Roger Waters - The Muse Evolved (Part 2)

  • 04/6/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC
Roger Waters: The Muse Evolved

“Did you ever wonder why we had to run for shelter when the promise of a brave new world unfurled beneath a clear blue sky?” Roger Waters

It was the end of 1971. Numerous events had already taken place that would change the star-lit countenance of Rock and Roll forever including the untimely and tragic death of Door's front man Jim Morrison, and the release of Led Zeppelin's ground breaking Zoso (aka Zeppelin IV). But perhaps most remarkably (at least to throngs of dedicated Floyd fans) was the inception of the initial ideas that eventually gave way to the masterpiece known simply as “Dark Side of the Moon.”

The band had been experiencing a period of musical lethargy since the release of Meddle, especially in terms of creating new material and since most of the writing responsibilities had fallen squarely on the broad shoulders of Waters... he was clearly feeling the pressure to step it up. In an interview with the musical publication known as Melody Maker, Waters was quoted saying “there's a feeling in the group, and certainly there's a very heavy feeling in my head, that we've really let things slide horribly and it's beginning to drive me crazy” (Inside Out, A Personal History of Pink Floyd, Nick Mason, 2004, p. 160).

So on a sun-streaked winter's afternoon on St. Augustine Road, Camden, the four members of Pink Floyd sat around drummer Nick Mason's kitchen table and discussed Waters' maiden ideas for what would be their most brilliant (some would say) and most cohesive thematic album to date. Initially, there were only a few bits and pieces of compositions, mostly without words and an interesting bass riff that he'd written in 7:8 time. The song “Time” was beginning to take shape and had a verse and a chorus but no distinct lyrical lines that Roger could delineate for the band. But every masterpiece must have a beginning point, a single brushstroke on a blank canvas, a blob of indefinable yet ever-so-malleable clay or a single note played dolefully in the roaring vortex of silence. Such was the inception of The Dark Side of the Moon.

A rudimentary version of Dark Side was produced in a matter of a few weeks which already showed the spark of brilliance and promise that many had come to associate with Pink Floyd, and according to Nick Mason, Waters' lyrics were beginning to take on a clearer and more concise form than those on past albums.

The work was initially known as “Dark Side of the Moon, A Piece for Assorted Lunatics” although the band members were also using the title “Eclipse” as well, and an initial stage-ready version was performed on a four-night stint at the Rainbow Theater in London. This was Dark Side in its raw form which allowed the group to begin performing the various tracks and road testing them, as it were, to work out the specific parts and pieces that would eventually become the album we know and love today.

The actual recording of the album would be spread throughout 1972 and would be interrupted by a serious of smaller, yet no less important tasks including the recording of Obscured by Clouds (a soundtrack for the film La Vallee) as well as numerous concert dates including some in Japan and the United States. The band was working to develop a larger fan base in the US despite the obvious fact that they had yet to release a commercially successful album. But despite various distractions, the band began recording with engineer and fellow musical aficionado Alan Parsons. Parsons was a brilliant musician in his own right and had also earned the band's trust with his contribution as an assistant engineer on Atom Heart Mother.

Waters' lyrics during this period of time had evolved from earlier works although similar themes were emerging that were prevalent in some of his previous tracks including the dichotomy of dark and light, life and death and war. In fact some have remarked that the Dark Side of the Moon is in fact a recapitulation of life itself from birth to death, a flashbulb montage of stark images beginning with the first discernible faint pulse (the heartbeat in the beginning of the album was initially a real pulse although a padded bass drum beat was later substituted), to breathing in that first substantial lung scorching-life affirming breath, then the trials and smiles of everyday life as we “zig zag our way” (Animals, 1977) through relationships, madness, violence-mortality, to the ultimate last rattling gasp and resignation of the ethereal bounds of precious life itself, the fading of the primal heartbeat.

A closer examination of Waters' use of specific words, passages and lyrical arrangements can be particularly insightful to the aspiring musician and writer. The song “Time,” for example, begins with the clangorous cacophony of a thousand clocks and is perhaps emblematic of his fairly sardonic view of youth's tendency to take life's precious moments for granted...

“Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day,
fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way”
(from Dark Side of the Moon, Time)

In retrospect of his own spent youth, Waters is perhaps suggesting that our tendency as humans is to view life callously, frivolously and ungrateful of its beauty and its gifts. The use of the word “fritter” meaning “to spend or waste on trifles” (Merriam Websters Collegiate Dictionary, Springfield Mass, 1993, p 486.) helps to create the impression that Waters' stance is likely pejorative and critical towards himself, as well as the common man's tendency to waste his life away in complacency. Waters' views are reinforced in the lines...<.p>

“and you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking, racing around to come up behind you again, the sun is the same in a relative way but you're older, shorter of breath and one day closer to death”

Implying that as we grow older, the days seem to pass more quickly and although we may try to make up for the time we have squandered, there is no way to get back what we've lost. The image of a dark figure running across a plane, a shadow weary and implacable desperate to reach towards the setting sun and regain, or at least slow the passage of time, is both powerful and suggestive. Certainly, he could have chosen a different set of words to impart his message to the listener embracing a more positive and life affirming glass-is-half-full posture, but the line “shorter of breath and one day closer to death” seems quite cynical: our days are numbered so appreciate, live, and embrace life to the fullest because our days are numbered.

Roger Waters never seems to mince words when it comes to the topic of death regardless of the fact that some listeners may shy away from such a morose topic. As mentioned previously, Waters lost his father at a very young age which seemed to create a life-long interest in him, if not a great deal of derision towards the theme of war and all of its inequities. His lyrics and use of the language concerning war seem to have intensified, clarified perhaps as a function of his more poignant and intense emotions on the topic. This can be viewed in the song "Us and Them..."

“Forward he cried, from the rear and the front rank died. The general sat and the lines on the map moved from side to side” (from Us and Them,1973)

These lines could certainly be interpreted in a number of ways, perhaps simply as the prologue of a fictional bedtime story told to a sleepy cherubic child clad adorably in Poo bear jammies, tucked in and ready to hang on every syllable of his adoring father's narrative. But Waters' history as well as an examination of his past lyrical annotations might suggest otherwise. Roger's father Eric was killed tragically in a battle (see Pt 1 for more on this) that many viewed as utterly and completely unnecessary and a result of a precipitous and unjustifiable decision made by Winston Churchill. Churchill had made previous decisions as well that cost many an apple-cheeked youths their lives and consequently the calamity known as Operation Shingle was viewed by many British citizens as simply another poor error in judgment on Churchill's part. These details taken straight from the annals of history in combination with the loss of his father, as well as the obvious injustices of war could not possibly have been lost upon Waters and his lyrics over time reflect these notions. "My father was a schoolteacher before the war, he taught physical education and religious instruction, strangely enough. He was a deeply committed Christian who was killed when I was three months old. A wrenching waste. I concede that awful loss has colored much of my writing and my worldview" (from an Interview with Roger Waters, Penthouse Magazine, September 1988).

The first line “forward he cried from the rear...” suggests Waters' proclamation of the inhumanity towards men and the often expendable nature of serviceman in battle. He may be remarking upon the injustice of using men like pawns to painstakingly advance troops into enemy territory, or the opulence of the officers and their propensity towards rushing faceless soldiers into unseen perils. The use of the words “the general sat...” seems to indicate Waters' pessimistic attitude towards the complacency and laziness of the commanding officers especially in the face of danger, and their propensity towards delegating the most perilous of responsibilities to the most inexperienced of men.

But this ominous scene could also be symbolic of Waters' nightmarish vision of his own father's demise at the murderous hands of the Germans, as well as his indignation towards the vast callous military complex. Imagine, if you will, a boy growing up fatherless attempting to assemble the shattered pieces of an incident he would never fully understand, resurrecting the final moments of his father's life in slow motion and reaching vainly for a grasp of sublime concepts like death, and love and loss. His use of particular words can help us to understand the nature of his angst as well as the manner that he has chosen to express his most-deep seated emotions.

In March of 1973 Dark Side of the Moon was officially released to the public and remained on the charts for more than 740 weeks from 1973 to 1988, a standing record to this day. When Nick Mason and his wife met with their lender to attempt financing for their new home, the loan officer asked them what they could offer for security. Nick Mason replied 'Well, I've got a number one album in America'. He (the bank manager) was not impressed and said he was looking for something a little more concrete...(from Inside Out, A Personal History of Pink Floyd, Nick Mason, 2004, p. 187).

A series of smaller and relatively inconsequential projects later brought Waters and the boys to their next Goliath. Having produced such a monumental album as Dark Side was both a blessing as well as a curse for the band in that they had set such exceedingly high standards for themselves, they were terrified that they might not be able to do it again. Regardless, a rehearsal in 1974 brought about the inception of Shine on you Crazy Diamond, a piece that Gilmore and Waters collaborated upon with the latter adding lyrics concerning their old friend Syd Barrett. The song utilized remnants of a defunct project that they had worked on in 1973 called “Household Objects” which was an attempt to employ various and random objects taken from their households, including rubber bands, adhesive tape, egg slicers, wine glasses and what-have-you into musical form. The project was abandoned but did serve to provide some of the more latent sound-effects for Shine.

The song became the opening piece for the new album entitled “Wish You Were Here” which was starting to take on very specific form because of and despite some unusual visitors. Roy Harper, finger style guitar aficionado-poet and grand songwriter in his own right dropped into the studio one rainy day as the Floyd were working on “Have a Cigar.” Neither Waters nor Gilmour felt comfortable singing the vocal parts on the tune and Harper was more than willing to give it the old college try. His voice fit perfectly and remains the prominent vocal on the song to this day. The second visitor of the day was a mystery to everybody in the studio, at first. He had a shaved head and a beaten up tan raincoat with a vacant, glossed over look in his eyes that seemed vaguely familiar to Waters at least. It was Syd Barret who had shown up unannounced and certainly uninvited despite the fact that he had been so instrumental to the inception and initial character of the band. His presence brought back a barrage of different emotions in the band members including a great deal of guilt in Mason who believed that they had contributed in part to Syd's downfall. “We should credit his presence as a catalyst to the piece. The lyrics were already written, but Syd's visit underscored the melancholy of them, and maybe influenced the final version of them.” (Inside Out, A Personal History of Pink Floyd, Nick Mason, 2004, p. 213).

Recording continued on the album and illustrated a new level of expertise both in terms of the complexity of melody and abstraction as well as the poignancy and intensity of the lyrics. Shine on you Crazy Diamond became the celebratory anthem honoring the now deranged Syd Barrett...

“Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun
Shine on the Crazy Diamond, now there's a look in your eyes like
black holes in the sky, Shine on you crazy diamond”

The use of the word “shone” in addition to the descriptive title suggests that Waters fondly remembers his old friend, despite the difficulties that Barrett created for the band. But further lines in the piece may tell us more about Syd...

“Well you wore out your welcome with random precision rode on the steel breeze. Come on you raver, you seer of visions, come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine!”

Waters, as well as the other standing members of the band have never publicly expressed (to my knowledge) their discontent with Syd Barret although the line “you wore out your welcome” clearly conveys some dissatisfaction towards him and perhaps frustration towards the eccentric man and his often quirky behavior. The line following helps to clarify the sentiment though as Waters seems to be telling him, compelling him to rediscover his brilliance, his long-lost talents and shine like he once did as a youth.

Although the album is a standing tribute to the late great Syd Barret, it is also a testament to Waters' increasing dissatisfaction and cynicism towards the world of organized business, in particular the music business. On numerous occasions he has submitted his perspectives concerning the hidden agendas and bankrupt moralities of those attempting to profit from the sweat and creativity of others as well as the tendency for bureaucracy to stand in a fashion between the musicians and their fans. In Waters' words "What it comes down to for me is: Will the technologies of communication and culture - and especially popular music, which is a *vast* and beloved enterprise - help us to understand one another better, or will they deceive us and keep us apart? (Interview with Roger Waters from Penthouse Magazine, September 1988).

Two successive songs, “Have a Cigar” and “Wish You Were Here,” express a preponderance of emotion and insight concerning the rapaciousness and often unethical nature of the music business. Straight from the mouth of the inscrutable Waters...

“Come in here dear boy have a cigar you're gonna go far, you're gonna fly high, you're never gonna die you're gonna make it if you try they're gonna love you!” (from Have a Cigar, Wish You Were Here)

Waters commentary seems to be mimicking the overly well-rehearsed acceptance speech of the corpulent, silk-suited and money-grubbing record executive extending his sweaty palms in mock enthusiasm. His choice of lyrics paints a crystal clear picture of a scenario that is likely experienced by many rock bands making their first encounter with a high level record executive and witnessing the superficial plasticity and boldfaced dishonesty of one whose primary aim is to exploit. The executive's narrative seems almost trite in its predictability as if he had used the identical speech with the previous 4 bands on his agenda. Waters follows with...

“Now I've always had a deep respect and I mean that most sincerely, the band is just fantastic that is really what I think, oh by the way, which one's Pink?”

The executive's obvious lack of familiarity with the band and the line “which one's Pink” (Water reported that many people had asked them that over the years) only serves to reinforce and highlight Waters' disgust with the superficial nature of the scene although he does seem to have a sense of humor about it. But the lyrics are not the only facet of the album which convey Waters sentiments towards the corrupt and superficial nature of the music business. The structure of the album as well as the sounds and segues leading from Have a Cigar into Wish You Were Here are also quite ingenious and revealing.

As Gilmour's solo wails on through the conclusion of “Have a Cigar,” the sound of the Stratocaster attenuates and appears to shrink, enveloped by an old-time A.M. radio, eventually panning completely to the right channel and then disappearing completely into static, as if someone had changed the channel. We are then privy to the muted and oblique conversation of a British couple speaking in muted tones unintelligibly, followed by the unmistakeable beginning notes of Wish You Were Here. There are numerous theories available to the seeker and the eternally curious as well, seeking to gain a better understanding of the secrets of the universe, as well as the microcosmic mysteries locked in the domain of this one Pink Floyd album. One theory is that after the disquieting degradation of the meet-and-greet of Have a Cigar, the music (as well as the band) becomes lost, muted and weak trapped in the static of A.M. Radio, deprived of their creative license as well as their relative power and relegated to the world of the most tired banalities of an old married couple's banter. From this point, Wish You Were Here begins...

“So, so you think you can tell, heaven from hell, blue skies from pain, can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail, a smile from a vale, do you think you can tell?” (from Wish You Were here, 1975)

As always, the lyrics are interpretive and subject to the individual's experiences, losses and loves. But a closer examination of the words may provide us clues to the workings of the masterful Waters. The line “can you tell a green field...” suggests that Waters is repeating a question that is being asked throughout the album which is perhaps “what is real?” Are we sacrificing the most valuable and genuine things in life, love, music, human warmth and relationships for the material? Can you (me?) tell the difference between a green field and a cold steel rail or have the miniscule and minute differences between the essential pulse of life and love been tragically confused with the superficial and the monetary and the trivial. Waters goes on to say...

“did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts, hot ashes for trees, hot air for a cool breeze, cold comfort for change, did you exchange a walk on part in a war for a lead role in a cage?”

According to Roger Waters “I think it was - it was more a general song about...umm... feeling a sense of loss when you're not with somebody that you love, or have loved, or.. “(Live Satellite Interview with Roger Waters, May 1988). Waters tends to be fairly terse and even flippant in his interviews often claiming he can't remember his own lyrics or stating that the words have nothing to do with anything in his day-to-day life. And although we need to acknowledge sentiments about his own lyrics, I think it's important to look beyond the simplest explanation of Wish You Were Here and examine his use of the language to communicate something deeper.

Interestingly enough, most of the material written for the Animals album was written before Wish You Were Here and in fact the song “Dogs” (then titled Gotta Be Crazy) had already been performed on a 1974 tour of Great Britain. The members of the band found Animals an easier, more straight forward project perhaps because they were becoming more accustomed to the arduous process of recording. Drummer Nick Mason said “compared to some of our earlier efforts, Animals was really quite a straightforward album.”(Inside Out, A Personal History of Pink Floyd, Nick Mason, 2004, p. 223).

The band, after constructing massive inflatables for the previous two tours, had also become attached to the use of gigantic stage props used to enhance the overall show as well as give starry-eyed concert goers something upon which to fix their wandering gazes. Subsequently, a huge inflatable pig was constructed that would float about while the band performed and myriad stage explosions filled the stage with orange and yellow light.

Many viewed the Floyd's new compositions as harder rocking in nature and even having a punk edge to them. This may have been due to the fact that punk sensations like the Sex Pistols were making a huge hit in the UK and were affecting many people's view of modern music. Waters lyrics were no exception to this and seemed to take on a more violent, aggressive and undoubtedly haunting edge. His cynicism concerning the predatory nature of the corporate world, as well as the various others who make such scurrilous practices seem easy, appeared to have taken a turn towards the extreme, a sentiment which can be viewed in the overall theme of the compositions contained therein. The song “Dogs” for example, sung in first person by a captain of industry giving us, the listeners, a play-by-play of just how…

“you have to be trusted, by the people that you lie to so that when they turn their backs on you, you'll get the chance to put the knife in..”

and further...

“deaf dumb and blind, you just keep on pretending that everyone's expendable, and no one has a real friend” (from Dogs, Animals 1977).

Once again, there is a subjective element to the interpretation of these lines but in lieu of past sentiments expressed by Waters, it seems that his thoughts and feeling towards big business and those who seek to exploit others is crystal clear. The use of the words “you'll get the chance to put the knife in...” is a powerful and most certainly violent image that's difficult to misconstrue.

The song “Sheep” examines the other end of the corporate populace, castigating these harmless grazers as well for contributing, albeit on a more passive level, to their own exploitation and humiliation...

“what do you get for pretending the danger's not real? Meek and obedient you follow the leader down well-trodden corridors into the valley of steel”(from Sheep, Animals 1977).

Waters view towards business and the corporate plunderers seems to have matured and broadened as he now finds fault in those who allow themselves to be abused in addition to the abusers themselves. His remark “what do you get for pretending...” points out his intolerance for the complacency and denial of those who do nothing to remove themselves from the perilous and rapacious clutches of the corporate dogs, contributing to their own downfall. Animals examines the continuum of personae and characters that play their various and complementary roles in the corporate jungle.

Ultimately, each of us interprets words, passages, phrases and lyrics in a very different way and it is certainly not my intention to dictate to anyone how they should or should not interpret Roger Waters' lyrics. My hope is that through a thorough examination and a shared exploration of the words, we can discover just how a brilliant lyricist like Roger Waters draws from his many experiences and incorporates the happiness, the sadness, the angst and the anger into profound lyrical form.