The Show Must Go On: Roger Waters’ Wall Revisited

Aside

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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Nick Mason Interview

In September 2011, I was privileged enough to interview Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason when he came to LA’s Grammy Museum to discuss the coming reissue of Dark Side of the Moon and its accompanying box set. However, I was more interested in his opinions on new and old music, and the presence of technology in popular music through time. This interview was originally published on a site called Get Lit LA that I was affiliated with at the time. 

Lily Armstrong: So, I wanted to start by talking a little bit about drumming. I’ve heard people like Paul McCartney say they thought that, really, what made their music truly exceptional was its drumming. And I was especially curious about emotion in drumming. How are really good drummers able to convey emotion through that instrument?

NM: Um.  Good question.  First of all, I think a lot of the good drumming is about being an ensemble player.  It’s not about just how many gymnastics you can do with your playing.  It’s to do with how you work with the music.  And although time-keeping is meant to be the ultimate, you know, role of the drummer, in many ways it’s slightly … off time-keeping.  There’s quite an interesting belief that there’s a big difference, almost a school of drumming that is the American school and an English school. And the theory behind the English school is that they play — or we play — fractionally, not behind the beat but on the back of the beat.  Will it influence the music and give it a very specific feel?  It’s about the feel that is delivered not only by the actual part that’s played but the actual tempo. That is, the subtleties of pulling the music back slightly and adding to the dynamic of it. And I think that’s probably what Paul was sort of talking about.  You know the most dangerous [member] in a band is someone who just doesn’t know how to shut up.

LA: I can see that being true, I mean, there is a very clear division between drummers like Ginger Baker and Keith Moon and other more restrained drummers who, you know, try to keep time more uniformly, you could say.  

NM: But then, you know, I have some real favorites apart from Ginger, who was such an influence on me. Also Mitch Mitchell’s, Jimi Hendrix’s drummer. I think he’s fantastic and the curious thing with him is there’s almost no one else who’s ever sort of emulated him.  And he had this thing, which was such a sort of partly loose thing, an almost jazzy style of playing that really worked well with Jimi’s music.

LA: Also, I wanted to bring in technology and music, because Pink Floyd did so much with breaking ground in the technology that went into recording, and to this day those breakthroughs are hugely influential. I recently read this story about the band Wilco’s latest single, which is called “I Might,” in which there’s a lyric that ends with the word “brother.” Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy said that when he was in studio, he was trying to emulate the word “brother” in The Stooges’ song “TV Eye,” the way Iggy sings it. And apparently he couldn’t get it right, so he decided to sample him in behind him, and he claimed that “the lyric needed more than I could give it, and fortunately this is the 21st century, so these things can happen.” Do you think that’s an honest use of the kind of technology you pioneered?

NM: Yeah, I mean, I think that there are no rules.  I think [the] only rules that come into play are where perhaps you use enough of someone’s music that you’re actually using their music, if you see what I mean…  But if you just took a particular drum sound or something or just took a beat off of someone’s record, I just see that as being legitimate creativity.  Um I would not be happy with myself sitting here going, “No, that’s wrong, that’s allowed, that’s not allowed.”  I think you do whatever you can to get whatever it is you want.

LA: Back in the 60’s and 70’s, was that the mentality that you guys really went into it with?

NM: The issue of sampling of course is very much a sort of later period thing. No one had even thought about sampling.  I do remember the closest that we came to [sampling] was the Melotron.  And I remember the Musicians’ Union was up in arms at the prospect of orchestras losing their livelihood because of the Melotron, which is complete nonsense, of course, because the Melotron is the most extraordinary instrument. But you’d never think that’s an orchestra, you’d think that’s a Melotron. So, yeah, I think in those sorts of terms it’s very hard to look at how things were then, you know. So much of it was people messing around in the studios. Sometimes people think we were sort of very busy with Loogs and really elaborate instruments.  Most of it was things like, you know, when you listen to George Martin talking about phasing. Basically, it was two tape recorders running with someone putting their elbow on it to slow it up very slightly to get that effect. And there was quite a lot of that sort of trial-and-error experimentation, I think.

LA: Do you think that in some ways, bands today are somehow disadvantaged by having that technology immediately at their disposal?

NM: It’s not really a disadvantage. I mean it’s great, obviously, to be able to choose exactly what sounds you want to be able to play with, and all the rest of it, but the biggest problem is: it takes time.  You know, the great thing about few tracks, very few tracks — the original four track recordings and so on — was however hard you tried, you really finished things quickly. Because you had to make decisions. You couldn’t leave it ‘til the mix to decide, ah, how loud the bass should be, because you had the bass on with the drums and [you had to] get it right the first time. All the Beatles’ recordings and certainly our first recordings were incredibly quick because … we could leave those decisions and decide later on whether we wanted the high hat in or out or whatever.

LA: Actually, I was wondering about the amount of time it takes to record an album, and how it’s changed.  A lot of bands now wait four years between albums. And for so long, Pink Floyd was just turning out albums so relatively quickly, compared to that kind of a distance.

NM: Yeah, I’m not sure. I’ve never seen us as being particularly prolific.  I mean, you’re right. I suppose, looking back on it, compared to the four year lay-off or whatever, we quite often did an album a year.  In terms of studio time, I think we only took two or three weeks to do Obscured by Clouds, which was a movie album. But, the fact is, the world is always changing and albums now are less important than live music. Whereas, in the ‘70s, the album was everything. You know, the touring was done to promote the album.

LA: So are you saying that recently, the live performance has become more important than the album or studio recordings?

NM: Well, the fact of the matter is, as a business, music has changed so dramatically that actually live performance is the area where you make money; and the records are slipping all the time. You can’t get away from that so you’ve got an enormous change in attitude where people go off and tour now and it’s generally a year, or a year plus. Our early tours were about three weeks, and that was it.

LA: You kept the US tours pretty short, in general.

NM: Yeah, I don’t know why we did that. When I look back now, I think, ‘That was idiotic.’ Because the great thing about long tours is that you get better at it and you actually really hone the music and get it right and you can develop it.

LA: Yeah, I remember you saying in your book that “Eclipse,” specifically, really improved by being performed live.

NM: Yeah, that’s one of the things about this new release next week, what’s called the “Immersion” version of Dark Side — it’s exactly that. There are recordings from where the ideas were being tried out on the road. And the silly thing is that everyone got sort of hung-up on the business of people bootlegging and so everyone stopped touring and just rehearsed in the studios which is not nearly as efficient because if you’ve played live, you keep working on it. The trouble in the studio, I think, is you wait until you’ve got it right, and then you consider that as the finished article; whereas if you’re playing live, you see whether the audience likes it. You can see whether, in fact, it sits properly in the rest of the music, and that’s what I think comes over a little bit with the Dark Side pieces. They’re quite different than how they ended up on the album — hopefully, they’re better on the album — but you can see the thinking was, “Well, this isn’t quite right like that, and it needs to be changed,” or “It doesn’t work.”

LA: Yeah, I actually was just listening to Dark Side a little while ago, and I was thinking about how the time signature changes on it — like we were talking about earlier. As a musician myself, I really notice differences in time change. How it really creates a mood throughout it, and takes the listener up and down with it.

NM: I think that’s absolutely what we were trying to do, was put a dynamic into the record. At the time, I won’t say it was radical, because it wasn’t. In a way, Sergeant Pepper did that initially, but it was this idea that you don’t have to have everything played at 200 miles an hour, flat-out and loud, and all the rest of it, but you make it go exactly that — up and down in tempo and in volume, really. That makes it more interesting.

LA: Definitely. And then, back to performance, bands like Pink Floyd, and The Who and David Bowie were considered very theatrical for the time, and were doing really radical things onstage compared to what had come before. And even today, the sort of rock show as opposed to the rock concert has become really, really prevalent. What do you think it is about rock n’ roll, and about that sort of music that gravitates to the “big production?”

NM: Well, I think [the main thing] that has driven the bigger production values is that people have started playing bigger and bigger places. You know, when you look back, Shea Stadium was a real wakeup call — it didn’t work. It was an iconic moment in time, but still, working in a proper performance which the audience could hear — it was nowhere! You know, the biggest thing has been the move from theatres to arenas and in some cases into stadiums. In many ways, not many people, I think, make the stadium work for them. I don’t think we ever did, really. I think the arena show we got right, but the stadium show—it was always… never quite reaching, really, as far as it should. I think The Stones really mastered the stadium show, but that just became a bigger and bigger industry, and you think, in the ‘50s, let’s say, or the ‘60s, the rock show was in a theatre, and it would have seven or eight acts on the bill. It was unthinkable that Chuck Berry would do two and a half hours or whatever. He’d come and do twenty minutes and when that’s done, they’d go on and so on. It’s that move from that way. I think that the industry has changed, and the way music is performed has changed, and that’s driven this whole business of production. And it is amazing. Yes, okay, we did a lot of hopefully really good things, but now even a really good boy band will be there with fireworks, and films, and video, and unbelievably good shows.

LA: And how do you think that can affect the music in the show? I know that a lot of acts today cannot perform live, and perform to pre-recorded tracks because the dance is so elaborate, and the show is so big.

NM: The answer at the end of the day is “Do their fans like it?” It’s almost impossible to do the singing and the dancing — that’s some heavy breathing. I think on principle, I am conservative in the sense that I’m not entirely happy with the idea that other people are just using backing tracks. Occasionally, yes, sometimes it’s a good idea. I mean, we’ve done it on odd occasions in order to sync the film properly. And generally, I’d try to design the show so that if the film goes out of sync, it doesn’t matter.

LA: Yeah, I remember in your book, you were talking about how you tried to have a sort of cushion for those sorts of transitions. I actually wanted to share with you a quote from Roger Daltrey from Rolling Stone in 1975 — please don’t ask me why I have a Rolling Stone from 1975. But, he said, “Our audience wouldn’t put up with it if The Who went onstage like Pink Floyd with an incredible light show and stood there like four dead people that sounded great.” I didn’t really know what to think of that one.

NM: That’s a fair comment. You know, that’s part of the reason we put all that stuff up there — because none of us did do duck-walking, or moon-walking, or anything like that. It’s a fair comment…  I’ve never heard that quote from Roger before, but I once said that — well, someone once said that, “It’s becoming so mechanical,” and I said, “We did try to use computers instead of us going on stage but they used to move around too much.”

LA: My next question was going to be about what, I guess you can say, is the increasing acceptability of rock-and-roll. Now you find rock-and-roll songs in commercials, you find increased legitimacy from organizations designed to promote it, and such. And how do you think that’s affected musical output?

NM: I think it’s something I’m not entirely comfortable with. I think the music has been devalued a bit, and I think that if you’re walking around the supermarket now — funnily enough, I was in Trader Joe’s, and it was Led Zeppelin. You know, while people are wandering around trying to choose their granola, there’s Jimmy giving it everything. It used to be muzak. Now, everyone hated muzak, but on the other hand, at least we all knew where we stood: muzak was in the shop, Led Zeppelin was onstage. I don’t feel comfortable with it just being anywhere all the time. I mean, it’s partly because we all have so many other ways of entertaining ourselves. You know, when Led Zeppelin were at their peak, no one had a computer game. And movies — well, we had movies, but they didn’t quite feel as important as they do now. So, I really can’t remember what exactly the thrust of the question was, but—remind me?

LA: It was just sort of “how do you think the increased acceptability has affected the musical output?

NM: I don’t really think it’s affected music. I think most musicians still work. Actually, there are many, many more good musicians around now because kids are learning to play so much better from day one. I mean, my boys took guitar lessons — electric guitar lessons — in school, and drums lessons. If I’d gone to my music master and said “Please sir, I’d like to play the drums,” I think he’d have fainted. d “Could I have some more, sir?” “What?!”

LA: Do you think that there’s a difference between how it’s affected newer acts and older acts?

NM: Well, a lot of older acts have suddenly realized that they can still work. They’ve come back out of the woodwork which I think it terrific. Most musicians work to please themselves. Because you can’t second-guess what the public are going to like anyway. There are a few people who can do that, produce pop songs, but it’s a very unusual ability.  Most people please themselves first and then the public discover them.  But, you know, Jimmy Paige doesn’t sit down and go, “I wonder if the public would like this,” or Keith Moon go, “I wonder if they’d like it if I kicked my drum kit over.” It comes from somewhere else. They’re not really affected by those sort of outside influences. It’s something you’re driven to do of your own volition.

LA: Do you think that drive is what really separates rock and roll from a lot of other types of music?

NM: No, I don’t. I think that theme runs through. I think that people are passionate about music at every sort of level even.  Even country and western, something I know absolutely zero about, but I think the people who are good at it are very good and have the passion. And I think that’s true with creative arts generally; that actors, the same; painters, the same; you have to have this sort of — I mean, the interesting thing with rock music is that you have a slightly different dynamic with so many bands who are successful because they’ve got more than one of those people in the band. Those people quite often spark off of each other and against each other at the same time, but that to me seems to be the sort of unusual element about rock music and why it seems to be, maybe, a little bit sparkier.

LA: Just about that sheer size of the genre now — there are just so, so many people who are trying to do it and who do do it and in so many different genres that it seems like are popping up every single day.

NM: I think that makes life a bit more difficult. I mean, I think what was easier about the music business thirty years ago is that it was a very channeled system to be successful. It was very channeled.  You needed three cards to get in the game; you needed an agent, a manager and a record deal.  And now, you’re really having to try to sort out a career without necessarily having a record deal, or without having the manager aspect of it. That makes it tougher because, you know it’s hard, it’s much more difficult to get your target audience to listen to you because there are so many radio stations now. In England there used to be one important radio station, that was it. And so once you were played on there — you were sort of rolling.  Whereas now, how many radio stations are there in London? There’s one for every artist, more or less.

LA: We’ve been talking about the last forty or so years of music — What do you see happening in the next forty?

NM: I think it’s very hard to second-guess forty years of music but in the next few years, I think there’ll be changes in the way we download and buy music.  I think it’s a fairly chaotic system at the moment with pirating and downloading and Spotify and, you know, all the different versions and the different levels of quality available and I think that could quite possibly settle down and we’ll find ways of monetizing music so that people can make a living.  Not a fortune necessarily, but more people can make a living out of music.  I think we need the Chinese to produce a great band and some great players and some great thoughts and then suddenly they’ll get the whole business of copyright protection.  I mean it won’t happen until it affects them directly.

LA: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. It’s been a great honor.