…AND PIGS WILL FLY!
Taken from Q magazine, issue 48, September 1990.
“No, it’s not a way of saying, Top that! to Gilmour and Mason, but it’ll be gratifying that a few more people will understand that The Wall is my work and always has been. Pink Floyd haven’t got the faintest idea what any of it’s about. But then they never did…”
They said it couldn’t be done. The most extravagant reconstruction of The Wall, featuring the most unlikely and impressive cast, the most immodestly proportioned props and the most poignant of settings. Phil Sutcliffe meets the former Pink Floyd overlord Roger Waters in Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz and unearths the intriguing motives for his multi-media comeback.
Five minutes in to The Wall at the Berlin ex-Wall – touted as “the largest musical production ever” – Roger Waters stands alone centrestage gazing miserably at the 250,000 faces gathered in Potsdamer Platz and the millions behind the TV cameras. They’ve hit a snag: the sound has gone down. Five thousand kilowatts and not a peep. What Waters does may be the first entirely jaunty act he’s ever committed. He breaks into a tap dance. A silent tap dance, but graceful under pressure. The crowd roars out for more.
It’s barely credible. Hi-tech and professionalism is supposed to have put an end to such intrusions of fallibility into big-time rock. The industry is now accustomed to delivering on commitments like this one to the huge effort and $8 ½ million which have been invested in a splash international send-off for Leonard Cheshire’s Memorial Fund For Disaster Relief.
After a silence, crushing the whole vast square with dread, suddenly there’s a click and a buzz. Waters babbles an apology and with one bound leaps the chasm to Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2), briskly casting a couple of songs aside in deference to the computer programme which regulates the lighting an special effects and brooks no mortal messing about once its mind’s made up.
It was the first and worst of a series of hitches and glitches. The starscreens caught Waters in supplicatory prayerful posture when the sound went out again for a few dozen rib-pounding heartbeats in the middle of Sinead O’Connor’s emotive version of Mother. But live in the 35 acres of no-man’s-land dust that is Potsdamer Platz, The Wall becomes and overwhelming piece of mega-theatre. In any other time and place it might have looked laughably too big for its boots, but in Berlin, 1990, there could have been no more apt grand-scale symbol of repression opposing freedom on every level, from the psychological to the political.
In the human-sized dimension, the stage was like a movie lot with limos, army trucks and ambulances hurtling to and fro and battalions of extras marching, charging – abseiling! In the gigantist world of Gerald Scarfe’s inflatables, “the largest puppets ever made” towering 40 feet above the wall, the grotesque held sway (The Teacher’s fingers were memorably vile like a bunch of wriggling worms).
The Wall itself was completed rather early in the proceedings by dramatic, as opposed to poetic, standards. The trouble was it rather comprehensively obstructed the view. But using it as a colossal slide projection screen combated the sheer white deadness of it. In the anti-war section early in the second half, while Waters and the Marching Band Of The Combined Soviet Forces respectively howled and oompahed, the wall spoke a visual volume with vast pictures of names on a war memorial and of interminable rows of anonymous crosses in a battleground graveyard, then rendered the song title Bring The Boys Back Home as graffiti six storeys high. A timber-shivering coup.
Waters took the role of Pink, the star with fascist dictatorial tendencies, acknowledged as a nasty alter-ego of his own, with the relish of a long-frustrated ham. The tension between tiny and titanic worked again in One Of My Turns: a panel in the wall opened to reveal Pink alone in a skyscraper apartment going barmy, hurling furniture and the TV out of the window – a marionette dot against the sky, but also a huge onscreen close-up from cameras inside the convincingly mocked-up room.
However, more sensitive watchers were a little concerned about the reaction of older Germans – including many in the East watching from the tenements overlooking the Platz – to the not understated cod-Nuremburg rally passage with Waters ranting, blackshirts stomping and searchlights raking the sky. The concept was in severe danger of overreaching itself at this point (around Waiting For The Worms), potentially with more painful results than in the rock fantasy of The Wall’s former life in 1980 when, if special effects misfired, it meant personal indignity for the band rather than a fright for the populace.
Waters’ bare-wired emoting, his unbridled wail and primal scream-style singing was unlovely but very much the heart and soul of the matter. Whether through design or dust-encrusted sore throat, it made a striking contrast wit the familiar class-act deliveries of his “guests”: Mike & The Mechanics’ Paul Carrack (Hey You), Scorpions (as The Heavy Rock Band, performing In The Flesh), Sinead O’Connor (Mother) backed up by The Band’s Rick Danko and Levon Helm, who reappeared to help Van Morrison out with Comfortably Numb, Bryan Adams (What Shall We Do Now?), Cyndi Lauper (Another Brick In The Wall Part 2) and Joni Mitchell (exquisitely intense in Goodbye Blue Sky), and all manner of celeb-style hired hands – Albert Finney as The Judge, Tim Curry as The Prosecuting Lawyer (in The Trial Sequence), German cabaret femme fatale Ute Lemper as The Girlfriend, Jerry Hall as The Groupie, Thomas Dolby as The Teacher and Marianne Faithful as The Mother.
Ultimately, as a piece of music The Wall stood up well, built on the old Pink Floyd instinct for stately weight, offset by everyday sound effects (a phone ringing) and the one great, hypnotic pop song. But nothing became the wall quite so much as its collapse. With a quarter of a million Berliners chanting “Tear down the wall!” at the top of their lungs, it finally complied in a prodigious avalanche of polystyrene, executed by a dazzling piece of production sleight of hand and the same number of roadies it took to build the pyramids.
The night closed with The Tide Is Turning, the unusually optimistic piece Waters wrote the day after Live Aid. As pyrotechnics fired clouds of twinkling tinsel across Potsdamer Platz, the crowd roared long and massively, Americans turned to one another and agreed it was “Ossome”, while a lone, typically English voice said, “Of course, it was all in the worst possible taste.”
“If this concert is to celebrate anything, it’s that the Berlin Wall coming down can be seen as a liberating of the human spirit,” Waters tells Q during rehearsals.
So it’s not in any sense a “Top that!” addressed to Dave Gilmour and Nick Mason, now legally established owners of his old band’s name and, hence, proprietors of a fabulously successful Pink Floyd comeback in the late ’80’s?
“No, it’s not Top that! But it certainly will be most gratifying that a few more people in the world will understand that The Wall is my work and always has been. There must be an element of that. Though after hearing them at Knebworth I don’t think I should worry. They just haven’t got the faintest idea of what any of it’s about. But then they never did. Still most of the audience for this show will probably think it’s Pink Floyd anyway. The attachment to the brand name is limpet-like. It’s just something I live with.”
The straightforward function of staging The Wall near the Brandenburg Gate, on a site straddling the frontier where the political Wall between East and West had stood for 28 years, was charitable. But the two principals, Waters and Cheshire, being who and what they are, it was also and intriguing instance of the personal and the historic trying to make sense of one another.
The story goes back to the last years of World War II. The most decorated RAF bomber pilot ever, Group Captain Cheshire VC flew over 100 sorties over Europe, including several to Berlin and the legendary bouncing-bomb “Dambusters” mission. Then, on August 9, 1945, he was the UK’s official observer when an atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, ending the war. He was 29 and what he saw that day crystallised his thinking. He returned to found a home to care for disabled people and 45 years on, there are 265 Cheshire Homes in 48 countries.
About 18 moths before Nagasaki, Roger Waters’ father, an unremarked Royal Fusilier, was killed at the Battle of Anzio, spearhead of the Allied invasion of Italy. And on September 9, 1944, his son Roger was born. It was a common enough variant on the war’s tragedies and, of course, it hardly seemed to hold the boy back. By the late 1970s, after the phenomenal sales of Dark Side Of The Moon, Waters had got it made – vast wealth, fame and the personal anonymity peculiar to Pink Floyd’s approach.
But then in Montreal, at the last gig of the 1977 Animals tour of North America’s biggest stadiums, by his own standards, he derailed: he gobbed in the face of an impassioned fan who’d been shouting and screaming at him incoherently throughout the set. It was his turning point. “The act of spitting finally made me look at myself and think, What the hell’s going on? I don’t spit at people. I thought, How have I allowed my fury to develop to the point where I’ll do that?”
Practically, he blamed the dehumanizing scale of stadiums and vowed never to play another one. He conceived The Wall with a sort of magnificent petulance to symbolise the alienation between star and audience. But its first dozen songs emerged far more personally as an anguished quasi-autobiography raging at his never-present father, his mother, his teachers and his wife (Waters’ first marriage had broken down a few years earlier).
Released in December 1979, it threw up a freak UK and US Number 1 single in Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2), and became their biggest money-spinner ever, yielding $10 million in royalties over the next two years – which more than offset the loss they made on the show, performed only 29 times because of Waters’ refusal to flog it round the stadium circuit.
Last September, Cheshire, now 72, officially announced the Memorial Fund in the aftermath of a sequence of disasters, natural and otherwise – the Armenian earthquake, Hurricane Gilbert, Chernobyl – which he felt could be responded to more quickly and efficiently if there was a specialised source of aid, not dependent on political decisions. He set a target figure of £500 million, representing £5 for each person killed in war worldwide this century.
Looking for a way to grasp global attention by the lapels, the Fund went to rock entrepreneur Mick Worwood, who had worked on Live Aid. He came up with the notion of The Wall in Berlin and put it to Waters. Then Cheshire was introduced to him and they hit it off immediately. “We might seem an unlikely partnership,” says Cheshire, “but there is a connection between us because of Roger’s father being killed at Anzio.”
Oddly enough, Waters had always pledged to himself that if he ever performed The Wall outdoors again it would be in Berlin when the real Wall came down – which, of course, last autumn still seemed improbable. But he agreed to go ahead; then, on November 10, the world turned upside down when the East Germans started to smash the wall down. Overnight, the event had taken on a new resonance and meaning.
Since then Waters has been immersed in what he holds to be “a major cultural initiative in East/West relations”. The music produced the money to cover costs (with profit to follow as the record sells, all artists donating their royalties): Polygram advanced £3 million, TV sales guaranteed at least the same again, Waters put up the $500,000 negotiated as his publishing advance and sales of tickets at around £15 were expected to cover the difference. There was a day six weeks ago when the construction company on site demanded £200,000 in cash, rather than promises, within the hour, but Cheshire’s reputation with a London bank saved the situation.
Waters’ own instinct for optimum spectacle revived the ex-serviceman’s relish for scrounging. A couple of helicopters for the intro to Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2) were no problem – the US 7th Airborne came through with flying colours. The 100-piece Soviet army band took no more than a word in the ear of the right chap. Four tanks, though, were just not on. Nor, finally, were the pair of WW2 bombers buzzing the site, proposed by Waters.
Even Cheshire baulked at that one. “He said, You can’t do that!” Waters recalls. I said, But that’s what this is all about! Anyway, we had an argument. I think he felt bad about it because he still has things to deal with, knowing he’d been up there dropping bombs on the poor bastards.”
Cheshire demurs, though. “Roger hasn’t had the experience, you see,” he says. “My instinct was that it was wrong. You shouldn’t revive horrible memories like that.”
The bombers proved unobtainable anyway but for Waters, other satisfactions were readily to hand. “When I came to listen to the album again after 10 years, I thought, Christ, I hope I like it still,” he says. “Then I put it on in the car and it was, This isn’t half bad. I’m extremely proud of it. I’m proud of the fact that I get letters from schoolteachers who use Another Brick as the basis of class discussions.
“And there’s a book about psychotherapy in which the author mentions The Wall and says how extraordinary it is that an Englishman should write in this way. When I read that in an academic tome about child psychology I did feel a warm thrill that somebody had taken it so seriously.
“I get letters about The Wall too – I’m not saying the mailbag’s bursting with them – but from people it’s meant a lot to, helped them free their feelings. It’s given comfort. So the pay-off from having expressed myself before my peers and torn down my wall, if only to a limited extent, the pay-off is… good.”