Unpacking the controversy behind Roger Waters’ latest tour

“I will not be cancelled,” roared the former Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters at a recent concert in Birmingham, part of a European tour mired in controversy. There have been police investigations in Berlin, demonstrations in Britain and accusations of fostering hatred against Jews, but Waters has remained defiant.

At the centre of the uproar has been onstage imagery, particularly an SS-style leather trenchcoat emblazoned with quasi-fascist crossed hammer symbols which Waters has worn while brandishing a prop machine gun. The German investigation, which also precipitated a tirade of criticism in the UK, stemmed from laws forbidding displays of Nazi symbols as part of restrictions on hate speech – but with exemptions for artistic and educational purposes.

Waters’ riposte – “It’s called theatre, darling, it’s called satire” – is first, that the costume depicts a fictional character who imagines himself a totalitarian icon and, second, is nothing new. The costume derives from the 1979 concept album The Wall, whose protagonist descends into madness – a reflection connecting alienation to fascistic tendencies and, ultimately, a critique of them. Representations of these fevered imaginings have been a feature of Waters’ set for decades.

Another staple has been a flying inflatable pig, based on the 1977 album Animals, which got him into hot water in 2013 when he adorned it with a Star of David, adding other religious symbols following complaints. The pig doesn’t feature a Star of David on the current tour.

So why has his tour generated all this fuss now?

An increasingly strident position

Context is key, particularly Waters’ political trajectory since recording The Wall, and stances that have become progressively more strident and extreme. Although anti-war themes have infused his writing since his earliest compositions in the late 1960s, his anti-capitalism and critique of western imperialism have taken on an increasingly conspiratorial bent, overshadowing any message of peace.

Animals was based on George Orwell’s anti-Stalinist fable Animal Farm, which Waters reconfigured into a commentary on how industrial capitalism had debilitated British society. He has cited, and compared himself to, Orwell at recent concerts.

But Orwell – himself no fan of capitalism or imperialism – was alive to the risks of giving succour to your enemy’s enemy. This was a theme that came up regularly in his work (such as Homage to Catalonia), as he noted the twin dangers of fascism and Stalinism, despite them being on opposite sides of the political fence.

Waters’ critique of western politics, however, has calcified to the point of holding positions which can be seen as aligned with elements of the authoritarianism he claims to abhor. In Poland, Krakow city council cancelled Waters’ concerts earlier this year, objecting to his views on Ukraine.

In an open letter to Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska, Waters accused her husband of caving in to “extreme nationalists [who] have set your country on the path to this disastrous war”. At the invitation of Russian diplomats, Waters addressed the UN Security Council in February, denouncing violence but minimising Russia’s aggression, alluding to an invasion that was “not unprovoked”, and elsewhere questioning whether Putin is a “bigger gangster than Joe Biden”.

Likewise, for Waters, the White Helmets – a Syrian volunteer operation, opposed to al-Assad but with a focus on medical assistance and rescuing civilians from destroyed buildings – was a “fake organisation”. The group was tainted, he believed, by the support and training it received from European organisation the Mayday Rescue Foundation and its founder, former British Army officer James Le Mesurier.

Waters said Russia’s interventions in Syria, by contrast, were “at the invitation of the Syrian government”, itself a legitimate government “in the absence of any evidence that says otherwise”. Waters has also claimed that al-Assad’s chemical attacks on civilians in Douma were faked by his opponents.

The former Pink Floyd singer also argues that Taiwan is part of China. And when challenged by a CNN journalist on Chinese civil rights abuses, Waters shot back: “Bollocks. That’s absolute nonsense!”

Veering towards conspiracy theories

Waters has been lambasted across party lines from Keir Starmer to Michael Gove – not generally known for their shared opinions – and lays the blame for his touring travails and controversy, among much else, at the feet of the “Israeli lobby”.

His difficulty here lies in journeying to the margins of political discourse where elements of the conspiratorially minded left and right share common ground in their opposition to the mainstream, despite their mutual enmity. Charges of antisemitism land more heavily in light of all this recent controversial commentary from Waters.

While criticism of Israel is of course not necessarily antisemitic, that doesn’t mean, as he appears to contend, that it can’t be. Waters’ definition of valid criticism of Israel is capacious enough to include that it “gave the country to the Tories … and also installed Keir Starmer as the leader of the Labour Party, who is completely controlled by the Israeli lobby”.

Bury South Labour MP Christian Wakeford accused Waters of using the performances to “stoke division”, and asked the AO Arena in Manchester to reconsider hosting the show. In repsonse to the MP’s criticsms, Waters called him a “cripple”, adding that he was “making shit up because you were told to by your masters in the foreign office in Tel Aviv”.

This could be viewed as carrying echoes of conspiracist tropes focusing on Jewish cabalistic control of the media and economy, dating back to a document called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was initially produced in pre-revolutionary Russia by supporters of Tsar Nicholas II and re-circulated throughout the 20th and 21st centuries as a purported account of how the Jews plot world domination, despite the document being exposed as a forgery in 1921.

It’s in the context of Waters’ ossified approach to modern politics, clinging to a hard, unyielding anti-western line, that longstanding elements of his stagecraft have become contentious. And even if it’s somewhat missing the point to focus too tightly on the trenchcoat and machine gun, he seems unable to grasp how he’s largely the author of this condemnation.

He may be right that the origins of his show lie in antifascism, but not in assuming that’s the end of the matter. Waters’ work has frequently combined personal estrangement with sociopolitical concerns, but his current tribulations are a result of drifting from allegorical to specific, and from empathetic to paranoid.

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