk within every line of this new record.

“She stands upon Southampton dock
With her handkerchief
And her summer frock clings
To her wet body in the rain.
In quiet desperation knuckles
White upon the slippery reins
She bravely waves the boys Goodbye again.

And still the dark stain spreads between
His shoulder blades.
A mute reminder of the poppy fields and graves.
And when the fight was over
We spent what they had made.
But in the bottom of our hearts
We felt the final cut.”

The widowed soldier’s bride and the last refugee looking for what they’ve lost on the beach are mirror images. They are both casualties of war. Different wars, yes, but war all the same.

And looking back, it’s is in no way a co-incidence, that Water’s’ own father was blown to bits on a beach. Reading the song with that in mind, the last four lines of ‘The Last Refugee’ take on yet another, even more chilling meaning.

Is This The Life We Want? is such a powerfully universal record for this very reason: Waters has the courage to descend into his very personal Hell, and write about it with eloquence, humanity and determination, resulting in a very truthful and recognizable simulacra of the world which we all inhabit.

Is This The Life We Want? is such a powerfully universal record for this very reason: Waters has the courage to descend into his very personal Hell, and write about it with eloquence, humanity and determination

 

EPILOGUE

In some sense, Waters’ return to form must on some level have its origins in that improbable moment in 2005, when the four members of Pink Floyd re-united for 25 minutes on the stage at Live 8. Since then, a multitude of mutterings and activity has emanated from that corpse which was presumed long dead.

Gilmour returned in 2006 with On An Island, bringing back Rick Wright into the fold – following that record with a successful tour, in which the two former bandmates successfully tackled such fabled heights as the 25 minute musical peak of ‘Echoes’, from 1970’s iconic Meddle. Wright’s death in 2008 hit Gilmour hard, and Wright’s persona and the absence it leaves behind is very central to the subsequent releases: the “final Pink Floyd album”, 2014’s The Endless River, Gilmour’s fourth solo effort Rattle That Lock (2015) and that all-too-evident return to the crime scene of Live at Pompeii (2017).

The Endless River in particular, seems almost like a cathedral that Gilmour has built around his fallen comrade and collaborator. At the center of the record is ‘Autumn ‘68’, a period fragment of Wright playing the great organ at London’s Royal Albert Hall, a venue the band was banned from for nailing their drums to the stage. The ghostly sound of the organ is at once majestic, and strangely elegiac, all things considered. A fragment of an early interview with Wright, recorded for the original Live At Pompeii (1970) starts off the record. “We certainly are underspoken and understanding… But there’s a lot of things unsaid, as well….We shout and argue and fight, and work it on out”, Wright extols, and is mirrored in the lyrics of the last song ‘Louder Than Words’, the only song sung by Gilmour on the album.

Similarly Wright haunts Rattle That Lock on a song dedicated to him, ‘A Boat Lies Waiting’. The song opens with a recording of Rick Wright talking about death:

“It’s like going into the sea
There’s nothing”

The fragment comes from the same interview as the snippet that opens The Endless River, and is reprised on the concert recording Live at Pompeii (2017), bringing Wright into the old amphitheatre once more, letting him haunt the site of one of Pink Floyd’s most iconic performances is something that can’t go amiss to anyone even slightly familiar with the mythology of this band.

Wright is the ghost that haunts Pink Floyd, the ghost of the dead king on the wall to Gilmour’s Hamlet.

The paradox is, that in comparison to Waters, Wright’s ghost cripples Gilmour. In light of this, Gilmour’s current records are museum pieces, re-readings of familiar victories. It is no coincidence that this part of the story was well presented in the still ongoing Pink Floyd retrospective Their Mortal Remains at the V&A museum in London.

Roger Waters’ new record wasn’t even on sale in the gift shop.

*

“Pink Floyd – Their Mortal Remains” at the V&A until October 15th

 

Roger Waters’ Is This the life We Really Want? and David Gilmour Live at Pompeii are out now.

Roger Waters’ European leg of the Us & Them Tour came on sale this Monday. He plays the Hartwall Arena in Helsinki on August 28th, 2018

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