With the new re-releases of Pink Floyd, and the sudden explosion of bootlegs onto Youtube, I thought that perhaps a piece about the band itself was warranted. And what a band.

The most extraordinary fact about Pink Floyd was how little the band itself mattered. For undoubtedly one of the most important and successful bands in popular music, it is astonishing how little name recognition there is for any of Pink Floyd’s members compared to the well-known relationships and antics of comparable performers of the day. Ironically, the only member with significant name recognition is the fire that burnt twice as bright, Syd Barrett, who left the group within a year of their debut and soon became a recluse. Doubtless Syd’s insanity helped to fuel talk about the Floyd, and later greatly influenced their writing of Wish You Were Here and a few of the Dark Side tracks.

Yet even in the days of Syd, the band’s concert and light show sought to move the focus from themselves to the music and experience itself, a concept which has framed virtually the entirety of the Floyd’s work. The band’s early work took its audience to space and back, setting upon breathless underwater jaunts and jived with small furry animals. Even the considered reflections of modern life in Dark Side, Wish You Were Here and Animals were all told in a universalistic manner; they surrounded the listener, engulfing them in cacophonies of mellow reverberations. It was only upon the advent of The Wall, and more pertinently, The Final Cut, that matters begun to take themselves in a distinctly more personal manner (and to be fair to Roger Waters, much of the Gilmour albums are of the same vibe, just with considerably less direction and, it has to be said, relevance).

But that’s how Pink Floyd have always worked. The notion of a bunch of Cambridge-educated English kids writing songs about life, death and the silly intervening moments (and yes, spaceships crashing into the sun) was always going to labelled pretentious, but such a label is unfair when one considers the absolute depth of much of their work, particularly the lyrics of Roger Waters, which still rank among the best in rock music. Their initial whimsical nature, reflecting a deeply contemplative mind, evolved into an acute, biting attack on all his enemies. While there was a tinge of pity felt for businessmen, stuck in rat race, his attacks on Margaret Thatcher (before she was even in office), his utterly contemptuous portrayal of his school teachers, his patronising regard for his mother and his unfaithful wife, and once more savagely decrying Thatcher, Reagan and co; these were brutal lyrical assaults. While some argue Waters did get carried away, and some listeners were lost as a result,  it wasn’t for lack of genius.

There are a lot of excellent bootlegs now on youtube, this is just one.

Yet the wit of Waters’ lyrics is hardly the only factor in Pink Floyd’s long-lasting appeal. Their dense, layered music belies its relative simplicity. For a band whose tempo oscillated between slow and moderately slow, whose tunes plod rather than groove, their music has shown a remarkable staying power. While it pains me to use oxymoronic statements, it can only be described as “complex simplicity”. No Floyd tune is that difficult; even their longer compositions like Shine On You Crazy Diamond and Echoes evolve out of very simple ideas and melodies. But where the Floyd truly made their mark was in just how considered these tunes proved themselves to be; everything has showed a significant element of craft. While they initially emerged as a spontaneous psychedelic group, with many of their singles given radically different improvisational renditions in show, they gradually converged towards a more careful, considered and highly engineered sound. Which isn’t to say the creativity was lacking, but it just that it was different administered. Regardless of whether it be deeply original or a long painstaking process, their craft is never questionable. Many of these elements are barely noticed, like the layers of deeply evocative and even bemusing spoken word samples in Dark Side of the Moon (“I’ve been mad for years”, “I don’t know I was too drunk at the time”, “There is no dark side of the moon really… as a matter of fact it’s all dark”), the wine glass sounds in the intro to Shine On You Crazy Diamond, hell; even the outro guitar solo of Comfortably Numb was put together in the studio by David Gilmour.

I’ve always taken issue with labeling Pink Floyd as “progressive rock”, because they really share none of the characteristics of other bands like Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Sure, they used synthesizers, organs and extended guitar solos, but nothing was similar in their approach. Besides the relative contrast between the Floyd’s quaintness and the bombastic nature of most prog, simply put none of Nick Mason, Rick Wright, David Gilmour or Roger Waters were good enough musicians to play the same kind of music as the other English progressive rock bands. Far be it from me to criticise their ingenuity, but none of the Floyd’s music really ever approached their prog-meets-jazz fusion level of virtuosity. Which is perhaps why so much of it remains appealing 40 years later; their capacity as musicians was very much laid out in front of them. They were masters not only of their machines but of their own minds, and they sought to express themselves not just by their pure instrumental capacity.

Ultimately any attempt to define the effect of Pink Floyd’s music is a failed one; the scope of emotions that their output evokes is far too wide and complex. Rather, it is something that is very much beyond the ability of words to convey. It’s the feeling that occurs when you put on Dark Side of the Moon for the first time, where all these feelings rise up within you, when, as the wails and moans chime with guitar, you feel your whole essence slipping away, as if time had been brought to a standstill, and after it’s over all you can do is cry, and then put it on again. And while that feeling may fade with time, it never truly goes away.

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