PHILADELPHIA — Back in the late 1970s when Roger Waters conceived Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” the band’s landmark double-album about isolation and psychological torment — with its rebellious cry, “We don’t need no education!” — the bass player says he was “a frightened young man.”
But these days, Waters sees his magnum opus in more positive terms.
“I’m an optimist,” the 67-year-old British songwriter says by phone from his home on Long Island, N.Y., during a brief break in the spectacularly staged “The Wall Live” world tour, which began in Canada in September and is likely to carry on even longer than its last scheduled date in Manchester, England, in June.
In its day, “The Wall,” which came out in 1979, was a colossal commercial success, especially considering it’s a mostly autobiographical work about separation, pain and suffering, beginning with the death of Waters’ father in World War II when Waters was 5 months old.
The album spawned such classic-rock hits as “Run Like Hell” and “Comfortably Numb.” And, of course, it produced “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.”
“The Wall” has sold 11.5 million copies, and since it’s a double album, the Recording Industry Association of America counts each copy twice, ranking it as the third most popular album ever released in the United States, behind Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and the Eagles’ “Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975” and ahead of “Led Zeppelin IV” and AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”
Waters toured in 2007, playing in its entirety Pink Floyd’s 1973 album, “The Dark Side of the Moon,” which the RIAA ranks as the 26th best-selling U.S. album.
Moving on from “Dark Side” to “The Wall,” which was written almost entirely by Waters, is a way for the 6-foot-3 silver-haired singer to further reclaim the Floyd legacy. Waters left the group in the mid-‘80s, and lost his grip on its legacy during the ‘80s and ‘90s when guitarist David Gilmour, drummer Nick Mason and keyboard player Richard Wright (who died in 2008) toured as Pink Floyd.
What “The Wall” is really about in 2010, Waters says, is addressing “the supremely relevant question” of whether the vast technological changes that have taken place over the last three decades will be used to divide people or bring them together.
“We have a better chance to communicate with ourselves in a way where we can fend off the malign influence of government, big business and greed,” he says. “I really believe we have a better chance as a people because we can Twitter and Google and e-mail everything to each other.”
In Waters’ current show, the 26-song album runs from start to finish, from “In the Flesh?” to “Outside the Wall,” played amid the rubble of the fallen barrier, with Waters on trumpet.
Giant puppets based on artist Gerald Scarfe’s drawings rise up to menace the crowd, and in true Pink Floyd over-the-top style, an airplane suspended on a wire flies from one end of the arena to the other before crashing into the wall and bursting into flame.
“I always felt the responsibility to provide some theater that would work if you were 100 rows back rather than 15 rows back,” Waters says.
The 12-piece band fills the shoes of Gilmour & Co. with vocalist Robbie Wyckoff and guitarists Snowy White, G.E. Smith and Dave Kilminster, who takes the epic “Comfortably Numb” solo from atop the 36-foot-high wall. And what may be the show’s best trick finds Waters doing a live double-track duet with a black-and-white filmed version of himself from 1980 — “poor, miserable little Roger,” he calls him — while Scarfe’s giant “Mother” glowers down on the pair.
The show has a powerful antiwar theme. Photos of people who have died in wars from World War I to Iraq and Afghanistan that fans have sent to Waters’ Facebook page, as part of his Fallen Loved Ones program, are projected on the wall during “The Thin Ice” and throughout the lengthy intermission.
In the lovely fragment “Vera,” film clips of families reuniting with returning soldiers are seen as Waters sings, “Does anyone else in here feel the way I do?”
The songwriter says he learned about empathy though his own loss. “I’ve learned about my own pain, when I was a little kid and through my life, really, with the loss of my father. I’ve learned that there’s a general feeling and a sense of community between people who mourn loss in their family. There is no us and them. We are all the same.”
Waters came to believe in the power of pop music to shape the way people think about social and political issues, he says, when he was growing up in the ‘50s, listening to American artists such as Leadbelly and Billie Holiday.
“There was a pirate radio station called Radio Luxembourg that everybody listened to. That was probably where I first heard jazz, which was what attracted me to start with, and then the blues.
“The thing that kindled an enormous desire in me at some point in my life to write a song, though, was ‘Georgia on My Mind,’ the Hoagy Carmichael song. I can remember being a 15- or 16-year-old sitting up in the night, listening to the Ray Charles version and thinking if I can ever do anything that might even come close to moving another human being as much as this moves me, I will have fulfilled all my dreams.”
At the height of their stadium-size progressive-rock success in the ‘70s, Pink Floyd were held in contempt by emerging punk rebels. Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols wore a Pink Floyd shirt that blotted out the members’ eyes and had “I hate” above the band name.
“I didn’t care,” says Waters. “The Sex Pistols always seemed supremely irrelevant to me. I’ll tell you why. It was never really about anything. It was just a marketing exercise. ... Maybe I’m being unfair. But it never really interested me, musically, philosophically, politically, or in any way.”
Waters reunited with the other members of Pink Floyd at the Live 8 concert in London, organized in 2005 by Bob Geldof (who starred as Pink in the 1982 movie “The Wall”). In July, Waters and Gilmour performed together in England at a benefit concert for Palestinian refugees, and Gilmour pledged to join Waters on “Comfortably Numb” at an unannounced date on The Wall tour.
When Waters looks back on the Floyd oeuvre, he ranks “The Wall” at the top because of what he sees as its relevance.
“I love ‘Dark Side of the Moon.’ ‘Wish You Were Here.’ I love ‘Animals.’ We did some great, great work together, and I’m proud of it all.
“But to me, ‘The Wall’ stands out, because it has more to tell us now that’s important than the others. ...
“It tells us that we must not allow our political and economic masters, what Eisenhower called the military industrial complex, that we must not allow our leaders to persuade us that we need to kill others in order for us to protect ourselves.
“That’s what I’m saying in ‘The Wall.’ You must not listen to that voice. You must listen to another voice, and it’s the voice that wants to take down these walls, lean across these barriers, and look into each other’s eyes and clasp each other’s hands, and say, ‘No.’ “