Roger Waters: In the Flesh

Roger Waters
In the Flesh

Reflecting on that incident in 1995, Waters commented, “success overtook us . . . we were playing in football stadiums. The magic, crushed beneath the weight of numbers. We were becoming addicted to the trappings of popularity. I found myself increasingly alienated in that atmosphere of avarice and ego until one night in the Olympic Stadium, Montreal, the boil of my frustrations burst.”

As an assessment of how he’d arrived at such a nadir, Waters wrote The Wall (1979), that cheery meditation on post-war childhood, family, celebrity, paranoia, alienation and mental breakdown. Above all, Pink Floyd’s storied concert performances of the album in 1980 and 1981 made an epic spectacle of Waters’ primary concern — the lost connection between artist and audience — as a gigantic wall was constructed on-stage between the group and the crowd during the show.

After three solo albums and a couple of tours, however, Waters appears to have worked through his ambivalence toward live performance and, moreover, he seems to have come to accept his privileged identity as a rock star with a little more grace than before. Both the title of this new CD and the tour on which it was recorded might allude to Waters at his worst on an earlier tour of the same name, but those who attended his recent live dates (his first stint on the road in 12 years) witnessed the emergence of a more affable Roger Waters. This time around he was keen to rediscover his audience as co-celebrants in a ritual that was simply about the music, and not the peripheral issues of the bad old days that, in his view, had transformed concerts into meaningless ordeals.

Although the tracks on In the Flesh were recorded at four different shows on the 2000 leg of the tour, they’ve been assembled in such a way as to coincide with the live set order. Insofar as this album comprises Pink Floyd numbers dating back to 1968, solo work from The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking (1984) and Amused to Death (1992) — and one new, previously unrecorded song — it begs two different questions: How does Waters’ rendering of Floyd material rate without the presence of Gilmour, Wright and Mason? And how does his own material rank alongside those earlier triumphs?

When he left Pink Floyd after the release of The Final Cut (1983), Waters appeared not to have entertained the notion that the other members of the band might decide to continue without him. They did, and one of rock’s more acrimonious divorce and custody proceedings ensued as Waters attempted to prevent them from using the name “Pink Floyd” and from performing material he had written. He failed, settlements were reached — even stage props were haggled over — and, ever since, each side has rarely missed an opportunity to have a public dig at the other.

Indeed, Roger Waters still seems to bear little other than animosity toward his former musical partners, despite having reinvented himself as a kind of prog rock Stuart Smalley — with pre-concert band huddles and chants of “Genuine Love!”, mentioned in his liner notes. At this point, Pink Floyd is a group whose name no longer passes Waters’ lips; he prefers to dismiss his ex-colleagues as “another band”. (In view of Waters’ attitude toward Gilmour et al., it seems ironic that for In the Flesh he should have enlisted the aid of two individuals who, since his departure from Pink Floyd, have worked with that “other” band both live and in the studio: multi-instrumentalist Jon Carin and producer James Guthrie.)

“Like my children being sold into prostitution” was how Waters recently described to Billboard the fact that Pink Floyd have continued to play his songs around the world. Given such a deep-rooted emotional attachment, it’s entirely understandable that Waters should want to reclaim part of the Pink Floyd legacy by recording for posterity live versions of the band’s material, although he already released his own concert performance of The Wall in 1990.

However, little is learned by attempting to evaluate In the Flesh in terms of the reductive question: “‘Which one’s Pink?’ — Waters or his ex-colleagues?” It’s more useful simply to judge how well Waters and his current band perform material from his Pink Floyd catalogue and to assess what they bring to that material on this particular live album. Such questions inevitably lead also to a reconsideration of the strength of some of those Floyd numbers in their original studio incarnations.

The opening section of disc one features four tracks from The Wall, beginning with “In the Flesh” (not “In the Flesh?”, which is the first cut on the studio album). It’s entirely appropriate that this should have been the concert opener. In the context of The Wall, the track marks the depths to which the album’s protagonist (Pink) has sunk, having become a neo-fascist rock star presiding over a concert-cum-rally, hectoring and abusing his fans. While the sound is appropriately big and menacing on the present CD, Waters’ vocal delivery comes across as unfortunately camp, something that might be intentional. After all, a 1994 New York Times article quoted Waters as saying he was working on a Broadway version of The Wall that he wished to inscribe with more “humanity and humour”.

Despite its flashes of brilliance, The Wall was emblematic of a band that had become increasingly centered around Waters’ creative vision and mired in heavy-handed concept, pompous arrangements and a pseudo-operatic approach to structure. Most disturbing of all, The Wall was a pronounced symptom of Waters’ misguided efforts to align rock music with high culture, something that, by definition, it can never be — thankfully. That’s not to say, of course, that an operatic concept and rock are mutually exclusive terms. Consider the example of The Who. The reason Pete Townshend succeeded with projects like Tommy was that he never lost sight of rock music’s place in popular culture. Even though his work borrowed formal elements and devices from high culture genres, it was always still celebrating rock music and rock culture.

Predictably enough, as part of the opening suite of tracks from The Wall, “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II” is dusted off for yet another live rendition. Obviously, it’s Pink Floyd’s best-known song and, to a generation of fans who came to the band via The Wall, it’s a necessary constituent of a live set by Waters, or by Gilmour and co. Still, for many other fans, this song proves that Roger Waters brought the group’s name into disrepute quite some time before “another band” allegedly did so. In sharp contrast, “Mother” was a standout track on The Wall, and Waters’ version on this album does nothing to diminish its status. Here Gilmour’s vocal part is taken by female backing singers and his guitar solo is carried off more than adequately by Doyle Bramhall II.

The introductory foray into The Wall is followed by a couple of tracks from Waters’ Floydian swan song, The Final Cut (1983), an album that was essentially a Roger Waters solo project. Although “Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert” and “Southampton Dock” seem a little out of context here, and although they share the musically grandiose tendencies of The Wall, they attest to a less self-obsessed lyrical vision. Indeed, Waters is to be commended as one of the few British artists — along with the likes of Crass, Billy Bragg, and Elvis Costello — who actually wrote songs registering their dissent regarding the Thatcher government’s diversionary war with Argentina over the Malvinas.

More consistently successful on In the Flesh are Roger Waters’ performances of earlier Pink Floyd tracks, largely because that material is simply stronger. Dark Side of the Moon (1973) is well-represented by “Brain Damage”, “Eclipse”, “Breathe in the Air” and “Time” — on which guitarist Bramhall sings Rick Wright’s part and turns in another great solo, while Waters convincingly takes over Gilmour’s vocals. With its harmonies and lush keyboards, the version of “Breathe” is outstanding. (Strangely, however, the track-listing makes no mention of Nick Mason’s “Speak to Me”, which prefaces it.) As for “Money”, it may be a crowd-pleaser, but it’s beginning to sound as hackneyed as “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II”.

Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (1975) is performed almost in its entirety, “Have a Cigar” being the only omission. The title track suffers from the absence of Gilmour’s vocals — just as some of Pink Floyd’s live performances are now left wanting owing to Waters’ absence. Moreover, the guitar intro to the track is executed in a limp and lifeless fashion. Snowy White’s intro to “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” also fails to hit the spot in the way that Gilmour does with his trademark spine-tingling sound, but the subsequent guitar skirmish between White and Bramhall compensates for that initial glitch. Also noteworthy is “Welcome to the Machine”, which Waters and his band render less austere than the original.

One of the truly outstanding cuts on In the Flesh is “Dogs” from Animals (1977), an epic number that most fans probably associate primarily with Gilmour. Nevertheless, Waters appropriates it flawlessly with the assistance of Jon Carin — who provides the acoustic introduction, sings Gilmour’s part and plays keyboards — as well as Bramhall, whose guitar work matches and possibly exceeds Gilmour’s. Another surprise inclusion is a reworking of the near mythical “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” from Pink Floyd’s A Saucerful of Secrets (1968). Following the mellow hypnotic intro, an ill-advised sax solo threatens to derail the proceedings. Luckily, the song is then rescued by a guitar-enhanced mid-section that brings an exciting new level of intensity.

Waters’ solo material accounts for the weakest passage on In the Flesh. While “The Bravery of Being Out of Range” has a passable anthemic quality to it, the other tracks — “5:06 AM – Every Stranger’s Eyes”, “Perfect Sense, Parts I and II”, “It’s a Miracle” and “Amused to Death” — are touched with the kind of wordiness, pomp and pretension that characterized much of The Wall6. Waters’ seeming inability to think of his work in terms of anything but grand concepts and his penchant for setting simplistic socio-political commentary amid overblown arrangements can be heard at their worst on these numbers.

“Amused to Death” is particularly telling in that regard. On the album of the same name, Waters explores the negative dimensions of mass media, borrowing from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. However, Waters doesn’t seem to realize that Postman’s analysis of electronic media and his commentary on the blending of entertainment and news involves, at some level, a dismissal of popular culture as a whole. Despite his diluted recycling of Postman’s argument, Waters fails to recognize that his work is actually symptomatic of what Postman critiques in Amusing and in other books. For all of his attempts to place himself elsewhere, Waters, as a rock musician, operates squarely within the realm of consumer culture.

Following a solid version of “Comfortably Numb”, the only new number, “Each Small Candle”, brings the album to an anti-climactic close. To witness the performance of this song about war and human rights abuses was undoubtedly moving — lighters in the air and all — but it once more encapsulates the problematic side of Waters’ work. This is a song that, with the benefit of a simple arrangement, could be immensely powerful. Yet Waters again buries it under an unnecessarily bloated structure that blunts the emotional charge and the urgency of the lyrical content.

Only a fool would argue with Roger Waters’ credentials. That he was a major creative force behind one of the most innovative and influential bands in rock history is a given. But while, for the most part, he provides solid re-readings of material from his Floyd years, the question remains as to whether Waters has made any significant musical contributions since leaving Pink Floyd. Judging by the solo tracks performed on In the Flesh, the answer would have to be no. He may describe Pink Floyd’s output since his departure as “rubbish” and liken his old band to “Spinal Tap” — as he did last year in an interview with the Chicago Tribune — yet Waters is skating on thin ice if he believes that his own material is any stronger.

It’s not that it’s impossible to make successful concept-based records — take Radiohead, for instance. The trick is in how the concept is translated musically. Waters seems perpetually bogged down in verbose, prosaic lyrics and ploddingly anachronistic musical textures whose components rarely coalesce. Interestingly, in response to a question posed during a webchat on MSN Live recently, he answered that he’d never even heard Radiohead. I’m not suggesting that he necessarily needs to listen to that particular band, but he would do well to reacquaint himself with what’s going on in rock these days. It might inspire a fresh burst of creativity that could salvage some of his credibility.

For now, however, fans can only expect more of the same. His current project is a bilingual opera based on the French Revolution. I can hardly wait.