Roger Waters: Taking Life to Lyrical Form - The Early Years

  • 03/7/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC
Daddy's flown, across the water...leaving just a memory, the snapshot in the family album, Daddy what else did you leave for me...Daddy, what'd you leave behind for me?” Roger Waters

Anzio Italy, 1943. American and British forces gradually fought their way through challenging terrain and atrocious harrowing winter weather conditions in an attempt to breech the Gustav line (the last major obstacle between the allies and Rome) by attacking on both sides of the city of Cassino, southeast of Rome. But unable to penetrate Kesserling's defenses, British General Harold Alexander sought after a solution that would break the stalemate and allow them access to the heart of the German's flank with a minimal loss of human life. Prime Minister Winston Churchill devised the plan known as “Operation Shingle” which would allow the British 1st Infantry Division to attack north of Anzio, the 6615th Ranger force from the shoreline and the US 3rd Infantry Division from the south. Sadly, the plan would backfire in high and catastrophic form.

A series of bloody battles ensued stretching into Spring and early summer time, some favoring the allies but most favoring the Germans who at the conclusion of the melees had either killed or maimed over 45,000 American, French and British troops. Amongst those British soldiers killed in action was one Eric Fletcher Waters (1913-1944), a teacher and an ardent pacifist and father of one of the founders of the iconic band known as Pink Floyd.

Approximately four months before the onset of the Battle of Anzio on September 6th, 1943, a kicking and screaming newborn by the name of George Roger Waters came forth into the world leaving the calm and safety of his mother's womb for the caustic and unyielding reality of modern-day-life. Unbeknownst to him, he would never come to know the paternal love and support of his father or the companionship that every boy yearns for on a warm green spring day when other boys are playing catch, or flying a kite, or simply talking about the things that a boy and his father talk about. No, Roger Waters would grow up lacking what others often take for granted and would come to miss the presence of his father on so many levels. But as each of us must weather the obstacles in life we have been handed, and make the best of the circumstances that a benignly indifferent world has to offer, so did he contend with the tragic loss of his father. But Waters has been particularly adept at adapting and manipulating trauma as well as those frequently undesirable facets of our world such as death, war, cruelty, government, racism and the rapaciousness of big business, to create an imaginative lyrical world perhaps unparalleled by any other. A careful analysis of his life can help to provide insight into his lyrics, his music and his genius and also help to enlighten those of us searching for meaning in our lives and our compositions as well.

Roger Waters was born in Great Bookham, Surrey England a small town about 20 miles south of London. He was the younger of two sons raised by his widowed mother Mary, a staunch liberal and pacifist by nature who desired a more intellectually stimulating environment for her children. Consequently, Mary moved the two boys to Cambridge an environment she hoped would be more stimulating for the boys than Great Bookham, and a fresh start after the hardships they had endured.

Roger was enrolled in Cambridge County School for boys and didn't fare well, academically speaking, and although he made numerous long-time friends (Sid Barrett amongst them) his experiences invariably contributed to the formation his pejorative views of the British educational system. This was due in part to the arbitrary use of corporal punishment during that period of time utilized in British schools. In 1902, Local Education Authorities or LEA's formed their own rules governing the use of corporal punishment and often these “rules” were simply overlooked by certain individuals or changed to suit their agendas. Canings, beatings and knuckle-raps were all accepted forms of punishment and were applied as needed and incorporated at will by various sadistic school masters. Water's acrimonious views of his experience in school, as well as the harsh and often violent nature of student's relationships with their schoolmasters is obvious in a number of his lyrics on the remarkable 1979 release known simply as The Wall:

The Schoolmaster...

“I always said he's come to no good in the end your honor. If they let me have my way I could have flayed him into shape. But my hands were tied, the bleeding hearts and artists let him get away with murder, let me hammer him today...” (from The Trial, The Wall, 1979.)

or the well known:

“We don't need no education, we don't need no thought control, no dark sarcasm in the classroom, teacher leave them kids alone” (from Another Brick in the Wall Pt II).

An interesting note here in the latter example is the initial use of the collective “we” to imply Water's shared sentiment with kids suffering the torment of the maniacal schoolmasters. This brings up the importance of making delicate and specific word choices in lyricism, and the subtle differences in meaning that can be conveyed by a simple word. The fact that he incorporates the word “we” initially, and then “them kids” later in the passage suggests that although he relates on a personal level with the tormented, he also has some hindsight on the matter on now takes on more of a commanding, even angry role, telling the abusers “leave those kids alone!” Obviously, there is an interpretive element here as there always is when deciphering another’s work, but there certainly is no doubt that he relates to the abused children on some level.

There was certainly no question as to Water's intelligence, but his pacifistic upbringing clearly clashed with the often overtly punitive nature of the school system. Thankfully, corporal punishment was officially banned by parliament in 1987 after numerous incidents were recorded that were clearly defined as abuse, and educators realized the counterproductive nature of physical punishment. As misery is often tethered to fortune, Roger Water's negative experiences in school were mitigated by his friendship to Sid Barrett, fellow creative spirit and future band mate. Barret (Roger Keith Barret aka”Syd”) was born in Cambridge, not far from where they both attended school, and had been creatively encouraged by his parents at a young age. He was already proficient at the banjo, ukulele and piano when he took up the guitar in his early teens. And like Waters, Barrett also lost his father at the young age of twelve, which clearly affected him deeply and likely helped him to form a deeper bond with Waters. This loss may also have contributed to Barrett's inevitable mental lapses although that remains to be seen and is a topic for another essay. Waters and Barrett became close friends over time eventually sharing an apartment in London with future band mate Nick mason, also a member-to-be of Pink Floyd.

The year 1962 brought Roger Waters to Manchester where he attempted a degree in mechanical engineering, but became disillusioned by the program and set out on the road hitchhiking. His adventures took him far abroad through Europe and even into the middle East where he formed distinct impressions of the intrinsic values freedom/rebellion/wanderlust/discovery, and imminent dangers of leveling one's thumb on the side of the road and entering a dark and unknown vehicle. Waters expressed some of these notions on his 1984 solo release The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking, a concept album and seeming stream of consciousness chronicle of his adventures as a wandering vagabond. Each song is predicated by a time of day, at predawn hours of the morning:

4:33 AM (Running Shoes)

”So I stood by the roadside, the souls of my running shoes gripping the tarmac like gunmetal magnets, fixed on the front of her Fassbinder face, was the kind of a smile that only a rather dull child could have drawn while attempting a graveyard in the moonlight...” (from 4:33 AM, The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking, 1984.)

This passage is particularly descriptive of a number of salient issues in Water's psyche, first and foremost his existential terror at standing alone, prone, cold to the bone in abject terror of the unknown. His shoes like “gunmetal magnets” cling, adhere and cleave the tarmac giving his listener the razor-sharp impression that although he wishes to get a ride, he is also terrified at the notion of what that ride has to offer. The oblique reference to the “Fassbinder face” could be indicative of a number of different references. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a German director who was born in 1945 and was known for, amongst other things, being an outspoken pacifist as well as hater of institutionalized violence. Water's reference to the “Fassbinder face” is likely an allusion to the fact the Fassbinder himself was typically glum, at least in his photos, and seemed to have a sort of half smile. Another interpretation of the phrase is that Waters is making a reference to his own abject fears and sentiments concerning death, especially in lieu of the fact that Fassbinder himself was German and was born close to the time of his own father's demise. Fassbinder himself also died tragically due to a drug overdose, casting a pall of sorts over his image and his short life. Consequently, a Fassbinder face may very well be the death's head itself, the face of fear and the possibility of death at the hands of a nefarious and unknown stopping motorist. The passage following it may reinforce this notion where he indicates that it was the kind of a smile that “only a rather dull child could have drawn while attempting a graveyard in the moonlight.”

Waters makes other references to Germany later in the album where he indicates “through closed eyes, I see West German skies on the ceiling” and “I want to be there see the sun going down behind Krupp's steelworks on the outskirts of some German town.” Yes, Waters did travel through portions of Germany on his trip through Europe but ironically, no other European countries are mentioned in the lyrics. And certainly one may posit that this is merely coincidence, happenstance an arbitrary accident but considering his very selective use of words in other passages it seems likely that Waters is comparing the dangers of travel on the road with a symbolic place that he has come to associate with death itself, Germany.

On the lighter side of the album are pastoral, bucolic images that Waters also seems to want to communicate to the listener exemplifying the beauty and freedom of life on the road. This remarkable passage says it all:

4:50 AM (Go Fishing)

”As cars go by I cast my mind's eye over back packs on roof racks beyond the horizon where dream makers working white plastic processors invite the unwary to reach for the pie in the sky, Go fishing my boy!” (from 4:50 AM, The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking)

Again, each line is interpretive, a subjective manifestation and compilation of the listener's thoughts dreams and experiences. Waters seems to want to express his appreciation for the free-and-easy life that he has adopted, albeit temporarily, leaving behind the “dream makers” who lure the unwitting fortune seekers to unattainable goals and lives of vainglorious status seeking. His final remark suggests that he is speaking to himself, a younger self, a self less encumbered by the weight of the world, less burdened by the petty trivialities and the materialism of which many of us become so obsessed, entangled telling himself to go back to those times when life was easier. Further listening to this piece tells us more that he is in fact (also?) telling another to “go fishing,” his child, his son (Waters does have a son by the name of Harry who tours with him at times). Indeed, many parents live vicariously through their children's lives, rediscovering their own misplaced childhoods and perhaps that is what Waters is suggesting through this passage. That his own childhood, filled with fear and longing, shame and loss can somehow be revitalized, relived through his son and the timeless and back-and-forth motion of a fishing pole in the breeze.

Following Water's experiences as a vagabond on the road, he returned to England where he worked for an architectural firm and enrolled in Regent Street Polytechnic, a program established at Westminster University to to provide for the athletic, intellectual, social and religious needs of young men in Great Britain. It was here that Waters met Nick Mason, future drummer of Pink Floyd. Roger and Nick became close friends and collectively joined the group Sigma Six, which also featured Richard Wright, also a member-to-be of Pink Floyd. The group went through various metamorphoses and changed their name to the Abdabs, the Lodgers and the Tea Set. This latter arrangement also included Barrett on vocals and rhythm guitar. Lead guitarist Bob Klose left the group shortly thereafter leaving the fledgling group to redefine their style, a style which would inevitably take the form of Barrett's often unconventional and sometimes deranged ramblings.

In their nascent form generally between the years of 1965 and 1968, the group now known as Pink Floyd performed their individual brand of psychedelic, long-haired and paisley-patterned psychotropicly haze-induced brand of rock and roll. Barret had come up with the name based on one of his favorite blues records by Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, and the rest of the group took to it. Their music was a synthesis between rock, country, blues, folk and electronic with a hint of classical and brilliantly arranged in often long sweeping, mesmerizing suites. They also combined a slide and light show to their performance which was one of the first of its kind in Great Britain. In other words, all of the pieces were there for what the group would become despite the fact that the primary players would inevitably change.

Most of the initial material was composed by Syd who seemed to have a knack for writing shorter pieces, perhaps more suited for radio play. Their first two hits, “Arnold Layne” (a tale of a transvestite) and “See Emily Play” both had relative commercial success and managed to land spots in the top twenty. The latter though would be their last U.K. hit single for over ten years, a fact that is perhaps emblematic of the Floyd's unconventional and Bohemian manner of both composition as well as performance, and likely a characteristic of their huge success. The band subsequently recorded Piper at the Gates of Dawn, a work containing songs primarily by Barrett and featuring tracks with esoteric subject matter including Gnomes, Bicycles and scarecrows. The overall feel of the album is oddly eerie and just downright strange in spots but yet with flashes of brilliance yet to come.

The year 1968 began to bring about changes which would affect the band forever. Barrett, perhaps due to an overuse of hallucinogenics in addition to other unknown mental factors, began to exhibit increasingly more bizarre and reclusive behavior ranging from his failure to arrive at a Radio recording session to simply standing on stage during live shows and strumming his guitar vacantly. It was during this period that David Gilmour (Barrett's guitar teacher at the time) joined the band to help take on some of Syd's responsibilities, a move that would change the face of the band forever. The band then set their sights on a new project entitled A Saucerful of Secrets moving the songwriting duties to Waters, and leaving Barrett credit for only one track, Jugband Blues. The poignant line uttered by Barrett “I'm most obliged to you for making it clear...that I'm not really here” summed up both his mental state as well as his sentiment that in truth the band was moving on without him. Shortly thereafter, he left the band, checked himself into a mental hospital and remained primarily in seclusion for the duration of his days.

Water's early songs displayed insights ranging from love and the enigmatic motion of see saws, to space and time travel. But glimpses of more deep-seated and potent topics were already beginning to surface in Water's lyrics including the compelling Corporal Clegg. “Corporal Clegg had a wooden leg, he won it in the war in 1944...” (from Corporal Clegg, A Saucerful of Secrets, 1968.) Water's blatant reference to an English corporal who is maimed in the war reveals that although his songwriting skills were undoubtedly in their formative state, the underlying thematic currents that would appear again and again throughout his career were there from his humble beginnings. His use of the expression “he won it” implies a leg tragically lost in battle as well as the soldier's bitterness and acrimony that go alongside such an event. Waters goes on to say “Corporal Clegg had a metal too, in Orange Red and blue, he found it in the zoo” and seems to be making a commentary on the Military's specious practice of offering medals to those wounded in battle, or posthumously to the families of those killed tragically in action. Waters embittered and jaded view of war and the sometimes questionable practices of the military were beginning to surface more and more in his lyrics.

1969 and the double Album Umma Gumma was released which featured one live album and one containing solo studio tracks. Umma was unique in that each band member was given studio tracks with which to experiment and consequently, the bulk of the songwriting was not compiled by Roger Waters. There is an undeniable broad range of material though perhaps not seen on any of Pink Floyd's albums that is interesting, to say the least. But the critics, as well as the band members themselves were displeased with Umma Gumma except to say that the album served to plant seeds for brilliant songs on albums to come. Of note though is Water's song entitled “Grantchester Meadows” which begins much in the same fashion as the track “Goodbye Blue Sky” from The Wall. One can hear chirping birds faintly in the background with the gentle sounds of the guitar strings washing over the composition like a plaintiff whisper.

”Icy wind of night, be gone. This is not your domain. In the sky a bird was heard to cry. Misty morning whisperings and gentle stirring sounds belied a deathly silence that lay all around.” (from Grantchester Meadows, Umma Gumma, 1969).

Waters creates a world where the beauty and warmth of the day negate the chill of night, an image which can perhaps be viewed as a classic dichotomous battle between good and evil, light and dark, life and death. Again, his conscious choice of the words “deathly silence” gives the passage a certain feel that conveys his ardent desire to chase away the gloom of night, the creeping shadows, the icy grip of dawn to return to daylight and happier moments. This theme appears and reappears throughout Water's compositions although it's interesting to see it in simpler form in his early works.

The 1970's brought the band a new decade and an album in Atom Heart Mother, with sweeping epic 24-minute orchestrated suites, protracted sound effects tracks, majestic horn sections and spoken word. This was another album, not unlike Umma Gumma on some levels, which incorporated material from each of the members in an experimental format, of sorts. And although the members themselves are quoted as referring to the LP as “absolute rubbish” there are undoubtedly glimmers of brilliance and sparks of future flames yet to ignite. The band was clearly searching for an identity after the loss of Barrett and consequently, the tracks on Atom Heart Mother seem to have a disjointed feel to them, still psychedelic and gleaning the flower-powered incensed and peppermint unshackled spirit of the decade but without the form and distinction that their later music would take on. In a sense, one can detect that the band was testing the waters, pushing the outer extremities of their creative limits in search for the ultimate formula for the perfect concept album.

November, 1971 and a new and remarkable release entitled Meddle graced Pink Floyd's ever expanding discography. Meddle is the Floyd's first release that is collaborative in nature and entirely group composed, perhaps helping to move the group closer in terms of cohesion and solidarity. Compositions are more complex, and more melodic relative to the previous albums. According to Gilmour, this was the first true Pink Floyd album and it's no wonder he adheres to these notions, the superlative lead guitar player seems to rise to the occasion with screaming sky-highs, and valley shattering lows on multiple tracks. Water's skills as a writer have also evolved by this point both as a lyricist and a bassist, and perhaps this becomes most evident in the climactic sublime masterpiece known only as Echoes.

At more than 23 minutes long, Echoes has been said to represent the penultimate composition that the four-man ensemble had created, or has ever created. Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason each in their own right perform their parts to perfection to meet the expectations of the most incredulous critic. Looming out of dead silence rises a simple 'ping'...then another, then another joined ever so softly by the deep resonance of the piano and the characteristic eerie wash of strings in the background. The rest of the band soon joins in full and splendid harmony creating a uniquely full, yet ever-so-balanced sound that we all have come to know and expect of Pink Floyd. Waters soon chimes in:

”Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air and deep beneath the rolling waves in labyrinths of coral caves, the echo of a distant time comes willowing across the sand and everything is green and submarine.” (from Echoes, Meddle, 1971).

This opening stanza seems to suggest a glimpse back into the earliest annuls of time where water covered the earth and the topography of the land itself was entirely submerged beneath the briny deep. The use of the word submarine in this case is the adjective form of the word meaning literally, under water. But once again, it is incumbent upon us the listeners to pay heed to the distinctive use of the language and what Waters may be trying to communicate to us beyond the overtly tangible.

To begin with, the phrase begins with a reference to the albatross, a large sea bird known for its ability to fly for long periods of time over great distances. But the albatross is also a commonly used metaphor for trouble and in fact, the expression “an albatross around one's neck” has come to imply an encumbrance or a harbinger of doom and sorrow (see the Rime of the Ancient Mariner). Many sailors to this day hold fast to the notion that an albatross crossing the bow of their ship is undoubtedly an omen of disaster. Again, the use of this particularly significant bird may simply be an accident, or fit neatly with Water's rhyme scheme, but he may also be creating a scenario not unlike the world in Grantchester Meadows, where good and evil, light and dark interplay and mingle in a continuous cosmic dance through time.

The next passage Waters postulates:

”And no one showed us to the land and no one knows the where or whys But something stirs and something tries and starts to climb toward the light..”

He seems to be making the point that although nobody is quite sure how this world came to be, something, some small miniscule insignificant creature made the initial move from darkness to light, maybe even the first move by anything or anybody searching and seeking out life, probing the world timidly inquisitive and life-affirming. Again, the interplay between dark and light comes into play here perhaps suggesting Water's own fervent need to find light, happiness in an often dark and unforgiving world.

As Echoes continues, after a prolonged and remarkably funky jam featuring the keys of the brilliant Rick Wright, the song goes into a sort of lull where drums and bass drop out and the composition becomes a breezy, barren nightmarish landscape of wispy white phantoms and carrion consuming black crows. Indeed this could be the very portrait of hell itself as portrayed by Pink Floyd but from a compositional perspective, Waters and the boys have created a void, a musical place that is barren and devoid of warmth, of humanity, of love and light. This emotional vacuum is so effectively created in the song that it creates a precipice, a cliff wall that literally sucks the air from one's lungs. Thankfully, it's not long before Gilmore chimes in with a remarkable and triumphant riff, a glorious ray and flash of guitar incandescence lifting the haze and transporting us back into light and the remainder of the song.

Lyrically speaking, Echoes is remarkable to say the least and can be symbolic of many different things. But the very structure and organization of the composition itself speaks as well of the recurring theme of the constant battle between good and evil and Water's hopeful belief that in the end good will prevail. His use of specific poignant words in combination with structure that conveys meaning and emotion come together to create a musical piece that is both powerful and insightful as well into the mind of Roger Waters.