Monday, September 23, 2013

Anger management: Roger Waters - The Wall at Stade de France

© Simon Poulter 2013
To see the English at their most English, after you've read this post, of course, slide on over to YouTube for a priceless excerpt of Anglo-Saxon awkwardness, featuring Roger Waters and his onetime Pink Floyd cohort David Gilmour.

In a 110-second clip from 2006, you will see these once bitterest of bandmates meeting in the car park of Bray Film Studios where, by pure coincidence, Gilmour was rehearsing for his On An Island tour in Studio 1, and Waters was rehearsing for his tour in Studio 2.

Given the years of post-Floyd animosity between them, the meeting is understandably edgy. Rarely raising their eyes from the car park's ashphalt, they appear to engage in small talk about this and that. Waters kisses Gilmour's wife, the writer Polly Samson, Gilmour and Waters awkwardly hug, and they return to their respective sound-stages.

The lack of eye contact adds depth to a history of repressed rage, buried recrimination and still-simmering resentment. "Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way," you could say. Thankfully, the detergent powers of therapy have helped thaw the relationship between the two.

The Wall, the Pink Floyd album Waters largely devised and wrote amid crumbling relationships with the rest of the band (Gilmour in particular, as the two vied for creative control), was an outlet for his rage. Rage against the fame that had increasingly encroached on him in the wake of Dark Side Of The Moon's global success; rage against the injustice of having lost his father, Eric Fletcher Waters, to the brutality of World War Two when Roger was still a baby; and rage against totalitarianism, capitalism, communism, fundamentalism, fanaticism, consumerism - any 'ism you like.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Waters turned 70 earlier this month. And he's still angry. Like an ageing activist at Speaker's Corner, he continues to rail against a long list of the world's issues and, for the last three years has used a truly epic restaging of The Wall live show as a platform to make his point(s).

Of course, with the Floyd going their separate ways, reuniting only for a terse performance at Live 8 in 2005, the patrons who filled the Stade de France in Paris on Saturday night may have been there expecting a Pink Floyd show more than a 'solo' performance by one disproportionate quadrant of the band. Whatever they were there for, they got their money's worth. And then some.

Some will say The Wall was overblown, overwrought, self-indulgent rock bombast. And from some angles, it was. But others will say - quite rightly - that it was a double album on a totally different scale of narrative ambition to anything then - and certainly anything since.

Released on the cusp of the 1980s, The Wall's epic, theatrical expanse appeared, thematically, to mark the end of the rock era, an era that had seen similar concept projects, be it Sgt. Pepper or the The Who's Tommy, which explored a similar thesis.

In 1980 the Floyd took The Wall on the road as an elaborate arena stage show for 29 dates. Part rock concert, part rock opera, part theatrical outlet for the neuroses Waters had written about, it opened with a 'fake' Pink Floyd wearing face masks of the real band, featured a giant wall across stage with the real Floyd initially performing behind it, and made liberal use of Gerald Scarfe's clearly Nazi-inspired animations of marching hammers.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Updated with the latest staging technology, including an enormous wall spanning the entire stadium width and high definition projection, the updated Wall show is a breathtaking spectacle.

Given the number of acts now touring classic albums as tidy pension contributions, it would be easy to accuse Waters of also plundering the pot. But that would be a great disservice to this who. And, as he explained in 2010 when announcing the three-year tour, there was another motive for restaging The Wall show now: "30 years ago when I wrote The Wall I was a frightened young man," Waters explained on his website.

"In the intervening years," he added, "it has occurred to me that maybe the story of my fear and loss with it’s concomitant inevitable residue of ridicule, shame and punishment, provides an allegory for broader concerns: nationalism, racism, sexism, religion, whatever! All these issues and 'isms are driven by the same fears that drove my young life".

© Simon Poulter 2013
"This new production of The Wall is an attempt to draw some comparisons, to illuminate our current predicament, and is dedicated to all the innocent lost in the intervening years," Waters explained.

Thus, in this reimagining of The Wall stage show, he tackles the war on terror and war in general. From the very beginning, with its pyrotechnics punctuating In The Flesh? and a miniature Stuka flying the length of the stadium before crashing in flames, Waters remains without compromise.

Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2 - being the album's fifth track - provides an early highlight to the evening, and its first singalong moment. On the album it was a breezy, faux-disco 4/4 novelty. Released as a single in November 1979, it became the final No.1 of the 1970s in 17 countries, a Christmas No.1 taking a swipe at Thatcher's Britain and school brutality, with a chorus of London schoolchildren declaring "we don't need no educayshun"!

Here, it is updated with a newly-written coda: an animated London Underground train arrives on the wall, muzzle flashes are seen, pistol shots are heard, and Waters launches into The Ballad of Jean Charles de Menezes, about the Brazilian mistakenly killed by police at Stockwell tube station in the aftermath of the July 2005 terror attacks. It ends with Waters enunciating the caustic final lines: "Just one man dead and nothing is gained, nothing at all. And Jean Charles de Menezes remains just another brick in the wall". On the day of the Nairobi atrocity, it adds a moment of poignant reflection.

Picture courtesy of Guino Patrice
Waters' attempts to raise the mood a little by introducing Mother, playing acoustic guitar and ambitiously syncing his vocal to footage of him performing the song at Earls Court in 1980 (the "fucked up Roger", he declares, self-depreciatingly).

Coming halfway through the show's first half, Mother starts to unlock The Wall's undercurrent menace, a gentle foothill to the onslaught to come as it tells the story of the fatherless Pink character as mollycoddled recipient of an overbearing mother trying to keep "baby cosy and warm", building a protective wall around him and sealing in his alienation.

Bluesy, even gospel-infused, Mother is another early peak in the show, coming before The Wall crawls further to the dark side with Goodbye, Blue Sky. Controversially, Waters uses the impressive HD projection system to full the stage wall with an animated collage of B-52s drop bombs of corporate logos, swastikas, hammer and sickles, the Star of David and other icons of those 'isms' he gets worked up about.

At the interval - The Wall was a four-sided vinyl album after all - images of people who've lost their lives to war are projected on the wall, another reminder of what inspired the record to begin with. Waters' father was a schoolteacher, Labour Party activist, devout Christian who, at the outbreak of World War 2, was a conscientious objector. As the war dragged on, he changed position and joined up, becoming an officer in the Fusiliers. In the battle for Anzio in 1944, Eric Waters was killed. His son Roger was only a few months old. His death would resonate for the rest of Roger Waters' life and career, drawing on his father's beliefs, fuelled by his father's slaughter.

Picture courtesy of Guino Patrice

Opening with another Floyd classic, Hey You - an anthem of bricked-in repression - the band are hidden completely behind the wall. Only the continuing stage lighting gives away the fact someone's back there, and that Waters and his sizeable ensemble are still in the dressing room quaffing eau gazeuse and cheesy nibbles.

© Simon Poulter 2013

The Wall's profound theatrically is exploited to the full during the second half, as it makes sinister progress through the story with Nobody Home, the nostalgic Vera and the choral Bring The Boys Back Home, before piling in to the opening power chord of Comfortably Numb. a song that has taken on the mantle of Pink Floyd's opus, a highlight of both Waters and Gilmour solo shows, and even part of the Scissor Sisters' camp schtick.

On the album Comfortably Numb was a cut-and-shunt of a song by Waters and another by Gilmour (the former providing the manic vocals of the verses, Gilmour adding his gentler voice and 12-string guitar to the countering chorus). Compromising entente it may have been, but it produced one of rock's greatest epics - and greatest guitar solos.

Performed with longtime Waters sideman Snowy White recreating Gilmour's original fretwork with such vigorous attack you'd hardly believe he'd been playing it night after night for three years, it provides a solid reminder of just how well written The Wall was. For a concept album, producing even one hit single was an anomaly. Producing so many outstanding contributions to the Floyd legacy was an even bigger achievement.

Picture courtesy of Guino Patrice
Of course, the second half of The Wall is also well known for the emergence of the Pink character as a fascist nutjob. Waters, sporting de rigeur dictator Aviators, leather greatcoat and the marching hammers armband drawing obvious visual reference to the Nuremberg rally of 1938, struts about declaring The Show Must Go On.

As his fascist ranting in In The Flesh (never to be confused with the opening track, In The Flesh?....) gets underway, a giant inflatable pig is released into the crowd. It's a moment that causes thousands of smartphones, which had previously been trained on the stage to such effect that the Stade de France floor looked like a twinkling carpet of LCD screens, point upwards, catching sight of a gimmick that has been causing quite a stir. Especially in Israel.

For alongside a crucifix, the dollar sign, a hammer and sickle and other graphics, is the Star Of David. Waters has, as a result, been accused of being anti-Semitic, a stance not helped by his previous criticism of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians, nor by his clear commentary on the war on terror in the Muslim world. Waters has defended the pig as "satire", but has added that it would be wrong "to pretend these problems in the Middle East don't exist".

For, I suspect, much of the audience, it's a moment of light relief. The political symbolism is lost in a Saturday night stadium party. And, as the inflatable pig is gradually lowered into the crowd, where it appears to undergo some form of inflatable porcinecide, Waters continues to strut about, the jangly familiarity of Run Like Hell building the backdrop of autocratic mayhem as he screams "If they catch you in the back seat trying to pick her locks/They're gonna send you back to Mother in a cardboard box - you'd better run!".

The Trial, with its orchestral backing, was, on the album, something between a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and Lionel Bart show tune. Live, Waters retains this camp theatricality and embellishes it with more of cartoonist Gerald Scarfe's vivid imagery, as used by Alan Parker in his so-so film adaptation of The Wall.

Waters is now in his element, seemingly effortlessly pushing his 70-year-old voice to deliver the show's most demanding number, one that takes you even further away from your notion of being at a rock concert, as it builds to a crescendo and the collapse of the wall.

Few rock shows, few rock albums for that matter, have or ever will end this way. Traditional rock concerts end with a finale, an encore of hits (plus the annoying unknown new one). But this is no rock concert. It ends with Outside The Wall, Waters playing a lament on his trumpet, the accompanying band assembling around him with rustic instrumentation - mandolins, acoustic guitars, accordion and vocal harmonies to - as they bring this epic to an end.

For all the rage, for all the anger, Waters declares that this is probably the last time he will ever stage The Wall. He's got another solo album to finish and then...and then we'll see. He's the last member of rock's great circus I'd ever give over to sentimentalism, but there are tears on his cheek and a crack in his throat as he brings the invisible curtain down on his three-year adventure.

"And when they've given you their all," that final song had chimed, "Some stagger and fall, after all it's  not easy - banging your heart against some mad bugger's wall." Indeed.

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