Roger Waters, has had an incredible musical trajectory from being a founding member of Pink Floyd, to taking over principal song writing duties from Syd Barrett and developing his own distinct style that evolved across psychedelia; profound relationship, philosophical, historical, and existential reflections; and more recently, increasingly explicit political material.
In terms of criteria, Guitars Exchange is including songs he wrote or cowrote, but is not attempting to be representative in this list; these top ten songs are driven solely by what moves the writer.
10. Grantchester Meadows (1969)
Grantchester Meadows, the second track from Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, is a place in Cambridgeshire where David Gilmour lived when he was young, and it was the inspiration for Waters to produce this poetic, dreamy gem. The mix of Waters’ acoustic guitar - possibly his Martin D 35 or Ovation Legend – and his spoken delivery both evoke a timeless country moment and foreshadow a compositional approach he would return to with great success throughout his career.“Icy wind of night begone this is not your domain” he sings; and it is sublime.
9. In The Flesh (1979)
The contrast between Grantchester Meadows and the threatening fascist rally conjured up by In The Flesh, could hardly be greater, but it serves to emphasize the breadth of Waters’ output and stands on its own as a great song. The title references Pink Floyd’s 1977 In The Flesh tour in which Waters’ spat in the face of a fan who was trying to get onto the stage, which provoked the self-hate and anguish that led to the creation of The Wall. In the original Earl’s Court concerts to present the album, the Pink Floyd ‘surrogate band’ used a spotlight to pick out ‘queers, Jews, coons and people rolling a joint’ in the audience, and then threatens to “have all of you shot!" Comfortably Numb is an amazing song from the same album, but it cannot replicate the cold punch and impact of In the Flesh.
8. Vera (1979)
Waters once said that Vera was one of the songs he was most proud of, and it is difficult not to see it as a small work of genius on The Wall. The song references Vera Lynn, who was a World War II darling of British troops - in part due to her hopeful message that “we’ll meet again some sunny day”. Waters turns her song on its head and uses feedback superbly to emphasize what he feels was the bitter betrayal of that sentiment, when he sings “Vera, Vera, what has become of you, does anybody else in here feel the way I do?”
7. When The Tigers Broke Free (1979)
If Vera is absolutely devastating in its societal critique, When The Tigers Broke Free goes a step further with Waters evoking his own father’s death at the Battle of Anzio bridgehead to illustrate the senselessness of war. The depth and angst that Waters goes to in order to show his sense of loss is perhaps only matched by John Lennon’s Mother. When The Tigers Broke Free was not included on the double-album of The Wall but did appear in the film of the same name. The scene in which a child actor representing Waters accidentally comes across a ‘gold leaf scroll’ from ‘kind old King George’ telling of his father’s death, which “His Majesty signed with his own rubber stamp”, is breathtakingly powerful. This song clearly has enormous importance in Waters’ life, and it merits something similar in ours as well.
6. Sheep (1977)
For years Sheep was entitled Raving and Drooling, until it was reimagined and appeared on Animals in 1977. Following the Dark Side of The Moon and Wish You Were Here albums, Floyd fans were totally unprepared for this change of direction, which drew on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and was far more overtly political in tone. Sheep begins ominously with Richard Wright on electric organ and builds into a bizarre nightmare in which sheep rise up and kill the dogs. You’d better watch out!
5. Wish You Were Here (1975)
Waters and Gilmour collaborated for the music while Gilmour sang lead vocal on this classic that is considered to be a lament for Syd Barrett but is also, according to Waters, directed at himself and his own feelings of alienation. Whatever the case, the song manages to take the personal and transform it into something that huge numbers of people feel relates to their own experience. Waters and Gilmour later famously fell out so it has extra resonance to remember now one of their finest collaborations, which Waters described as "really good. All bits of it are really, really good. I'm very happy about it."
4. Breathe (1973)
With music by Gilmour and Wright and lyrics by Waters, Breathe features Gilmour playing lap steel and Waters opening with the words 'Breathe in the air / Don't be afraid to care'. It is the perfect introduction to the band’s breakthrough album, Dark Side of The Moon, because in a few words it references many of the themes to come, such as relationships, existential meaning, and the mundane life-tasks we engage in as the moments tick by…
3. Us and Them (1973)
Us and Them was another co-write, this time by Wright and Waters. Jazz-driven, it is bookended by two saxophone solos, which add pathos to the song. The lyrics reference the absurdity of war, prejudice and materialism and contrasts it with humanity’s lack of perspective. This is crystallized by a busy person passing an elderly homeless man in the street who dies for “want of the price of tea and a slice.”
2. Brain Damage/Eclipse (1973)
This song may again reference Barrett’s mental decline, but its themes of breakdown, memory loss and the treatment of people in what used to be called lunatic asylums are once more elevated into something that almost everyone can identify with. One specific example is the line "And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes..." which probably refers to the fact that Barrett seemed to be playing other songs during some of the band’s live performances, but which well describes more generalized feelings of alienation and lack of connection.
1. Shine On You Crazy Diamond (parts I-V and VI to IX) (1975)
Shine On You Crazy Diamond is a multi-part reprising composition written by Waters, Gilmour and Wright, and was again inspired by Barrett. It is part of Floyd mythology that one day during recording, Barrett arrived unexpectedly at the studio with a shaved head and eyebrows and was not even initially recognized by the band. Wright explains that: “Roger was there, and he was sitting at the desk, and I came in and I saw this guy sitting behind him – huge, bald, fat guy. I thought, "He looks a bit... strange..." Anyway, so I sat down with Roger at the desk and we worked for about ten minutes, and this guy kept on getting up and brushing his teeth and then sitting – doing really weird things, but keeping quiet. And I said to Roger, "Who is he?" and Roger said "I don't know." And I said "Well, I assumed he was a friend of yours," and he said "No, I don't know who he is." Anyway, it took me a long time, and then suddenly I realised it was Syd, after maybe 45 minutes. He came in as we were doing the vocals for "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" [and] for some incredible reason picked the very day that we were doing a song which was about him.”
This moment left Waters in tears, but we can be thankful that his particular sorrows have gifted us a series of masterpieces that have made his fan’s lives just that little bit easier.