Friday, November 7, 2014

The Pros and Cons of Roger Waters Period Pink Floyd

I am a regular listener to the Sound Opinions podcast, which recently did a thing about the 35th anniversary of Pink Floyd's Wall album.  That inspired me to listen to it again, something I hadn't done in quite a long while.  For a three month stretch when I was seventeen I must have listened to it practically every day, trying to glean meaning from what was locked in the cassette tape.  Soon afterward I picked up Dark Side of the Moon, and decided that I much preferred the psychedelic, prog-rock Floyd to their hard rocking dystopic Roger Waters-centric period.  I would occasionally pick up The Wall, but much preferred spinning Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Meddle, Relics, and Piper at the Gates of Dawn.  (In college I discovered and quickly embraced their early, Syd Barrett incarnation.)  A friend in grad school convinced me to pick up Animals, but it was too straight ahead for my tastes.

Around that time I picked up a history of the Floyd and learned the reasons for the change in sound and theme.  Roger Waters had become the dominant force in the band, with songs and concepts exploring the anomie of modern life written in a much less textural, progressive mode than what the band had done before.  The spikiness of the sound also reflected increasing tensions in the band.  1975's Wish You Were Here was a kind of transition, as it contained both the extended, textured "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" and the hard rock sound and cynical attitude of "Have a Cigar."  That song, with its acid take on the music industry, would be a harbinger of things to come.

Waters' albums as the Floyd's impressario form a sort of trilogy: Animals in 1977, The Wall in 1979, and The Final Cut in 1983.  On the latter Waters took sole credit for the music and lyrics, and sang on almost all of the tracks, effectively making it a Waters solo album with the other band members as side men.  Like his official solo work, it's not very good, evidence that Waters needed David Gilmour and Rick Wright's touch and sense of tone to properly translate his ideas.  (On the other end, the material the band has put out since Waters' departure has been decidedly mediocre, since it lacks Waters' animating ideas.)

Re-listening to Animals and The Wall, however, has shown me these albums' unique power in ways I hadn't quite realized when I was younger.  In the first place, they dig really deep into the everyday inhumanity of lives lived with fear and loathing.  The epic "Dogs" on the first record delves into the minds of the servile brown-nosers that shake your hand while they jab the dagger in your back, and "Pigs" the mentality of the kind of authoritarian prig I once had the misfortune to work under.  This is really adult music for adults, despite the facade of flying pigs on the cover.  The Wall turns this theme of modern inhumanity to rock operatic lengths, and while the story doesn't quite hold together, it does not flinch at delving into deeply painful territory.  It's good to know that Pink Floyd for a time used their power and ability to make what they wanted to touch on mature subjects and not the usual rock and roll clatter, cock rock strutting (looking at you, Mick Jagger) or silly demons and castles storytelling a la Led Zeppelin.

The other thing I've noticed is David Gilmour's guitar playing, which has gone from psychedelic and atmospheric to thrillingly searing.  This is especially the case on songs like "Run Like Hell," "Young Lust," and the soaring solo on the otherwise quiet "Mother."  On "Comfortably Numb" Gilmour gives us the last dose of that old psychedelic magic, which has made it a classic rock radio staple for over three decades.  If not for his contributions this rock opera would have been much too stark and lacking in beauty for its own good, much like The Final Cut.

On Animals and The Wall Waters proved that he may have had the most astute conceptual mind in rock, but still needed Gilmour to make those visions sublime, rather than just angry and narcissistic.  It's a pity they never managed to do it again.

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