Unstill Waters

Roger Waters can't shake the spirit of Pink Floyd

The band used to get quite the kick out of the fact that clueless promoters and hot-shot record-industry folk would ask, "By the way, which one's Pink?" Pink Floyd was among the most successful bands of the classic-rock era of the Seventies (who from that decade doesn't have a pot-seeded gatefold of Dark Side of the Moon in their collection?), yet the people whose salaries it paid didn't take the time to realize Pink Floyd was not the name of its lead singer. (Original singer Syd Barrett named the group after Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, his two blues heroes.) It was that kind of broad ignorance that curdled the band into a collection of anonymous cynics who regularly railed against the impersonalization of the modern age.

In its lifetime Pink Floyd slowly amassed enough alienation anthems to win the allegiance of kids in high school smoking lounges the world over. "Time," "Money," "Welcome to the Machine," and eventually The Wall, a sprawling two-LP concept album from 1977 that chronicled the fascist impulses of an increasingly insulated rock star driven to madness, all centered around the songwriting of Roger Waters. For the album he assumed the role of "Pink," and while most of the songs he penned for the set allegedly were written about Barrett, anyone listening closely could see that, consciously or not, Waters was looking at his own reflection in the mirror.

This didn't play particularly well with the other members of the band, who at one time were actual contributing members to the group and not involuntary sidemen to this emergent dictator. For 1983's The Final Cut, Waters steamrolled over the wishes of the group and set about writing and recording a concept album centered around the fate of his military father, who died in World War II, his anger toward Britain's involvement in the Falklands, and his generally pessimistic views of society. Guitarist David Gilmour relinquished creative control, but held on to his producer's royalties, while drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist Rick Wright (the latter, by the way, was technically forced to quit the group during the recording of The Wall, and put on a hired hand's salary) often were replaced by studio veterans. It was only a Pink Floyd album in name.

Ghost of the machine: Roger Waters can't shake the spirit of his old group, Pink Floyd
Ghost of the machine: Roger Waters can't shake the spirit of his old group, Pink Floyd

By the mid-Eighties lawsuits flew and, ironically, the remaining members -- including Wright, who rejoined the group in 1994 -- were awarded the use of the name "Pink Floyd," and Waters was left as the solo act who had written most of the band's most notable tunes.

These days Waters performs many of the songs that made him exceedingly wealthy alongside tunes from his solo albums, which mostly serve as a reminder that he ain't the musician he once was. Any number of stray tracks from 1984's The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking or Amused to Death from 1992 are salted with his sarcastic social commentaries, but few feature a melody strong enough to allow the crowd to flick their Bics and sing along. Like many aging rockers, from Pete Townshend to Ray Davies, Waters gets revved up to set the Great American Novel to music (even Brits have the same lofty aspirations), and then shortchanges the music part altogether.

Thankfully, however, increasing age and economic realities have sobered up Waters's theatrical ambitions. He had already exhausted the former anyhow, with the over-the-top performance of The Wall -- Live in Berlin (released as a live album in 1990), which featured an impressive list of artists from Marianne Faithful to Van Morrison. Unlike Pink Floyd, where a giant floating pig or 5000 Styrofoam bricks were set across the stage to hammer home the conceptual thrust of the band's music, these days Waters lets the music do the talking. He might never admit how integral his old bandmates were to the music they created together -- and one viewing of the 1971 cult film Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii should leave one wondering how these guys ever got their cars started in the morning, never mind cranked up a harmonious bliss -- but it's clearly obvious that each camp misses the other in no uncertain terms. (Try listening to latter-day Pink Floyd, especially the 1995 double-live set Pulse sometime, if you need proof.)

Waters does, however, employ a crack band to re-create his former glories. Texan Doyle Bramhall II serves as David Gilmour while Waters's old friends Snowy White and Andy Fairweather-Low add special seasonings to the atmospheric sound. Gilmour always possessed the smokier voice, but Waters's bitter crackle sounds brilliantly like that of a senile military man barking orders at a regiment long since sent home from the war. Which essentially is what's going on here: Generations X-Y-Z long ago walked off course. The homage paid to classic rock at the end of the Eighties finally fizzled as grunge and hip-hop found their selling points and spoke to the new generation. The creative endeavors of the baby boomer musicians were seriously curtailed by the dwindling audience who pay only to see the big game highlights. And in these terms, Waters remains a sure bet. He may send thrill-seekers to the concession stands while he works through the shakier parts of Radio K.A.O.S. but he's always sure to fire back with the rousing anti-authoritarian anthem "Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2" (that's "We don't need no education," to those in the cheap seats).

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