The controversy surrounding Roger Waters reminds us how hard it is to judge a person’s words or actions without allowing existing suspicions to colour dispassionate assessment. Take this writer. I never imagined I would be (in part) defending the man responsible for the most nauseating excesses in Pink Floyd’s century-long reign of gatefold pomposity. It remains a great irony that the one enormity not perpetrated by the rock star protagonist of that band’s wretched The Wall was a navel-gazing double-album addressing the stresses of mega-stardom. You know? Like Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Poor wee billionaires with their landing strips and their fish farms and their private islands.
Never mind that. The nugget here worth extracting from The Wall is that “Pink” – played by Bob Geldof in Alan Parker’s wearisome film version – is pilloried as a proto-fascist in later stages of the narrative. There was quite a bit of this about in the 1970s. As the UK collapsed into a mire of inflation, corruption and labour unrest, a few among the worried rich pined for “a strong man”. One or two of the rock elite thought they might be strong enough and manly enough for the role. You wouldn’t call The Wall subtle (or good). But its critical meshing of rock superstardom with political megalomania was to a point.
German police are reported to have launched a criminal investigation into Waters after he appeared in a “Nazi-style” uniform at a concert in Berlin. Those inverted commas are worth heeding. The logo on his trench coat was not the swastika, but the crossed hammers seen in early videos for The Wall and in Parker’s film. “The elements of my performance that have been questioned are quite clearly a statement in opposition to fascism, injustice, and bigotry,” Waters explained. “The depiction of an unhinged fascist demagogue has been a feature of my shows since Pink Floyd’s The Wall in 1980.” A glance at the original lyrics to In the Flesh, the song being performed at the time, leaves little doubt as to Waters’s intent – or to his bludgeoning technique. The character addresses an array of minorities with epithets problematic even in satire, before inviting them against the, ahem, wall to be summarily shot. It is hard to read this as anything other than a repudiation of the fascist urge.
The misuse of Nazi imagery in Germany is an offence that can carry a prison sentence of up to three years. There are, however, exemptions for artistic or educational purposes. One cannot, for example, imagine the authorities bursting in and shutting down the last act of The Sound of Music. Productions of Bertolt Brecht’s Nazi allegory The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui will be free from prosecution. It remains to be seen if Waters gets similar leeway.
There is a long, unhappy history of Nazi imagery in rock music. Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux brought no credit on themselves for wearing swastikas in the early days of punk. “It was just a way to piss off the older generation. It was very much more high camp than death camp,” Siouxsie weakly argued as recently as 2007. The legendarily sombre Joy Division drew their name from an area of the concentration camps used for sexual slavery. New Order, successor to that band, always denied the apparent reference to Nazi ideology in their name, but the echoes were seen as awkward at the time. Both Ron Ashton of The Stooges and Lemmy of Motörhead had an interest in Nazi memorabilia. “It’s not a nationalistic kind of thing. Don’t tell me I’m a Nazi because I have uniforms. In 1967 I had my first black girlfriend,” Lemmy ventured in his defence. If you say so.
It seems surprising that kickback against such associations was relatively low-key. These bands were, after all, formed when memories of the second World War were still relatively fresh. For good or ill, the argument that one was just “having a laugh” could still swing it in the 1970s and 1980s. It took a while for wider society to acknowledge that not every potentially misused minority was chortling along.
The accusations against Waters are altogether different. Nobody is suggesting the show is more “high camp than death camp”. Waters’s previous pronouncements on a range of topics – but particularly his opposition to Israeli policy – have brought a laser focus that another artist in a leather trench coat might avoid. Earlier this year, David Gilmour, guitarist with Floyd, cosigned his wife Polly Samson’s statement arguing Waters was “rotten to [his] antisemitic core”. Waters claims: “I’ve never done or spoken a single antisemitic word or act in my entire life.”
All of which merely confirms that nobody is assessing Waters’s performance in an ideological vacuum. Everything matters. Everything confuses.