Inside The Final Cut, the ‘awful’ masterpiece that ruined Pink Floyd

David Gilmour and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd on stage in 1980
David Gilmour and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd on stage in 1980

Forty years ago, Pink Floyd released an album that would prove divisive even by their own exalted standards. Unveiled on March 21 1983, the sparse and unflinching The Final Cut was described by the Melody Maker as “a milestone in the history of awfulness”. Begging to differ from across the Atlantic, Rolling Stone reckoned its (at the time) 12-songs to be “alt-rock’s crowning masterpiece”. As it so happened, no one had a clue what the band themselves thought of it all. They weren’t speaking to the press. They weren’t speaking to each other, either, for that matter.

Instead, Pink Floyd had reached the destination to which they had been drifting for at least five years. “I don’t know if you’d still call us a group,” guitarist and fellow singer David Gilmour explained to the Boston Globe some 14-months after the release of The Final Cut. Speaking in his capacity as a solo artist, he added: “We haven’t officially split up or anything. Whether or not we record again is anyone’s guess… we haven’t got any plans to record, but on the other hand we’ve not said we’re not going to either. No one has screamed at anyone else, ‘I never want to work with you again, you bastard!’”

Not yet, they hadn’t. Even in 1983, though, at least one member of the group had perfected the art of proving himself first among equals. Following the completion of the blockbusting double album The Wall, in 1979, bassist, co-vocalist and principal songwriter Roger Waters oversaw the demotion of Richard Wright from full-time member to session keyboardist for the subsequent loss-making world tour. With the itinerary restricted to 31 performances in four arenas in Europe and the United States, at least Wright was able to joke about being the only “member” of the group to have made any money out of the vastly expensive live campaign.

But beneath the humour lay heartbreak. Explaining his reasons for stomaching his humiliation at the hands of an erstwhile equal, and presumably a friend, Wright said, simply: “I did not just want to walk out on this great thing I’d been working on. [So] I just decided I’d go out and play my best, possibly with the hope that, if it worked out, [Waters’] decision to have me out could have been reverted.”

Fat chance. And, anyway, Roger Waters was just getting started. As pre-production began on the $12 million feature film Pink Floyd – The Wall, the then 39-year old set to work scrapping like a tom-cat in a sack with the project’s two other alpha males, director Alan Parker and animator Gerald Scarfe. Speaking to Creem magazine, Bob Geldof, who played the movie’s lead role, Pink, described a working environment in which the principals were very nearly at “fisticuffs at several points in the film”. Just think about being “nearly 40”, he said, without having “your ego sorted out”.

The cover of Pink Floyd's album The Final Cut
The cover of Pink Floyd's album The Final Cut

In what is surely one of the more off-message promotional interviews ever conducted in the name of a motion picture, Geldof also went on to provide a persuasive insight into the mind of Roger Waters. The bassist’s parents, he explained, “were communists. So here you have this man with a middle-class background, from communist parents, and he becomes very successful because of talent, and he feels very guilty about it. He’s also very insecure and he doesn’t just have a chip on his shoulder, he’s got a towering inferno.”

Certainly, there can be no mistake that this was the starting point for what followed. Never mind that the closing credits to Pink Floyd –The Wall promised a soundtrack album that was never released, the seed of The Final Cut can be found in its first-reel images of a young boy lost and grieving for a father whose life had been cut short on the European continent during the Second World War. As Roger Waters later explained in an interview with Carol Clerk: “In [1946] everybody got de-mobbed. Suddenly, all these men appeared. There weren’t any men around in ’44, ’45. Now they were picking their kids up from nursery school and I became extremely agitated at that point.”

He was agitated because he didn’t have a father. As a conscientious objector, Eric Fletcher Waters had spent the early years of the Second World War driving an ambulance in London. After changing his mind about pacifism, he was commissioned into the 8th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers (company C) on September 11 1943. His son, George Roger Waters, had been born just five days earlier. The following year, on February 18, Second Lieutenant Waters was presumed killed at Aprilia, in Italy, during the Battle of Anzio. His body was never found.

Pink Floyd in 1971 - Getty
Pink Floyd in 1971 - Getty

“And because no body was ever found, there was always a faint ‘maybe’,” the singer told Uncut magazine. “Maybe he’s wandering around Italy with amnesia. He was only ever missing, presumed dead, so through ’44 and ’45 I assume my mother went through a period of intense emotional limbo, scanning lists, and hoping.”

But no. Instead of resolution, or what would in time be called “closure”, by 1983 the sense of creeping unease and loss that had permeated so much of Pink Floyd’s music under the captaincy of Roger Waters was at last given full reign to explode in a mushroom cloud of venom and grief. The Final Cut is dedicated to Eric Fletcher Waters. The absent patriarch’s middle name is employed in The Fletcher Memorial Home, one of the album’s better songs, in which “colonial wasters of life and limb” are gathered so that “the final solution can be applied”.

Recorded in no fewer than eight studios during the second half of 1982, the LP was a nightmare of disharmony from start to finish. But whereas other bands launched televisions, or each other, out of windows, Pink Floyd splintered into unknowable factions. While drummer Nick Mason spent much of his time recording sound effects at an RAF base in Warwickshire, or the sound of screaming tyres at a police driving school, relations between Waters and Gilmour were on their way to the breakers’ yard. At least, in their own way they were.

“There was quite a lot of friction,” admitted session keyboardist Andy Bown in an interview with Mark Blake, the author of the essential biography Pigs Might Fly. “But the difference between Pink Floyd and every other band I’ve worked with is that they are gentlemen. No outsider would be able to tell there was friction. Pink Floyd are the only band I’ve encountered who know how to behave properly.’

Sure, let’s go with that. Because of course it’s perfectly normal for one of the group’s members (David Gilmour) to drive home after a day in the studio “screaming and swearing [even though] I was alone in the car”. Or for Michael Kamen to become so exasperated with his role as co-producer as to believe that the ordeal of recording Pink Floyd was karmic retribution for sins and misdemeanours committed in a previous life. Such was the ardour of one particular day that he looked down to discover he had unconsciously written “I must not f--- sheep” over and again on a pad of paper at his side.

To give the combatants their due, at least the cause of war was the album itself. With good cause, David Gilmour worried that the work-in-progress contained “duff tracks” as well as cast-off material that had been deemed below code for use on The Wall. For his part, Roger Waters believed that his bandmate was not only as idle as a bronze tree sloth – “I’m certainly guilty at times of being lazy… he had a point there,” the guitarist would later admit – but that he was also determined to dilute the stridency of The Final Cut’s majestic moralistic spite.

Some of this sounds like heightened hoopla. Given that on The Wall, Gilmour could be heard playing songs in which Waters deftly skewers the National Front – the tragic army who, on Waiting For The Worms, sought to eliminate “the queers and the c--ns and the reds and the Jews” in the hope of seeing “Britannia rule again” – this final charge, certainly, seems unjust. While acknowledging that by 1982 the pair were having “all sorts of arguments over political issues”, the guitarist himself was keen to stress that he “never, ever wanted to stand in the way of [Waters] expressing the story of The Final Cut”.

Roger Waters and Nick Mason in 2015 - PA
Roger Waters and Nick Mason in 2015 - PA

Good. Because it is the album’s thematic story that truly gives it life. Never mind that Pink Floyd had proved themselves to be the definitive English rock group of the 1970s – unlike the Stones and The Who and Led Zeppelin, their powers had not waned by the end of that decade – come the 1980s they continued to sound as if they inhabited a world that, as the outstanding The Gunner’s Dream has it, was “driving [them] insane”. Waters wasn’t shy about identifying one of the causes of his ire, either. With barely two minutes on the clock he asks: “Maggie, what have we done… to England?”

Because if Margaret Thatcher was the first domestic politician to cast a suspicious eye over the post-war consensus, Pink Floyd were the only band of a certain age to stare back with the kind of intensity The Specials mustered on Ghost Town, or Elvis Costello & The Attractions on Pills And Soap. That they did this from a position of vast wealth accrued after a decade of overwhelming international success strikes me as remarkable. And while The Final Cut is often undercooked – as Roger Waters himself later put it, “not everything can be a f---ing masterpiece” – at no point does it want for urgency, or for hunger.

But its centre couldn’t hold. After at last breaking into factions that remain acrimonious to this day, Roger Waters absented himself from Pink Floyd for a period of more than 20-years. Brought back to the fold to provide the finale to the London instalment of 2005’s Live 8 bonanza, with a four-song set in front of hundreds of thousands of people at Hyde Park, the bassist remarked that this briefest of re-formations “was such fun. We went in and did some rehearsals, and the moment we plugged in for the first rehearsal, it was like putting on an old shoe.”

As always, others begged to differ. David Gilmour said that three days spent practising with his former bandmate had “convinced me that it wasn’t something I wanted to be doing a lot of”.