Outisde The Wall
A journey through Roger Waters' solo career
Roger Waters had the most prolific and accomplished solo career of any of the members of Pink Floyd. When he left the band, he had a deliberate intention of building a robust body of work to rival that which had come before. He had something to prove. He saw himself as the true creative force behind Pink Floyd, but was subject to the constant meddling of his disputatious fellow band members, was never truly able to do his own thing, and felt a distinct lack of recognition from his bandmates and the world at large. Let’s have a look at what he produced, and how his music evolved over time.
To fully consider Roger’s solo work, we first need to turn back the clock. Way back. The first time we heard what Roger can do all on his own was on the double-album Ummagumma. The first disk was live recordings, but on the second disk, each band member got a half a side to do whatever he wanted. The work that Dave, Rick, and Nick did was all pretty forgettable. But Roger wound up with a couple of gems. There was the hauntingly melodious Grantchester Meadows, a darkly charming acoustic piece whose simple structure belied a deeper complexity. Then there was Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict. It was by far the most experimental piece that this experimental band ever released, and perhaps the most experimental rock & roll song of its generation, if not all time. Composed entirely of bodily sounds subjected to tape recording techniques and heavy editing, capped off by a deeply haunting monologue in a dialect that renders it 90% unintelligible, it is like no song before or since.
These early examples would lead one to believe that Roger was the one with the song writing talent. As the band progressed and more songs were released, however, it was difficult to tease apart the initial concept from the finished product, and there’s no way for any of us to really know how much of a contribution each individual member made. Based on comparing demo tapes with the final studio versions, and taking into account anecdotal assertions from the other band members, I feel it is pretty solid conclusion that Roger had a knack for creating original and inventive material, but that his bandmates made enormous contributions to the final sound. First of all, Dave’s guitar work is his alone, no matter who is credited for having written the song. But additionally, their music was so deeply layered with so many combinations of strange and distinctive sounds, that each and every composition must be considered as a collaboration no matter whose name was listed in the liner notes.
The first hint we get of Roger’s true songwriting aesthetic comes from The Final Cut. Despite the fact that this was released under the name Pink Floyd, and that Dave got writing credit on a track or two, by this time Roger had completely taken over. The other members had given up trying to have any input on the musical compositions whatsoever. For all intents and purposes, Roger was producing this music solo.
The first thing that becomes apparent is that the depth and complexity of the music was radically diminished. What was previously a heavily textured sound achieved by laying track upon track upon track was now starkly minimalistic. Much of the album is so quiet as to barely even count as music at all, and the rest of it was mostly just a handful of instruments playing rather conventionally. But what I find conspicuously absent is any manner of rhythm whatsoever. Most all of the album has a ponderous 4:4 beat that serves little more purpose than to synchronize the instruments together. There is no variation, no up-tempo, no syncopation, and no pep. It’s just 1……….. 2………..3………..4……….. The only song that has any movement to it is Not Now John, and it’s no coincidence that this is the one song that Dave actually did contribute to. Looking at The Final Cut as a complete work, and considering it as an example of Roger’s abilities, one could easily conclude that his musical style was one of slow, stark, minimalistic sounds.
In terms of Roger’s lyrical style, we see continuity in his anti-war themes and general bitterness toward societal power structures, but by the same token there is a distinct transition from subtle poetic inference to explicitly overt statements. Whereas in The Wall he would describe teachers as having “dark sarcasm in the classroom” and describing their deleterious influence as being “bricks in the wall,” by The Final Cut he was outwardly calling world leaders “overgrown infants” and asking “did they expect us to treat him with any respect.” The subtlety was gone. Things were no longer masked. Concepts were explicit.
The first album that Roger truly composed and produced as a solo performer was The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking. Overall the whole album felt lighter, as if the weight of the collaboration was lifted, and the freedom of unfettered expression allowed him to soar wherever he wished. Gone was the anti-war, anti-power, judgey societal commentary. It was replaced by a lilting if meandering journey through the winding flow of a fractured dream state. It was light on poetry in terms of symbolic commentary, but still entertaining in its fluidity and painterly style.
Musically speaking, its minimalist approach was commensurate with The Final Cut, and there are many passages so quiet you need to make sure the song is still playing. It is still short on melody. There is one distinct musical phrase that provides a continuity across the piece, and Roger plays with variations of it, but overall this music isn’t the kind where you find yourself singing the songs in your head. There are two exceptions. One is the title track The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking, which really gets you out of your seat and moving. It’s a delightful song with pep and vigor, and a wry return to Roger’s knack for biting commentary in his lyrics. The other is the track that immediately follows, a soaring sonic meditation called Every Stranger’s Eyes. While it’s not exactly peppy, its rhythm matches the emotional arc of the expressive piece, and builds to a stirring intensity. It is perhaps the most self-reflective of Roger’s work, really putting a mirror up to his artisthood, and revealing how he approaches his lyrical craft.
I consider The Pross & Cons of Hitchhiking to be a transitional album for Roger. He finally had the freedom to strike out on his own, but he was still unburdening himself from the baggage of his previous work. It stands alone as solid work, but doesn’t match up to his other accomplishments.
The next step on the journey takes us to Radio KAOS, a more narrative-oriented tale of a disabled kid who can send and receive radio signals through his wheelchair. This album was not well received critically, nor embraced by even die-hard Roger fans, and even criticized by Roger himself. It was perhaps a questionable concept to embark upon in the first place, quirky and unique but short on depth and underlying theme. But the final product was compromised by the fact that Roger learned Dave and Nick intended to release another album under the name Pink Floyd, and Roger rushed to complete Radio KAOS so that it would be released at the same time. I’m not sure what Roger intended to accomplish with that, but it was what he did. A couple tracks got cut, exacerbating the already confusing story line.
Musically speaking, it was a definitely a departure for him stylistically. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but most would say in this case it was a move in the wrong direction. It was his voice, but it just didn’t sound like his music. Roger’s own self-criticism came from his frustration with the digital recording and mixing process. He was out of his element, and it affected his attitudes towards his own work. He specifically called out the sequencers and drum machines that were used to create the back beats. He felt that it was mechanical and rote. He likened it to the repetitive, synthetic rhythms that rap performers used as a backdrop to their spoken rhymes.
Personally, I don’t think the album is as bad as everyone else says. Yes, the concept is a little nutty, and yes, it’s disjoint and difficult to follow, and yes the music is a little plastic. But the bottom line is that I enjoy listening to it. The track Sunset Strip in particular really gets my foot tapping and makes me want to sing along.
But I think there is one huge point that everyone is missing when it comes to Radio KAOS. It was the work that finally taught Roger a sense of rhythm. He may have hated playing with those drum machines, and the result may have sounded a little like bubblegum pop, but he finally broke out of that arid 4:4 beat. Rhythm isn’t just the click that everyone plays along to. It acts as the foundation of the song, and its variations form the very structure of the composition. The rhythm is the building block that the entire rest of the song is built upon. Changing his approach to rhythm changed Roger’s approach to song writing. This album was a turning point that no one seems to recognize.
Roger’s next follow-up was an epic opus called Amused to Death. Thematically it was deep and sprawling. It was inspired as a commentary on the first Gulf War, and how the 24 hour news cycle treated it as entertainment. The whole anti-war theme was old territory for Roger, but by coming at it from a mass media angle, he was able to put a new spin on it. And it opened up many avenues for poetic expression. He employed symbolic icons and imagery to represent concepts and behaviors. He was somewhat explicit in songs like The Bravery of Being Out of Range, but he also worked conceptually, using phrases like “What God wants, God gets” to represent the way in which societies as a whole invariably morph and evolve beyond the direction or even conception of individuals, collectively moving in ways and achieving ends that no one could predict or control. With this album, Roger had something to say, a lot to say, and he said it very well.
Along with a return to past glory for the lyrical composition, the music was also greatly improved. Roger abandoned the digital tools and went back to good old analog instrumentation and recording techniques. He was back in his element, and it showed in his confidence and comfort with the material he was producing. And after having discovered rhythm in Radio KAOS, he came at the musical composition with an entirely new set of skills. Where his music had previously been minimalistic and stark, it was now deeply textured and fully realized. It wasn’t layered in the same way that Pink Floyd songs were, but it was still multi-dimensional in the depth of instrumentation. It had a quality that I couldn’t ascribe to any of his other solo work. It was sophisticated.
With Amused to Death, Roger created another masterpiece. It had breadth. It had depth. It made a statement, and it made it eloquently. It made you think. And most of all, it was good to listen to. It moved. It got your attention and kept it. It was strong all the way through from beginning to end.
One would think that this would be the beginning of a new and highly successful phase in Roger’s career, but for whatever reason, he never really followed it up. He took a lot of time off. He wrote a ballet. He did some touring. And then many, many years later he released Is This The Life We Really Want. I’ll let you know what I think of that if I can ever get through it. I tried to listen to it on Spotify, but I lost interest very quickly. He said in an interview with Marc Maron that it’s only now he feels like he’s gotten good a song writing, but my impression is that he’s relapsed back to his minimalist style, and frankly it doesn’t interest me.
Roger’s solo career was just that: a career unto itself. Other members of Pink Floyd did release solo albums, but they never really made a career out of it. Roger took us on a journey. Love it or hate it, Roger created works that will live forever in the annals of musical history.