The Show Must Go On: Roger Waters’ Wall Revisited

During Pink Floyd’s 1977 tour of their concept album, Animals, their chief songwriter and bassist, Roger Waters, was profoundly disturbed by an incident where he spat on a particularly unruly audience member. Stemming from this incident and its subsequent soul-searching was the concept double album, The Wall— a chronicle of distrust, self-doubt, repression, and most notably isolation. After years in the making, it would be released before Christmas in 1979. The album, the last one featuring Pink Floyd’s classic lineup of Waters along with guitarist David Gilmour, keyboardist Rick Wright, and drummer Nick Mason, would become the best-selling double album of all time, a veritable classic of its era and beyond it.

A still of an original Wall concert in 1980

After twenty-six ridiculously expensive and not altogether successful shows that the rapidly fragmenting band performed all over the world in 1980 and 1981, people rightfully assumed that The Wall would probably never again be performed. This was to the great dismay of Pink Floyd fans who were not able to catch the original shows, especially since no footage of the original concerts has been released. Although Waters has toured The Wall solo several times since those original shows, most of us young fans conceded that probably we would never get to see Waters’ magnum opus performed live.

Some of us 21st century fans got very lucky though when Roger Waters announced that he would embark on a new solo tour with The Wall. After a run of sold-out and critically-acclaimed shows all over the world in 2010 and 2011 with a touring band that included G.E. Smith, Snowy White, and Waters’ son, Harry, Roger again embarked on the tour for 2012. And just a few weeks ago, that massive tour returned to Los Angeles, this time, outgrowing its previous host, the Staples Center, to inhabit the massive LA Coliseum, a venue used for the 1984 Olympics.

Waters at the LA Coliseum show I saw on May 16th, 2012

The long silence on this blog is largely due to the fact that it took me days to even process the scale and sheer power of the event. To see The Wall performed in its entirety by the chief mastermind behind it thirty-two years later with the show that the original essentially wished it could be was an experience I will never forget. However, as much as the masterfulness of the original music blew me away, the thing that made the experience truly exceptional was the way that Waters has managed not only to keep The Wall relevant, but to make it more relevant and in-touch than it has ever been before.

From my understanding of The Wall’s development, it began as basically a personal project for Waters– an expression of his personal struggles, elements of his past and present including his breakup with his wife, the death of his father in World War II, and his perceived isolation from both the people around him and even from emotion itself. Over the years though, it has become much, much more than that, seemingly for both Waters and for his audience.

No longer simply a story of personal struggle, this newest incarnation of The Wall delves into larger issues than those of one life. Waters uses his performance as a platform for the issues he finds important. Anti-war and sometimes anti-government, Waters is not simply a purveyor of pop causes. “We don’t need no thought control” is only the beginning. Waters’ positions are indeed controversial, and in some respects, that is what makes his expressing them so admirable.

Waters in 1980

A performer as respected and popular as Roger Waters has more influence than most people know. Some could perceivably criticize him for using this influence for political means. I have heard people express the belief that music is music and politics is politics. My agreement with many of Waters’ positions might be a factor, but even outside of that, I don’t believe that this particular criticism is a valid one. Whether or not people like it, there is no denying that celebrities have become an important source of information in the 21st century. This is not always good– especially when the celebrities in question have opinions  that are shallow or uninformed. However, this cannot be said of Waters. His interests are genuine, and his sentiments are valid. If anything, critics should be glad that of all the celebrities who could be spreading their gospel, Waters is the one in question.

Additionally, something must be said for the sheer spectacle of the show itself. It would be very easy to create a massive, but alienating show– especially one like The Wall which centers so specifically on the idea of isolation, but Waters manages to go beyond it. The show, with projections (including spectacular animations both original and from The Wall movie in 1982), pyrotechnics, and massive inflatables, is a piece of art– a solid and cohesive statement that does complement the album, but instead supplements it. With an album like The Wall, it seems nearly impossible to expand. But Waters has done so, and by doing so, he has shown his own enormous growth in the years since the album originally came to be.

Waters now refers to himself at the time The Wall was originally written as “the fucked-up, miserable little Roger of thirty-two years ago.” With this show, he has done his best to leave that legacy behind, and build himself a new one– that of a socially-conscious, generous performer. At the show I saw, there was a problem with Roger’s mike at the beginning of “The Thin Ice.” After “In the Flesh,” when Waters began to sing the next track, his mic appeared to be completely nonfunctional. At most shows, especially ones of that scope, he probably would’ve just soldiered on until the problem was fixed, but instead of pushing through, he called for the band to stop  the song. The band did stop, and stayed stopped until the problem was fixed. At that point, they started the song over again, and continued the show as usual.

The sheer professionalism of the incident was unnerving, but at the same time, so was the utter humanity of it– same with the point near the end of the show when Roger spoke of the disappointment of the first Wall tour and how much it meant to him to bring such a better show back to Los Angeles. For a show criticized for its many nonhuman elements, this show is unbelievably human, using technology as it should be used– an extension of the natural ability of the performers, and the sheer power of the music in question.

In short (although yes, this piece has gotten rather long), I feel that in witnessing this tour, I have witnessed a piece of musical history– not only in getting to see Roger Waters perform what many consider his magnum opus, but also in seeing a show the likes of which have not been seen in rock before. Equally concert, art project, and play, it is difficult to overestimate this show’s importance, and it was my absolute privilege to see it.

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