Mojo Magazine March 2003.
(Transcript thanks to Natalie Lyons) Off The Wall
To some, Roger Waters is the reactionary ogre who destroyed Pink Floyd. To many others, he’s one of the few truly intelligent voices in rock music. Johnny Black visits his country pile to discuss fox hunting, pornography, race issues and the royal family.
Roger Waters, mug of tea in hand, pushes open a window in the spacious kitchen of his Georgian manor, and yells out at two workmen floundering in the river that runs through his Hampshire estate, “You want to try using a rod!”
The hapless pair, who have fallen in while repairing the nearby bridge, grin and wave back. The river is swollen after several days of constant rain, and a fine mist hangs in the air, partially obscuring the weeping willow whose trailing boughs brush the bank. Waters watches with interest as a stately pair of geese paddle slowly by.
Roger’s display of easy bonhomie and his air of pastoral contentment hardly seem to fit with the public persona that dogs the man credited with almost destroying Pink Floyd. Is his the same Roger Waters who, in the wake of his childhood chum Syd Barrett’s departure for pastures technicolour, seized control of the Floyd and ran it like a rock’n’roll despot until the others could bear his obsessions no longer?
Over the years, Mojo’s genial host has been accused of fascism, sexism and a bunch of other isms. He famously spat in the face of a fan during a concert in Toronto and, having lately aligned himself with the Countryside Alliance, he has spoken out in defence of fox hunting. What happened to the left-wing, intellectual rock’n’roller whose pioneering psychedelic band changed the course of British pop music forever?
He pulls the window shut, settles down on the other side of the long oak table, puts his mug down on the two-inch-thick top, smiles engagingly and says, “Right then. Ask away.”
You grew up in Cambridge. Was it a very musical family?
Not at all. We didn’t hear music around the house much. My mother was a teacher. Her family were sort of wholesale business people, and she was very, very left-wing, very politically active.
Did any aspect of your upbringing affect your music?
I like to think it has something to do with my father, who was killed at Anzio when I was only five months old, and his father. Our family history goes back into the north of England, to the kind of solid working-class people who were my forebears. That leads me to feel a responsibility to remain attached to the kind of broad acceptance of the other guy’s point of view – which I feel is fundamentally British and I see it being eroded. It’s that notion of not being ridiculed because you hold a different view from whatever is currently prevalent, and I feel I have to express that through my work.
Can you recount briefly for me how you met Syd Barrett, and how that led to Pink Floyd?
Syd and I met at a Saturday morning art class in Homerton College in Cambridge when I was eight and Syd was six. My mother knew his parents, but we didn’t get pally right away. Then he came to the same grammar school as me and when rock started, when I was about 14, we started playing guitars together.
You managed to travel a lot in your teens…
I started hitchhiking round England when I was 13 or 14, and then as soon as I could drive, I managed to get hold of a car and went driving round Europe. When I was 17, I set off for Baghdad… That was very much part of being in Cambridge at that time. We adopted the American literature of the period, things like On the Road by Kerouac, and the beat poets like Gregory Corso and Ginsberg, and there was this idea of going East in search of adventure.
Any dusky maidens?
Sadly, no, I didn’t encounter much of that. My teenage years were consumed with sexual guilt and fear of teddy boys.
So how did Pink Floyd come out of all that?
Syd and I had gone up to London to see Gene Vincent at the Gaumont State, Kilburn, and on the train home I clearly remember sitting with Syd making a drawing of all the equipment we thought we’d ever need, which consisted of two Vox AC30s. Later, at college in London, we formed various bands and gradually became The Pink Floyd Sound.
Am I right to think the band was split into a drinkers’ camp and a druggy camp?
I think that’s fair. There was a split. Nick and I were the drinkers. I didn’t really start smoking dope until I gave up the fags. I was out of my brains on hash in the early ‘70s, but I’d given that up by 1975. Floyd was never really a very druggy band, it was just hash and a bit of acid, except in Syd’s case, which was tragic because he had a tendency towards schizophrenia and the acid made it infinitely worse.
I’ve always been intrigued by that story of you cycling off around South London to take pictures for the cover of Animals…
The company that did all of our covers, Hipgnosis, came up with some ideas for the cover that I thought were useless. So Dave, being Dave, said, “Well, if you think you could come up with something better…” And me, being me, said, “Well, I think I could…”
I did have a bike in those days, but I really don’t know if I used it to cycle round to Battersea. I’ve no memory of that. I did go to the power station to look at it as a potential site, but I can’t remember cycling around… And then I had the inflatable pig idea. I was already thinking about doing the live show by that point. We would have these wonderful ideas, and then we had to get designers and craftsmen in to see if they could really be done.
The Wall is probably the Floyd album most associated with you – did you really spit on an unruly crowd member in Canada?
In the old pre-Dark Side days we played to relatively small audiences. After that it got to be huge stadiums, and I started to hate that. It wasn’t what I’d got into it for, and you felt so distant from the audience. One night at the end of the Animals tour in Canada, there was a fan clawing his way up the storm netting to try and get to us and yes, I just snapped and spat at him. I was shocked, disgusted by myself as soon as I did it, but, after I’d thought about it, the idea of actually building a wall between us and the audience, it had wonderful theatrical possibilities, and that’s what led to The Wall.
Did your leadership cause the friction that led you to quit Pink Floyd?
My leadership of the band meant that we bacame less and less of a group as the years went by. In particular, Dave’s attitudes and beliefs were very different from mine, and a lot of niggling developed. We patched it up time and again out of fear of leaving the security of what we had, but making The Final Cut was the final straw. I was virtually the only one in the studio and the others just didn’t seem to care. Dave wanted me to wait until he had written some more material, but given that he’d written maybe three songs in the whole of the previous five years I couldn’t see when that was going to happen. It all got very nasty. The name Pink Floyd should have died then, but in the long run I don’t suppose it really matters.
So The Final Cut marked the end of Pink Floyd for you. But do you still stand by it as an album?
Absolutely. It was about how, in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Attlee government and the introduction of the Welfare State, we felt we were moving forward into something resembling some kind of Utopian dream of a liberal country where we would all look after one another, and slowly that dream had become eroded. I guess because maybe people discovered that wasn’t what we wanted after all. In fact, there’s a selfishness in us, and a lack of community spirit that led us, by the ‘80s into a doctrine of a pragmatic, radical, Reaganite-Thatcherite economic system. That’s the system of values to which, by and large, we still cling.
There was a huge feminist backlash against your first post-Floyd solo album, Pros and Cons of Hitch-Hiking. How do you feel about that now?
That was really about the album cover, which showed a naked woman with a nice bum. It wasn’t about the album which, if they’d listened, they’d have realised wasn’t offensive. It was an album about a night of erotic dreams, but nothing violent or unpleasant.
I find extremists irritating, particularly in he sexual arena. I support the universal franchise, equal pay for women, all of those things, but I don’t want bigots interfering in our sex lives. I don’t favour exploitation of anybody, in the porn industry or anywhere else, but all that Women Against Porn stuff is nonsense. There is a visual element in our sexual make-up and people will always make use of visual material when they masturbate.
Is that healthy?
You can’t change that. As artists we can be very vulnerable to those kinds of politically-correct pressures. There’s a song, Flickering Flame, on my new album, that mentions coloured girls. It says, “When the coloured girls sing, I feel my heart swoon.” So I asked the girl singers that I’ve worked with for years, black girls, if they found it offensive and they had no problem with it. I saw Lou Reed on an awards show not long ago and noticed that he no longer says, “and the coloured girls sing” in Walk On The Wild Side. He omits the word “coloured”. I ran into him in the Caribbean a few days ago and I asked him about it. I said, “Don’t you think your fans know you well enough to know that you’re not racist?” Well, you know what Lou’s like, he was very phlegmatic. He said, “Well, these people, they wanted me to change it…” and he felt he should do it.
How did you feel about punk when it came along?
I had no feelings about it. It passed me by. I’ve never listened to a lot of music because I’m too busy making my own. I probably wouldn’t recognise The Clash if I heard them on the radio, but I do know that a lot of people felt they were great and I can respect that. Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols, on the other hand, seemed to me like just so much empty posturing, the worst aspects of the “look at me” syndrome. McLaren seemed to me to be totally cynical.
But you do seem to share their distaste for the British monarchy…
I felt OK about the royal family up until they appeared on It’s A Knockout in 1987. D’you remember? Fergie and some of the younger ones, Prince Andrew I seem to remember, took part. They isolated the worst incursions of Continental vulgarity… If you’re going to have a royal family at all, you don’t want them to be that common. The idea of a monarchy, in modern political terms, is that it’s the nominal head of state. We have a queen or a kind instead of having a president. It can work OK, but it’s a lot harder to make it work if they make themselves a laughing stock.
So you missed out on punk, were you aware of the Spice Girls?
Yes. The fact that I know there was one called Scary and one called Posh and so on means they must have penetrated my consciousness. But they were absolutely the lowest common denominator of musical, and all other, tastes. All of these modern feminist or girl-power icons, like Madonna, seem to me to be expressing their femininity in exactly the same way that Diana Dors did. It’s just sex. What’s so new about sticking your tits out and making a few quid? What’s powerful about that. Madonna has achieved a level of power because she’s very wealthy. They make it seem PC, but it’s actually just about making money.
And now – are you in touch with rap, hip hop, nu metal, grunge?
I am aware of guys like Eminem, and some of his ideas are interesting, but I can’t take the gangsta hip hop stuff, which is violent and sexist. Funnily enough, yesterday I was working on my new album and I realised I’d done something very rap-like – just two minutes of me talking over a drum-loop to help glue the narrative together – so I suppose there has been an influence on me from rap.
We often hear rock stars described as the new aristocracy. You’ve a huge manor house, in splendid grounds with a chunk of river.
A lot of people who made money in rock’n’roll have bought houses in the country, and some of them really take to it and start opening fetes. Geldof always seems to be opening a fete somewhere. But then he’s an extremely gregarious and sociable person. He revels in that sort of thing, whereas I’m a very private person.
So you don’t open village fetes or play for the village cricket team?
I have not so far opened a village fete. I toyed with the idea of playing cricket, but I’m never here long enough, so I couldn’t be relied on to always turn out for a team. This is a bit of a retreat for me when I’m not off travelling or recording or whatever.
Do you fish in the river?
I love fishing. I fish for trout. Oh! Look at that! What’s that, on the fence? Lovely. Oh, it’s a wagtail. (Watches intently for a minute or so, then resumes). I have fishing rights on the river here. I’ve fished for the chub in this river. When I was living in Cambridge, I did a lot of coarse fishing. From the moment I could walk, almost, I’d get a bamboo pole and a piece of string and a bent pin. Fight your way down through the reeds to find a good spot… I always loved it. There’s something about the mud between your toes.
You took a stand in support of fox hunting recently…
There have been increasing assaults on our freedoms under this government. It’s not a case of whether or not I agree with fox hunting or fox hunters, but I will defend to the hilt their right to take part in it. It’s interesting that Blair’s government has usurped the Tory position but with elements of a very left-wing authoritarianism, in the guise of trying to appease the voting public.
There barely seems to be a left-wing any more. Have we been made intolerant by the tabloid press?
Nowhere else in the world has a tabloid press like ours. It’s extraordinary how they can write endlessly about Victoria Beckham or Michael Barrymore… I mean, why the fuck do we care about these people? I don’t care about them at all, but it seems they can sell newspapers. How have we become dumbed down to the point where that’s what people are interested in?
What’s next from Roger Waters?
I’m making a rock’n’roll album. It’s about a conversation in a New York bar, and one of the characters is a driver from the Balkans, and his marriage is falling apart… I’ve recently got divorced, so there’s some songs about the break down of relationships and… I’m not quite sure how it will all turn out but, as you can hear, it’s another kind of loony concept thing. My other project is the opera about the French Revolution. I’ve recorded about 18 minutes of it with three soloists, a big orchestra and a chorus. It’s proper music, not a rock record.
Will Pink Floyd ever reconvene with you as a member?
I still get offers. Not long ago I was in a room with several major promoters and they were saying that a re-formed Pink Floyd would be the ultimate dream ticket. But for me it’s not about money.
So, all in all, has it been a good gig over the years?
Oh, fuck, aye, yes. Fantastic. I’ve really enjoyed it. I was studying architecture and that was a bit dry for my tastes. I’ve loved my life and I still do. I’m kind of driven, I suppose.