Pink Floyd and the Cold War: Reassessing The Final Cut and Pink Floyd in the 80s
If the recent appearance of ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’ on the UK singles chart reminds us of anything, it’s that the pop charts can be a powerful forum for grass roots protest. Regardless of age, gender, or race, the music one buys (or creates) can be a potent political act, allowing one’s voice to be heard in a time when the message they wish to convey flies in the face of the mainstream media narrative of the day. Although active on the world’s musical stage since the mid-1960s, for Pink Floyd songwriter, Roger Waters, it was not until the 1980s that music and protest became synonymous. Working as a part of the Floyd and, later, as a solo artist, Waters authored two records which sought to lay bare the policies of western leaders Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Among fans of the Floyd, these records can be divisive but viewed in the context of their time they document changes not only in the band but in the world they inhabited. The politicisation of the band’s music was fundamentally tied to the renewal of Cold War tensions.
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Released in 1983, Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut was a loud, uncompromising cry against the policies of Thatcher, her response to the Falklands crisis, and more broadly, the spiraling Cold War tensions of the time. Brash, angry, and mostly lacking in subtly, the album had originally been conceived as a type of spin-off from the band’s previous record, 1979′s The Wall. With a brilliantly unbalanced movie by Alan Parker based upon that album now out in theatres, the plan had been to produce an accompanying soundtrack record which would feature a mixture of new tracks and older material re-recorded for the film. With the outbreak of the Falklands War and, as Waters saw it, the betrayal of the ‘post-war dream’ the record quickly outgrew its original remit.
Although Waters’ role as the band’s principle lyricist had given him a large amount of control over what the band had previously said, the group had mostly steered clear of politics, only sprinkling their songs with the occasional anti-war message – ‘Forward they cry, from rear, and the front rank died’ being a potent example from 1973′s ‘Us and Them’. By 1979, that situation was beginning to change as Waters began the process of reflecting upon his own life in the band’s music. The result –The Wall– was one of the great musical masterpieces of the twentieth century, providing a commercial and critical hit that would continue to resonate with listeners years and decades after its original release.
A deeply, sometimes shockingly personal record, that album re-opened old wounds for Waters, not the least of which was the death of his father in World War II. With tensions ramping up over the Falklands in early 1982, Waters became increasingly irate at the Thatcher government’s apparent readiness to ignore potential diplomatic solutions in favour of a military response to the escalating crisis. As he saw it, the sacrifice made by his father was one for a world in which diplomacy, not the lives of young men and women, resolved such disputes (‘And everyone has recourse to the law/And no one kills the children any more’ – The Gunner’s Dream). Such a view was not necessarily a widespread one and even in the band, Waters’ politicisation of the group’s music proved to be divisive with guitarist David Gilmour particularly unhappy that the group was now openly criticising the government (‘Maggie, what have we done’ – The Post War Dream). With Thatcher’s Falkland’s War still generally well-remembered in the UK, The Final Cut’s precarious position becomes all the more apparent. With albums such as Animals and The Wall, political issues were present in the Floyd’s back catalogue but with The Final Cut, Waters’ politics eschewed the abstract approach of the past in favour of a full-on frontal attack. Tracks such as ‘The Gunner’s Dream’ may have been wistful but album opener ‘The Post War Dream’, alongside others –‘Get Your Filthy Hands off my Desert’ and ‘Southampton Dock’, for example– tackle their subject head-on and with little ambiguity (‘Should we shout, should scream/What happened to the post war dream’ – The Post War Dream). Problematically, such an approach leaves little room for enjoyment if one’s politics do not align reasonably closely with Waters’ views. A general anti-war message is one thing, but a direct criticism of a conflict with broad support is something else entirely.
Pink Floyd ‘The Post War Dream’ from The Final Cut
In terms of music, the album is one of the band’s flatter efforts, lacking much of the subtlety and nuance of their 70s efforts. The sound of military bands and brass instruments often overbear whilst the general tone of the record verges upon morose for much of its run-time. That being said, there are moments where lyrics and music reach the same, brilliant heights –‘The Post War Dream’, ‘The Gunner’s Dream’, ‘The Final Cut’, ‘Not Now, John’– and both David Gilmour’s and Nick Mason’s contributions deserve recognition, particularly Gilmour’s guitar work on ‘The Fletcher Memorial Home’ and ‘The Post War Dream’. But if the relative failure of the music does anything, it provides a canvas over which the content of the lyrics and Waters’ fury can be laid bare. Unlike, say, Dark Side of the Moon, The Final Cut is the antithesis of timelessness. It is a record rooted in the period in which it was recorded. Bitterly sarcastic lyrics about the construction of new British warships in Japan can only really be understood when the album’s broader context is known.
To put that another way, this is not a particularly accessible album. At least, it isn’t accessible in the sense that much of the meaning which underpins it can be grasped only when one understands precisely what was happening in Britain and the Americas in 1982. Timeless, then, this album is not – but enduringly angry, furious even, it remains; the subject of the anger may not be initially clear to new listeners but like many historic documents, the original sentiment remains.
Although it is the Falklands crisis which is the central bone of contention at the heart of this record, The Final Cut is also a broader attack upon a series of Cold War issues, events, and escalations. In ‘The Fletcher Memorial Home’ (named after the father Waters lost to the Second World War), the songwriter fantasises about the future decrepitude of the ‘tyrants and kings’ –Reagan, Thatcher, and Breshnev– whom he identifies as the chief adversaries of peace. For Waters, each of these individuals was actively engaged in betraying the post war dream, the consequences of which were a subject that he and, to a lesser extent, his former band mates, would return to in 1987. With Waters’ departure from Pink Floyd in 1985, the group essentially fractured into two distinct but related projects – Waters’ solo career and the David Gilmour-led version of the group. By 1987 both parties were ready to release new records and though both projects were sonically and thematically distinct, each continued to explore some of the broader themes which had defined The Final Cut.
For the Gilmour-led Floyd, 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason was a runaway commercial hit which proved that the band’s fans were willing to accept a Waters-less version of the group. Of course, the departure of Waters necessitated some significant creative changes with outside writers having to be leveraged to produce much of the album’s lyrics. Unlike previous albums, no overall concept tied the individual tracks on that record together but with ‘The Dogs of War’ Gilmour and lyricist Anthony Moore reflected at least some of the broader ideas which defined the band’s previous album. Like some of the more abstract tracks on The Final Cut, ‘The Dogs of War’ offered a critical framework for spiralling international tensions without criticising any specific politicians or governments; indeed, Moore’s lyrics might even imply a defence of the same leaders that Waters had sought to attack – ‘For hard cash, we will lie down and deceive/Even our masters don’t know the web we weave’. Quite who the dogs of war are is never made clear but the music, provided by Gilmour, at least ensures that the listener understand how angry these individuals should make us. Lyrical vagueness aside, ‘The Dogs of War’ serves as an interesting post-script to The Final Cut, announcing a solidarity with that album’s idealised pacifism if not its criticism of the American and British governments of the time.
Pink Floyd ‘The Dogs of War’ from A Momentary Lapse of Reason
That same year, Roger Waters released his second solo album (his first since departing the group), a highly contemporaneous record which was mostly concerned with the Cold War. Unlike The Final Cut, Waters new album –Radio K.A.O.S– was less concerned with attacking specific governments than it was in pointing out how absurdly dangerous the political climate of the time had become. Like his previous work with the Floyd, Radio K.A.O.S was constructed around a highly developed concept, an on-air conversation between the host of an L.A. radio station (K.A.O.S) and a mentally disabled Welshman named Billy who is able to control radio waves and, thus, remotely control electronic equipment. Over the course of the album’s first seven tracks Billy’s life story is related to the listener –he comes from a mining background, has suffered under a conservative government, all reflections of The Final Cut– until he hacks both eastern and western nuclear systems, apparently launching each side’s store of WMDs. But as the moment of truth arrives…nothing. No launches, no explosions – it had been a rouse. As the eighth and final track on the record explains, having truly stared down the nuclear barrel, mankind is forced to change. A subtle album this is not, but its eight tracks are designed to emphasise how disconnected people can be from the politicians who represent them. The desires, hopes, and dreams of the masses are contrasted with the absurdities of threatened nuclear annihilation which underpinned the Cold War.
Whilst it is probably fair to say that both A Momentary Lapse of Reason and Radio K.A.O.S share some important thematic overlap, it was Waters alone who, perhaps unsurprisingly, continued to explore the Cold War in an album length form. ‘The Dogs of War’ captures a sense of anger and frustration and Gilmour’s vocal performance is both intense and full of emotion but the exploration of international tensions is not something which defines the rest of that album – probably because that was never Gilmour’s intention. Like Genesis (see Invisible Touch), the preceding year, Gilmour created an album not bound by any one concept which featured a single track that specifically explored the implications of living in a world dominated by the Cold War. For Genesis that track was ‘Land of Confusion’, for Pink Floyd, it was ‘The Dogs of War’. In contrast, Waters threw himself at exploring the Cold War in a more all-encompassing way, continuing his previous practice of constructing albums around broad concepts and detailed narratives. Musically speaking, Radio K.A.O.S is a melange of (often regrettable) 80s sounds –programmed drums, layered synthesisers, processed guitars– which have served to date the record. This is a problem which affects also affects A Momentary Lapse of Reason, though definitely to a lesser extent. The opening track on Radio K.A.O.S is, for instance, a deliberate attempt to create a very contemporary sounding pop-rock track, the result being something which sounds like the Buggles’ hit, ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ as performed by Dire Straits.
Such an era-specific sound can be distracting for modern listeners, particularly those eager for a reprise of 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon but for all the problems brought about by the era’s distinctive approach to music production, there is a certain genuineness in the final result. Radio K.A.O.S sounds very much like an album recorded in the latter half of the 1980s but, considering its desire to explore the politics of the day that effect only adds to the retrospective atmosphere created during latter day explorations of the disc. ‘The Dogs of War’ provides a somewhat similar experience but it is far more appropriate to parallel that track to ‘Land of Confusion’ by Genesis. Both bands were working in a context in which the Cold War was a matter worth discussing but not necessarily one so important that it warranted an entire album to explore. In contrast, Waters’ growing activism led him in a different direction which emphasised the lyrical continuity between his latter day projects and his earlier work with the band. On the final track of his Radio K.A.O.S album, Waters provides an intensely personal and genuine deconstruction of his own feelings towards the threat posed by nuclear war which, more than anything else, help to frame the growing role his political activism had played in his music since the turn of the decade – ‘I used to look in on the children at night/In the glow of their Donald Duck Light/And frightened myself with the thought of my little ones burning/But the tide is turning.’
Roger Waters ‘The Tide is Turning (After Live Aid)’ from Radio K.A.O.S
Perhaps it’s because I am a parent myself that I see something particularly relevant in those lyrics but unlike most protest songs of the era there appears in that song to be some reflection of a deeply personal emotion beyond the typical war-is-bad message. In that track, Waters provides listeners with a sense of who he is and why he was chose to tackle the subject he tackled in a way that goes far beyond the latent anger he harboured over the death of his father. Instead, he offers an insight into how the escalation of the Cold War was affecting him personally. Whilst ‘The Dogs of War’ served as a perfectly legitimate expression of Gilmour’s anger about the Cold War, that was a subject which overlapped significantly with much of the material on The Final Cut, particularly the Gilmour-sung track ‘Not Now, John’ and Waters’ bitter lament, ‘Southampton Dock’. But in ‘The Tide is Turning’ Waters found expression for something else – the fear of war and how that fear manifested itself in his and his family’s daily lives. Of course, that is not to say that one of these albums is better than the other (that is a highly subjective, deeply personal decision which only an individual listener can arrive at) but ‘The Tide is Turning’ does serve as a masterful post-script to a period of Cold War influenced song writing from Pink Floyd and its related projects. Prior to The Wall in 1979 the subject of war was rarely at the centre of the band’s music but as the Cold War heated back up in the 1980s the subject of conflict became one of the group’s main concerns – these albums are documents not only of a band fracturing and splintering, but of a growing sense of uneasiness and discontent over the escalation of tensions between east and west. Whilst contemporary movies like Rambo III gloried in the renewed chance for conflict and violence which the 1980s appeared to offer, on the pop charts a different view was able to find expression. Hardly controversy free and certainly not universally acclaimed, the records produced by Pink Floyd and Roger Waters during this period were, to varying degrees, acts of protest which flew in the face of the mainstream political narratives favoured by the governments of the time.
‘And when the day was over, we spent what they had made/But, in the bottom of our heart we felt the final cut.’ – ‘Southampton Dock’, The Final Cut