By Julie Skaggs
The shape of this moment in time: an appreciation of The Final Cut
“Is it better to be a living coward,
or thrice a hero dead?”
“It’s better to go to sleep, m‘lad,”
the colour-sergeant said.
. – Patrick MacGill, “A Lament from the Trenches”
…turned over the stone
of my own disappointment back home
– Roger Waters, “The Hero’s Return part II”
The effects of warfare upon human history and consciousness have been considered from any number of perspectives, with the realization that some of these concerns have lost none of their power upon the participants involved. People die for causes they believe in, or because of a desire for transformation, and the ultimate action is invested upon them. Some return home and live with the outcome of their choices, and those of a seemingly uncaring universe. They are haunted, and damaged, and also transformed.
Popular culture has portrayed these individuals for over a century now, the ones who die and the ones who survive. The amassed weight of artistic commentary attempts to illustrate the cost of enactment for every culture which predicates its’ existence upon blood sacrifice, however the methodology. A work which lies firmly within these boundaries is the Pink Floyd album The Final Cut, released in 1983. It – along with the album which follows in 1987, A Momentary Lapse of Reason – resides in a liminal space for many fans, a case of neither fish nor Floyd, in regard to not only the internal weather of the band at the time, but from a thematic viewpoint. It is arguably the most political work of the band’s oeuvre, as well as one wholly driven by Roger Waters, with the remaining members David Gilmour and Nick Mason seeming to serve more as sidemen than creative participants. And these perceptive points have thus rendered its value as less than other works in the canon which featured a unified front among those individuals comprising the band. Conversely there are many fans who consider it the Floyd’s most underrated work.
I would argue that a change of perspective is required in assessing the album’s critical worth, and if that value is in keeping with previously established aesthetic and thematic aims. The passage of time allows for distance from the milieu in which the work was created, and therefore a different vantage point from which to view the work and its ultimate meaning. To tie this release to the legitimacy argument ultimately robs it of its true power, as a statement which stands as true today as it did over 30 years ago: the price of war is clearly too dear for humankind to pay, and produces an effect throughout the generations which is also ultimately damaging to humanity. The Final Cut is an album which seemingly cannot be divorced from the circumstances of its creation and its time, but it deserves an analysis which would do just that, gauge its worth purely as an artistic statement, because in my estimation it does succeed if one comes to it without whatever referential prejudice or cultural baggage the listener may possess.
The album marks the transition of Pink Floyd as a recording unit into what could be defined as the modern era of their existence from all aspects, but particularly in regards to production. The final three PF studio albums (prior to the release of The Endless River last year) were produced – in different configurations – by the same entities who created The Wall, a definite demarcation point in the Floydian discography. In regards to the unification consideration, I consider it somewhat of a fallacy in that Roger Waters had been gradually leading the way artistically since the writing and recording of The Dark Side of the Moon. However, I believe The Final Cut is an album which resides in the spirit of what Pink Floyd represented in terms of vision and theme. And technically it is a wonder; it surprises me that as fans continue to laud and emphasize the ambient/atmospheric elements of DSotM, TFC is the equal of that record in creating the world of its thematic framework through the medium of sound. To listen to it fully-engaged is to experience a narrative delivered with cinematic ambition. And given the sequence of events at that point in Floydian history, it’s really not surprising that TFC has a grander scope, even just in the space of 12-13 tracks (depending on which version you listen to), with Roger having gone through the experience of creating a film which visually expressed his music (even as difficult as making Pink Floyd: The Wall had proven to be).
In an article for The Quietus to mark the album’s 30th anniversary, Rev. Rachel Mann expressed one of the album’s key themes and narrative strengths:
What brings me back to this album again and again, however, is the way Waters weaves his paranoid anger about the state of the nation with a compassionate elegy for the lost. ‘One of the Few’, a song which dares to look at survivor guilt (a reflection of Waters’ conversations with WW2 bomber hero Leonard Cheshire) is plaintive and consciously echoes Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘The Send Off’, with its talk of siding sheds and the trains ready to take young men to their deaths. Waters plays beautifully with one of the key tropes at the bleak heart of the 20th Century.
Britain in the aftermath of World War 2 was a desolate landscape of survivors equally grateful and despairing at being alive, in a world cold and grey with cities in rubble and post-war scarcity which informed Waters’ perspective in his formative years just as surely as the absence of his father. And thus the crises which asserted themselves in the 1980s caused him to question just how much progress had actually been made for the nation and its citizenry.
The rhetorical question voiced at the beginning of the album: “Maggie what have we done, what have we done to England?” informs the work entire, a consideration of just how far-reaching the effects of both warfare and policy can be experienced by every individual, as well as the expression of the artist’s conscience in regards to his or her responsibilities of recognition and commentary. As William Faulkner once noted, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
For a nation which had experienced the devastating effects of war, it surely came as a shock to be viewed as the aggressor in a new era, reopening traumatic wounds within the populace. Especially in regards to a conflict which was considered not worth the lives of those expended for it.
Thematically there are those who would say the album suffers from too many dated references but when it comes to examining the costs of conflict upon humanity in considerations both micro and macro I don’t believe there’s any such thing. Whatever war is referenced, and those involved, the implications are something immediately recognizable and relatable to everyone in every era (insert the age-old observation of your choice here). Part of the relational difficulty among listeners may have to do with perspective: The Final Cut is as British as The Wall was American. Narrative-wise we have moved back across the pond, from Pink the rock star barricaded in a hotel room to a war veteran and schoolteacher existing with the ghosts of his past, both of them mired in a milieu they cannot understand. As Mann notes: …both the music and words hook into an English elegiac tradition.
The album also addresses other issues which continue to plague the world, such as cultural imperialism and colonialism as well as the consequences of globalization We live with these considerations still, and likely always will. It is difficult to understand why this album is not allowed to be reflective of its time by listeners when so many other pieces of music absolutely are and yet also manage to be compelling decades on.
I would assert that the way in which the album is truly time-specific – if such a criticism is leveled – is to note it is a work which hearkens back to that idyll age of listener engagement: this is a record which demands your time, your attention, and your headphones
This is Roger’s evolution towards true intricacy and grand scale and scope. This is the album which is the progenitor of Amused to Death; for without The Final Cut and then the subsequent experiences of recording two solo albums which illustrate Roger’s preference for conceptualization but – in my opinion – did not quite jell, which were rendered by less skilled engineering, he could not have returned to the true point of reference and perhaps realized that he needed to make an album which featured the same ambition he embodied with TFC, but with an even broader palette. To make an album which is the only post-1983 PF-related work to rightfully embody the term Floydian. And it can’t be denied that ATD is also an album informed by global conflict and the toll it takes upon the deadening of the human spirit, underscored by the soulless voyeurism of television (even now it is prescient as we can apprehend a similar issue occurring as regards the Internet).
One of the predominant criticisms leveled at The Final Cut is that is it is too political, as if other forms of creative expression aren’t also inherently political simply by virtue of cultural alignment. The work is overtly political, true, but it is also at its heart the story of a man dwelling in the shadow of his troubled past and attempting to reconcile a grim present. Is this what we fought for? Is this the Post-War Dream? These were questions decidedly germane to the intensified menace of the Cold War, the fear of nuclear winter, and the ascendancy of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party in the UK. The 1980s had its own collection of politically-charged music and in this respect The Final Cut was one of the forerunners. Just as Roger had pointed a satirical finger at Mary Whitehouse, deriding her efforts towards censorship of the British media in the song “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” from Animals – often cited as Pink Floyd’s “punk” record – he thus takes similar aim at Thatcher in “The Post War Dream,” “Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert,” and “The Fletcher Memorial Home.” TFC can be seen as a further extension of the punk ethos, not musically, but in the spirit of questioning and challenging the current state of affairs. The album continues a tradition of social commentary in the work of Pink Floyd which had been firmly established a decade earlier in the songs of DSotM.
As Mark Blake noted in his PF biography Pigs Might Fly: “…The Final Cut, however heavy-going, sounded as if Pink Floyd still gave a shit about something.”
But for all its ire and mockery, there is also a deep undercurrent of melancholy and genuine loneliness, calling for human connections in the face of loss and sorrow. “Paranoid Eyes” – with its ambient panorama of the neighborhood byway and pub – describes both with music and atmosphere how one can feel utterly alone yet surrounded by society, the distance of failure and betrayal sometimes too far to traverse to return home once more. From both an emotional and technical perspective it is an amazing moment on the album, the wonder of all the atmospheric details – rendered via Holophonics and the mix – placing you directly in the protagonist’s shoes, playing snooker at the local as the inner monologue provides the truth beneath the facade. Fear and isolation have as great a role in this narrative as they do in The Wall, but the camera of the production pulls back to reveal a wider world, a deeper grief.
Strict attention to the smallest of details defines the production; for example, the way in which certain elements are used as percussion: the jingle of coins in “The Post War Dream,” the ticking of the clock in “One of the Few,” the sounds of machinery in “Not Now John,” footsteps and the clack of billiard balls in “Paranoid Eyes.” These elements are not mere sound effects, but interwoven into the arrangement so that it is all music. It strikes me as akin to the way in which a musician thinks – not that I would know first-hand – but I imagine sound itself must represent potential for melodic transformation. And there are lots of little touches which reward a close listener: for example. in “The Gunner’s Dream,” the way in which Roger’s scream moves into the background even as he begins another verse in the foreground, it’s a fascinating sonic juxtaposition; and also the way his voice fades into the sax solo.
Michael Kamen’s contribution cannot be understated; in addition to his beautiful orchestral arrangements (most notably on the title track and “The Fletcher Memorial Home”), his piano playing is wonderfully emotive and provides emphasis for all the moods evoked by the lyrics. Thanks to his instincts, intelligence and taste the movement toward more elegant motifs is wonderfully presented and further underscores the cinematic mood of the album as a whole.
Technically, this album is an underrated masterwork. It is one of the ultimate records for headphones (and ATD is another). The Wall made off with all the glory (which was well-deserved) and yet, with a more limited chain of command and tighter focus, to listen to this release is to receive a master class in the way in which dynamics, textures, performances, and sheer technical acumen can create artistry in a popular medium. But of course none of that would be possible without both Roger’s vision and his compositional prowess. As a conceptualist there are very few on his level, his abilities are three-dimensional: musical, visual, literary. His words and melodies create the world he means us to see, but because he has such a strong visual sense (and I wouldn’t attribute it to his architectural training so much as just an innate ability to know how things should appear) he then demands an immersive setting in which to realize the concept as a whole. It seems a strange thing to consider that we can see the world of TFC, but it is created in such a way that we truly can, if we concentrate upon all which the album contains. The short film created to accompany the album seems almost redundant after just closing one’s eyes and allowing Roger to engage the imagination, which has always been one of the greatest rewards of being a foreground listener.
Although there are many who do not place this album in the Floydian canon, it does contain other aspects which define Pink Floyd from a musical perspective: the soaring emotive guitar solos of David Gilmour and the sturdy pulse of Nick Mason’s drumming, and those elements are framed in each of the songs to satisfying effect. Regardless of whatever battles were being fought behind the scenes, the work itself unites the artistic principles in service to the songs, which would surely be diminished by their absence; it is difficult to imagine how moving “The Fletcher Memorial Home” or the title track would be without Gilmour’s solos, for example. And those solos are as much an expressive voice for Gilmour as his singing.
Even as all the songs are connected to a concept, each one of them forms its’ own moment in time, with considerations not only of narrative but also of emotional impact and stylistic import.
“The Hero’s Return” displays an angular modernistic style in its arrangement and production, substantially transformed from its former version (as “Teacher, Teacher” from the Bricks in the Wall demo Roger originally submitted to the band) and also the first time – in my estimation – that the vocal style which Roger utilized in his solo career was first employed, with overdubs of singing and sotto voce vocalizing layered within the same measure, producing a distinctive effect, along with those passages which present his voice with direct intimate vulnerability. The way his voice is layered in this mix overall, the elements used to create the compelling vocals which provide dramatic gravitas – the sotto voce underscoring, the bursts of louder emphasis, the hushed murmurs, the direct ragged voice when we discern how the facade of the narrator begins to crack as the weight of memory and regret becomes too much to bear – Roger’s vision needs a complex rendering and this style has continued to serve him well provided the technical support is there to bring it to life. And creative production accents like the sizzle and snap of backward cymbals add further emphasis to the track.
“Young Lust” was a pastiche of a certain kind of music – I call it “cock rock” – and as such it worked on a satiric level but it worked even better simply as a hook, it was effective as simultaneously opposing philosophies. And “Not Now John” achieves the same effect but satirically it is (purposely) much sharper, and technically amazing. It quotes so many Floydian references while at the same time its very format is a commentary on the subject of the song itself. It’s a brilliant mix; both hit single and sardonic jape. But there is so much going on, it can’t be absorbed in just a few listens, it takes time to penetrate the depth of its lampoonery: the lyrics of dying Empire discontent juxtaposed with the arena-rock stomp of the melody and its subliminal exhortations to simply surrender to all of the distractions of disposable entertainment.
The album’s secret weapon – as with The Wall – was co-producer/engineer James Guthrie, whose production and engineering talents had – prior to his work with Pink Floyd – been praised (and awarded) by critics and clients alike. The four-star review in Sounds of The Movies’ album Bullets Through The Barrier owed as much to Guthrie’s skill in presenting the music contained within as the songs themselves, and Johnnie Wilder Jr. of Heatwave cited Guthrie’s engineering and mix on their first two albums as crucial to their success
The Final Cut as a title is appreciable as several thematic/interpretive elements and one of them could be viewed in regards to the mix: much as a film editor assembles a narrative from the raw footage, Guthrie unites all of the painstaking labor of the recordings into an album which is as enthralling for the ears as any movie is for the eyes. His creative instincts as a producer are supported by his technical acumen as a recordist and mixer. The dense layering of the mix is incredibly effective on several levels: as storytelling device, as musique concrete, as a way in which to pull the listener into the protagonist’s viewpoint while offering more than one perspective from which to experience the narrative. Sometimes we are the voyeur and sometimes we are that lost soul who so plaintively entreats the audience at the very start in “The Post War Dream.” The tracks flow from one to the next, the crossfades seamless, and it all comes back around in a recursive loop, each element is presented both discretely and interwoven (and that is one of the hallmarks of a James Guthrie mix: you can discern all of the moving parts even as you are enjoying the finished product they represent) lending the arrangements an intricate feel while at the same time seeming organically rendered. There is a distinct pleasure in apprehending all of the layers and accents: what they are and why they work, what they represent within the context they are placed. And it was Guthrie who championed the use of Holophonics within the recording, attempting to utilize the technique to its fullest extent in the service of the world of the narrative.
The Final Cut is not a typical album; it is a narrative which is expressed as a song cycle and yet to refer to these tracks as just songs is too simplistic a classification. They are scenes from life, and they are commentary on a society fractured and isolated and on the brink of self-destruction. It is a work which seeks to entreat that humankind not make that ultimate disconnective move, that we must look beyond our insular concerns to once again find connection with our humanity, with the world, and ultimately our salvation as a species. It represents the core of Roger’s artistry: to examine the heart and mind for answers, all of us, in the hopes that we are always reminded of our humanity and our capacity for compassion and understanding must be stronger than our impulse towards hatred and fear.
It is a message we can continue to reflect upon and learn from, even now. Just as The Final Cut is an album which deserves renewed consideration and appreciation in repeated listening.
With thanks to Natalie Thake for her insights and editorial support.
With many thanks to Julie Skaggs. Don’t forget to read Julie’s review about The Final Cut Book.