By George Banks
The career of Roger Waters — the creative force behind Pink Floyd’s classic albums from the 1970s and early 1980s — has spanned the height of the Cold War; the fall of the Soviet Union and period of undisputed US hegemony; the intensification of the contradictions of global capitalism, leading to the general crisis of profitability in the system along with devastating environmental consequences; a new period of inter imperialist rivalry; and ever more open conflict.
I saw him in Manchester on the final show of his European tour, before he takes the show over to South America for some final concerts at the end of the year. Waters played in the AO arena to a sold out crowd. For a classic rock show, the demographics were diverse – old psychedelic rockers rubbing shoulders with young left-wing activists.
There was a strong presence from various Palestinian rights activist groups outside the venue, being heavily kettled by police who made every attempt to block them from the punters’ view. Despite this, frequent calls to free Palestine drew cheers from the queuing crowd.
Upon entering the arena, I noticed something unusual — all of the advertising screens had been switched off. It was a statement of intent; in that room, at least, Waters wanted control of the narrative.
Billed as his ‘first farewell’ tour, the show had the aspect of a retrospective of his career in Pink Floyd, as well as of his life generally. Centre stage however was Waters’ brand of left wing politics, which at times overwhelmed the music being played underneath. Roger’s radicalisation was on full display – classic Pink Floyd imagery has been largely replaced by images exposing the brutality of the capitalist system.
Us and Them
The concert began with haunting rendition of ‘Comfortably Numb’, set to the backdrop of a grey cityscape, before launching into ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, a song which has always had an anti-authoritarian connotation which was further emphasised by the messages broadcast on large screens — ‘Fuck Capitalism’ drawing particularly loud cheers. The screens also showed the names and pictures of various victims of imperialism, executed for crimes such as ‘being Palestinian’, ‘distributing leaflets’, ‘being black’, and ‘being female’.
This was followed by a few of Roger’s more recent originals, which have an explicit anti-capitalist character such as ‘The Powers that Be’. In ‘The Bravery of Being out of Range’, Waters showed the face of each US president from Regan to Biden under the title ‘war criminal’, and outlined some of their imperialist crimes, although appeared relatively lenient towards democratic presidents such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as compared to their Republican counterparts.
Interspersed with the music were long sections of Roger speaking to the crowd. From my seat in the gods, some of his speech was muffled, but his first message came through loud and clear: the fight to free Julian Assange was ‘the defining battle of our generation.’ Waters is campaigning with Assange’s wife Stella and the Assange Defence campaign, who have had a prominent stall inside each of his UK shows.
After this, Roger brought the set back to some Pink Floyd music with ‘Have a Cigar’, accompanied by images of the bands’ early career. Roger’s distaste for the music industry was apparent, as shots of the band performing were interspersed with images of drug abuse and fat cat executives. This was followed by a touching moment in which Waters paid tribute to his friend and founding member of Pink Floyd Syd Barrett, who left the band in 1968 as a result of mental illness, playing ‘Wish for Were Here’ and part of ‘Shine on you Crazy Diamond’, which was written as a tribute to Barrett. I was struck by how honestly Waters presented his personal struggles with mental health.
The first set ended with ‘Sheep’, a song which Waters vaingloriously compared with Orwell’s seminal ‘1984’ and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World.’ Images of sheep going to the slaughter filled the arena, before the sheep organise and overthrow their oppressors. A gigantic inflatable sheep circumambulated the arena in homage to the iconic album art for ‘Animals’ which saw a large inflatable pig floating above Battersea Power Station.
In the second set, Waters returned to the stage wearing a large black trench coat and a red armband bearing two crossed hammers, to play ‘In the Flesh’. He took on the persona of a Fascist dictator as the lyrics spoke of his desire to put various minorities ‘up against the wall’ while firing rounds from an assault rifle into the air and ordering the crowd to clap, referencing the iconography of the 1970s film ‘The Wall’.
Next he launched into ‘Run Like Hell’, a large inflatable pig floated around the crowd, with demonic red eyes and the message ‘Steal from the Poor – Give to the Rich’ painted on the side. As the song concluded Waters did not hold back, broadcasting footage from Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks publication of the assassination of two Reuters photographers and 8 other civilians by US military personnel in Baghdad in 2007. As Waters pointed out, the killers remain free while Assange languishes in HMP Belmarsh and faces the imminent threat of extradition.
A couple more of his post-Pink Floyd songs followed, accompanied by messages of support for the Palestinians, indigenous peoples and the trans community.
The crowd got going for the Floyd classic ‘Money’, where images showed a green pig dancing about piles of accumulating coins, before he reverted to more classic Pink Floyd imagery for a run through of the second half of their classic album ‘Dark Side of the Moon’. Even amongst the refracted lights and triangles, Waters continued to emphasise the brutal nature of imperialist war, with images of America’s military atrocities filling the screens during ‘Us and Them’. The faces of men, women and children dead as a result of the brutal system slowly filled the screen, forming a multicoloured mosaic. This section concluded with ‘Two Suns in the Sunset’, a song about nuclear apocalypse, while showing images of human bodies being atomised in the firestorm.
As the show wrapped up, Waters gave a truly touching farewell to what might, perhaps, be the final UK audience he ever performs to. Then he gathered his band around the piano to sing ‘The Bar’, before closing with ‘Outside the Wall’ as he led his fellow musicians offstage to rapturous applause.
There is irony in the fact that Waters himself is a capitalist, profiting from this endeavour. The cost of the tickets, although reasonably priced for an arena show, surely excluded many of those who would most appreciate his political message. It should also perhaps be noted here that Waters spoke on behalf of Putin at the UN following his invasion of Ukraine, itself a deeply reactionary imperialist war which has claimed many lives. That his motive for doing so was to help expose the equally reactionary war aims of NATO does not excuse lending Putin support. Although Putin was held up as a dictator during the show, this initial and very public show of support only confuses the politics of anti-imperialism, and turns people against Waters and his message.
Waters is clear what he is against — U.S. hegemony, capitalism and imperialist war. But he doesn’t provide any solution for overcoming these things. Never does his messaging include truly revolutionary slogans, or even provide any indication that revolution is possible and indeed necessary. Without this element, Waters’ vision for a world without state repression and violence for the sake of profit remains a utopia.
Despite these political failings, the music of Pink Floyd was transcendent and Waters is brave to continue to speak up for the oppressed, and commendable for trying to break people out of their stupor with his shock tactics. Compared with the forced ‘everything is normal’ messaging spewing from the bourgeois propaganda machine, the show was a breath of fresh air.