War Dance: The Past Repeats Itself, Again
While 20-year anniversaries are a common justification for remastered re-releases, there’s little doubt about the political timing of this new edition of Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut. Not only is this actually 21 years after the album’s original release in 1983, but The Final Cut has never been considered one of the Pink Floyd albums for the ages. It is, however, one of the most pointed and direct anti-war albums ever produced, and for all its faults and failures, its message is still as relevant and accessible today as it was those 20-odd years ago.
As the political climate in Britain and the US has heated up over the protracted conflict in Iraq, no one with any press to speak of had managed to record an album that effectively conveys that spirit (although 2004 has certainly seen a rise in protest music unprecedented in recent times). A part of the problem seems to be the political and personal involvement that people have with this war, as well as a sense of historical caution. The Vietnam War haunts this current Iraqi conflict, but seems oversimplified in this era, where the desire to humanize the tragedy of loss is tied up with the dehumanizing tactics of the enemy and the always contentious political advocacy of individual opinion, all of which is constantly reiterated in a 24-hour media environment. The complexity and immediacy of the situation renders most attempts at musical commentary awkward and two-dimensional. Why not, then, turn to the past and an established rock band with a proven track record to try and fill that gap?
One of the odd things about The Final Cut is that, while the psychedelic rock scene had direct ties to the anti-war movement of the late ‘60s, Pink Floyd’s career up to The Wall was more concerned with both mental and interstellar travel, and hardly falls under the rubric of protest music. Even The Wall‘s militaristic backdrops seem like props for the main theme of personal paranoia and psychosis. But the follow up to The Wall would be Pink Floyd’s most blunt and straightforward anti-war album ever, and despite their ties to the ‘60s, it would be the Falkland Islands conflict of 1982 that inspired the songs, while it simultaneously reflected back to the losses of World War II.
As critics noted at the time of the album’s release, and have repeated many times since, The Final Cut is both a tribute to Roger Waters’s father, killed in combat in World War II, and a less dramatized and more focused continuation of The Wall. The spectral figure of Eric Fletcher Waters was a conspicuous absence on The Wall, an invisible Other whose lack of presence was his biggest statement, even as he was intentionally left vague. With The Final Cut, Waters gave his father his own story, making him the reference point for the struggles of families who cope with the loss of husbands and fathers to war, while using his father’s memory to rail against the pervasive jingoism of the early ‘80s. Beginning with a desperate but flat open letter to Margaret Thatcher in “The Post War Dream”, the songs on The Final Cut are strangely at once opaque and oblique. You pick up the meaning immediately, but Waters doesn’t offer any solutions, instead relying on the same bitter desperation that made The Wall so weird and visceral.
But if “Your Possible Pasts” and “One of the Few” seemed circuitous on the original pressing, the remastered edition’s addition of “When the Tigers Broke Free” as the next track (originally found on the soundtrack to the film version of The Wall but not the initial album) draws a direct line between “One of the Few”‘s exhortations to “teach” and a moment captured in history—the story of Waters’s father’s death. The insertion of “When the Tigers Broke Free” also makes it easier to fathom the imagery of “The Hero’s Return”, the following track that finds Waters decrying the empty angst of the youth of the day (whether his own audience or perhaps the punk rockers of the time is unclear). But just as quickly the song returns to the past, sliding into the unsubtle but passionate, in-your-face look at “The Gunner’s Dream”.
So we’re taken from the present to the past and back, and again, and again. The whole body of The Final Cut works this way, like a movie entirely spliced-through with flashbacks. In fact, it’s reminiscent of the 1990 film, Jacob’s Ladder. If The Wall is a musical journey into psychotic break, The Final Cut is post-traumatic stress syndrome. Waters continually uses imagery and consequences of World War II to illuminate his frustrations at the continued push towards war, relying on his personal palette of loss to convey the more universal pain of survivors and the families of dead loved ones. Those are the moments where the disc works best, where the imagery is subtle, poetic, and effective, as in “Southampton Dock”. But when Waters turns his eye to fierce political commentary, the results are often clumsy and heavy-handed. This is certainly the case with the majestic but clunky “The Fletcher Memorial Home”, where Waters calls out the world leaders of the early ‘80s—including Thatcher, Reagan, Brezhnev, and others—and invites them to an asylum/rest home for “incurable tyrants and kings” where they can watch themselves on closed-circuit TV so they can “make sure they’re still real”. It’s at once effective, sarcastically funny, and cringe-inducingly melodramatic, beyond even The Wall‘s most indulgent theatrical moments, and more campy.
But the real interest of The Final Cut lies in its place in a music history, non-political context, because this is the album that marked the end of Pink Floyd’s apex. Following the astronomical success of The Wall and its film adaptation, expectations were huge for the next Pink Floyd disc. Unfortunately, Waters had long come to see the band as a vehicle for his own personal vision. While he is undoubtedly the creative genius behind The Wall, the brilliance of that album was how often it flirted with being dangerously, navel-gazingly personal, yet still managed to be widely accessible. The two main reasons Waters was able to pull it off were that, one, there was an operatic and character-driven story element to the recording, and two, it was still a band effort, with David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright contributing enough input to give it breadth.
With The Final Cut, Waters finally pushed the limit too far. Everything from the composition to the theme to the production seems like a Waters solo effort, and while the album has a unity of concept, it’s so overly-personal and direct in its statements that the lack of a character in the narrative to buffer the songs causes The Final Cut to seem a bit self-indulgent. However, it’s really the lack of proper rock songs that really does this album in. Without a “Hey You” or “Comfortably Numb”, you’re left with an Off-Piccadilly production. Comprised of snippets of guitar, heavy keyboard washes, synthesized and natural orchestration, and a large sprinkling of samples both ambient and vocal, the music here reinforces the idea that’s a soundtrack to a costume drama. While Pink Floyd’s music had taken on increasingly operatic tones ever since Dark Side of the Moon‘s space odyssey, and this was certainly fully realized on The Wall, The Final Cut is something else entirely. The songs breathe and whisper at times, cry out in others, but it always feels like a big stage production and never a cathartic “rocking out”.
Therefore it’s not really surprising that this is the Pink Floyd album that broke up the band. Wright had already departed by this point, and doesn’t appear in the album credits, and while Mason’s drums are still integral to some of these songs, Gilmour’s signature guitar work is almost entirely removed. With its theatricality, blunt force message, and introversion, there wasn’t a single to swoop in over the airwaves and the disc fell on confused, disappointed ears. In hindsight, the fact that Waters would enter into the ugly legal battle over his right to keep the Pink Floyd name for himself is evident here in the egocentric work. But the final two Floyd albums that followed (sans Waters, plus Wright), the critically undervalued but solid rock discs A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell, proved that the Pink Floyd of yore was the sum of its band parts, and not the singular (and often inflexible) vision of Roger Waters.
On the other hand, it may have been that same singular vision that allowed Waters and Pink Floyd to produce an album that is ham-fisted as dramatic prog-rock, but succeeds as an anti-war statement. That Waters was so driven to excise his own tragedies in light of what he saw around him at the time keeps The Final Cut from being as awkward and condescending as most war protest music. Yes, it’s preachy and stilted, but he has a legitimate, heartfelt connection to this material, and he manages to translate that connection into music that, at the very least, seems genuine.
And if we’re meant to extrapolate some meaning of our own from this music of the past and apply it to our present situation, perhaps the only lesson we can take away from The Final Cut is the old maxim about being doomed to repeat the past if we don’t learn from it. That, and share in Waters’s frustration that we don’t seem to be learning anything at all, that we’re trapped in that doomed cycle. Because The Final Cut doesn’t end with a message of hope or reconciliation, it ends with the grim specter of a “father-daughter about to be wiped out by a nuclear blast” moment. It’s not cheerful, but it also doesn’t seem like things have changed all that much between the times that gave rise to the song “Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Dessert” and today. Maybe that’s the most that any “protest” can say.