Pain and glory

Roger Waters’ last stand in Madrid

Artillery Row

On 21 and 22 March, Spaniards were gripped by a televised spectacle from the National Parliament in which the far-right Vox Party called a motion of no-confidence in the government. To replace Socialist Pedro Sánchez as Prime Minister, it proposed an eighty-nine-year-old former member of the Spanish Communist Party: Ramón Tamames. The country’s newspaper of record El País invoked this name in a review of Roger Waters’ tour in Barcelona, referring to the seventy-nine-year-old ex-member of Pink Floyd as “the Tamames of rock music”. On the evidence of the show I witnessed later that week in Madrid, Waters is long past his musical and creative peak, but (personal and political flaws aside) he retains a level of professionalism that resists caricature.

The classic 1970s line-up of Pink Floyd never toured Spain

Spanish audiences didn’t have the opportunity to see Pink Floyd live in their prime. Guitarist and vocalist David Gilmour played a residency on the Costa de Sol at a nightclub in Marbella during the 1960s, but the classic 1970s line-up of Pink Floyd never toured Spain. Waters assumed his departure in 1985 marked the end of the group. He has never forgiven his bandmates for continuing without him, once claiming that they “took my child and sold her into prostitution”. Much to his chagrin, the reconfigured Pink Floyd thrived commercially, the 1987–88 Momentary Lack of Reason tour filling stadiums around the world including in Spain where Pink Floyd retain legendary status. The V & A exhibition about the group had a high-profile residency in Madrid just prior to the onset of the pandemic at the site where the country’s most important contemporary art fair, ARCO, is held. A small number of empty blocks, and face value tickets available from Ticketmaster a few hours before showtime, suggested wishful thinking in Waters’ boasts on Twitter that both shows in Madrid had sold out, but playing two nights at the Spanish capital’s largest indoor arena is no mean feat. 

A frequent complaint against concerts on this scale is that sports arenas are soulless and interchangeable. Different audiences and cultures do nevertheless provide different experiences. The bars at London’s 02 Arena don’t, for example, offer quality ham baguettes — but you can request tap water. A not insignificant portion of the multi-generational audience in the standing area in Madrid appeared to be on MDMA, thus ensuring the bars did a roaring trade in mineral water. Waters’ upcoming all-seated UK arena tour is likely to be a more mature affair, with a ticket close to the man himself in London, Birmingham and Manchester priced upwards of £200, over twice the cost of admission to stand near the stage in Madrid. 

Spaniards are not famed for their punctuality, but they boo if matadors arrive a minute late to the bullring. Musicians are similarly expected to be ready to play on the dot. The Madrid audience was upset at Waters’ advertised start time of 9pm by a loudspeaker announcing, in English, that the show would commence in fifteen minutes. Given the legal objections the tour has faced elsewhere in Europe, a minor backlash like this was small fry. 

There have been no attempts to silence Waters in Spain as there have been in Frankfurt, where an upcoming concert has been banned. His purported anti-Semitism has not made headlines in a country that was officially neutral in World War II (although the Franco dictatorship clearly favoured an Axis victory). Waters’ pro-Putin-sentiments have been met with bafflement rather than anger in the press, and they didn’t seem to bother anyone inside the arena. A loudspeaker announcement (also written out on the large screens) that those who liked Pink Floyd’s music but didn’t like Roger’s politics would do well to fuck off to the bar was met with indifference. Given the importance of the spoken and written word to this multi-million-pound global trek, the absence of any form of translation for audiences who cannot be presumed to know English is puzzling at best and chauvinistic at worst. 

The Madrid audience often switched off when Waters started speaking, whilst applauding iconic phrases slogans such as “Down with the Patriarchy”, especially when prefaced by a recognisable swear word. Waters made one reference to the limits of monolingualism: toasting the audience with a glass of Mexican mezcal, he expressed regret at being incapable of saying more than “Buenas noches” and “Gracias”. Spanish, he claims, is the one language everyone should learn. The bassist and singer has long taken an interest in Latin American politics. He accepted a signed Venezuelan Cuatro instrument from the disgraced populist President Nicolas Maduro in 2019. The Final Cut (1983), the last Pink Floyd album to feature Waters, constituted a long-play protest against the Falklands War. 

In their imperial phase, Pink Floyd thrived on the tension between Gilmour’s world-class musicianship and the conceptual genius of Waters, never the most sophisticated of players. The latter’s defensive strategy has been to play-down the importance of virtuosity. He was infuriated, when Eric Clapton joined his band on a solo tour back in the 1980s, by the applause showered on the guitar god. In 2023, hitting the audience during the opening thirty minutes with “Comfortably Numb” and “Another Brick in the Wall” (an unusual Christmas number one in 1979) should be a sure-fire guarantee of getting an arena firing on all cylinders. The effect was, however, muted, with the decision to excise the blistering guitar solo from opener “Comfortably Numb” self-defeating. Comparing this latest incarnation of the keynote song from The Wall (1979) with the superlative version delivered by Pink Floyd in their one-off-reunion for Live 8 in 2005 was akin to witnessing a tribute act’s minor missteps bringing the genius of original recordings into sharp relief — hardly the best omen for Waters’ upcoming fiftieth anniversary re-recording of The Dark Side of the Moon (1973). 

My fellow spectators also appeared disconcerted by the fact that the wall of screens surrounding Waters meant his voice was audible before he became visible. Even in the 1970s, Pink Floyd often risked being enslaved by their equipment. Waters created The Wall as a concept album, tour and film expressing his concerns about the alienating experience of the modern rock experience. Much like Kraftwerk, Pink Floyd explored the limits of the human and technological dimensions underpinning the beating heart of the live musical experience. 

Former US Presidents are indicted as war criminals and Julian Assange celebrated as a hero

For decades, the factions and frictions within Pink Floyd have extended to individual members’ wives and partners. Earlier this year, novelist Polly Samson (who married Gilmour in 1994) made headlines for calling out Waters on Twitter for being an anti-Semitic Putin apologist as well as a tax-dodging misogynist. She also accused him of lip-synching, now far more standard practice in arena concerts than when Sinead O’Connor physically attacked Waters in 1990 for allegedly tricking her into miming to “Mother” at a special presentation of The Wall in Berlin. Engulfed by a dizzying light show and dwarfed by a massive in-the-round stage, it was not always clear what, if anything, Waters performed live in Madrid. He relegated most of his duties to a band of hired hands for “Money”, the hit that transformed Pink Floyd into a stadium band in the US. When the songs are this good, it doesn’t really matter: an enthusiastic audience combined with cutting edge visuals and sound system deliver an uplifting communal experience. The set peaked prior to the interval break with a triple whammy of “Wish you Were Here”, “Shine on you Crazy Diamond” and “Sheep”. The second half began promisingly with “In the Flesh” and “Run like Hell”, the latter a punkish classic from The Wall in which the album’s anti-hero rock star protagonist turns fascist dictator, rallying concertgoers as if they were troops. For Waters, the critical thinking his music and shows demand are the best antidote to totalitarianism, which he believes underpin many ostensibly liberal democracies. With particular venom reserved for Ronald Reagan, former US Presidents are indicted as war criminals and Julian Assange celebrated as a hero.

There are personal as well as political explanations for Waters’ aversion to war. His father Eric began World War II as a conscientious objector only to later join the armed forces against the Nazis. He died in 1944 when Roger was a baby. Eight decades later, Waters Jr. explained to the Madrid audience that recent solo track “The Bar” is about a hypothetical place where people can come together to talk through their differences in a peaceful manner. With his track record of vitriolic personal and political attacks, many will find the image of Waters the peacemaker difficult to stomach. Artistically, the song as performed in concert inadvertently evokes the figure of the ageing barroom bore unable to read the room. Cutting an impressive figure for his age, Waters’ trademark black T-Shirt is nevertheless a tad too tight given the weight he now carries. The near octogenarian informed us he was limping due to a twisted ankle, not as a result of being “fucking old”. His tic of stroking a still impressive mane of grey hair intimates a more fragile interior behind the rebarbative facade.

Whilst never directly affiliated with the University, Waters came of age in the academic environment of Cambridge where originality and challenging received wisdom were highly prized. Pink Floyd would never have produced their classic albums if he had not been willing to pursue a road less travelled and remain impervious to criticism. The nearly three-hour-concerts (on what is billed as Waters’ “First Ever Farewell Tour” — a dig at his contemporaries who use retirement to shift tickets before then returning to the stage) run the risk of becoming endurance tests. They lose steam once the set’s highlights have been dispensed with in the first two hours. A degree of self-curation and censorship would not do Waters any harm. When Johnny Rotten, a fellow professional contrarian, paraded a “I Hate Pink Floyd” T-Shirt at the height of punk, the lead singer of the Sex Pistols was pricking pins in a sacred cow. In 2023, Waters is a more contentious figure than he was in his heyday. Cancel culture may yet turn him into a martyr for free speech. Political frisson will variously attract and keep people away from concerts that — controversy aside — are solid but nothing all that special. 

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