Wednesday 8 January 2014

PINK FLOYD: The Final Cut

(#278: 2 April 1983, 2 weeks)

Track listing: The Post War Dream/Your Possible Pasts/One Of The Few/The Hero’s Return/The Gunners Dream/Paranoid Eyes/Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert/The Fletcher Memorial Home/Southampton Dock/The Final Cut/Not Now John/Two Suns In The Sunset

“Death was in the staring sun,
fixing its eyes on everyone.
It rattled the bones of the Light Horsemen
still lying out there in the open.

as we, advancing in the sun
sing ‘Death to all and everyone.’”
(PJ Harvey, “All And Everyone”)

Polly Harvey would have been thirteen when The Final Cut was released, and I cannot imagine her not having listened to it, to this monograph, or epitaph, which begins with the question: “Tell me true, tell me why was Jesus crucified?” The opening question of a record which was made available to buy at Easter. A record which is about war, and remembrance, and wilful forgetfulness, and eighties Britain, or is it Britain now?  A Britain which less than three years ago was ready to praise and laud Let England Shake, a pitiless analogy of modern society in the setting of the First World War, and which is now ready to damn its creator as an uppity agitator, let alone anyone else from the late Alan Clark, that noted left-wing shit stirrer, on down who regards or regarded that war with anything less, or more, than uncritical joy, an irritating and obstructive rain on a profitable centennial parade. A nation which has allowed itself to be forcibly pulled back from everything that Beveridge and Attlee had once promised, so far back it might as well be picking oakum and be run by Lord Liverpool.

“Oh Maggie, Maggie, what did we do?” asks the shaky voice, singing a song that might have been as old as the mist rolling through the English dell, crouching in the far corner of an old Orwell pub. “Whatever happened to the post war dream?” Whatever happened to you, whatever happened to me?

Whatever happened to Pink Floyd? Look at them on the basis of the three number one albums they have had (so far; there are two more to come in the nineties by a group trading under the name of “Pink Floyd”) and you’d be stumped to make sense of the thing. Semi-abstract brass-driven pastorals? A prayer to a double who was for some of the time present during its recording? A forty-three minute scream which goes beyond primalism? If The Hurting ends with acknowledgement of the need to break everything back down to their roots, and maybe rebuild ourselves, then The Final Cut systematically seals off all means of escape.

Escape for Pink Floyd at least, if this can even be regarded as a Pink Floyd record; Michael Kamen and Andy Bown do their best to fill the space left by Richard Wright – and they do, and what does that say about relevance, permanence and redundancy in a group so tightly and determinedly driven by its pilot? – and when Nick Mason fumbled with the tricky rhythms of “Two Suns In The Sunset,” Roger Waters simply brought in stalwart Andy Newmark to do the job.

Roger Waters, a man who is now more or less the age his father would have been had he lived to witness The Final Cut – but if he had still been around, would The Final Cut even have been necessary? – and a man who, if he had edited the Today programme a couple of Thursdays ago, would almost certainly have picked the same contributors and would not have caused a fraction of the “controversy” that Harvey did. Moreover, a man determined to tell his story, no matter that it might pull his group apart. Indeed Waters has admitted that by the time the record came to be made – roughly from July to December of 1982 – there was really no such thing as a group called Pink Floyd left, but simply a bunch of middle-aged men who didn’t get on, hadn’t properly got on since Wish You Were Here. The record’s working title was Spare Bricks, reflecting its original intention of being a soundtrack album to Alan Parker’s film of The Wall, and several of its songs were essentially leftovers from the sessions for The Wall. This dismayed David Gilmour – he reasonably asked why these songs were being put out “now” when they had not been deemed good enough to go on The Wall – but in the interval between thought and expression, the Falklands War had happened, and Waters’ perspective changed dramatically. A song written and recorded for the soundtrack, “When The Tigers Broke Free,” which directly addresses his own father’s death in Anzio in World War II, came out in the summer of 1982 as a stand-alone single and was not included on The Final Cut, though has reappeared on the current CD edition, coming between “One Of The Few” and “The Hero’s Return.”

Recording the album was a deeply unpleasing experience for all involved, including Waters who, feeling abandoned, has said that he and Kamen (who also did all of the orchestral arrangements; the National Philharmonic Orchestra appears more or less throughout the record’s entirety and is far more prominent than, say, Gilmour’s guitar, whereas Mason’s drums are heard only minimally) ended up putting the album together between themselves. Recording took place in eight different studios in or around London – and Abbey Road was one of these – and it has to be said that The Final Cut, effectively the final statement of the group most people knew as Pink Floyd, is one of the most merciless, claustrophobic and striking of all number one albums.

It exists as a sort of appendix to The Wall, though is clearly designed as one continuous piece – there is no “Comfortably Numb” but then there wasn’t meant to be – and, much more so than Pink Floyd’s previous work, appears to have formed its music to follow the curves, crevices and agonies of Waters’ lyrics; much of it is performed sprechgesang in a manner, alternately confidential and hysterical, which puts me in mind of the musical relationship between Bill Fay’s voice and Ray Russell’s guitar on the former’s Time Of The Last Persecution – “Pictures Of Adolf Again” and “Let All The Teddies Know” would not at all have been out of place here. Gilmour’s guitar is far more conventional technically, but emotionally as equally involving and pained – his interjections on “Your Possible Pasts,” “The Fletcher Memorial Home” and “Paranoid Eyes” work especially well, perhaps because he is used so sparsely on the record (most of the lead vocal on “Not Now John” is sung by Gilmour). In other words, when he comes in, it matters.

The hurt refrain on “Your Possible Pasts” – “Do you remember me? How it used to be?” – is the nearest musically the record gets to recognisable “Pink Floyd” (but note the ticking clock from Atom Heart Mother which reappears ominously in “One Of The Few” and the repeated Dark Side Of The Moon references throughout the record, e.g. Thatcher’s “quiet desperation” in “Southampton Dock” and Waters’ own “If I show you my dark side” in the title song). “Don’t you think,” cries Waters, “we should be CLOSER?” and in that “CLOSER” we not only remember that once, not that long ago, was  a record called Closer, but we also feel the lifetime of blood being poured by Waters into that word. The song also includes Mason’s best work on the record, rhetorical, shocking snaps of Zuccarelli holophonic-processed snare at key points (“A warning to anyone still in command,” “Stepping up boldly, one put out his hand”); like that other troubled 1983 album, Psychic TV’s Dreams Less Sweet, a record in part put together by someone who once helped design Pink Floyd’s album sleeves, it uses its headphone-friendly holophonic sensurround to dazzling effect, but the present record is arguably the more disturbing, explosions coming out of nowhere, screams (“Daddy, DADDY!” goes one particularly painful one at the climax of “Two Suns In The Sunset”), always aiming to unsettle the listener.

Some of the songs – particularly “One Of The Few,” “The Hero’s Return” and “Paranoid Eyes” – are performed from the perspective of the tyrannical schoolteacher in The Wall (and portrayed unforgettably in the film by Alex McAvoy, previously best known to Scottish television audiences as Sunny Jim, the seriously overaged cabin boy in the cosy sitcom The Vital Spark, about a Clyde puffer going about its comic business in central Scotland; he reappears in the video which accompanied this album). In “The Hero’s Return” he tries to explain why he is the way he is, how his gruff and sadistic manner is merely a smokescreen for things he doesn’t want to remember (“Though they’ll never fathom it/Behind my sarcasm, desperate memories lie”), in particular a fellow gunner dying. By the time of “Paranoid Eyes,” he has drifted harshly into alcoholism – the DT roar of Waters towards the end of the song (“The PIE in the SKY turned OUT to be MILES TOO HIGH”) hardly rouses him. “And you hide, hide, hide,” whispers Waters like a nightmare Chesney Allen.

Others concern themselves with Waters’ concerns about early eighties Thatcherite Britain. “The Gunners Dream” is one of the record’s most affecting songs in that he spells out exactly what he thought his father (who was a schoolteacher) and his peers were fighting for, namely that the sacrifice would have been worth it, that Britain would have become a better place. And so the song becomes an alternate universe “Imagine” – do I even need to stress the way Lennon haunts this album like Banquo’s ghost? It could have been entitled Roger Waters/Plastic Ono Band – in which Waters dreams of how things should be, mindful of the Troubles (the 1982 Hyde Park bandstand bombing is referred to obliquely), and then his voice reaches  a quietly emotional peak with these lines:

“And everyone has recourse to the law
And no-one kills the children anymore
And no-one kills the children anymore.”

But he knows he is only dreaming, and the “insane” of the line “his dream is driving me insane” morphs into a horrific sustained screams which segues seamlessly into an equally troubled tenor solo by Raphael Ravenscroft. Troubled quietude, however, reasserts itself at song’s end, with Waters whispering with wisps of despair: “We cannot just write off his final scene/Take heed of the dream/Take heed.”

This is followed, on side two, by a raging tirade in which Waters visualises all the leaders of the world – “Incurable Tyrants and Kings,” “Colonial Wasters of Life and Limb” – coming together in a retirement home (“Fletcher” refers to his father, Eric Fletcher Waters), followed by them being gassed to death; his closing croon of “Is everyone in? Are you having a nice time? Now the final solution can be applied” (earlier in the song he announces the guests coming in two by two and sounds remarkably like Vivian Stanshall). As a statement of extremity it is only rivalled in this tale by the Sex Pistols. “Southampton Dock” sees “her”(i.e. Thatcher) standing on the quayside, seeing the boys off, some to their deaths; Waters half-speaks the words close to the ear and simultaneously screams the same words in the far distance (a premonition of what awaits them). The poppies, the soldier with gun in hand and knife in back; nothing has been learned.

And yet, in the middle of all this, there is still Syd. The title song is a deeply moving performance, even if it’s still one Roger looking in the mirror and seeing another Roger staring back behind his shoulder, but really there is no doubt in my mind whom the song is about. “I’m spiralling down to the hole in the ground where I hide” – in his mother’s basement in Cambridge? All the while, Waters is asking the listener to make the effort, maybe even risk life and limb, to get to him, to understand him (or “Syd”)…

…”And if I’m in, I’ll tell you what’s behind The Wall.”

The second half of that line is buried somewhat in holophonic sound effects but Waters goes on to ask – if he opens himself up, will she love him back, will she care for him, or will she just “sell your story to Rolling Stone?”

Another whisper: “Would you send me packing?”

Followed by the loudest cry on the record, this attempt by the sixties to confront the eighties, a prayer for what this tale has perhaps always, and only, been about:


He thinks about ending it “but just then the ‘phone rang…I never had the nerve to make the final cut.”

I don’t know whether any teenager was listening to this record in Washington State or whether he was too busy getting down to The Melvins or Hüsker Dü. But I would estimate that it was being listened to in Abingdon, and by a teenage Dubliner who will eventually perform in Waters’ version of The Wall performed in Berlin at the time The Wall comes down.

“Not Now John” was the “single” (and still a Top 30 hit, though only just) with Gilmour’s yelling vocals and punk guitar riffs damning utopia to hell, complete with scared or exultant backing singers (“Fuck! All! That!”). The protagonist might be Alan Parker on the film set, but I don’t see how the “John” can be anyone other than Lennon – to hell with a better world, we have to compete, stay on this treadmill, do it for Maggie, go global, turn into machines, kill ourselves like the “wily Japanese” do (Waters’ is a profoundly World War II view). And so it thrashes on like the most grotesque parody of eighties Reaganrock you ever heard, and it’s no less grotesque or parodic for coming before most Reaganrock – I thought of John Cale’s maniacal 1975 cover of “Heartbreak Hotel” and inevitably Music For A New Society, which rivals The Final Cut for tortuousness but outdoes it in hope.

But it is the closing song, “Two Suns In The Sunset,” which is the record’s most disturbing; this is the other end of the Love Over Gold telescope in that he is out on the road, driving, and slowly – or quickly – it dawns on him that nuclear holocaust is about to happen. As I said, it finishes the album’s job in that it closes down the few rays of hope Waters allowed to penetrate his Rubik’s cube of darkness; I would in particular point you to this passage:

“And you’ll never hear their voices (Daddy, DADDY!!)
And you’ll never see their faces
You have no recourse to the law anymore.”

The final verse is the most horrifying verse, in terms of lyrical imagery and story’s end, of any song on any number one album to date; although this is not the first album to end with nuclear obliteration, it is by some distance the least hopeful – and all the while, the music hardly raises its voice, with just Ravenscroft’s placid, AoR tenor combining with tasteful guitars and careful drumming, driving into the fading horizon. “Foe and friend? We were all equal in the end,” concludes Waters, perhaps looking back at “The End” of Abbey Road.

“The moral. What’s the moral?”
(Robbie Coltrane addressing his students in Cracker)

Apart from Kurt Loder at the aforementioned Rolling Stone, hardly anybody had a good word to say for The Final Cut at the time. Woeful, self-pitying self-indulgence, dull, tedious and unforgiving – these were some of the critical terms deployed. But you have to remember the tenor of the times; the world was still in a state of crazed anxiety about whether it would still exist or be suddenly wiped out, and so I’d guess that Waters felt that whatever he does say on the record, he had to say it now or never. In a lot of ways, and particularly with the last four number one albums, we are still in 1980* and every number one album seems to urge the guard’s cry of “Last stop! All change, please!” – these represent the expression of fairly naked and open feelings and emotions, and it is hardly surprising that pop decided to turn away from this as swiftly as it could; indeed it could be argued that the rest of 1983’s number one albums, with only a very few exceptions, are about running away from openness, about seeking sanctuary in cheerful and/or meaningless nonsense, or finding a refuge in a modified past, or doing its best to ignore the world collapsing around its privileged torso. It really isn’t that different from now, and I’m sure both Roger Waters and Polly Harvey would, in their own very individual but linked ways, concur.

“Silence is at the beginning and end of everything in life. This song was written with the thought that there are infinite possibilities for humankind contained within the brilliance of the universe.”
(Charlie Haden’s liner note to his song “Silence” as included on his 1983 album The Ballad Of The Fallen, effectively the second album by his Liberation Music Orchestra, with arrangements of Spanish Civil War songs and original compositions by Carla Bley, a musician umbilically linked, via Nick Mason, to Pink Floyd. The album, which is entirely instrumental, is maybe the most moving and searing indictment of Thatcher and Reagan’s world to emerge from eighties music. The rear of the sleeve features a painting done by a refugee from El Salvador and includes the following inscriptions: “No to U.S. intervention; yanky (sic) invader out of El Salvador – Our only crime is that we are poor – We are tired of so many bullets sent by Ronald Reagan.”  If, as Waters claims at the end of The Final Cut, there is nothing left to defend except charcoal, then is silence not still worth defending, in respect of what it might still cause?)

*A year in which I saw Waters closing the wall on his audience and himself at Earl’s Court. If The Final Cut is an adjunct to The Wall – although I think it could act as a rebuttal – then the relatively scant attention that this piece has paid to The Wall may reflect the possibility that it exists independently and is a lot more forbidding and cloistered a concept, let alone a suite of music. Did you listen attentively to The Wall before tackling The Final Cut? Reader, I expected you to do so without needing to be asked, and if so you may understand why not much needs to be said about it here. The double album, and everything that surrounded it, deserves nothing less than a book to itself.