Remember when you were young? You were probably listening to Floyd back then. And chances are, it was Dark Side of the Moon. If you’re my age, you were just entering high school or finishing middle school when they released their anti-establishment anthem “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.” Who among us since 1980 didn’t go tramping through the halls of our school singing “We don’t need no education…” If you had Mr. Rickel’s advanced math class, maybe one of us should have shouted “Hey! Teacher! Leave that kid alone!”
Such was Pink Floyd, they of the long, meandering concept albums. As I grew into adulthood, they formed a major part of my personal soundtrack. A friend of mine once told me that you never really get sick of Dark Side of the Moon, and he was right. At least for him and me. I go long periods of time without hearing it, yet it’s always a new experience when I come back to it.
Floyd had four distinct periods. The first was their formative years when the band centered around the mad genius that was Syd Barrett. Barrett had an amazing gift for lyrical turns that made him the face of this new psychedelic band. Charismatic, mysterious, and just a bit scary, Barrett personally turned Pink Floyd from a London club curiosity to a force to be reckoned with. Sadly, though, bad habits combined with Barrett’s odd mind – even his sister isn’t really sure if Barrett was insane or just different – to send him spiraling out of control. The band brought in Barrett’s childhood friend David Gilmour to shore things up when Barrett would go catatonic or wander off stage. Then they ousted Barrett.
For Barrett, it was just as well. When the money originally ran out, he left London for Cambridge and settled down to a quiet and, by all reliable accounts, a rather normal life, annoyed mainly by the odd journalist and his inability to master home improvement. The band made sure money came to him, and Syd was able to devote his time to bad carpentry, great art, and listening to jazz.
Which brings us to the band’s second phase. After flailing about for a couple of years, they settled into a routine where Roger Waters handled all the lyrics, and the band was a tight unit with three vocalists. It is from this era their greatest work emerges. You see the beginnings of it on 1971’s Meddle, with their long and meandering “Echoes,” a vocal tour de force for keyboardist Rick Wright. But it’s the twin threat of Dark Side and Wish You Were Here (about Syd Barrett, no less) that cements Floyd’s legacy. If they only recorded these two albums and broke up, their status as rock gods would be sealed. What makes this era so special is the band is a true band here. Waters is a very provocative lyricist (“The lunatics are in my head/You raise the blade/And make the change/You rearrange me ’til I’m sane,” “The band is just fantastic/That is really what I think/Oh, by the way/Which one’s Pink?”) He’s also a helluva bass player. No one puts more Gilmour than Gilmour through the guitar, which is why, to this day, he remains my favorite rock guitarist of all time. Both Gilmour and Wright supplied soulful vocal counterpoints to Waters dramatic voice. As for drums, Nick Mason was and is more style than thunder. If you listen to the early Floyd, you know he’s more than capable of giving Keith Moon a run for his money, but it’s that swing style, tempered for Floyd’s music, that really glues the whole works together.
After 1977’s Animals, though, we move into the angry Roger Waters Reign o’ Terror. Waters was a man driven. He would stop at nothing to make The Wall, even firing Wright and putting him on salary for the subsequent tour. (Wright, ironically, was the only member of Floyd to turn a profit during The Wall tour.) Waters left nothing to subtlety: He was an admitted ass, as portrayed in the character of Pink; he hates capitalists, the British education system, any and all wars, and probably you, too. Waters tight control over Pink Floyd was so rigid that the band barely existed by the time they released 1983’s The Final Cut, a long, bitter antiwar rant that is more Waters solo album than Pink Floyd.
Several arguments and a few lawsuits later, Wright returned to a Water-less Floyd as it entered its final era under David Gilmour’s leadership. It’s on A Momentary Lapse of Reason where Pink Floyd starts sounding like Pink Floyd again. Yes, there’s something missing with Waters no longer writing or performing with Floyd (and off on his own throwing rocks at the band for not disbanding without him.) But Momentary, more a Gilmour solo album than a Floyd album, was written with Wright and Mason in mind. I saw them perform in 1988, and it was great to have Wright singing and providing his unique keyboard style to the band again. While Floyd is not the happiest band to listen to, after two really dark Waters epics, it was good not to hear them so heavy handed. In 1994, they did The Division Bell, a more solid effort featuring work by all three remaining members. It kicks off with “What Do You Want From Me.” If it sounds like “Have a Cigar,” lyrically it’s the bookend to the previous song. I’ve always wanted to hear them splice the two songs together. It would be a very dramatic mashup. But it’s “High Hopes,” with its elegiac, almost regretful tone that signals the end of the band.
Waters eventually patched things up with his bandmates and occasionally performs with them. But with Barrett emphatically out of music (and besides, he passed away in 2006), and Rick Wright no longer with us, it’s very unlikely we’ll hear anything from Floyd again. Gilmour says he can’t handle the massive touring machine such a reunion would require, and Waters is content to stage his elaborate epics, including much-improved live versions of The Wall. Mason, for his part, is more of a motor sports enthusiast these days than a drummer, owning a racing team and writing for a number of racing publications in Britain.
In way, it’s too bad, because The Division Bell seemed to leave the band’s canon unfinished. Then again, like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin before them, it’s probably best they bowed out when they did. They left almost twenty hours of studio work, more than most bands at that level (the Stones, even with a slower output in recent years, are a notable exception.)
And damn, but you haven’t lived until you’ve listened to Dark Side of the Moon during a lunar eclipse.