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Not Now, John: Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut and the History That Inspired It

September 30, 2019

In 1983, Pink Floyd released The Final Cut.  Despite the middling reviews it received from contemporary critics and fans alike, the album, like most of the band’s work, has aged well, and is arguably the group’s most interesting composition in terms of theme and inspiration.  While Dark Side of the Moon explored greed, mental illness, time as well as death and The Wall was an extended meditation on isolation, The Final Cut was a concept album that took its inspiration from something far different: the history of postwar Europe.  Written almost entirely by the band’s bassist and co-lead vocalist, Roger Waters, the album is, at its heart, an anti-war manifesto.  Throughout, however, Waters also voices his disgust with Thatcherism, the consumerism of the 1980’s, the abandonment of Britain’s postwar promises of equality, as well as with conservative skepticism regarding the European project.  For Waters, all these things were not only a betrayal of the principles for which Britain fought during the Second World War but also of his father, who fought and died in the conflict.  It was, after all, subtitled, "A requiem for the Postwar Dream."

The Final Cut opens with a song entitled, “The Postwar Dream.” In it, Waters sets the tone for the rest of the album, beginning with images of abandoned British ship yards, explaining the ship building contracts have been exported to Southeast Asia and Japan.  He then invokes Margaret Thatcher, exclaiming, “Should we shout, should we scream / what happened to the Postwar Dream? / Oh, Maggie, Maggie, what did we do?” The Postwar Dream referred to the wartime consensus on the British left (and among some on the right) that the British people had sacrificed much during the Second World War and were owed a more equal society at the conflict’s conclusion[1].  When Clement Atlee’s Labour government took control in 1945, after the shocking and complete electoral defeat of Winston Churchill, he and his cabinet were committed to maintaining a “high and stable level of employment[2].” To do so, the Labour government nationalized industry, created the National Health Service (NHS), supported unions, and instituted numerous reforms, including universal income to be used for child rearing[3]. In the decades that followed, some aspects of what became known as the welfare state were rolled back and in the 1980’s Margaret Thatcher’s government battled with unions and cut services while also lowering taxes[4]. Although the so called “Postwar Dream” was being changed or reduced in the three decades prior to Thatcher, Waters, perhaps because Thatcher was in some ways an outspoken populist, blames her for its abandonment.

 

He expands upon this idea of the abandonment of ideals in the album’s sixth song, “The Gunner’s Dream,” which tells the story of a member of a British bomber crew during World War II and what he believes Britain is fighting for. “A place to stay,” he dreams, “Oi, a real one / enough to eat / somewhere old heroes shuffle safely down the street.” These four lines begin the second verse and essentially reiterate the “Cradle to Grave” policy of Britain’s Postwar Labour Party.  The citizens of Britain sacrificed and suffered during the war and after it ended, it was the government’s responsibility in return to promote equality, stamp out poverty, and ensure employment.  The remainder of the second verse is the following:

 

Somewhere old heroes shuffle safely down the street

Where you can speak out loud

About your doubts and fears

And what’s more no-one ever disappears

You never hear their standard issue kicking in your door

You can relax on both sides of the tracks

And maniacs don’t blow holes in bandsmen by remote control

And everyone has recourse to the law

And no one kills the children anymore

And no one kills the children anymore

 

Waters conjures images of jack-booted secret police breaking down doors to arrest people for, to borrow from George Orwell, committing thought crime and wishes for a country where citizens have the freedom to express themselves, regardless of their political affiliation (i.e. “on both sides of the tracks”).  The final two lines can be interpreted as either a reference to the Blitz, where the Germans bombed cities, killing British civilians or the idea that those prosecuting wars send other people’s children to die.  Both anti-totalitarian and anti-war, Water’s argues that the British fought against fascism and for a future without war.  However, in between, he makes a reference to a 1982 attack on a band in Regents Park by the Irish Republican Army, suggesting that the principles for which both Britain and his father fought never came to fruition and were instead abandoned. The Gunner’s Dream, Waters’ says at the end the song, “is driving me insane.”

 

Who is responsible for the betrayal of Britain’s wartime generation, is not explicitly named in “The Gunner’s Dream,” but Waters makes his feelings much clearer in another song entitled “The Fletcher Memorial Home.” An imagined retirement home for “incurable tyrants,” Waters lists the residents as, among others, Senator Joseph McCarthy, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, President Richard Nixon, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and President Ronald Reagan.  While it is very much historically inaccurate to paint all five, with the exception of perhaps Brezhnev, as tyrants, each did something that could be argued contributed to the killing of Waters’ postwar dream.  As has been explored already, Thatcher fought against the welfare state and unions.  McCarthy employed demagoguery and intimidation to persecute liberals and leftists as communists in the 1950’s, leaving them without “recourse to the law.” Nixon, while claiming to be attempting to scale down the war in Vietnam, actually expanded the United States’ bombing campaign in North Vietnam while covertly invading Cambodia and Laos.  Finally, Brezhnev, during the 1970’s and 1980’s employed the Red Army to crush anti-communist demonstrations in the Eastern Bloc.

 

 

“Not Now John,” the album’s penultimate song, is perhaps the most visceral and jarring of Waters’ attacks on Thatcher conservatism.  Seemingly sung from the point of view of a middle class, conservative factory manager, the song is essentially a parody that attacks consumerism, anti-European sentiment, and hyper-nationalism.  The character John is a stand in for the British working class and seems to be attempting to complain to the manager about working conditions or his economic situation.  In turn, the manager responds with the song’s chorus and opening lines, replying “Fuck all that, we’ve gotta get on with these / got to compete with the wily Japanese.” Essentially, the manager’s response suggests that they have no time to discuss the economic struggles of the working class, especially in the conservative economic revolution of the 1980’s, where competition and growth were at the forefront.  Instead, Waters’ takes a cynical view of the decade’s consumerist and business centric culture in the following lines:

 

Make them laugh, make them cry

Make them dance in the aisles

Make them pay, make them stay

Make them feel okay

 

The 1980’s were a decade of blockbuster movies, the rise of MTV, as well as gaudy fashion and in a way that is reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Waters suggests that consumer-centric culture is a way to distract the working class from their economic struggles along with the political elite’s abandonment of the Postwar Dream [5]. He continues with this theme in verse three, singing, “Not now John, we've got to get on with the film show / Hollywood waits at the end of the rainbow / who cares what it’s about as long as the kids go.”  Films no longer presented messages that were poignant or meaningful.  Instead, blockbusters were a way to distract the population.  In verse five, the unnamed manager again responds to John, exclaiming, “come at the end of the shift, we’ll go and get pissed / but not now John, I've gotta get on with this.” Conjuring images not unlike Orwell’s Victory Gin, the manager would rather promise John comfort and distraction at the bar, than actually face the consequences of the dismantling of the 1950’s welfare state.

 

The outro of the song that follows is a satirical take on how British Tories used fear of outsiders as a way to discredit the European Economic Community, also established in the late 1940’s and 1950’s in an attempt to link France and West Germany economically to avoid a future conflict [6].  With the United States and Britain in the lead, it established the basis for what today is the European Union. However, by the 1980’s conservative British politicians had denounced economic integration as a loss of sovereignty.  In a 1988 speech to the College of Europe, Margaret Thatcher, a seemingly constant target of Waters’ vitriol, supported the European Community, but warned that greater moves toward European Federalism could destroy national traditions, pride, and history [7]. This fear of losing the traditions of one’s country to Europe, comes through in the song’s outro which in a call and response, says the following:

 

S'cusi, dov'è il bar? (What?)

Se parakalo, pou einai to bar?

S’il vous plaît, où est le bar? (Say it in English!)

Oi, where’s the fucking bar John? (Oh, now you’re talking!)

(Oh! Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the day)

Down! Go, Maggie!

 

Directions to a bar are asked for in three different European languages (Italian, Greek, and French) but the speaker is only able to answer when the question is asked in English or perhaps refuses to answer until it is said in English.  Then, he follows it up with a Patriotic invocation of Britannia before cheering Margaret Thatcher.  In this dramatic end to the song, Waters mocks British conservative fear of outsiders and the influx of non-British Europeans as a result of free movement in Europe.  The verse is surprisingly poignant today when one considers Brexit and Nigel Farage’s UKIP party in Britain.

 

While The Final Cut also explores other themes, such as loneliness, PTSD, and grief, the most common and interesting theme is Waters’ belief in the postwar promises of 1945 and his bitterness at what he sees as their betrayal by British conservatives. The album, overall, is a take-down of Margaret Thatcher and contains a cynical world view.  It is, however, inspired by real history and politics, which is what makes it fascinating. Furthermore, many of its explorations of consumerism and nationalism still resonate today. 

 

 


 

References 

 

[1] William Hitchcock, The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of A Divided Continent, 1945 to the Present, (New York, Anchor Books, 2002), 41.

 

[2] Peter Clarke, Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-2000 (London, Penguin Books, 2003), 224.

 

[3] Peter Clarke, Hope and Glory, 218

 

[4] Peter Clarke, Hope and Glory, 218

 

[5] See Thomas Schwartz’s America’s Germany: John J. McCloy and the Federal Republic of Germany

 

[6] https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/107332

 

[7] https://www.history.com/topics/1980s/1980s

 

 

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