When Good Albums Happen to Bad People: Roger Waters, “Amused to Death”

You probably won’t be surprised when I tell you that this has been the hardest post for me to write since Popdose started. I mean, it’s been a damn month: what’s the holdup? Well, the truth is I discovered it is a lot easier to write about straight-up criminals like the members of Mötley Crüe, or hardcore divas like Diana Ross, than smug, pretentious assholes like today’s subject, Roger Waters. Simply put, it’s rather entertaining to write about individuals in the former categories. To write about Waters, however, is as trying a task as actually listening to his solo work in an attempt to find if any of them are worth talking about in this column. But I was able to find a good one, or a “good” one, depending on one’s ability to stomach conceptual prog joints. First though, a refresher on Herr Waters’ crimes of pomposity.

-Waters became the default main writer in Pink Floyd after Syd Barrett’s descent into mental illness, apparently exacerbated by a horrible LSD experience. And while Waters often spoke about how he wished to find and kill the man who gave Syd bad acid, this level of care did not apply to the addictions of other members of the band. Waters made the unilateral decision to fire founding Floyd member and keyboardist Richard Wright during sessions for The Wall, when he deemed Wright’s addictions too much of a distraction. Then, as an added slap in the face, he hired Wright back as a session musician to complete the album and go on the abbreviated Wall tour. In other words, Wright was not messed up enough that his talents couldn’t be used, but was messed up just enough that Waters wished to symbolically disassociate himself from him. Charming.

-More than just the main lyricist, Waters made himself de facto leader of the Floyd, taking complete creative control of the direction of the group. This culminated in refusing to put any Gilmour’s songs in 1983’s The Final Cut, then leaving the group after its release and declaring them over, with that album as their final, definitive statement, as if the rest of Pink Floyd really wanted to have their last album be a de facto Waters solo album: The record jacket even said “The Final Cut by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd.” Waters then sued the other members of Pink Floyd to stop them from carrying on under that name after he left the group. His defense was that Pink Floyd should not be allowed to continue because he was the creative leader of the band, and additionally there remained only one original member (Nick Mason) who wanted to carry on. In other words, though Gilmour had been the musical centerpiece of the group for two decades, he was still nothing more to Waters than a hired hand to replace Syd Barrett, so f-all what he wanted.

-Perhaps the most irritating thing about Waters, at least as a musician, is that he guided the band over time to an express purpose, and in his mind, logical conclusion, which was….to whine about how unfortunate he was that his father died before he was born. He genuinely acts as if no one else in the history of the world had even grown up without a father, lost a family member in war, or would be shocked to hear that war in not simply a positive experience. As an added note, perhaps it is a bit ironic that his father’s death, and the war which Waters constantly writes about, is World War II, one of the few modern wars that could be said to be morally just. But no matter: Hitler, Third Reich, fascism, etc., etc. All that has been reduced ad absurdum (though with epic rock instrumentation) to how it’s all really shit because one kid got emotionally stunted by his mother because he had no proper father figure.

Ironically, all of this “Woe is me/daddy where are you/living my life is like being persecuted in East Germany” obsession lacks one seemingly important thing: emotion. His entire body of work (at least from The Wall onward) is supposed to be immensely personal, but is constructed in a very cold, impersonal way: splices of interviews, phone calls and TV programs are mixed with lyrics heavily imbibed with metaphoric commentaries–all substituting for anything that would really make the listener feel sympathy or empathy for their creator. Waters is too caught up in his own martyr complex to realize how distant from his subject, and thus full of shit, he sounds. Robert Christgau, whose own pomposity might make him the Roger Waters of rock criticism, actually wrote something I agree with when he said that Wish You Were Here was Waters’ best work, because it had “soul.” In other words, you could believe that he cared about what he was writing. And it’s true: while Waters has spent a great deal of his songwriting since WWYH trying to connect big statements to his personal history, his songs about Syd Barrett pack much more punch, because you actually get the sense in what is written and how it is played that the subject matter — the man — is important to him. Yes, yes, I know, Waters has put up his own “wall,” like in the album of the same name, and that effects both art and action. But remember: that wall fell. Water’s self-serving wall continues to stay up, and it has affected his writing, his relationships with people, and his very tolerability as a human being.

These same problems arise in even the best of his post-Floyd work. But for all of the pomposity, ham-fisted philosophizing, and songs needlessly listed in multiple parts, Waters’ Amused to Death is still a pretty good album. On one track, in fact, Waters shows an actual sense of humor for once in his life: during part of “The Bravery of Bring Out of Range” (download), sportscaster Marv Albert is brought in to narrate a sea battle like it was a Knicks game. And, whatever the political (or perhaps just lyrical) incorrectness of talking about a Chinese lover’s “almond eyes” and “yellow thighs,” “Watching TV” (download) is a lovely song, featuring nice, uncredited harmonies from Don Henley. One sad fact though, is that perhaps the best performer on the album isn’t Waters, but featured lead guitarist Jeff Beck. Beck’s crisp and bluesy guitar playing throughout the album helps elevate the majority of the songs above the turgidity that at times threatens to sink much of Waters work. In doing so, Beck actually exposes an additional irony of how integral the guitar sound (and thus Gilmour) was in Pink Floyd, something that Waters seemingly never got through his thick freaking skull.

Well, that’s all I can stomach saying about the man. Join me next time (and hopefully next week), when I talk about a version of Waters from this side of the pond, someone that will make you say: “Are you sure he’s Canadian?”




  • http://www.danray.net Dan

    Yeah. Completely. And this is his BEST solo album. God help you if you'd been roped into reviewing Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking.

    The flip side of all this is that the post-Waters, largely Gilmour-penned Floyd albums have soul like crazy but none of the sneering tautness and cold brutal wit of Waters' compositions. It really was a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

  • http://www.popdose.com Zack

    Wow. Love this post. Splendid writing, Matt.

  • Malchus

    Well, I think Waters does know how integral Gilmour's playing was to Floyd, that's why he hired Clapton to play and tour for “Pros and Cons” and had Beck on this album.

  • David_E

    “Pros and Cons” was such a turgid, humorless affair … if he didn't put some ass on the cover, it never would have sold.

    At the time, I thought “Radio K.A.O.S.” was pretty solid. Now I just hear “The Final Cut” slathered in '80s pop (though I'd argue that “Sunset Strip” is pretty great, lyrics aside.)

    I love “It's A Miracle” and “Three Wishes” from “Amused,” but crap, here's ten dollars – buy an editor.

  • outsidecounsel

    Why are you harshing on The Dean? Seriously, I can't think of too many rock critics who are less pretentious than Christgau, who writes quip-filled capsules that have as their essential premise that consumer resources are limited and should therefore be disbursed based on quality, not hype.

    Add to that, he is usually correct in his assessments. Case in point, his ranking of the Pink Floyd oeuvre. Seriously, isn't that spot on?

    Over the years that I've been reading Christgau I've found that when I disagree with his ratings it has been because (a) I have had an affection for the work of a particular artist which turned out to be disproportionate to the actual merit of the work, or (b) my taste hasn't caught up. Sometimes he favors exotica that I find “meh”, but he also listens to a lot more music than I do, or could. As a rule he is reliable, and fun to read, and that is what we should all strive to be as critics.

  • http://www.popdose.com Zack

    Whenever someone refers to someone as “The Dean” I reflexively think of David Broder, and then get angry.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    He's a poopy-pants. A fatty boombatty poopy-pants.

    I had to do it. I apologize, but Christgau often has a view of himself and his opinions that seemingly tries to cut the “gau” from his name. It's one thing to say you have an opinion of something and then cite your reasons. It's another to say, “Here are my reasons and they're indisputable because I said them.” Clearly, this is a flaw many critics have. Hell. My first cassette may have been Scorpions' “Blackout” for Christgau's sake. I have no room to complain.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    I think of Animal House. Wouldn't a mouthful of mashed potatoes be right fine about now?

  • http://popdose.com MatthewBolin

    I would argue the opposite: that he found Gilmour, Clapton, and Beck as well-skilled but interchangeable instrumentalists, but never could fully acknowledge the creative contributions and diversity that his band-mates brought to the material. Waters probably blames the failure of his solo stuff on the lack of a recognizable band name. But if so, he continues to miss the points that (a) he wasn't the only great creative force in the group post-Syd, and (2) without other band-members to edit his work, he's mostly put out some pretty awful stuff.

  • hagen

    Wow.

    Okay, so Waters has a hangup about his father dying in World War II (not the most moral war: I seem to remember something about Hitler killing an awful lot of Jewish people in horrible ways). But to call Waters a bad person because he didn't want to put up with Richard Wright anymore and because he didn't consider Pink Floyd to be an entity after he left? Horseshit.

    Roger Waters was the principle lyricist for Pink Floyd, which was painfully obvious when Gilmour and cohorts released that twaddle after The Final Cut (two snoozefests and two live snoozefests… and they made it seem so effortless). And as said principle lyricist, what he wrote was what we were all singing back then (and still now): 'We don't need no education,' 'Money, it's a gas, grab that cash with both hands and make a stash,' 'Did we tell you the name of the game, boy, we call it Riding the Gravy Train,' and so on. Well, I was singing it. And lots of others, so that makes it right. Admittedly, Pros and Cons was a little weird (although it was Clapton's last gleaming on guitar before he became a boring VH1 founder), but it is still a lot more listenable than Momentary Lapse of Reason… unless you're going for that stoner coma. Waters' permanent paternal mourning is his bag, and it sold a lot of records and made a lot of fans, and we weren't listening to his lyrics thinking he'd make a great drinking buddy.

    Roger Waters is one of those rock stars of the second estate, and nobility always does weird stuff. I hear Bryan Ferry is a madman in Europe these days. I really don't care; I'll continue listening to Avalon and Manifesto and Mamouna and Dylanesque, just as surely as I'll continue listening to Amused to Death, Pros and Cons, and even Radio KAOS. And even though I'll put on Gilmour's two official solo albums at the drop of a hat, if I never hear Fictitious Sports, Wet Dream, or Broken Boring China again, the resulting butterfly effect will make your day all that much better. I don't see Waters as a bad person, just someone whose opinions get a lot more press than the prick next door's. Besides, I didn't see you at the most recent 'Waters is Bad' meeting (I was outside, picketing and taking names for the rapture).

    Sheeeit. Defending Roger Waters on Popdose… what's next, calling Robert Christgau a toefucker?

  • http://www.popdose.com Zack

    What's a toefucker? Even urbandictionary is no help on that one.

  • http://joncwriter.livejournal.com Jonc

    So basically what you're saying is Roger Waters is like a pissed-off Art Alexakis, right? [/snark]

  • http://popdose.com MatthewBolin

    WTF?! Well, you seem to have misread my post. I said WWII was moral BECAUSE the Allies were trying to defeat Hitler. THAT was the moral act. How did you interpret it otherwise, or think that I was interpreting it otherwise?

  • hagen

    '… the war which Waters constantly writes about, is World War II, one of the few modern wars that could be said to be morally just.'

    Mmm… depends on which side of the Axis you're reading it from, I suppose. If you want to get into the morality of war, you might want to leave Roger Waters out of it… I hear he lost a family member during WWII.

  • http://popdose.com MatthewBolin

    Let's not argue semantics here, okay? I thought my point (that WWII was morally just on the Allies part because Hitler needed to be stopped) was clear. Obviously you didn't. Stunned I tried to clarify, and instead, because you don't like that I wrote something about the personal failings of an artist you like, you make a smart ass remark “I hear he lost a family member.”

    You want a pissing match? Fine. I should leave Roger Waters out of it because he lost a family member during WWII? I never got to meet the majority of my mother's side of my family because they were gassed to death in concentration camps. As a Jew, there's no moral ambiguity about it: it doesn't depend on which side you were on. The Allies were morally obligated to fight this war.

  • http://popdose.com MatthewBolin

    And I'm spent.

    Sorry about that everybody.

  • Junk

    So, um Matt, if I understand you correctly,,, you don't much care for Roger Waters.

  • Elaine

    I *love* David Gilmour. That's all I'm gonna say. He's old now, and a proper British gentleman with a country estate or something, and I still think he's hot with two t's.

    Does anybody else have the Roger Waters album ” Music from The Body?” I don't even know when or where I got it. It's…. awful.

    Great post! I learned things I didn't know.

  • hagen

    WWII was fought for a number of reasons on the Allies' part, and a big one was because they didn't want Japan, Germany, and Italy to take over the world. Bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki doesn't make us any more moral than them, though. Killing is killing, and that's different from duty and honor and politics. The Nazis' views were as wrong as is humanly possible, and I strongly believe Hitler was the most evil man the twentieth century produced, but I maintain that morals never really get to be part of a war.

    But I agree, let's not argue semantics. Your main point of the article is that Roger Waters is a bad person, and your own assessment is: 'Perhaps the most irritating thing about Waters, at least as a musician, is that he guided the band over time to an express purpose, and in his mind, logical conclusion, which was….to whine about how unfortunate he was that his father died before he was born.' And as a musician, he has every right to sing about what he knows, what he feels, and how it has affected him and others. And if that's your biggest problem with Waters, I don't agree that it makes him a bad man.Write what you know, or so the saying goes, and in interviews he admits that the loss of his father has overshadowed a great many things in his life, including his songwriting. So you don't like some of his albums: that's your bag. Hanging him for 'crimes of pomposity' by calling him a 'smug, pretentious asshole' comes across as excessive. After all, he was in a band with David Gilmour for a long, long time.

    No pissing match intended.

  • outsidecounsel

    I suppose there are people who take the title seriously. Christgau is not among them, and the fact that he is capable of mustering that much self-deprecation is evidence in his favor.

  • mojo

    I love FLoyd discussions. As far as discussion topics go they reach right up there with God and Politics and you managed to fuse all toghether in an unholy comments stew. The first album review I wrote trashed the Delicate Sound of Thunder and the vitriol aimed toward my mother I got in the letters (yes, it was printed on paper) was quite disproportionate to the subject (Floyd), leading me to believe that all Floyd fans were nuts. Then I met a couple true Deadheads and realized that Floyd fans, in comparison, are normal…

  • http://www.somethingelsereviews.com/ Pico

    “Join me next time (and hopefully next week), when I talk about a version of Waters from this side of the pond, someone that will make you say: “Are you sure he’s Canadian?” “

    Looking forward to your piece on Neil Young ;-)

  • http://popdose.com MatthewBolin

    Nope. Not Neil.

  • Elaine

    “Are you sure he's Canadian?”

    As opposed to 'presumed American due to pomposity?' ahem ;)

    At any rate, if it's not Neil it must be Geddy.

  • PFAkron

    Couldn't have said it better…the guys just weren't very good without each other.

    I have to question, however, the words “pretty” and “good” being used to describe Amused.

  • http://www.somethingelsereviews.com/ Pico

    …or Alex. We must be getting warm as there's not too many Canadian asshole musicians.

  • http://popdose.com MatthewBolin

    Speaking to another part of my post, did you know that Robert Christgau loves loves loves DeBarge?
    If you look at his book on 80s music, he gives their four records A-, B+, A+, and B+, which means he thinks even their worst material is as good as, and the best of their material better than, anything by Pink Floyd. How's that for something for Waters fans to chew on?

  • http://popdose.com MatthewBolin

    Nope. Wrong on both counts.
    Hint: he appears in one of my Rod Stewart posts.

  • David_E

    Hmm. Is Robbie Robertson considered unpleasant?

  • http://popdose.com MatthewBolin

    Bingo. Details to come, but let's just say for now that even many of his own fans (let alone people in the business) consider RR to be where ass meets hole.

  • Elaine

    Wow, I'm intrigued. I had no idea. He really was my first CD purchase. Now I wonder how much asshole behavior went into “Fallen Angel.”

  • Lucio

    Talking about pomposity, this is the most indulgent critic I read in my life. The Final Cut, as Roger put it… he offered the other three to do it as a soloist work, but they known songs don´t fall from the trees… The next Floyd´s albums are crap. Sounds like Floyd but if you review the lyrics, are pathetic. So, I agree, for me, the last album of Floyd was The Wall and Final is a soloist work with the other members as hired musicians. This album is perfect. Perhaps too clever for an american mind. Regards

  • Matt

    It took 16 years to write a review of Amused to Death?

    No matter though as I intend to have fun lampooning your arguments against Waters. Had you wrote that in… say, 1998… it might have held more water. Gilmour's troupe rolled across the landscape in '95 with the Division Bell tour and Waters was MIA since 1992, when ATD failed to justify a tour. However, the Roger Waters of 1999 and since is the one that you seem unwilling to accept. That is the one that made peace with Nick Mason, met up a few times with Rick Wright and played with the re-formed Floyd at Live 8.

    In your attempts to label Roger an asshole, you've ignored the fact that he has opened the door to Gilmour to do SOMETHING else as Pink Floyd (album, tour, whatever) and it's David that refuses.

    Rick Wright, sad as it is that he passed away, was fired by mutual decision by Gilmour. Wright wanted a production credit on the Wall, but was not earning it. When Waters, Ezrin and Gilmour chopped Wright's hopes off at the knees for a producers credit, Wright refused to work with Waters in the studio, and then just refused to work period. Waters demanded he be fired and Gilmour agreed (no matter what revisionist BS some believe). He was brought back for the tour as all agreed it would be better that way (the same way he was just for the MLOR tour, but not an official member of the band again until 1993).

    Waters might be pompous on some level, but no more than most others. He's extended olive branches and been willing to accept that he has differences of opinions with Gilmour and Mason on their shared past.

  • Gilmourism

    Long Live Gilmour.

  • Craig

    Great post! One of the best I have read about Pink Floyd. In simple terms I have thought that Pink Floyd was a fortunate combination of Roger's lyrics and David and Rick's music. That successful combination broke down by The Wall and the Final Cut. And, as I look back on the elements of what I love about the Floyd I will always be on the side of the music; Us and Them, Echos, Great Gig in The Sky, Wish You Were Here, Shine On, Dogs, Comfortably Numb etc.

  • Tony S

    “And, as I look back on the elements of what I love about the Floyd I will always be on the side of the music; Us and Them, Echos, Great Gig in The Sky, Wish You Were Here, Shine On, Dogs, Comfortably Numb etc.”

    Many of which were either written by members of the band other than Waters or co-written with Waters. He wasn't the whole show.

    And as a slight correction to this review, I'll add that it was Rick Wright, not Waters, who first started picking up the writing slack after Barrett's departure. Two of the best songs on “Saucerful of Secrets” were Wright's. But more importantly, the first post-Barrett a-side, “It Would Be So Nice,” was a Wright tune. When that single failed, Waters apparently lost confidence in Wright and tried to take over, but the next single failed too, and that was co-written by Waters and Gilmour (“Point Me at the Sky”). The band left both these failed a-sides off “Relics” and instead included the b-sides.

  • Tony S

    “And, as I look back on the elements of what I love about the Floyd I will always be on the side of the music; Us and Them, Echos, Great Gig in The Sky, Wish You Were Here, Shine On, Dogs, Comfortably Numb etc.”

    Many of which were either written by members of the band other than Waters or co-written with Waters. He wasn't the whole show.

    And as a slight correction to this review, I'll add that it was Rick Wright, not Waters, who first started picking up the writing slack after Barrett's departure. Two of the best songs on “Saucerful of Secrets” were Wright's. But more importantly, the first post-Barrett a-side, “It Would Be So Nice,” was a Wright tune. When that single failed, Waters apparently lost confidence in Wright and tried to take over, but the next single failed too, and that was co-written by Waters and Gilmour (“Point Me at the Sky”). The band left both these failed a-sides off “Relics” and instead included the b-sides.

  • dougyfresh71

    Here, here! Athough I find myself really diggin Waters' music, his actions make me puke!! He essentially professes himself to be the genius of the Pink Floyd. Althohgh, without the other band members, he's nothing short of a decent lyricist. I DO like his writing, but only when performed by “The Pink Floyd.” Were it not for Wright, Mason, Waters and Gilmour, the Pink Floyd wouldn't have ever been was it has become!!!!

  • dougyfresh71

    Here, here! Athough I find myself really diggin Waters' music, his actions make me puke!! He essentially professes himself to be the genius of the Pink Floyd. Althohgh, without the other band members, he's nothing short of a decent lyricist. I DO like his writing, but only when performed by “The Pink Floyd.” Were it not for Wright, Mason, Waters and Gilmour, the Pink Floyd wouldn't have ever been was it has become!!!!

  • Hbotis

    thanks for your reading & background. Waters seems very much an artist with a huge ego that went of fashion many years ago. It doesn’t matter how good he is if he’s that pretentious and doesn’t know how to shut up. Wouldn’t he be one of the least admired music “greats” today? I think so.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=619022819 Paul Beaulieu

    If anything, Jeff Beck’s presence on the album (and Eric Clapton’s on an earlier Waters album) shows that Waters was well aware of the importance of a good lead guitarist. But then, Waters never deprecated Gilmour’s musicianship. They just couldn’t get along anymore. Also, reading this article, one could be forgiven for thinking that Waters is the only songwriter in rock history whose preoccupation with personal issues helped destroy the group he was in. What about John Lennon, for example?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=619022819 Paul Beaulieu

    In fact, listen to Plastic Ono Band and then imagine the criticism that could be made: “Lennon seemed to think he was the only person in history whose father left him when he was young and whose mother died in an accident, etc etc etc”. B

  • oldtoady

    I’ve noticed that Waters over the last 6 years has been going out of his way to be “liked”. Like doing benefit concerts for war veterans. Maybe hes coming to the concolusion that he was egomanical asshole. Hes 69 now. I enjoyed Amused to Death.

  • bawoman

    Um, it was Rick that asked if he could stay on to tour The Wall as a paid musician, and Roger agreed.And while its questionable if Gilmour and Mason were 100% behind the firing, they both have gone on record saying that Wright really was not contributing a thing to the band at that time, and were not happy at all with him.

    And really.Roger may have been a bit smug, and controlling, but saying that makes him a bad person reeks of bullshit (and,dare I say it, some weird, misplaced resentment)