This is where I started this whole thing; the first couple of Floyd posts are me finding my feet and a structure which might work, the later ones are perhaps a little link-heavy, but on the whole I think it’s a reasonable introduction. As with so many of these, they are designed to be read while, or just after, listening to the album. As they were originally written in the context of a wider discussion, I didn’t add links to the music itself. Perhaps I’ll go back and do that later.
Following ‘The Endless River’, Gilmour and Waters continued to tour. There was a new Roger Waters album ‘Is This the Life we Really Want?’, and a new Gilmour live album and DVD called ‘Live at Pompeii’ – the story continues, even with both men in their seventies. You can’t help feeling that this can’t go on much longer, but many strange things have happened over the decades…
Once upon a time, there was a rock and roll band. They were just like any band of young men; eager for fame, fortune and the attention of girls, but they were extremely fortunate to have come into existence at one of the key moments of change in popular music; just as they were ditching the name The Tea Set in favour of something a bit more interesting, they discovered that they could extend their meagre repertoire of blues-based songs by stretching the solos out and improvising madly over them, and not only did the audience not object, some of them sat down, took mind-altering substances and actually listened.
In 1967, you could do anything you liked, and as long as you appeared proficient on your instruments and seemed to have a purpose to your noise, you could swing a lengthy record contract. You could grow your hair, ditch the suits, stare intently at the floor in search of inspiration, make music with hammers and nails, and you’d still have an audience. You could put out records about cross-dressing and get in the charts; you could make an album which was half psychedelic space rock and half mind-altered English whimsy, and people would buy it in their thousands.
Most importantly, in the late 1960s, you could take three years and five albums to find your feet, and your record company would stand by you; even – in their own way – encourage you. And when that happens, and you replace your erratic lead singer with someone who appears to be on the same page as the rest of you, then you really can go on to fame and fortune and all the other things you dreamed about.
None of the band meant for it to get as big as it did. You can argue that there was no real precedent for what happened to Pink Floyd – all the bands who came before them, and sold records in comporable quantities, were singles bands first; they blazed a trail, but they were household names, and they released singles; you could mess one of those up, and bounce back a few weeks later. If the only thing you did was make albums, and you had no public face, then you pretty much had to get it right every time. No wonder it all fell apart.
There’s a moment during ‘Echoes’ when you can hear it all clicking into place; following the slightly erratic middle section, the band gradually returns to the disciplined rhythm of the beginning, the sonar ping returns, followed by that metronomic bassline and – if you’re an impressionable teenager like me – you can feel yourself being lifted out of your seat by something quite unlike anything you’ve heard before. The music gets in your head and it blocks out all other thoughts, then it settles in for a long stay – forty-five years and counting, in my case. The remarkable thing about the music of Pink Floyd is that they did that trick over and over again; they managed to get you to go back to the earlier stuff and hear the seeds of it all; they kept producing new music and making your brain do the same trick, until one day you wake up and realise that the band you thought you were listening to is gone, and in its place is something cold and hard, which doesn’t sound much like the band you loved.
Yet it doesn’t matter – there’s something about even the caustic version of Pink Floyd which retains the magic; there are moments – fewer of them, perhaps, as time goes by – when you can still hear it all pull together and make something more than the sum of its parts.
When the band reached the end of the road, not all its members agreed. They had been through the most tumultuous experience it’s possible to imagine; had created music which will endure in the way the music of Bach or Mozart has endured, and it destroyed them. We shouldn’t be too harsh; there isn’t a manual on how to behave when these things happen, and musical genius doesn’t play by everyone else’s rules, in any case. What was left of the band limped on, produced sporadically interesting music, and finally bowed to the inevitable.
Once upon a time there was a rock and roll band. They weren’t very good at first, but they lived in a time of possibilities, and their possibilities led them into realms unimagined, even by the wildest of dreamers. Of course the journey took its toll; every journey worth the name does. If friendships were broken, and fortunes made and lost, it was in the cause of creating something immortal, and that had to be worth something. At the end of every good quest, the heroes get to take a bow, and be recognised for what they have achieved; and that, for people of my generation, was what the evening of July 2nd, 2005 was about. The greatest band of our generation; the one who created so many of the paths for others to follow, and so many of the indelible memories of our youth, were getting their moment to see just what it had all meant to us, and we, in turn had one last chance to express what we felt. It felt special because it was special – everyone has ‘their band’; the one which matters more to them than all the others, for a significant portion of the world, that band was Pink Floyd.
Throughout this journey, I have probably given a false impression. Pink Floyd aren’t that band for me; I have others I love more, and whose stories and music affect me more viscerally. But there’s something epic about the Floyd story; something irresistible about the way it all happened, and – for me – the way it all happened in front of me, as I was discovering this music. I do love more of their music than most bands; I haven’t been falsely representing my feelings. But it’s a measure of the band that, even if they aren’t that band for me, I can still find so much to say about them; I can still remember when I first heard so much of their music, and I can still react so urgently to music which is getting on for 50 years old. Why does it matter so much?
Well, in some ways, it doesn’t. Who cares what I think; it’s only music – change the channel and there’ll be something else on; something new; something you’ve never heard before, and which will lift you out of your seat the way ‘Echoes’ did. And no-one’s right, and no-one’s wrong – it’s all just opinion; all just noise. Fashions come and fashions go, and today’s superstars are tomorrow’s nostalgia circuit. It’s all just noise.
Except, you know, it isn’t. It’s so much more than that.
Thanks for listening.
Some things to consider if you’re coming to this new:
You might well be wondering: “what the hell’s this?” if you are coming to it new. The truthful answer to that is “I don’t really know”, but let’s try to find out.
The Division Bell tour was a spectacular success in a great many ways – the band themselves seemed to actually be enjoying it for once, the set list contained a great deal of older material, including ‘Astronomy Dominie’ and the whole of ‘Dark Side’, and vast amounts of money were made via the live album (called ‘PULSE) and – after an entirely unexplained gap of ten years – the live DVD of the same name.
Incidentally, the original CD release of ‘Pulse’ had a flashing LED set into the spine; mine wore out after a year or so; apparently you could replace the battery if you were really intent on keeping it going…
Anyway, here’s a bit:
On October 29th, 1994, Pink Floyd gave their last ever full-length performance; it’s not clear if everyone knew this was the end of the road at the time, but there really doesn’t seem to have ever been any enthusiasm for doing anything more from any of them; 12 years after Roger Waters pronounced it, Pink Floyd finally ceased to be.
Of course, that didn’t stop people from making lots of money from them. Almost before the dust had settled on ‘Pulse’, various compilations and reissues started appearing. There’s an EP called ‘London 66-67’ which features the previously unreleased ‘Nick’s Boogie’:
There were various compilations, most notably the 2001 collection ‘Echoes’, which required all four band members to agree on a track listing – a singularly painful process by all accounts – it features a Storm Thorgerson cover in the style of ‘Ummagumma’, and is presented in what was claimed to be a ‘thematic’ order, rather than chronologically, so can seem a little schizophrenic at times, but perhaps that’s apt. A number of the longer tracks are edited for length, leaving it a little unsatisfying in places, but if you were only ever going to own one Pink Floyd album, I suppose… actually, no. Don’t do that; buy ‘Animals’ instead, and with what you’ve got left over, buy ‘Dark Side of the Moon’. Thank me later.
Compilations begat boxed sets of remasters, which in turn begat another compilation entitled ‘A Foot in the Door’, which sounds like an edited highlights version of ‘Echoes’. It’s all a bit pointless, really, but it must make money for someone.
As all this repackaging and reissuing was going on, the various members also pressed on with solo work. Roger Waters released his own solo compilation in 2001, then wrote an opera called ‘Ça Ira’ about the French revolution. It’s, by all accounts, not particularly great (I’ve never felt the urge to listen to it all) – this is the overture:
Waters also issued a handful of singles over the years – ‘To Kill the Child’ is typical; lyrically exactly what you’d expect, with a soaring chorus drowned in backing vocals:
(he has gradually come to sound like Mark Knopfler as he’s aged, hasn’t he?)
David Gilmour gradually settled into a solo career which afforded him the respect he obviously feels he deserves; he makes a lot of money from touring these days, and seems especially popular in eastern Europe. Both ‘On an Island’ and ‘Rattle That Lock’ are perfectly fine examples of comfortable, middle-aged rock. You can’t help feeling that the thousands who still flock to his shows are going to see him do ‘Comfortably Numb’, though.
Gilmour is also in enormous demand as a session musician (or ‘guest musician’, as I have no doubt he’d prefer to be called) – over the years, he’s appeared on everything from a B.B King session to the Ben Watt / Bernard Butler album ‘Hendra’, as well as collaborating with The Orb on ‘Metallic Spheres’:
He also continues from time to time to work with Kate Bush, who he discovered when she was still a teenager – there’s a whole story there, which I never could quite fit in to the overall picture, but, in essence, we have Gilmour to thank for Kate Bush.
Nick Mason made some more albums with Michael Mantler, but his main post-Floyd project was to write a book, ‘Inside Out’, which chronicles the whole story – it’s been invaluable these past few weeks when there have been details which have escaped me, and I highly recommend it; he’s an engaging writer, although as he admits, his is only one version of the Pink Floyd story.
Rick Wright released one more solo album- ‘Broken China’ in 1996; the title track features Sinead O’Connor:
He then spent the next years touring with Gilmour, appearing on some of the tracks on Gilmour’s solo albums. Wright’s daughter married Guy Pratt; you should also read Pratt’s book ‘My Bass and other Animals’ for his insight into how that all worked – appearing on stage with your father-in-law didn’t always go smoothly!
And that ought really to have been that, except Bob Geldof can do miracles.
Quick, without looking: who headlined the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park? It wasn’t Pink Floyd, but you’d be forgiven for assuming it was. Paul McCartney had the unenviable task of having to follow that; I’m sure I watched it to the bitter end; I’m equally sure I wasn’t really taking it all in, and don’t remember a note of it.
Geldof had decided that getting Floyd back together would be the best way of promoting his event (anyone remember what it was really all about, beyond vague protest and a neat slogan about making poverty history? Thought not.) It seemed the unlikeliest of long shots, but somehow – by approaching everyone in the right order, and doing the whole ‘Ah, go on’ thing in the inimitable Geldof way – he managed to get Roger to phone Dave and say “I think we should do this”. With barely three weeks to rehearse in, all four of them agreed.
It might have been a disaster; it was a huge risk. Equally, it might have sparked a full reunion and tour, but that didn’t happen either, and probably just as well. Instead what happened was 24 minutes when all the baggage and all the years fell away, and (with a little help, as ever, from their supporting cast) the four people who had been Pink Floyd during that short period when they were incapable of putting a foot wrong, stood on the same stage and did what they did best:
I’ll be honest, I sat there that Saturday night, barely able to believe what I was seeing, and watching it again now can still bring a tear to my eye – I’m going to throw in one more post which tries to explain that – I’ve been to concerts which meant more to me, and seen some things I’ll never forget, but that night stands alone. I know I’m about to review a whole other Pink Floyd album, but really – the story ends here.
Syd Barrett died on July 7th, 2006. He had long since reverted to his birth name of Roger, and had no interest in Pink Floyd or the music scene generally for the last thirty years or more of his life. It is idle to speculate about what exactly happened to Syd; better to be grateful for what he did bring to Pink Floyd – without him, none of this would have happened. It’s easy to be sad for him, or to project all kinds of things onto his post-fame life; perhaps the truth is that he had seen that life, and didn’t want anything more to do with it.
Richard Wright died on September 15th, 2008, and with him died any hope of Pink Floyd ever performing again. For all that there were several years when he wasn’t officially in the band, it’s impossible to imagine the remaining members of the band performing those songs without Wright’s unique washes of keyboard – he was an integral part of the sound; one of the main reasons that ‘The Division Bell’ sounds so much like a proper Floyd album is that Wright is propelling the sound along and filling in the corners with colour. He was perhaps a little unsung in his lifetime, but there’s a whole album devoted to recognising his contribution, and I like to think he’d have approved.
Storm Thorgerson died on April 18th 2013. He was never in Pink Floyd, but he was most of the time ‘of Pink Floyd’; he is as responsible as anyone for the way they are perceived.
So, is it any good?
I’ve heard it described as ‘Endless Drivel’, and that’s not fair. However, it is an album of outtakes and discarded offcuts, glued together with Gilmour overdubs, and putting it out as a fully-fledged Pink Floyd album seems contrary to the spirit of the whole enterprise.
It’s the only Pink Floyd album I don’t own in any form, and having listened to it intently on Spotify over the past few days, I honestly don’t feel the need to change that. It’s not terrible; in fact, in places, it’s actually quite good, if somewhat backward-looking. It’s just that it’s not, you know, necessary. You can, of course, make that claim for all the albums after ‘The Wall’, but they each have some form of saving grace – this just doesn’t contain anything which grabs my attention at all. One song at the end with lyrics does not an album make, and I would have been perfectly happy to live out the rest of my days with my memories. This doesn’t sully the memories exactly; but it doesn’t enhance them.
I can pretend it doesn’t exist, I suppose. That will have to do.
Some things to consider if you’re coming to this new:
Seven years went by; you would have been excused for assuming that Pink Floyd was a thing of the past at this point. In the meantime, all kinds of things happened…
The tour for ‘Momentary Lapse of Reason’ went on for two years (three if you count the Knebworth show in 1990), and the show was in two parts – the first half kicked off with a shortened ‘Shine On’, then played most of the new album; the second half was all the stuff people had actually come to hear. The Knebworth show was just the greatest hits package, and there was a famously shambolic (but visually impressive, even if it did contribute to the undermining of the city’s foundations) live show in Venice:
There’s a live album of the tour – ‘Delicate Sound of Thunder’ is a pretty good album, and the ‘Lapse’ songs do work better in a live context, having been properly rehearsed and worked over by all three of them. The huge cast of performers supporting the core members don’t hurt, either, particularly Guy Pratt’s bass work, which could almost make you forget about Roger Waters’ absence. Rick Wright was at some point in all of this absorbed back into the band (I have no idea how the legal stuff was worked out for that).
And then, silence. Waters had released ‘Radio K.A.O.S.’ during this period, and toured it against the main band’s tour, which led to all sorts of petty (if you can believe that) stipulations about the inflatable pig, and, indeed, about whether members of Floyd were allowed to go to one of Roger’s shows (they weren’t).
We heard ‘The Tide is Turning’ from KAOS earlier; here’s a very Eighties song from it:
In 1992, Waters released ‘Amused to Death’, which to these ears is much closer to what Floyd might have sounded like with him still in the band:
Meanwhile, Gilmour and Waters went off to do a long distance car race in Mexico; there’s a film and some original music:
Early on, Gilmour managed to drive his car off a cliff, which nearly killed him and Steve O’Rourke, the tour manager, and also made the finished film look a little thin in places. Honestly, looking at that clip is probably enough for everyone; it gives you an idea of what it was all like. Mason credits the construction of the music for the film as providing the necessary impetus for going back to work on a new Pink Floyd album; in a radical move, all the members of the band went into the studio at the same time and created music together for the first time since ‘Wish You Were Here’.
During the hiatus, Nick Mason did a couple of film soundtracks with Rick Fenn, and drummed for jazz trumpeter Michael Mantler. Rick Wright mainly sat around on a Greek island and counted his money, and David Gilmour worked with everyone from Paul McCartney to Hale and Pace. ( I am not putting up a link to his guitar solo on ‘The Stonk’; you can look that up for yourselves 😀 )
There was no real sense for those of us out in the rest of the world, slowly turning middle aged, that there would ever be another Pink Floyd album; nor, I think, was there much demand for one. Surely it had run its course – the live shows being a suitable way to go out. Heck, there was even a wonderfully crafted 20th anniversary CD edition of ‘Dark Side’ to go on the coffee table and impress your dinner party guests with; we didn’t need anything more.
Imagine the surprise and delight, then, when we read in Q magazine that ‘The Division Bell’ was imminent…
So, is it any good?
Well, when I said ‘surprise and delight’, I think I meant ‘surprise and mild trepidation’. The last one having been a bit of a stinker, what hope was there that this would be any better?
In truth, it’s actually pretty good. I think I could still make a case for it not being a Pink Floyd album, but it’s a lot closer – Rick has a vocal, and his musical influence is all over this. The opening three tracks are pretty strong, I like ‘Marooned’ as well; ‘Wearing the Inside Out’ is a glimpse of what Wright can do after all this time, and it’s generally produced to sound like a Floyd record. The highlights are, perhaps inevitably, ‘Keep Talking’ (yes, it was taken directly from a BT advert; yes, it could be anyone delivering those words, but it isn’t, it’s Steven Hawking) and ‘High Hopes’, which for more than twenty years sat perfectly as the final statement by a band calling themselves Pink Floyd. ‘High Hopes’ has a lot of what makes Floyd great in it, a terrific hook, melody and is lyrically satisfying. You come away from the album thinking that it’s better than it really is, because it goes out on such a high.
To be perfectly honest, it’s a little blandly produced in places; Gilmour’s voice doesn’t work well enough on all the tracks, and it’s too long. Sorry, I’m going to have to go off on a tangent here. Bear with me.
For about 20 years from the mid-sixties, record albums were constrained in length by the physical limitations of vinyl. You could just about get 50 minutes onto an LP, but you were dicing with the quality, and two sides of 20 minutes each was the accepted norm. That template became the default for pretty much anything – to do a double album was a real risk – who the hell has enough good material to fill that space – especially if you have to deliver another one in six months’ time? And, let’s face it, there are a great many albums whose quality would only be diluted by forcing more music into the whole thing.
‘Dark Side of the Moon’ is 43 minutes long. Since 1973, no-one has seriously argued that it’s not enough; that it could have done with a few extra bits tacked on. Would ‘Led Zeppelin 4’ be improved by a few extra tracks? Would ‘Revolver’ or ‘Pet Sounds’? How about ‘Harvest’, or ‘Court and Spark’ or ‘Back in Black’? Even ‘Sergeant Pepper’, which might have had ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘Penny Lane’ added on if the technology had allowed, wouldn’t necessarily be better for it (but feel free to argue).
Along cane the CD, on which you could fit 74 minutes of music if you wanted (there’s a story about that limit being set because someone wanted to hear the whole of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in one sitting; I meant to look it up, but I’m out of time). Of course, some bands took the opportunity to add more twiddliness – ‘Brothers in Arms’ on CD is several minutes longer than the LP version; there are no extra songs, just extra solos and other assorted bits of styrofoam packaging; it would take a few years for people to really get the idea that the CD was the base format, and if it didn’t fit on LP or cassette, that was too bad – all the money was coming from the sale of shiny discs. Of course, selling people a CD and charging full price for it was never going to fly if there was only 40 minutes of music on it – re-releases started to have all kinds of stuff jammed on them to give ‘value for money’ (I particularly dislike the CD re-release of ‘Close to the Edge’, which has inferior demo versions of two tracks, as well as a cover of Paul Simon’s ‘America’, which doesn’t fit with the mood of the rest of it. It’s horrible, but sold a lot of units to completists.
‘The Division Bell’ suffers from this propensity to extend: it is a full 24 minutes longer than ‘Dark Side’, and with the best will in the world, the only possible reason for that is people in windowless offices with spreadsheets. Some songs could be shorter, others could be omitted altogether, and if you got it down to about 40 minutes, you’d have something which just might sit alongside the seventies albums.
Although it still wouldn’t have Roger Waters on it, and so doesn’t really sound properly like Pink Floyd.
However, as a final statement, I always thought it worked pretty well – it’s sort of concept-y and has some themes and motifs which work; some decent sound effects; a great cover, and three quarters of Pink Floyd not only playing on it, but actively involved in the construction of the whole thing. And I like Guy Pratt’s bass, so there’s that.
Some things to consider if you’re coming to this new:
Now then. I suppose the easy way out for me would be to say “at this point, Roger Waters left Pink Floyd”, and carry on, but there’s so much packed into that short verb that I’m going to have to expand a little…
There was no tour to support ‘The Final Cut’; I can’t imagine how a tour would have worked at that point. The first thing which happened after the release of ‘The Final Cut’ was that Capitol records in the US released a compilation called ‘Works’ as some kind of spoiler. You might remember Capitol released everything up to ‘Dark Side’, but were considered ineffective by the band, and the contract wasn’t renewed, which is why Gilmour had to re-record ‘Money’ for the last compilation album. ‘Works’ consists largely of alternate takes of some of the better known early songs, ‘Several Species of Small Furry Animals…’ for some reason, and a previously unreleased track from the ‘Ummagumma’ sessions called ‘Embryo:
After that, the band went their own separate ways and recorded various solo albums. I realise I missed out Nick Mason’s ‘Fictitious Sports’ last time round – it came out in between the last two Floyd albums. It’s not really a solo album, unless you’re going to be honest and call it a Carla Bley solo album. Bley is a highly regarded jazz pianist; somehow Mason agreed to record an album of her songs, with Robert Wyatt on vocals. Mason did at least play all the drums on it. It’s interesting, but it’s not Pink Floyd (there’s a hint of Zappa on this one, for example):
Mason then collaborated with Rick Fenn, at the time guitarist in 10cc, on another album called ‘Profiles’. This one is mainly instrumental, and does feature David Gilmour on one track:
Neither album sold particularly well, but it didn’t really matter; finances were much more stable than they’d ever been.
Gilmour’s solo career continued – ‘About Face’ came out in 1984, featuring a couple of tracks with lyrics by Pete Townshend, and definitely has its moments:
Rick Wright released an album called ‘Identity’ under the name ‘Zee’ – a collaboration with Dave Harris of Fashion. It’s a bit Eighties…
… actually, it’s a lot Eighties.
And, of course, we can’t ignore Roger. ‘The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking’ came out in 1984, in direct competition with Gilmour. It probably deserves a post of its own, and for all that it’s off-topic for this, it might have been the follow up to ‘Animals’. It’s – to these ears – pretty good, worth some of your time. The title track features Eric Clapton doing what Gilmour would otherwise have been doing, and you can see how Waters is simply continuing what he believes to be the Pink Floyd sound:
Waters and Gilmour toured more or less at the same time, Roger doing much more Floyd material and – without ever really saying so – presenting himself as the natural successor to the band. Even at this point, there’s a suspicion that, if he had been a little more flexible, things might have gone differently.
The crunch came when Gilmour and Mason agreed to try doing another Pink Floyd album. Waters flatly refused to be involved, as in his opinion, the band had broken up. Gilmour countered with the observation that the record company were keen for a new Floyd album, and the only thing preventing it from happening was Waters refusal to take part. If he wasn’t going to contribute, he had better formally resign from the band and let them get on with it.
At this point, things got messy. Both parties sued each other – or threatened to – Waters to prevent the others from using the Pink Floyd name, the others to force him to work with them again (that would have ended well). Eventually, faced with what he imagined would be financial ruin, Waters backed down, resigned from the various companies (he had apparently left the band some time before, but was still a director of the overall organisation), and told Gilmour that he would never make another Floyd album. I believe the expression is ‘red rag to a bull’.
The details of the whole situation are unbearably complex – in Mason’s book, he kind of skates around most of it -but what we do know is unedifying and testament to what happens when large egos and a lot of money slosh around in a band which was based originally on hippy ideals. If you want some more insight, there’s a great Rolling Stone article from the time which tries to cut through the tangle.
So, with none of the dust settled, and Roger Waters out on the road playing Floyd music, Gilmour set about creating ‘Dave Gilmour’s Pink Floyd’. Recording started on Gilmour’s houseboat in the Thames (I imagine there was all sorts of red tape preventing the use of Britannia Row; none of the band particularly liked it anyway). Rick Wright was able to guest on a couple of tracks, but his contributions were minimal, mainly for legal reasons (he signed a piece of paper at one point agreeing that he would never be allowed back in the band). Mason does play drums in a few places, but confessed to being extremely rusty after four years of pissing about in sportscars, and in any case overwhelmed by the new technology available. The upshot is that ‘A Momentary Lapse of Reason’ is pretty much Gilmour’s third solo album. It sold a lot better than the other two, though – it had the Pink Floyd name on the front, and a Hipgnosis cover. There’s also a band photo inside. I say a band photo; it’s Dave and Nick leaning against each other as if they were on the poster for a Matthew McConaughey film.
So, is it any good?
Sorry, but it really isn’t. For a start, it is in no way a Pink Floyd album. Listening to it for this has been a chore; it’s not even as good as Gilmour’s other solo work up to this point. If it wasn’t for ‘On The Turning Away’ and – to an extent – ‘Learning to Fly’, I doubt I’d ever listen to it again. It’s flabby, meandering and self-indulgent in a way that Pink Floyd music generally isn’t; it lacks Waters’ caustic input, and with Mason pretty much on the bench, there’s no bite to it at all.
It’s also overlong and in many places, spectacularly tuneless – ‘One Slip’ in particular is just Gilmour doing that slightly strained monotone shouty stuff instead of singing. The ‘experimental’ ‘A New Machine’ pieces bookend yet another drone, although it does at least have some keyboard patterns which are mildly interesting, and ‘Sorrow’ just dribbles away a promising start. For eight minutes.
I was living in Inverness when this came out; I remember the fuss about it – an inflatable bed floating down the Thames if I remember correctly – and I remember liking ‘Turning Away’ when it was played on the radio.
I also remember borrowing it from the library and listening to it no more than a couple of times before taking it back. I’ve heard it a few times since (and I’m listening to it now); each time, I think that it can’t have been as bad as I remember.
But it is.
Thankfully, it’s not quite the end of the road.
Some things to consider if you’re coming to this new:
Well, it’s not a Pink Floyd album, is it?
Also, if you are coming to this new, don’t start here.
So what had been happening to our heroes in the nearly four years since ‘The Wall’ came out? Well, there were the thirty-odd stage shows, which lost a lot of money (Rick did alright out of it; he was on salary), and there was the film, which took up a lot of Roger’s time, and cost a lot of money – although that at least was gradually earned back over the years.
To help claw back some of the money which was being drained , EMI released a compilation / Greatest Hits album, entitled ‘A Collection of Great Dance Songs’. This features some butchered versions of the longer songs, and a completely re-recorded version of ‘Money’ thanks to original US label Capitol refusing to license it for inclusion on the US version. There are stories that Gilmour pretty much did all the work on ‘Money’, save some drumming from Mason which producer James Guthrie was somewhat scathing about. This version is here:
It’s a bit weird, pretty much a cover version. The whole album seems to be a pointless cash-in, but I’m sure it gave the bank balances a much needed boost. Incidentally, the cover was designed by TCP, which was basically Hipgnosis – one wonders if this was done to throw Roger off the scent.
Then there was the film of ‘The Wall’, as detailed above. The whole enterprise – making the film, then promoting it – seemed to finally kill off whatever fellow feeling there remained between the three of them, and work began on ‘The Final Cut’ with Roger in total control, and the other two dipping in from time to time to do what they were told.
It’s probably pointless to speculate on what might have happened if Waters had said “look, lads, let’s take a break; I’ll release this as a solo album, and we should all take time off to consider what we do next as a band”. Instead, he showed up with a bunch of songs he wanted to do with Michael Kamen (he had, with tedious inevitability, fallen out with ‘The Wall’ producer Bob Ezrin). Kamen provided keyboards and orchestral sounds for the album, various drum parts were recorded by people other than Nick Mason (although Mason is on some of the tracks); Gilmour essentially only contributed the solos (and sang on ‘Not Now John’), and the situation can be summed up by the fact that the cover was designed by one Roger Waters, and photographed by his brother-in-law.
The full title of the album is ‘The Final Cut: A Requiem for the Post-war Dream by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd’, although ‘performed by what used to be Pink Floyd’ would be more accurate. The fact of Wright’s departure from the band is made public by the fact that Pink Floyd is credited as consisting of Waters. Gilmour and Mason; there had been no announcement of any kind before this.
Mason tells the tale of how he spent days recording many of the sound effects for the songs, drawing on connections he had in the armed forces, only to be told in no uncertain terms that he would not be getting a credit or a cut of production royalties, as everything he did was considered to be drumming…
There was a single, released at the point when it still seemed likely that ‘The Final Cut’ would be called ‘Spare Bricks’ and consist of out-takes and leftovers from the previous album, plus some bits from the film. ‘When The Tigers Broke Free’ is the definitive ‘Roger lost his old man in the war’ song; and concludes with a line which you wouldn’t have got away with in a primary school essay:
This eventually found its way onto ‘The Final Cut’, after it became a CD, but wasn’t on the original album. It, therefore, remains the only Pink Floyd single I ever bought.
Over the months after the film was released, Waters reworked his ideas for the album into a set of songs which were generally anti-war, anti-Thatcher, and anti-nuclear weapons, all of which seem fair enough for the time. But however you dress it up, it’s still not a Pink Floyd album.
So, is it any good?
Surprisingly, I still like it a lot. It’s well short of the standards set in the seventies, but as a collection of songs, I think it still more or less stands up today. Several songs are much better than their reputation might suggest – ‘One of the Few’ and ‘The Hero’s Return’ are the counterpoint to ‘The Happiest Days of our Lives?’, and rather brilliantly reverses your opinion of the teacher figure, and ‘The Gunner’s Dream’ paints a vivid picture of a grieving family, then hits you with an emotional gut punch of a line leading into the sax solo.
It is concerned with the Falklands conflict, and that might seem long ago and far away to many of you, but our government really did send soldiers and sailors into harm’s way for the sake of something which could have been resolved diplomatically; we really did sink an Argentinian ship with little or no justification, and the government found itself returned with an increased majority shortly afterwards, and it wasn’t just Roger who felt a bit cynical about all of that.
Permit me a flight of fancy; in the middle of ‘The Fletcher Memorial Home’ I have always heard Mason and Gilmour tear into their parts, and I can just about see them both looking up when they were done and saying “there you go, you bastard – happy now?”
I love the title track for its bleakness – although you could equally paint it as a painful lack of self-awareness – and ‘Two Suns in the Sunset’ rounds it of on a suitably hopeless note; in 1983, I think we all felt we were, in the words of another song on a similar subject, “living between the wars, in our time”. Without the baggage which surrounds it, I think this would be regarded as Waters’ best work. Apart, perhaps, from ‘Not Now John’, which does nothing for me.
But it’s still not a Pink Floyd album.
It’s Sunday afternoon; I’m supposed to be doing some other writing / getting my website back in shape, but instead, here’s a special bonus post:
I thought I’d take a quick look at what happened to ‘The Wall’ after its release, as it turned into a bit of a beast with a life of its own:
‘The Wall’ as a performance piece has really been staged three times in total: the original tour, by the whole band (featuring Rick Wright as hired musician); the one-off concert in Berlin, and then as full-scale tour by Roger Waters starting in 2010.
The original tour played in only four locations – LA, New York, London and Dusseldorf, for a total of 31 shows. It was ruinously expensive to stage, and none of the band was talking to each other throughout the whole experience. In spite of that, the shows themselves have become the stuff of legend, and rather in the manner of the early Sex Pistols shows, pretty much half the population of the earth claims to have been at one of the dates. I was an impoverished student, and lived too far away, but at least one person I went to school with saw one of the Earls’ Court shows – he proclaimed it to be spectacular, but whether that was the music or the show, I can’t recall at this distance.
Several shows were filmed, nothing properly official has ever been released of the recordings, mainly because the quality is reported to be awful. Apparently, Waters has most of the footage, and has been considering what to do with it for about half his life now. If the stuff that’s on YouTube is anything to go by, I wouldn’t bother if I was him:
The concept of the show is that the wall is built in front of the band through the first half, coming to completion at the end of ‘Goodbye Cruel World’. Thereafter, the show is staged through various openings in the completed wall (or by the ‘surrogate band’ in front of the wall), until it is all torn down at the end. This was not without its problems, including on the opening night, when something managed to set fire to the curtains and the whole thing came to a grinding halt until the fire was put out.
There is an album of the live show, released in 2000, which was recorded at the Earls’ Court shows. It includes ‘What Shall We Do Now’, which I posted earlier, and the one “new” piece of material – a short instrumental which accompanied the crew putting the last few bricks in place. It never had a name, but on the album version, it’s called ‘The Last Few Bricks’, and isn’t exactly new, as such:
The album was played in full as a complete show and there was no encore. On June 17th 1981, the four members of Pink Floyd walked offstage at the end of the show at Earls’ Court. It was the last time they would perform together until 2005.
Those of you too young to remember (or possibly not even born yet) may not fully appreciate how significant the fall of the Berlin Wall felt at the time – it was as if we were suddenly living in an entirely new world. Obviously, the best way to celebrate this feeling of freedom and release from oppression would be to stage a performance of a Pink Floyd album about alienation and isolation. To be fair, the wall does come down at the end, which is pretty much all anybody cared about. The whole thing was done for charity, and featured a frankly astounding set of performers, from The Scorpions to James Galway, various members of The Band, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Sinead O’Connor, whose performance of ‘Mother’ was lost to various technical problems – the one on the video release comes from the rehearsal, as she refused to do it all again. Of course, none of the other members of Pink Floyd were there – there’s another whole book to be written about what did or didn’t happen while the various lawyers tried to figure out whether it would be possible. In the end, it was a Roger Waters show.
It was broadcast around the world (memory says it was shown live, but it probably wasn’t; I remember watching it in a hotel in Rickmansworth). Various technical gremlins meant that chunks of the early songs were patchy; all that was fixed for the subsequent video release.
A couple of excerpts:
Van Morrison and The Band on ‘Comfortably Numb’:
Sinead doing ‘Mother’ (as I understand it, the video is from the rehearsal, the audio from the live performance):
Oh, and Cyndi Lauper:
‘The Trial’ was fully staged, with Albert Finney as the judge, and the whole thing was rounded off with a plug for Roger’s latest album in the form of ‘The Tide is Turning’:
(imaginary prizes will be available if you can identify everyone in that clip)
The whole thing should have been a bit corny and cartoonish, but in that place and at that time, the sight of the wall coming down at the end was genuinely moving. I still love that version of the show.
In 2010, Waters took The Wall out on the road one last time. This was a polished, 21st century spectacular, and I will forever be sorry that I was not able to see it – it was in Vancouver the week I was in Scotland.
This version of the show included a significant reinterpretation of the message – the videos and slogans around the performance relate more to global concerns than the tribulations of a late seventies rockstar – and a new song in ‘The Ballad of Jean Charles de Menezes’, which extends ‘Another Brick’ into an angry tirade about the death of Menezes following the 7/7 attacks in London in 2007:
Waters released a concert film of this version, interspersed with clips of him moodily driving his car through the fields of France and walking around the Anzio beaches in search of the graves of his grandfather and father; in spite of the fact that we may feel like he’s milked this for all it’s worth, it is moving and even enlightening. Waters is Waters, his regard for himself knows no bounds, but this version of The Wall perhaps shows that he’s actually really bloody good at this stuff after all these years.
With the right sound, and the highest definition visuals you can muster, it’s a fucking masterpiece. Watching it reminded me that even patchily made music can overcome its flaws and transcend its component parts to become something else entirely.
‘The Trial’ is still a bit much, though.
OK, what else? Oh, God, the film.
There’s a film, directed by Alan Parker, but conceived and written in its entirety by Roger Waters. They got Bob Geldof to play ‘Pink’ for some reason, and his contempt for the whole thing shines out of every frame. It’s not awful, and seeing it in a cinema was fairly entertaining, but it’s a bit, well, literal in too many places, and honestly just looks like a 2 hour long music video. Which it is, I suppose.
Here’s the trailer; I imagine finding the whole thing online isn’t too hard these days:
I watched it again not too long ago; It’s not bad, I suppose.
Then there’s the opera.
Julien Bilodeau and Waters took the plot of the film and turned it into an opera in 2017. It’s due another performance in Cincinatti this summer. I’ve not heard any of it, so can’t comment, but reviews were mixed. There’s a trailer (even operas have trailers these days, it seems) here:
You know, after two ridiculously long posts, I’ve probably still missed out as much as I’ve put in to the story of ‘The Wall’. It truly has a life of its own, even 38 years on. Who would have imagined that this far down the road, I’d still be banging my heart against some mad bugger’s wall?
Some things to consider if you’re coming to this new:
Again, I doubt anyone’s really coming to this new – even if you’ve never sat through the whole thing, you’ve definitely heard ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2’ and ‘Comfortably Numb’. If you were a casual Floyd listener at the time, and hadn’t heard ‘Animals’, you probably were wondering where the hell all this had come from. There are so many stories surrounding the making of this that I really could write a book on it. I’ll try to keep it to a reasonable length, however.
The first thing to think about when approaching this behemoth of an album is that Pink Floyd were, to all intents and purposes, skint again. All those cunning financial wheezes designed to keep the taxman at bay had only served to make a handful of investment bankers (look up Norton Warburg if you want the whole story; it’s long and complicated) a bit richer, and to finance dozens of failed businesses and ventures. The upshot was that they needed to make a record to get the money flowing again.
The problem with that was that both Gilmour and Wright were off making solo albums (always a bad sign for a band in my opinion); I rather like Gilmour’s first album, although I couldn’t tell you the last time I listened to it – here’s a bit of Rick noodling about on ‘Wet Dream’ – it’s not terrible, but it’s not Pink Floyd either:
Nick Mason was producing the Damned’s ‘Music For Pleasure’ album, and no-one save Roger Waters seemed to have much enthusiasm for thrashing out another Pink Floyd album. Waters presented the band with two sets of songs he’d been working on – one which would eventually become ‘The Pros and Cons of Hitch-Hiking’; and a long rock opera-style suite about how the isolation of being a rock star turns people into fascists, or something. The band all lined up behind what would become ‘The Wall’, and set about making it come to life in Britannia Row.
Whereupon, another minor inconvenience intruded. In order to avoid complete financial ruin, the band and their families (and, apparently, members of the crew and production team) were advised to go and live abroad for a year for tax reasons. They all scarpered early in 1979, but to different countries, making getting everyone together to record an album even more challenging. Much of the work was done in France, but keeping it all together was proving more and more difficult. Rick Wright in particular was struggling with a disintegrating marriage, living in a foreign country, a solo album which had pretty much disappeared without trace, and a general lack of things to do on the new album. To say he wasn’t totally committed to the project is putting it mildly.
At this point, I could observe once again that Waters, having basically written the whole thing, had a significantly higher financial stake in it than the others, and that would be true, but doesn’t tell the whole story. Pink Floyd didn’t disintegrate over royalites (although those didn’t help), and they didn’t fall apart because Roger was writing all the material; there were many factors. The fact that ‘The Wall’ got made at all was down to Waters’ drive and passion for it; it wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t cracked the whip to the point that he and Gilmour could barely stand to be in the same room, and to the point that Wright was forced out of the band altogether.
There is more than one version of the ‘Roger sacked Rick’ story; the facts seem to be these: Rick was dragging his feet on getting any work done at all – he was supposed to contribute keyboard parts and – perhaps more importantly – was part of the production effort. He kept putting things off due to the general turmoil in his life, and things eventually came to a head when he was required to cut short his summer holiday to finish his keyboard parts, which he flatly refused to do. Waters – acutely aware that if they didn’t get this thing done and on sale before the end of the year there would be heavy financial penalties from the record companies – essentially decided that his old mate was preventing his magnum opus from being completed in time and fired him. Or had him fired, or whatever version you prefer.
Not fired as in ‘no longer in the band’, of course – Wright was carefully disentangled from the corporate liabilities that being in Pink Floyd entailed by 1979, and then asked to stay on until the record was made, then hired on as a member of the touring band. It all sounds like an appalling way to treat one of your closest friends, and it was. It does appear possible that it was all a bluff, which Wright decided to call – Waters didn’t do the firing himself, and probably never intended it to get as far as it did – he was desperate for everyone to take the money issue seriously, and probably thought that threatening to sack Rick might do the trick.
Of course, once it had happened, he wasn’t about to admit to making a mistake…
In the end, only Gilmour and Waters’ names appear on the sleeve of ‘The Wall’ – the keyboard parts were partly by Rick Wright, and partly by various other musicians; the drums aren’t all by Nick Mason either, although he seems somewhat blase about all that – he did spend part of the summer competing at Le Mans, and went off during the mixing period to start work on his own solo album. Mason, unlike the others, seems to have been perfectly happy to work as a glorified session musician in the new “Roger Waters’ Pink Floyd”. The remainder of the credits on the Gerald Scarfe – designed sleeve (Roger had, with crushing inevitability, fallen out with Hipgnosis over something or other, and replaced them with his friend Gerald Scarfe) are illuminating – production credits for Gilmour and Waters along with Bob Ezrin; James Guthrie (who turned up on day 1 imagining himself to be the producer, only to find Ezrin already in place) is given a co-producer credit – whatever that means. No mention of the rest of the band, but the backing singers, including Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys and Toni Tennille of The Captain and Tennille, get a full credit, as do (in faint letters) Islington Green School – and that whole saga, of the school choir on ‘Another Brick’ is another one too long for inclusion here.
There’s a lot more to tell, but perhaps the best way to deal with the story behind the album and the infamous incident in Montreal is to let Roger tell the story in his own words. I vividly remember listening to the Friday Rock Show special dealing with The Wall just as it came out – memory insists that I heard it just before I rushed out to buy it, but I can’t quite be certain of the order. At any rate, I remember lying in the bath listening to Tommy Vance and Roger Waters talk in great detail about the album, and – the internet being what it is – the whole thing is available to either read in full, or – even better – listen to in full, including all the music.
There’s also the full version of ‘What Shall We Do Now?’, the missing song from side 2:
One more thing – famously, there was a hit single and Christmas No.1 – ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2’ was released at the insistence of producer Bob Ezrin, who apparently had always wanted to produce a disco song…
So, is it any good?
Well, frankly, it’s a bloody miracle it exists at all. For something so enduring to have emerged from the chaos which swirled around the band in 1979 is nothing short of astounding. It does, I think, mark the fatal shot which killed Pink Floyd – the bullet found its mark, but it took a long time for the band to die – from here on, there are memorable moments, some great songs (even – whisper it – one more pretty damn good album) but nothing you could honestly point to and say “that’s a Pink Floyd album”. And if I’m honest, and set aside my personal feelings about it, I don’t think you can really listen to this and think “yup, that’s a great Pink Floyd album”.
I mean, it’s a great Roger Waters album, probably his best, but it’s not really a band effort, save for ‘Comfortably Numb’ and – maybe – ‘Run Like Hell’. Nowhere does it soar and breathe the way the best Floyd tracks do; nowhere does it feel like everyone is pulling in the same direction and figuring this out as they go along. It’s all planned, charted and delivered with some precision, and that – I think – is its fatal flaw.
When I was seventeen, I thought this was the greatest musical achievement of the human race. I played my original vinyl copy (with the clear plastic label on the front, held on by static) until it pretty much wore out. I loved it, I knew all the words, I could play bits of it on my guitar, I could close my eyes and see what the rumoured film version would look like, and I thought it had changed my life.
I’m 55 now. It didn’t change my life, but I sure thought it had for a while there.
Looking at it now, it has too many flaws to be a truly great Floyd album. It’s too long (you could just about make a brilliant single album from it; you can certainly chop it down to an hour without losing anything from the story, and not much of great musical note); I think there are too many places where you can hear the original demo, and it’s been a long time since that was the case – it really suffers from not having all four of them work the songs over and over until they sound just right; and while I would keep bits of side 4, ‘The Trial’ is an overblown, parodic mess. And the story is – look, I’m sorry – a pile of self-regarding wankery. Poor, poor, pitiful Roger – his daddy died (and we’ve not wrung the last drop of blood from that stone, believe me), he was forced to be a rock star against his will, he’s crap at relationships and he thinks he’s built a wall around himself which might turn him into a bit of a dictator if he’s not careful (ask Rick Wright about that last bit, Rog), and instead of paying for therapy, he’s going to bleat to us about it.
And yet, it’s still an incredible thing. It has all that going against it, and it’s still mesmerising and brilliant. When the guitar is let free, it goes places it’s never gone before; several of the songs are among the best stuff Waters ever wrote (especially the plaintive picture of Syd which is ‘Nobody’s Home’ and the self-aware cry of ‘Hey You’), and the story, for all that it lurches around and is missing key parts, is a view of the rockstar life I don’t think we’ve seen before. As final, defiant, statements of what a failing enterprise can still pull off in spite of itself, it’s probably without equal.
Oh, and for a couple of years in the early eighties, BBC Scotland’s flagship sports programme, ‘Sportscene’, used a version of ‘Run Like Hell’ as its theme tune (sadly, I can’t find the evidence on YouTube) and if that doesn’t elevate this to classic status, I don’t know what will…
Some things to consider if you’re coming to this new:
It took another eighteen months for ‘Animals’ to appear; in the meantime, Pink Floyd (who already had a substantial amount of material ready for it) set about becoming corporations. This seemed, at the time, a perfectly logical way of dealing with the burdensome UK tax situation; the top rate of tax was about 83%, and the corporation taxes were even higher. Being successful at selling records all of a sudden had led to all kinds of discussions about how to keep the income coming in without alerting the tax authorities. The results included setting up four corporations under the name of each band member, investing in all kinds of dubious schemes which stayed only just this side of money laundering, and building their own recording studio.
Britannia Row was a great idea, poorly executed. There was to be a fully kitted out studio, built to the latest specifications, and two floors of storage for all the touring gear and assorted bits of junk which accumulate around a successful band. Both the studio and the storage space could be rented out for other bands to use, bringing in even more income (which would no doubt have to be parked in ever more obscure wheezes to avoid all that tax). The only issue with all that was that, for reasons of, frankly, lunacy, the studio was built on the ground floor, with all the storage above; the net result being that various hoists and fork lifts were needed to actually get anything in or out of the storage area. The studio was nicely soundproofed, though.
OK, so what’s the one thing everyone knows about the cover of ‘Animals’? The whole saga of the pig floating away during the shoot, interfering with inbound flights to Heathrow, and having to be shot down, right? Well, it didn’t quite happen that way. There was a marksman, but he wasn’t there when the pig (called ‘Algy’ for some reason) slipped its moorings. There’s no record of any aircraft having reported Algy soaring past, although there was a police helicopter in attendance – Algy easily gave that the slip, though. The flying pig came down without any assistance somewhere in Kent, and – sadly, but inevitably – the photo used on the cover is a composite – there are shots of Algy hovering over Battersea Power Station, but the one used on the cover of the album isn’t one of them; that was done in the photographer’s studio after the fact.
I mentioned that some of the ‘Animals’ material had been around for a while – ‘Sheep’ started life as a track called ‘Raving and Drooling’, which had been in the live set for a couple of years:
‘Dogs’, similarly, used to be called ‘You’ve Got To Be Crazy’:
For me – and I appreciate that other opinions are available – this album marks the beginning of the ‘Roger Waters’ Pink Floyd’ era; Waters has found his voice, and the lyrical considerations on ‘Animals’ are sharply different from what came before. On top of that, he used the splitting up of ‘Pigs on the Wing’ into two separate pieces to scoop up significantly more royalties than the rest of the band (royalties were assigned by number of tracks, something to avoid if you want your band to remain on civil terms after the money starts rolling in). As he gradually assumed control of the enterprise, Rick Wright in particular, and Dave Gilmour to a degree, found themselves turning up to play whatever Roger had written, a significant shift from the previous setup. Having said that, because so much of ‘Animals’ already existed, this is less evident than it might otherwise have been. What is clear, however, is the sharp change in tone – this is an engaged, overtly political album.
I should clear up one thing about ‘Pigs (three different ones)’ – while the first two pigs are archetypes, the third section is clearly and deliberately written about the odious and officious Mary Whitehouse. It’s entirely possible that there are people reading this who have no idea who she was and what she stood for; for a time in the late seventies, just as yours truly was becoming politically aware, she represented the enemy; the other side in the Generation War. History records her as having been on the losing side, but she had a Farage-like knack for publicity, and a legion of loyal followers whose attitude to pretty much everything could be summed up as ‘the whole thing is going to rack and ruin, and tutting loudly doesn’t seem to be doing anything; it’s time to break out the placards and write threatening letters to the BBC.’
One more surprise – I’m willing to bet that no more than a handful of you have ever heard the full version of ‘Animals’. If you were one of the rapidly shrinking number who bought their albums on eight-track (hang on, I’d better explain that, too – eight-track cartridges were usually found in cars, before the advent of cassette tapes; they ran on a continuous loop, but consisted of four sets of stereo tracks, with the heads jumping from track to track after each quarter of the album had been played. This led to all sorts of issues, with eight-track versions of albums being butchered in various ingenious ways to avoid long silences or jumping tracks in the middle of a song), you got an unexpected bonus if you bought a copy of ‘Animals’. Truly, eight-track was awful, but it did occasionally lead to extra music being made available to fill in gaps. On the eight-track version of ‘Animals’, the two halves of ‘Pigs on the Wing’ are reunited, and in between the two is a guitar solo. A guitar solo by Snowy White, better known for being in Thin Lizzy, and making his own records, but at this point, just another session musician who was being auditioned for a spot on the touring team – Gilmour liked overdubs so much that it generally took two guitarists to recreate the sound live.
What? Yes, of course there’s a YouTube link:
There’s some debate about whether this version was a replacement for a Gilmour solo which had been accidentally (or otherwise) erased, an actual audition piece, or never intended for release, but there it is. It’s interesting, at least.
So, is it any good?
‘Animals’ came out in a musical landscape quite different to the one ‘Wish You Were Here’ had done – assorted members of the Sex Pistols could be seen wandering around in the ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’ t-shirt; it was no longer cool to like the Floyd, and all over the UK, teenage boys rushed to hide their prog albums under the bed. In that context, a new Pink Floyd album was just a musical footnote to a great many of us who were busy cutting our hair off and having our jeans strategically ripped, safety-pinned and taken in to remove any trace of flare. It took me a year or so to get round to it, and then it was a poorly recorded tape from a friend who no more wanted to be seen with a Pink Floyd album than I did.
I overlooked it, dismissed it as short and unmemorable; possibly even the last gasp of a band on their way out.
Boy, did I get that wrong. It’s actually a blistering masterpiece; a picture of society in chaos and upheaval every bit as relevant and thrilling as anything The Clash were doing at the same time. You can clearly see the direction Waters is taking them, and that he was actually some way ahead of a lot of people – lyrically, I think it stands up today, possibly even more so than it did forty years ago. Yes, the band were now on the wrong side of a generational divide, but many of those (myself included) who dismissed it at the time have come to understand that perhaps some of the dinosaurs had something to tell us; we just didn’t care to listen at that moment.
You can’t compare it with the two albums which came before; they stand on their own, timeless and complete; you have to see it as the opening of a new chapter – one which doesn’t, perhaps, go in the direction you expect, but one which is different enough to feel like it’s been performed by another band altogether. Pink Floyd pulled this trick off more than once in their career – producing something which, while it’s clearly a Pink Floyd album, sounds different enough from what came before to make you properly sit up and take notice.
Eventually, in my case – I didn’t hear it until shortly before ‘The Wall’ came out, and I didn’t appreciate it for a while after that, but now it’s probably the Floyd album I listen to most; it’s the first one I bought on vinyl when I went back to that format last year, and it’s the one album I wouldn’t change a thing about (not even to put Snowy’s solo back in).
It might be controversial to say it, but I think it’s their best album and I love it unconditionally.
Some things to consider if you’re coming to this new:
You’ve made an album which has changed the way the world perceives not only your band, but rock music as a whole. What the hell do you do next?
Well, if you’re Pink Floyd, you start to make an album called Household Objects, for which you decided – in apparent seriousness – to make music using no actual instruments at all, just whatever you can find lying around. Work on this continued for a couple of months before everyone involved realised it was a truly shit idea, and went back to writing concept albums. The story goes that the only surviving bits of ‘Household Objects’ which remain were some notes played with a wet finger run round the rim of some wineglases, and that this was treated and mixed into the opening chords, but if they are there, they are very hard to hear.
In truth, the band were more than a little reluctant to go back into the studio. Whatever they produced would inevitably be compared to ‘Dark Side’, and found to be not quite as good, and for the first time in their lives there was no financial pressure to churn out another album to keep the money coming in. On top of that, there were side projects – musical or otherwise – appearing as time and money were suddenly less of a problem than they had ever been before. There had been a tour promoting ‘Dark Side’ which had become more than a little shambolic – the legendary pyramid stage set was almost unmanageable, and the whole thing was getting away from them, as it was all of their peers in the progressive rock field: 1975 marks the beginning of the end for a number of bands, who started taking years instead of months to make albums, lost and replaced members with startling regularity, and found their audiences as keen as ever for new music, but perhaps holding them to a higher standard than before. It’s been said many times before, but nothing stifles creativity quite like success.
While the band figured out how this was going to work from now on, Nick Mason did some session work for the newly wheelchair-bound Robert Wyatt. Pink Floyd had already done benefit gigs for the former Soft Machine drummer and singer (he was paralysed after falling from a fourth floor window during a party), and all sorts of people rallied round to help him get his career back on track. Nick produced and played drums on Wyatt’s album ‘Rock Bottom’. He even turns up on ‘Top of the Pops’ as Wyatt and band performed ‘I’m a Believer’:
You’ll notice that Fred Frith (he of Henry Cow) didn’t make the TV session; the miming around his violin solo is particularly spectacular!
EMI, in search of even more money, re-released the first two albums in a double album package called ‘A Nice Pair’, which at least allowed Hipgnosis to do a whole lot of visual puns, but must have confused some unsuspecting record buyers who didn’t know about Syd.
Eventually, they all went back into Abbey Road and conjured up ‘Wish You Were Here’. It was clearly harder to get right than its predecessor, but they now had a standard to hold themselves to, so – for instance – when neither Gilmour or Waters proclaimed themselves satisfied with their vocal take on ‘Have a Cigar’, they roped in Roy Harper who was not only a friend and labelmate, but was recording his own album next door. Interestingly, I’ve never seen any suggestion that the vocal was ever offered to Rick Wright, who was good enough to sing on ‘Dark Side’.
The cover is another Hipgnosis creation – even more complicated and intriguing than the last one, it reflects the themes of absence and the shark-like nature of the record business. In this age of Photoshop, it’s worth remembering that all the photographs were staged in real life (there is some airbrushing, of course, but they really did set a bloke on fire to do the front cover). It’s also been interesting to me how similar the covers of this and Led Zeppelin’s ‘Presence’ are; they are opposite ideas, but executed in a very similar way.
OK, we need to talk about Syd.
For me, this is the last Pink Floyd album created in the shadow of their former frontman – ‘Shine On’ is explicitly about him, and the title track touches on him, as well as Waters’ other obsession, the loss of his father. You can even read the other two tracks as being about the kind of pressure which got the better of Syd. After this, the lyrics move in other directions as Roger Waters completes his takeover of the band. It is possible that the famous incident with Syd marked the point at which they all realised it was time to move on; to accept that he wasn’t coming back, and that they need to write about other things.
The accepted wisdom is that Syd had been a hermit for years at this point, but that’s not true at all. After the two solo albums, he had done a few solo gigs, and did a few more with the aforementioned Fred Frith, as well as various others, including the drummer from Pink Fairies, the wonderfully named Twink. He was even in an actual, real, band called ‘Stars’ for a while – they never recorded anything, but there were some live performances. You can get an ides of what they all sounded like from this, which is a bootleg of a pre-‘Stars’ perfomance:
Syd even went back into the studio at Abbey Road in the summer of 1974, but nothing came of the recording sessions – I have heard a snippet of it – pretty much all that remains – and it’s just sad and awful. However, according to those who were there, he was still very much recognisable as Syd; he looked not so different from the 1968 version of himself, which is why what happened a year later came as such a shock.
Syd Barrett turned up at Abbey Road on June 5th, 1975. No-one seems to know how he got in, or why he had turned up at all; he was just suddenly there. He was significantly overweight, had shaved off all his hair, including his eyebrows, and appeared to be incapable of conversation beyond talking about how many pork chops he had in the fridge. Legend insists that the band were working on ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’; this may or may not be true, but there is photographic evidence of Syd in his disheveled state looking on in apparent bemusement. He listened to a playback of what they were doing; when asked if he’d like to hear it again, he said he couldn’t see the point. At the end of the day, he wandered off again, with everyone avoiding offering him a lift. As far as I can tell, no-one in the band ever had any contact with him again.
So, is it any good?
It is. Without ‘Dark Side’, this would be generally regarded as Pink Floyd’s masterpiece, I think; but of course, it wouldn’t exist without ‘Dark Side’ – they had to go through the process of making that to get to this.
It has a few more weaknesses than its predecessor; in particular, I’m not sure there was a need for two whole songs about how shit it is to work in the music industry; they both work, but but they cover pretty much the same ground. The sound effects are a little more cheesy than on ‘Dark Side’, and – I’d venture – not quite as necessary. Having said that, there is nothing quite like sitting through a live performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and feeling the hairs on your neck spring to life as it reaches the climax with that snippet you know so well…
Overall, though, it’s another work of genius. The way Pink Floyd worked at this time was that each member kept the others in check; if Waters and Mason were trying to throw in radical ideas, Wright and Gilmour were layering magnificent melodies and inspired soloing all over them; the whole is very much greater than the sum of its parts.
You may quibble about ‘Shine On’ being split in two, but it had to be that way for practical reasons (25 minutes of music on one side of vinyl would lead to some sound quality issues), and because it does emcompass the theme of the album – Syd’s troubles illustrated by what the track brackets. You may grouse (as I have done) at the fact that Stephane Grappelli is buried so deep in the mix on ‘Wish You Were Here’ that you can’t hear him, but you would also have to concede that adding anything more to that song might upset its delicate balance.
In the end, it doesn’t get played quite as often as some others, and I still haven’t got round to replacing my vinyl copy, but it’s a cornerstone of my musical experience. I can’t imagine life without it, and I can still remember with startling clarity the way we would huddle round the record player in the year area and try to figure out how the sound effects had been done. And I think – for all the talk of the words – that it contains the most poignant and lyrical elegy for a lost friendship in all of rock music as the final part of ‘Shine On’ fades out, and Rick Wright improvises sadly over the melody from ‘See Emily Play’, and for that alone it deserves full marks.