10 Landmark Roger Waters Songs
On the legendary Pink Floyd co-founder, songwriter, bassist, vocalist and composer’s 78th birthday, we look back at his greatest tracks
Roger Waters played a seminal role in charting the artistic direction of Pink Floyd from the time co-founder Syd Barrett quit the band in 1968 through eleven albums up to The Final Cut in 1983. Besides being the band’s primary lyricist and songwriter, he provided the thematic ideas for the classic albums like The Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall, besides The Final Cut. However, following creative differences with the other band members, he resigned from the band in 1985.
Waters’ primary role with Floyd in the early years was essentially that of a bassist. He came into creative prominence following Syd Barrett’s departure because of mental issues. He divided the role of the lead vocalist with David Gilmour with keyboardist Richard Wright appearing on some songs. While all band members chipped in with songwriting, Waters wrote many of them exclusively.
To mark Waters’ 78th birthday this week, we present ten songs he wrote and composed here, which we believe are his best. To be sure, this isn’t a collection of Pink Floyd’s greatest hits but a showcase of the distinct songwriting style of Waters.
As a lyricist, he often used dark subjects like war, the grim political situation, broken relationships, depression and lunacy. Musically, his style blended with that of Gilmour’s songwriting inputs and the musical strengths of all members, using various effects, an assortment of keyboards and backup vocals. This list is in chronological order, sticking to one song per album.
1) “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” – A Saucerful Of Secrets (1968)
This is the only Floyd song featuring all five musicians, including Barrett, who left after the album. The piece begins with Mason playing a drum part with timpani mallets. The lyrics are said to have been inspired by a book of Chinese poetry (Poems Of The Late Tang, translated by A.C. Graham). It has been a regular feature of Waters shows since he left the band.
2) “Cirrus Minor” – Soundtrack of More (1969)
A highlight is that it begins with the chirping of birds before an acoustic guitar comes in and Gilmour sings, “In a churchyard by a river, lazing in the haze of mid-day, laughing in the grasses and the graze: yellow bird, you are not alone in singing and in flying on, laughing and in leaving”. Considered to be one of the tunes that shaped the band’s future sound, the song has a pastoral quality with a dominant organ part by Wright.
3) “If” – Atom Heart Mother (1970)
One of the most poetic, surreal pieces written and sung by Waters, ‘If’ was inspired by a Rudyard Kipling poem. This, too, has a pastoral, folk approach (which goes with the famous cow on the album cover). Gilmour plays slide guitar, and Wright uses Hammond organ. The song begins, “If I were a swan, I’d be gone, If I were a train, I’d be late, and if I were a good man, I’d talk with you more often than I do”.
4) “San Tropez” – Meddle (1971)
The album Meddle is best known for the 23-minute epic ‘Echoes’, but in terms of songwriting, ‘San Tropez’ is the only song on the six-track set that Waters has written entirely on his own. He’s sung it too, besides playing acoustic guitar and bass. The song, featuring Gilmour on slide guitar and Wright on piano, talks about how a day in the French Riviera town of Saint Tropez would feels like.
5) “Free Four” – Obscured By Clouds (1972)
The song begins with the outstanding line, “The memories of a man in his old age, are the deeds of a man in his prime, you shuffle in the gloom of the sick-room, and talk to yourself as you die”. Using double-track lead vocals, Waters makes various references, talking of old age, nostalgia, the record industry and his father’s death. This is one of Floyd’s more cynical songs.
6) “Brain Damage” – The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973)
The song has lyrics and music by Waters, who also sung it on the record, with Gilmour doing the harmonies. In live shows, they would interchange lead vocal roles. The words are inspired by Barrett’s mental instability, with lines like, “The lunatic is on the grass, the lunatic is on the grass, remembering games and daisy chains and laughs, got to keep the loonies on the path”. The song segues into the album’s last piece, ‘Eclipse’, also written by Waters. Incidentally, Waters also wrote the popular ‘Money’, sung by Gilmour.
7) “Have A Cigar” – Wish You Were Here (975)
Waters wrote this song as a criticism of the record business, using the ‘cigar’ as a metaphor to describe record label bigwigs. Interestingly, it has guest vocals by Roy Harper, making it only one of two songs in which Floyd roped in an external lead vocalist, the other being Clare Torry on ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ from Dark Side. Highlights are Gilmour’s guitar solo and Wright’s use of multiple keyboards. This song uses a radio sample at the end to transition into the album’s title track.
8) “Sheep” – Animals (1977)
For almost three years, Floyd played the song ‘Raving And Drooling’ at live shows. With some changes, it was transformed to ‘Sheep’ to fit the broad concept of the Animals album. Beginning with Wright’s keyboard and synthesized sheep sounds, it features Waters on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, with Gilmour on bass. Like the rest of the album, the song parodies the socio-political situation in the UK in the mid-1970s.
9) “Don’t Leave Me Now” – The Wall (1978)
Though the song has received extreme reactions, connoisseurs consider it one of the ideal examples of Waters’ songwriting. It talks of a dysfunctional marriage, where the protagonist Pink still wants his partner to stay. “Don’t say it’s the end of the road, remember the flowers I sent, I need you, babe, to put through the shredder in front of my friends,” Waters sings, pathos flowing from his voice. A highlight is Gilmour’s short but intense guitar solo just after the three-minute mark.
10) “Paranoid Eyes” – The Final Cut (1983)
The Final Cut was Waters’ last album with Floyd and the only one not to feature Richard Wright. It’s an anti-war concept album, written in memory of Waters’ father, who died during World War II, besides being a critical statement on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s policies. ‘Paranoid Eyes’, which talks about alcoholism, only has Waters among the Floyd members, with Michael Kamen on piano, Andy Brown on organ and Ray Cooper on percussion.
Though Floyd has had more commercially popular songs like ‘Time’, ‘Money’, ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, ‘Another Brick In The Wall Part 2’ and ‘Comfortably Numb’, the songs listed above sum up the Waters style. Fans have always got into arguments about whether he or Gilmour is better, but the fact is that all four members of the band made their own special contributions.
After Floyd left, Waters got into solo work and tours, releasing albums like The Pros And Cons of Hitch-Hiking, Radio K.A.O.S., Amused To Death and Is This The Life We Really Want? He also worked on an opera, Ca Ira, and adapted classical composer Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. His genius has been evident all through.