Roger Waters: The Wall, Vienna Ernst Happel Stadium, 23 August 2013

I’ve never shed tears at a concert before, but I don’t mind admitting that a few burned my eyes during Roger Waters’ performance of The Wall in Vienna. They didn’t come because of the concert itself, though, but rather because my son was a member of the 15-strong children’s choir that graced the stage for “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2”, singing and dancing his heart out to Waters’ bilious diatribe against the excesses of the British educational system. While that was, naturally enough, the emotional highlight of the show for me, this epic, vast piece of music theatre was also overwhelmingly powerful as a whole.

Those interested can go here for a brief history of my liking for Pink Floyd and Roger Waters in particular. Little did I imagine, when I wrote that piece, that I would indeed be seeing The Wall live three years later, albeit as a Waters show rather than a Floyd show, and in a stadium rather than the arenas for which it was originally designed. There was apparently some talk, a couple of years ago, of putting the show on in the Stadthalle, but in the end that soulless barn proved too small to cope with the massive scale of this concept. For years Waters held out against playing The Wall in stadiums, saying that by imposing such a distance between performer and audience they represented exactly what he was railing against in the piece. Recent advances in audio-visual technology, however, have made it possible to mount the show in large venues and still provide audiences with a viable concert-going experience. And certainly from my vantage point a mere seven rows back, the Ernst Happel Stadium was just fine as a setting for the grim psychodrama being played out on stage.

Unusually for me, I seem to have backed a winner in throwing my lot in with Waters rather than with his nemesis David Gilmour. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the way Waters, at the age of 70, has kept the spirit of Pink Floyd alive by taking a scaled-up and redesigned version of The Wall on tour around the world for the last three years. Meanwhile the inveterately lazy Gilmour, who made such an almighty fuss in the 1980s about being allowed to keep the rights to the group’s name, put out two mediocre Floyd albums (which were really Gilmour solo albums in all but name) and since then has sat back in Sussex counting his money. If, as is rumoured, this summer’s Wall shows are to be the last, then Waters will certainly have earned a good long rest of his own, although I wouldn’t bet against him coming back with another project before too long.

That unswerving commitment to the value of live performance was evident in every moment of this monumental concert, in which Waters proved himself to be a remarkable showman as well as a strikingly powerful singer. Prowling the length of the enormous stage, gesticulating wildly to the audience or just to himself, caught up in the mad-eyed terror of the Pink character, Waters is the charismatic centre around whom the whole show revolves. The Bleeding Heart Band, who famously become gradually invisible during the first half of the show and are hardly seen at all in the second half, make up for their enforced lack of stage presence with playing of incomparable energy and toughness.

As for the visual aspects of the concert, there were just too many devastating scenes and images to take in. I was particularly affected by “Mother”, which saw Waters framed by a ghostly image of himself singing the song with Pink Floyd in the 1980 concerts; by the nerve-shredding symbolism and stunning pyrotechnics of “In The Flesh”; and by my favourite Floyd moment of all, “Comfortably Numb”, in which singer Robbie Wyckoff and guitarist David Kilminster appeared on top of the wall to join Waters in performing this most incendiary and soul-searching of songs. What impressed me most, however, was the way Waters has transformed this supposedly self-obsessed piece into an impassioned howl of rage against conflict and a lament in memory of its victims. Proceeding with ominous and tortured inevitability, its haunted solipsism disturbed by livid imagery of tragedy and death, The Wall is a deeply moving and humane intervention.

The Australian Pink Floyd Show, Vienna Stadthalle, 8 February 2010

Something of a guilty pleasure for me, this, but it was an evening I found impossible to resist. Pink Floyd were, at one time, the most important group in the world for me. I remember discovering them in 1983, around the time The Final Cut was released. My teenage obsession with Gary Numan had pretty much run its course by then, as Numan was still wilfully and stupidly insisting on leaving behind the electropop that had made him great in favour of long, uninspired excursions into pallid white funk. It was clearly time for me to jump ship.

I latched onto Pink Floyd as a direct result of the marketing and promotion for The Final Cut. Not having heard a note of their music (except for “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2”, of course), I was for some reason intrigued and attracted by the stark lowercase text on the album cover and posters, and by the general air of mystery the cover exuded. When I bought it and the needle dropped down on “The Post-War Dream” for the first time, I immediately felt that this was music I’d been waiting all my life to hear. Slow, dark, serious and strangely moving, the song made an impression on me which has never dissipated, and the whole of The Final Cut still has the same effect.

Over the next few months I doubled back and quickly devoured every single Pink Floyd album, finding in particular Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall to be every bit as mysterious and troubling as The Final Cut had been. In its glacial pessimism and its grim sense of psychological trauma, this was music for grown-ups, and listening to it made me feel less of a child than I had been before.

In the ensuing battle between Roger Waters and David Gilmour over who was the rightful owner of the Floyd legacy, I placed myself firmly in the Waters camp. As a huge generalization, vocals and lyrics have always been more important to me than music (cf. Peter Hammill). I knew Gilmour was a great guitarist, but I also sensed that most of the Floyd moments I cherished stemmed from Waters’ lyrics, concepts and sense of drama, not from Gilmour’s admittedly miraculous guitar. The contemptible A Momentary Lapse of Reason only served to confirm this, while Waters’ brilliant Radio KAOS was a record I returned to many times.

It’s a matter of great regret to me that I never saw Pink Floyd live. I sometimes ask myself who I would most like to have seen live that I never did and now never will, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall show would certainly be at or near the top of the list (Joy Division would be the other serious contenders, since you ask). Waters’ Radio KAOS show was hugely enjoyable (by a stroke of massive good fortune I ended up with tickets for the front row of Wembley Arena, and I was even the “lucky” person on whom the spotlight shone when Waters shrieked “STAND STILL LADDIE!”). The Gilmour-led affair that I snoozed through at Wembley Stadium the following summer, though, was such an abomination that I refuse to even recognize it as a Pink Floyd concert.

These, then, are some of the reasons why I ended up watching the Australian Pink Floyd Show at the Stadthalle’s Halle F (a much more pleasant venue than I’d expected, to be honest). Watching this constantly thrilling, immaculately performed facsimile, it suddenly dawned on me that this group was no less Floyd than the Waters-less (Watered down?) version of Floyd had been. OK, so it didn’t have Gilmour, Nick Mason or Richard Wright, as the 1988/1994 touring Floyd had done; but that band had those people in, and it still wasn’t Floyd. And so, apart from the fact that “Brain Damage/Eclipse” was unaccountably omitted from the set whereas no fewer than three atrocities from the Gilmour period were performed, I have no complaints.