Amid Pink Floyd’s brooding, soaring sound, the noise generated by the band’s internal conflicts and the clamor around the group’s legendary live shows, beat Roger Waters’ political heart.
It grew louder and more articulate in the group’s later albums The Wall and The Final Cut and again in Waters’ solo work. But now, at age 67, and seemingly happier and more at ease than ever, Waters wears that heart on his sleeve in his current live staging of The Wall. It is very likely the most pointedly political rock spectacle ever to reach hundreds of thousands of people. It just ended its North American leg and resumes touring in Europe in March, 2011.
And spectacle it is. A replica fighter plane flies overhead then crashes into flames; Fireworks barrage the stage; Sirens blare and the surround sound system is so refined that bullets and bombs seem to fire from all directions; Lighting effects simulate a helicopter search light that surveys the audience. And that’s just the first 10 minutes or so.
Later comes the nearly floor-to-ceiling-sized marionettes, the iconic Pink Floyd flying pig and, of course, the wall itself, built brick by white brick throughout the show’s first half. It spans not just the stage, but the entire width of an arena.
The extravaganza literally takes your breath away and comes about as close to immersive entertainment as possible outside of a theme park. The difference is that while Waters packs plenty of wow factor into the production, much of it works in service to his pointed indictment of tyranny, conformity, complacency and, yes, ” the walls” constructed by ideologies.
When Pink Floyd released The Wall in 1979, the album, written largely by Waters, referenced rock star alienation. Now, in 2010, in this track-by-track live performance, Waters has transformed the work into a statement well beyond himself.
A choir of local children line up across the stage to sing “Another Brick in the Wall.” They wear t-shirts that read:” Fear builds walls.” When the song “Mother,” on which Waters duets with a film of himself performing the song 30 years ago, poses the question “Should I trust the government?” the words “No, f**** way” flash across the stage. Later, the show issues other equally blatant messages like “Big Brother is Watching You.”
Waters takes his sharpest aim at the military, industrial and religious institutions that have used war in service to their concerns. An animation of airplanes dropping bombs in the shape of corporate logos, dollar signs and the religious symbols of Christianity, Islam and Judaism proved controversial. The juxtaposition of the Star of David symbol with dollar signs drew the Anti-Defamation League’s ire. Waters rebuffed charges of anti-Semitism but he did change the animation’s sequence.
The show’s most emotionally moving portion was the collection of photos and personal biographical details, sent in by fans, of their loved ones who had died in wars, including Iraq. The evidence of real people heightened the show’s underlying theme of war’s indelible effect on personal lives.
Not the least of which was Waters’. A photo of his father virtually starts the show and the loss of his father ignites the loneliness and anger that permeates The Wall.
But Waters was shaped not only by his father’s death, but also his life. His father was a conscientious objector and a Communist Party member before he entered the British infantry and died during World War II. Waters took on the political mantle as early as age 15, when he joined the Cambridge Youth Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in his native England. These early years inform this tour as much as Waters’ rock star era.
Waters’ first attempt to further politicize The Wall was the 1990 show in Berlin. He packed the performance with special guests and erected the same white wall, brick by brick, on the land between Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate, the vicinity where the Berlin Wall, the 20th century’s most vivid symbol of division, had just collapsed. I saw that show. While it was electrifying to be with 200,000 people under historic circumstances, the truth is that the production itself was messy. Technical glitches plagued it and lessened its impact.
This current version of The Wall is a fuller expression of Waters’ intent as an artist and as a person. Although I miss David Gilmour’s signature guitar and vocals at times, the show nonetheless lands a seamlessly executed wallop.
In the ’70s, Pink Floyd was punk rock’s Public Enemy No. 1. (Reportedly Johnny Rotten wore an “I Hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt.) Then, Pink Floyd represented the self-importance of old guard rock. The strongest criticism was that Pink Floyd was irrelevant.
Waters’ current tour of The Wall renders that point mostly moot. He has expanded the album’s themes beyond his personal demons to include those of a world that still cannot find peace, one riddled with institutions that prefer a fear-driven, easy-to-manipulate populace.
Is Waters preaching to the choir? Maybe. Maybe not. One cannot assume that every person in these 20,000 seat arenas shares his views. Many fans still relish Pink Floyd mostly as a complementary soundtrack for their mind-altering substance of choice.
It takes courage to wear your political heart on your sleeve in such a public and direct way. That greater side of Roger Waters steps forward in this show.