Let’s not be coy here: there are two vastly differing ways to look at this. Namely, that I’ve either just witnessed (a) the most complete spectacle in contemporary rock music, or (b) three hours’ worth of empty rhetoric from a pompous, arrogant champagne socialist windbag. Take your pick…
On the one hand, there’s no denying that, with David Bowie now well and truly floating round his tin can, and Prince gone to the great purple rainbow in the sky, Roger Waters is the last remaining true showman in rock’n’roll. The only other solo performers (as opposed to team-players such as Jagger, Daltrey, Tyler etc) whose performances generate quite as much excitement are, obviously, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen et al: however, even their collective oeuvre is of a far more ‘basic rock n roll’ nature than the sheer theatre purveyed by the bassist and his cohorts. You don’t come here to see some old codger cranking out his hits: there are more than enough musicians his age (a sprightly 74) touring the club, theatre and hall circuits who will happily provide that service should you require it. No, you come for the total immersive experience – surround sound and moving image included – and that, plus extra surprises, is precisely what you get. The Greatest Show On Earth? Quite possibly.
Yet on the other hand, there’s a price to be paid for three hours in the company of the curmudgeonly East Anglian – and I’m not just talking about the ticket fee (£80 general admission, although ‘special’ packages across the length and breadth of his current world tour reach well into triple figures plus VAT). No, I’m referring to the fact that whether you want to or not, you also get a hefty (and I do mean hefty) dose of political browbeating, haranguing and hectoring. Not, of course, that this is anything new for Rog: the loss of the father he never even knew, Eric Fletcher Waters, in battle in 1944 (as described in the Floyd’s minor Eighties hit When The Tigers Broke Free) more or less set his protest path from day one, and though it admittedly took until Dark Side Of The Moon for his lyrical bent to fully flourish, it’s been pretty much etched in stone ever since. 1977’s Animals, with its bile-filled descriptions of certain public figures and unforgiving classifications of humans as either dogs, pigs or sheep, really laid it on the line: both The Wall and The Final Cut, the latter a pertinent requiem for Waters Sr at a time when Maggie T was sending the next generation out to war, featured similar themes throughout, and since quitting Floyd in 1984, his solo career – right up to and including 2017’s Is This The Life We Really Want – has been borne, even at its gentlest, of the same seething anger at man’s inhumanity to man.
Therefore, if you pay good money to see him live, this is something for which you should, technically, be prepared. BUT – and, to paraphrase ze words of John Cleese at ze North Minehead By-Election, “zis iss a big but” – should it be compulsory to agree with every word of it verbatim, or are we allowed, as citizens of any allegedly ‘tolerant’ society should be, to question contradictions within the set-up? Personally, I’d like to think the latter: however, for a man so obsessed with freedom, liberty and humanitarianism (to the point of directly quoting the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights onstage) I have to say I’ve still never seen a live performance which more closely resembled a Nuremberg Rally in my entire life. And I’ve seen a triple-bill of Death In June, Boyd Rice and Der Blutharsch…
I mean this in an almost literal sense too: as Waters stands midstage during Dogs, Pigs (Three Different Ones) and Money, fists raised scornfully aloft, the screens fill with satirical images of Trump, May and Kim Jong Un, flashing infra-red slogans repeatedly tell us to “resist” and “fuck the pigs”, and almost everyone – with the exception of the cynics behind me shouting “can I have some of your money if you don’t want it then, Rog” – roars their sage approval. Even I get caught up in doing it, because it’s so powerful: yet at the same time, I can’t help wondering if what we’re actually witnessing is less akin to ‘protest’ and more like major-scale brainwashing. I’m not joking, this borders on precisely the kind of shock tactics infamously employed by the Nazis – yes, those very same Nazis that blew Waters’ pa to smithereens at Anzio, and the very same ones he so vehemently parodies in most of the second half of The Wall (“Waiting For The Worms” etc) And, interestingly, the very same Nazis who expressed about as much disdain for the Jews as…yes, you guessed it, he does.
Our Rog, you see, has been very vocal of late about his anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian (to the point of donning their traditional neckwear) stance. Fair enough, I’m no Zionist either, and have grave reservations about the settlements, Balfour or no Balfour: yet I also firmly believe that two wrongs don’t make a right, the situation is far more complex than will ever be reported by either side of the world media, and that as ever, the future coexistence of all peoples could be achieved tomorrow simply by the compulsory banning of all organised religions and political parties. But that’s not enough for Waters, who has openly lambasted any musician (including his old mate Alan Parsons) who dares play Israel at this time: in spite of the patently obvious fact that not every resident of that country supports its regime, in spite of the fact that people who may have no political or religious affiliation whatsoever shouldn’t be persecuted just for attending a prog rock show, and in spite of the fact that if you banned live music from every country that had a shit leader, nobody would tour the UK, the US or Germany from now until Armageddon, he’s decided to go off on one anyway. Because he’s Roger Waters, and he can.
And this, to a certain extent, is what’s so irksome about the whole scenario – I’m not saying superstars shouldn’t have consciences, but up there, on a stage so elaborate it nigh-on resembles the Cirque Du Soleil, you have a billionaire, a bloke from probably the most famous band of all time bar the Beatles and the Stones, whose career has probably been furthered on several occasions by those Jewish businessmen he despises so much (and who’s probably on at least a million squid guarantee per show) and once again, much like the equally wearisome Sting, Bono and Bob Geldof, he’s telling us how to live. OK, there’s a slight difference- for a start, he makes far better records than all three, and as it fills our ears tonight, it’s impossible to deny just how fucking seminal Pink Floyd were. Always, with the exception of the more street-level Hawkwind and Gong, the most subversive of all prog supergroups, they were subculture writ large – granted, they also very quickly became rock’s first hi-fi snob act via Dark Side, and the footage we’ve all seen since of them recording it reveals in no uncertain terms how posh they were – but the minute RW & band (sadly minus Andy Fairweather-Low: I wonder if that was a political difference too?) explode onstage with Breathe, Time and The Great Gig In The Sky (nicely bridged by an interlude of the ever-terrifying One Of These Days) their brilliance is inescapable.
These are songs that meant, and more importantly still mean, something: sure, as time elapsed, hippies became yuppies and so did the band, but UK drug culture simply wouldn’t exist in the same way without them, and whether a raver, crustie, stoner-rocker, metalhead, Mod, indie kid or even Hell’s Angel, the chances are you like at least one of their records. The frenzied participation that greets Welcome To The Machine – a track which by any other British Summertime headliner’s standards would be deemed obscure – is corroboration of this: the audience know every word just as well as the more mainstream Wish You Were Here, the same going for newer solo material such as the reflective If I Had Been God and the strutting Picture That. On the other hand, not one track from his previous three solo efforts surfaces – but then again, perhaps PC New-Man Rog would rather gloss over The Pros And Cons Of Hitch-Hiking, with its allegedly ‘sexist’ (depending on your stance) front cover and its lead guitar work from the decidedly un-socialist Eric Clapton. Perhaps.
Yet the sad fact of the matter is that regardless of how many fans support the singer’s belief system (one particularly amusing exception being the geezer cheekily waving his Israel scarf two rows ahead) these are the bits we’ve come to see. The Floyd bits. Songs that moved generations: songs which, when aired tonight – The Happiest Days Of Our Lives, Another Brick In The Wall, Us And Them, Brain Damage, Eclipse – cause spines to chill, hairs to stand on end and tears fall from eyes. Of course, the politics are, always have been and always will be, part and parcel of it: and, undeniably, Trump and May, fuckwitted buffoons that they are, deserve to have the piss ripped out of them by whatever means necessary (not, of course, that they give the slightest fuck what rock musicians think, if they’ve even heard of them to begin with) So, when the giant inflatable piggy (upon which the words “STAY HUMAN…OR DIE!!” juxtapose nicely with “I fucked your Mum for five dollars” translated into numerous East European languages) floats over, then yes, it’s perfectly understandable that we – myself included – should express our approval. And we do.
Yet simultaneously, one still can’t help feeling that for every humane gesture, there’s a streak of petulance – and that every sloganeering “SILENCE IS CONSENT!” ultimately amounts to little more than picking on, rather than opening the minds of, one’s audience. And, moreover, that the sheer hypocrisy of watching a man who to all intents and purposes is a member of the ruling elite – lest we forget, HE OPENLY AND VOCALLY SUPPORTS FOXHUNTING – is going to be, for the man or woman on the street, a little hard to swallow. If, that is, they even care: many are so pissed and stoned by the time he comes on, just as they were when I first experienced Gilmour’s Floyd at Wembley Stadium 1988 (and, apropos of not much, where I stood behind the late great Christopher Cazenove as he ‘skinned one up’) that it may be the least of their concerns.
As I’ve said before, my thoughts mean far less than that of the punter: I’m journo scum, I don’t pay to get in to these things (I don’t get paid for reviewing them either, but that’s another matter). Nevertheless, the question of whether someone who has paid full whack deserves to be condescended to still remains. OK, it would be very easy to argue that if you can afford Golden Circle tickets, you probably vote Tory, listen to Coldplay when not digging Floyd, and deserve public ridicule anyway. And there’s a certain amount of mileage in that. But there’s also the same mileage in the contention that all the protest in the world hasn’t made it a better place in the 50 years since Waters stepped from the rhythm-section shadows to replace the late Syd Barrett as the Floyd’s de facto leader: and if anything, all he’s done in those five decades is gotten richer and richer. And richer. Sure, he allegedly donates large sums of money to ‘charridable causes’, but, as with most performers who claim this, the details are vague: besides, ever since certain revelations about where the profits from LiveAid and Live8 actually went, my cynicism has only increased.
Far be it from me to slag him off. I am a fan, and wouldn’t have applied for accreditation if I weren’t. I also enjoyed every moment of the show: in terms of live entertainment, I don’t think I’ll witness a more sonically, visually and atmospherically exciting performance in my life, and I don’t believe for one second the online rumours I’ve read since about him ‘lip-syncing’. And, as far as supports go, Squeeze, dashing off a hit-after-hit set including Take Me I’m Yours, Slap And Tickle, Cool For Cats, Tempted, Up The Junctionand many more, were superlative. But I’ve never been one for toeing party lines – and if Waters really wants to encourage enquiring minds, then that should include mine, regardless of whether he approves of my line of enquiry. In fact if anything I’m more inclined, like Pete Townshend in Tommy, to question potentially false prophets on principle: and, like the song says, you know where to put the cork.
Is this the life we really want? Certainly not. Is this the review he’d really want? Probably not, though I’m sure he’ll never read it. Was this the concert we really wanted? Maybe.
But, like I said earlier, take your pick.