Op-Ed By Ben Gibbard: The Roger Waters Quandary Or, Will The Last One Leaving Battersea Please Turn Out The Lights?
Today your regular bloggers have been replaced by Ben, Chris, Nick, and Jason of Death Cab For Cutie. The band’s new album Narrow Stairs is out now. DCFC are not professional bloggers, so please send them tips.
By Ben Gibbard
It’s come to my attention that there are some people who were genuinely upset at my comments concerning Roger Waters in a recent magazine interview. Hey, I get it! Who am I to slag a rock legend? I guess all I can say is sometimes I get talking and joking and forget there’s a dictaphone recording my every word. If this is the worst thing I get caught saying I’ll consider myself lucky.
Please let the record show that I am a huge, HUGE Pink Floyd fan. I own every album, have found them vastly inspiring and think the world is a far better place with them in it (even The Final Cut). Thus, I’d like to retract the following statement:
“Roger Waters doing Dark Side Of The Moon would be like Ringo performing Sgt. Pepper’s.”
And substitute the following:
“Roger Waters doing Dark Side Of The Moon is like Roger Waters doing Dark Side Of The Moon.”
Do with that what you will.
By Chris Walla
Two weeks ago in London, DCfC played a radio session for XFM, the biggest commercial rock radio station in those parts. The entry to their office on Leicester Square, near all the theatres, sits crammed between a pasty shop and a cheap, tourist trap of a luggage outlet, right on the square. It’s a beautiful façade even so, and it’s very English.
Jason McGerr and I got in a little bit early, and were corralled in a waiting room on the mezzanine floor while someone from the station was sent to retrieve us. The building houses a few other radio stations whose banners and flyers are displayed around the lobby. I’m hopelessly fidgety and restless before these radio things we do, and I started fishing through the brochures in a little rack on the end table, the kind of Plexiglas thing you might find magazines in at the doctor’s office.
One brochure there particularly caught my eye: A totally familiar, wordless photo of a spotted cow on a pastoral English farm. The cow photograph is the cover of Atom Heart Mother, the fourth (or fifth, depending on whether you count Ummagumma, which I usually don’t) record by Pink Floyd, and it was on a brochure because Last FM, the classical station in the building, is sponsoring a performance of Atom Heart Mother complete on June 14 at Cadogan Hall in London.
Contrary to current popular belief, I am a Pink Floyd fanatic (as are my bandmates). As big a fanatic as they come. And this performance is remarkable because it’s being conducted by the co-composer and arranger of Atom Heart Mother, a fellow named Ron Geesin.
Geesin is one of those Pink Floyd bit-players who deserves his due. Like Roy Harper (most notably for his vocals on “Have A Cigar”), Alan Parsons (producer of Dark Side Of The Moon) and a small handful of others, he was distinctly responsible for a specific left turn in the band’s trajectory; in his case, it was the introduction of the proper orchestra into the Pink Floyd canon. The 23-minute title track “Atom Heart Mother” is grand beyond its years; more British than anything this side of beans and eggs, and the first clear, indicative glimpse of where the band would go through the next three albums (Meddle, Obscured By Clouds, and Dark Side Of The Moon). He also made a record with Roger Waters around that same time, the soundtrack to a film called The Body: Though peppered with songs, it’s mostly spacey, stringy, scratchy soundscapes with the occasional cough thrown in for literal illustration.
Ron Geesin is absolutely best known for his Pink Floyd association. And if I were in his shoes I’d be staging a 38th anniversary re-imagining of Atom Heart Mother too: It’s pretty fantastic shit, and he was a keystone in its creation and production. Then again, I’m a total devotee to all things Pink Floyd, and it’s that same devotion that leads me to be so suspicious of the Roger Waters rendering of Dark Side Of The Moon. Granted, my bandmate Ben may have been unduly curt in his assessment of the Waters performance of Dark Side as “like Ringo performing Sgt. Pepper’s,” but I stand by the sentiment (and also that my favorite parts of that record are Dave Gilmour’s, because, well, that’s actually true: Those are my favorite parts).
One has to look no further than Waters’ solo outings, or possibly even Floyd’s The Final Cut, to recognize why a Waters solo performance of Dark Side Of The Moon is a dubious proposition. I actually really like some of his solo stuff, in all honesty: Radio KAOS especially, though marred by marginal production calls (like so much of the 1980s), really hits it in a few spots — but that’s just the problem, it’s only great in a few spots. Waters’ heavy-handed, hyper-literal social commentary is tiring in large doses. Similarly, the Gilmour driven Floyd of the 80s and 90s is alternately sugary and muscular, but rarely pointed or clearheaded. The Waters-less Pink Floyd’s live recording of Dark Side Of The Moon, on 1995’s Pulse double CD, sorely misses Waters’ acid in the last few songs. It’s not that one is better or worse than the other: It’s that neither one is right.
In the original lineup, Richard Wright provides elegant counterpoint to Waters’ seething wit, and gravity to Gilmour’s sweetness. And Nick Mason is, well, Nick Mason: He buys English racing cars, and he simply holds it all down behind the skins. And those things are critical too.
My point, I suppose, is that a band is a band. Not a remarkable statement, as such. But it’s worth noting that none of these four guys ever did anything as solid, individually, as they did under the name Pink Floyd from 1968 – 1980. Nothing even close. And where Ron Geesin’s upcoming London performance of Atom Heart Mother seems a part-owner’s sweet, nostalgic homage, Roger Waters’ endless recycling of the Pink Floyd catalog strikes me as falsely taking credit for every good idea the Pink Floyd ever had, whether or not he means it that way.
Certainly he’s no charlatan; the genesis of Dark Side as a concept was his, after all. He wrote a good chunk of the thing, and he should rightly remind us of that. But even when the full band reunited in 2005 for the Live8 show, Waters pushed on history more than seemed appropriate, by taking lead vocals throughout the set in places he’d never sung on the records: He croaked a full, jarring third of “Wish You Were Here,” for example. That’s a huge drag. It’s one of the most tuneful songs in the whole catalog, and though Waters is brilliant and has many positive attributes, “sweet tunefulness” is not among them. I’d bet a full pound Sterling it wasn’t Gilmour’s idea to give those verses away, and I’d bet another it’s the reason he’s the lone holdout on a full-scale reunion.
And still, I adore Pink Floyd. I never saw them and I never will, and that’s fine; theirs is the rare case where recordings may be enough. As documents, the records from Atom Heart Mother to The Wall inclusive defy all critical gravity in my world. Which is why I feel so strongly: If I am the pig, and any group lesser than David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Roger Waters, and Richard Wright shows up to play the music to which I am the mascot, I’ll fly away too.