interview by Chrissie Bentley
With close to 150 books to his name, Dave Thompson must be one of the most prolific entertainment authors around. He is also one of the most heartfelt, layering his books with a love for (or, occasionally, hatred of) his subject that cannot help but ensnare the reader.
Published earlier this year, his study of television’s Doctor Who, the Docto Who FAQ, almost caused certain corners of the Internet to meltdown as readers argued the merits of Thompson’s opinions, while another recent title, a biography of folk singer Steve Ashley, shines the brightest literary light imaginable upon a performer many people have never even heard of. And demands that they remedy that situation immediately.
Now Thompson brings us Roger Waters: The Man Behind The Wall, and if you think it’s going to unspool as just one more book about Pink Floyd, think again…. Once past the opening couple of chapters, they scarcely even get mentioned again until halfway through the book.
Q: You open the book with the making of The Wall, which I’m sure will confuse some people. Tell us why you did that.
A: I wanted to get it out of the way. Bloody thing. I really didn’t like it when it came out and I’ve not changed my mind since then. I actually preferred The Final Cut when it came out But it’s also the lead-in to the solo career, because it almost was his first solo album. When it came time for Floyd to make a new album, Waters gave them two concepts, The Wall and The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking. And they chose Pros and Cons. They changed their minds a few weeks later, but that’s how close it came.
Also because too many books, and my own are among them, are obsessed with the music that an artist made first, charting the day-to-day doings of the sixties and seventies, then treating the rest of the career as an afterthought. Which runs the risk of encourages readers to do the same thing.
Q: Well, for many acts, it is.
A: Okay, that’s true. Not many people would argue that Paul McCartney’s post-Wings career is anywhere near as enthralling as his days with the Beatles. Or that Bowie in the Eighties and beyond tells a more intriguing story than the decade that preceded them. A Rolling Stones book that analyzed the years since Undercover would be an even bigger drag than getting old. There’s a reason why Keith Richards’ autobiography spends more time on his favorite recipes than documenting the creative process of the 2000s.
Q: So how is Roger Waters different?
A: Because… okay, he’s scarcely been prolific, but the music he’s made since he left Floyd has been a master class in maintaining both relevance and opinion, without once sidelining any of the reasons we consider those qualities to be of interest. Again going back to why The Wall is important, in a lot of ways it was a sketchbook for concepts and imagery that he would return to and… it’s kind of like a demo for everything he would write about in the future. Plus, if we go back to the 1980s, The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking and Radio K.A.O.S. were, and remain, the finest efforts released by any so-called veteran mainstream artist that whole dismal decade long.
Q: Tell us about the first time you heard Pink Floyd.
A: It was fall 1973, newly returned from the school summer holidays. One of my classmates was raving about an album he’d discovered while we were away. It was called The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, and he was so mortified by my lack of interest that he insisted on playing the whole thing there and then.
Q: You weren’t impressed?
A: I was thirteen and I was into Glam Rock. Bowie, Bolan, Slade… wham bam thank you slam. Pink Floyd? Horrible, hairy… not one of them knew one end of a tube of lipgloss from the other, and listening to their endless album, I didn’t believe they had time for me. I remember suffering through the interminable “Us and Them,” and feeling it suck all the joy from the room. “Money” was a dour disco plod at a time when “disco” translated into anything that might make people feel like doing anything so uncool as dancing and, by the time the stylus hit “Brain Damage,” I was so dispirited that I condemned it as a pompous rewrite of David Bowie’s “Laughing Gnome,” and left the room.
Q: At which point, Bowie himself made you change your mind
A: Yeah. The rat. Bowie was the bee’s knees at that time. He was really only two albums into his reign of stardom, but he was already more than a simple pop star. He was also an arbiter of taste and, in the fifteen months since “Starman” set the children boogie-ing (in an age when fifteen months actually meant something, and wasn’t simply a moment in time that flashed by in ten minutes), he’d already bent my ears towards a wealth of music that I knew I’d be listening to for years to come. Jacques Brel, Iggy, Lou Reed and the Velvets… Bowie had never let me down, which is all a very convoluted way of introducing my next exposure to Pink Floyd, courtesy of the album he delivered just a few weeks after my encounter with Dark Side Of The Moon.
Q: That would have been Pin Ups?
A: Right. Pin Ups was Bowie’s tribute to the music that surrounded him as he was making his own way through the 1960s, and spending his spare time doing what every teenaged kid of the age was doing, listening to the radio and going to gigs. Pin Ups was him reliving it all, revisiting his favorite oldies on an album of covers that demanded you investigate the originals. Including the Pink Floyd song (“See Emily Play”), which I dimly recalled from the radio of the day, and which briefly made me wonder whether I’d misjudged my schoolfriend’s tastes. Or maybe even my own.
I made it my goal, with that evangelical fervor that so easily overpowers a lad of that age, to pick up the originals of every track on the album. The Who, Them, the Easybeats, the Merseys, the Pretty Things, the Yardbirds. Most were easy. Boscombe, which is a small town on the [English] south coast where I was living at the time, was lousy with used record emporiums, and between Steptoes on the Christchurch Road, and Boscombe Electrics deeper into town, I found most of what I was searching for, either on a well-loved old single, or on a battered used LP.
Now, “See Emily Play” had been a major UK hit, and it sold a lot of copies. But, either everyone who bought it had decided to hang onto it, or else there were other people bent on the same mission as me, who were snapping up every copy before I could find it. It wasn’t showing up anywhere. So finally I bit the bullet. A meander around a “real” record store, where pristine new vinyl was sold at full price, revealed a budget-priced Floyd compilation called Relics. It cost, I believe, a little less than twice the price of a new 45; which, according to a mathematical formula that I invented on the spot, meant if I liked four songs on it, I’d already broken even, and if I liked more than that, I was streaking ahead.
Q: I’m guessing you liked it.
A: I think I must have. Either that, or my record collection is haunted. I don’t even want to count how many times I’ve bought every single Floyd album, between vinyl, CDs, remasters, reissues, box sets… Right now, I’m looking at half a dozen different versions of Dark Side Of The Moon, without even considering six more in the Immersion box set; half a dozen Wish You Were Here’s, and as for Piper At The Gates Of Dawn….
Q: Is that your favorite?
A: Funnily enough, More was my favorite for a long time, especially when it was my turn to proselytize Floyd. “The Nile Song” never let me down. I also have an only partially suppressed memory of presenting an essay or poem to the school one day, with “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” cranked loudly enough on the school gramophone that it drowned out whatever twaddle I had composed for the occasion. More and Saucerful of Secrets.
Then I discovered bootlegs, beginning with Winter Tour 74, which appeared from nowhere that same Christmas, and fooled a lot of people, including myself, into thinking it was a new Floyd album. And when I realized that it wasn’t, I went looking for more. I didn’t get too far because at five pounds a pop, they were almost twice the price of a legitimate release.
But I found a few and I adore them still. In Celebration of the Comet: The Coming of Kahoutek; Magnesium Proverbs; Oenone. At a time when Pink Floyd were releasing new albums at what then seemed the hyper-glacial rate of one every two years or so, Floyd boots soon outstripped even Bowie on my shelves. And at least half of the thrill of first hearing Animals in 1977 was the realization that those two unknown songs on my first ever Floyd boot were now the centerpiece of their latest LP. Which might be why, to answer your question, that’s probably my true favorite Floyd record. Except when it’s Obscured By Clouds.
Q: What do you think of the current state of their catalog?
A: You mean the reissues and box sets? Well, obviously I won’t be happy until we have the Piper box. And another for Animals. But apart from Bob Dylan and King Crimson, I don’t think any band could claim to have better served its archive-scouring public. And the fact that Pink Floyd remain the only major act in rock’n’roll history to still be awaiting a career-spanning box set is readily balanced by the fact that almost every one of their albums deserves a box to itself.
Which is the other reason why I wanted to present the book ass-backwards, and why we begin in the middle, travel through to the end, and then loop around and continue on from the beginning. Which… to digress… is not to say you shouldn’t read it in chronological order, because of course you can. Just turn to the beginning of… I think it’s Chapter Nine…. and away you go.
For the rest of us, though; those whose journeys with the Floyd began in an age before The Wall was built, and certainly before it came tumbling down, the suspension of our own personal timeline allows us to investigate patterns that we might never otherwise have cared to; permits, too, the satisfaction of seeing how the past will always repeat itself, whether as an influence or an intrusion, without having already been reminded precisely what that past originally was. Because the story of the band in general, and Roger Waters in particular, is not a linear one. It does convulse, it does circle back and, most of all, it does demand that you pay attention.
Q. Even to The Wall?
A: Personally, I still don’t like The Wall, and I could probably tell you exactly the number of times I have actually listened to it all the way through, without taking at least one extended break. But it is where this story begins, and thanks to his current tour, it’s also where it ends. So I never did get it out of the way, really. It was always waiting somewhere.
Roger Waters: The Man Behind The Wall is published by Backbeat Books on September 17, 2013.