ROGER WATERS, "The Wall : Live", London Wembley Stadium, 14 September 2013.
LET THEM EAT WAR.
We stand on the edge of a form of history. Today history will be made. Tomorrow it will be a memory, and only the recordings remain. Here and now, as Roger Waters turned 70 last week, around 55,000 people come to Wembley to see “The Wall” in its final week of existence. Now in it's third year of its third live incarnation (it started in September 2010 in Canada), “The Wall” has seen one of the biggest selling albums of all time played live around 220 times in around 50 countries. But at 70, one has to ask : how many more times? There are three more shows after this (Manchester, Dublin, Paris), after which “The Wall” will be torn down for the final time, packed away in crates, awaiting the inevitable and future official reproduction of the show with new musicians in decades to come. This is probably the last time to see it performed by its original creator, and one of the last times then, in all probability, Roger Waters may be seen in the flesh so to speak.
“It was the greatest show on Earth – and then it was over.”
Is this the end? It feels some kind of final. More so than the “Dark Side Of The Moon” tour of 2006-2008, the only place Waters could realistically go after that was up “The Wall”. And here we are. In a stage as big as the planet and a sound as precise and clear as a summers day.
At 8.10 on the last weekend of the summer, Waters and his band quietly take the stage and perform a two hour rock opera. What a dreadful ugly word that is. Unlike so many 'concept' albums, “The Wall” is surprisingly good and (mostly) free of self-indulgent misery and meaningless wiffle. What is immediately apparent is that unlike the record, the concert setting is a significant challenge for the crowd : the crowd is one of the least responsive I have ever seen, standing stock still like chopped meat and liver. Sausages into the grinder. And whilst you may not be able to smell it on the page, someone has some fine weed in the crowd. “The Wall” isn't a gig, but a show, an experience you should simply sit and watch and absorb and feel. Perhaps everyone here is numbed into some kind of intellectual, open-mouthed gaze into the void.
As a spectacle, “The Wall” is brave, stupid, outlandish, chillingly effective, and utterly preposterous. As Waters and his huge eleven piece band recreate the album faithfully with only three minor exceptions : “Another Brick In The Wall” has two extra verses : his band perform “What Shall We Do Now?” which was excised from the original studio record due to the limitations of a vinyl LP : and “The Last Few Bricks” - a instrumental reprise of the main motifs of the show that was prepared for the original 1980-1981 live shows – is added. Aside from these minor elements, it is an utterly accurate reproduction of the original, and often self-indulgent, 1979 record. You can easily see where the £38,000,000 went ; it's all there on stage.
It's worth remembering that for several months after the release of the record, the only way to experience was with your ears. The imagery that is now seared into public conscious ; the flowers that devour each other ; the teacher on strings ; the marching hammers ; were only ever known as small paintings on a gatefold LP sleeve. Here, much like one would experience seeing the Mona Lisa, The Vatican, or the Grand Canyon, it is here, before your eyes, the way it was meant to be experienced, as a hundred foot high wall that stretches as far as eye can see inside an anonymous stadium. Here it works. Here, it all makes perfect sense.
Even his band contains long standing members of past Pink Floyd lineups : Snowy White, who joined the band as live guitarist in 1976, and Jon Carin, who joined Floyd in 1987, are part of the experience. Certainly it feels as near to Pink Floyd as you can reasonably get these days, an authentic and realistic facsimile. It feels near enough the same, even if July 2005 is a very long time ago now. The imagery is designed now to be both classic and contemporary – the interpolation of now and then, of huge, blown up old 8mm film matched with modern imagery of political figures, of imagery of war, and making the unsubtle point : War is a business, humans are machines, we are all flawed and human, and the off-balance-sheet cost of rampant commercial activity is human misery.
But what is “The Wall”? Is it art for people who don't like art? The huge presentation is utterly unlike anything else on the planet : the stadium wrapped in an enormous Wall that is slowly constructed around the stage during the show, aided by 200 or so foot of projected video, a life size Ju-87 Stuka bomber that strafes the stage, and huge marionettes of key figures in the songs narratives (such as the cliched Teacher, the oppressive Mother, the harridan Wife, the symbolic Pig) that impose themselves, 40 foot tall over the audience.”The Wall” is a kind of sensory overload, where there is almost too much happening at any one time to capture and process all of it. At any given point there might be multiple seperate projections, a band playing, a huge inflatable looming over the crowd, and a wall being built. At times, it is fiercely effective on an emotional level : the huge montage of tearful reunions of children and their fathers returning from home from war is heart-rending, and then, followed with the rampaging “Bring The Boys Back Home” screams with no subtlelty that a child without a father is a price not worth paying. That after all this, and so many years, so many wars – and it seems that aside from 2000, the UK has been in a state of constant war with another country for thirty years – that mankind still hasn't managed to conquer the art of peace and always striven instead for war and destruction, of taking from the mouths of the hungry and feeding them dynamite, bullets, and explosions. Let them eat war.
At key moments, the use of war footage, old and new, interpolated with dialogue and visuals, exist to raise in us a certain degree of realisation : that combat is entertainment and distraction, that the endless cycle of invented bogeymen and war is designed to divert our energies away from the true enemies that keep us in financial and spiritual bondage, and that we are all poured into lives and destines so much smaller than our potential.
As an album, “The Wall” has always left me deeply conflicted, mired in self-indulgent self-pity about the personal isolation of a rich rock star, and coupled with a whole bunch of Side-Three misery about abandonment from absent / murdered parents. On BBC's “HardTalk” Waters explained that the record was about, specifically, the rule of law – but more than that, it seems to me to be about identity, the construction of control, and free will, about how we are born free and live in a set of chains disguised as agency. And then, of course, for a moment, we are all lost individually in self-reflection as Dave Kilminster expertly executes the solo in the near perfect embers of “Comfortably Numb.”
Sadly, for hopes dashed, there is no sign of the former Floyd David Gilmour, who has guested with Waters previously. At least one person had flown from Australia to witness this event, and what they hoped for did not happen. Nonetheless, “The Wall” is still right : even if it doesn't sound right with someone else singing those words. Waters pounds on the walls as a solo escalates and reaches the heavens, and the wall explodes with colour. Waters meanwhile pantomimes his way through visuals with a sort of half-theatrical mime act. Later, when dressed some kind of musical dictatorial demagouge, Waters stands stock still throughout huge chunks of the show, before mock machine-gunning most of the crowd with a battery powered automatic machine gun. All it needs is a dead sheep in the courtyard of the Hammersmith Odeon. As a huge pig hovers overhead, and Waters lives out his rock star fantasies, I suppose, this must be what it is like to have seen Hitler, with showmanship and flags, and a huge crowd. Orchestrated, immaculately timed and choreographed, and with lots of pre-recorded video that Waters mimes to (so it looks live, even when it isn't), it's some kind of combination of rock show and abstract theatre, tightly packed with imagery that is dense and literate (you are never far from a historical quote, news footage, or an image of a dictator), and darkly funny.
After that, it's “Run Like Hell”, which is probably the only time I will see anyone from Pink Floyd perform the song that brought them to my attention over a quarter century ago. And then, it's the end : “Waiting For The Worms”, which is a sensory overload in a crescendo of demented ranting, bonkers visuals, half-baked parody nationalism : there's something deeply uncomfortable about seeing a stadium of people exposed to imagery of marching hammers as a singer rants about “seeing our coloured cousins sent home”, as this countries moronic government tweets pictures of pre-judged illegal immigrants being deported and sends vans around the country bearing nationalistic, borderline racist messages into ghettos and stop-and-searches millions on the grounds of whatever the fuck they feel like. This is not the Britain of which I am proud. After which, it is “The Trial”, where Waters larks about in all manner of false accents, and impersonates demented judges, fucked up schoolmasters,and so forth in an abstract, half-cohesive poem that defines the whole thing as the product of a mixture of repression, defence, and conditioning : after all, if you treat a man as if he were an animals, he becomes one.
It is this clinging to some kind of notion of identity and dignity, in the face of an unfeeling world of casual insults and diminished sense, a constant battle to reduce a man to an animal – an economic unit of production and consumption is all that we are - that he must defend himself against, that defines us : the battle against the unfeeling world to maintain some degree of kindness.
It is here, finally, I get “The Wall”, I grasp the eternal themes within it, understand the full range of the enormous, egocentric vision Waters had, and applaud the sheer, brazen approach of it ; often semi-sixth-form poetry, but also – and let us never forget this – that everyone was 17 or 18 once, that all of us felt the world bluntly, and sometimes you have to remember who you are is a product of where you come from, and sometimes being an adult is merely the art of forgetting what matters and obscuring it with the mundane.
As The Wall crumbles, the sound explodes around us, and without really thinking, I suppose, this is an event, a moment to think and to feel, and then, perhaps to realise that the spectacle itself is an entertaiment, be it a tortured artist, a bleeding heart, or a war : for war is entertainment too, and we are amused to death. And then, that is that : the greatest show on Earth, and it is over – as Waters takes his bows at the end and disappears, possibly leaving the London stage for the last time : 80 years with luck, or even less.
In the Flesh?
The Thin Ice
Another Brick in the Wall Part 1
The Happiest Days of Our Lives
Another Brick in the Wall Part 2
The Ballad of Jean Charles de Menezes
("Another Brick in the Wall Part 2 Reprise")
Goodbye Blue Sky
What Shall We Do Now?
One of My Turns
Don't Leave Me Now
Another Brick in the Wall Part 3
The Last Few Bricks
Goodbye Cruel World
Is There Anybody Out There?
Bring the Boys Back Home
The Show Must Go On
In the Flesh
Run Like Hell
Waiting for the Worms
Outside the Wall
“The memories of a man in his old age, are the deeds of a man in his prime.”