Another sad anniversary in world history; another powerful protest song to recall it. It was on this day in 1989 the Chinese government put its jackbooted foot down on protestors at Tiananmen Square, leaving hundreds, perhaps thousands, dead and the country’s reputation in tatters…not that they much cared.
Tiananmen Square is actually a 53 acre open space in the middle of Beijing. It’s home to the National Museum and a Monument To the People’s Heroes. But in ’89 it gained international notoriety when in April thousands of protestors took to it and set up camp to protest the country’s state of affairs. Mostly it was university students there, although some ordinary laborers joined them. China was changing (as was the entire world) and while they’d allowed in some access to Western media and partly converted their land to a market economy, it was still a Communist dictatorship. Students wanted free elections and freedom of the press; the workers mostly wanted a fairer share of the wealth as they sensed that a few were getting very rich while most were working harder for less than before.
The protests drew attention, both internally and internationally. By late May, similar protests were occurring in 400 different towns and cities. “Paramount Leader” Deng Xiaoping ordered a crackdown on them, and sent some 300 000 troops, many in tanks and all armed, into Beijing. On June 3rd, people were warned to stay in their homes the next day, but the protestors stood their ground. Troops rolled into the square, shooting and killing many, running over others and of course creating pandemonium. The battle was lopsided, but not entirely one-sided; along the streets to the square, people attacked soldiers, threw molotov cocktails at them and publicly hung a few unfortunate soldiers they captured. A few foreign journalists were able to get footage of the massacre out to the world and the next day Stuart Franklin took the now-iconic picture of a lone man standing in front of a line of tanks leaving town seen above.
The Chinese government cracked down on public freedoms and either jailed or expelled foreign news people and journalists. And much like the Irish Bogside Massacre and the Ohio State riots, a scathing protest song arose from it. Although unlike the U2 and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young classics, this one by Roger Waters didn’t get a lot of attention. Still the 1992 song “Watching TV” does give an angry dose of insight into the horrible event.
While one can accuse Waters of many things (and David Gilmour and his wife do just that) one can’t say he pulls punches with his angry lyrics, nor that he is lacking in know-how to create a good-sounding and well-produced record. He checked off both those boxes on “Watching TV”, a six-minute dirge written from the perspective of a fictional, heartbroken young Chinese student whose sister died in the protest and showed up in the TV coverage. It hints at how traumatic that would be as well as the irony that the protests had probably been fueled by them seeing the outside world (particularly the rapid changes happening in the Soviet Block) on TV and wanting that for themselves. It was from his third solo album, Amused to Death, a loose concept album about how TV and mass media was dumbing us all down. The album checked in at over an hour, and was recorded in “Q-sound”, a way of enhancing 3D sound effects and more recently re-released in 5.1 Surround Sound. He said that was done, about eight years back because “it didn’t get the attention it deserved” and the problems he sang about are “maybe even more relevant to our predicament as people in 2015.” Among those helping him on this track were Jeff Beck on lead guitar, Madonna-collaborator Patrick Leonard producing and playing keyboards while Don Henley added backing vocals.
The song wasn’t released as a single but did get some airplay on FM rock stations. The album reached #8 in the UK and #21 in the U.S. Record Collector applauded it for being “Waters at his most bleakly inspired since… The Wall.” One wonders if he’ll come up with a bleakly-inspired follow-up, “Watching Tik Tok.”