Pink Floyd: The Endless River

Pink Floyd: The Endless RiverThe Endless River

Pink Floyd

If David Gilmore is to be believed, this is the end of Pink Floyd. And what an end it is. Some of it ambient. Some of it loud and psychedelic. All of it Floyd in a way A Momentary Lapse of Reason tried to be in 1987.

This album is Floyd more in how it differs from previous work than how similar it is. In the late 1960s, the band tried an album of long-form suites called Umma Gumma in the wake of Syd Barrett’s breakdown and departure. Ironically, Barrett’s solo work proved to be more coherent and interesting, but then the remaining four Floyds still did not know what Pink Floyd was without their eccentric front man. Building on work left over from The Division Bell and around the late Rick Wright’s keyboard work, David Gilmore and Nick Mason revisit the Umma Gumma concept to tell the story, mostly without lyrics, of a band called Pink Floyd. There have been Syd Barrett albums by Floyd and Roger Waters albums and David Gilmore albums, all with Nick Mason weaving some of the sonic flourishes through it from Meddle on until now. There has never really been a Rick Wright album. As “Side 1” (really, the first three pieces) shows, Wish You Were Here came closest. There are keyboard phrases that hearken back to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” really Wright’s greatest performance with Floyd.

“Side 2,” or the second trio of songs, goes all the way back to the Barrett era and Atom Heart Mother and makes one wonder if Waters sat in listening to the finished recording splitting some herb with his former bandmates. My first thought on hearing the album was that Barrett was actually louder on this album than Wright, and Wright’s fingerprints are all over this, six years after his death and 44 years after Barrett recorded his last note.

Even Waters is present in the bass work, some of which is played by Wright’s son-in-law and Gilmore-era bassist Guy Pratt. Instead of pretending he quit the band in a fit of rage, Gilmore and Mason are telling his part of the story. In interviews, Waters is gracious about his absence. Whereas he once railed against the Gilmore/Wright version of Floyd as a fraud, he simply laughs and says, “I left Pink Floyd in 1985.” (Though he and Mason have voiced a desire for one last bow following the 2005 Live 8 performance.)

Many have said it stopped being Floyd when Waters quit in 1985. He, Gilmore, and Mason would disagree. Since his death in 2008, the trio has acknowledged that Wright was the actual essential member. 1983’s Wright-less The Final Cut was essentially a Waters solo album. 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason was written with the idea bringing Wright back, but lacked something that did not bring back all the fans. The Division Bell saw a return to the thematic and musical coherence of albums from Dark Side of the Moon through Animals, but ultimately left many Floyd fans unsatisfied.

The Endless River acknowledges all that was Pink Floyd in all its many incarnations. It’s not a radio-friendly album, and maybe that’s why this coda may be one of the band’s best efforts. It’s all Floyd in 53 minutes that quotes the past without being derivative of it.

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Keyboards?

Chimp playing piano

Photo: Mr. Bunndini, flagged for reuse.

Let’s be honest. We kid about the bass player getting no respect, but tell me who got more groupies. John Entwistle? Or Rick Wakeman? OK, Rick’s had four heart attacks before he reached 30, so bad example. But still, the keyboard player in rock gets no respect. Oh, we point at the real standouts – Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Deep Purple’s Jon Lord – but do you remember the ones who didn’t play some other instrument? Or sang lead?

Rock is a guitar-based genre, in love with its lead vocalists, enraptured by its drummers, and grudgingly dependent on its bass players. Keyboards? More often than not an afterthought. Prog rockers give the keyboards their due. But then keyboards encompass piano, Hammond organ, and all manner of synthesizer from the early mellotrons to today’s digital jobs.

Consider the Foo Fighters, however. There are a handful of songs with keyboards. Who plays for them? Taylor Hawkins, the drummer, and Dave Grohl, the lead singer and rhythm guitarist. Hmm… Deep Purple had the late, great Jon Lord, but Lord handpicked a man you’ve probably heard but never heard of: Don Airey of Rainbow, Whitesnake, Black Sabbath, and a dozen other acts. Go back to the sixties, when modern rock was defined. John Lennon was The Beatles’ main keyboard player, but most people’s image of him is with a guitar in hand. The Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, canned their keyboard player, the late, great Ian Stewart, over the band’s objections. Mick and Keith made their position known when the Rolling Stones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Stewart went in with them, no less in stature than other former members, Mick Taylor and Brian Jones. (Bill Wyman was still a Stone at that point.)

I suppose this goes all the way back to the fifties and the dawn of rock and roll. In the beginning, you had Elvis and Johnny Cash. But they were lamenting that they would forever stand in the shadow of their buddy, Jerry Lee Lewis. Jerry Lee did to the piano what Jimi Hendrix would do the the guitar over a decade later. He raped it. Unfortunately for him, most people also thought he was guilty of statutory rape by marrying his 13-year-old first cousin (a lot more common in the South in those days than you might think). Elvis and Johnny strummed guitars. Johnny would endure, but Elvis would fill Jerry Lee’s void and eclipse everyone else. The piano got shoved to the side of the stage in favor of men with six-strings and charismatic lead singers.

Even when you get into progressive rock, the keyboard player is disrespected. Yes, one of the most keyboard-heavy prog bands in history, has had six of them, compared to three guitarists, two drummers, and the same bass player since 1967. Even the lead singer position, two since Jon Anderson retired due to illness, remained unchanged except for one year in the early eighties. Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, which is almost all keyboard, is really nothing without Greg Lake out front. Beyond the core of true believers, it’s Lake’s angelic voice, not Emerson having a threesome with a pipe organ and a Moog synthesizer, that drew in more fans. Never mind King Crimson, which chucked keyboards altogether in the early 1970’s. If someone needed to play them from 1973 on, Robert Fripp would play them. Otherwise, the violin, the sax, or Adrian Belew’s guitar acrobatics could fill the void.

Which is too bad because keyboards make for some of the most interesting moments in rock history. Maybe it’s because, while most of us look at the guitar as a mystery, know we can’t carry a tune without the aid of a shower, and know we’d sound like a war zone trying to play drums, we’ve all managed to bang out a few notes on a piano. Therefore, it’s somehow easier and, therefore, not as worthy. But there are some keyboard players whose work cannot be denied.

RICK WRIGHT – PINK FLOYD

Rick Wright

Photo: VANA, used under Creative Commons

Not only did Wright’s voice define three different versions of Pink Floyd, but his keyboard work did, too. From Meddle through The Wall, Wright’s sound is a critical component to the Floyd sound. He was gone on The Final Cut, and you can really tell. Wright is one of those quiet members, like John Entwistle or John Paul Jones, whose absence does far more damage to a band than more charismatic members. David Gilmour wrote and arranged A Momentary Lapse of Reason with Wright in mind while he and Nick Mason worked to bring him back into Floyd. Roger Waters says (shockingly) that it’s no longer Pink Floyd without Gilmour (a surprising admission about his one-time mortal enemy), but Gilmour says Pink Floyd ceased to exist the day Rick Wright died. I have to agree.

ELTON JOHN

Elton John

Photo: Ernst Vikne, used under Creative Commons

England’s only diva might be regarded more as a singer and a songwriter, but consider what the man has done on the piano. The former Reginald Dwight might have made a decent guitarist, but it would have detracted from his persona and his charisma. No, Elton John needed to be what he became: The bastard child of Jerry Lee Lewis and Liberace. Just listen to those ivories when he plays.

BILLY PRESTON

Billy Preston

The fifth Beatle and the sixth Rolling Stone, one of only two men who could succeed (but never replace) Ian Stewart. (The other was Nicky Hopkins, who, like Stewart, also provided keys for Led Zeppelin.) Preston is one of the great unsung heroes of rock. Had Paul McCartney not been so disenchanted with The Beatles in 1969, Preston would have been added to the band. During his tenure with the Stones, Mick, Keith, and Charlie were actually in awe of him, not bad for an American working with a bunch of Delta blues-obsessed Brits.

THOMAS DOLBY

Thomas Dolby

Photo: Erik Charlton, used under Creative Commons

The eighties were supposed to be the end of guitar as rock’s dominant instrument. (And then the hair metal bands exploded out of LA. How’d that work out for you, new wavers?) Rock needed a keyboard player who could be as flamboyant and as Jimmy Page. Enter Dolby, blinded by science and shooting pool with a croquet set alongside Magnus Pye, science guy. Dolby could be playful (“She Blinded Me With Science”), disturbing (“Hyperactive”), and silly (Aliens Ate My Buick). But Dolby was no new wave snob, having added synth to Foreigner, among others. He also was and is a technical genius, having created one of the early methods for creating ringtones. So, if your annoying coworker has his phone blare “Science!” whenever he gets a text, you can blame Dolby for more than just the source material.

BILLY JOEL

Billy Joel

Photo: Joel Shankbone, used under Creative Commons

The Piano Man. The Steinway is integral to Billy Joel’s sound, even when it’s not. The most synthesized Joel song ever is “Pressure,” and Joel plays it not like a fake orchestra or a Hammond organ on steroids. It sounds like a piano. Everything this man writes and sings comes off the piano. It’s not only fundamental to his identity, it’s fundamental to his sound.

Great Gig In The Sky

Pink Floyd has announced that founding member and keyboardist Rick Wright has died at the age of 65 after a short battle with cancer.

Wright was one of those musicians whose presence you miss as soon as they leave a band.  Anyone listening to Floyd’s 1983 effort, The Final Cut, can hear the band is not firing on all cylinders.  And while missing the powerful and dramatic presence of Roger Waters in the late 1980’s through the 1990’s, Floyd sounded like its old self with Wright back behind his Hammond B3.  Plus Wright was one of the first members of Floyd to reconcile with Waters in the early 2000’s.

First Syd Barrett, and now Rick Wright.

Nobody knows where you are…