When we think of the most accomplished and popular rock bands, they tend to have one or two people in charge – usually the songwriters. Glenn Frey called it “song power” and used it to explain the power dynamics in The Eagles:
“A rock band is not a perfect democracy. It’s more like a sports team. No one can do anything without the other guys, but everybody doesn’t get to touch the ball all the time.”Glenn Frey, History of the Eagles.
History tells us that, at some point, the other guys in the band will often get fed up with being in the background and either leave the band or raise such a stink that they get some concessions. Stu Cook and Doug Clifford forced John Fogerty to let them write songs for a Creedence Clearwater Revival album with disastrous results. Jason Newsted quit Metallica. Alan Wilder left Depeche Mode while Dave Gahan threatened to unless he was allowed to write songs for the band’s albums. As for the Eagles, Frey and Don Henley may have been happy in their roles as was benevolent dictators, but others in the band, particularly Don Felder and Joe Walsh, resented being underlings and this underlying tension was one of the main reasons why the band broke up.
Pink Floyd was no different, and when things finally came to a head in the early 1980s, it touched off years of litigation, decades of inconsistent artistic output from all parties involved, and sustained personal enmity and hatred that not even the promise of a triumphant one-off reunion at the biggest charity concert of the 2000s could fully fix.
This is the album that started all of that.
Pink Floyd have always had one creative leader who called the shots. The early years were dominated by original lead singer/lead guitarist Syd Barrett and his penchant for psychedelic rock and fantasy-inspired lyrics.
After Barrett’s mental deterioration and departure from the band, bassist Roger Waters stepped up and became the new chief songwriter. Under his stewardship, the band delivered highly acclaimed and popular albums such as The Dark Side of The Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall and reached its critical and commercial peak.
The success made Waters more powerful within the band and he began single-handedly dictating the direction and content of Pink Floyd’s albums, songs and even movies. In 1982, with the movie adaptation of The Wall about to hit theaters, Waters wanted to release a movie soundtrack consisting of some Wall outtakes, as well a few new songs expanding on some of that album’s narrative themes. Lead guitarist David Gilmour, who was already on bad terms with Waters at this point, was critical of the move, arguing that the leftover tracks were weak and the band should come up with new material.
Unfortunately for Gilmour, he was never a prolific songwriter, so he was reliant on Waters. With the outbreak of the Falkland Islands War in 1982, Waters suddenly became inspired and wrote new songs that were critical of the conflict. Waters saw the British response as a betrayal of those who gave their lives in World War II fighting tyranny and excessive jingoism, such as his father, Eric Fletcher Waters, second lieutenant of the 8th Royal Fusiliers. To the younger Waters, his father and millions of others made the ultimate sacrifice so that their children could live in a peaceful world where governments took care of their own rather than look for others to conquer and oppress. Seeing their government go back to its warmongering ways wasn’t something they had signed up for, as far as Waters was concerned. And dammed if he didn’t have quite a bit to say about that.
Indeed, the loss of his father looms large over much of Waters’ work, in general, and is a major plot point for both the album and film versions of The Wall. As such, Waters was able to seamlessly integrate his new songs with his Wall leftovers to produce a new concept album that became Pink Floyd’s most overtly political and angriest record to date.
Stylistically, the album sounds very much like an inferior version of The Wall, giving credence to Gilmour’s main criticism. Both albums are heavy on Waters’ expository singing, but while the story on The Final Cut is much more straightforward and less complex than The Wall, it also makes for a repetitive and predictable narrative. Both albums begin on anguished note, however, “In the Flesh?” from The Wall is far superior to “The Post-War Dream.” “Two Suns in the Sunset,” the anti-nuclear war album closer, features a similar structure to the far superior “Mother” from The Wall – complete with constant time signature changes that necessitated bringing in a session drummer for Mason. Meanwhile Michael Kamen, who arranged the orchestral accompaniments for songs like “Comfortably Numb,” “Nobody Home” and “The Trial” on The Wall is more actively involved on The Final Cut, weaving his symphonic stylings through most of the record. That’s when he wasn’t mediating between Waters and Gilmour or writing: “I must not fuck sheep” over and over again on a notepad. I guess it pays to remind yourself of that every once in a while.
The lyrics – all written by Waters – are strident, personal and at times, bitterly sarcastic. Album opener “The Post-War Dream” sets the tone, as Waters angrily asks then-UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, referred to as “Maggie”: “Tell me true, tell me why, was Jesus crucified? Was it for this that Daddy died?” and “What have we done, Maggie, what have we done? What have we done to England?”
Almost all of the songs on The Final Cut deal with these themes. On “Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert,” Waters compares Thatcher to other contemporary warmongers, singing: “Brezhnev took Afghanistan. Begin took Beirut. [Argentine President Leopoldo] Galtieri took the Union Jack. And Maggie, over lunch one day. Took a cruiser with all hands. Apparently, to make him give it back.” For “The Fletcher Memorial Home” – “Fletcher” was Waters’ father’s middle name – Waters takes it a step further and tells “Maggie” and other world leaders like Ronald Reagan, First Minister of Northern Ireland Ian Paisley, Brezhnev, Begin and others to retire to the “Fletcher Memorial Home for Incurable Tyrants and Kings.” There they can hang out with the ghosts of Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon, and in the controversial music video, Napoleon and Hitler.
The album’s main singles really hammer home its central themes. Lead single, “When The Tigers Broke Free” (which, curiously, isn’t actually on the album but was billed as the record’s lead single – it’s included on the reissue, though), is an elegy about his father’s final moments at the Battle of Anzio in Italy:
When the forward commander“When the Tigers Broke Free,” Pink Floyd
Was told to sit tight
When he asked that his men be withdrawn
And the Generals gave thanks
As the other ranks held back
The enemy tanks for a while
And the Anzio bridgehead
Was held for the price
Of a few hundred ordinary lives
When the tigers broke free
And no one survived
From the Royal Fusiliers Company Z
They were all left behind
Most of them dead
The rest of them dying
And that’s how the High Command
Took my daddy from me
Actual lead single “Not Now John” features an angry duet between Gilmour and Waters that takes Hollywood to task for glorifying war while taking additional shots at “Maggie.” This song also represents Gilmour’s sole lead vocal contribution on the album – the only Pink Floyd album that features fewer lead vocals from Gilmour is Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which was recorded before he joined the band. The album definitely suffers since Gilmour is a far superior vocalist to Waters, who is at his best when relegated to short spoken-style leads like on “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” and “Comfortably Numb.” Instead, we get nearly 40 minutes of Waters angrily and/or sarcastically singing about war and geopolitics. It’s a lot to take.
Gilmour’s guitar playing, at times, is inspired and his solos on “The Fletcher Memorial Home” and “Your Possible Pasts” rank among his best. Nevertheless, it’s clear that he wasn’t feeling this project and he’s consistently bashed The Final Cut in the years since its release.
I knew what had happened to my band at that point, and I was just trying to get through it. It wasn’t pleasant at all. If it was that unpleasant but the results had been worth it, then I might think about it in a different way… I mean, there are a couple of reasonable tracks, at best. I did vote for ‘The Fletcher Memorial Home’ to be on [2001 compilation] ‘Echoes.’ I like that. ‘Fletcher,’ ‘The Gunner’s Dream,’ and the title track are the three reasonable tracks on that. The rest of The Final Cut is dross.David Gilmour, Interview, 2003
Waters defended his domineering presence on the album by arguing that the others either had no ideas of their own or refused to do much of anything on it. Drummer Nick Mason barely plays on the record, concentrating mostly on sound effects and tending to marital problems. The other member of the classic Pink Floyd lineup, keyboardist Richard Wright, had been quietly fired after The Wall tour. Once an important creative force in the band, Wright’s contributions had dwindled in the 70s due to a cocaine problem and personal issues. As such, The Final Cut, for all intents and purposes, is a Roger Waters solo album. To drive home that point, the original liner notes read: “The Final Cut: A Requiem for the Post-War Dream — by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd.”
All in all, it’s not a bad album – it’s certainly better than either of the Gilmour-era studio albums that followed it. But it’s a difficult one to listen to (made worse by having to endure so much of Waters’ singing) and not one that necessarily makes for re-listening. It certainly isn’t one that lends itself well to playlists or compilations, which is why only “Fletcher” shows up on both of the band’s official greatest hits albums. It’s a very dark, angry and personal album – one that really would have been better served as Waters’ solo debut.
[M]aking The Final Cut was misery. We didn’t work together at all. I had to do it more or less single-handed, working with Michael Kamen, my co-producer. That’s one of the few things that the ‘boys’ and I agreed about. But no-one else would do anything on it. It sold three million copies, which wasn’t a lot for the Pink Floyd. And as a consequence, Dave Gilmour went on record as saying, ‘There you go: I knew he was doing it wrong all along.’ But it’s absolutely ridiculous to judge a record solely on sales. If you’re going to use sales as the sole criterion, it makes Grease a better record than Graceland.Roger Waters, Interview, 1987
Instead, it became the catalyst for his departure from the band. Of course, going solo wasn’t enough for Waters and he filed a lawsuit to try and force the others to dissolve Pink Floyd, famously declaring the band “a spent force creatively.” After all, he had been the main songwriter for so long, how could the band possibly go on without him? Well, Gilmour, Mason and a returning Wright did so, relishing their freedom while happily cashing gigantic checks for two poor-to-mediocre studio albums, 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason and 1994’s The Division Bell, (three if you count 2014’s leftovers album The Endless River) and their highly lucrative world tours. Whatever artistic credibility Pink Floyd had left took a back seat to commercial considerations as the band went from culturally relevant creative force to an oldies act trading on its reputation and hit-laden back catalogue. It’s appropriate, considering Gilmour deemed The Final Cut a failure, in large part, because it only went triple platinum.
Meanwhile, Waters spent the rest of the 80s playing half-empty arenas as his solo albums languished near the bottom of the charts. Perhaps that’s why his latest tours have tended to feature Pink Floyd albums played in their entirety. He also seems to have mellowed a bit, admitting that he was wrong to sue his former bandmates.
Nevertheless, the damage was done. Pink Floyd’s reunion at Live 8 was marred by disagreements between Gilmour and Waters, ruining any chance of a tour or album. The two did put their differences aside to perform at a charity event in 2010 and at Waters’ performance of The Wall. But hostilities seem to have resumed. I guess Gilmour won’t be making any guest appearances if and when Waters decides to do a full-scale tour playing The Final Cut in its entirety.