Upon its release in 1983, it’s easy to see why many Pink Floyd die-hards failed to warm up to The Final Cut. At this point, the band – a few years past their sprawling, highly successful 1979 concept album The Wall – was deeply fractured, with keyboard player Richard Wright fired from the group and bassist, vocalist, and lyricist Roger Waters taking the reins and essentially making a deeply personal album on his terms.
Yet, The Final Cut, which turns 40 on 21 March, is an impeccable artistic statement that was likely dismissed simply because it was a Waters solo album for all intents and purposes. That’s a difficult point to argue; Waters wrote all the music and lyrics, while drummer Nick Mason and guitarist David Gilmour were basically relegated to the roles of session musicians. Gilmour, who usually sang a fair share of Pink Floyd songs, only co-sang one track. Whether or not Waters was using the band as a vehicle for his proselytizing grief is beside the point. He had a lot to get off his chest and plenty of resources to make this vision a reality.
Waters, born in England in 1943, was the son of a once-conscientious objector who later joined the Territorial Army and was killed in combat in Italy in 1944 during the World War II battle of Anzio, Italy. While Waters was not previously against injecting this subject into Floyd’s music – “When the Tigers Broke Free”, for instance, was written for The Wall but eventually rejected – The Final Cut is undoubtedly his full-on artistic confrontation with, and condemnation of, the senselessness of war and the politicians who continue to propagate it. The opening lines of the record’s first track, “The Post-War Dream”, minces no words, getting right to the point: “Tell me true, tell my why / was Jesus crucified / Was it for this that Daddy died?” Waters begins the song as a post-war child, but eventually the narrative lens shifts to an adult perspective, rightfully shifting anger and blame at then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: “What have we done / Maggie, what have we done?”
In addition to the single-minded subject matter of the lyrics, The Final Cut also signifies a distinct musical shift. While Gilmour and Mason were still on hand, Waters employed the talents of American composer Michael Kamen, who oversaw the album’s orchestrations and contributed keyboards in Wright’s absence. The result is a Pink Floyd record light on synthesizers, heavy on piano and harmonium, and filled with a rich, quasi-classical texture.
On the aforementioned “When the Tigers Broke Free” (released in 1982 on a seven-inch single and later included on The Final Cut’s 2004 CD release and all subsequent versions), the Pontarddulais Male Voice Choir, combined with snare drum rolls and majestic brass, create an atmosphere of a military funeral. While Waters sings the first verse in a measured tone, describing the onset of the battle that ended his father’s life, the second verse is delivered in an emotionally wrought full voice: “They were all left behind / Most of them dead / The rest of them dying / And that’s how the High Command / Took my daddy from me.” If one line encapsulates The Final Cut and Waters’ anger, it’s that one.
The Final Cut is filled to the brim with moments and arrangements that initially only seemed peripherally related to the Pink Floyd that fans knew and loved in the 1960s and 1970s, but to retrofit the group’s guitar/synth sound into Waters’ post-war requiem seems ill-advised. This is why songs like “The Gunners Dream” make more sense in a gospel-influenced format, as Kamen’s piano moves gently throughout Waters’ story of a World War II airman gunner’s thoughts as he careens to his death. “As the teardrops rise to meet the comfort of the band,” Waters sings, “You take her frail hand / And hold on to the dream.” Raphael Ravenscroft’s screaming tenor saxophone solo, paired with Kamen’s dramatic orchestrations, catapults the song to emotional levels Pink Floyd has rarely reached before or since.
Again, Waters’ anger and frustration are rightfully directed at politicians and the governments they serve – “Get Your Filthy Hands off My Desert”, a brief track that begins with an explosion and consists mainly of a string quartet arrangement, name-checks a cast of geopolitical characters he holds responsible: “Brezhnev took Afghanistan / Begin took Beirut / Galtieri took the Union Jack / And Maggie, over lunch one day, took a cruiser with all hands / Apparently, to make him give it back.” The mention of then-Argentinian president Leopoldo Galtieri is a reminder that The Final Cut was created in the shadow of the Falklands War, a conflict that likely colored much of Waters’ emotions during that time. It’s an arrangement that would stick out like a sore thumb on Dark Side of the Moon but is thematically consistent with the rest of The Final Cut.
But there are moments on The Final Cut that fit well with the classic Pink Floyd musical template. The first single, “Not Now John”, almost seems like a deliberate bone thrown at fans. The ferocious track features vocals by Gilmour (shared with Waters) and his trademark guitar leads. There’s also a snarling, full-band swagger to “The Hero’s Return”, and the gentle acoustic guitar that anchors “Southampton Dock” is reminiscent of earlier Pink Floyd songs like “Wish You Were Here” (although Kamen’s orchestrations soon overtake it).
On The Final Cut’s closing track, “Two Suns in the Sunset”, a musical compromise seems to have been reached. There’s not much in terms of heavy string arrangements, but the song embraces a gentle, catchy, folk/soul feel, thanks to Andy Bown’s warm Hammond organ and guest drummer Andy Newmark’s subtly complex playing. Interspersed throughout the song are beautifully placed ambient sounds of a highway, as the lyrics convey the terror and eventual resignation of nuclear holocaust. Many of these effects: marching, aircraft, and distant radio broadcast voices, dot The Final Cut, making it one of Pink Floyd’s most sonically rich efforts. “The sun is in the east,” Waters sings in the first verse, “Even though the day is done / Could be the human race is run.” In the final verse, he sings, “Ashes and diamonds / Foe and friend / We were all equal in the end” as Ravenscroft’s tenor saxophone caps off Pink Floyd’s most polarizing yet singularly focused album.
Waters left Pink Floyd in 1985, referring to them as “a spent force”, and they soldiered on without him (bringing Wright back into the fold). The post-Waters era was never as impactful as it was with his creativity – although Waters haters, and there are many of them, would probably disagree. While The Final Cut was hardly Pink Floyd’s most commercially successful endeavor, it is a powerful, unique statement led by an artist who rightfully never forgave his country for the death of his father or the million others who lost their lives in military conflict.
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