Over 55 Years of Pink Floyd, in Eleven Songs
Like the iconic rainbow prism from Dark Side of the Moon, the English band broke homogeneous popular rock music into a dazzling and beautiful array of parts.
Besides the enigmatic flameout of original bandleader and LSD-fueled Byronic hero Syd Barrett, there’s very little to the so-called “personal side” of Pink Floyd. Longtime lead singer and songwriter Roger Waters left the band during the ’80s. He and lead guitarist David Gilmour seem like they don’t like each other that much. I don’t know—after the sturm und drang of the Eagles and the star-topology network of Fleetwood Mac’s failed relationships between bandmates, there’s not much to see here, is there?
But with Pink Floyd, there is always, always the music. I’m going to skip Dark Side of the Moon altogether, because we don’t need to shine a light into some fictitious dark corners of one of the bestselling albums of all time. Some of my picks represent Pink Floyd’s astonishing timelessness, and some highlight that these visionary weirdos were also sometimes just a rock band. It’s a long, strange trip whose legacy extends like vivid striations into the bedrock of music today.
Astronomy Domine (1967)
The building blocks of Pink Floyd date back to 1962, when the four founding members first met in college and started gigging. In 1965, they finally named themselves Pink Floyd and started to get serious, as much as a group of college boys in the halcyon days of Beatles-copycat money could be serious. They released Piper at the Gates of Dawn in 1967. Lead track “Astronomy Domine” opens with some explicit references to space exploration, and the song bounces around between strong instrumental parts, overlaid with monotonic vocals about space stuff. It’s a wild song. Can you imagine picking this as the opener of your debut album? And honestly, this kind of song is Syd Barrett on his very best, most restrained behavior. Many of Pink Floyd’s other early songs sound, well, like the work of art students throughout the ages.
Let There Be More Light (1968)
In the tiny time between releasing Piper and recording 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets, the original lineup of Pink Floyd began to fracture. Syd Barrett grew more erratic, not just in a rock ’n’ roll art school way but instead a “missing for weeks, showing up catatonic” way. The band shored Barrett up the best they could—it seems like no one was interested in throwing Barrett out of the band, they just wanted everyone to consistently show up for performances and recording sessions. David Gilmour joined the band as Barrett’s stunt double, basically. “Let There Be More Light” is a Roger Waters song that could pass for a Syd Barrett song, and just one actual Syd Barrett song appears on this album. They buried it in last place on side two. With increasingly strong encouragement from the others, Barrett fully left the band in 1968.
Crying Song (1969)
1969’s More is a movie soundtrack, and nearly half the tracks are instrumentals. It’s interesting that Pink Floyd invited Syd Barrett to leave the band and then, as their first move without him, recorded the soundtrack to a movie about a counterculture youth’s decision to use serious drugs and his eventual death as a result. Is it a humblebrag? Is it a tell-all tabloid feature? In any case, the album was written mostly by Roger Waters but sung mostly by David Gilmour, whose smoother, breathier voice blends better with Pink Floyd’s more atmospheric songs.
After a couple of albums I hate (Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother, which you’re totally free to love on your own), 1971’s Meddle is my favorite Pink Floyd album. In fact, “Fearless” is my favorite song by any band. The instrumentation and vocals are soothing and mellow, while the lyrics are evocative and poetic without tipping over into sounding pretentious or overworked. It’s a simple song that evokes a strong mood. I’ve listened to it so many hundreds of times and it still carries me away and puts me in a different frame of mind. And it was the b-side to the next pick!
One of These Days (1971)
The thing about Meddle is that it sounds like . . . if you went to a psychic in 1971 and asked them to tell you what lay in store for Pink Floyd for the rest of time. I love “Fearless” for its simplicity, but I love “One of These Days” for its complexity and daring. All four band members collaborated to write the song, including the distorted vocal sample repeated throughout—recorded by not-singer Nick Mason. David Gilmour’s soaring, gifted lead guitar is just one piece of the arrangement, and it doesn’t strangle the strong vocal sample or the chopped-up bassline. Honestly, it’s a masterpiece of moving parts that never sounds busy and still sounds fresh in 2019.
The Gold It’s In The… (1972)
Pink Floyd returned to the soundtrack game for the same filmmaker as 1969’s More—Barbet Schroeder, whom I know best as the director of Murder by Numbers, because I love Michael Pitt and don’t understand French cinema history. “The Gold It’s In The…” is one of Pink Floyd’s most mainstream-sounding rock songs. It sounds like a Christine McVie song in a good way. Apparently the band tossed off the recordings for 1972’s Obscured By Clouds in a very short time, and the album was almost immediately overshadowed by impending behemoth Dark Side of the Moon. Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!
Have a Cigar (1975)
1975’s Wish You Were Here doesn’t fully live in the shadow of 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon, and it sold plenty of millions of copies on its own. But the album feels like a direct sequel in an interesting way. Dark Side of the Moon is arguably a perfect Pink Floyd album in terms of range, variety, songwriting, and consistent excellence. I’d stack it against Sticky Fingers, my favorite Rolling Stones album. And the album has saturated every part of pop culture so thoroughly that I can’t include anything from it in this primer. But here’s the thing: I don’t know if Pink Floyd’s strongest position in the canon is as rock music you sing along to. I do know that the perfectly delivered line “By the way, which one’s Pink?” is a more effective concept than the entire album Dark Side of the Moon. “Have a Cigar” is sung by guest and Harvest Records labelmate Roy Harper, himself a “none of the above” musician repeatedly crammed into ill-fitting genre suggestions.
In the Flesh (1979)
(Heads up that this song has a number of slurs in it, in context as part of a villain rounding up outsiders and minorities.) Roger Waters’s efforts to storytell about Syd Barrett grew more and more personal over time. Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals is a strange concept album about George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I don’t like it very much, but it did create Waters’s longtime mascot, the flying pig iconography and balloon still seen at his concerts. But 1979’s The Wall continues Waters’s strong songwriting obsession with fame, artistry, and how public pressure wears on the private artist. It’s just not about Syd Barrett anymore, and I’m honestly not sure how much it ever was. Interestingly, after writing “By the way, which one’s Pink?” in 1975, the lead character in the story of The Wall is a musician named Pink. The motif of a physical wall runs through the album too, and while Syd Barrett studied art in college, Roger Waters studied architecture. Okay, enough literary studies stuff.
The Fletcher Memorial Home (1983)
The Wall is also the peak of what I think of as “Roger Waters sneering-yell” — his theatrical singing lifts the material and gives it the creepy feeling of fascist intrusion he’s going for. But musically, I get tired of it. In 1983, Pink Floyd released an entire album of the cutting-room floor from The Wall, the aptly named Final Cut. From the annals of “Hello, symbolism police?” this was also Roger Waters’s last album with the band. After firing founding member Richard Wright and insisting on releasing a full album of his own B-roll, he left Pink Floyd. On top of the metatext, “Fletcher Memorial Home” is a curiosity in several ways. This one song combines Waters at his most self-indulgent with Gilmour at his most workmanlike. Waters sing-talks in a heavyhanded way over sparse instrumentation, and Gilmour pipes up with a soaring, if uninspired, guitar solo.
One Slip (1987)
Okay, I’ll cop to a major factual error in the introduction to this piece: I forgot just how bitchy Roger Waters got during his protracted breakup with Pink Floyd. By 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason, he’d been out of the band for several years. He and David Gilmour both released solo material and had fine separate lives. But when David Gilmour and Nick Mason wanted to release new material as Pink Floyd, Waters fought them in court and dragged it out as long as possible. Eventually, Gilmour won. Dearly departed member Richard Wright even returned to play keys on the album and even sing backup on several tracks. It’s almost like the glowering primadonna in charge was the real problem all along! Anyway, reaction to this album is very split, and that’s fine with me. Plenty of people think it’s a lukewarm take without the spirit of Pink Floyd. I’m not here to argue with them—I just take a long view of an eclectic band whose most popular sound only truly cohered for a period of six or eight years. David Gilmour wrote “One Slip” with Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera. The arrangement includes a lot of ’80s stuff that really works, both with Gilmour’s vocals and guitar style and with Pink Floyd’s longtime love of experimentation and technology. I love this song, no asterisk required.
Keep Talking (1994)
Richard Wright rejoined the band 100% by 1994’s The Division Bell. He and David Gilmour co-wrote “Keep Talking,” a soaring ’90s frontispiece featuring both the computerized voice of Dr. Stephen Hawking and a gospel-tinged backing vocal ensemble. Again, Pink Floyd is leaning into the decade they’re in, in musical decisions as well as the lyrics. This song feels right to close with, because the material that inspired Gilmour was about the way an open line of communication can prevent problems and reduce friction. The reunited group of Gilmour, Mason, and Wright stayed together until Wright’s death in 2008. Gilmour and Mason released a final studio album in 2014 and honored Wright’s contributions to it before his death.
And by the way, which one’s Pink?
I’ve made a Spotify playlist where you can listen to the songs in this primer and then keep listening as Spotify transitions you to the Stones and then the Grateful Dead, or wait, is that just me? The algorithm really has my number. You can also check out my previous primers on Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, the Rolling Stones, and Jimmy Buffett. (Let me know if there’s a band or artist you’d love to see in this series!)
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