Take Five: Roger Waters

Regardless of what some might think of him as an individual, Roger Waters is a songwriter and conceptual artist par excellence. His political views and pronouncements raise the ire of many; for his part he maintains that his positions are largely (and willfully) misinterpreted. Waters makes no such controversial claims about his abilities as a musician; he believes his work should be measured on the strength of its lyrics. And in those lyrics, Waters has explored weighty topics: insanity, loss, war, death, and the human condition in general.

Roger Waters – who celebrated his 80th birthday on September 6 – recently completed work on The Dark Side of the Moon Redux, a re-imagining of Pink Floyd’s landmark album, with (unsurprisingly) a greater emphasis on the lyrics. It’s set for release in October.

When he and his friends Syd Barrett, Nick Mason and Richard Wright launched Pink Floyd, Barrett was the primary songwriter; Waters progressed slowly but surely as a composer. Here’s a look at five key tracks written by Roger Waters, each of which represents a key point in his development as a songwriter.

“Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk” from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
Most of the songs on Pink Floyd’s groundbreaking debut LP came from the pen of Syd Barrett. But in one of his earliest songwriting efforts, bassist Roger Waters wrote this tune. Oddly – seeing that Waters is an atheist – the song’s title is a variation of a bible verse (John 5:8).

“Biding My Time” from Relics (recorded 1969)
No one wold mistake Pink Floyd’s music for jazz. But there’s an undeniable jazz character to this, one of the most atypical entries in the group’s catalog. “Biding My Time” figured into the group’s “The Man and the Journey” live suite, and was included in this studio version on the band’s rarities collection Relics. Fun fact: keyboardist Rick Wright plays trombone on this Roger Waters tune.

“If” from Atom Heart Mother (1970)
Some of the most dreamy musical passages on the otherwise grandiose and theatrical 1979 double LP The Wall include songs like “Goodbye Blue Sky” and “Outside the Wall.” A precursor of those tunes, “If” is a pastoral, melancholy and – unusually for songwriter Waters – romantic tune. The song still finds its way into Waters’ set list in the 21st century.

“Give Birth to a Smile” from Music from The Body (1970)
Roger Waters stepped outside of Pink Floyd to create the soundtrack for an experimental film, The Body. Working with avant garde composer Ron Geesin – who’d go on to collaborate with Pink Floyd on the Atom Heart Mother LP – Waters crafted a number of vocal and instrumental pieces. “Give Birth to a Smile” actually featured instrumental contributions from his Pink Floyd band mates. Fun fact: Music from The Body also includes a prototypical version of “Breathe,” soon to resurface on The Dark Side of the Moon.

“Cymbaline” from An Hour with Pink Floyd (1970)
The studio version of this Roger Water song (sing by guitarist David Gilmour – was a nice enough tune featured on the band’s third LP, More. But live in concert, “Cymbaline” blossomed into a full-fledged psychedelic masterpiece, featuring three-dimensional sound effects and extended, instrumental passages that were both meditative and breathtaking. The version included here is a live performance broadcast on San Francisco Bay Area’s public television station KQED in April 1970.