Pink Floyd were at a confusing crossroad for a number of years after former leader Syd Barrett absconded his post as the bandleader. The four remaining members did what they could to continue moving forward, embracing uninspired concepts and experimentation in an attempt to find their collective voice.
When creating the album Meddle, Roger Waters began to assert himself as the creative conductor, suggesting the majority of lyrics and providing the most direction. By The Dark Side of the Moon, Waters was in full thematic control. His guidance would turn into leadership, and it wouldn’t always be benevolent: he forced Richard Wright out of the group during The Wall, and his conflicts with David Gilmour would leave to Waters departure in 1985, certain that the group couldn’t continue.
They did, but Waters’ absence was felt by the lack of poetic resonance in the band’s subsequent lyrics. When helmed by Gilmour, Pink Floyd were a muscular a serviceable ship that often produced beautiful-sounding songs that nonetheless couldn’t match the impact that was made when Waters was in charge. None of the members could be as important separately as they were together, but Waters’ direction was undoubtedly one of the primary reasons why they found so much success during their initial run.
To celebrate the mercurial bassist’s 78th birthday, we’ve put together some of his most transcendent lines, impactful phrases, and legendary words over the course of his career, both within Pink Floyd and outside the band. These are Roger Waters’ ten best lyrics.
Roger Waters’ 10 best lyrics:
“Strangers passing in the street
By chance, two separate glances meet.”
With Syd Barrett at the helm, Pink Floyd explored psychedelic stories of kleptomaniac transvestites and fairytale-like characters, filtered through Barrett’s kaleidoscopic mind. When Rogers took over as lyricist, he shifted the band’s focus to a much for grounded and real-world sensibility. Waters was fascinated by human behaviour and was disturbed by how people willingly absolve themselves of feelings and emotions to make it through their lives.
By looking at the evolution of underwater creatures, Waters comes to the conclusion that human connection is essential to understanding our lives beyond the unstoppable march of time. Passing strangers are reflections of each other, and they can help one another make it through this bizarre and random world, if only they stopped to acknowledge it. ‘Echoes’ is the first time Waters come across something truly profound, and it would inform all of his subsequent writing.
“Money, It’s a crime
Share it fairly
But don’t take a slice of my pie.”
When conceptualising The Dark Side of the Moon, Waters began to ponder what motivated humans and what drove them. Everybody wants fulfilment, but there are also more tangible factors that drive people to compromise themselves or their desires in order to achieve their goals. What gets in the way of true human connection? Money, for one.
Rogers also took a look at his own self: he was guilty of falling into the same greedy trap. And so he decided to parody his coveting of material goods in a new song. ‘Money’ flirts with the idea that, while wealth can be imprudent in excess, it also is a necessary part of having a comfortable life in modern society. The song disparages the fat cats but acknowledges that most people just want to “get a good job with more pay” to be OK.
“Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say.”
As Pink Floyd were creating The Dark Side of the Moon, Waters had a terrifying realisation: he was now approaching 30 and was in the middle of what would end up being an early mid-life crisis. The idea that he was no longer preparing for anything significant other than death was engulfing, and Waters felt a strong desire to stop wasting what was now precious minutes on this earth.
The idea that life can pass you by without even knowing it is as human as any other notion, and it fits perfectly within the concept of Dark Side. But what ‘Time’ does more than any other track on the album is balance the harsh vitriol with the truly empathetic connection that Waters was constantly trying to find a middle ground within. David Gilmour’s raspy denouncements of wasted time are counteracted with Richard Wright’s more gentle vocals expressing a more philosophic view. Waters was an expert wordsmith, but the band behind him was often responsible for giving those words their proper weight.
‘Us and Them’
“Us and them
And after all we’re only ordinary men
Me and you
God only knows
It’s not what we would choose to do.”
Following ‘Money’, ‘Us and Them’ is the first time Waters directly confronts the failures of modern humans to find proper connection with each other. Through tales of war, racism, and vagrancy, Waters paints a fairly unflattering picture of how human beings have lost a substantial amount of their humanity.
Although he stops short of directly preaching for empathy, Rogers highlights the cruelty of the world and the collective faults that lead to our modern detachment. One of the reasons The Dark Side of the Moon is so popular is because of its universality, and the fact that life has yet to significantly change from the portrait that Waters creates in ‘Us and Them’ means that it will continue to stay relevant for a long time.
‘Have a Cigar’
“You gotta get an album out
You owe it to the people
We’re so happy we can hardly count.”
Pink Floyd were hugely successful rock stars by 1975, and when your reality becomes an endless parade of schmoozing record executives and resolving legal business matters, it’s bound to influence your point of view. Waters wasn’t one to take the assembly line nature of the music business very well, and Wish You Were Here takes two direct shots at the industry on ‘Welcome to the Machine’ and ‘Have a Cigar’.
‘Have a Cigar’ is a phenomenal work of storytelling, brought to life through the over-the-top performance of Roy Harper on lead vocals. Harper sells the hapless record executive whose only focus is on money, to the point that he believes ‘Pink Floyd’ is one of the band members. When he set his sights on a target, Waters took aim with incisive precision and venomous castigation.
‘Wish You Were Here’
“Did you exchange
A walk-on part in the war
For a leading role in a cage?”
When they weren’t griping about the music industry, Pink Floyd spent the rest of Wish You Were Here‘s runtime memorialising their fallen comrade, Syd Barrett. Lost to the haze of drugs and mental illness, Barrett was responsible for both their initial formation and Waters eventual ascendance to that of a legendary songwriter. A tribute felt appropriate, and the result is one of Waters’ most touching lyrics.
To be fair, Waters has claimed that he was talking to himself when writing the words to the album’s title song, but the resonance carries a phenomenal weight when applied to Barrett. The general sense of finding one way through the confusion and malaise of life can be applied to anybody, and it remains Pink Floyd’s simplest, and most impactful, song.
“Deaf, dumb and blind, you just keep on pretending
That everyone’s expendable and no one has a real friend.”
One of Waters’ major focuses within Pink Floyd was empathy. The concepts of connecting with other human beings and sharing experiences as a way to make sense of the world were Waters’ philosophical driving forces throughout his run with the band. Even as he honed in on specifics like war, rock stardom, lunacy, and corporate business, he never lost the desire to break down the harshness of life.
Which is why it’s so strange to hear him get so nasty on ‘Dogs’. For 17 minutes, Waters holds no empathy for the people who prioritise ruthless advancement through “a firm handshake/A certain look in the eye and an easy smile.” For someone who did a great deal to offer a sense of understanding to even the most heinous of villains, Waters takes great delight in imagining the central character of ‘Dogs’ as “just another sad old man/All alone and dying of cancer.”
“Hey you, don’t tell me there’s no hope at all
Together we stand, divided we fall.”
A single solitary spot of The Wall just feels wrong. Yes, Dark Side of the Moon gets three songs on a list but Waters’ other masterful concept album gets relegated to one reference. That’s because, in spite of its genius as a whole, most of the lyrics on The Wall are tied to each other in a way that gets lost when separated from each other. The crazed horniness of ‘Young Lust’, the drug-infused euphoria of ‘Comfortably Numb’, and the harried mania of ‘Run Like Hell’ are all fantastic, but if there’s one song that requires no backstory, it’s ‘Hey You’.
Once again keying into Waters’ desire for connection, ‘Hey You’ plays with the crippling sadness that comes from shutting other people out of your life. Waters advises the listener, whether it’s Pink or whoever may be putting on the music at the moment, “don’t help them to bury the light/Don’t give in without a fight,” lest you let the worms start to eat your brain. While slotting nicely within the album’s plot, it works exceptionally well outside of the concept’s context as well.
“He was always a good boy his mother said
He’ll do his duty when he’s grown, yeah
Everybody’s got someone they call home.”
Waters began to get a bit heavy-handed after The Wall. Whereas that album is grandiose and majestic in its exploration of fame, loss, and disconnection, Waters’ final album with Pink Floyd, The Final Cut, focused on the war-ravaged origins of Waters’ father and was pessimistic enough to end with full-on nuclear annihilation. His solo work, especially on 1987’s Radio K.A.O.S., was similarly unwieldy.
The exception is ‘Home’, which talks of the desire to returns to the simplicity of one’s roots amidst the madness that may surround them, is a rare case of Waters peeking his head above the glut of synthesisers and needlessly complicated storylines to make something universal. Waters could make a mean concept record, but those only translated when they were paired with his reflection on the human condition.
“And you don’t know what it is
You see someone through the window
Who you’ve just learned to miss.”
By the time Waters reached 1992’s Amused to Death, he finally exhausted his desires for exact cohesion within an album. He took The Wall to Berlin two years earlier and clearly made his maximalist statement with it. The through-line of Amused to Death, a chimp flipping through TV channels, is loose enough that the songs can take on their own unique qualities without having to connect with each other (even if a number of tracks contain multiple parts. Some habits are hard to break).
By the time he gets to ‘Three Wishes’, Rogers has explored some of his favourite topics, including anti-war sloganeering and the dangerous consumption of mass media. ‘Three Wishes’ finds a man solving the world’s problems with a genie, but laments that he failed to fix his own problems by the time his wishes were gone. It’s a sad and surprisingly reflective turn from Waters, and it stands as one of his last true attempts at finding the human centre of a maddeningly meaningless world.