- 06 Jan 20
To celebrate what would have been Syd Barrett's 74th birthday, we're revisiting a classic interview with his former Pink Floyd bandmate Roger Waters.
He’s acknowledged as the creative genius behind Pink Floyd. With the band’s massive selling double-album The Wall, Roger Waters delivered his masterpiece, an agonised epic that would subsquently exert a huge influence on iconic rockers like Billy Corgan and Trent Reznor. The narrative of The Wall was tied into Waters’ tormented personal history, and touched on his feelings about his father, a British Army officer who died during the Second World War.
Recently, Waters turned 70. He will shortly hit another landmark when his three-year tour for The Wall comes to an end at the Stade De France. The penultimate date on the tour is at the Dublin Aviva, where Irish fans will have the opportunity to enjoy this spectacular production in all its glory. The tour has proved a massive hit since it commenced in September 2010, with Waters playing to packed audiences around the world.
As he prepares to bring The Wall to Dublin, he explains how, after living up to his billing as most tortured man in rock for many years, he’s finally grown more at ease with himself...
Dave Fanning: Roger, is it a bit too simplistic, naïve or just wrong to say that The Wall is autobiographical?
Roger Waters: Yes.
It’s not, on any level?
Well, a lot of it is based upon things from my life. I drew on incidents in my life when I was writing it. And in fact, the incidents that started the whole thing, all those famous things when I was in Pink Floyd and we were doing big stadium gigs… it was then, in the ‘70s, that I did this little drawing on a piece of exercise paper that showed a wall. I had the theatrical idea to build a wall across the stage at a rock and roll gig, which is what I’m still doing now.
And you demolish it at the end.
When people talk about The Wall, they use words like “fame” and the problem with it and “conflict” and “paranoia” and “isolation” and “depression”. The last one they use, all the time, is “redemption”.
The redemption, such as it is, lies in the reminder of how important it is to remain attached to one’s humanity in the face of all the walls that divide us one from another as human beings. It’s not easy being a human being. The pressures that we come under to scrabble futilely over the bodies of others to attain some goal… I guess redemption lies in remaining focused.
You have said that when Bin Laden and Bush were here (they were) “both two morons” and that they should have found a middle way. Is that where redemption is to be found?
At the moment a lot of my going mad is actually about Obama and his position and the executive in the United States. He made a huge speech at the State of the Union and there was a lot of good stuff in it about reducing the gap between the rich and the poor and immigration and trying to get the great unwashed in the United States of America to understand the fact that, apart from the three Indians who are still alive, everybody else is an immigrant and so on and so forth. At dinner parties, if I have a conversation like this, I say, ‘Listen, this is very, very simple. It’s simple physics. Do you know what osmosis is?’ – and normally, they don’t. Osmosis is the movement of molecules from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration through a semi-permeable membrane. Well, this semi-permeable membrane runs all along the southern edge of Texas and New Mexico and below that is Mexico and that’s a semi-permeable membrane: they are poor as shit and by comparison, you are rich as shit. They are molecules and they will find their way through that barrier, whatever you do with it. And if we could only see this as being the model, a universal model for this little warm rock – actually it’s a sort of warm, wet rock that we all live on – we might discover that there’s an easier way, not for us but for future generations.
So what about Bin Laden and Bush?
Nobody in North America ever looks at the relationship between Bin Laden and George Bush because it’s an uncomfortable picture. They’re not really interested in it. Where I live, they’re not really interested in looking at the fact that, for the last couple of hundred years, America has been a very powerful imperial power and it’s pissed a lot of people off. Now, Bin Laden is a very special case because he was one of the ‘haves’ in Saudi Arabia. He was intimately connected with the Saudi royal family and as we know, the Saudi royal family are a despotic feudal dynasty. There’s no question about anybody ever having to vote in Saudi Arabia. What they’ve got is this very powerful ally – the United States of America – and a ton of oil, so they do what they fucking want, alright? He happened to object to the fact that there were American bases there because he’s a religious nut and got all worried about there being infidels with guns in their desert. So it’s two extreme ideologies meeting over an attachment to Keynesian economics.
And trying to keep themselves up there at all costs.
Yeah. Sorry, I was rambling but… if The Wall is about anything, it is about trying to express the idea that there is a solution – redemption if you want to call it that – that lies somewhere beyond the arena in which all these walls are erected.
Do you see a difference between the war your father fought in and sending boys to Afghanistan now?
Well, obviously you’d have to ask young Cameron that. I think I know the answer and it’s an uncomfortable answer. It’s exactly like Blair following George Bush into Iraq. He wanted to be a war leader. They all see themselves as Winston Churchill and they think that’s a good thing. They forget that Churchill put down the general strike in 1926 and was a complete arsehole for most of his career and the fact that he became this loveable chap, this loveable drunkard…
With a big cigar.
…from 1939 to 1945 (means) we forget everything else. And also just after the war he found it impossible to win an election of any kind because he reverted to type and just started railing against socialism and was eventually discarded. But nevertheless, because of the press that he got, subsequent politicians have decided that that’s the way to go. They love nothing better to have an army that they can send off. It’s like playing bloody Diplomacy or something. It’s as if these kids they send out are plastic. They come to my shows and I promise you, they’re not fucking plastic. I see them with no arms and legs.
What about that Brazilian student shot in London by the police?
It’s referenced in the show. His name was Jean Charles de Menezes. I met his whole family in Brazil, when we were there last year. They came to the gig in Porto Alegre and we had a good conversation. They’re still looking for…
Yeah, answers. Not recompense. They’re looking to find out why nobody is being held accountable. I wrote a song about it. I don’t think anybody will be found accountable because there is a style of government that is accepted now. There ought to be the biggest hoo-hah you’ve ever seen at the moment in the United States of America because of the Obama White House’s policy on drones, which again I’ve written a song about, unpublished as yet. The verse of my song goes, “If I were a drone patrolling foreign skies, with my electronic eyes for guidance and the element of surprise / I would be afraid to find someone home, maybe a woman at a stove baking bread, making rice or just boiling down some bones, if I were a drone”. It’s a much longer song about all kinds of other things but my concern is the collateral damage from drones. But I have an equal or perhaps greater concern that they have – that Obama has – decided to keep the Patriot Act and in fact, to extend it so that they can execute even their own citizens if they decide to, without… anything. Without speaking to anybody, without asking anybody, without being responsible, without having to answer any questions about it… they, in secret, decide, ‘We’ll kill him’ and they go and do it, in foreign countries.
Was it a mistake leaving Pink Floyd? Ummagumma has the four of you sitting there with the shots going back into the past but nobody knew what you looked like! I think you got it wrong because I think you forgot the most important thing – the brand is everything. So there you were in Cincinnati playing to 1,500 people and the next night Pink Floyd were playing to 70,000.
R: Well, that was, as I’ve said many times since, that was a very character-forming critique (playing to 1,500 in Cincinnati).
(laughs) God, you should be a politician! “You blew it!”
I was quite pissed off about that for quite some time. Now, 30 years later or whatever, I’m more concerned about the conversation that you and I just had, than about any of that. But the fact is, you’re truly right about brand attachment and it may be that having done Radio K.A.O.S. and The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking as solo tours after I’d left Pink Floyd and by the time I got to the Radio K.A.O.S. show – great show as it was, it sort of failed dismally, economically, partly because they had gone off touring or whatever. So I sort of gave up after ’87 and until a few years ago I didn’t do anything.
But there was a form of redemption, even for you!
Since then I’m attached to the brand in that two tours ago I did the whole of Dark Side of the Moon, which is a brand in itself. If you say ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ you get a brand, period and certainly if you say The Wall, that’s a brand and now people have begun to attach my name to it ‘cause (adopts strong Irish accent) – I fuckin’ own it!
Finally, the recognition you deserve! And hey, if the road is long, the journey’s great.
It is. It is, but those things are not nearly as important as the fact that we no longer have Habeas Corpus and all that shit… Runnymede with Magna Carta and everything, it’s all been thrown down the drain and we’ve just decided to circumvent those several hundred years of jurisprudence and flip neatly to the Weimar Republic in the early ‘30s in Germany and say, ‘No, this is the model that we want’. We’re much more interested in a Nietzschean model than we are in models of philosophy that go back to the ancient Greeks and all the laws of property that came out of England in the 15th century. We’re going to say, ‘No, we like the early ‘30s in Germany, that’s the one we want. We don’t give a fuck whether… they kill a few gypsies and Jews, look he’s building the Autobahn so everything’s alright’. Well that’s kind of what’s happening in the States now.
In what sense?
Oh he’s killing a few people… we don’t want to hear about it. It’s okay if they don’t get a trial or they disappear in the middle of the night. I made a speech to the UN on the 29th of November last year, which you won’t have read about because nobody wrote about it (Except Hot Press – Ed). There wasn’t a single word in the mainstream media in North America. Anyway, I spoke for about half an hour in front of the UN committee. But one of the things I did was, I quoted ‘The Gunner’s Dream’, because it has the lines;
“A place to stay/ Enough to eat/ Somewhere old heroes shuffle safely down the street/ Where you can speak out loud/ About your doubts and fears/ And what’s more no-one ever disappears/ You never hear their standard issue kicking in your door/ You can relax on both sides of the tracks/ And maniacs don’t blow holes in bandsmen by remote control/ And everyone has recourse to the law/ And no-one kills the children anymore/ And no one kills the children anymore.” I quoted that in the speech.
Does that feel like it was from another time?
I can’t remember when I wrote that… 1981. That’s 30 years ago now but I believe it. I believe that if you’re a United States citizen, you don’t have recourse to the law. It’s so fundamentally important as a model for the rest of us. It frightens the life out of me. People say, ‘Do you get scared that somebody might come up and shoot you?’ and I don’t – but I am frightened by this government. I support the Palestinians. It’s a very short route from supporting the Palestinians to being, ‘Oh, you’re attacking our friend Israel’, so you’re already practically a traitor. The Palestinians? Hang on a minute! – Gaza, the government, okay it was elected democratically but Hamas, that’s a terrorist organisation. You are supporting a terrorist organisation. What’s to say they can’t have me taken out and shot without anybody ever asking a question? They can. Under their new laws, that they’re trying to implement, which is an amendment to the Patriot Act called ’10.21’ which says that they can do anything they want to you if they suspect you of being involved with terrorism and an “imminent threat” – but they don’t define what an imminent threat is.
Bush is gone, Bin Laden is dead, trying to meet somewhere in the middle, etc… Do you ever feel that maybe you could have done with Pink Floyd what we’re talking about here and met more in the middle?
Well, having done 20 or 25 years of interviews without bringing Pink Floyd up… (adopts Irish ‘begorrah’ accent again) I’ve never brought it up! However, it does seem to get brought up. No, listen! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; bands are like other groups of people. They have a life. They have a half-life or whatever it is and then it’s over and when Pink Floyd was over, it was over. People keep raking over the coals of it and people miss it and that’s absolutely fine, I don’t mind that at all, but I was there. I know the reasons why we broke up were very real and they were very right and it was the correct thing to do and I have no regrets about leaving, even on that cold night when I was playing to those 1,500 people in Cincinnati… absolutely no regrets.
In July 2005 I was in Hyde Park right at the very front and everybody was waiting. Everyone played that day from Madonna to REM, the biggest bands, everybody was waiting for Pink Floyd. U2, Paul McCartney, The Who… everyone had played and you came on, and you did a 25 minute set, it was really good but you said, ‘I just want to say that it’s a real pleasure to be playing on stage with these people’. And do you know something? You meant it.
Yeah, yeah. Well, it was. But it wasn’t something I wanted to do again. In order to achieve that evening on stage, from the minute that I made the call to David to say, ‘Come on, let’s do it’, and 24 hours later he agreed – until we actually got on stage and did it, it was a continual process of keeping my fucking mouth shut and rolling over at every possibility in order to keep the peace and allow it to happen and I went into that situation absolutely accepting that that was I would need to do. So from the set list to whatever, wherever anything happened (it was a case of) ‘Whatever you want’.
Which was the best way to do it.
I spent my life doing that because I had strong ideas about things, as I did 20 and 30 years before that. And the reason that we broke up is that we disagree about shit. Big time. But I loved it and I thought we were great. I thought it was beautiful and I’m so glad we did it because Rick died soon afterwards. I’m so happy that we got that in before Rick died. Rick was a very special part of all of that and doesn’t usually get the credit he deserved.
When people say ‘Rick Wright, keyboard player’ – it’s a lot more than that, isn’t it?
In terms of The Wall itself, Berlin… it was almost like it fell into place, that you had to do The Wall there.
I had been in conversations with Leonard Cheshire about Red Square. He’d asked me to do a gig for the Worldwide Fund for Disaster Relief which he wanted to be his final cause, because he knew he was dying. He had motor neuron disease. And then in November ’89 we heard what was going on in Berlin. Leonard and I flew to Berlin the next day, gave up any thoughts of Moscow. We went and peered through a gap in the wall. And then they said, ‘They’ve opened up a little gap down at the Potsdamer Platz’, and we’d gone and looked at the Maifeld, which was the polo ground of the 1936 Olympics and we thought maybe we could do the gig there. We looked in and thought, ‘We can’t do it it here’. Nobody had been on the Potsdamer Platz since 1946. Nobody. Just dead people. It was chilling.
And when people come to see The Wall now, who are they coming to see – The Wall or Roger Waters?
I dunno, a bit of each I think. I’m happy to say that I’m connected to it now and that people are beginning to understand.
Can you imagine touring other Pink Floyd albums?
I probably could, if I wanted to. I’m much more interested in other things at the moment – but who’s to say that I might not go all weird and want to do a greatest hits thing at some stage? I think it’s very unlikely because I think it would be a bit of a let-down after something like this, which is much more coherent and political. It’s much more likely that I would stand up and do something, if possible, that was even more political.
In one way, Roger, I get the impression that you have made complications for yourself when sometimes taking the easy route is often a good thing to do. Have you ever congratulated yourself for making Wish You Were Here in very tense circumstances?
I do think it’s a really good album. It was a huge battle making that album, which making Dark Side of the Moon hadn’t been.
You once said, compared to The Wall, Dark Side of the Moon was sixth form stuff. You weren’t being throwaway. But The Wall is much more mature. Is it because it addresses bigger issues? And does it mean more to you?
Yeah, it does mean more and I think it’s more coherent. I’ve started writing stuff recently that I do believe may become a new album, which would be the first album I’ve written or released for over 20 years. And it’s about the fundamental issues that The Wall brings up.