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Then And Now: Roger Waters And The Wall

Roger Waters triumphantly returns to London providing the perfect opportunity to reconsider The Wall as in stands in arenas today, and as it did on record thirty years ago.

Tuesday, 31. May 2011  -  by  David Hayter

Pink Floyd were never known for minimalism and never lacked ambition. Whether it was Syd Barrett’s psychedelic odysseys or Dave Gilmour’s migrating nine-part marathon Wish You Were Here, no band embodied scope and imagination quite like Pink Floyd.

The Wall, however, was something different, a new challenge, and a new extreme. A ninety-minute rock-opera that merged spoken word samples, film extracts, explosions, multi-part narratives, tiny song fragments and a three- part recurring epic, together into one gargantuan whole. Hopping countless sub genres and employing a great breadth of instrumentation, The Wall was the epitome of extravagance and self-indulgence.

Few guitarists will ever face a task more daunting than bringing Roger Waters’ twisted tale of rock star paranoia and self-pity to life. Translating the brilliantly bloated self-absorbed solipsism of The Wall into something universal and visceral, capable of satisfying and connecting with millions of fans across the world is no mean feat.

Today marks the final night of The Wall’s five-night residency at the O2 Arena in London, giving Guitar Planet the unique opportunity to contrast two very different attempts at bringing Roger Waters’ off the wall opera to life. Reflecting upon both Dave Gilmour’s 1979 in studio effort and 2011’s world straddling super show performed by Roger Waters’ all-star band.

The Here And Now: The Wall Live At The O2 Arena

In 2011 Roger Waters has wisely decided to update The Wall. While the self obsessed tale of rock star misery remains untouched lyrically, Waters has put £37 million pounds to good use, creating a state of the art stage show that implausibly manages to make The Wall bigger and more grandiose.

While themes of isolation, paranoia and blame still dominate; Waters uses his Goliath video wall to shift the focus outwards. Tales of isolation, violence and loss are no longer internalised; instead Waters conveys a strong anti-war, anti-government message. Where as The Wall’s protagonist Pink lost trust in humanity, Waters in 2011 urges his audience not to trust the government, to question corporations, to question religions, to question authority and to consider the human cost of world events.

At times this marriage of state of the art visuals and classic song writing form a perfect union. The heart-breaking fragment “Vera”, which sees Pink reflecting on Vera Lynn’s war time message of hope “We’ll Meet Again”, is married to eternally resonant footage of children and loved ones greeting their fathers returning from war.

Unsurprisingly, it’s The Wall’s lonesome moments, typified by a wonderfully dislocated performance of “Nobody Home” in a mock hotel room, that translate most readily to a modern London audience all too familiar with the imposing emptiness of abundance. These rare moments of subtle reflection stand out among the myriad of plane clashes, flying pigs, fireworks, and state of the art projections that dominate Waters’ stage show.

Roger Waters and David Gilmour, The Wall Live in The O2, London - Author Phil Guest from Bournemouth, UK

For an insular study of the human experience, Waters’ modern take bulldozes any sense of delicacy with an unrelenting sensory assault. From the dancing nudes of “Young Lust” to the deformed teacher puppet and troupe of children who accompany “Another Brick In The Wall Pt. II”, this is a show that blares and overwhelms its audience. It triumphs through sheer force; the graphics are so spectacular, the choruses so mammoth and the solo’s so gaudy and monstrous they cannot be resisted.

While the sheer scale of the performance may be undeniable it only serves to batter and undermine The Wall’s fragile and tender moments. “Comfortably Numb” is transformed into an unwieldy behemoth devoid of the airy translucence that gave Gilmour’s original its ethereal beauty. The performance is only salvaged by a Dave Kilminster solo that is so ludicrously grandiose (he performs the closing solo atop the forty foot wall) that the audience can’t help but gawp awestruck.

Similarly the desperate pleas of “Hey You” fall victim to Waters’ overly literal interpretation, as the entire track is performed behind a freshly constructed wall. Rather than representing a touching cry for help, one of Floyd’s most evocative works instead raises a wry chuckle at Waters’ (not Pink’s) Spinal Tap-esque fallacy.

Waters himself cuts an awkward figure, an uncomfortable rocker, far more suited to understated detached cool than front man pomp. Still he enthusiastically plays his role and truly comes into his own when he assumes the role of the domineering fascist leader leading the unrelenting march of “Run Like Hell” and “Waiting For The Worms”.

The Wall’s victory may be based on brute force rather than intellectual intricacy but it is a victory nonetheless, and Waters wasn’t to be denied as the filled to rafters O2 Arena gave him and his all star cast of contributors a well-earned and lengthy standing ovation.

The Wall Then: Dave Gilmour in 1979

Nick Mason, Roger Waters and David Gilmour, The Wall Live in The O2, London (Photo By Phil Guest from Bournemouth, UK

Reflecting on the original composition in light of the tonight’s performance highlights Dave Gilmour’s incredible versatility. While the 2011 live version is an assault, Gilmour’s guitar offered a mind-bending array of textures and tones. While Waters succumbed trite lyricism and blunt conceptions (and some truly majestic imagery lets not forget), Gilmour’s guitar conveyed a breadth of emotion.

The gorgeously understated intro to “Hey You” that gives way to an anguished weeping solo is a work of genius giving Waters demented tale of false hope a sense of resonance that the lyricism alone couldn’t hope to achieve. Then there’s “Comfortably Numb”, originally written for Gilmour’s solo album, the track is a triumph of dreamy uncertainty, as an arrangement it’s unrivalled, capturing the essence of being lost in between two states, a medicated hallucination, the sensations of numbness, dislocation and exploration are captured sublimely.

The scale of Waters’ 2011 incarnation exists in Gilmour’s playing as the soaring “In The Flesh” and the driving “Young Lust” offer all the mammoth riffing you’d expect from a classic seventies prog record, but while today Waters triumphs with profuse spectacle, in 1979 Waters, Gilmour, Mason and Wright captured the world’s imagination with diversity; anchoring their maximalist tendencies with considered minimalism and diluting garish excess with tranquil moments of reflection.

Both versions hold up, and despite The Wall’s many well known weaknesses, whether it’s £7 LP or £70 live show, The Wall remains an essential purchase, ripe for interpretation, and retaining its poignancy thirty two years on.

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