Memories of Floyd

On Friday night I sat down with my nephew to watch a documentary on the making of Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd way back in 1975.

My nephew I suspected wanted to watch something else, but I got to the remote  ahead of him. He’s only 16, and not a great music lover in any case. A band like Pink Floyd must have seemed like ancient history to him, I figured. We chatted on that though as the program began, and he told me likes the older music, and none of the current stuff. He’s a thoughtful kid, and I sensed watched the program with as much fascination as I did.

Pink Floyd is one of my favourite bands. I’ve had a reverence for Roger Waters particularly ever since I got a handle on the band. Somehow I respected his stubborn intensity – perhaps understanding of it in some personal way; and his lyrics are provocative and intelligent.

Since Pink Floyd split off into factions fans have tended to one camp or the other. There was Roger Waters, then there were the rest of them. In truth every member of Pink Floyd were talented artists, and each had their moment. The counterpart to Waters was Dave Gilmour. For me it was natural to incline towards Waters because it was his view of the world that seemed the spiritual heart of the band. Against that was  Gilmour’s immensely influential guitar playing, and the iconic guitar licks he wrote and played. The reality is probably as it seems: together they did wonderful things, apart they are mediocre. Waters continues with his intelligent, occasionally coruscating songwriting, but without the musical inspiration of Gilmour and the others; and Pink Floyd has lost focus and bite without the passion of Waters.

These are arguments that Pink Floyd lovers could carry on for hours in pubs all over the world. On Friday night we were locked into a moment of time, before the split and any of that meant anything, in 1975 when they wrestled  with the creation to the follow-up to Dark Side of the Moon.

I seem to recall watching a doco about that a few years ago, and writing about it here. That was an iconic album of genius. Wish You Were Here would rival that, but it’s creation was much more difficult. Watching scenes recorded back then interspersed with Waters, Gilmour, etc today reflecting on it all was fascinating.

I was aware of my nephew sitting beside me for several reasons. For his father, who died earlier this year, Pink Floyd was his second favourite band after the Beatles. He was an obsessive music fan, to a degree that it makes almost shocking to find his children have only a cursory interest in it (which, however, seems consistent with the times – my generation were much more connected to the music of the day than this generation). I told my nephew how in 1988 I went with his father to see Pink Floyd in concert at the tennis centre. It remains the best concert I’ve been too.

At the same time I sensed my nephew was absorbed in the cultural history we were being served up with. My nephew loves history, has a fascination for things that have gone before. He mentioned he had done a quiz that told him the sixties was his era. Here on screen was a time 40 years  past, a different era, though recognisable. The fashions were different, people wore their hair differently, and yes, the music was different too. But there were names that any half smart person should recognise, as he did.

I lived through that era, though I was young, and my memories of it sketchy and scattered. I was glad to have lived then. It seemed a freer time, a time both more impulsive and more innocent. I reflected how lucky I was to have lived through such an interesting passage of time. I often think these days – and others agree – that I grew  up in the right time. It was better being a child when I was than it is now.

For my nephew it’s not nostalgia he feels, but history he absorbs. If he could go back he  would, I’m sure. He can’t, all he can do is read about it, can watch programs as we did the  other night, and otherwise tap into those of us who were there. For once I felt that responsibility, but was glad of it. These are our lives, his, mine, his father’s, the journey we share and pass on.


Which one’s Pink?

Roger Waters in Buenos AiresImage by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³ via Flickr

I watched a fascinating documentary last night tracking the history of Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd are one of my all time favourite bands, and their concert at the Melbourne Tennis Centre in 1988 remains the best I have ever been to.

Pink Floyd is one of those bands that rouse strong opinions. In the pantheon of great bands they rate pretty highly, and their advocates are generally a pretty passionate lot. I would include myself in that number, and have for many years had a very particular view of what Pink Floyd was.

The history of the band can be divided into three stages. The first is Syd Barrett, the legendary frontman who led the band through the late sixties when they were an art rock, psychedelic band. He’s more famous now for his drug taking and subsequent mental problems, but as a musician he had a profound impact on many muso’s. In the end his mental problems led to him stepping down from the band to become a virtual recluse before dying a few years ago. He remains an enigmatic character.

Dave Gilmour replaced Barrett and while he had a major influence on the band with his distinctive and virtuoso guitar play and vocals, this became the era of Roger Waters. The other band members may dispute that, perhaps with good reason, but it was also an admitted cause of their eventual split. It became too much Roger Waters, and not enough Pink Floyd.

I can understand that argument. Every member of the band was a talented musician, and every one of them contributed something of real substance, most notably on what is their most famous and successful album, Dark Side of the Moon.

Regardless there is no doubt that Waters became their guiding force. He was a highly intelligent and intense man capable of writing lyrics that were both poetic and scarifying and sometimes bitter. At the same time he was capable of coming up with absolutely compelling hooks. Listen to Money and the absolutely classic bass line that drives it relentlessly forward (Waters was the bass player).

This is their classic era, filled with great albums and fantastic songs. Albums Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, The Wall, even The Final Cut, are some of the best ever made. This is the Pink Floyd most people know, an era and generation defined by their distinctive music. For mine their two greatest songs are Money (great lyrics as well as great hook), and Comfortably Numb, which I think is one of the great songs, with potentially the greatest guitar solo in history Dave Gilmour plying his trade. But then there are songs like Wish You Were Here, Shine On You Crazy Diamond (both inspired by Barrett), Us and Them, Welcome to the Machine, Eclipse, even The Wall (not one of my favourites, but an iconic song).

More and more as time went on the band’s music came to reflect Roger Water’s personal psyche. Like many artists his art reflected his personal journey through which recurring themes of betrayal, the controlling state, independence, and the death of his father in the war would emerge again and again. The Final Cut was a deeply felt, intense album, but the real culmination of this expression came with the release of The Wall.

The Wall was a blockbuster any way you look at it. It told the tale of Pink in his rise from obscurity to stardom, his paranoia, his neurosis. The title song was a huge hit, and later a movie was made of the album staring Bob Geldof. It’s worth seeing if only for the fantasy scenes depicting a fascist state and the great animated cartoons of Ralph Steadman, but it’s heavy going.

The Final Cut came out in 1983, but the band split acrimoniously soon after that. Roger Waters went solo while the rest of the band continued to tour as Pink Floyd, despite court battles.

Thus began the third incarnation of Pink Floyd, with Dave Gilmour out front.

For many years I dismissed these phase of the band. When A Momentary Lapse of Reason came out in 1987 and got good airplay I thought it was perfectly inoffensive, but not a Floyd album. It’s easy to be that dogmatic when you’re a rock fan. I’m less so now. In my mind I’ll always associate Pink Floyd with the great era led by Roger Waters, but if I am to be fair I must acknowledge Syd Barret before him, and his quite different music, and if I am to do that then I have to accept the Dave Gilmour phase. Which one's Pink?

Being all snooty about it never stopped me from watching Pink Floyd in ’88 thrillingly play all those great songs without Waters (though I saw Waters in concert alone probably 10 years later – also good, not as spectacular). I’m sympathetic towards Waters when he claims Pink Floyd are playing his songs – in most cases they are. For many years he was the driving, creative force behind the band and the songs the product of his personal life and history. It’s like someone going around claiming another person’s autobiography as his own.  Yet this is music. The songs, written by Waters, were released by Pink Floyd the band and regardless of their origin really become the property of the listener as they enter popular culture.

Some kind of reconciliation occurred for a benefit concert in 2005, and it’s good to see the members of such a legendary band come together again. That’s it though; they each have their solo careers and projects now. What remains of Pink Floyd is their rich musical legacy and a premier position in the annals of rock history.

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