FEW SERIOUS domestic and social issues have escaped the scrutiny of rock 'n' roll. The subject of war has come in for its share of attention, but has produced little of enduring interest or high art.
Of course it takes a highly tuned political and artistic sensibility to tackle this issue, and rock has always tended to be more viscerally emotional than intellectually literate--which may explain why there are more books about Vietnam than songs. But war as a central motif in contemporary rock is still unexplored territory.
The Korean war ended just as rock 'n' roll was establishing its identity. And while Vietnam did produce a wealth of antiwar material, the most memorable songs came from such folk figures as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton. As for future wars, the threat of nuclear annihilation has been with us too long not to be better represented in song than Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction," Graham Nash's "Military Madness" and the generally unmemorable songs of the no-nukes movement.
Now three new albums tackle the topic in different ways: Pink Floyd's "The Final Cut," a "requiem for the post-war dream," situates itself between World War II and a possible World War III. U2's "War" focuses on the sectarian "troubles" in Ireland, but deals largely with the psychic impact of life in the blast lane. Bolland's "The Domino Theory" finds two Dutch rock producers looking back at Vietnam. Of the three, only U2 offers intellectual or emotional provocation.
"The Final Cut" (Columbia QC38243) is an outgrowth of Pink Floyd's epic "The Wall," the biggest-selling concept album of all time. The connecting figure between the two albums is Eric Fletcher Waters, father of Pink Floyd's leader and songwriter, Roger Waters. The father was killed in 1944 at Anzio, never having seen his son; Roger's fixation on his death first appeared in "The Wall." Now it serves as the inspiration for "The Final Cut," in which Waters wonders whether that death almost 40 years ago was necessary.
In "Gunner's Dream," he describes a flier's vision of the postwar world: jobs and "a place to stay/enough to eat/somewhere old heroes shuffle safely down the street/where you can speak out loud/about your doubts and fears." There's more: "You can relax on both sides of the tracks/and mis a Roger Waters solo album commercially disguised as a Pink Floyd album). Waters is One of rock's richest and most notorious recluses, here he is in the liner notes describ ing the concerns of the album as "the frustration and anger brought to mind by all conditions of economic upheaval, impending war, poverty, or another holocaust."
But Waters betrays a jingoistic streak. Other issues keep cropping up in this album, including the decline of Britain as a world power, and what appears to be a racist-colonialist mentality emerges. One would like to see these issues as ironic reinforcement, and sometimes they are, as in "Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert": "Brezhnev took Afghanistan/Begin took Beirut/Galtieri took the Union Jack/and Maggie over lunch one day/took a cruiser with all hands/apparently to make him give it back." That's the song in its entirety.
On other songs, though, Waters comes across as an ultraconservative xenophobe. In the opening "Post War Dream," for instance, he lets loose with what he must consider a nightmare come true: "If it wasn't for the nips/being so good at building ships/the yards would still be open on the Clyde/and it can't be much fun for them/beneath the rising sun/with all their kids committing suicide."
And listen to him in a recent (and rare) interview talking about Japanese posaniacs don't blow holes in bandsmen by remote control/and everyone has recourse to the law/and no one kills the children anymore."
If that were all, the album would seem naive and well intentioned. But Waters goes on to paint a bleak picture of an unimproved world on British workers: "There's no way we can compete with the Japanese. They've got thousands of years of obeying their mums and dads behind them. The Japanese people in their religion, and in all their social mores and conditioning for thousands of years, are absolutely purpose-made as workers in factories. And we're not, thank God. Now that's something about us that I think we should be proud of, the fact that we can't become a part of the machine."
There's something unsettling--and defeatist--about the mind at work here. The album suggests no answers. It's as if Waters woke up in 1982 and "read the news today, oh boy." Now we know he hates war, is not eager for the apocalypse, dislikes the Japanese, is angry about the failures and inadequacies of the system and is generally disappointed that "postwar dreams" haven't come true. What else is new?
Well, Pink Floyd fans will find much of the sound new, and ponderous. "Final Cut" has none of the power or sweep of recent Floyd; the cabaret piano and quasi-orchestrations are much closer to the English music-hall tradition. With few flourishes and less dynamics, the subdued melodies are reminiscent of Randy Newman and Al Stewart. Waters' soporific voice moves in two gears, low and second, and even the backing seldom takes it further.
The tame character of the music extends to the few instrumental breaks allowed to guitarist David Gilmour, who is given only a handful of openings, and to guest saxophonist Raphael Ravenscroft, whose best moment comes on "Gunner's Dream," where Waters' vocal dissolves into a haunting sax line. The songs themselves are short, repetitious and seemingly undeveloped. There are some strong images and occasionally biting lyrics (the best is this apocalyptic vision: "The sun is in the east/even though the day is done/two suns in the sunset," quickly ruined by "Hmmm, could be the human race is run").
As for the latest Floyd stratagem, Holophonics, it's just layers of sound incorporated around the songs, a subliminal suggestion that would be more effective if we all had a third ear. The better your system, the more you'll be impressed.
By contrast, U2's "War" (Island 7 90067-1) has a rough-hewn energy built on a solid rock bottom. The group is made up of four young Dubliners, and they continue the Irish folk tradition of addressing "the Troubles" in song. Today's Troubles go back only several decades, but that's a constant experience for those barely past adolescence. When U2 singer Bono Vox opens "Sunday Bloody Sunday" with an angry "I can't believe the news today," he's a lot easier to believe than Waters. Bono and his generation have come of age with "trenches dug within our hearts," but his own sense of Christian hope and redemption never fails him.
U2 is an uncomplicated postpunk rock band highlighted by Bono's boisterous, empassioned vocals, the slash-and-drone of the guitarist (who is known as The Edge) and the relentless rhythm section. On this, the group's third album, U2 mixes things up a bit, allowing Bono's occasionally naive lyrics to be rescued by a compelling rock pulse. His intensity and commitment occasionally override his common sense, but for U2, passion has always outweighed technique.
Interestingly, U2 doesn't specify "the Troubles" and doesn't take sides. The songs simply identify the constant threats of violence and social disruption that lead to disintegration of the spirit. Where earlier albums dealt with the inner world of adolescence, "War" gets out in the streets and winds up tough: even the love songs are hard-nosed. Emotions are so often weapons, in love as in war; the troubles can build a wall not only between Catholics and Protestants, but between men and women, between generations.
While several other issues (nuclear blackmail on "Seconds" and Poland's Solidarity movement on "New Year's Day") crop up, Bono and U2 offer a bittersweet idealism and a solidarity of spirit as balm for a new Gilead. "Tonight we can be as one, tonight," sings Bono, and in any other rock band, that would be seen as a generational exhortation; here it's a hope expanded to worldwide parameters.
The last war album, Bolland's "The Domino Theory" (A&M SP-4091), is the concept album carried to a ridiculous extreme. The product of the limited imagination of two Dutch brothers, Rob and Ferdi Bolland, it purports to take a look at the war in Vietnam, the philosophy that led America into the quagmire and What It All Means; there's even an Overture and a Finale. The Bollands go with a soft-pop-with-synths approach and intensely inane lyrics. The song titles suggest that Dutch cable shows a lot of American movies: "You're in the Army Now," "The Dogs of War," "Heart of Darkness," "Heaven Can Wait," "Long Day's Journey Into Night." This album is a cliche'd long day's journey into self-rightousness.