Roger Waters fronts a Pink Floyd tribute band at Coachella
I nearly got trampled by pig handlers at Coachella. More specifically, I had my iPhone raised in the air, trying to get a nice snapshot of the undercarriage of the giant inflatable pig Roger Waters sent soaring out over the crowd, when I noticed just in the nick of time the handful of very serious-looking, flashlight-wielding, rope-holding roadies about to mow me down as they led the porcine wonder around the main stage’s field. I got out of the way but failed to get the desired photo of the porker’s belly, which was inscribed with the word “Obama” and a check mark next to it. Was this presidential endorsement the ex-Pink Floyd frontman’s, or the sinister pig’s? The former, we can believe, since Waters reportedly also commissioned a plane to fly over and simultaneously drop Obama leaflets, though we on the field saw none of them and they blew into nearby residential neighborhoods, instantly ensuring that the litter-hating desert cities of Indio and La Quinta will swing wildly for McCain in November. Anyhow, the highlight of the show came minutes later when the bovine wranglers let go of the ropes and let the pig float up to that great gig in the sky. I keep waiting for its deflated carcass to show up on eBay any minute and make some reservist in Twenty-Nine Palms a fortune, but no luck yet.
I would like to dub this installment of PopWatch “PropWatch,” since Waters has always been big on inflatable stuff and giant puppets in his shows. I was permanently warped, as an impressionable youth, by the original Animals tour in 1977, which marked the first time Pink Floyd sent critters over stadium crowds. Back then, the pig was pink and unmarked by political graffiti and had a set of glowing red eyes that appeared to be seeking out concert-goers to slaughter, as a sinister symbol of fascism. It was grandiose and it actually meant something vaguely political, too — what a perfect combination for a kid with budding pretensions as big as mine. Somehow, though, on that summer night in ’77, this awesome symbol of oppression seemed just a little less evil when it got stuck right over the middle of Cleveland Stadium and couldn’t be reeled back in after the Floyd had finished “Sheep.” In a slightly Spinal Tappish moment, the band had to stop the show and the house lights came up while for about 20 minutes the authorities figured out how to retrieve the recalcitrant porker. No wonder that, more than 30 years later, Waters is apparently mass-manufacturing his pigs and just letting ’em go into the ether when they’ve served their purpose.
Waters’ set climaxed the three-day Coachella Festival, and it drewthe kind of massive crowd that Prince had been greeted with theprevious night, as opposed to the minimal welcome wagon that showed upfor Jack Johnson on night one. But this followed a lot of grumblingfrom Coachella veterans who felt that Waters’ booking — to play a 1973album, The Dark Side of the Moon, in its entirety, along withselected other classic-rock staples — was a betrayal of the festival’sindie-rock principles. To see if these heated objections had any legalvalidity, I tried looking up the fest’s philosophical bylaws, and —surprise! — there aren’t any. Organizers are perfectly free to book theSteve Miller Band for the main stage next year if they so desire, andwith the lack of commercially viable new acts emerging in any strain ofrock nowadays, it may come to something close to that eventually. But Ithink there’s a case to be made for booking Waters at a festival likethis… though I think I could make the case a lot better than the oneRog made for himself in his fairly dispiriting Sunday night set.
I will make the argument that the run of Pink Floyd albums from 1971’s Meddle through 1979’s The Wallis as solid a run of records as anyone has made in rock, including theBeatles, Stones, Who, and any number of more rock-critically correctbands. The legend goes that the Sex Pistols were formed in revoltagainst the pomp and circumstance that Pink Floyd represented, but I’vealways thought that Johnny Rotten and Roger Waters were two peas in apod, in their mutual misanthropy. Dark Side of the Moon, forall its seemingly spacey tropes, is a relatively down-to-earth albumabout insanity, cynicism, torpor, and the encroaching inevitability ofdeath — so no wonder it’s one of the most enduringly popular albums ofall time, right? Waters’ crankiness was a little less disguised bystoner-baiting sonic splendor on Animals, as nasty a piece ofwork as you could find in the late ‘70s, or now. Remove some of RickWright’s slightly dated synth lines and the stuff holds upexceptionally well.
Except Waters isn’t removing any of Rick Wright’s slightly datedsynth lines, or any other element of the original records. He seemsconvinced — and is probably right, unfortunately — that most of hisboomer fans want to hear the songs recreated exactly as first created,from every drumbeat to every ambient quadraphonic sound effect. And sowhat we got Sunday night was the world’s greatest Pink Floyd tributeband. To be fair, this isn’t much different than the approach eternallyestranged Floyd co-frontman David Gilmour took on his last tour, but atleast there, Gilmour did have Rick Wright and the group’s originalsax-playing sideman along for the ride, so you could almost forgive himfor his control-freak exactitude. But whether he wants to include anyof the songs Gilmour sang lead on or not, Waters has to do somethingabout those brilliant guitar parts. Plus, by doing Dark Side in its entirety now, he isincorporating a lot of Gilmour-sung material. His solution, for Gilmourand the other missing guys, is to hire ringers who can do every oncesemi-spontaneous riff and lick note-for-note. You want me to defend that preserved-in-amber fussiness to a bunch of angry indie rockers? Can’t do it.
It doesn’t help that Waters hasn’t made a great record since The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking,his first post-Floyd effort in 1984. From the evidence of the one“newish” song he played Sunday, we’re not about to get another onesoon. “Leaving Beirut” was a textbook example of how wrong overtlypolitical rock can go. Waters, in a rare address to the crowd, told ofhow he was taken in by a Lebanese family while stranded as a wanderingyouth in 1961. The tune that followed seemed to be trying to argue theposition that because some Lebanese good samaritans were nice to himone night 47 years ago, war is bad. This may indeed be the case, butI’m not sure Waters’ weirdly pedestrian song argues it veryeffectively. In case we missed the point, there were lyrical shout-outsto George W. Bush (“That Texas education must have f—ed you up whenyou were very small”), Tony Blair (“Not in my name, Tony, you great warleader you… Now we are Genghis Khan”), and America itself (“Don’t letthe might of the Christian right f— it up for you and the rest of theworld”). However well-intentioned, this was painful stuff for anadmirer of as formidable a talent as Waters’ to sit through.
So, hey, bring on Dark Side, with its Laserium-like film loops playing right to the stoners in the crowd, and the opening and closing Wallmaterial. (Did we mention that this was the first Coachella set ever tolast almost three hours and have a 20-minute intermission?) Much as Iwas chagrined to see Waters trade in pure nostalgia to pick up apaycheck, the material itself has aged well, and I even allowed myselfto hope that some of the indie crowd who’ve settled for ephemera mightlisten and get into what was once great about this stuff and have alittle ambition rub off on ’em. But they’ll probably remember the pig.