Monday, 28 May 2012
Roger Waters: The Wall Live – reviewed by Jacob Edwards
Few lovers of speculative fiction would hold anything but affection for progressive rock band Pink Floyd (or, as they were billed in their psychedelic early days, The Pink Floyd). From Syd Barrett’s typically edgy brainchild “Astronomy Domine” through warp-driven and ethereal juggernauts “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”, the Floyd were like a hippie’s conception of spaceflight.
(Mind you, one doesn’t have to be stoned to hear echoes of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme materialising in and out across the background of “One of These Days”. Just listen closely. It’s particularly evident in the Delicate Sound of Thunder live recording.)
Moving slightly more towards the mainstream—and very much into the big time—Pink Floyd released Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, and while this album, with its iconic, dispersive prism cover art, encapsulated much of the band’s cosmic otherworldliness, subsequent releases saw the Floyd drawn slowly yet ever-increasingly towards Roger Waters’ solo compositions and the war-torn diatribes of The Final Cut. Post-Waters Pink Floyd may have upped the ante on fantastic cover art and afforded more compositional room to David Gilmour’s eerie, cavernous guitar (“Sorrow” a notable example), but the split could do nothing to regain or hide what was lost. Occasional solo performances notwithstanding—“Astronomy Domine” and “Set the Controls”, by Gilmour and Waters respectively—the early Floyd spacey-ness can now only just be seen, spinning further and further out of orbit, soon never to be recaptured.
But as time goes on and visual media soars to new and greater heights, Roger Waters has chosen to revisit the other (perhaps even more famous) speculative aspect of the Pink Floyd legacy: his militant and nightmarish, at times Kafkaesque conceptual rock opera (then film and concert stage extravaganza), The Wall.
Of those who discovered Pink Floyd through their epic double LP (and although Pink Floyd did not release many singles during their concept album phase, there are three from The Wall—“Another Brick (Part 2)”; “Comfortably Numb”; “Run Like Hell”—that crop up regularly on radio), many will have thought to themselves, Surely this is part of something bigger? Isn’t there more to this than just music? In equal measure, there will have been those who watched the film of The Wall and thought, Fuck, this is awful! If only it were just music. But as much as fans may love the songs while loathing the relentlessly grinding imagery of the film, The Wall’s most satisfying manifestation probably does lie somewhere in-between. In the 1980–1981 concert productions of The Wall, Roger Waters’ former descent into self-isolation (or lead character Pink’s, to maintain the pretence of fiction) and his subsequent re-emergence through delusion and hallucination, were allowed to play out against a backdrop of Gerald Scarfe’s grotesque animations and marionettes. The animations were projected onto an actual wall, which roadies would construct onstage during the performance, gradually blocking out Waters and the rest of the band from the audience (or vice versa), and at the end of the concert this wall would come crashing down—Phantom of the Opera, eat your heart out—exposing Waters to begin the cycle again.
Which, fast-forwarding to the present day (and with due deference to his one-off performance in Berlin, 1990) Roger Waters is now doing. Five years since previously appearing Down Under—his Dark Side of the Moon tour, which thankfully dispelled any fears raised by a rasping Live 8 outing alongside Dave Gilmour in 2005—Waters revisited the Brisbane Entertainment Centre on 1 February 2012, tickets ranging in price from $100 (binoculars not included) to $400 (proverbial spitting distance). Despite the venue’s reputation for making all music sound like the hammering crash of a thousand sadistic basketballs, Waters’ return was all but sold out to a clamouring throng of Brisbanites. People handed over their bags for inspection on the way in; queued for (pricey) merchandise; consumed alcohol in lieu of watching a non-existent (not even a surrogate) support act…
Then warning chimes; the crowd inching its way forward, like worms; lights down in the auditorium; a half-built wall on stage; a fascist-looking jacket hung in bleak isolation from the coat stand mid-set; faint refrains from the olden day bridging music that links the end of The Wall back to its beginning; then—
With a jolting guitar strike, each chord accompanied by a geysering fire-hydrant burst of sparks, “In the Flesh?” crashes through the quaint almost-silence. The audience gasps. This is The Wall—
“So ya / thought ya / might like to / go to the show”
—its opening number a bombastic parody of the performer/audience relationship, rendered even more ironic by the gusto with which it is embraced. A flamboyance of Brisbanite Floydies strain forward in their seats, enraptured to the point of ummagumma’d befuddlement by the two acts of Roger Waters’ magnum opus. (During intermission, at least one person tries to fire up a cigarette using a USB stick instead of a lighter.) And as Waters asks, “Tell me, is something eluding you, sunshine? Is this not what you expected to see?”, the most objective answer must surely be a combination of “yes” and “no”.
The first half of The Wall concert is nothing short of masterful, reflecting not only its greater cohesion—musically, lyrically, conceptually—compared to the second instalment, but also the more astute use of accompanying visual elements. While Roger Waters sings “Mother” in duet with a recording of his younger self, legendary guitarist Snowy White reinvents Dave Gilmour’s solos and the onstage assembly of the giant, eponymous wall proceeds with great finesse, serving both as a counterpoint to the unfolding story and as a screen upon which to project a choreographed maelstrom of images. The music and its multimedia aspect are perfectly integrated throughout the wall’s construction, and as the non-LP overture “The Last Few Bricks” plays (a stirring, sometimes adlibbed fusion of earlier motifs) and Waters gradually disappears from view, eventually bidding the audience “goodbye” (cruel world) and slotting the final brick into place, one cannot help but feel that the show has reached its perfect, natural endpoint. Gerald Scarfe’s giant marionettes of the schoolmaster and wife have been unveiled to great effect. “Empty Spaces” has been restored to its original, unexpurgated form (“What Shall We Do Now?”) as written in the LP’s liner notes and performed for The Wall Live in Berlin. Waters has even taken “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” and added to Snowy White’s closing guitar solo a new, rather sombre verse—call it “Part 2¾”—concerning the 2005 shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in London. Some might dispute this coda’s relevance to The Wall’s original premise, but such a quibble is nothing when measured against the overall effect—“to feel the warm thrill of confusion / that space cadet glow.” Simply put, the show has reached its zenith by intermission. The audience can go home happy.
Only they don’t, of course. There’s half a concert to go, and although this includes “The Show Must Go On” (with original opening verse restored) and familiar hits “Comfortably Numb” and “Run Like Hell”, sadly these (and others) make for little more than a protracted dénouement. By the time the bricks crumble down and Waters and Company take their bow in a revamped, more upbeat rendition of “Outside the Wall”, much of the early magic has been frittered away.
The second half of The Wall concert fails on several levels, stemming in large part from a dearth of musical structure. For all its highpoints—and there are plenty—part two of The Wall has always been something of a hodgepodge, lacking the progressive continuity of the song cycle that preceded it (only “Mother” sticks out in part one, and with the belated advent of “Another Brick Part 2¾”, Waters has now smoothed over some of those cracks). Ipso facto, the disjointed nature of Waters’ (or Pink’s) re-emergence from behind the wall is exacerbated by the first two songs (“Hey You” and “Is There Anybody Out There?”) being performed almost entirely from behind the wall. With none of its musicians in sight, the show becomes (as doubtlessly intended) little more than a film viewed from far away; and even when Waters returns to stage, there follows a tricky, quiet/loud medley where his voice—which at age 68 carries remarkably well, though more so when required to project powerfully—first struggles with the heartfelt, downbeat quiet of “Nobody Home” and “Vera”, then has its strident entreaties drowned out almost entirely by the triumphant military fanfare of “Bring the Boys Back Home”. When Waters, true to script, then swaps his normal stage attire (black jeans and short-sleeve shirt, white sneakers) for the fascist jacket and sunglasses of “General” Waters, the show loses most of its concert aspect, and puffs up instead with empty dramatics. “Waiting for the Worms” is particularly disappointing in this regard, while “The Trial”, which is a highlight of the studio recording, has its many voices performed pseudo-in-character by Waters, and relies heavily on screened images from the film version of The Wall. In fact, by this point it has become manifest that the visual aspect of The Wall concert is no longer there just to complement the performance. With the completion of the on-stage wall, it has become the performance, and although this, too, must in some way be the point that Waters wanted to make, nevertheless the music has been lost.
Part of Roger Waters’ original conception of The Wall was for it “to make comparisons between rock and roll concerts and war”—a somewhat tenuous link, one might think, but one that is realised when Pink’s psychoses—all of which stem (in one way or another) from Waters, as a five month old, growing up having lost his father to World War Two—are twisted like narrative barbed wire around Waters’ real-life estrangement from audience members on Pink Floyd’s In The Flesh tour of 1977. The overt link from concerts to war is made through Pink’s hallucinogenic transformation across “In the Flesh”, “Run Like Hell” and “Waiting For the Worms”, yet one cannot help but feel that Waters has built his new Wall concert across slightly different terrain.
In calling on fans to submit photographs of family members killed during war, and in projecting these images onto his wall, Waters seems, if anything, to be advancing the rock and roll concert as a unifying vehicle through which to decry and protest against—intrinsically, to distance oneself from—war. Indeed, if one may draw inference from the multimedia bombardment that assails the audience throughout the course of The Wall Live, Waters’ position appears to be that religious differences constitute a wall that separates and isolates people, and that, really, everyone is united by the shared abuse of having their Machiavellian and profit-driven governments send loved ones off to die in senseless fighting. The Brisbane crowd embraces his stance, but such is their love and nostalgia for Waters, Pink Floyd and The Wall, it is unclear whether they do so through sincere belief, or merely through suggestibility or even just the faint, naughty thrill of subversion.
Having secluded himself for most of the 1990s (to compose his opera, Ça Ira), Roger Waters emerged in the new millennium as something of an activist—particularly with regard to the Middle East—and has since aired (or otherwise presented) his views throughout three world tours. Nobody can criticise Waters for having and sharing his beliefs, or even for backing them with the currency of his rock star renown (after all, John Lennon did it), but it does seem a little sad—tawdry, almost—that Waters has chosen to give peace a chance while sitting astride his canon of early works. A musician and lyricist of his calibre, one feels, should be performing a new concept album; a new concert; he should be gathering up the occasional, cast-adrift compositions of the last decade (“To Kill the Child”, “Hello (I Love You)”, the sublime “Each Small Candle”) and uniting them with new material to genuinely put across his point of view, untainted by the decomposition of older songs. Would the crowd still respond with unbridled fervour? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But at least there would be a frankness to the new creation, rather than the Frankensteinishness inherent in Waters having sewn together his message from the disinterred and dusted-off corpus of The Wall.
These misgivings aside—and they should not be blown out of proportion—it must still be recognised that The Wall Live is an audacious and innovative, wholly immersive, spectacularly revamped exemplar of rock and roll theatre, and whereas the original Pink Floyd production was limited (to 31 performances) by the sheer expense of putting it together and taking it on the road, Waters seemingly has brushed aside these difficulties, embarking on an epic, world-spanning tour that opened in September 2010 and is currently scheduled to continue until July 2012. To the many Pink Floyd fans who missed The Wall tour of 1980/1981, Waters’ re-launching of the concert is an unexpected godsend, and even for those who hark back to the early days of The Pink Floyd, the ghostly rendition of “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1)”, with spectral, red waves rolling across the wall, above and around, even below the stage, making it seem like Waters and Company are standing aboard an open spaceship in flight, well, this feels like the culmination of a journey—a trip, even, sans Syd Barrett’s LSD—that started out with a dawning sense of wonder but clouded over and was broken off those many years ago.
1. Roger Waters, interviewed by Mick Brown and Kurt Loder, “Behind Pink Floyd’s Wall”, Rolling Stone 16 (September 1982), quoted in Nicholas Schaffner, Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1992), p. 10.
3. Roger Waters and Nick Mason, interviewed by Charlie Kendall, “Shades of Pink—the Definitive Pink Floyd Profile”, The Source (1984). [http://www.pinkfloydfan.net/t1483–gilmour-waters-mason-wright-shades.html]