So You've Decided To Get Into Pink Floyd
There are many understandable reasons you might think you can’t be bothered to get into Pink Floyd in 2020.
For one thing, they seem like miserable old gits. Roger Waters and David Gilmour have been sniping at each other for years, constantly badmouthing one another like the Gallagher brothers of dad rock. Just the other week Waters complained that Gilmour had apparently locked him out of the band’s website, demonstrating that even ‘elder statesman of rock’ can be upset by the most childish of quarrels.
There is also an awful lot of Pink Floyd material out there that you can listen to. Even now, 55 years after the band formed, the band are finding forgotten rarities to highlight on their specially curated playlist, the catchily named Syd, Roger, Richard, Nick and David: An Evolving Pink Floyd Playlist.
Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of being subjected to some pretentious arsehole playing his dad’s heavyset, vinyl copy of ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ at the next house party you get to go to, constantly interrupting the bassline to ‘Money’ to shout something about lossless audio, if someone would just explain what you need to know to get started yourself?
That would be a fine thing indeed, my friend.
First up, let’s get one thing out of the way. Not all Pink Floyd’s music sounds like ‘Comfortably Numb’. There are five distinct periods with their own flavour. If one isn’t for you, don’t let that stop you dipping your toe in the next!
Before you know it, you might be that arsehole at the party showing off your lossless audio with your own favourite Pink Floyd record.
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'The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn' / (the Syd Barrett era)
Much like the surreal Wind In The Willows chapter it gets its name from (in which Mole and Ratty encounter the god Pan while out looking for a lost otter cub), listening to 'The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn' feels like catching a glimpse of the divine.
For a brief time, before his increasingly high-dosage experiments with LSD eroded his personality, Sydney Barrett was the leading light of London’s blooming psychedelic scene. Flanked by bassist Roger Waters, keyboardist Richard Wright and drummer Nick Mason, Barrett pushed Pink Floyd Mk1 past the hazy, eastern-tinged experimentalism of acts like The Byrds and The Pretty Reckless onto a new and altogether more unhinged plane of sonic invention.
Barrett’s trippy compositions balance on a knife’s edge, as though at any moment their cheery demeanour might topple into darkness. Songs like ‘Scarecrow’ and ‘Lucifer Sam’ channel the bright, nonsensical approach of English children’s writers like Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, but beneath them yawns an abyss. This inviting sense of menace is something the band would spend the rest of their career trying to recapture once Barrett’s shaking fingers left the helm.
In an age where psychedelia can be so smooth, it’s good to be reminded how jagged it once was.
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'Obscured By Clouds' (the soundtrack era)
Due to his increasingly erratic behaviour on tour (playing one note for entire shows, staying intensely silent in interviews, writing unlearnable, ever-changing songs), Barrett was gradually replaced on guitar by his old schoolfriend David Gilmour, resulting in the band’s regretful expulsion of their former leader and the solidification of the ‘classic’ Pink Floyd line-up.
Without a singular vision to follow, the newly collaborative outfit released a couple of experimentally structured records before finding their groove. ‘Ummagumma’ and ‘Atom Heart Mother’ were Outkast-esque exercises in songwriting democracy, each including solo pieces composed by each band member.
It was on their less overthought soundtrack work at this time that Pink Floyd Mk2 started to really gel as a unit. Nowhere is this unity clearer than on their music accompaniment to French film La Vallée, which they insisted on calling ‘Obscured By Clouds’ after falling out with the film company (there is an awful lot of falling out in the Pink Floyd story).
Not only a forgotten gem of genius, ‘Clouds’ is possibly the most peaceful and inviting record the band ever wrote. Gently plucked acoustic guitars weave around bubbling organs, occasionally parting to allow Gilmour’s piercing solos to soar upwards. Pink Floyd was, for now, something greater than the sum of its parts.
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'Wish You Were Here' (the classic era)
Despite a decade-spanning career and daunting discography, there are only three full Pink Floyd albums you could honestly say sound like Pink Floyd. 1971’s ‘Meddle’, 1973’s ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ and 1975’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ all have that signature blend of space-age synths, cutting-edge sampling and mind-bending guitar pedal wizardry, topped off with those unnervingly indistinguishable, almost characterless harmonies from Rogers/Gilmour/Wright.
With all their egos in perfect balance, it’s no wonder that a few distinctly un-hip industry types assumed that Pink Floyd was one guy rather than four. The last of these records is the band’s true magnum opus, a glorious summation of everything they had learnt up until that point.
In turn triumphant, furious and sad, much of ‘Wish You Were Here’ functions as a tribute to both the fully-withdrawn Barratt and the band’s younger, more innocent selves. Already one of the biggest bands in the world yet pathologically unable to appreciate it, this album saw them railing against the music industry with same seething anger that would take over the whole project on subsequent releases.
Here, however, it is balanced out by a bittersweet gravitas as the band succeed in firing on all cylinders at once.
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'Animals' (the Roger Waters era)
Though the punks of 1977 might have claimed to be everything Pink Floyd weren’t, casting them as a pretentious, hippie-dippy relic of a bygone age, in very few of them managed to release an album as furiously anti-establishmentarian as ‘Animals’. Roger Waters was already a deeply angry man who wanted nothing more than to rage against his fellow man, and getting into the fiction of George Orwell didn’t help matters much.
Ironically, considering the subject matter he was drawing from, it was at this time Waters became something of a band dictator. Most tracks on this and the two following records were completely written and sung by him, the balance of power that had endured since Barratt’s departure shifting irreparably.
This tension at the heart of ‘Animals’, Waters seizing control to sing about the evil of ceding control, makes for a gripping listen. While the album might consist of just three long songs, it’s probably the tautest, most fancy-free release of their career.
The silky vocal interplay of the band’s classic run is jettisoned in favour of Waters’ full-throated bark, which perfectly suits the subject matter of man’s animalistic side he explores here with nary a shred of self-awareness.
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'The Endless River' (The David Gilmour Era)
Under Waters’ reign of terror Pink Floyd’s music became evermore bloated and miserable, his bandmates increasingly relegated to the role of session musicians (quite literally in Richard Wright’s case, for a time). After 1983’s turgid ‘The Final Cut’ he finally quit, assuming that would mean the end for Pink Floyd. The rest of the band begged to differ. With Gilmour as de facto frontman, the band continued to release albums and tour until 1994.
While the loss of Waters meant a return to the more atmospheric, spacey vibe of their past, Gilmour’s own ambitions bled into his songwriting, his love of gospel choirs and cheesy ballads turning the band into a more psychedelic U2. The material from this period now sounds more dated than anything from before and, after Wright’s death in 2008, it was assumed would stand as the final chapter in the Pink Floyd story.
Until 2011, that is, when Gilmour shocked the world by releasing a new Floyd album consisting of a huge wealth of old instrumental material he recorded with Mason and Wright. Shorn of Gilmour’s worst impulses, ‘The Endless River’ is a tribute to Wright and the joy Pink Floyd had playing together, a glorious, sci-fi tapestry that captures all the best aspects of the band’s twilight years.
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Words: Josh Gray
Photo Credit: Storm Thorgerson
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