“Dial the combination, open the priesthole/
And if I’m in I’ll tell you what’s behind the wall.”
In 1983, Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut was deemed “a superlative achievement on several levels” by Rolling Stone’s Kurt Loder in his five-star review, but those achievements weren’t easy to come by. Originally, the project was to be titled, Spare Bricks, mostly consisting of songs leftover from the band’s previous album (something called The Wall). Roger Waters, chief lyricist, bassist, and de facto lead singer, decided to take those unused tracks, write a few others, and base it around a concept that focused much more on war and much less on former bandleader Syd Barrett. This upset guitarist David Gilmour, who didn’t understand why the songs were suddenly okay now when they weren’t good enough before. Tensions between the bandmates were reaching an all-time high.
To make matters worse, Waters refused to take suggestions from Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason. Founding member and keyboardist, the late Richard Wright, had been kicked out of the band for various issues before the sessions even began. For the first time ever, the feuding Pink Floyd would consist of merely a guitarist, a bassist, and a drummer. They would lose the “Pink Floyd sound” that set them apart from their contemporaries, and a large portion of their fan base. In the end, Waters would leave the band to pursue a solo career.
In a 2015 interview with Esquire, Waters was pressed to discuss what he wished he had done different in his career. “Well, there were certain songs on The Final Cut, and there’s some stuff about the production of that album, that I think are a bit clunky and heavy-handed. I don’t love the drum sound and, if I could do it again, I would be much more naturalistic in terms of the way things are constructed. I would not try to make this thing that has these huge dynamics in it.”
He’s not wrong. There are certainly some startling quiet-to-loud moments (drums emerge in “Your Possible Pasts”, several bombs explode after whispers over radio, etc.), but overall, the album has aged better than most efforts from the ‘80s, including the post-Waters semi-abomination that is Pink Floyd’s 1987 album, A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Then again, Waters’ own ’87 record, Radio K.A.O.S., hasn’t fared much better, either.
So, despite all of these issues, how does The Final Cut remain one of the band’s finest works? The answer doesn’t lie in the synthesizers, for there aren’t any of those to be found during its runtime. Look no further than its politically-charged lyrics, arguably the strongest and definitely the most personal of Waters’ storied career. The Final Cut’s themes resonate more than ever today and always will, whether we would like them to or not.
The central concept of the album is based around the effects of war. It tells us stories of soldiers in battle, and to a more devastating effect, disenchanted soldiers who have returned home. Album opener “The Post War Dream” sets the tone for the rest of the record — a record that can make you uncomfortable without feeling less than sympathetic: “Tell me true/Tell me why/Was Jesus crucified?/Was it for this that Daddy died?”
Questions permeate The Final Cut. We hear it in the chorus of “Your Possible Pasts” (“Do you remember me?/ How we used to be?/ Do you think we should be closer?”), in the middle of the night during “The Hero’s Return” (“Sweetheart, sweetheart/ Are you fast asleep?/Good/ That’s the only/ Time that I can/Really speak to you”). We hear a man afraid to open up to his wife in the title track (“Would you sell your story to Rolling Stone?/ Would you take the children away/And leave me alone?”). So many questions, but no answers. Life in a nutshell.
In “The Gunner’s Dream”, we bear witness to a man’s journey into the afterlife after being bombed, featuring a powerful sax solo from Raphael Ravenscroft (great fucking name) and the friggin’ National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the late Michael Kamen. We are reminded not only to remember those fallen soldiers we have loved and lost, friends and family who have left us, as well (“In the corner of some foreign field/The gunner sleeps tonight/What’s done is done/We cannot just write off his final scene/Take heed of the dream”).
The Final Cut arrived with the dedication of “A Requiem for the Post-War Dream” found on its vinyl sleeve. While these shaken soldiers are achingly defined in a track like “Paranoid Eyes”, anyone going through a difficult period in their own life or getting by in a new world may find themselves within the track: “You put on our brave face and slip over the road for a jar/Fixing your grin as you casually lean on the bar/ Laughing too loud at the rest of the world/With the boys in the crowd/You hide, hide, hide/ Behind petrified eyes.”
If there is a knock against the record (aside from its cringe worthy use of the word “nips” to rhyme with “ships”), it’s that a number of tracks bear echoes from those found inside The Wall. The orchestral composition that weaves in and out of the title track is similar to the one found in “Comfortably Numb”. Gilmour’s guitar solo in “Not Now John” is another take on “Young Lust”. However, if you think of The Final Cut as The Wall’s missing third disc or sequel, view these as reprises and the album becomes something different entirely.
Waters doubled-down on this album’s Wall association with The Final Cut Video EP. The adaptation stars the same actor who played the evil teacher in The Wall (Alex McAvoy), now portrayed as a downtrodden war veteran that we follow through “The Gunner’s Dream”, “The Final Cut”, “Not Now John”, and “The Fletcher Memorial Home”. The short film was once easily accessible through your friendly neighborhood steaming service, YouTube, but now you’ll have to watch it through Daily Motion here, and here, and here, and here.
The album’s crowning achievement is found in the closing acoustic track, “Two Suns in the Sunset”. Sounds lovely, but this isn’t some two suns scenario from Star Wars. The only stars at war were Waters and Gilmour, and it’s tough not to see this as the former’s farewell to the latter, even if its subconscious. The second of the two suns is actually the blinding light from a nuclear explosion, serving a representation of “the holocaust to come” if we don’t get ourselves together as human beings. The final lines here are worth noting, especially for their possible subtext: “Finally I understand the feelings of the few/ Ashes and diamonds/ Foe and friend/ We were all equal in the end.”
Lovely then and lovely now. If we could wrap ourselves up in this “Kumbaya” moment and buy the world a Coke, we’d be better off. Maybe Waters knew this was the end? It’s a gorgeous send-off, aided by Gilmour acoustics, Ravenscroft sax, Kamen piano, and Andy Newmark percussion. That’s right. The only member of Floyd left at this point in the record were Waters and Gilmour. Mason managed to make it through 11 tracks (good on ya’, Nick!).
Shortly after its release, and despite that aforementioned Rolling Stone review, the album would fade away into obscurity. The Final Cut was released in 1983, the year of Return of the Jedi and Flashdance, The Police’s Synchronicity and Duran Duran’s Rio. Popular culture was not exactly clamoring for a primal scream album from a man with daddy issues. This was the time of the Reagan administration, when bigger was better. A stripped-down Pink Floyd album was commercially doomed from the start. But fuck Billboard charts and box office receipts. Through its political text and subtext, The Final Cut resonates just as much now as it did over 30 years ago. Just replace Thatcher with Trump.
And no, you can’t say that about Flashdance.
For more on “When the Tigers Broke Free”, which was added to The Final Cut’s tracklisting for its 2004 re-issue, please read our recent feature, “Pink Floyd’s 10 Best Deep Cuts.” I wrote that, too!