I’ve spent the last couple of weeks lost in a very comfortable and enjoyable Pink Floyd trip.
It all started with an article in an actual printed music magazine that I bought for the first time in more years than I can count. Well written, the article in ‘Uncut’ detailed the years between Syd Barrett’s departure and the commencement of Dark Side of the Moon. How, in just four years they went from being Barrett’s backing band on songs like ‘Bike’ – via the addition of Gilmour – to writing what is arguably* one of the greatest albums of all time.
From there I needed more. So a quick search punt about on eBay and two quid later (yup, bargain) Mark Blake’s Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd was in my hands for what would become a deep dive into the story and music of those five chaps from Cambridge**.
A good music biog is a hard thing to achieve***; for every Crosstown Traffic there’s at least five Scuse Me While I Kiss the Skys. Especially with a band so reticent to deal with the press during their peak as Pink Floyd were. Pigs Might Fly, falls firmly into the former camp. While not as painstakingly researched and deep as, say, Peter Guralnick’s Last Train To Memphis it documents in insightful detail how The Pink Floyd Experience (though there will always be debate on where and when the name formed) came together around the creative nucleus of Syd Barrett – enforcing my opinion that, at the time, it was really Barrett and Friends, the shocking and painful disintegration of the poor guy, Gilmour’s arrival, Waters’ gradual take over and journey up his own arse and efforts to shoot his own band in the kneecaps before Gilmour pulled it free and moved it forward for a final two albums.
There’s plenty in Pigs Might Fly to enjoy. While it eases up and speeds up as success takes hold – there’s no real detail on song creation etc beyond DSOTM – there’s plenty in terms of the crumbling relationships within the band. That the book takes a very neutral stance means it manages to point more effectively to just what a skid mark Waters became. Despite his later claims that none of the band came out of that period well, it’s abundantly clear that Gilmour, Mason and the revived Wright did an awful lot better than he did. It did make me chuckle that the late Barrett’s neighbour recalled a time in the late 80’s when Syd was heard shouting “Fucking Roger Waters! I’ll fucking kill him!”
Another highlight was the discovery of how the band dealt with a negative review for the album which was their then biggest step forward and into the realms of ‘new’ Floyd, Meddle – which Melody Maker’s Michael Watts (a long-time fan) described as ‘Muddle’ and featuring ‘vocals that verged on the drippy and instrumental workouts that are decidedly old hat’. When Watt’s took delivery of a parcel at his office a month later a he assumed it was a Christmas gift from some record company’s PR dept. Instead he found a bright red hardwood box with a lid held in place with a little catch. When he flipped the catch he jumped back as a spring-loaded boxing glove shot out, just missing his face. It was a Christmas gift from Pink Floyd.
While Pigs Might Fly now sits amongst the other music biogs in my library, I thought it worth running down my Top Ten Pink Floyd albums. I’m not up to doing another Least to Most series so I’ll make this a monster post and go for it now. This is in order and, as per all on here, is my own opinion rather than arguing it’s definitive.
The band’s first album without any involvement from Syd Barret and their first soundtrack album, More is a slight listen but one that’s still worth digging out. Somewhat scattershot in style – from their heaviest , Zep-like recordings to pastoral folk and abstract instrumentals, More contains a few nods of the directions the band would later take. Most important, though, is Gilmour coming out of his shell – free’d from this previous requirements to ape Syd’s parts, this is the first time he’s really let loose and ‘The Nile Song’ shows the way out of songs like ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ and toward the Gilmour / Waters collabs that would later prove so powerful.
Atom Heart Mother
While More pointed at any number of directions, it would be a while before Floyd followed them up. Umagumma doesn’t rank here because it’s two strong tracks are set amongst a quagmire of misfires. Atom Heart Mother, though, is a strong slab of music that, while there are still a couple of duds (‘Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast’) is more consistent in quality and was the band’s first Number 1 album. The suite itself – mired by recording and production setbacks – is a 23 minute bombast (which Stanley Kubrick asked, and received a ‘no’, to use in A Clockwork Orange) that’s followed by some great early gems like Waters’ ‘If’ and Gilmour’s ‘Fat Old Sun’.
A Momentary Lapse of Reason
The first of two Gilmour-led Floyd albums is the weaker of the two but still a strong album. Having made the decision to push ahead with a Waters-less Pink Floyd was one thing, the legal battles and arguments that followed meant recording A Momentary Lapse of Reason a dogged process. Bringing in co-writers was no longer new for a Pink Floyd album and Gilmour used all the help he could with lyrics. But Gilmour was keen to avoid too many lyrics, telling the press that the last albums by the Waters-led Floyd had lost focus on music over words. He was also determinedly avoiding the use of a ‘concept’, Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason is an odd beast as a result and is more of a collection of songs as a result – much like an album by most other bands so why it became a big deal is beyond me – and while some (‘Learning to Fly’ and ‘A New Machine’) sound rooted to 1987 – the distinctive Pink Floyd feel is still there in the mix and songs like ‘Sorrow’ punch in the Floyd’s old weight division.
Unfortunately, the pressure of carrying all the responsibility for Pink Floyd on his shoulders would push Gilmour deeper into use of cocaine and it would be some time before he could shake the weight.
One of Pink Floyd’s best known and biggest selling albums doesn’t make the Top Five. The Wall is one of those albums that I always think is great but then – having revisited it so much again recently – realised that my version of The Wall is only five songs long and two of those are ‘Comfortably Numb’ because I always have to play that twice. The others – ‘Mother’, ‘Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)’ and ‘Hey You’ are of such strength as to be outright classics. Thing is though, 4 out of 26 tracks is not a good ratio but these really are gold, proof that even when strained to the point of breaking the Gilmour / Waters partnership was one of songwriting’s finest.
The rest, though… for fuck sake, Roger, have a word with yourself before thinking we need to be tortured. Drop any of them on in isolation and tell me if ‘The Trial’ or ‘Vera’ have any place in the list of great Pink Floyd songs. That Roger demanded – and received – such control over The Wall as part of the agreement to drop legal actions shows just how much his project / vanity this album really is. It took Bob Ezrin to navigate it away from being Rogers’ rant and life story into something as near to generic as it became but The Wall and Waters’ determined dominance over sessions and direction that was the tolling of the bell for the band as it was (recording sessions saw Richard Wright booted out).
Obscured by Clouds
This is one of those gems of an album that is so often overlooked as to be criminal. Recorded in quick sessions against a ticking clock as the band were both on tour and in the midst of working up DSTOTM – working under pressure and without the time to indulge proved benefical: Obscured by Clouds contains some great tunes. The instrumentals – benefiting from the great leaps the band were making – contain touches of the album that would follow while songs like ‘Free Four’ and the brilliant ‘Wot’s… Uh the Deal?’ are classics. Yes, there are some songs best skipped but the ratio of solid to tosh puts this higher than The Wall in my listening rota.
Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air… Before Meddle, Pink Floyd were – as Nick Mason would later put it – in danger of being bored to death with their existing material. The direction their psychedelic roots had pointed on was hitting something of a dead end and they were reaching for a new sound. That new, now ‘classic’ Pink Floyd sound arrived on Meddle. A trio of three cracking little tunes (best forget ‘Seamus’ to be honest) sandwiched between the bass-driven corker that is ‘One of These Days’ and the absolute epic ‘Echoes’ with Gilmour and Wright’s vocals blending perfectly. Meddle – and Echoes – is majestic, airy and introduces that sense of overworldliness that would be the benchmark of the classic Floyd sound. Oh, and it’s stuffed full of weird, dark sounds that punctuate it all – it’s the precursor to all that would follow and it’s sodding brilliant. “Give us a ‘ping’ Richard!”
I’ll be honest – it took me a long time to dig Animals. It didn’t hook me as much as the rest of the Top Five for some time but when it did…. oh boy. ‘Punk Floyd’ as one reviewer at the time put it, Animals is the bridge between the anger that was boiling up in some of Wish You Were Here‘s songs and the self-indulgent ranting of The Wall only clearly still with full band involvement and enjoyment. The music is stronger and rewards with each listen. Gilmour’s guitar work is amongst his finest and Waters’ lyrics are as on-point as they’d ever be:
Like the club tie, and the firm handshake
A certain look in the eye and an easy smile
You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to
So that when they turn their backs on you,
You’ll get the chance to put the knife in”
The Division Bell
The last studio album proper from Pink Floyd is one of their finest and much underrated. The Division Bell – recorded free of the legal stress and pressure of A Momentary Lapse.. is closer to the classic Floyd sound since anything pre-Animals, perhaps in part as some of Richard Wright’s vintage organs and instruments were hauled out from storage for use and, more likely, as the music was born out of long improvised jam sessions between the then three members of the band. With the exception of ‘Take it Back’ (tellingly the only song with music written with outside assist) there’s not a duff track on here.
I also seem to recall reading that at some point, with the road behind them, Gilmour approached Waters with the idea of his taking part on what he, rightly, believed would be the final Pink Floyd album. Waters’ response is the inspiration for the line in ‘Lost for Words’:
Wish You Were Here
Ok, look at that track list: ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ in all it’s spectacular parts, ‘Have A Cigar’, ‘Wish You Were Here’… perfection. I’m not a huge fan of ‘Welcome to the Machine’ but I’ll take it over a thousand other songs any day. Much has been said of the appearance of Syd Barrett – shaven of eyebrows and hair and overweight – and none can agree if it really was while ‘Shine On..’ was being recorded.
Apparently Gilmour didn’t sing the vocals on ‘Have a Cigar’ because he couldn’t get on the same page as Waters’ anger at the music business…. the start of many a disagreement… so Roy Harper gladly volunteered. He told Roger at the time he’d take a lifetime season ticket to Lords which, despite his prompting, he never received. At one point years later he suggested that, based on the album’s success, he’d settle for (I think) £30k. He never got it, Roger was long gone up his own rectum by then.
The Dark Side of the Moon
It would be impossible for this to not be at number one. It would be impossible to sum this up sufficiently in a short manner too. This album has never failed to hold me and move me since I first heard it so many years ago.
Their most accessible concept – no anger or political ranting. It’s about the fears, worries and process of life. The band are at their peak in terms of songwriting and playing. Every decision made in terms of the sounds, the mix, the samples, even the fucking cover… is absolutely spot on. From Wright switching from the use of organ live to piano for the recording of ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’, to Gilmour winning out on having the voice recordings lower in the mix (Roger Waters took it upon himself to interview as many people as he could find and record their answers to a series of questions such as ‘when were you last violent?’ – the McCartney’s were recording in the same studio but their forced attempts at ‘funny’ answers failed to make the cut) and the choice of those voices. From the heartbeat that starts and ends the album to the beautiful interplay of lyrics about suddenly finding yourself ‘one day to closer to death’ and war ‘forward he cried, from the rear, and the front rank died’ to the dark, decidedly British, humour that keeps it on the right side up – I fucking love this album.
*In that you could try and say it isn’t but you’d have no leg to stand on.
**Well, three of them anyway – Nick Mason and Rick Wright being from Birmingham and Essex respectively but you get the idea.
***Upcoming blog on my preferred music biogs / reads