Internal strife within pop groups is neither new nor rare. The catalysts are well established: money (the Beatles), filial playpen squabbles (Oasis, the Kinks, the Everly Brothers), or sleeping with each other in various permutations (Fleetwood Mac). But the toxic state of relations within Pink Floyd is unparalleled – almost Shakespearean in its complexity, involving art, commerce and geopolitics.
In recent weeks there has been a very public escalation of hostilities in a conflict that has simmered for decades between guitarist Dave Gilmour and founding member and bassist Roger Waters – the two frontmen of the colossally successful prog rock band. On 6 February Gilmour’s partner, the writer Polly Sansom, tweeted a vituperative attack on Waters, accusing him of being “anti-Semitic to your rotten core… an apologist for Putin” and “a lying, thieving, hypocritical, tax-evading, lip-synching, misogynistic, sick-with-envy, megalomaniac”. Soon after, Gilmour retweeted this, adding, “Every word demonstrably true.”
Pink Floyd have always been a darkly enigmatic proposition. The group’s original presiding genius Syd Barrett left – or rather was left behind – in 1968 when his mental health issues made his position untenable. (In Mary McCartney’s recent documentary about Abbey Road Studios, Gilmour says he joined the band when “my friend Syd, erm, lost his marbles”). From then on, Waters emerged as the principal lyricist, replacing the cosmic English whimsy of Barrett’s era with a more dourly political and philosophical perspective that came to the fore on the angsty yet hummable epics The Dark Side of the Moon (1973) and The Wall (1979).
In 1985 Waters quit the band. By now soi-disant leader, he clearly believed this was his band mates’ cue to retire the group, rudderless and bereft. Not only did they not, Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason (along with reinstituted keyboardist Rick Wright, whom Waters had sacked) went on to have several more hugely successful albums (featuring lyrics written by one Polly Sansom). Waters took his former band mates to the High Court, claiming that the group was a “spent force creatively” and that for them to carry on recording and touring under the Pink Floyd name would tarnish the band’s legacy. The case lasted two years and was eventually settled out of court, in a meeting on Gilmour’s London houseboat on Christmas Eve in 1987. Waters later told the BBC he regretted his legal action. “I was wrong! Of course I was. Who cares?” he concluded, perhaps disingenuously.
In the intervening years there have been periods of armistice and even truce. The band reunited in 2005 for a powerful if chilly performance at the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park. Rehearsals were guardedly civil. Gilmour said at the time, “I saw how arguments could have happened, but we aren’t at each other’s throats any more. Getting rid of that acrimony has got to be a good thing. Who wants to have that fester in your mind the rest of your life?” From the stage, Waters remarked: “It’s actually quite emotional to be standing up here with these three guys again, after all these years.”
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But apparently this was the false peace of a “phoney war”. Matters seem to have come to a head following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – specifically the response of members of Pink Floyd to that crisis. Last year Gilmour and Nick Mason joined the Ukrainian musician Andrij Chlywnjuk to record a version of a Ukrainian patriotic song. It was the first release under the Pink Floyd name since the 1994 album The Division Bell, and raised half a million pounds for Ukrainian charities. What most would see as an admirable act of solidarity with a beleaguered people has been read differently by Waters. “I find it really, really sad. It’s so alien to me, this action is so lacking in humanity. It encourages the continuation of the war… I mean, they haven’t made the point of demanding, ‘Stop the war, stop the slaughter, bring our leaders together to talk!’ It’s just this content-less waving of the blue and yellow flag.”
Having originally condemned Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as “the act of a gangster”, Waters has since performed an inelegant U-turn, recently describing Russia’s actions as “probably the most provoked invasion ever”. Waters now supports Putin’s acts of aggression “on the basis of reasons that if I have understood them well are: 1. We want to stop the potential genocide of the Russian-speaking population of the Donbas. 2. We want to fight Nazism in Ukraine.” He has described Ukraine as a “deeply divided” country that “is not really a country at all” and more of a “patchy vague experiment”, and was invited by Russia to address the UN on the conflict. He has also said that “Taiwan is part of China”. Speaking to CGTN, a TV channel associated with the Chinese government, he said of the island’s future, “It’s for the Chinese people to make those decisions… it’s none of our business.”
This is all very much “on brand” for Waters, a man of strident and contentious opinions, expressed loudly and often. His Twitter feed eulogises Julian Assange. At the start of his current “This Is Not A Drill” tour, a stentorian voice announces: “If you’re one of those ‘I love Pink Floyd but I can’t stand Roger’s politics people,’ you might do well to fuck off to the bar right now.” What effect this has had on sales of Heineken is not recorded, but it does reinforce Waters’ image as an outspoken curmudgeon. Virulently anti-Western and haughty of tone, he is, increasingly, the Noam Chomsky of prog rock.
There is also a glint in the Pink Floyd feud of that familiar flashpoint, “musical differences”. Waters claims he is more important culturally than contemporary stars Drake and The Weeknd – and he may be right. But such statements have the wincing feel of your dad coming into the room during Top of the Pops to complain that he couldn’t tell whether Boy George was a boy or a girl. Waters has also announced he is re-recording the band’s magnum opus The Dark Side of the Moon as a solo record, stating, “It’s my project and I wrote it. So… blah!” (Naturally, if Waters re-records the whole album, not just his own solely written songs, he will have to share the royalties with Gilmour, Mason, the estate of the late Rick Wright, and the singer Clare Torry, who also have composing credits on the album.)
Waters does not see things this way. In an interview in the Telegraph this month, he dismissed Wright and Gilmour, “They can’t write songs, they’ve nothing to say. They are not artists!… They have no ideas, not a single one between them. They never have had, and that drives them crazy.” The other members have been, for the most part and until now, gracious and temperate. Nick Mason, speaking to the Telegraph in 2020, observed coolly, “It has to do with some rather entrenched views about what’s important… Roger doesn’t have the same respect for guitar playing and singing that he does for writing.” Dave Gilmour has been more direct. When once asked why he would never work with Waters again, he replied, “Because he’s a prick.”
Waters responded to Polly Samson’s comments with his own Twitter bulletin: “Roger Waters is aware of the incendiary and wildly inaccurate comments made about him on Twitter by Polly Samson which he refutes entirely. He is currently taking advice as to his position.” As ever when relationships go sour, the happiest people are lawyers.
Clarification, 20 February 2023: an earlier version of this piece referred to an article in El Pais claiming Roger Waters is planning to remove Dave Gilmour’s guitar solos from a new version of The Dark Side of the Moon. Roger Waters has denied these claims and said “I love Dave’s guitar solos… [they] constitute a collection of some of the very best guitar solos in the history of Rock and Roll.”
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why the right is losing everywhere