The Road Not Taken: The History of Roger Waters’ ‘The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking’
The history of Pink Floyd, and maybe of classic rock itself, turns on ‘The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking.’ How could that be? After all, it remains a largely forgotten Roger Waters solo effort — one that only crept to No. 31 in the U.S., and took nearly 10 years after its April 30, 1984 release just to reach gold-selling status.
Picture this, however: The rest of Pink Floyd, in the late-’70s, was offered a choice of song cycles from Waters’ fertile imagination — this one, or one that would eventually coalesce into the celebrated 1979 release ‘The Wall.’
“The idea for the album came concurrently with the idea for ‘The Wall’ — the basis of the idea,” Waters said. “I wrote both pieces at roughly the same time. And, in fact, I made demo tapes of them both — and, in fact, presented both demo tapes to the rest of the Floyd, and said, ‘Look, I’m going to do one of these as a solo project and we’ll do one as a band album, and you can choose.’ So, this was the one that was left over.”
What if David Gilmour and company had selected ‘The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking,’ which focuses on the far-less personal topic of mid-life crisis, rather than that magnum opus on Waters’ growing alienation from his own audience? Could ‘Pros and Cons,’ instead, have been its own huge hit?
Or would a Floyd version have endured a similarly dismal fate — and thus hastened Waters’ decision to go his own way? (That eventually happened anyway, of course, but only after 1983′s ‘The Final Cut.’) If Waters had saved ‘The Wall’ for himself, would his solo career have gotten off to an entirely different start — to the tune of a 23-times platinum smash?
These are the choices that indelibly alter careers, as Waters is no doubt bitterly aware. He began writing these twin projects after the group’s 1977 tour in support of ‘Animals.’ At that point, either album could have been Pink Floyd’s follow up.
As it stands, Waters didn’t return to ‘Pros and Cons’ until the band had limped through ‘The Final Cut,’ losing a pair of original members along the way. Keyboardist Richard Wright wasn’t part of that final Waters-era Floyd release, and drummer Nick Mason was replaced on its final track by Andy Newmark. That lengthy gestation period meant that careful observers could make a parlor game out of the Pink Floyd connections on ‘Pros and Cons,’ which Waters formatted incrementally over the course of a husband’s 41-minute dream about having an affair during a lonely trip.
For instance, ‘4.50 AM (Go Fishing)‘ includes a lyric also used in ‘The Fletcher Memorial Home,’ and a snippet of melody from ‘Your Possible Pasts’ — both found on Floyd’s ‘Final Cut’ album. Newmark and Michael Kamen returned as drummer and musical conductor, respectively, as did cover artist Gerald Scarfe — whose illustrations helped define ‘The Wall.’ ‘4:41 AM (Sexual Revolution)‘ was actually demoed by Floyd during the sessions for the ‘The Wall,’ and eventually ended up on the expanded Immersion reissue of that album. Late-period Floyd tour collaborator Tim Renwick joined Waters on stage.
There were some notable differences, however, on this oft-overlooked solo debut — beginning with Waters’ choice of guitarist as sessions commenced in London’s Olympic, Eel Pie and Billiard Room studios between February and December of 1983. Eric Clapton stepped in, during a creative low point of his own, offering some of the most engaging guitar work he’d managed in years. The rock legend reportedly agreed to work on ‘Pros and Cons,’ both the album and the tour, after a night of drinking with Waters. Their wives, who were friends, made the introductions. Ultimately, Clapton’s emotionally charged, blues-inflected performances couldn’t have differed any more from Gilmour’s style.
‘Pros and Cons’ also showed sides of Waters — frisky, funny, human — that some may have found surprising after the jagged pronouncements that dominated his most recent Pink Floyd recordings.
“It’s the only record I’ve made that was only about sex. … Within the context of these dreams, the subconscious is weighing up the pros and cons of living with one woman within the framework of a family — against the call of the wild, if you like,” Waters said at the time, adding, ”Once critics pigeonhole you, they tend not to think about your work too much. They’ve pegged me as a dour, depressed, megalomaniac, melodramatic, and most don’t like what I do. They wouldn’t spot the humor because it’s inconvenient.”
Critics like Rolling Stones’ Kurt Loder seemed to be one of them. He simply savaged the record, saying: “Roger Waters’ first official solo album will be of sustained interest mainly to postanalytic Pink Floyd fetishists and other highly evolved neurotics who persist in seeking spiritual significance amid the flotsam of English art rock. I can’t imagine that anyone else will sit more than once through this strangely static, faintly hideous record, on which Waters’ customary bile is, for the first time, diluted with musical bilge.”
That may or may not have been true. Other reasons for the album’s failure to reach a wider marketplace, however, were more obvious.
To begin with, there was Waters’ essential anonymity within the larger structure of Pink Floyd — and his own obstinance. Given a chance to promote ‘The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking’ on the then-ascendent MTV before a tour-opening concert at Earls Court in 1984, Waters refused to answer any questions about his old band. With no obvious connection, his title-track single flopped, his videos went unaired, his shows played before scores of empty seats. “I thought that people did kind of identify me with quite a lot of the work that went into the Floyd,” Waters lamented. “Particularly in terms of the shows, but they didn’t.”
It didn’t help that advertisements for the tour, again at Waters’ insistence, made no reference to Pink Floyd.
“There’s certainly a huge gap in communicating the fact that my ‘Pros and Cons’ show is a Floyd show except Eric Clapton is playing guitar and Andy Newmark is playing the drums instead of Dave Gilmour and Nick Mason,” Waters said at the time. “But everything else is the same: same team doing it, same guys building the sets, same sound system.”
Ultimately, those familiar extras only pushed Waters deeper into the red. Filmmakers Nicholas Roeg and Bernard Rose joined Scarfe in helping create images that were splashed across a giant screen, estimated to have cost some $400,000. Three projectors then had to be synchronized to illuminate them. The stage, designed by Mark Fisher and Jonathan Park, was constructed to look like the bedroom in which this dream takes place. A working TV played old movies. Waters ended up losing hundreds of thousands of dollars on this venture.
Meanwhile, Scarfe’s album cover image — which elsewhere used the same font as ‘The Wall’ — was sparking controversy over its central image of a nude soft-core porn actress named Linzi Drew. Some groups charged Waters with sexism, others with inciting rape. Poster ads for the album were destroyed by protesters, leading label executives to quickly reissue ‘Pros and Cons’ with an altered cover — yet another expense.
“They had to put a black sticker over this woman’s bum that was on the cover,” Waters said. “There was this really beautiful model, because the record was about sexual fantasies — and so I put one on the cover. It seemed to me perfectly legitimate, and she was gorgeous as well. And they stuck these big black stickers over her bum, which I just thought was so pathetic.”
As the tour limped into 1985, Clapton eventually became restless and bolted, saying he had grown weary with “the rigidity of it. I was feeling a bit stifled.” There apparently were no hard feelings, as the two would work together again on ‘The Hit,’ soundtrack to a now-forgetten film starring John Hurt. “It was a strange time, because the only reason I went on the road is because Eric said I should tour it,” Water recalled later. “And not only that, he came on the road with me. I said, ‘If you go, I’ll go.’ I did a tour with Eric Clapton as my guitar player! It was terrific.”
Waters shows, which also featured King Crimson alum Mel Collins on sax, continued on with Andy Fairweather Low taking over for Clapton. They offered ‘Pros and Cons’ in its entirety, while opening with a set that incorporated Pink Floyd’s ‘Money,’ ‘Welcome to the Machine,’ ‘In the Flesh,’ ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,’ ‘Pigs,’ ‘Hey You,’ ‘Wish You Were Here,’ ‘The Gunner’s Dream,’ ‘Have a Cigar.’ Eventually, Waters even added the fan-friendly ‘Another Brick in the Wall.’ His well-received encores included ‘Brain Damage’ and ‘Eclipse.’
By 1985, Waters had completed this ill-fated run of concerts, and ‘The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking’ quickly faded into obscurity. A planned film adaptation, perhaps wisely, was scapped. Clearly, though, Waters had learned a valuable lesson along the way: Moving so determinedly away from his own legacy was a mistake. He’d later mount a series of massive world tours featuring his own retrospective solo reading of ‘The Wall’ — rectifying a decision that once could have gone either way, and ultimately changed the course of things forever.