Roger Waters is Pink Floyd's grand conceptualist, the driving force behind such albums as Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall. In the wake of Syd Barrett's departure, Waters emerged as a formidable songwriter, but it's this stretch of '70s albums -- each one nearly symphonic in its reach -- that established him as a distinctive, idiosyncratic voice within rock, one with a sober morality and sardonic sense of humor. Waters left Pink Floyd after 1983's The Final Cut, after which he recorded a triptych of concept albums -- The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking, Radio K.A.O.S., and Amused to Death -- addressing personal and political struggles in the modern world. After 1992, Waters didn't devote himself to writing new rock music, preferring to stage live revivals of Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall as he composed classical pieces and worked as an activist. His long spell without new albums was broken in 2017 with the release of Is This the Life We Really Want?
Waters didn't start playing music until he was on the cusp of his 20th birthday. His childhood was haunted by the departure of his father Eric, a schoolteacher who abandoned his status as a conscientious objector to World War II to join the British Army. Eric Waters died in combat when Roger was five months old, and his mother Mary moved him and his brother to Cambridge. There, Waters met his future bandmates Syd Barrett and David Gilmour, but it wasn't until he was studying architecture at Regent Street Polytechnic that the first incarnation of Pink Floyd came into view. Waters and his fellow students Nick Mason and Rick Wright played with vocalist Keith Noble and bassist Clive Metcalfe in a group called Sigma 6, and once they departed, Roger brought in Barrett. This was in the fall of 1963 and by 1965, the group had gelled into the Pink Floyd Sound, dropping the "Sound" in 1966. By that time, Barrett was the unquestioned leader, the singer/songwriter responsible for the band's earliest singles and 1967's debut Piper at the Gates of Dawn, but that album also bore Waters' first original tune, "Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk."
Due to mental illness, Barrett left Pink Floyd in 1968 and was replaced by David Gilmour. Over the next few years, the Floyd's audience steadily grew. Often, the band collaborated on compositions, but Waters was the member with the largest number of solo songs. He also stepped away from the band to collaborate with Ron Geesin for the 1970 soundtrack to The Body, but 1971's Meddle and 1972's Obscured by Clouds found Floyd dividing the work equally.
Waters asserted a heavy degree of creative control for 1973's Dark Side of the Moon, penning all the lyrics, creating the concept, and receiving music writing credits on all but three of the songs. Dark Side turned out to be the pivotal album in Pink Floyd's career, an instant hit that turned into an enduring blockbuster. Two years later, the band delivered Wish You Were Here -- a concept loosely based on the departed Barrett -- and the dystopian Animals followed in 1977. During the supporting tour for Animals, Waters felt himself retreating from his audience, and he used this as an inspiration for writing the semi-autobiographical rock opera The Wall. Roger took The Wall and what became his 1984 solo debut, The Pros & Cons of Hitch Hiking, to the band and they chose to record The Wall.
The recording of The Wall was difficult -- Wright left the band and became a contract player -- but the 1979 double-album was a smash, leading to a 1982 feature film produced by Alan Parker. By this point, Waters was the band's leader and he shepherded them through The Final Cut, a 1983 album that was billed as "A requiem for the post-war dream by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd." This subtitle suggested the ill will within the band and, soon, Waters left. First came Pros & Cons in 1984 -- the album featured Eric Clapton on lead guitar -- and Waters officially left the band in 1985, filing a lawsuit to dissolve it the following year. His claim was rejected and Gilmour, Mason, and Wright continued as Pink Floyd, while Waters continued his solo career. Waters contributed songs to the 1986 animated adaptation of When the Wind Blows, and in 1987 he released the ambitious concept album Radio K.A.O.S., supporting the album with a world tour. Once the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, Waters decided to revive The Wall -- Floyd only performed a handful of shows in 1980, due to its expense -- as an all-star tribute concert in Berlin in July 1990. Two years later he released his first album for Columbia: Amused to Death, an antiwar concept album featuring Jeff Beck on guitar. Although there was no tour to support the album, it performed well, gaining silver certification in the U.K.
Waters began touring again in 1999, launching the In the Flesh Live international tour. Along with reviving his live performing career, he attempted to launch a Broadway adaptation of The Wall and released two antiwar songs on the Internet in 2004: "To Kill the Child" and "Leaving Beirut." A reunion with Pink Floyd followed in 2005, with the group appearing at the Live 8 benefit at Hyde Park. Greeted by rave reviews, the band nevertheless didn't capitalize on it, choosing to stay separated. Waters released his opera Ca Ira in 2005, and beginning in 2006, he spent two years touring The Dark Side of the Moon. The success of this tour led to Waters launching a touring rendition of The Wall and its success eclipsed Dark Side; in 2013, it held the record for being the highest-grossing solo tour. Two years later, Waters decided to document this successful production of The Wall through a new theatrical documentary called Roger Waters' The Wall, which was accompanied by the release of a soundtrack of the same name in November 2015. Teaming up with Nigel Godrich, a producer best known for working with Radiohead, Waters next recorded Is This the Life We Really Want?, his first album of original songs since 1992's Amused to Death. The LP appeared in June 2017, debuting at three on the U.K. charts and 11 in the U.S.
In 2019, Waters released his adaptation of Igor Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, a production featuring the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival. Us + Them, a concert film recorded on Waters' 2018 supporting tour for Is This the Life We Really Want?, saw a limited theatrical exhibition in 2019, followed by a home video and soundtrack release in 2020.
© Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo