Antiwar Opera: Roger Waters Rocks the Garden with “This is not a Drill”

Peace Advocate July 2022

by Brian Garvey

Those familiar with the music of Roger Waters know that the creative force behind Pink Floyd is an outspoken activist. But just to make sure everyone knew the score going in the performance began with a simple announcement broadcasted over the loudspeakers and typed out on huge video screens in giant letters:

“If you’re one of those ‘I love Pink Floyd but I can’t stand Roger’s politics people,’ you might do well to fuck off to the bar right now.”

He wasn’t kidding. From start to finish Waters used his platform to scream out a message to a packed Boston Garden. It was a message that was explicitly anti-war, anti-authoritarian, pro-people, and pro-justice; offering commentary that was not only poignant but also intentionally challenging to a mainstream audience.

Activists should know that Roger Waters is the real deal. Volunteers and staffers from Massachusetts Peace Action were in attendance through the kind invitation of our long time allies, the Smedley D. Butler Brigade of Veterans for Peace. They received the tickets from Roger Waters himself. Recognizing the importance of VFP’s work, the long-time front man of one of the biggest rock bands in history invited peace activists to his performance and asked that they spread their message. While the Vets for Peace handed out copies of Peace and Planet, their antiwar and pro-climate newspaper, at an educational table in the Garden, MAPA activists were outside handing out fliers in opposition to flooding Ukraine with weapons that serve to enrich war profiteers.

We knew the audience would be receptive and that our message would be reinforced from the stage. None of us expected it to be echoed so loudly and clearly. Over the course of two and a half hours Waters addressed almost all of the issues that Massachusetts Peace Action works on every day. He hit on war in the Middle East, Palestinian rights, Latin America, nuclear weapons, racial justice, militarized policing, Indigenous rights, and on and on and on. Waters’ willingness to take on extremely difficult topics directly and in depth, and the resonance it received from a mainstream audience, was an inspiration that deserves a close look.

The show began with an understated version of “Comfortably Numb.” Paired with images of a ruined and desolated city on 100 foot video screens, the message was clear. These are the consequences of apathy. As the gigantic screens rose exposing a center stage in the round, the band went into “Another Brick in the Wall,” perhaps Pink Floyd’s most famous anthem. Waters used the tune to highlight the education we all receive through propaganda with messages like “US GOOD THEM EVIL” scrolling across the screen again and again.

Next, during “The Bravery of Being out of Range,” came images of every president since Ronald Reagan. Alongside the large label “WAR CRIMINAL,” were their rap sheets. Waters cited 500,000 Iraqi children killed by Bill Clinton’s sanctions, 1 million killed in the wars of George W. Bush, the drone programs of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and the image of Joe Biden with the cryptic quote “just getting started…” Say what you will, for Roger Waters it isn’t about partisanship. He followed up with a positive celebration of the resistance at Standing Rock during a new song, “the Bar,” which ended with a simple question, “would you kindly get the fuck off our land?”

After a few songs in tribute to his co-founder and best friend Syd Barrett, who tragically succumbed to mental illness in the late 60’s, Waters played “Sheep” off his 1977 homage to George Orwell, Animals. He lamented that, “the pigs and dogs are even more powerful today, and yet we still don’t teach our children well. We teach them bullshit like the rapture, ultra-nationalism, and the hatred of others. And sadly we also teach them how to be good sheep.”

Not one to waste a moment, the spectacle during intermission may have been the clearest message against militarism and war profiteering of the entire performance. A giant inflatable pig, a staple of Pink Floyd concerts also from Animals, floated high above the audience and flew around the stadium. On one side was the message “Fuck the Poor.” On the other, “Steal from the Poor, Give to the Rich.” Emblazoned alongside these messages were the logos of the world’s largest “defense contractors,” the war profiteers Raytheon Technologies, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Elbit Systems, and more.

As the second set began red banners fell from the ceiling and the crowd was suddenly transported to a fascist rally with “In the Flesh” and “Run like Hell.” Dressed as an authoritarian figure in black leather trench coat, dark sunglasses, and red armband, Waters illustrated the dangers of militarized policing, racism, and cults of personality. The screens showed images of police dressed indistinguishably from fascist stormtroopers, a sight that has become all too familiar in recent years.

Waters continued with the entire second side of Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon. Connecting capitalism with militarism again he showed images of stacking cash with fighter planes, attack helicopters, and assault rifles during “Money.” He went on to play “Us and Them,” “Any Color you Like,” and “Eclipse,” which were used to celebrate diversity and champion a sense of oneness with all of humanity. Snapshots of people from cultures all over the world joined together to form a tapestry, eventually making up the spectrum of light through the prism in Dark Side’s iconic album art.

By this point in the show the connection between artist and audience was palpable. The applause went on and on to the point that Waters was visibly moved by the response, near tears of joy and appreciation. His encore was brief but powerful. “Two Suns in the Sunset,” a song about nuclear holocaust, showed a verdant landscape overcome by the massive firestorm of an atomic weapon. Innocent people became silhouettes and then those silhouettes turned into so many burning pieces of paper as they were vaporized by the concussive shockwave.

It ain’t the Doobie Brothers. It’s a difficult show. Roger Waters, as much an artist and activist as he is a musician, reminds his audience to be uncomfortable with what’s wrong in our society. He purposefully discomforts us. It’s meant to be a slap in the face and it stings more than it delights. But there is hope in it too. To know that these complex and challenging issues can play to a mainstream audience, or at least to a crowd that packed one of the city’s largest venues, gives heart. It should give heart to the climate activists fighting against 200 years of oil and coal and gas and money. It should give strength to BLM activists getting hit with tear gas and batons and riot shields; whether they’re held by Nazi thugs or cops who act like them. It should give hope to peace activists in the land of forever war. 

Roger Waters is unafraid to say, “Fuck the Warmongers.” He’s unafraid to say “Fuck your Guns.” Unafraid to say “Fuck Empires.” Unafraid to say “Free Assange.” Unafraid to say “Free Palestine.” Willing to dedicate a show to Human Rights. To Reproductive Rights. To Trans Rights. To the Right to Resist Occupation.

It’s not for everybody. Some people fucked off to the bar. Who needs ‘em? On Tuesday night the Boston Garden was full of people ready to hear this message. Our message. In our dark nights of the soul all activists have asked ourselves, “Is there anybody out there?”

The answer is Yes. They’re out there and they’re fed up, just like us. Ideas like peace and justice and anti-authoritarianism aren’t fringe. They’re mainstream. It helps to know that. Because Waters is right. This isn’t a drill. It’s real and the stakes are high. But our people are out there. And if we can get together, we can win.