Roger Waters: The Man Behind Pink Floyd's The Wall

By Greg Kot for

Roger Waters -- the auteur who created the themes, wrote the lyrics, and shaped many of the best songs on such Pink Floyd masterpieces as The Dark Side of the MoonWish You Were Here and The Wall -- is touring North America for the first time in 12 years this summer. He'll perform many of the songs he wrote for Floyd, in effect reclaiming the legacy that has been usurped by his former bandmates.

Three years after completing the final Floyd album with Waters, The Final Cut (1983), David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright tried to resurrect the Floyd name for recording projects and tours. Waters sued to stop them, but lost, then watched in horror as the new Floyd --augmented by sidemen and elaborate visuals -- raked in $30 million on a 1987 tour while his solo career languished.

Before going into rehearsals with a six-piece band, one of the finest songwriters of the rock era cleared the air in a rare interview about life with and without Pink Floyd.

CDNOW: True or false: Besides fly-fishing and beginning a new family the last few years, you've been working on an opera about the French revolution.

Roger Waters: True! Man cannot live by rock & roll alone. It's called Ca Ira, an operatic history of the French revolution, and I hope to have it done for release next year.

Although it's set in the late 18th century, it's about change in general as much as that specific revolution. I've had to learn how to compose on a computer -- an idea that I loathed, but which I now find liberating -- and for an 82-piece orchestra and a choir. Plus I've been working on translating the French, which was first presented to me in 1989 by librettist Etienne Roda Gil, into English, so there will be two versions of the work released.

But surely you've observed the fates of rockers who dabble outside the genre. When Paul McCartney put out Liverpool Oratorio, the classical aficionados threw stones, and his fans scratched their heads. What makes you think this will be different?

I understand the knives will come out -- that's inevitable. But one of the problems that people in the classical world have is how many recordings of Mahler or Beethoven symphonies can you make? They're always looking for new music, but many of the new serious composers are into academic forms, which strike some people as sterile and cold.

I think I've made a work that is melodic and emotional; I think I've done something that can move people. The libretto is very much relatable to my earlier work, because it has that humane element.

Is there a rock record in the works?

I've written a few songs, and I have a broad idea of something I want to do. I've got studio time scheduled in February to make another pop record.

Will it be conceptual?

Yeah, definitely. Why change now, really?

And that concept is ...?

I am at a point where I can identify what the theme might be. But I'm not going to tell you.

You rat. So why tour now? You have nothing to sell.

I know [laughs]. When I did my last album [Amused to Death in 1992], I had the desire to tour, but not to spend the millions of dollars required to do a really serious show, especially after the unenthusiastic reception in 1987.

This year, I planned to spend the summer in the States with my family anyway, and I thought, "Why not do a few gigs at reasonably small venues where I can interact with the audience and they with you?" I wanted to see if I could rekindle some of the magic that I remember from the early days with the Floyd -- the magic which, in fact, had disappeared by 1977 when we got so big, and all anybody seemed to be focusing on was numbers, which is what made me write The Wall and swear I'd never play stadiums again.

So is this your way of reclaiming the Floyd legacy?

Let me put it this way: They made a live video of one of their shows a few years ago, and I thought it was really awful. It became obvious to me that they never understood any of it at all. And neither did quite a large number of the great unwashed -- as long as there are lots of lights going off, and they can recognize the tunes, they're relatively happy.

What was missing?

I just don't think they understand the songs or what they're about. If you read old interviews, they actually say that. I can remember interviews from Dark Side where Rick was saying, "We really don't care about the lyrics." They remain connected to the numbers, the money, and so that's what you get, that's what you feel through it all.

What you don't feel is the connection with the magic, because there isn't any. The working relationship I had with Dave and Nick and even Rick to a certain extent up to and including Dark Side of the Moon was very exciting and interesting and worthwhile, but after that it became very problematic. We'd done everything we had set out to do, and we kind of clung together from that point on in a very uneasy marriage because of the name, because it was easy, and we'd created an enormous audience.

And I have to say Dave did some great work as well after Dark Side. His contributions to those latter records were very important. But he certainly didn't do any work regarding the philosophy or politics or heart or drive behind the records. So when I left, they were put in a situation where no one was providing that, but they carried on doing that, and they did it by employing huge numbers of people to try and replace me.

With all due respect to the people who went out and bought those records, they are just rubbish. Particularly The Division Bell; it's just nonsense from beginning to end. A Momentary Lapse of Reason had a couple of really nice tunes on it that, had I still been in the band, those chord sequences and melodies would have been made it onto a record that I was involved in. But conceptually and lyrically, it's just rubbish, partly because it's not true. It's like, "Let's try and write songs that sound as if they're Pink Floyd and make records that sound like Pink Floyd records."

Eric Stewart of 10cc told me how he got a phone call from Dave Gilmour where Dave said, "We're trying to make a new record, and we need a concept. Got any ideas?" It was funny, and it really pissed me off at the time. It pissed me off that no one saw through any of that. But I think history is starting to show that none of that stuff is really lasting. The last record was kind of pure ''Spinal Tap.'' Dave got his new wife to write lyrics!

Did you break up the band because their ability to execute your ideas was faltering?

They said all that stuff about what a horrid person I was and how I wouldn't let anyone have their say and how they are now working together as a band. Bullocks! Nobody had any say in anything except Gilmour, except that he needed Rick to write songs. I left because it was just no longer good for any of us. They were getting upset ... Rick Wright had been fired by mutual consent of us all, notwithstanding what they've all said since about how it was horrid old me. Gilmour and Mason absolutely agreed to getting rid of Rick because he'd become impossible to work with.

In fact, at the time, I was having a conversation with Dave about Rick, and he was saying, "Let's get rid of Nick too." That was the state everything was in. But I was finding my feet more and had things I wanted to say melodically, thematically, and lyrically. So I was writing more and more, Dave was writing less and less, Rick had gone, and Nick never wrote anything anyway, so in the end it was me writing everything.

The end came when we did The Final Cut, and Dave said he didn't think the record was good enough, so I asked him if he had any songs. Well, he hadn't got any. He wanted me to shelve it for a year, so he could write some songs. I said, "C'mon Dave, you haven't written any songs for five years, what makes you think you're going to start writing songs now?" I told him I'd release it as a solo record if they wanted, but they didn't want that either. That was the big bust-up really. There was so much rancor by the end of it.


A Look Back With Roger Waters

By Greg Kot

In part two of our interview with Roger Waters, the founding member of Pink Floyd discusses his solo career and the overriding themes in his work.

Though often regarded as a somewhat bleak, if not cynical, visionary, Waters says the doom-and-gloom interpretation misses the point. The set list for his current solo tour is more than just about reclaiming his Floydian legacy, he says. It will highlight the thematic and lyrical ideas that have always interested him, and provide a thread for understanding his career, both with and without Pink Floyd.

From the "Echoes" era to his most recent solo album, Amused to Death, Waters says he is drawn to songs that connect people to each other. Who says that we're all just bricks in the wall?

Are you happy with the albums you've done without the rest of Floyd?

They all have some songs on them that I am really happy with. I think I went down a bit too much of a techno road on Radio KAOS [1987]. I wish I had done it slightly differently. Having said that, I liked Ian Ritchie, who produced the record with me and did a lot of the sequencing very well.

I'm not sure I made all the right decisions making those records, but I don't regret making them. And Amused to Death [1992] is I think a kind of classic masterpiece [laughs]. I think it's a really great record.

As good as Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here?

Absolutely. I don't think there is any question that if that record had Pink Floyd written on the front of it, it would have done huge numbers.

The one thing that links Amused to Death to your best work is its moral perspective, its sense of compassion.

My hope would be that my work would enable spiritual change in people. I hope that's what it does for me. It seems to me that if art has any responsibility, I described it in a poem I wrote after reading Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. The poem starts off: "There is a magic in some books/That sucks a man into connections/With the spirits hard to touch/That join him to his kind."

Those couple of lines express what it is that I feel about art. When I read that novel it touches me in a way that helps me to connect. I suppose that my work over the years has been partly a way to explain to myself my feelings about the loss of my father [who died in World War II] and to express my feelings of shame and alienation. I hope to express myself in a way that is accessible to other human beings and to illuminate not only my life, but theirs as well.

I look back to a song like "Echoes" [from the 1971 Floyd album Meddle], which has the lines "Two strangers passing in the street/By chance two passing glances meet/And I am you/And what I see is me." It's that connection that is central to all my work -- not just with other men, women, and children, but with whatever you want to call God.

You're talking about the responsibility of an artist to his audience. People always want to scapegoat rock for societal ills. Just recently artists and bands like Marilyn Manson, KMFDM, and Rammstein were blamed directly or indirectly for influencing the behavior of the two students who shot up their Denver high school. Do you believe a piece of music can motivate violent behavior?

Not really. I don't know the artists you're talking about, but what seems likely to me is this: that some of the same nonsense that goes on in our consumer society, that creates some of these monster children that go out and kill other children, may manifest itself in completely negative forms of music. So what I'm saying is it's a manifestation of something that is wrong in the whole of society. But the idea that the killing of the children could have been caused by the making of the rock record is errant nonsense.

I think what is more difficult and would be harder to refute is the idea that we've become inured to the idea of violence, particularly shooting people, by Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. The first movie of that type that I ever saw was the Wild Bunch, which I disliked immensely. Peckinpah was the first one to do that slow-motion blood and guts, and I remember being disgusted and worried by it.

In the 25 years since then, we've all become dulled to that stuff. I think the fantasy of death by shooting has been promulgated through Hollywood much more than rock & roll, and through television.

I've seen documentaries of kids in ghettos who when they get shot are amazed that it hurts, or that they may not be able to walk again, or will always have a limp. But in movies, they stop a couple of bullets and carry on. It's not a problem being shot, as long as your heart is in the right place. As any trauma surgeon will tell you, that's not the case.

Have you thought about which Floyd albums you'll be drawing from for this set?

The Dark Side is obviously really important. I've been listening to old stuff in putting together this set list, and this has obviously stood the test of time. I'm still very sad about Syd [Barrett] so I suspect I will do some of "Shine on You Crazy Diamond," and I will definitely do "Wish You Were Here."

Animals -- my son's favorite song in the repertoire is "Dogs." He's 22. It's long, it's 17 minutes, but there is something very direct about the attack on consumerism in that song, which still feels OK. It's a little bit high school revolutionary, but it's a little bit like "Breathe breathe in the air, don't be afraid to care." [Makes retching noise] Pass me the bucket. But then again, that's truth, it's OK sometimes to be that naive and direct about feelings. In fact, it's essential.

The Wall: I'm still looking for an ending to The Wall. It seems strange to say 20 years later. On and off I've been picking it up and rewriting it as a Broadway show, but what has stopped me is I've never been too sure how it finished. I really had no idea when I wrote it how it finished. Twenty years of therapy later I'm starting to get a handle on what it means.

I'm calling the tour Roger Waters "In the Flesh" so I'm definitely doing "In the Flesh," and I will do quite a few songs from The Wall: "Mother," probably not "Run Like Hell." "Nobody Home" I really like.

The Final Cut: I always liked "Southampton Dock." It's a really small thing, but I really liked that image of Margaret Thatcher all full of union jacks and piss and vinegar, resurrecting her political career, which was shot completely.

It was my father that record, and I think it was the most personal record I've made. I started to come to grips with my obligation to him, and maybe I unburdened some of that. "The dark stain spread between their shoulder blades ... and when the fight was over we spent what they had made, but in the bottom of our hearts we felt the final cut." I love that lyric because it expresses my sadness that the promise of the post war dream did not materialize. The failure of socialism in some senses. Though I'm not a subscriber to the notion that the socialist ideal has died and gone to heaven, because some of it has been absorbed into our great market driven Western Civilization, massing as the forces are to drive it out. I mean Reagan had a good go at killing the idea of supporting one another. So yeah, it's kind of an important record to me. I've had a lot of people say that actually. It wasn't one of the most successful Pink Floyd records but so what.

What about the solo albums?

The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking: I love "Every Strangers Eyes." There you go, it's straight back to that. The same lyric as in "Echoes." I love that song. I love the imagery. It's such a hopeful song for me. Feeling the connections. It was a strange time, because I was working with Eric Clapton as well, and the only reason I went on the road is because Eric said I should tour it. And not only that, he came on the road with me. I said, "If you go, I'll go." I did a tour with Eric Clapton as my guitar player! It was terrific. It's the only record I've made that was only about sex.

Radio KAOS: God knows where that came from. It's such a strange story. But I love "The Tide is Turning," the version we did at the Wall concert in Berlin. I prefer that version to the one on the record. I always wanted to do it as a big anthemic rock thing. To do it with some of those voices was terrific. I would always start from the record and only make changes if there was good reason. That's why I don't see Bob Dylan anymore, because I don't like sitting there trying to work out what fucking song he is playing. After you're listening for about five minutes you go, "My god it's 'Blowing in the Wind.'" I love the recordings so much, I find it too upsetting. If I'm doing some of these old songs, I like them to be very recognizable. I like the "Powers That Be" off that record, and "Radio Waves."

Amused to Death: "Perfect Sense" I love. I love "It's a Miracle." I'm still ... they're kind of all floating around the air at the moment. If this goes well, I'd love to do some more.