First things first. If you saw the title Roger Waters: The Man Behind The Wall by Dave Thompson and assumed (as I did) that it was a Roger Waters biography, you would be incorrect. Thompson includes some biographical details about the life of the former member of Pink Floyd, but this is a book about his music, both solo and with the Floyd.
Thompson has published something like 100 books, and what keeps him interesting are his unique points of view. This is apparent from the opening sentence of this book where he states, “The Wall was Roger Waters’ first solo album.” Thompson offers a number of reasons to back up this incendiary idea, but I think millions of fans would still disagree with him. I am one of them, but that does not mean that I did not enjoy the book. At least he has something original to say, and I find that exceedingly rare these days.
We begin with The Wall, and the famous story of Waters feeling so isolated onstage that he gets the idea for building a literal wall between the band and their audience. It happened on the tour for Animals, a bloated event that so disgusted Waters that he spat in one of his adoring audience member’s faces. Thompson never says the following, but I wish he had: the cure for the stadium problem was for Waters to go solo, because that was when adoring crowds disappeared.
Thompson then details the sessions for Floyd’s The Final Cut, which was an awful album, produced under apparently awful conditions. If you care, there was Waters’ official solo debut The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking, and a few more, including that unlistenable piece of hype The Wall Live in Berlin after the fall of the Berlin wall. Waters’ feud with the rest of Pink Floyd is detailed, and all of this culminates with their reunion at Live 8 in 2005.
That is the first half of the book, and it is a hard read because it chronicles the depressing end of a great rock band. When David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and Rick Wright reformed Pink Floyd and released A Momentary Lapse of Reason in 1986, Waters opposed it on the grounds that he was the primary lyricist and visionary of the band. In other words, without him there could be no Pink Floyd.
The funny thing is, the same could have once been said about Syd Barrett, as Thompson correctly observes. This bit of insight launches us into the second part of the book, which details the far more rewarding years from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn leading up to The Wall. Indelible classics such as Meddle, The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals were recorded in this period. So Thompson’s musical biography starts with a discussion of the end of the band, and swings around in part two to the beginning. Of such creative decisions are 100 books published, I suppose.
I enjoyed the second part of the book a great deal, because (probably like everyone else) those are my favorite Floyd albums. In the end, I would call The Man Behind The Wall a pretty good book, although I really do believe that the title is misleading.
As I have mentioned, Thompson’s stock in trade is his unique viewpoint, and in some cases it differs dramatically from the accepted opinions. I am not really sure how to explain what I mean by “accepted opinions” in this context. I guess I am speaking about the people who decided that Sgt. Pepper is the greatest rock album ever made, bar none. No argument, no second thoughts. The same people who decided that Rush were unfit for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for 15 years. Maybe it is Jann Wenner, but whoever it is, their opinion seem to be the official line.
In this regard, Dark Side of the Moon is considered to be Pink Floyd’s greatest album. Contrarian Thompson actually believes it is Animals, and I agree with him, at least at times. Sometimes I think it is Wish You Were Here instead. Hell, I listened to Meddle while reading this book and gained a whole new appreciation for it as well.
The point is, Pink Floyd were a band who made some amazing music, the merits of which can be argued ad infinitum. They may not have been The Beatles, but pitting Animals against Dark Side of the Moon sure does echo the Revolver vs. Sgt. Pepper go-rounds that Beatles fans love to have.
I like the fact that Thompson sticks his neck out. At the end of the day, that is what makes his book worthwhile. Plus reading it inspired me to listen to my Pink Floyd albums once again, which is always a treat.