With Pink Floyd bassist-songwriter Roger Waters currently touring with his staggering 30th anniversary presentation of The Wall, now is a perfect time to re-examine his solo works, including the 1992 album Amused to Death. Like much of Waters’ work, Amused to Death is a concept album, this time looking at the effect of mass media and television on society, and raising the question if we are as a species actually “amusing ourselves to death.” While not a tremendous commercial success at the time, the album has continued to grow in reputation and importance, particularly as its commentaries on the media, war, commercialism and religion have in some ways proven to be prophetic in the wake of September 11, 2001 and the second Gulf War. Whether you have never listened to Amused to Death before or have forgotten about it in the eighteen years since its first release, it is worth revisiting today to gain further appreciation for Roger Waters’ musical and lyrical genius.
Amused to Death did not come to fruition easily for Waters. Although he began working on the initial concept in the late 1980s, inspired by Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the project was shelved as Waters began work on staging the massive Wall show live in Berlin which took place in 1990. In the interim, several events took place which feature into the songs of the final version of Amused to Death: the Tripoli Bombing in 1986, the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The final album, after considerable work, scrapping of early versions and addition of layers upon layers of sound effects and spoken-word quotes, was released on September 1, 1992. As is typical of much of Waters’ work, a heavy hitting guitarist – this time Jeff Beck – is featured prominently throughout the album, along with a cast of other experienced, legendary supporting musicians including keyboardists Patrick Leonard and John “Rabbit” Bundrick, percussionist Luis Conte, drummers Graham Broad and Jeff Porcaro, and singer Rita Coolidge.
Amused to Death is one of few albums recorded in Q-Sound, a process which increases the “sense of space” to stereo recordings. On this album it is used to tremendous success with the multi-layers of sound effects and television clips. As the album opens to sounds of crickets and dogs barking, the sensation is that they are doing so just outside your very own window. One of Roger Waters’ main concepts for the structure of Amused to Death was the image of a monkey flipping through the channels of a television set, and throughout the record we hear snippets of television evangelists cutting into home shopping advertisements, horror and old movie clips, news reports and more. The first track, “The Ballad of Bill Hubbard,” features a lengthy clip of a World War I veteran, Alf Razzell, recounting a memory which had haunted him for most of his life of having to leave behind a fatally wounded fellow soldier in the trenches.
The album then cranks into full gear with “What God Wants, Part 1,” a rocking, churning number that was the album’s first single. “What God Wants” is presented in three parts throughout the album as the central, linking song to its entire concept. “What God wants, God gets, God help us all,” the backup singers repeat ominously, as Roger then goes into a litany mocking those who stand behind religion to justify their actions. It’s a biting criticism of organized religion and the misuse of “God” as an excuse for mankind’s greed, destruction, and inhumanity toward his fellow man. “God wants peace, God wants war, God wants famine, God wants chain stores,” Waters deadpans, and it’s a brilliant satire that some might call blasphemous but those not blinded by their own faith should see as stinging commentary. Jeff Beck provides much of the song’s musical muscle with his scorching guitar work here.
“Perfect Sense, Part I” continues the album on a softer note, as the monkey – or mankind – feels puzzlement over the mixed messages he is seeing from religion, political leadership, culture and the media. A female vocalist carries much of the duties for this song, singing plaintively of the monkey’s dilemma. In “Perfect Sense, Part II,” Waters returns to assure us that it does indeed all make perfect sense when “expressed in dollars and cents, pounds, shillings and pence.” This leads into a hilarious satirical section where sportscaster Marv Albert announces a military attack on an oil rig as if it were a basketball game. Musically neither “Perfect Sense, Part 1” and “Part 2” are songs that will stand out, but they serve the message of the album perfectly and “Part 2” does end on a rousing chorus blasting money as the root of so much of society’s ills.
“The Bravery of Being Out of Range” follows, one of the album’s most direct, hard-hitting rock numbers. Here, Waters points an accusatory finger at all of those who order bombings and destruction from the safety of their military and political offices far away from the battleground. The songs also once more mocks media coverage of warfare, how television turns destruction and death into entertainment for the civilians back home. “Just love those laser-guided bombs/they’re really great for righting wrongs/you hit the target and win again/from bars three thousand miles away.” It’s powerful, if not in the slightest bit subtle, but then Roger Waters has never been much for subtlety in his lyrics.
The album takes a softer turn again with “Late Home Tonight, Part I,” where a tranquil scene is set with acoustic guitar and strings over sounds of birds and farm animals. In this and the following number, “Late Home Tonight, Part II,” the bombing of Tripoli is examined from three viewpoints: “a farmer’s wife in Oxfordshire,” the young American pilot on his way to deliver death, and another wife in Tripoli dealing with a crying baby and an absent husband, unaware of the greusome fate she is about to meet.
These two songs together truly exemplify how Amused to Death plays out more like aural theater than a traditional rock album. Sound effects tie everything together from the swoop of the jet plane overhead to a political demonstration in the street, to the crying baby suddenly silenced when the missile explodes and takes out its “target.” The American pilot returns to his military base triumphant, while the farmer’s wife greets her husband with classic English reserve, saying nothing but “Sit down my dear, was the milking all right? Our American friends are late home tonight.”
“Too Much Rope” is a more traditional number, a slow and slightly bluesy one as Roger reflects on society’s troubles and observes “give any one species too much rope and they’ll [expletive] it up.” There is a dark touch of humor to this song, which Roger sings well and with an almost Bob Dylan affect to his vocals. After this we are led into “What God Wants, Part II,” as a televangelist urges on his followers for their faith – and their money. “Part II” has a more ominous, darker sound than “Part I” even as it is quite similar musically. The song fades out and slowly into “What God Wants, Part III,” which follows the same main melody and chords of the previous sections but with a more somber, urgent tone. Hope for mankind seems to be fading, and Jeff Beck delivers his most powerful, brutal work on the album in a guitar solo which can only be described as “apocalyptic.”
The atmosphere changes with “Watching TV,” an ode to the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre – specifically one girl who is “symbolic of our failure/she’s the one in fifty million/who can help us to be free/because she died on TV.” It’s an oddly catchy song for one about such somber subject matter, with Don Henley assisting Waters with the vocals in a duet that works nicely. It’s also the only song that takes a more positive view of television, of how it can potentially be used for good by showing the world at large images so powerful, and so enraging, that we as a people feel the need to react and respond to injustice wherever it occurs.
“Three Wishes” thematically fits the least with the rest of Amused to Death, yet it’s also perhaps the best stand-alone song on the album. With a jazzy, bluesy feel, Roger sings of a genie “like some Eastern tramp” who appears from a bottle to grant him three wishes. Rattling off his choices too quickly, he uses up his last wish before realizing what he actually wants most of all: for a loved one to come home. Eerie clips play in the background of the song, an interview with a woman who attempted a family suicide with her children. She ended up being the only one to survive because the gas bottle she bought wasn’t big enough to kill them all – she hadn’t been able to afford a bigger one.
As if the picture of our world couldn’t get any bleaker, “It’s A Miracle,” follows. This slow, almost funeral dirge-like number plays as an eulogy for a dying world. The bitter irony is that there are no “miracles” in the events Waters describes here in his half-spoken, whispery vocals, only more greed and consumerism gone wild. The only miracle at all comes at the end of the song when Waters takes a stab at one of his long-time musical “enemies,” Andrew Lloyd-Weber. “An earthquake hits the theatre/but the operetta lingers/then the piano lid comes down/and breaks his [expletive] fingers/it’s a miracle.”
The album ends with its titular track, “Amused to Death.” This final tribute to the doomed Earth tells at last of the aliens come to study our dead planet at some time in the future. When they find the remains of humanity “grouped around the TV sets,” they study all possibilities before coming to the only logical conclusion: “This species has amused itself to death.” No one could accuse Roger Waters of being an optimist.
And yet, there is a small note of hope near the end as well. Another interview clip from Alf Razzell plays out over the final notes, as he describes finally coming to peace with the fate of that dying soldier in World War I he couldn’t save. It’s not exactly a happy ending, but one of acceptance and brotherhood, of remembering all who have died in war and conflict no matter how “small” a part they may have played.
Amused to Death is a dark work, not easy listening music nor is it likely to be to everyone’s tastes. Yet for those interested in music with a message, this work by Roger Waters is easily one of his most powerful, one that should be ranked equally next to his best recordings with Pink Floyd. It’s cautionary and harshly critical, meant to make us “wake up” and stop blindly consuming – whether that is consumption of material goods, of the news and propaganda we are fed, of religious divisions driven by greed instead of by true faith. Listening to Amused to Death today, eighteen years after its original release, the message seems even more urgent as one wonders if we have learned anything at all, made any progress in a better direction in the past two decades. If not, hopefully there is still time to turn the tide before we do indeed amuse ourselves to death.
* Roger Waters. Amused to Death. 1992. CD.
* Amused to Death – Wikipedia.
* Charles Dee Rice. “A Full Transcript of Amused To Death” – RogerWaters.org.
* Greg Weaver. “Guilty Treasures: Roger Waters – Amused to Death” – Positive Feedback Online, Issue 18.