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POP MUSIC : Roger Waters' Dark Side of the Tube

September 13, 1992|RICHARD CROMELIN | Richard Cromelin writes about pop music for Calendar

Art rock.

Pink Floyd.

"Dark Side of the Moon."

You can tell a lot about your view of Roger Waters by your reaction to those terms.

As the creative force of Pink Floyd from the late 1960s through the mid-'80s, Waters pioneered the kind of musical and theatrical experimentation that set the tone for progressive rock. It was a movement that some saw as an ambitious realization of rock's creative potential, and others as a pretentious betrayal of rock's earthy instincts.

Ambition met accessibility in 1973's "Dark Side of the Moon," one of the biggest-selling and most influential albums of the rock era, and the equally provocative "The Wall" six years later. Those albums established Waters' reputation as a thoughtful if caustic social observer--a sort of cerebral Pete Townshend, passionate in his concerns and willing to tackle big themes with rock's weaponry.

The English band broke up amid acrimony in 1983 and Waters found with his two subsequent solo albums--"The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking" and "Radio K.A.O.S"--that he had retained only a fraction of Pink Floyd's massive audience. Waters suffered another blow when his old bandmates won the right to use the Pink Floyd name.

Waters rebounded with an all-star charity production of "The Wall" at the former site of the Berlin Wall in 1990. His first album in five years, "Amused to Death," is just out, and true to form, it takes on an ambitious topic--the impact of television on the human race (Review, Page 80).

Waters, 49, is eager to mount an elaborate staging of the new work but will tour only if the album sells enough to make it a hot ticket. Waiting in a rented Long Island, N.Y., home for the returns to start coming in, the resident of Hampshire, England, spoke by phone about the new album and the principles that underlie his music.

Question: How did "Amused to Death" develop?

Answer: The album title came from a book by Neil Postman, who wrote a short book called "Amusing Ourselves to Death," which is about the history of the media, particularly as it relates to political communication--i.e., how things have changed since such works as Lincoln's speeches were made available for the general public to read.

And I had at one point this rather depressing image of some alien creatures seeing the death of this planet and coming down in their spaceships and sniffing around and finding all our skeletons sitting around our TV sets and trying to work out why it was that our end came before its time, and they come to the conclusion that we amused ourselves to death.

Things coalesced slowly as I became more and more interested or obsessed, pick your word, with the inordinately powerful and all-encompassing effect that television seems to have on the human race. . . . My general view is that television when it becomes commercialized and profit-based tends to trivialize and dehumanize our lives.

So I became interested in this idea of television as a two-edged sword, that it can be a great medium for spreading information and understanding between peoples, but when it's a tool of our slavish adherence to the incumbent philosophy that the free market is the god that we should all bow down to, it's a very dangerous medium. Because it's so powerful. . . .

I think the motivation is at the root of its current evil, i.e. it's because they have to compete in an open marketplace that their standards get reduced so the programming tends to end up as the cheapest possible salable item. . . . I don't believe that wanting to beat the opposition makes for good programming, but it's an ideology that is still rigidly adhered to.

Q: This is your first album since 1987. Are you comfortable with that slow pace?

A: The line they give you is, "If you don't get another record out they'll all forget you." (Genesis guitarist) Mike Rutherford was telling me this, not about me but about himself, a couple of years ago when he was furiously working on a solo album that meant he couldn't go on holiday or something like that.

What's the problem? Who cares if they forget you? How much money do you need? If you're locked in the studio and you can't go on holiday with your family because you have a desperate need to get the feelings out, that I can completely understand. But to go into the studio because you're worried that people are gonna forget you seems to be nonsense.

Q: What were you trying to do musically on the new album?

A: It's different than "Radio K.A.O.S.," but I don't think it's different than anything before that. I think on "Radio K.A.O.S." I got sidetracked slightly by the available technology and the imposed notion that I ought to get a bit more with it.

Q: Who imposed that?

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