The dark side of an enlightened mind

By Kristen Piec
May 27, 2004

Roger Waters is known to some as an outspoken voice of revolution against the dark side. To others, he wouldn't be recognized unless his name was followed by the name Pink Floyd.

The mystique of Pink Floyd was deepened by the band members’ anonymity and their enigmatic music, which was spring-boarded by the rapid rise and fall of founding member Roger “Syd” Barrett. Pink Floyd’s later music, lyrics and concepts kept in touch with the spirit of Syd’s avant-garde contribution and his loss due to a worsening mental condition. Pink Floyd went far beyond the band they originated as more than 30 years ago. They evolved into a completely unique band of intelligent, individual artists who had intense convictions and talents. There were many facets to Pink Floyd, but the most obvious difference from other bands was that their music was built on well-formulated ideas that made you think. They used provocative art and stage visuals, but it was mostly about incredibly moving music with chilling psychological concepts.

Throughout their career, Pink Floyd enjoyed anonymity in the midst of worldwide success. During the height of Pink Floyd, behind huge stage shows of lights and props, their songs spoke against injustice and the establishment. Controversial concepts were accepted during that turbulent time of the 1970s, but no other artist was as intelligently biting as Roger Waters. His lyrics paint a picture of the world but are still personal and connect with deep emotions in others. Pink Floyd, with Roger as the band’s lyricist, created the most emotional and outspoken concept albums during a time of war, revolution and general apathy toward the status quo.

In the 1980s, Roger would pay the price for his Pink Floyd anonymity when he didn't have the name of his former band to promote his solo work. But Roger stayed true to his craft and continued to speak with his own voice, which would eventually resonate with new generations.

Roger Waters's first solo album, “The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking” (1983), is an in-depth album that shows a more vulnerable, personal side in Roger’s writing. The concept deals with the inner subconscious, all staged through a night of dreaming, with the twists and turns that dreams and nightmares take. It touches on the need to be loved and to feel connected, but it also seems to be about metaphysics and the elusiveness of the dream state and waking hours. The album wasn’t well received by the paying public, so most people didn't give it the proper amount of time it takes to realize the depth of the concept. Eric Clapton's intense blues-guitar riffs are a big bonus that shouldn’t be overlooked, but it wasn’t enough to give the album the boost it needed post-Pink Floyd and pre-heavy metal ’80s.

A few years later, his second solo project, “Radio K.A.O.S.” (1987), was released the same year as the newly reformed Pink Floyd’s album “A Momentary Lapse of Reason.” “Radio K.A.O.S.” was overshadowed by the name Pink Floyd and their stadium tour.

“K.A.O.S.” is a narrative concept album about the threat of world annihilation, with a storyline and characters. The main character, Billy, uses technology to try to connect to people and make them realize what is important in this fleeting life. The music has an ’80s pop feel, which seems to echo the disconnect that encompassed the decade’s sound, making the musical style of “K.A.O.S.” part of the overall concept, even if it wasn’t planned that way. The concept speaks about how popular culture and entertainment can and should be about connecting and sharing messages, not just about “pop porn,” as Roger has dubbed pop music in interviews.

The “Radio K.A.O.S.” tour was a multimedia event and included a DJ booth housing Jim Ladd, a Los Angeles DJ featured as a character who befriends Billy over the radio. “K.A.O.S.” is also about how radio is a dying form of communication. Radio is increasingly viewed as more of an annoying background noise than entertainment. In reality, a primary cause of its demise is that creativity has been taken out of it, making it corporate and computerized, and it doesn't make people feel connected like it once did.

In 1990, Roger performed “The Wall” at the Berlin Wall to commemorate its tearing down. A large cast of artists and musicians helped perform the characters, with Roger as Pink, while troops built a huge wall of bricks that was torn down in one of the largest stage productions ever. It was an emotional height for Roger and would mark the glimmering of an optimistic time coming out of the recessive ’80s. It was clear there was still a great deal for Roger to speak out about. With the help of Jeff Beck on guitar, Roger’s album “Amused to Death” let it be known that those same gripping messages still needed to be heard years after “The Wall” and Roger’s last album with Pink Floyd, “The Final Cut.”

“Amused to Death” (1992) could very well be the most outspoken anti-establishment album of all time. The 1990s were a new era of war, with environmental issues and a new level of apathy among younger generations. “Amused to Death” addresses how humans have created an image of being civilized yet are ignorant to real humanitarian concerns. Referring to a cast of animals in the storyline, the concept suggests we are all part of the animal kingdom, which may explain why we continue to connect to violence instead of using our minds to solve problems. We portray being organized by using religion, government and cultural facades, but are short-sighted with aggression and competitiveness – to the point that we amuse ourselves to death. It is a unique album and picks up on pieces of each of Roger’s previous works, including perfecting the use of sound effects to heighten the album’s dynamics, as he has done since the early days with Pink Floyd.

The creation was a monster that would continue to strengthen over time. But due to the radical subjects, often shocking lyrics, lack of a hit single and lackluster sales of his previous solo albums, “Amused to Death” seemed to be swept under the carpet shortly after its release. Roger decided not to tour the album, reportedly because of low initial album sales, but the album stayed true to Roger’s cause, and he did what he wanted regardless of critics and sales. With Pink Floyd, Roger did pretty much as he wished, as he was largely the leader of the band, although on his own, he no longer had the support to get his music heard by a large audience. Roger’s solo career had largely been ignored, and his former band members touring with the name Pink Floyd did not help his situation. But there was something different about “Amused to Death” and how it fermented over time, eventually creating a new generation of Roger Waters fans.

Putting “Amused to Death” in the context of the times reveals that music was dominated by metal and bubble gum pop, and then grunge took over. “Amused to Death” is not an album that can be categorized, nor can it be considered an easy listen because it’s more than just music. It requires intense listening, deep thinking and can be emotionally draining, which is not easy to sell to the masses. The concepts are harsh yet often humorous and are layered within each song. Giving it one listen is not giving it a fair chance. Another reason the album may have been brushed off was that the climate was too politically charged in the early ’90s, a time of a thousand points of light: Clarence Thomas hearings, post-Baker and -Falwell fiascos, and newly televised battlefields from Iraq. It was an uncertain time, but Roger was reacting to old concepts in a new light. Was “Amused to Death” ignored at first because fans weren’t willing to listen to how terrible things really were, or could it have been that “Amused to Death” was seen as potentially troublesome for the record industry at that time? The rejection had to be hard for Roger, knowing he had created a masterpiece that only a few got to truly experience.

Fast forward to 1999. Roger decided to come out of nowhere to tour, performing classic Pink Floyd songs as well as solo material. Most of the solo material was from “Amused to Death,” which was the first time the songs were played live. The songs and the concept seemed ready-made for live performance, and the album took on a new life. It also showed how flawlessly “Amused to Death” blended with Pink Floyd classics. The success led to tours in 2000 and 2002, as well as a live CD and DVD, “In the Flesh.” All this begs the question, if Roger had toured when “Amused to Death” came out and had been billed as a founding member of Pink Floyd, would the album have been better accepted and appreciated?

Was it simply that “Amused to Death” came before its time? And could anyone realize how prophetic some of the concepts would be 10 years later, post-9/11? Roger speaks out about militarism, terrorism, extremes in religion and televised violence – and reminds listeners how people have the ability to come together, with such lines as “A Doctor in Manhattan saved a dying man for free” in the song “It’s a Miracle.”

The entire album is uniquely compelling, with most Roger fans not having a clear favorite song or section. Fans may not agree which song on the album is best, but one thing they do agree on is that it takes many listens to fully appreciate the concept. After years of listening, it continually inspires new insights and perspectives. “Amused to Death” speaks to the world situation in 2004, with its new war and a new generation that needs to hear the message this album heeds. One can hope more people will hear the messages Roger has written before his concepts become fatal realities for our planet.

Roger Waters has been working on a new rock album, and also will be releasing an opera called “Ca Ira,” inspired by the French Revolution. There have been rumors of a tour in support of his rock album in 2005.

Kristen Piec is an artist, teacher and the web mistress of a Roger Waters fan site called Bleeding Heart Artist. She has traveled extensively and toured with Roger Waters on his past three tours. View her photos and artwork here.

Related link: Roger Waters' official site
Related link: Pink Floyd's official site

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