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Pink Floyd is the premier space rock band. Since the mid-'60s, their music relentlessly tinkered with electronics andallmanner of special effects to push pop formats to their outer limits. At the same time they wrestled with lyrical themesandconcepts of such massive scale that their music has taken on almost classical, operatic quality in both soundandwords.Despite their astral image, the group was brought down to earth in the '80s by decidedly mundane powerstrugglesover leadership and, ultimately, ownership of the band's very name. After that time, they were little more than adinosaura ...read more
Pink Floyd is the premier space rock band. Since the mid-'60s, their music relentlessly tinkered with electronics andallmanner of special effects to push pop formats to their outer limits. At the same time they wrestled with lyrical themesandconcepts of such massive scale that their music has taken on almost classical, operatic quality in both soundandwords.Despite their astral image, the group was brought down to earth in the '80s by decidedly mundane powerstrugglesover leadership and, ultimately, ownership of the band's very name. After that time, they were little more than adinosauract, capable of filling stadiums and topping the charts, but offering little more than a spectacular re-creation of theirmostsuccessful formulas. Their latter-day staleness cannot disguise the fact that, for the first decade or so of theirexistence,they were one of the most innovative groups around, in concert and (especially) in the studio.
While Pink Floyd are mostly known for their grandiose concept albums of the '70s, they started as a very different sortofpsychedelic band. Soon after they first began playing together in the mid-'60s, they fell firmly under the leadership ofleadguitarist Syd Barrett, the gifted genius who would write and sing most of their early material. The Cambridge nativesharedthe stage with Roger Waters (bass), Rick Wright (keyboards), and Nick Mason (drums). The name Pink Floyd, seeminglysofar-out, was actually derived from the first names of two pioneering bluesmen (Pink Anderson and Floyd Council). And atfirst,Pink Floyd were much more conventional than the act into which they would evolve, concentrating on the rock andR&Bmaterial that was so common to the repertoires of mid-'60s British bands.
Pink Floyd quickly began to experiment, however, stretching out songs with wild instrumental freak-out passagesincorporatingfeedback; electronic screeches, and unusual, eerie sounds created by loud amplification, reverb, and such tricksas sliding ballbearings up and down guitar strings. In 1966, they began to pick up a following in the London underground; on-stage, theybegan to incorporate light shows to add to the psychedelic effect. Most importantly, Syd Barrett began tocompose pop-psychedelic gems that combined unusual psychedelic arrangements (particularly in the haunting guitar andcelestial organlicks) with catchy melodies and incisive lyrics that viewed the world with a sense of poetic, child-like wonder.
The group landed a recording contract with EMI in early 1967 and made the Top 20 with a brilliant debut single,"ArnoldLayne," a sympathetic, comic vignette about a transvestite. The follow-up, the kaleidoscopic "See Emily Play," madethe TopTen. The debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, also released in 1967, may have been the greatestBritishpsychedelic album other than Sgt. Pepper's. Dominated almost wholly by Barrett's songs, the album was a charming funhouseof driving, mysterious rockers ("Lucifer Sam"), odd character sketches ("The Gnome"), childhood flashbacks ("Bike,""MatildaMother"), and freakier pieces with lengthy instrumental passages ("Astronomy Domine," "Interstellar Overdrive," "PowR TocH") that mapped out their fascination with space travel. The record was not only like no other at the time, it was likenoother that Pink Floyd would make, colored as it was by a vision that was far more humorous, pop-friendly, and light-heartedthan those of their subsequent epics.
The reason Pink Floyd never made a similar album was that Piper was the only one to be recorded under Barrett'sleadership.Around mid-1967, the prodigy began showing increasingly alarming signs of mental instability. Barrett wouldinexplicably entercatatonic states on-stage, playing music that had little to do with the material, repeating the same non-related chord ornote for the entire set, or even not playing at all. An American tour had to be cut short when he was barelyable to functionat all, let alone play the pop star game. Dependent upon Barrett for most of their vision and material, the restof the groupwas nevertheless finding him impossible to work with, live or in the studio.
Around the beginning of 1968, guitarist Dave Gilmour, a friend of the band who was also from Cambridge, was brought in asafifth member. The idea was that Gilmour would enable the band to continue as a live outfit; Barrett would still be able towriteand contribute to the records. That did not work either, and within a few months, Barrett was out of the group. PinkFloyd'smanagement, looking at the wreckage of a band that was now without its lead guitarist, lead singer, and primarysongwriter,decided to abandon the group and manage Barrett as a solo act.
Such calamities would have proven insurmountable for 99 out of 100 bands in similar predicaments. Incredibly, PinkFloydwould regroup and not only maintain their popularity, but eventually become even more successful. It was early in thegameyet, after all; the first album had made the British Top Ten, but the group was still virtually unknown in America, wheretheloss of Syd Barrett meant nothing to the media. Gilmour was an excellent guitarist, and the band eventually provedcapable ofwriting enough original material to generate further ambitious albums, with Roger Waters eventually emerging as thedominantcomposer. The 1968 follow-up toPiper at the Gates of Dawn, A Saucerful of Secrets, made the BritishTop Ten,using Barrett's vision as an obvious blueprint, but taking a more formal, sombre, and quasi-classical tone, especiallyin thelong instrumental parts. Barrett, for his part, would go on to make a couple of interesting solo records before hismentalproblems instigated his lifelong retreat into seclusion.
Over the next four years, Pink Floyd would continue to polish their brand of experimental rock, which married psychedeliawithever-grander arrangements on a Wagnerian operatic scale. Hidden underneath the pulsing, reverberant organs, guitarsandinsistently restated themes were subtle blues and pop influences that kept the material accessible to a wideaudience.Abandoning the singles market, they concentrated on album-length works, and built a huge following in theprogressive rockunderground with constant touring in both Europe and North America. While LPs likeUmmagumma(divided into liverecordings and experimental outings by each member of the band), Atom Heart Mother (a collaboration withcomposer RonGeesin), and More... (a film soundtrack) were erratic, each contained some extremely effective music.
By the early '70s, Syd Barrett was a fading or non-existent memory for most of Pink Floyd's fans, although the group,onecould argue, never did match the brilliance of that somewhat anomalous 1967 debut. Meddle (1971) sharpenedtheband's sprawling epics into something more accessible, and polished the science fiction ambiance that the group hadbeenexploring ever since 1968. Nothing, however, prepared Pink Floyd or their audience for the massive mainstream successoftheir 1973 album, The Dark Side of the Moon, which made their brand of cosmic rock even more approachablewithstate-of-the-art production, more focused song-writing, an army of well-timed stereophonic sound effects, and touchesofsaxophone and soulful female backup vocals.
The Dark Side of the Moon finally broke Pink Floyd as superstars in the United States, where it made number one.Moreastonishingly, it made them one of the biggest-selling acts of all time. The Dark Side of the Moon spentanincomprehensible 741 weeks on the Billboard Top 200 album chart. Additionally, the primarily instrumental textures ofthesongs helped make The Dark Side of the Moon easily translatable on an international level, and the record became(andstill is) one of the most popular rock albums worldwide.
It was also an extremely hard act to follow, although the follow-up, Wish You Were Here (1975), also made numberone,highlighted by a tribute of sorts to the long-departed Barrett, "Shine On You Crazy Diamond." The Dark Side of theMoonhad been dominated by lyrical themes of insecurity, fear, loss of sanity and the cold sterility of modern life; WishYou WereHere and Animals (1977) developed these morose themes even more explicitly. By this time, Waters wastaking a firmhand over Pink Floyd's lyrical and musical vision, which was consolidated by The Wall(1979).
The bleak, overambitious double concept album concerned itself with the material and emotional walls modern humansbuildaround themselves for survival. The Wall was a huge success (even by Pink Floyd's standards), in part because themusicwas losing some of its heavy duty electronic textures in favor of more approachable pop elements. Although Pink Floydhadrarely even released singles since the late '60s, one of the tracks, "Another Brick in the Wall," became a transatlanticnumberone hit. The band had been launching increasingly elaborate stage shows throughout the '70s, but the touringproduction ofThe Wall, featuring a construction of an actual wall during the band's performance, was the most excessive yet.
In the 1980s, the group began to unravel. Each of the four had done some side and solo projects in the past;moretroublingly, Waters was asserting control of the band's musical and lyrical identity. That wouldn't have been such aproblemhad The Final Cut (1983) been such a poorly-received effort, with little of the electronic innovation so typical oftheirprevious work. Shortly afterward, the band split up -- for a while. In 1986, Waters was suing Gilmour and Mason todissolvethe group's partnership (Wright had lost full membership status entirely); Waters lost, leaving a Roger-less Pink Floydto get aTop Five album with Momentary Lapse of Reason in 1987. In an irony that was nothing less than cosmic, about20years after Pink Floyd shed their original leader to resume their career with great commercial success, they would dothesame again with his successor. Waters released ambitious solo albums to nothing more than moderate sales andattention,although receiving critical acclaim, while he watched his former colleagues (with Wright back in tow) rescale thecharts.
Pink Floyd still had a huge fan base, but there's little that's noteworthy about their post-Waters output. They knewtheirformula, could execute it on a grand scale, and could count on millions of customers -- many of them unborn whenTheDark Side of the Moon came out, and unaware that Syd Barrett was ever a member -- to buy their records and seetheirsporadic tours. The Division Bell, their first studio album in seven years, topped the charts in 1994 without makinganyimpact on the current rock scene, except in a marketing sense. The same happened with the live Pulse album,recordedduring a typically elaborate staged 1994 tour, which included a concert version of The Dark Side of the Moonin itsentirety. In 2005, Waters, Gilmour, Mason, and Wright reunited to perform at Live 8. Barrett and Wright passedaway,respectively, in 2006 and 2008. Both were taken by cancer.
In 2011, Pink Floyd launched an ambitious reissue program called Why Pink Floyd...?, spearheaded bysignificantlyexpanded multi-disc box set reissues of The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and TheWall.These sets marked the first time Floyd opened their vaults and issued rare, unreleased recordings, including theoriginal mix ofDark Side, heavily bootlegged live numbers like "Raving and Drooling," and demos. « hide
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