A plane careers across London’s O2 Arena and crashes onstage in a ball of flame. It is barely five minutes after the first chords of Roger Waters’s “The Wall.”
Giant inflatable grotesques, a hunchbacked cane-wielding teacher and a flame-haired woman with mantis arms are soon leering over the audience. A 35-foot (10.6 meter) wall is gradually constructed across the front of the stage.
Amid a riot of overstatement, it’s a shame the Pink Floyd music is overblown, somewhat vacant and just a little dull.
Last night was the first of six concerts that Waters will play in London. The 119-date tour has already traversed North America and will continue through Europe until July.
Its shortcomings do not stop it from being a must-see, for a number of reasons.
The first is the show’s history. “The Wall” was a double album recorded in 1979 by Floyd, the British progressive rock band of which Waters was bassist and vocalist.
The LP’s creation was troubled. The initial inspiration came from Waters’s sense of isolation: he saw a wall between him and the audience.
This ballooned into a concept album about the traumas of a rock star called Pink. Pink’s father died in World War II (so had Waters’s). Pink was bullied by teachers (so was Waters). Pink became a rock star who decided he was a fascist dictator.
Others might have sought out a good therapist. Waters released the album and took it on tour, using images by satirical cartoonist Gerald Scarfe on the album sleeve. The record has sold more than 25 million copies and will soon be re-released in a re-mastered deluxe 7-disc set.
If recording the album had been difficult, the 30 tour dates unraveled Pink Floyd. Decades later, there was a brief Live 8 reunion. Waters performed in Germany to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall. He is now 67 and is hinting that this will be his final big tour. This is likely to be a one-off opportunity.
Technically, the show is superb. The wall is built brick by brick (there are around 400 of them, made of cardboard, each one lasting between one and three shows). Sound effects -- the roar of helicopters, the laughter of children -- make full use of the quadraphonic sound system. Scarfe’s animations, rejuvenated with digital technology, are more scathing than ever.
“Comfortably Numb” remains a song of considerable scope (it was covered by the Scissor Sisters). The hazy harmonies of “Goodbye Blue Sky” recall earlier glories. “Run Like Hell” has a viciously exciting streak. Each is excellently reproduced by Waters’s extended band.
Too many other songs are musically ordinary and mired in self-importance. “Mother” is a blunt accusation against an over-protective parent. “Young Lust” is second-rate ZZ Top. “Another Brick In The Wall Part 2” is ugly, even with local schoolchildren chanting “We don’t need no education.” Waters sounds strained. His stagecraft is dire, with measly acting, atrocious mime and clumsy air-punching.
The pompous imagery is heavy handed, with slogans and sub-Banksy graffiti. Animated bomber planes drop religious symbols and corporate logos. Waters wears a black leather trench coat with a red armband for a flag-waving proto-Nuremberg rally.
Photographs of victims of conflict try to expand the repertoire with the idea that people dying in war is traumatic and bad. Song after plodding song, “The Wall” trots out basic expressions of anger, confusion and fear, without having anything to say about them. Despite its extravagant posturing, nowhere does the show contain any shred of real insight.
“Roger Waters: The Wall Live” has five more dates at the O2, tonight and May 14, 15, 17 and 18 and then moves to Manchester, U.K.
European shows continue through July, in Ireland, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Hungary, Italy and Greece. Information: http://tour.rogerwaters.com/
The currently available Pink Floyd album “The Wall” will be part of a remastered box of the band’s CDs this year, with a deluxe 7-disc set of “The Wall” due in February 2012, all on EMI Records. There is also a Roger Waters CD and DVD, “The Wall: Live in Berlin.”
Prices start at $21. Download fees vary across services. Information: http://www.pinkfloyd.com/.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)