Entry updated 28 June 2019. Tagged: Music.
Prodigiously successful and influential UK supergroup, founded in the mid 1960s by bassist Roger Waters (1943- ), drummer Nick Mason (1944- ), keyboard player Rick Wright (1943-2008) and eccentric singer-guitarist Syd Barrett (1946-2006). This first incarnation of the band (identified by fans as "The Syd Barrett years") was characterized by a series of notable psychedelic and often drug-influenced live performances, mostly jazz-influenced rock improvisations. The group's debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) captures this "happening" quality of early Floyd well, with several lengthy "space rock" tracks of considerable genre interest, particularly the Barrett compositions "Astronomy Domine" and "Interstellar Overdrive". The title track of the band's second album, A Saucerful of Secrets (1968), an eleven-minute instrumental jam, similarly construes a psychedelic form of science fiction: the "saucer" in question being a UFO ("U.F.O." was the name of one of the London venues at which Pink Floyd played). This album also contains the more controlled and evocative "Set The Controls for the Heart of the Sun", a Waters-composed hymn to space-travel nirvana. It was during the recording of this album that Barrett's increasingly erratic behaviour shaded into a mental collapse, something perhaps exacerbated by drug-use, and which permanently deteriorated his ability to function as a musician. The band replaced Barrett with guitarist and vocalist David Gilmour (1946- ).
With Barrett's departure, Waters and Gilmour, two figures rather different both to Barrett and to one another, became the main creative figures in the band, and the Pink Floyd style underwent a radical change. Gilmour's expressive, lyrical musicality balanced the often rebarbative gloom and disillusionment of Waters' creative imagination. The tension between these two figures always ran the risk of fracturing the group's work, although at best the two styles fused into something very distinctive and effective. The first post-Barrett release, Atom Heart Mother (1970), is especially notable for its 20-minute title track, an oblique dramatization of motherhood premised on the image of a pregnant woman with a nuclear-powered pacemaker (Waters claimed to have come across this story in a newspaper). Meddle (1971) has a more cohesive, scaled-down and pastoral feel to it, symptomatic of a group increasingly distancing themselves from their psychedelic origins. Obscured by Clouds (1972), a soundtrack album, includes a four-minute adaptation of Arthur C Clarke's Childhood's End (April 1950 Famous Fantastic Mysteries as "Guardian Angel"; much exp 1953; rev 1990) composed by Gilmour. None of these albums proved excessively successful in commercial terms, and Pink Floyd at this stage in their career were nothing more than a proficient, middle-ranking rock group.
This state of affairs, however, changed with their next release: The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), one of the bestselling albums in the history of recorded music and a staple of 1970s popular prog-rock. Against a series of attractively varied and atmospheric musical textures the album's lyrics (all written by Waters) use space and time as metaphors for mental breakdown, something evidently influenced by the circumstances of Barrett's departure from the group. It is generally regarded, and rightly, as the band's high water mark. Barrett's mental collapse was also the inspiration for the next album, Wish You Were Here (1975), psychological disintegration being here inflected through the group's experience of sudden and worldwide celebrity, something Waters (now the dominant figure in the group) evidently did not enjoy. Animals (1977), a less artistically successful work, attempts Swiftian or Orwellian satire by troping humans as pigs, dogs and sheep.
Waters' sour experience of the music industry, various autobiographical elements and, again, memories of Barrett's mental breakdown all fed into the double-album The Wall (1979), more rock-opera than concept album and a significant if rather adolescent example of 1970s Dystopia. A pop star, "Pink", slides into schizophrenia as his world is walled about and a phantasmagorically horrific neofascist state, taking the rock concert as its paradigm, develops. Though sometimes gauche, The Wall remains one of the most important dystopias of its decade; in its best moments it is a powerfully expressive and haunting text. The dystopian theme continued in The Final Cut (1983), in which the world is viewed from a satiric anti-war perspective that seems to take grim satisfaction in the nuclear apocalypse with which the album ends. Harsh and musically rather strangulated, it is an album that manifests the ongoing collapse of the organization that produced it. Tensions in the group now forced out Waters, seen by his bandmates as too domineering. In reaction an angry Waters declared the group officially dissolved in 1985. But the other members continued to record, the incoherent A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987) and the slickly empty The Division Bell (1994) following. The title of this last album was chosen by Douglas Adams, a friend of Gilmour's; there are various references to Pink Floyd in The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Floyd explored and popularized two distinctive but quite different modes of musical sf: the expansive and rather charming "space rock" of the Barrett years, open-ended, idiosyncratic and very 1960s. The Waters-dominated period, on the other hand, saw a detailed musical excavation of notions of dystopia, a project whose unremitting nature makes the band's enormous 1970s commercial success all the more remarkable. The secret of that success, and the continuing worth of Pink Floyd's music, lies in its ability to channel genuinely affecting emotional content through its repressed and pessimistic surface structures. Though they haven't recorded anything for over a decade, and haven't recorded anything worthwhile for nearly three, Pink Floyd remain enormously popular and influential. [AR]
- The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (UK Columbia EMI/US Capitol, 1967)
- A Saucerful of Secrets (UK Columbia EMI/US Capitol, 1968)
- Ummagumma (UK Harvest, US Harvest/Capitol 1969)
- Atom Heart Mother (UK Harvest, US Harvest/Capitol, 1970)
- Meddle (UK Harvest, US Harvest/Capitol, 1971)
- Obscured by Clouds (UK Harvest, US Harvest/Capitol, 1972)
- The Dark Side of the Moon (UK Harvest, US Capitol, 1973)
- Wish You Were Here (UK Harvest, US Columbia, 1975)
- Animals (UK Harvest, US Columbia, 1977)
- The Wall (UK Harvest, US Columbia, 1979)
- The Final Cut (UK Harvest, US Columbia, 1983)
- A Momentary Lapse of Reason (UK EMI, US Columbia, 1987)
- The Division Bell (UK EMI, US Columbia, 1994)
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