The Initial Position
Alright, how do you start with one of the most iconic and influential groups of all time? Of course, I know Pink Floyd – the name – and some of their iconic imagery. You can’t work in pop culture without stumbling upon Dark Side Of The Moon at least once. I remember I actually listened to the album before and I enjoyed it although it was more playing in the background back then. Of course I know a few of their bigger hits – Comfortably Numb (famously introduced via Scissor Sisters back in 2004), Wish You Were Here (famously introduced to me by an almost forgotten Wyclef Jean cover from the early 2000s) and Another Brick In The Wall (famously introduced to me by every freakin’ radio station of my childhood. I also listened to the band’s final album – 2014’s The Endless River – as I was covering it for NBHAP’s news section back then. But that isn’t really considered their coolest work, I think. So, I know there are a few key records – mostly Dark Side Of The Moon and The Wall – and I know Roger Waters and David Gilmour are the driving forces of the band but also fell apart years ago which ultimately lead to a decline in the band’s qualities and their split. They also did spectacular live shows back then and I know drugs are almost mandatory to enjoy their music. Well, at least it’s benefiting from it. That point might not be easy in quarantine so I have to stick with coffee for now. But I’m fascinated by groups who had such a huge impact on popular culture. So, yes this might be more challenging than the Radiohead one but I’m more than happy to accept the challenge.
Day 1 – … and my head is already buzzing
Okay, so there are multiple ways on how to get started here. People recommended me different ways of getting started on Pink Floyd. The 1972 Live At Pompeii film was a tip from multiple sources, including my own father but that already happened a few years into their career so I decided to head for the old-fashioned way and to start with the 1967’s debut album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (which was also recommended to me as a good initial record). It became quite a challenge but well – that’s why I called it’s called this way, right? I hear organs, strange vocal samples, krautrocking and spooky guitar solos and songs that feel like they’ve been directly recorded during a jam session. Pink Floyd aren’t interested in conventional song structures, that much is for sure. The album’s got an ‘anything goes’ spirit and that apparently also includes songs about gnomes and a track like Matilda Mother which can’t shake off certain medieval influences. The lyrics are cryptic LSD-nonsense, it appears. Flaming is a prime example here. ‘Sitting on the unicorn’? Alright, guys. The imitated weird animal noises on this one doesn’t help here either. On Pow R. Toc. H they also unleash wild monkey screams on a chaotic and wild foundation. Interstellar Overdrive is the 9-minute long heart and soul of this record (if such a thing exists) and boi, I find it utterly hard to get through it. It’s freed from any guideline and that’s something I better get used to quickly when it comes to Pink Floyd. However, I find this one tough, disturbing and unpleasant and I decided to immediately switch to the next one.
1968’s follow-up A Saucerful Of Secrets obviously follows a similar pattern. The chaos is still omnipresent but I start to get used to it. On the other hand Pink Floyd appear to bring a bit more order to the chaos. This track called Corporal Clegg feels like a dark-twisted brother to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. That’s a pretty direct hint and they also mention lucy in the sky on another track. So apparently back then they were out to win the ‘Which band is more far out’ challenge against the lads from Liverpool. Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun is the first track I actually like, maybe because it’s a bit less noisy and showed more signs of ambient music. The title-track is an eleven-minute long adventure that brings back all the noisy chaos but the three final minutes of it are actually pretty stunning (again: because less is more here). Funnily enough See-Saw and Jugband Blues are more conventional tunes and feel like another nod to Sgt. Pepper. But maybe that was just a thing in the late 60s. Apparently I don’t know a lot of music from that era. Thinking about skipping the next ones. I’m undecided yet. For now my head is simply buzzing.
Day 2 – Pompeii and chill
So, as these first more progressive rock sounding records proved to be a challenge I decided to break the chronological concept and head for a more visual one. That seems fitting as I always considered Pink Floyd to be a very visual group. Like I mentioned before a few people recommended me the 1972 film Live At Pompeii which was released shortly before the ground-breaking Dark Side Of The Moon so I decided to give it a go for Saturday isolation movie night. The film also features a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ footage from the group’s recording sessions at Abbey Road Studios. Most of the time it shows them eating in the canteen and already hinting on the fights their big artistic egos will cause in the future. But the heart of soul of this flick is the band’s cinematic performance at the old Roman amphitheatre in Pompeii which shows them go full Floyd mode. There’s countless solos, experiments, a huge Gong and even dogs barking into the microphone. In-between they perform selected tracks from their previous albums and mix the performance shots with footage from the force of nature, including erupting volcanoes. So, yes, things are getting biblical here and the music actually benefits from the footage, in my opinion. It’s a very crafty and intense connection these lads got with their music. They are pushing themselves and their instruments to extremes. This forced experimental approach was maybe also a result of this time. And no, I’m not just talking about the drugs but also all these new effect machines and the rise of synthesizers which shifted the possibilities of music making music into unknown territory. A film like this gives us the chance to observe this exploration.
Day 3 – Taking off
Okay, where to go form here? Instead of going back to where I left and moving forward to Dark Side Of The Moon I first head for a stopover at 1971’s Meddle as I somewhere read that it is the transitional album where Pink Floyd moved away from their progressive rock roots and more towards complex and atmospheric art rock. One Of These Days – which I remember from the Pompeii film – is a prime example of noisy old Floyd while A Pillow Of Winds already leans towards this new direction. However, it appears to be a very indecisive record as well which obscure elements that appear to be part of this mainly because of the group’s experimental thirst. You’ll Never Walk Alone football choirs? Howling dogs? And what about a sunny little tune like San Tropez? A lot feels out of place on Meddle but the 23-minute long closing track Echoes – one of their more iconic tunes I was told – makes up for that. This intense rollercoaster ride is pretty much the sound I would associate with Pink Floyd. Still slightly too long if you ask me but who am I to judge, right?
So, next one is the infamous Dark Side Of The Moon album which I clearly remembered differently. I mean there are wonderful floating moments like Breathe and Us And Them on it which might had an effect on the famous ‘stoner album’ categorization but there’s also some heavy classic rock moments on it like Money. All in all it marks a huge shift for this band, compared to all the predecessors I listened to. It’s less chaotic, features more harmonies and an extended spectrum of elements like synthesizers, saxophone solos and also female background vocals. There’s still a few elements of experimental nature in there but even a song like Any Colour You Like feels quite ordered. Pink Floyd are clearly heading for ‘over the top’ territory with this one. I’m not quite sure what to make out of this album yet after its first spin so I might just give it a second one the following day.
Day 4 – This is where the fun begins
Time to spend another day on the Dark Side Of The Moon because complexity surely needs a bit time. So, I liked it actually better when giving it another spin. Wearing good headphones also helps to understand its complexity and appreciate certain aspects of its musical cosmos. The lovely symbioses between the Richard Wright’s piano and the female backing vocalists on The Great Gig In The Sky definitely catches my attention this time. I still don’t get the track Money that much but I really love Breathe by now. It’s an album that invites the listener to discover its different layers with every spin. The follow-up, 1975’s Wish You Were Here however steps up Pink Floyd‘s game even more. It’s only five songs but the whole album is still 44 minutes long and the whole frame with the 9-parted Shine On You Crazy Diamond (which starts and ends the album) is pretty impressive in terms of sound and vision. I’ve always been a fan of the Minimoog synthesizer sounds and when it appears in the opening moments of the album I actually got goosebumps. Well, we’ve come a long way from the Piper album, right?
Wish You Were Here feels more like the real deal for me, like the sound I connected to Pink Floyd. Epic songs, soundscapes, sonic structures and a certain feeling of spaced-out width dominate the album. And plenty of instrumental solos from all sorts of different elements. While I still s struggle with the guitar and saxophone ones I actually enjoyed the Minimoog one on Welcome To The Machine. Maybe because it reminds me of the sci-fiction soundtracks of these times, the Stranger Things soundtrack and M83. Well, obviously they all “stole” these ideas from Pink Floyd. Even the quite traditional Americana folk sound of the title-track feels fitting within the album concept. Maybe I got used to the fact that the band is up for wild genre switching. The songwriting however feels a bit more focussed here and I think this is the first Pink Floyd record I actually enjoy from start to finish.
And as I’m in a really good flow on this day I moved straight forward to 1977’s Animals LP. It’s a concept album that is focussed on the social-political conditions of late 1970s Britain, and you definitely hear that theme. It’s less fluffy and spaced-out, sounds dirtier and harsher than the last two predecessors. It feels like a return to earth for Pink Floyd, resulting in a more direct sound. The songs are still quite long except for the two parts of Pigs On The Wing which start and end the album and are actually my favourites here. I mean, it’s an okay album but I’m not really sure what to make out of it. Maybe that was just a bit too much Floyd for one day for me.
Day 5 – Waters vs. Gilmour
First reaction when I started streaming 1979’s The Wall? ‘Damn it, 26 tracks? Are you serious?’ Well, it’s a concept album after all, an ambitious one, to say the least, partly inspired by Roger Waters’ own childhood. It deals with trauma, emotional isolation, redemption and all that existential stuff. It was originally also envisioned as a theatrical play and you sense that in every bit. “Is this not what you expected to see?” ask Pink Floyd in the opening track In The Flesh? and no, I honestly didn’t expect this one. It continues the gritty notion of Animals and is less trippy then the albums from the Mid 70s which I enjoyed more. Instead it heads for glam rock territory and other fields. But I already learned something: Another Brick In The Wall is actually a three-parted piece and the second one is the hit single we all now. It’s a pretty funky track which might explain why it’s such a hit. Tracks like Nobody Home really feel like they are taken from a musical. And later on I learned that there’s also a film from 1982 which gives the record a proper visual companion piece and I should probably watch that in order to understand the album a bit better. I see where this is going and what Pink Floyd want to say with The Wall but it’s quite challenging for me. I don’t like theatrical glam rock whether it’s from Bowie or Queen, so needless to say I have a difficult time here. Comfortably Numb, however, is a pretty impressive masterpiece and by far my favourite on this album.
So, while The Wall was already a bit weird to me, the follow up is even weirder although I learned that both albums are somehow connected. 1983’s The Final Cut was originally planned as a soundtrack for the movie The Wall but then took a different turn when the Falkland war broke out and Roger Waters was really pissed with Margaret Thatcher and politics back then in general. Tensions were already rising high in the band back then as keyboarder Richard Wright was temporarily fired after The Wall and David Gilmour wasn’t really happy about Wright’s more political concept back then (and the fact that he didn’t get the chance to contribute as much to this album as he originally thought). So, it’s almost a Roger Waters solo album and also the final one he did with Pink Floyd. For most of the time it feels like a heavily outdated dull stadium rock album which might have a noble idea (of being an anti-war album) but which feels really out of place compared to the usual cosmos of this band. I mean, there are basically interesting ideas like using a cinematic choir on When The Tigers Broke Free but then again a track like Not Now John feels like a cringe-worthy Status Quo power rock track. I think the cracks are undeniable on this one and it’s no surprise that Waters left the band for good in the aftermath and continued to head for a more political album in the aftermath (including some questionable views). I spontaneously decided to never listen to The Final Cut ever again, give The Wall another spin later and be actually curious about the later Gilmour-driven years of the band.
Day 6 – Into the heart of cheesiness
On the second day The Wall isn’t as weird as it was on the first one. The song Mother even grows on me. Maybe it’s also due to the fact that I experienced The Final Cut which is way worse in every aspect, so I’m beginning to appreciate the storytelling of its predecessor a bit more. It’s still a bit of a challenge, you need to force yourself to carefully listen to the lyrics and follow its narrative. Then the concept makes sense, indeed but on the other hand it barely leaves room for your own interpretation and that’s something I always enjoy a bit more in music. The Wall is okay but my desire to experience it again is relatively low, I must say. So I’m taking a little step forward into the later years of the bands career, following the fallout with Roger Waters. 1987’s A Momentary Lapse Of Reason not only marked the return of keyboard wizard Richard Wright but also the return of the more atmospheric, Gilmour-driven Pink Floyd sound which makes sense, considering he’s now the only frontman left to run the ship. This whole album breathes the full spirit of the 80s to all extend. Expect huge drums, epic solos, countless layers, a more synthetic approach and an overall larger-than-life approach. With Waters gone it feels as if Gilmour had no intention in downsizing this band at all. The live shows of these later years must have been quite spectacular as well.
Tracks like The Dogs Of War and One Slip deliver epic show rock moments, always one step too close of becoming a caricature of itself. Just take a song like Yet Another Movie which delivers every 80s power ballad cliché you can think of. Those drums would even make Phil Collins jealous. Then there’s a sky-high guitar solo, countless chimes, bells, plenty of reverb on everything. The instrumental Terminal Frost is another prime example here. I must confess I enjoy this slightly slick stimulation overkill way more than the 60s progressive rock phase of the band, maybe because I’ve got a lifelong passion for pop music from the 1980s. There’s something really charming about this outdated pathos pop I must say and sorry, Pink Floyd purists, but I enjoy this a bit more than The Wall although the record can’t shake of the feeling of being a shallow 80s copycat of Dark Side Of The Moon.
Day 7 – Fading out
Moving on in the later phase of the band were the gaps between albums extend. Their only album of the 1990s, The Division Bell, is an even more cinematic continuation of the epic stadium rock that the predecessor delivered. ‘Sell your soul for complete control – is this really what you want?’ asks Gilmour at the beginning, before he takes this whole record into the stratosphere. I mean, even Stephen Hawking gets a cameo here. During that time the band was already a rock dinosaur and there’s tracks on their like Take It Back which really feel like the sort of Mid-90s dad rock all the young and aspiring grunge and indie rock bands fought against. The sound is sedate, overcharged and slightly pretentious to some degrees. But I think that’s the whole point of Pink Floyd, isn’t it? They aren’t your next door garage rock band, they present a sound that’s the opposite of ‘down to earth’. The songs on The Division Bell got their heads in the cloud and there’s no other way this mighty ambient rock monster can work. And it’s not without a certain charm, I must say. Especially the epic closing track High Hopes is a recall to Mid-70s strength here. Gilmour’s monumental reflection on nostalgia feels like a fitting closing chapter for the band (as the album was considered to be their final one for a long time). The magic still shines through in a song like this but it also sounds as if the whole machinery is slowly getting tired of its own existence.
So, the in many ways, the belated closing chapter – 2014’s The Endless River – feels like a fitting reprise for the band’s legacy. Following the death of Richard Wright in 2008 remaining Pink Floyd members David Gilmour and Nick Mason (minus Roger Waters for… well, reasons) revisited unused material they recorded for The Division Bell twenty years earlier and shaped new music around it, making it possible for Wright to appears posthumously. This holy album really feels like one final bow and a partly forced, yet honest and dignified final bow. The signature sounds are still all their, the spheric synths of Wright, the epic drum play of Mason and Gilmour’s indestructible love for guitar solos. But the words are missing, making it an almost instrumental album. Gilmour’s voice appears only once towards the end on Louder Than Words where he might even reflect a bit on the conflicts of the past. “We could curse it or nurse it and give it a name,” he states, probably giving Waters a little nod here as well. Their relationship got a bit better over the years I think but working together is obviously not an option anymore. I actually enjoyed The Endless River a lot and the lack of traditional song structures and lyrics is a plus here and it allows the special atmosphere to unfold its magic. Well, or maybe it’s because I enjoy ambient music a lot in general.
So, what do I make out of this week? Well, obviously it’s impossible to get an overall perspective on Pink Floyd‘s entire creative work in only seven days. I missed a few early recordings, all the live albums and countless album editions that were released over the past decades. The other day I learned that they’ve just released a new remixed edition of 1987’s A Momentary Lapse Of Reason album which features partly new instrumentation by members Nick Mason and Richard Wright who didn’t contribute as much back then as I thought they did. So, that’s the kind of band we’re talking about. Their legacy outshines the still active protagonists until now and they aren’t running away from it either. David Gilmour returned to Pompeii a few years ago, Roger Waters took The Wall on tour and drummer Nick Mason also formed a band, performing their earlier progressive work from the late 60s. Most of it, Pink Floyd are a historical, almost mythological, band, one that documents the high times of 70s rock megalomania. Many of things appear to be dull and quite normal in the year 2020 but back then they were pioneers on many levels. And with the exception of, let’s say, Another Brick In The Wall (Pt. 2.. as I learned) they didn’t actually have a proper hit single. Still, Dark Side Of The Moon is one of the most sold albums in pop history and over the years I noticed how many artists were inspired by the group. Especially for the art form of the album the ambitious concepts of The Wall and Dark Side Of The Moon shaped the idea on how to structure an album and the possibilities of its storytelling to a degree you can’t appreciate enough.
Still, personally, I’m not becoming a massive fan right now but this week helped me to understand the group a bit better. The early progressive rock phase is surely not my cup of tea. Spaced-Out Mid-70s Pink Floyd are my favourite Pink Floyd and Wish You Were Here surely remains my favourite record from that phase. Especially the cohesive atmosphere that allows your mind to simply drift away triggered something in me. The Wall and its precise storytelling is not really my thing either although I understand the thing Roger Waters wanted to achieve with it. I mean, these two extremes – Gilmour and Waters – they are fascinating to witness and if you can’t get hold of a good documentary just reading the band’s Wikipedia entry is entertaining enough. Waters obviously went a bit nuts over the past years so I’m more Team Gilmour, especially as he’s the expert on the more atmospheric moments in Pink Floyd‘s back catalogue. That’s why I even found joy in some if the cheesier moments of their later years, especially 1994’s The Division Bell. Pink Floyd are a monumental document of a different time when bands where allowed to be larger than life, spend a ridiculous amount of money and resources on releases and promotion and still managed to stick to their artistic vision. Yes, it might feel a bit like 20th century rock decadency but there’s so much more waiting for you to be discovered once you take your time. And that’s the best thing such a Lockdown Listening Challenge can do, right?
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