I was 16 when I first heard Pink Floyd. I had heard of them and read about them before, of course – about how strange, other-worldly and even disturbing their sound was at the time they landed on the musical stage. And here I was, well over a decade after their heyday, feeling how strange, other-worldly and even disturbing their sound was. ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ was the 17th cassette (yes, I belong to those generations) that I bought and to a young mind that was used to the English pop sounds of Don Williams, Kenny Rogers, Michael Jackson, Sheena Easton, that album was mind-numbing. One listen, and the next time I put it back in the player was almost exactly an year later by when my musical horizon had expanded just a few millimeters more to accommodate this sound. And it’s been quite a trip ever since 🙂 This post was ‘inspired’ by one night-long flight of Floyd songs, and repeats of some favourites.
‘Set The Controls For the Heart Of The Sun’ from ‘A Saucerful Of Secrets’ really captures the tone for that other-worldly sound that Pink Floyd became known for at their peak. Its eerie tone with that shaman-like chant makes me go all quiet even now – not a calm quiet, but a paranoid, better-shut-up-or-they’ll-get-me quiet.
But the song that in my opinion best captures Floyd’s incredible ability to sonically represent the vastness, and the scariness, of space is the aptly named ‘Echoes’ which formed the entire B-side of ‘Meddle’. This is an odd one in the album in that the generally innocuous sounds of Side A, be it the bluesy ‘Seamus’ (that was another odd one, but in a slightly unsatisfactory way), the softly beautiful ‘Fearless’ or even the brilliant opener ‘Pillow Of Winds’, do not quite prepare you for this 23+ minute haunting epic. There’s a particular segment in the song that has the sound of seagulls which put in my head this lasting image of a man in a coracle drifting hopelessly on an endless sea. And every time I hear someone say ‘I need my space’, I think of this song, that image pops up and a voice in my head rasps ‘Now, now, be careful what you wish for’.
But Pink Floyd were not always the master painters of these ambitious soundscapes. That was the post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd. On their early, very early, works they displayed a delightful quirkiness of lyric and music which was essentially the doing of Barrett. One of my favourites from the early days of the band is ‘Arnold Layne’ which I think is part of an EP because I’ve not come across it in any studio album (it has appeared in compilations though). The playfulness in this tale of a pervert who steals women’s knickers from clotheslines is countered by the artful commentary on the arguably out-of-whack punishment given to the offender.
Pink Floyd’s debut ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ is a brilliant, psychedelic riot and I could pick so many of its songs for this post but I chose ‘The Gnome’ just because it’s so whimsical and such a counterpoint to the seriousness of Floyd’s subsequent albums. No one knows how the band’s sound would’ve progressed had Barrett not been dumped from the band for his erratic behaviour. But when I hear some of the pretentiousness on ‘The Wall’ I can’t help wishing he was there.
Barrett did have a big influence on one of Floyd’s best albums ‘Wish You Were Here’, from the cover art to songs that were about him – the title song and the searingly beautiful ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V)’. This song, among other things, is a showcase for David Gilmour’s terrific guitaring skills. And I think the band came together on this album displaying cohesiveness and a strength of feeling more than on any other.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about the over-ambitious (and as stated earlier, pretentious) ‘The Wall’ which stemmed from Roger Waters’s desire to make a rock opera. By the time of this album, the band had already lost its edginess and its ability to surprise. Yet it still had some very good pieces like the evocative melody of ‘Comfortably Numb’ (which would’ve been left out if Waters had his say, but the other band members insisted on its inclusion) and ‘Hey You’, the disturbia of ‘Mother’, the anthemic ‘Another Brick In The Wall Part 2’ and the world-weary, smirking cynicism of ‘In The Flesh?’. But too many fillers take away from all this. I’ll say this again, this album really could’ve done with Barrett’s madly light touch.
The band fared better with its commentary on humanity on ‘Animals’ although the literal song titles (‘Pigs’, ‘Dogs’, ’Sheep’, ‘Pigs On The Wing’) do bother me a bit occasionally. This is, I think, the band’s darkest album with its very bleak world-view. It’s also musically their hardest hitting with Gilmour’s guitar fiercely flexing its muscle. These are perhaps best exemplified by ‘Sheep’ which twists ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ premise into a slavering, bloody ripping apart of the ‘leaders’ by the erstwhile abused and subjugated turned ‘demented avengers’.
There are a couple of songs from their lesser albums that are often on my playlist. One is the most un-Pink Floyd song that I’ve ever heard, ‘The Gold It’s In The…’ (‘Seamus’ runs it close though) on the mostly mediocre ‘Obscured By Clouds’. This is unexpected straight-ahead rock which the band plays with a lot of verve. Maybe it’s become a personal favourite because of that element of surprise.
The second is the melodic ‘Learning To Fly’ from the post-Roger Waters era ‘A Momentary Lapse Of Reason’ featuring this beautiful lyric:
Can’t keep my eyes from the circling skies
Tongue-tied and twisted
Just an earth-bound misfit, I
And now, we circle back to where I started. ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ is Pink Floyd’s most celebrated work – album artwork, the fact that it’s the longest charting album (over 13 years in the Top 200) in Billboard chart history, the sound engineering, the most played song at UK strip clubs (or so one reads) etc. etc. Much of that is a result of the band’s near-perfect musical presentation of a theme – life, the madness that drives us and divides us, death – consistent through the album that has found resonance with people across generations, melded with fantastic production work (the money-counter sounds at the start of ‘Money’ and the ticking and ringing of alarms of multiple clocks leading smoothly into a drum beat on ‘Time’). Be it
The lunatics are in my hall
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paper boy brings more
on ‘Brain Damage’
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death
on ‘Time’, the song remains the same – relevant then, relevant now.