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Bill Kopp's Musoscribe.com -- Pop music interviews, essays, criticism, analysis, news and opinion...and occasional bonus material

Pink Floyd

A critical essay by Bill Kopp

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From the group's radical beginnings in the London underground scene of the mid 1960s to the inevitable late-'80s and mid-'90s tours, the spacey Pink Floyd has had it both ways: challenging expectations and delivering more of the same, often on a single album. With merely one change in lineup during the group's primary lifespan (1966–'79), Floyd made an indelible mark on psychedelic, progressive and hard rock. Working well outside the musical mainstream, and rarely (with a few notable exceptions) bowing to trends, Pink Floyd turned out a body of work that quietly influenced countless other groups and shifted many millions of units. To the uninitiated, this is the group that made Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, but their work offers rewards far beyond those two albums.

pink_floyd_piper_at_the_gates_of_dawn There were precious few hints on Piper at the Gates of Dawn of what the future would hold. The debut bore the unmistakable imprint of the group's leader, visionary Roger Keith "Syd" Barrett. His particularly English tales of whimsy pushed the boundaries of what was, in 1967, acceptable subject matter for pop songs. Refreshingly free of the constraints of conventional structure and meter, Barrett's tunes held a childlike wonder laced(!) with menace. Highlights include "Lucifer Sam" (about a cat), "Bike" (about a bicycle), "Scarecrow" (guess!) and the extended freakout "Interstellar Overdrive." This last cut—a prototype of the group's "space rock"—was nearly the only instance where the studio version of the early Floyd bore any sonic resemblance to its live incarnation. This debut album was in and of its time, but has aged reasonably well; certainly better than many other artifacts of the psychedelic era.

pink_floyd_a_saucerful_of_secrets A few weeks into the recording of 1968's A Saucerful of Secrets, Barrett was gone. Whether it was his incipient schizophrenia, the copious intake of psychedelics or (most likely) their potent combination, Syd was forced out of the band he had created by the more business-minded members, chief among them bassist Roger Waters. His replacement, David Gilmour, was originally intended as a stand-in for the erratic leader (and in fact the group played a handful of gigs as a five-piece); the clear goal for A Saucerful of Secrets was to write a bunch of Syd-like tunes. Waters gamely penned or co-wrote three of the seven tracks; keyboardist Rick Wright wrote and sang two. Much of the album is filler, but the standout tracks offered a vivid portent. The dark and foreboding "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" was an early example of the whisper-to-a-scream (literally) school of songcraft, and the wordless title track offered nearly twelve minutes of madness, veering from musique concrète, ersatz choirs and plain old noise in its distinct movements. In all, pretty innovative stuff, even for 1968.

pink_floyd_more By the following year's release of More, few musical traces of the Barrett-era group remained. Commissioned as the score to Barbet Schroeder's 1969 hippie film of the same name, the album has a more pastoral feel than was (or would be) typical of the group. Many of the tracks are mildly compelling mood pieces, with utilitarian titles ("Party Sequence," "Main Theme," "More Blues"), but "The Nile Song" is closer in sound to Black Sabbath. Waters had already assumed near-total control of the songwriting: the bassist wrote or co-wrote every track. But Gilmour's vocals proved more tuneful, so the guitarist ended up singing many of Waters' songs. Meanwhile, Gilmour's soaring Stratocaster leads, a sound which would become instantly recognizable in later years, was already settling into place. As recorded, the songs (and their solos) run short, but those songs from More that found their way into the heavy-gigging group's live repertoire ("Green Is the Colour," "Cymbaline") became extended set-pieces.

pink_floyd_ummagumma And so with the release of Ummagumma (the title is supposedly pidgin for copulation) the band went in two directions: a live set for fans of the band's elongated excursions and a studio set for self-gratification. The four live numbers, all previously released songs, are reasonably well-recorded for the era, and show off the group to good effect, offering fascinating differences from their studio originals. But Floyd was never a "jam band," thus the arrangements are fairly tight. The opus "A Saucerful of Secrets" is suitably spooky and menacing, but (as numerous bootleg recordings of the era attest) only hints at the quartet's increasing live power. The studio tracks, one for each member, are mostly indulgent, though Gilmour's "The Narrow Way" has its moments.

pink_floyd_zabriskie_point Music was needed for "Zabriskie Point," Michelangelo Antonioni's cinematic entry into the world of hippie exploitation, and Pink Floyd was an obvious choice. On the 1970 soundtrack album, three songs sat alongside tracks by the Grateful Dead, Patti Page and the Youngbloods. A cursory rewrite of the 1968 single "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" was joined by two shorter tunes. When Rhino rereleased the album decades later, four more interesting Pink Floyd tracks were included. Two or three other songs from the 1969 Rome,Italy sessions remain unreleased.

pink_floyd_atom_heart_mother Released at the dawn of the new decade, Atom Heart Mother represents a breakthrough for the band. The group mines a folky, melancholy feel on Waters' "If," adds another template for a live workout (the perennial Gilmour favorite "Fat Old Sun") and gets just plain weird with the faux audio vérité of "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast." Yet the centerpiece is the title track, a collaboration with experimental composer Ron Geesin. Twenty-three-plus minutes of doom, pretentiousness and freakout, "Atom Heart Mother" contains all the ingredients for the sonic stew that Pink Floyd would serve up through the next decade. It became a live staple for a few years, performed with and without orchestras. Though the group would eventually disown the work, Atom Heart Mother is a partly successful foray into the "orchestral rock" genre, and still holds value decades later.

pink_floyd_meddle Meddle refined the formula. The "songs" half contains "One of These Days," with a memorably pulsing echoplexed bass line, and four other pleasant (if immediately forgettable) tracks. Waters again has a hand in all of the compositions. And if "Echoes" is in some ways "Atom Heart Mother (Slight Return)," it has a stronger melody, excellent dual-lead harmony vocals (Gilmour and Wright) and the trademark chord patterns and drum fills that would pay the bills for years to come.

pink_floyd_obscured_by_clouds Obscured by Clouds, if a step backward, is not an unpleasant one. Another film score for Barbet Schroder (for La Vallée), the album contains fine, if simpler, arrangements. According to legend, the band recorded in a foreign studio and did not have access to all of its equipment. Economical instrumentals and a lack of sonic tricks make this an accessible (and generally overlooked) item in the group's catalog. Gilmour's "Childhood's End" is a highlight, as is Waters' black-humored "Free Four."

None of which prepared the world for Dark Side of the Moon. Several changes in Pink Floyd's approach helped make this album the beginning of a new chapter. First, they enlisted engineer Alan Parsons and the mixing talents of Chris Thomas. Both were experienced with the equipment at EMI's Abbey Road studio, having proven their mettle working with the Beatles. Second, the group had learned much through the trial-and-error experiments of the preceding few albums; they now had a better sense of what worked and what did not. That the album is a marvel of sonic clarity and spaciousness contributed greatly to its phenomenal success (this was the album to use in auditioning stereo equipment, and its reissue on CD put it back on the charts), but the linear songwriting deserves credit as well.

pink_floyd_dark_side_of_the_moon Dark Side of the Moon is best approached as a whole. Though the "concept" is loose, the care that went into the album sequencing should be rewarded with a start-to-finish listen. The songwriting is vastly improved, thanks in part to rigorous road-testing of many of the musical themes before recording the album. Wright's "Us and Them" is a dreamy mid-tempo piece with pretty piano, soaring vocals and guitar. The group-credited "Time" starts off ominously and builds from there. All the songs are evocative, conveying in turn dread, melancholy and paranoia. The wordless "Great Gig in the Sky" is notable as the first Pink Floyd song to feature lead vocals from a non-group member (Clare Torry), and Waters' "Money," with its cynical lyrics and odd meter (7/4 and 5/4), gave Pink Floyd a worldwide hit single. A near-perfect combination of weirdness and melody, the album has repeating musical and lyrical motifs plus head-swirling sound effects (courtesy of drummer Nick Mason and a then-new VCS3 synthesizer). Dark Side of the Moon set the standard for rock of the '70s and beyond, as well as for the group itself.

pink_floyd_wish_you_were_here Following a landmark is no piece of cake, but two years later the group released Wish You Were Here. In some respects it's a take-no-chances follow-up, recycling some of the previous album's themes (madness, isolation), but in other ways it's a return to earlier forms. Gilmour's saturnine guitar leads, coupled with Wright's ethereal keyboards (piano, organ and an increasing reliance on synthesizers) assert themselves as the core of the group's sound. The largely instrumental album is structured around the epic "Shine on You Crazy Diamond," a surprising and belated tribute to Barrett, while the doom and alienation of Waters' "Welcome to the Machine" offer the creepiest Pink Floyd sounds since Meddle's "One of These Days." The sardonic "Have a Cigar" contains the band's second (and final) guest lead vocal, this time from labelmate Roy Harper. The largely acoustic title track is the most down-to-earth thing on the album, and became a concert sing-along. With Waters' musical dominance continuing on the rise, this is the Pink Floyd's last true group effort.

pink_floyd_animals Another two years passed before the release of Animals. Orwellian by design, the disc follows the same formula as its two immediate predecessors, but with a harsher, metallic sound. The bleak tone is almost too much to take on tracks like "Sheep" and "Dogs," but Gilmour's lyrical guitar playing saves the day. In many ways Animals is a Waters solo album, with his bandmates serving as sidemen. Unrelenting despair and bile are the order of the day here, with heavy-handed lyrics dividing all of humanity into dogs, pigs and sheep. Still, it's a great listen for all the extended instrumental work. And the vocoder work on Waters' nasty rewrite of the 23rd Psalm is not to be missed.

pink_floyd_the_wall Then came The Wall. The culmination of everything Waters had to say (again) about isolation, alienation and madness, The Wall is built upon a handful of simple musical motifs, three- and four-note patterns. The playing is excellent as are the (non-Waters) vocals and the production is flawless. But the album has not stood the test of time. Designed as (another) cohesive work, it turns boring on repeated listens. With its disco shuffle, "Another Brick in the Wall (Part Two)" gave the group its second hit single, and "Comfortably Numb" makes the strongest argument for affording Gilmour more space on the album. But tracks like "Empty Spaces" and "The Trial" —though necessary to move the story along—are tough going.

pink_floyd_the_final_cut Pink Floyd was inescapably crushed under the weight of The Wall. Wright left before the release of The Final Cut, a dour and aptly-named disc on which Gilmour and Mason did what they were told in the studio by Waters. While the single, "Not Now John," is best avoided ("f*ck all that" indeed), the oft-overlooked "Two Suns in the Sunset" is perhaps Waters' strongest moment on record. And his singing isn't half bad. With the release of The Final Cut, Pink Floyd effectively ceased to exist. At least that's what Waters believed, and subsequently attempted to assert in various courts of law as the group divided into acrimoniously antagonistic camps.

pink_floyd_a_momentary_lapse_of_reason Gilmour had been growing as a musician and composer (if not lyricist), and still had a lot to offer musically. His two solo albums (1978's David Gilmour and 1984's About Face) were strong musically, featuring musical friends and (helpfully) guest lyricists, yet sank virtually without a trace. To most fans, Pink Floyd was relatively faceless (they rarely gave interviews or posed for photos), so Gilmour wasn't well recognized as one of its main creative forces. He and Mason relaunched Pink Floyd, using a cast of dozens (including Wright as a "guest" member but not Waters), with A Momentary Lapse of Reason, the title a comment on Waters' decision to dissolve the band. pink_floyd_delicate_sound_of_thunder The album was a sonic return to form; that form being Dark Side-era Pink Floyd. Whether it was legitimate without Waters is more of a legal than critical issue, as it certainly sounds like Pink Floyd; "Learning to Fly" and "On the Turning Away" would have fit smoothly on a mid-period album (especially Meddle). The album was a huge commercial success.

As was the (greatly expanded) group's megatour, documented on the live Delicate Sound of Thunder. The two-disc greatest-hits-live package was meant to make up for the historical lack of a legitimate live Floyd album (excepting the first half of Ummagumma). But there's something artificial and dubious about a dozen-plus musicians, some of whom were toddlers when The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was recorded, performing these old songs as Pink Floyd.

pink_floyd_the_division_bell No matter. Six years later Gilmour, Mason and Wright (now a full member again) returned with The Division Bell. It's a marked improvement over A Momentary Lapse of Reason, thanks in no small part to Wright's collaboration on more than half the tunes. Sticking to Meddle-era musical ideas, the band wisely unencumbers the album with any weighty thematic concepts. What they were lacking, however, was Waters' gravitas. Despite his overbearing dominance and limited musical appeal, Waters did provide the band with incisive, thoughtful lyrical content, the absence of which is obvious. Penned largely by Polly Samson, Gilmour's then-fiancée, the lyrics on The Division Bell are melancholy yet upbeat. The titles say it all: "A Great Day for Freedom," "Coming Back to Life," "High Hopes."

pink_floyd_pulse P-U-L-S-E is another double live album, released concurrently with a concert film (and packaged with a blinking red light on the spine of the CD slipcase). Nothing to see here, move along. It contains a complete Dark Side of the Moon performance, a few other hits and favorites, Barrett's "Astronomy Domine" and not a note from Animals or The Final Cut. The cassette version features a 22-minute "Soundscape" of ambient noises.

The Relics compilation doesn't fit neatly into the group's corpus. A few tracks are from previous albums, but it's certainly no greatest hits, since Floyd was never a singles band. It does boast a few non-album singles (the brilliant psych-pop of the Barrett-era "See Emily Play" and the group's first single, "Arnold Layne") and the endearingly oddball "Biding My Time," possibly the most un-Pink Floyd-sounding song the group ever committed to tape. Required listening for those wishing to fully understand the group, Relics is of little import to the less committed devotee.

In the wake of Dark Side of the Moon, Capitol/EMI rush-released A Nice Pair, a sloppy pairing of a butchered UK version of Piper at the Gates of Dawn with A Saucerful of Secrets. Still, given the rarity of those albums prior to their reissue on CD, this was for many years the only practical way for American fans to get the Barrett-era material.

pink_floyd_relicspink_floyd_a_nice_pair pink_floyd_a_collection_of_great_dance_songs
A Collection of Great Dance Songs and Works are both ill-advised, poorly chosen, terribly-sequenced cash-in compilations. Yet each has one (small) thing to recommend it. The former contains an unexplained note-for-note, sound-for-sound recreation of "Money" led by Gilmour; a must for completists. The latter includes the brief "Embryo," a pre-Dark Side leftover that was the basis for an extended live workout. It's too bad they didn't sanction the release of a concert rendition.

pink_floyd_works pink_floyd_shine_on
Columbia's 1992 Shine On collected A Saucerful of Secrets, Meddle, The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall and A Momentary Lapse of Reason into a convenient (if expensive) box set. A bonus disc entitled The Early Singles compiled ten tracks from the Barrett and just-post-Barrett eras. Hardcore fans already had the rare tracks on the compilation bootleg Dark Side of The Moo; everyone else needs this disc, if only for the twisted fable of "Arnold Layne" and the self-conscious attempt at a hit, "Point Me at the Sky."

pink_floyd_the_early_singles pink_floyd_echoes
In 2001 Capitol released Echoes–The Best of Pink Floyd, a concise two-disc retrospective. Although the title track is significantly shortened here, the edits arguably make the long piece more powerful. The nine-section, two-part "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" is joined into a single piece, losing two of the sections in the process, which blunts its impact. Fans might also take issue with the song selection, which includes a track from The Final Cut and nothing from More, Obscured by Clouds and Atom Heart Mother. The sequencing is non-chronological and seemingly haphazard. It works in places, serving to emphasize sonic similarities between different eras, but the juxtaposition of Piper at the Gates of Dawn's "Bike" with The Division Bell's "High Hopes" is guaranteed to harsh any listener's mellow.

2007's Oh, by the Way collects all of Pink Floyd's releases onto 16 CDs in one package, but omits the early singles found on Shine On.

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