POP MUSIC : Roger Waters’ Dark Side of the Tube
“Dark Side of the Moon.”
You can tell a lot about your view of Roger Waters by your reaction to those terms.
As the creative force of Pink Floyd from the late 1960s through the mid-'80s, Waters pioneered the kind of musical and theatrical experimentation that set the tone for progressive rock. It was a movement that some saw as an ambitious realization of rock’s creative potential, and others as a pretentious betrayal of rock’s earthy instincts.
Ambition met accessibility in 1973’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” one of the biggest-selling and most influential albums of the rock era, and the equally provocative “The Wall” six years later. Those albums established Waters’ reputation as a thoughtful if caustic social observer--a sort of cerebral Pete Townshend, passionate in his concerns and willing to tackle big themes with rock’s weaponry.
The English band broke up amid acrimony in 1983 and Waters found with his two subsequent solo albums--"The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking” and “Radio K.A.O.S"--that he had retained only a fraction of Pink Floyd’s massive audience. Waters suffered another blow when his old bandmates won the right to use the Pink Floyd name.
Waters rebounded with an all-star charity production of “The Wall” at the former site of the Berlin Wall in 1990. His first album in five years, “Amused to Death,” is just out, and true to form, it takes on an ambitious topic--the impact of television on the human race (Review, Page 80).
Waters, 49, is eager to mount an elaborate staging of the new work but will tour only if the album sells enough to make it a hot ticket. Waiting in a rented Long Island, N.Y., home for the returns to start coming in, the resident of Hampshire, England, spoke by phone about the new album and the principles that underlie his music.
Question: How did “Amused to Death” develop?
Answer: The album title came from a book by Neil Postman, who wrote a short book called “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” which is about the history of the media, particularly as it relates to political communication--i.e., how things have changed since such works as Lincoln’s speeches were made available for the general public to read.
And I had at one point this rather depressing image of some alien creatures seeing the death of this planet and coming down in their spaceships and sniffing around and finding all our skeletons sitting around our TV sets and trying to work out why it was that our end came before its time, and they come to the conclusion that we amused ourselves to death.
Things coalesced slowly as I became more and more interested or obsessed, pick your word, with the inordinately powerful and all-encompassing effect that television seems to have on the human race. . . . My general view is that television when it becomes commercialized and profit-based tends to trivialize and dehumanize our lives.
So I became interested in this idea of television as a two-edged sword, that it can be a great medium for spreading information and understanding between peoples, but when it’s a tool of our slavish adherence to the incumbent philosophy that the free market is the god that we should all bow down to, it’s a very dangerous medium. Because it’s so powerful. . . .
I think the motivation is at the root of its current evil, i.e. it’s because they have to compete in an open marketplace that their standards get reduced so the programming tends to end up as the cheapest possible salable item. . . . I don’t believe that wanting to beat the opposition makes for good programming, but it’s an ideology that is still rigidly adhered to.
Q: This is your first album since 1987. Are you comfortable with that slow pace?
A: The line they give you is, “If you don’t get another record out they’ll all forget you.” (Genesis guitarist) Mike Rutherford was telling me this, not about me but about himself, a couple of years ago when he was furiously working on a solo album that meant he couldn’t go on holiday or something like that.
What’s the problem? Who cares if they forget you? How much money do you need? If you’re locked in the studio and you can’t go on holiday with your family because you have a desperate need to get the feelings out, that I can completely understand. But to go into the studio because you’re worried that people are gonna forget you seems to be nonsense.
Q: What were you trying to do musically on the new album?
A: It’s different than “Radio K.A.O.S.,” but I don’t think it’s different than anything before that. I think on “Radio K.A.O.S.” I got sidetracked slightly by the available technology and the imposed notion that I ought to get a bit more with it.
Q: Who imposed that?
A: Maybe the record business a bit and my own insecurities--you have to remember it was right in the middle of all the Pink Floyd (litigation) and I guess I got a bit insecure about what I was worth and who I was and all that. . . . I let (people) push me down roads that I shouldn’t have gone down really. . . . I was absolutely certain when I started making “Amused to Death” that I would make it in absolutely bone-simple traditional methods with real people playing real instruments.
Q: Don’t you feel a drive to do something different, to avoid repeating yourself?
A: No, I don’t. You know, that’s my style, and it’s a style that took years to develop. I think painters have a particular style and by and large they tend to stick with it, and they explore areas within that general way that they work, and what’s important is to find within that general framework new ways of expressing how they feel about the world and communicating their ideas with other human beings. I think that’s true of music as well.
Q: Where does the new album fit in today? It doesn’t have much that’s fashionable.
A: We’re about to find that out. I hope that good work never goes out of fashion, and it even may be that people are fed up with teen-agers with baseball hats on back to front and rappers talking over other people’s music, and there are a lot of people who will embrace this record and enjoy listening to it, enjoy the fact that there’s something challenging about it.
You know, when I go to the cinema I don’t want to see (expletive) Bruce Willis. I’m fed up with all of that crap. I want to be moved by something. I want to come out of the cinema going, “Jesus Christ!” and be really struck dumb or moved. . . . It’s so dull today. It’s so faddish and formula.
Q: Do you ever feel like doing something simple, like a few love songs?
A: I would never choose to do anything other than what comes naturally. There’s so many thousands and thousands of people out there writing love songs and making records, they don’t need me to start doing it as well.
There aren’t a lot of people doing sound effects, a bit of narrative, a bit of trying to make one song segue into the next, trying to make the whole album have a pace and a shape that’s dramatic so it’s something that you put on and you sit and listen to from beginning to end--all those things that I tend to do when I’m making a record.
People also say, “Why don’t you just do something with an acoustic guitar?” Well, who knows, maybe I will, but it’s a bit like saying to Van Gogh, “Why all these broad brush strokes and bright yellows, purples and stuff? Why don’t you do some small pen-and-ink drawings of cats sitting on chairs?” It would be perfectly reasonable for Van Gogh to say, “Well, don’t be stupid.” You paint what you see. If you can flip styles, you’re no good at it anyway, in my view.
Q: Do you worry about being pretentious, overambitious?
A: Well, it’s a danger. If people want to call me pretentious and overambitious, believe me they won’t be the first and they won’t be the last. But should I go, “Oh Christ, I’d better not record that song, somebody might say it’s pretentious or overambitious”? (Expletive) ‘em.
Maybe my pretensions to grandeur are ill-founded. However, in some way, “Dark Side of the Moon” and “The Wall” were both pretentious and grand in their day, and one of them 20 years later and the other 12 years later, they stand up, they’re good pieces of work. So I can’t worry about that.
Q: What has the commercial drop-off in your solo albums and tours meant to you?
A: I confess, particularly with the “Pros and Cons” tour, it was a big surprise to me. So that was a bit of a learning process. I don’t know. At the time I was kind of disappointed. But I’ve learned now that nobody knows who I am, and that the whole thing was starting again. . . . I expected more people than did to know who I was and what I’d done. But they didn’t. And they still don’t. If “Amused to Death” is a success, a large percentage of the people who buy it will not make the connection between me and that band. And that’s OK. In some ways I’d rather they didn’t.
Q: Do you have any sense of who your audience is?
A: I do, yeah. I do have a sense of who they are. They have no age. They’re people who read the lyrics, and they’re people who are moved by the music. They’re people like me. They’re people who don’t want to see Bruce Willis. They want to see “Rocco and His Brothers” again, or “The Bicycle Thief.” I remember seeing “The Bicycle Thief,” I can’t have been more than 11 or 12 years old, and I remember being moved to tears by that movie.
Q: What is it about those movies that moves you?
A: They’re real stories with real beginnings and middles and ends about people’s real feelings. I need to be involved with the characters, and they can’t be shallow characters for me to enjoy them. I couldn’t be less interested in Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis or that action nonsense because the character is a completely meaningless, cardboard caricature. . . . They have to be real people that things happen to.
Q: What do you see as your legacy?
A: I hope that through my writing there’s a thread of an espousal of the rights of individual human beings. . . . My preoccupations with the ways that we communicate with one another, we human beings, that runs through it. So maybe if it keeps that area of the human debate in the forefront of one arm of rock ‘n’ roll, then it’s fulfilled a useful function.
Q: You sound hopeful and positive about a lot of things.
A: Well we have to be hopeful, don’t we? I don’t see much point in not being hopeful.
Q: Why do people think you’re cynical?
A: It’s not a strange thing. It’s an absolutely typical, standard media thing that you get pigeonholed, and once the picture of you has been drawn, it’s very difficult for it ever to change. I got stuck into the cynical, difficult, dour, bordering-on-the-unpleasant pigeonhole 20 years ago, and here I sit. And what I’m actually like makes very little difference.
Q: Why did you get pigeonholed like that?
A: Twenty years ago I went through long periods when I wouldn’t talk to anybody, and that gets interpreted in very negative ways often. And also I may have been a little hard on people sometimes in the past. I still don’t suffer fools gladly. I’m not a big softy.