Ten Of The Best: Pink Floyd

❉ We Are Cult’s musical majordomo Eoghan Lyng compiles a chronological decalogue of Floydian peaks.

Rivers find themselves at bends, turns and crossings. Passengers get on, divers swim, cyclists take photographs and gondoliers push for speed. Reuniting in 2012, guitarist David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason had reached this point of the precipice, and while many had assumed The Division Bell (1994) was Pink Floyd’s last, there was another destination for the prog rock forefathers to sail, fittingly named The Endless River (2014).

It has been a fifty-year journey for Gilmour since he joined the band. Gilmour came aboard under the guise of a band with a superb psychedelic debut under their belt, preening the band for a musical journey. It was one that saw the departure of psych poet Syd Barrett (without whom, Pink Floyd would not have existed) and the departure of bassist/conceptualist Roger Waters (whose foresight brought the band dissertations of misanthropy and rock operas of isolation).

Barrett’s exit was marked by a marvellous solo album The Madcap Laughs (which Gilmour was heavily involved with) and wounds with Waters were healed when Pink Floyd played together at 2005’s Live 8. But The Endless River gave Gilmour and Mason the chance to pay tribute to Floyd’s most unsung hero, a keyboardist whose sound had been the backbone of the band. While Barrett, Gilmour and Waters could have been Pink, it was Richard Wright who made them that bit more Floyd.

It was a transition that brought the band from past to present, Gilmour reflecting “We’ve added new parts, re-recorded others and generally harnessed studio technology to make a 21st-century Pink Floyd album. With Rick gone, and with him the chance of ever doing it again, it feels right that these revisited and reworked tracks should be made available as part of our repertoire.” With a new century comes new foresight, but for Pink Floyd there is no stopping their music. They’re sailing on.

10. Arnold Layne (1967)

Syd Barrett had taken to playing music and drawing as a teenager, his childhood friend Roger Waters recalled. Barrett’s word painting came from the gates and characters that came from Cambridge, as in this charming tale of a transvestite pinching womens’ clothes from washing lines. Working with the technical knowledge of three architecture students (bassist Roger Waters, drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist Richard Wright), Floyd’s debut single was a psychedelic parameter of peerless poetry. Whereas his successor David Gilmour was admired for/accused of guitar virtuosity, Barrett’s slicker and tighter form of guitar playing hewed more to pop than prog, something John Lydon would appreciate in later years. Blur’s Graham Coxon has also cited Barrett as an influence on his song-writing.

The four combined to record an album’s worth of Barrett songs with the excellent The Piper At The Gates of Dawn (an album of more substantial lyricism than Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band), harnessing Barrett’s lyrical prowess that betrayed his twenty one years. Pink Floyd garnered media attention for their liberal uses of LSD, though Barrett himself was the only true participant in that cause.

Such a proclivity had its side effects on Barrett’s health and his bandmates were forced to abandom him in 1968. Barrett’s lyricism on The Madcap Laughs and Barrett is enviable, but they were difficult albums to record. Engineer/producer John Leckie, in an interview for We Are Cult, described him as “very stoned and out there, not in an extroverted way, but an introverted one!” Legendary in his absence, his cache grew over the decades. Barrett’s fans were legion, one of whom, David Bowie, would join Gilmour to deliver an innovative and iconoclastic cover of Layne to celebrate and commemorate the peerless poet in 2006.

9. Set The Controls for the Heart of the Sun (1968)

Barrett’s behaviour was becoming less and less predictable. He had cornered himself in a situation even he knew could only result in departing the band (the lyrics to Jugland Blues are very telling). The others coped; the erudite and thoughtful Roger Waters was writing a number of his own songs and fellow Cambridge alumni David Gilmour joined on second guitar, adding vocals to Corporal Clegg and Let There Be More Light.

Unsurprisingly, A Saucerful of Secrets is a schizophrenic sounding album, but it does feature the boast that both lead guitarists play on space rocker Controls. The other three are more interesting here; Richard Wright’s encompassing solos, Nick Mason’s fallow timpani and Waters’ autumnal imagery (leaves and gardens became a recurring motif in his work) make for a spirallingly spherical space song.

8. The Nile Song (1970)

You’d be forgiven in thinking this was a Black Sabbath track. Dense guitars, shuffling bass, howling vocals? All very Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. With no keyboards, whatsoever, this features the others playing as a power trio,including some truly colossal drumming. Nick Mason’s oeuvre tended to be controlled and centred, but Nile shows a torrent of toms and bass drums bellowing with powerful panache, drumming with the might of any Keith Moon or Ginger Baker. No wonder it appears so regularly in his Saucerful of Secrets setlists!

They’d lost Barrett and now looking to the future, pictured where they could play next. Floyd’s remit was as much a visual as an aural one, so an invitation to play the soundtrack to Barbet Schroeder’s visceral More seemed the ideal solution. Waters, who wrote many of the songs for the soundtrack, found that “His feeling about music for movies was, in those days, that he didn’t want a soundtrack to go with the movie. All he wanted was, literally, if the radio was switched on in the car, for example, he wanted something to come out of the car. Or someone goes and switches the TV on, or whatever it is. He wanted the soundtrack to relate exactly to what was happening in the movie, rather than a film score backing the visuals.”

The soundtrack differs from the pastoral (Cymbaline, Cirrus Minor) and the explosive (The Nile Song). Waters wrote all three songs but unsure of his own voice and aware of his musical deficiencies, asked Floyd’s guitarist to sing in his stead. Within a decade Waters would be reluctant to let anyone sing his songs (they had become decidedly more autobiographical by Animals and The Wall), but Gilmour’s voice is tremendous, changing from his more refined falsetto to a ballsy baritone blaring brilliantly, one he would reprise on future heavy songs Young Lust and Not Now, John.

7. Echoes (1971)

Ping… Ping… Ping… A note of such simplicity it incredulously opened a twenty-minute seismic epic, harbouring a grand piano intro into a carnivorous collection of musical wizardry. Two voices entwine, reflecting the reflections in its lyrics, David Gilmour singing the lower harmony, Richard Wright singing the higher, piloting Roger Waters prose through Nick Mason’s rubbery drums (the song is deservedly credited to all four). So crucial was Wright’s part to the song, Gilmour has relegated it to the past since 2008. “Echoes was a musical conversation between me and Rick.” Gilmour explained. “It’s a conversation I can no longer have.”

The four piece included it in their Live At Pompei set, opening and closing the film. It’s a powerful performance of innovation (Waters creates a wind sound via his bass), and musicality. On the latter, many felt The Phantom Of The Opera paid more than a little tribute to Echoes, Waters certainly thought so. “Yeah, the beginning of that bloody Phantom song is from Echoes.” Waters told Q magazine in 1992.  “Bastard. It probably is actionable. It really is! But I think that life’s too long to bother with suing Andrew fucking Lloyd Webber.”

6. Any Colour You Like (1973)

Roger Waters was appointed as the band’s lyricist on The Dark Side of The Moon, imploring his bandmates to make a thematic selection that delved into lunacy, greed, selfishness, spite and introspection. Reflecting on his time in Cambridge, Waters told Philip Anthony Rose about traders who promised any colour he wanted “also interesting that in the phrase, ‘Any colour you like, they’re all blue’, I don’t know why, but in my mind it’s always ‘they’re all blue’, which, if you think about it, relates very much to the light and dark, sun and moon, good and evil. You make your choice but it’s always blue.”

Interestingly, Waters isn’t credited on this instrumental, but the feeling is there, Gilmour’s spiralling guitar bellows with anger and spite, fed through a Uni-Vibe guitar effect, offering echoey scat vocals to accompany. Wright pitters through synthesisers, unmistakeably his playing, hypnotic, haunting, hollow and happy. Wright was a gifted keyboardist whose unflashy nature made him less a forefront to his band than Tony Banks and Keith Emerson were to theirs. But his playing was celebrated posthumously on The Endless River, demonstrating the many nuances and textures Wright had to his palette.

5. Wish You Were Here (1975)

Factually, Syd Barrett left Pink Floyd in 1968. In reality, his shadow stuck to the band like a brick in a wall. The other four members played his songs in concert, took his pop structures to great heights and his character as inspiration for what many consider their finest record. Whether that rhetoric is merited is debatable, but it would be the last of a certain type of Floyd classic. Already the primary songwriter at this point, bassist Roger Waters’ influence would grow more and more over the next eight years, leaving Wish as the last album as a four-way collaboration, something of a point of creative departure for guitarist David Gilmour and keyboard player Richard Wright.

As wonderful piece of work The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973) may have been, extensive touring meant that the four piece found themselves physically and emotionally spent. Exhausted, the band reconvened at Abbey Road studios to test what would be the follow up to the then best-selling record of all time. Noting that the band had lost much of their camaraderie, Waters wrote his lyrics reflecting his bitterness at the world at large. Shorn from the optimism the sixties had presented, Waters’ lyrics reflected an ever-growing discontent with the band’s surroundings, the money men who micro-managed the band on an ongoing basis (“By the way, which one’s Pink?”) and his tearful reaction to a surprise visitation from their former colleague; to some of the most beautiful pieces of music Wright and Gilmour ever composed. Syd Barrett walked into their studios, fattened and balder, and the onset of shock reeled throughout the studio. Asked his opinion of the song, Barrett admitted he thought it a bit “old”.

How wrong he was, a colossal and charismatic piece of cherried music comely playing through his influence.  Ultimately, Diamond would not be the AOR hit American label Columbia was expecting (perhaps due to its length). That accolade ultimately went to the eponymous track, a slow acoustic burner that proved despite their grandiosity Floyd could still churn out a palpable busking classic. Containing one of Gilmour’s more delicate vocals, the song would remain for many the sound of desert highways and byways. Ironically given the stature and status Diamond acquired over the years, it was Wish You Were Here that proved more in line with what Syd Barrett would have written. An instant classic from the moment it was released, the song brought the respective gifts Waters and Gilmour possessed. Waters had a strong sense of feeling which he could convey admirably in lyric form, while Gilmour had an exquisite ear for musicianship voiced through his six strings. The melding of two such differing skills is what makes Wish You Were Here so hauntingly affecting. Reconvening at Live Aid after years of acrimony, Gilmour and Waters shared vocals on this endearing ballad as the millions watching Live 8 could see more wounds healing beyond the charitable intentions of the concert.

4. Run Like Hell (1979)

David Gilmour had felt hard done by. Whatever he brought to Money and Have A Cigar in his arrangements, Roger Waters always took the publishing. On Animals, Gilmour was dignified with one co-writing credit, the other four Waters’ alone. And on The Wall, an opera which stripped audience perceptions  by de-mystifing mythologies, Gilmour, Nick Mason felt, again didn’t get the credit he deserved.

But he is credited with the music on three tracks; Young Lust, Comfortably Numb and Run Like Hell. The latter two used ideas from Gilmour’s 1978 solo album, Gilmour having used similar riffs on Short and Sweet and Run Like Hell. “Yes, it’s a guitar with the bottom string tuned down to a D, and thrashing around on the chord shapes over a D root” Gilmour admitted in 1992. “Which is the same in both. It’s part of my musical repertoire, yes.”

The lyrics and vocals are Waters doing (Gilmour handles the grizzly bass line), exasperated pantings of high pitch extremism. It’s one of Waters most accomplished vocals, high on adrenaline, fast in pace. It proved vocally demanding live on stage, so Gilmour and Waters alternated lines, a method Gilmour continued alternating lines with bassist Guy Pratt during the Waters-less tour in 1994. The song also benefits from a sharp, short, symphonic keyboard solo, the only one Wright brought to the album.

On a dense introspective album, Wright had found the material unenjoyable, working alone in the studio at night, feeling upset at his failing marriage, and expressed a desire to spend more time with his children. Waters had had enough, insisting that Wright leave the band after The Wall tour where he would only be paid a session’s fee. Gilmour was, again, upset. Immersed in his own music singing about his dead father, Waters seemingly couldn’t see the irony (which wasn’t lost on Gilmour or Wright) that he was admonishing a fellow bandmate for being a father (Wright got the last laugh. As a sessioneer, he profited from the tour where the other three had to fork out for expenses and costs).

Nonetheless, The Wall was a triumph, a spectacle its chief writer proudly proclaims as Floyd’s best work. As court cases rose over the ownership of the Pink Floyd name, Waters was given permission to the rights to perform The Wall in its entirety under his own name. His 1990 Berlin Wall performance had edges critics felt veered beyond the global, Gilmour himself stating “the reasons were far from charitable”.

3. The Final Cut (1983)

An authorised and finalised product. A non-compromise. Career suicide or outright suicide? That’s what the title track asks. Wright was gone, Gilmour only arrived to put down guitar parts and Mason, Waters’ closest friend in the band, was making noises how unhappy he was. Waters latest project now found himself entirely alienated not only from society as the last four were, but from his bandmates and even himself. No wonder Waters felt a little downbeat about it all!

And yet, work persevered, finding solace in the darkest light, moments and tear stained eyes. The Final Cut was a work of detachment, disenfranchisement and deploration, but it was the title track that delivered the hardest blows. Waters takes to the microphone, echoing vulnerability in revealing dark sides and weak sides which might be revealed to Rolling Stone in a heartbeat. In an affecting twist of fate, Waters’ ballad came with it one of Michael Kamen’s more tasteful orchestrations and Gilmour’s punchiest solo on the album, delivering Waters’ most personal and naked work yet.

Little wonder Waters had no choice but to leave the band for a solo career. He’d risen from bassist to lyricist, writing songs for Pink Floyd, about Pink Floyd and now the cycle found him writing songs for and about himself. He embarked the following year to focus on an album rejected by his bandmates, The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking, idealistically and ideologically continuing his art. His absence led a large shadow (just as large as Barrett’s), but it freed David Gilmour to reproduce his energies back into a band he had played for since he was twenty two and to bring Floyd back to the stage which they had neglected for too long.

 2. Wearing The Inside Out (1994)

Lyrically and thematically, The Final Cut worked, but musically, something was missing. It lacked that hypnotic touch, that laconic jazz feel, that sense of key swimming behind Waters searing vocals. Gilmour recognised this and personally invited Richard Wright back to the fold for A Momentary Lapse of Reason, though Wright’s contributions were minimal on an anodyne album brimming with eighties studio clichés. Wright, who heralded Dark Side of The Moon and Wish You Were Here as masterful Floyd, lamented the split with Waters. Whatever their personal differences, when tuned correctly they produced Burning Bridges, Us and Them and Shine On You Crazy Diamond. A Miles Davis fan, Wright always brought that tint of jazz to a band more attuned to rock music.

Where David Gilmour turned to writer (and girlfriend) Polly Samson for lyrics, Wearing The Inside Out turned to Anthony Moore for lyrical expertise, a man who would later write with Wright on his solo album Broken China (1996). It’s textbook Floyd and one that would have delighted listeners in 1994. Wright sang it, his first lead vocal since 1973, Money/Crazy Diamond saxophone Dick Parry player opened with a seductive hook, Mason shuffled with spacey precision, sessioneer Sam Brown blared her backing vocals as powerfully as Clare Torry had while Gilmour moved from guitar playing to bass, one of a roster of instruments he had played in the studio (often in Waters’ place) during the seventies. They’d learned from the mistakes from A Momentary Lapse of Reason and avoided sounding contumacious. They turned to the dark side and back for their audiences.

Wright himself was coming clean to his critics. He stayed out of sight from morning to night (leaving Waters and Gilmour the co-frontmen from 1973), didn’t recognise who he was (damaged by demotion to session musician in 1979) and murmured a vow of silence (he would never admit to acrimony, but he’d happily imply it). Astonishingly honest, it joined a myriad of hooks, revelations, surprises and contradictions which made Bell the finest Pink Floyd album since The Wall.

1. High Hopes (1994)

Incredibly for Floyd, the band had possessed, not one, but two conscientious wordsmiths, gifts that none of the three remaining Floyd members possessed. Whatever her standing to David Gilmour, Polly Samson’s industrious career in the publishing industry made her the ideal person to fill this void, mediating on her two predecessors on the appropriately titled and distanced Poles Apart.

Yet, there were greater songs that filled The Division Bell. Taking inspiration from the British Parliamentary’s conscientious bell, the album’s best track High Hopes returned to Cambridge, a place with nights of wonder, inner tides and unfolding flags leading to a dizzying world. Samson’s words were ones which explored an England Gilmour would never return to. Floating in dream like memory, it addressed its nostalgia with credence. Although the grass was greener and the lights were brighter, they were still travellers who went down the same road many times.

There is a soundscape of travel and history here. Wright opens with a classical piano, Mason marches with a military stamp during the bridge and Gilmour delivers one of his more expressive codas which never ended, only fading out with the album’s tolling chimes. Playing to an endless river, it sears on and on, endlessly and effortlessly playing Floyd’s artistry through a dream like haze only Floyd could deliver with watery effect.

❉ Eoghan Lyng is a writer, part-time English teacher and full-time lover of life.

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