Review Summary: Guten Abend meiner Damen und Herren ha ha ha ha!! Willkomen in Konigsburg ha ha ha ha!!
As one quarter of Pink Floyd, Roger Waters built his legend around crafting albums tied together by grandiose thematic ideas, philosophical lyrics, and spectacular sonic experimentation. But the eventual, early-1980s disintegration of Pink Floyd left him free to pursue his own artistic inclinations, completely unencumbered by the creative and interpersonal restrictions of his former band mates. Ironically, it was a project that had very nearly been taken up by the Floyd that would end up as his first solo release: Waters had originally demoed The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking
along with another album – entitled Bricks in the Wall
– to the rest of his band in July 1977. After a long debate, the band eventually decided that they preferred Bricks in the Wall
(which, of course, eventually ended up as the now-famous The Wall
) and the draft of The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking
was dropped without much fanfare.
The concept of The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking
, as envisioned by Waters in 1977, rotates around a man (curiously named Reg) who has a series of dreams about committing adultery during the onset of a midlife crisis. The concept of hitch hikers is presented here as a metaphor for unattached and lonely people, and the middle-aged Reg, who dreams that he and his (unnamed) wife are tourists driving along a country road in West Germany, is made to introduce one such person into his subconscious mind when he unwittingly picks up a hitch hiker in his dream. The album then follows his subsequent, semi-conscious examination of his failing marriage and his personal struggles with fidelity, with events taking place in real time (as indicated by the song titles). As an abstract peering into the human mind’s deepest and most boorish desires, The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking
is a work dense with heavy symbolism, disturbing imagery, bizarrely shifting scenes, and Waters’ trademark black humour, which are all used to help unravel the tale of Reg’s internal battle with himself.
Unfortunately, Waters’ work proved too dense and complicated for most to comprehend – despite being backed by an elaborate supporting tour which featured a stage set up like a bedroom and a 27 foot high back screen, the album’s confusing plot structure and Waters’ stubborn insistence on wanting to perform everything as it had been recorded on the album resulted in a bewildering pantomime that didn’t go down well with most audiences, and ticket sales soon started to suffer. Some of the tour’s bad luck rubbed off on the album sales – The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking
took eleven years to go gold, and by March 1985 – barely a year after its release – could only afford to be played in North America’s smaller venues. To rub salt in the wound, David Fricke, one of the Floyd’s biggest former champions, wrote that Waters’ latest creation was nothing more than "a petulant echo, a transparent attempt to prove that Roger Waters was
As such, The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking
isn’t as much a compilation of honest artistic expression as it is a revealing snapshot of its creator’s artistic insufficiencies and the actual mid-life issues plaguing him at the time. Even the unusual recklessness of the album cover, which features a rear-view nude photograph of pornography actress Linzi Drew (and subsequently drew heavy criticism from various feminist groups for being sexist and advertising rape), tells us as much: here was a man with nothing to lose but everything to prove. But even if the racy cover of The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking
dramatically casts Waters as some modern-aged sexist, the contents of the album don’t quite share the same sentiment. Instead, opening track “4.30 AM (Apparently They Were Traveling Abroad)” introduces us to Reg, who divulges his tale with the greatest reluctance: “We were moving away from the border/Looking for somewhere to sleep/The two of us sharing the driving/Two hitch hikers slumped in the back seat,” he explains, with the barest hint at a plea for understanding in his voice as thunder rolls ominously in the distance. It is amidst these bizarre surroundings that Eric Clapton, who features on the album as a guest guitarist – and, as one suspects, the only able substitute for the now-estranged David Gilmour –, pipes up a mournful two-note solo that anticipates the rest of the album’s somber tone. Then, the album simultaneously settles into its story-telling groove and wildly ratchets up its sound: “4.33 AM (Running Shoes)” opens with a deafening saxophone blast from David Sanborn and finds Waters steadily upping the ante by having a trio of backing girls echo his every other line. Tellingly, Waters sounds a great deal more interested on here than he did the last time we heard him, which was on the final Pink Floyd album prior to the band’s dissolution (The Final Cut
), and rightfully so – for this was his one chance to prove that he would always be the true brains of the classic Floyd lineup.
Likewise, the album frequently finds itself lacking in terms of mellifluous moments. Apart from Clapton’s tuneful solos and masterful contributions from David Sanborn’s sax, a significant amount of The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking
presents itself as anathema to the ears. Before long, it becomes clear that the tempering influences of Gilmour, Wright, and Mason are sorely missed – no matter how much Waters wants to believe otherwise. For all its strident embellishment of the album’s placement in a foreign land, massive chunks of “4.37 AM (Arabs with Knives and West German Skies) are close to being completely unlistenable, with several passages devoted to unintelligible background whispering that painfully hearken back to the dullest moments of “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast” from 1970’s Atom Heart Mother
. But for all his flaws when it comes to crafting rhythms and hooks, Roger Waters lyrical prowess has never been more complete. Perhaps wanting to underscore the obtuseness of Gilmour’s rather third-rate lyrics on About Face
(his second solo effort), on “4.56 AM (For the First Time Today – Part 1)” Waters delivers a dispassionate yet well-weighted soliloquy on the senselessness of marriage to a couple which has all but lost their passion for each other: “You were my everyday excuse/For playing deaf, dumb, and blind/Who’d have ever thought/This was how it would end for you and me/To carry my own millstone/Out of the trees.” On “4.58 AM (Dunroamin, Duncarin, Dunlivin)”, he admits, with only the slightest hint of irony that, “I’d like to go on with this bit of a song/Describing this schmuck/I’d like to go on, but I’m going to throw up.” It’s powerful stuff.
As it comes from roughly the same timeframe as The Wall
, much about The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking
is strongly reminiscent of the former’s theatrical and much more stripped-down demeanor: the thundering introductory riff of “4.33 AM (Running Shoes)” is a dead-ringer throwback to both “In the Flesh” and “Young Lust”. Elsewhere, the petrified whispers of “4.47 AM (The Remains of our Love)” have clearly borrowed a thing or two from the terrified mumblings heard on “Don’t Leave Me Now” and the mournful hum of “Mother”. Considering that the Floyd could so easily have worked on The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking
instead of The Wall
, it does give one pause to think how much more influential the Floyd could have been had they chosen to work with the former concept instead – particularly given that one frequent latter-day criticism of The Wall
is the difficulty of trying to empathize with the insufferable character of the rock star Pink. In contrast, the fate of Reg – who is every bit the middle-aged and tormented everyman – would have been a much easier cause to champion. And who knows how more introspective The Wall
could have been had Roger Waters been allowed to write about his disillusions with his rock star life completely on his own?
Instead, we hear a brow-beaten middle-aged man try and worm his way through a set of sketches that really would have benefited from the musical chemistry of his former band and the excising ruthlessness of Bob Ezrin, all while gazing down the boulevard of what-could-have-been. Still, even when viewed independently, The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking
illustrates the sheer genius of a man at the peak of his artistic prowess and captures him in a state of single-mindedness that he had never demonstrated before, and, strangely, that he never would again. Considering its poor sales and the failure of its supporting tour, The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking
is hardly the auspicious start that Waters would have wanted for his solo career, but he can still take heart in the fact that his first work still contains enough mystery worth unraveling even a quarter of a century later. If only the same could be said about 95% of everything else.