If Pink Floyd hadn’t existed, rock historians would have had to invent them. No other band in music history has created or embodied so many classic rock archetypes: In Syd Barrett, the band’s initial frontman, you have rock’s original acid casualty; in Roger Waters, the band’s post-Barrett leader, you have a textbook case of an artist obsessively pursuing his personal vision, while seemingly oblivious to the fact that he’s destroying his own band in the process. And that’s just for starters…
In between Barrett’s meltdown and Waters’s epic ego trip, the Floyd provided soundtracks for avant-garde films, brought space rock to the masses, and experimented (in concert and on record) with quadraphonic sound. They thrilled their (mostly stoned) audience with expensive laser shows and mammoth stage props while inadvertently giving punk rock a reason to exist – Johnny Rotten famously wore a customized “I Hate Pink Floyd” T-Shirt to his Sex Pistols audition. At the height of their fame, they released headphone-friendly concept albums that riffed on such classic concept album topics as insanity, the dehumanizing nature of fame, the venality of the music business, and (of course) George Orwell’s Animal Farm. And they did it all while cultivating an enigmatic, almost faceless image – one further accentuated by their Hipgnosis-designed album covers – that allowed listeners to project their own fantasies, nightmares and hallucinations upon the music.
Unfortunately, the music itself has often been overshadowed by the band’s iconic status, grandiose arena shows and multi-platinum record sales, as well as the unseemly legal wrangling that resulted in guitarist David Gilmour leading an even more anonymous version of Pink Floyd through two tepid post-Waters studio albums. But once you set all associated preconceptions aside and actually dive back into the Floyd catalog, it’s impossible to not be impressed by the band’s ongoing commitment to mind-bending sonic exploration, or their ability to write sublimely well-crafted songs when they wanted to. The progressive, alienated and spacey strain of pop that runs through the music of Radiohead, the Flaming Lips, Muse and a thousand others begins here; though none of those artists have ever come close to surpassing the Floyd at their finest.
The Syd Years
Recorded at Abbey Road Studios at the same time the Beatles were working on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pink Floyd's full-length debut is a purer and more potent distillation of British psychedelia circa 1967 than the Beatles' landmark work — and the case could be made for it being a stronger album, as well. Though it was released during the Summer of Love, Piper is about as far removed from "peace and love" as Haight-Ashbury is from Cambridge. Penned and sung by original Floyd frontman Syd Barrett, the opening trilogy of "Astronomy Domine," "Lucifer Sam" and "Matilda Mother" concerns itself with the movement of the cosmos, LSD-induced paranoia, and childhood terrors, respectively; even when Barrett gives free reign to his Lewis Carroll-influenced sense of whimsy, as on "Flaming," "The Gnome" and "Scarecrow," one can sense a disquieting undercurrent beneath the jollity. While the band's volcanic improvisational abilities — honed by countless gigs on the British club circuit — only really come into play on "Astronomy Domine," "Pow R. Toc H." and the nine-plus minutes of the aptly-titled instro "Interstellar Overdrive," Barrett's menacing slide guitar jabs and Rick Wright's cod-Eastern organ runs lend the entire album a lysergic edge, without ever lapsing into the paisley-colored pandering that so many of their contemporaries would soon resort to. Sonically, lyrically and thematically, Piper is very much Barrett's album — with the possible exception of the cuckoo-clock collage that closes "Bike," nothing here bears even the slightest resemblance to the Floyd's "classic" '70s sound — and it remains his finest work, as well. Barrett's subsequent solo albums (recorded after the sad acid-induced breakdown that resulted in him being booted from the band in March 1968) do have their quirky and forlorn charms, of course, but Piper is the sound of a visionary artist in full flight. Remember him this way.
The only album to feature songwriting and instrumental contributions from all five members of Pink Floyd — guitarist David Gilmour was brought in during the sessions to deputize for the increasingly erratic Syd Barrett — 1968's A Saucerful of Secrets was the band's game attempt to follow their brilliant debut, despite the fact that their erstwhile frontman and chief songwriter was no longer willing or able to focus on the task at hand. As a result, the album often sounds like an imitation of Barrett-era Pink Floyd — as written and played by the non-Barrett members of Pink Floyd. Though Barrett plays slide guitar on Rick Wright's wistful "Remember a Day" (and he's allegedly present, if inaudible, on Roger Waters' "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun"), his only vocal appearance comes on the closing "Jugband Blues," whose dissociative lyrics and acoustic-driven arrangement are more reminiscent of his subsequent solo work than anything on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. As with "Remember a Day," Wright's "See-Saw" is a pretty fair approximation of Barrett in "childhood reverie" mode, right down to Wright's hazy, slightly adenoidal vocal performance; hearing Wright's contributions here, it's not entirely surprising that the Floyd's management briefly considered making him the band's focal point following Barrett's meltdown. Waters' bass-driven opener "Let There Be More Light," features the first-ever Gilmour guitar solo on a Pink Floyd album, and his wry "Corporal Clegg" takes aim at the British military for what would be the first of many times in his career. And of course there's the nearly 12-minute title track, an instrumental space voyage in four parts which presages the band's interplanetary journeys to come.
The Transitional Period
While Syd Barrett's untimely exit thwarted the band's continued ascent of the U.K. pop charts, Pink Floyd remained a very popular live draw on the British and European university circuit, and they further beefed up their collegiate cred by writing and recording the soundtrack to More, avant-garde filmmaker Barbet Schroeder's tale of romance and heroin addiction on the Spanish isle of Ibiza. Recorded in early 1969, the soundtrack sees Roger Waters fully grabbing the creative reins for the first time; with the exception of David Gilmour's brief acoustic goof "A Spanish Piece," Waters has at least a co-writing credit on every More track, and several of the album's highlights — like the hard-rocking "Nile Song" and "Ibiza Bar" and the atmospheric ballads "Cirrus Minor" and "Green is the Colour" — are credited to him alone. While several of the shorter tracks here merely sound like not-particularly-inspired movie cues ("Up the Khyber," "Party Sequence," "More Blues"), the extended instrumental excursions "Main Theme" and "Quicksilver" are agreeably trippy, and you can pretty much trace a direct line from the slow-burning and deeply alienated "Cymbaline" through to Dark Side of the Moon's "Breathe" and The Wall's "Comfortably Numb." Though hardly a classic album in the Floyd canon, More remains worthy of further investigation.
Pink Floyd's fourth album — their first to land in the U.S. Top 100 chart — is a time capsule in several senses of the term. Originally a two-LP set (complete with a gatefold cover perfect for de-seeding your stash), this 1969 release was split into two halves: one LP of live performances, and another LP of experimental pieces individually composed and performed by Rick Wright, Roger Waters, David Gilmour and Nick Mason. The first half, taken from shows recorded in Birmingham and Manchester in the spring of 1969, does a nice job of capturing the band's powerful live chemistry during this period, aptly illustrating why they were such a popular concert draw despite their relative lack of chart success. "Astronomy Domine" may lack the presence of Syd Barrett, but it's still a more than respectable version — and the renditions here of "Careful With That Axe, Eugene," "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" and "A Saucerful of Secrets" are light years beyond their original studio waxings. The second half, however, is considerably tougher sledding. With the exception of Waters's bucolic "Grantchester Meadows," there's nothing here that even vaguely resembles a song; and while formless, self-indulgent tracks like Waters' tape experiment "Several Species of Small Animals Gathered Together In a Cave and Grooving With a Pict" and Mason's three-part percussion workout "The Grand Vizier's Garden Party" probably elicited their fair share of "Far out, man!" comments when originally heard on headphones, they now just sound like the desperate, directionless dithering of artists with a dearth of creative ideas.
Though long since disowned by Roger Waters and David Gilmour, 1970's Atom Heart Mother remains an important Pink Floyd milestone for a number of reasons. For one thing, it topped the U.K. charts shortly after its release, a major victory for an act that had by now turned its back entirely on the pop marketplace. For another, it showed them thankfully regaining their artistic focus after the studio flailings of Ummagumma. Atom Heart Mother also contains some of the best original songs the band had written in years — though they pale in comparison to what would come later, Waters's "If," Rick Wright's "Summer '68" and Gilmour's Kinks-y "Fat Old Sun" form a tuneful mini-suite that casts a wistful glance back at the psychedelic era they'd just exited, while laying the melodic groundwork for the song-oriented triumphs to come. The album itself is mostly remembered not for its songs, however, but rather its extended experiments: The side-long title track — an orchestral collaboration with avant-garde composer Ron Geesin — and the meandering "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast," which comes complete with frying, eating and gulping sounds best experienced via the album's original quadraphonic mix. While the latter track remains an amusing-at-best period piece, "Atom Heart Mother" still holds up as a pretty hypnotic listening experience.
Though they began with a rather lengthy and unpromising series of studio experiments, the sessions for 1971's Meddle eventually produced Pink Floyd's most cohesive and satisfying album since The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Shorn of Atom Heart Mother's orchestral excesses, Meddle reverses that album's structure, closing the album with a side-long epic instead of kicking things off with it. But while that track, the 23-minute "Echoes," rightly remains one of the most revered extended excursions in the Pink Floyd catalog, the album's opening instrumental (the galloping "One of These Days") is perhaps an even more important piece in the grand scheme of all things Floyd. With David Gilmour's whirring slide guitar — lending a smoother and more controlled sound to the proceedings that contrasts markedly with Syd Barrett's manic slide work from the first two albums — and Roger Waters's elastic bass pushed to the fore, Rick Wright's reverberating Hammond fills providing the drama, and Nick Mason's drums sounding more thunderous than ever, "One of These Days" marked of the birth of the "classic" '70s Pink Floyd sound that would fully flower on 1973's Dark Side of the Moon. Though that sound largely disappears for the next four tracks — "A Pillow of Winds," "Fearless," "San Tropez" and the light-hearted "Seamus," all hazy, acoustic-driven songs that seem mostly intended to serve as pleasant filler between Meddle's spectacular bookends — it returns in time for "Echoes." A progressive rock masterpiece, "Echoes" feels considerably more organic than "Atom Heart Mother," as if it were a song that naturally grew to more than 23 minutes in length, rather than being conceived as an art piece. Still, the band clearly learned a lot about layering unusual sounds and textures from Atom Heart Mother collaborator Ron Geesin; those lessons, combined with the band's increasingly muscular attack, make for an incredibly compelling listening experience that never fails to reveal new details, especially on headphones.
In the midst of work on what would become Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd took a two-week break and traveled to France to record the soundtrack for Barbet Schroeder's La Vallee. The results were released as Obscured by Clouds, a marvelous record that's often unfairly overlooked. Despite its "work for hire" origins, Obscured by Clouds is actually a better and more cohesive work than many of the Floyd's "real" albums, even if (or maybe because) much of Obscured by Clouds sounds like a dress rehearsal for DSOTM. The band's increasing fondness for the EMS VCS 3 synthesizer (which would be all over DSOTM) is apparent here on cuts like the almost Krautrock-like title track, the dreamy instrumentals "Mudmen" and "Absolutely Curtains," and "Free Four," Roger Waters's morbid campfire sing-along/glam-rock stomp that references the two topics that would soon preoccupy his songwriting: His father's death during WWII, and the pressures of the music business. The Gilmour-sung "Burning Bridges," "Wot's... Uh the Deal?" and "Childhood's End" could've all fit in fairly seamlessly on DSOTM; in fact, "Burning Bridges" and "Childhood's End" bear more than a little resemblance to that album's "Breathe" and "Time," respectively. If you love DSOTM, but may have heard it too many times to process it any more, Obscured by Clouds will give you a fresh hit from the same pipe.
Honed to absolute perfection over a year of live gigs and recording sessions, 1973's Dark Side of the Moon was Pink Floyd's most concise and song-oriented work to date — no side-long journeys into space here — but it was also their most "progressive," in the sense that all of the album's songs revolved around a single unifying theme. It was also the album that turned Pink Floyd into international superstars; one of the best-selling and most critically-acclaimed albums of all time, DSOTM has sold upwards of 45 million copies worldwide, over half of its tracks continue to receive regular airplay on classic rock stations, and it's been remade in full by both the Flaming Lips and 8-bit musician Brad Smith. As with Michael Jackson's Thriller, the sheer cultural omnipresence of DSOTM can make it difficult to fully appreciate. To really absorb its brilliance, the album has to be experienced in full, rather than heard served up in chunks between Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Recorded at London's Abbey Road Studios with engineer Alan Parsons (and mixed with the help of Chris Thomas), DSOTM is truly an audiophile's wet dream — even nearly four decades after the fact, it still sounds gorgeous and timeless, and the band's innovative weaving of sound effects and spoken word snippets into the songs still sounds seamless rather than corny. But it's the songs themselves — which give full voice to lyrical themes and musical elements that had only briefly appeared on previous Floyd albums — that really give DSOTM its lasting power. "Time," "Us and Them," "Breathe," "Brain Damage" and even "Money" all examine the challenges of human existence with considerable, even surprising, empathy; and the tension between the inherent humanity of the material (perhaps best expressed by Clare Torry's wordless wailing on "The Great Gig in the Sky") and the flawlessness of the album's production still makes for an endlessly fascinating and rewarding listen.
For their 1975 follow-up to the blockbuster Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd abandoned that album's concise, song-oriented structure and returned to the format of earlier albums Atom Heart Mother and Meddle, wherein extended pieces bookended a handful of songs at the core. But the differences between those transitional, often-experimental albums and Wish You Were Here were considerable: The band was functioning by now as a far more focused and confident unit, with David Gilmour's searing guitar leads and Rick Wright's sleek VCS3 synthesizer lines now regularly taking center stage; and bolstered by the artistic and critical success of DSOTM, Roger Waters felt more comfortable with the notion of once again wrapping an entire album around a singular concept. Only this time, instead of focusing on the challenges of human existence, Waters turned inward and wrote songs about his disillusionment with the music business as a member of one of the world's biggest bands. The rich rock star railing against the indignities and inequities of the record industry was already a tired cliché by the mid-'70s, but the Waters-penned "Welcome to the Machine" and "Have a Cigar" both have a palpable bite to them; the former song explores the way that the artistic impulses of rebellious youth are ultimately nothing more than fodder for a money-fixated industry, while the latter scores a direct hit on the glad-handing record company execs who are too busy calculating an act's potential profitability to bother learning the band members names. ("Oh by the way — which one's Pink?") But ultimately, even though he's not present except in spirit, it's original Floyd member Syd Barrett who saves Wish You Were Here from being just another bilious rock star bitch session. The sad tale of Barrett's acid flameout — triggered in part by the pressures of fame — inspired the nine-part "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" and the deeply melancholic "Wish You Were Here," both of which lend some real heart and soul to an album that could have wound up as nothing more than a sour (if impeccably played) rant.
Released in early 1977, just as the U.K. punk movement was kicking into high gear, Pink Floyd's 10th album was, at first glance, about as un-punk as you could get: A concept album loosely based upon George Orwell's Animal Farm, centered around three synthesizer-heavy songs that were more than 10 minutes in length, and housed in yet another expensive Hipgnosis-designed cover, Animals seemed like the very essence of dinosaur rock excess. But the rage expressed in "Dogs," "Pigs (Three Different Ones)" and "Sheep" is just as palpable and real (albeit delivered more eloquently) as anything on the first Sex Pistols or Clash album; and, whereas Orwell's book took on socialism, Animals' main target is the same capitalist system that the safety pin brigade wanted to smash. While the dog, pig and sheep sound effects in the aforementioned songs are teeth-grindingly obvious, and all traces of the band's whimsy or humor have been completely eradicated, the album's three main songs are as alluring as they are monolithic; especially on headphones, the densely-layered but spacious (and extremely lyrical) music — David Gilmour's guitar refrain on "Dogs" being a particular highlight — pulls you in well before you're fully cognizant of the dark, almost nihilistic sentiments at the heart of the record. Once you're in, however, there's no way out; the brief acoustic bookends of "Pigs on the Wing, Pt. 1" and "Pigs on the Wing, Pt. 2" hint at the possibility of romantic redemption amid man's inhumanity to man — but after marinating in Waters's bleak world view for nearly 40 minutes, it's difficult to remain optimistic.
After three straight concept albums, Roger Waters upped the ante even further with 1979's The Wall, leading Pink Floyd through a full-blown rock opera about the traumas, trials and general alienation of a rock star. Inspired by Waters's experiences on the band's unwieldy "In The Flesh" tour of North America, in which they supported 1977's Animals with series of gigs at football and baseball stadiums, The Wall explores the way Waters felt increasingly disconnected from his fans, his loved ones and even himself as Pink Floyd became bigger and bigger; it also draws upon the death of his father during WWII, and the oppression and abuse he experienced at the hands of his mother and teachers while growing up. As unpromising a premise as that all sounds, Waters (who was clearly in the driver's seat at this point) somehow pulls it off; even though it completely ignores one of Pink Floyd's greatest strengths — there are no extended instrumental forays to be found anywhere on the album — The Wall is never less than a compelling, and often cathartic, listening experience. The album's 26 songs admittedly include several tracks that are little more than interludes or obvious devices to move the plot along, but they're also held together by some of the band's finest moments: the anthemic "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2," the profoundly creepy "Mother," the throbbing "Young Lust," the propulsive "Run Like Hell" and "Comfortably Numb," the latter of which is quite possibly the most beautiful ode to complete detachment ever recorded, and which contains one of David Gilmour's most memorable guitar solos. Though the album's fractious recording sessions certainly sewed the seeds for the ugly split between Waters and the rest of the band — Waters actually fired keyboardist Rick Wright before the album was finished, then "allowed" him to come back as a hired session man — The Wall's enduring music (and popularity) makes it hard to totally second-guess Waters's drive for complete creative control.
After The Wall Came Down
If anyone thought Roger Waters would lighten up a bit following The Wall's multi-platinum success, they were sorely disappointed. An anti-war concept album so rage-filled and bitterly humorless it makes The Wall sound like a Monty Python record, 1983's The Final Cut was inspired by the Falklands War and what Waters saw as U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's jingoism-motivated decision to prosecute an unnecessary war. The Falklands conflict also brought up more of Waters' grief over the loss of his father in World War II — a topic he'd already touched upon on several previous Pink Floyd albums, including The Wall — and thus The Final Cut also became an elegy to his late father, whose death Waters saw as symbolic of the way that nations betray their own citizens in time of war. A Waters solo album in all but name, The Final Cut is an easier album to admire than it is to enjoy; unlike Wish You Were Here, The Wall or even Animals, there aren't enough hooks or melodies in songs like "Not Now John," "Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert" or "Two Suns in the Sunset" to render Waters' rants aurally digestible, even if you agree with the points he's making.
If 1983's The Final Cut was a Roger Waters solo album in all but name, then 1987's A Momentary Lapse of Reason marked David Gilmour's turn to impose his musical will upon Pink Floyd. Waters had left Pink Floyd in late 1985, assuming that the band wouldn't be able to carry on without him; but after extended legal wrangling, Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason won the right to keep the band name. Comprised mostly of material that had originally been intended for Gilmour's third solo album, A Momentary Lapse of Reason proved the lasting value of the Pink Floyd name, selling millions of copies despite the fact that it sounded very little like a Pink Floyd album. Recorded with a veritable army of session musicians, and co-produced by Bob Ezrin (who'd previously twiddled knobs on The Wall), AMLOR has the lushness of classic Floyd, but little of the life; even the album's best tracks, like "Learning to Fly" and "On the Turning Away" — both of which were co-written with Anthony Moore (aka Anthony More) of '70s avant-garde pop band Slapp Happy — are little more than agreeably memorable trifles. Waters may have been a difficult personality to work with, but a little bit of his difficult personality would have gone a long way here.
As with its predecessor, 1987's A Momentary Lapse of Reason, 1994's The Division Bell proved that millions of people will buy a record with "Pink Floyd" on the cover, regardless of its actual contents. Give David Gilmour points for trying, however; unlike AMLOR, which was made up of unrelated songs originally intended for a Gilmour solo album, the singer/guitarist at least came up with a properly Floydian concept — the difficulty of communication between human beings — to hang The Division Bell's songs on. He also managed to pull formerly exiled keyboardist Rick Wright (who'd returned for AMLOR, but contributed little in the way of actual music or playing to that album) back into the creative fray; Wright wrote or co-wrote five of the album's 11 songs, and "Wearing the Inside Out" marked Wright's first lead vocal on a Pink Floyd album since "Time" and "Us and Them" on 1973's Dark Side of the Moon. Sadly, Gilmour himself sounds pretty uninspired, and The Division Bell ultimately just comes off like moderately pleasant, quasi-New Age background music, with occasional sound effects and female choirs woven in to remind us that this is, you know, Pink Floyd. The band hasn't released a new studio album since The Division Bell; unless Roger Waters miraculously returns to the fold, the Pink Floyd name should probably be left to rest in peace.