The music of Pink Floyd encourages association with monumental concepts of Time – the past, the future, the eternity of space and death, or our own human history that echoes across generations. The broad scale of these concepts may obscure specific meanings in this music that is rich with meaning, but by tracking the music’s position with regard to concepts of Time, one can discover philosophical and political purpose. Though I will comment on Time in earlier and later versions of Pink Floyd for the sake of organizing the development of the music, this presentation will focus on the music of the Roger Waters-led Floyd of the mid-1970s through to Water’s attempted dissolution of the band after The Final Cut (1982). Following the primordial psychedelia of the Syd Barrett-led Floyd and the early-1970s band that positioned itself as technological lords of soundscape rock, and preceding the re-formed Floyd that re-stated the songs of its past in a different context for massive global audiences, the late-1970s Floyd made excellent use of its historical and musical pasts as both subject and object material. Specifically, the absence of Syd Barrett and the impact of the second World War on Waters’ family are developed into complex metaphors to critique modern societies whose people have become alienated from one another, subjugated to capitalist systems, and prone to war and violence. The utility and historical validity of these historical subjects are supported by an integration of the musical past into self-affirming structures and repeated musical experiences.
Roger “Syd” Barrett, the dominant songwriter and musician in the first lineup of (The) Pink Floyd, created music that was acutely original, music without obvious precedence. Both in concept and in execution, the Barrett-led Floyd created primordial psychedelia that constantly flaunts expectation. Pop gives way to feedback washed free improvisation, chord progressions unfold in chromatic semi-logic, and solos do not reference the theme. Barrett’s lyrics favor personal experience and imagery rather than collective histories and statements.
In this iteration of the group, performance and improvisation take precedence over composition. In step with London’s progressive, hippie culture of the mid-1960s, Pink Floyd performances often were a scene for spontaneity and social anarchy, with relatively radical group improvisation the dominant musical feature. The Pink Floyd found themselves performing in what were conceived by the organizers of London’s radical culture as multimedia, audience participatory events, rather than mere concerts. Looking back over the Floyd’s performances at the UFO club, which for a time was the capital of London hippiedom, Peter Wynne Wilson recalls, “Syd’s improvisations would go on for extended periods, but would be absolutely immaculate. The music was wonderful and the audience rapport was total. UFO was an exceptional experience – everyone was rooting for the same direction and the same goals” (Schaffner, 47). Others, including Barrett’s bandmates have suggested that a high ratio of rubbish was being performed, but clearly some appreciated the social potential of the scene. In an environment where the disintegration of structure is valued as highly as the development of structure, performances of a piece could vary wildly from night to night. In stark contrast to the mega-tours of the early 90s, whose audiences expected to witness recreations of the band’s recorded music, these audiences expected to experience the unexpected. To a large degree, The Pink Floyd’s music was unburdened by the past, remaining free to express the (perhaps mostly Barrett’s) immediate present.
Following this logic, perhaps the recorded output of Barrett’s Floyd could be considered of secondary importance to the live performance. Nevertheless, Piper At the Gates of Dawn and its contemporary singles succeed in engaging the listener in a performative experience. The physical, aural space occupied by the recordings on Piper is dense, singular and admirably consistent. This recorded space separates the album contemporary albums, occupying a sound that is neither live nor typically studio. This original sound space, along with the mixing experiments, extended improvisations that are barely tied to themes, and the inclusion of traditionally non-musical sounds confirms Piper as a performative recording. (this shit might be oxymoronic)
Barrett’s departure or dismissal from Pink Floyd due to mental illness and erratic behavior deprived the band of its font of instant creativity, and to continue, the subsequent Pink Floyd(s) would require new purposes and structures. Long, mostly improvised performances were already common in Barrett’s Floyd. With an avant-garde reputation to uphold, and with the quasi-anarchic trappings of psychedelia to be cast-off, the remaining Floyds plus David Gilmour began to fill the performance time previously saturated with miniature, improvised chaos with carefully structured compositions. So, while the kinetic, maximalism of Barrett’s Floyd is often best appreciated on minute scale, the next Floyd of the late-60s and early-70s thrived on glacial, carefully balanced compositions that fulfilled their structure on a large scale.
The music of this second era of the group encourages association with eternity — or cyclical Time, balanced in the past and future, rather than the spontaneous present of Barrett’s era. In concert standards “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” and “Careful With That Axe Eugene,” esoteric lyrics unfurl within quiet, creeping opening sections followed by violent crescendos, and ultimately a return to the quiet from which they began. These songs are harmonically sparse, relying on simple, hypnotic, repeated melodic figures and the rise and fall in drama of an arc structure for much of their effect. Pop song structure and any fashionable artificiality that can be found in it is eliminated; rhythm, melody and harmony are simplified and set to building atmosphere and tension.
Lyrically, eternal Time beyond human influence is evoked in the outer space imagery of “Astronomy Domine,” and the day – night cycles in “Let There Be More Light,” “Remember a Day,” “Set the Controls…,” and “A Pillow of Winds.” The lyrics of “Echoes” contain a wealth of eternal imagery, to the vastness of the ocean in the first verse, the “I Am The Walrus” identity mirror of the second verse, to the previously mentioned day-night cycle in the final verse.
An evocation of eternal Time can also be identified in the mood of the shorter, pastoral songs that occupy Waters’ quarter of Ummagumma, the soundtrack to More, side two of Atom Heart Mother, and parts of Meddle. Situated between dreamy, sunglazed psychedelia, childhood nostalgia, and the artificial British primitivism not uncommon in the music of many of Floyd’s 1970 contemporaries, songs like “Granchester Meadows” and its supposed sequel, “Fat Old Sun” recall time before man was alienated from nature, a nonhistorical time that is more nostalgia or fantasy than history. Acoustic instruments and recorded nature sounds like the birds in “Granchester Meadows” and “Cirrus Minor”, minimal modern, electronic sounds (excluding healthy amounts of dreamy reverb and Leslie swirl), sparse arrangements, and soft, nearly lackadaisical vocals all draw the listener into a pastoral dream of time before modernity. Even the Mapuga tribe chorus on “Absolutely Curtains” suggests eternal, pre-historic Time.
In this era of the eternal, the recorded album replaced the performed event of the Barrett era as the premiere venue for hearing Pink Floyd, and the studio grew in importance as a compositional tool. This growing preference for the studio is evidenced in the various film soundtracks completed between 1969’s More (dir. Schroeder) and 1972’s Obscured By Clouds / La vallee (dir. Schroeder), which was more lucrative and likely less taxing work than touring the circuit. The Gilmour-augmented Floyd produced much of their own recordings after Piper, displaying an increasing adeptness in and reliance on music technology. Nicholas Schaffner describes the Floyd having composed “Echoes” and the tracks that precede it on Meddle over the course of a month booked at Abbey Road, “Without having composed anything in advance […]” (164).
The technological distance developed in this atmosphere aided in saving Pink Floyd from relying on the presence of any rock idol personality to connect with listeners. Perhaps the perfect image to mark the end of this era is that of Adrien Maben’s Pink Floyd at Pompeii film, where the band performs for no audience save the filmmakers, surrounded first in a shell of their equipment, and then on all sides by the eternally preserved death of the ruins. Music for eternity, for the sake of music.
The transition toward the album produced with prismatic studio focus fundamentally changed the way in which Floyd fans experienced their music. Projects such as “Atom Heart Mother” and “Echoes” preface the album-length structures employed to great effect on Dark Side of the Moon through The Wall. (Along with a structural template, “Echoes” set precedence for the close vocal harmonies and funk interlude identifiable by Mason’s quarter note hi-hat pattern that would appear on Dark Side and Wish You Were Here.) The album gave Waters and company more control over the development of themes and expectations, while unified song suites compelled the band to recreate their albums’ content in its conceived sequence during live concerts[check that this is accurate on setlists]. A perfected, self-referential album invites listeners to re-listen to the record and engage with their own developed expectations. To a greater degree than occurs with most other bands, Pink Floyd fandom demands that listeners experience an album rather than merely listen to it, discovering deeper meaning through multimedia experiences (Wizard of Oz), repeated listens, and knowledge of the band’s past. Thus, a Floyd listener knows songs, but is also likely to know the album context of those songs, and the historical and ideological context of that album. This template of long structures that reinforce their own content through repetition within the course of a album, and of perfected recordings encouraging their audience to repeat the musical experience provided Pink Floyd with the setting needed to support Waters’ growing interest in social criticism.
The next era of Pink Floyd would shed the ideological vagueness of its Eternal period for more psychological and politically concise messages. This transition from cosmic reverie to socially-relevant critique was accomplished by a manipulation and reintegration of the past into the band’s music. This past-centric era primarily includes Pink Floyd’s work between 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon through to 1983’s The Final Cut, although the use of the past as subject material was apparent as early as Barrett’s dismissal, with Waters’ unreleased song “Incarceration of a Flower Child” representing an early effort in reintegrating the band’s past. Along with the ghost of Syd Barrett, the death of Waters’ father in World War II before Waters ever knew him, account for the two most important historical subjects in the music of this era of Pink Floyd. These subjects have a common nature in that they are both personal to Waters, they have both caused difficult emotions including resentment, loss, and guilt, and they are both easily extended into broader metaphors which have implications in the social lives of listeners at large.
References to Syd Barrett in Pink Floyd are well known to Floyd fans. After Syd appears for the last laugh on the transitional Saucerful of Secrets, he is referenced obliquely through the Dark Side of the Moon and in songs on Obscured By Clouds. Certainly the heroin burnout equals death of youth culture conclusion to Barbet Schroeder’s petulant More must have resonated with Barrett’s former bandmates as they scored the film. It was not until the physical (and almost unrecognizable) reappearance of Syd in EMI’s Abbey Road studios during the initial sessions of Wish You Were Here that Waters would reintegrate Syd’s ghost specifically into the the band’s music. Barrett’s brief and timely appearance gave Waters the character around which he could develop his thematic interests of loneliness, lost dreams, and exploitation by the music industry. Far enough removed now by the mid-1970s from the real person, Floyd could use the image of their founder, whose youthfulness was burnout, and monetized by the pigs, who was too idealistic and individual to cooperate with the systems, who was left raving mad and completely alone, as a complex metaphor relevant beyond Barrett for the suffering and alienation that we experience in a modern, capitalist society. Though specific references to Barrett are present in every song on the album, the lyrics are left open enough to interpretation to invite the listener to place themselves in the narrative. Thus, the lyrical content, or subject past, central to Wish You Were Here is Barrett and the early history of Pink Floyd.
The insane origins of Pink Floyd via Syd Barrett have lent the band a degree of ominous credibility. This credibility is leveraged on Dark Side of the Moon, where a fine line is walked between identifying madness as a frightening inevitability, and in proposing madness as the only escape from the trudgery of modern life. Pink Floyd’s elegy to Barrett, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” suggests that Barrett’s meteoric dropout from society, his becoming insane and irrelevant to the machine, permitted him to retain a semblance of his gleam. What would be labeled as a tragedy, could be recast as a dubious victory.
The musical content, or object past, of Wish You Were Here reinforces the lyrical message by establishing a perspective of remembrance at either end of the album. This is accomplished by splitting the lengthy “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” into parts one through five on the first track of the album and into parts six through nine on the final track of side two. The musical space built in “Shine On” is oceanic, utterly subsumed by Rick Wright’s synthesizers, the pace is languid and passive, and David Gilmour’s guitar is as fragile and bluelaced as china. The keyboard drone over which Gilmour plays in parts one and two slurs the progress of time. We are choked in the nostalgia, in the loneliness long before the lyrics have opportunity to identify our feelings. The instruments gradually suggest and suggest the vocal melody, but for nearly nine minutes it is withheld and we are left to long for the expression of our built up emotion. The lyrics are sung from the perspective of an individual in the present remembering a lost person of his past: “Remember when you were young / you shone like the sun” begins the first verse. The singer admits to having no knowledge of the crazy diamond’s present, “Nobody knows where you are / how near or how far,” but continues to implore this lost youth to shine on. Of course, the present is unknown and only the memory of this person can shine on. Never in the album does the Barrett character get to speak for himself, and we should be clear that the need to reintegrate this past is more to express the band’s guilt over Syd’s lingering absence/situation, their own past in the music industry, and social alienation and exploitation in general. The insane origins of Pink Floyd via Syd Barrett have lent the band a degree of artistic credibility, the real, lived darkside to the artistic moon that the rest of the group propped up in orbit after their founder’s firing. If their classic albums were not laced with the threat of insanity, a horror that seems possible through Barrett’s ghost, would the powerlessness that Waters’ lyrics warn us of be taken seriously? Surely any diamond has great value. Pink Floyd’s elegy to Barrett, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” suggests that Barrett’s meteoric dropout from society, his becoming insane and irrelevant to the machine, is the only way to overcome the machine. What would be labeled as a tragedy, could be recast as a victory.
We flash back to the events that contributed to the ruin of this lost person in “Welcome to the Machine” and “Have a Cigar,” where inescapable, brutal industry have begun to exploit the individual. These lyrics of these two songs are applicable to the industry pressure to conform and produce hit material that the early band suffered in 1967 and to the Floyd of 1974 who were struggling to follow up on the massive success of Dark Side of the Moon. The car radio transition from “Cigar” to “Wish You Were Here” forces the many listeners who would indeed listen to this song on the car radio over the decades into an awareness of their previous experience with the song, and to insert themselves within the loneliness narrative. Our past as listener was integrated with the music before it was even heard. “Wish You Were Here” deals with the recent loss of the friend. Here, the Barrett figure is still visible, still present. Afterward, we are returned on the wind to our original perspective of remembrance with the completion of “Shine On.” The sustain and portamento of Gilmour’s lapsteel at the beginning of the second half of “Shine On” plays a similar role to Wright’s droning organs in parts one and two, slurring time and connecting the past to the present, albeit with more simmering rage and agency than the keyboard parts. The perspective of remembrance returns with the completion of the verses. Preceding the resolution of the song is the now obligatory funk interlude (via “Echoes” and “Any Colour You Like”) identifiable by Nick Mason’s quarter note, hi-hat pattern. Thus, the song order brings us from a self-aware remembering of the past, to scenes from the past, and back to the distance of memory. Although the final, major key synthesizer part suggests an emotional resolution, perhaps an artificial resolution, to the loss of Barrett, his past would reappear, less prominently and melded with Waters distillation of his own self in The Wall.
The impact of the Second World War on Roger Waters’ family is the other important historical past that is manipulated in this era of Pink Floyd. Nicolas Schaffner recalls, “[Eric Fletcher Waters] was only thirty when he died, slain along with forty thousand other British soldiers in a reckless British campaign to capture the bridgehead of Anzio from the Nazis. His third child, George Roger Waters, had been born only a few months before […]” (15). This loss would provide Waters with ample bricks his Wall and tattered banners for the Final Cut, although his anti-militarism had already been stated in “Corporal Clegg” and “Us and Them.” The Wall has us follow Pink, a strung out rock star conglomeration of Waters and Barrett, who lost his daddy in the War, has his feelings suppressed by an overbearing mother and sadistic school teachers, cannot connect to his wife and loses her to another man, and finds himself completely isolated from the rest of humanity by a vast wall made of bricks from his own past.Events from Waters’ past, such as the discovery of King George’s mass-produced letter of condolences to his mother, are extracted and given new, more universal context within Pink’s experience on the album. As we hear in, “Another Brick in the Wall, pt 1,” the first and most frequently identified brick in the wall is the loss of Pink’s father. The father’s death, supposedly in defense of the nation against fascist aggression, appears meaningless as Pink and a massed audience with him turn fascist to cope with the repression of their emotions. The expression of the personal loss of Waters’ father empathizes with the generation of English who lost family in the war, and raises the questions of if and how we are learning from that absurd violence. So as to not reduce the album, it should be understood that war is one of many targets at which Waters levels his sarcasm, and the number of wall metaphors pursued on the album is exhaustive.
Though the number of tracks on The Wall is vast for a Floyd album, the tracks are organizable into overlapping subsets that share musical and lyrical themes, such as “Another Brick In The Wall, parts 1-3,” “Happiest Days Of Our Lives” and “Run Like Hell”, or “The Thin Ice”, “Mother”, and “Goodbye Blue Sky.” As the album progresses, intervals, rhythms, time signatures, and tonalities are carefully stacked, like the individual bricks of a wall, so that the album gains unity from repetition of its musical past. For example, the ominous militant stomp of “Empty Spaces” recalls the un-syncopated, new wave funk of “Another Brick In The Wall,” while the whole note, minor arpeggio played by the guitar in “Empty Spaces” reappears in “Hey You” at twice the pace, and then again to sinister effect in “Waiting For The Worms.” The ooohing vocalese that concludes Gilmour’s part at the beginning of “The Thin Ice” (“ooooh, oooh, oooh, baby blue”) is recalled throughout the album in “Happiest Days Of Our Lives,” “Mother,” “Goodbye Blue Sky,” and “Don’t Leave Me Now.” Dialogue, here more literal and literary than previous spoken words in the catalogue, is inserted throughout for the sake of the narrative. Plot driving dialogue plus the bomber, chopper, and classroom sound effects reveal a theatrical layer that would be articulated in the live performances and the film adaptation of the album. The inclusion of WWII film soundtracks throughout mediate our now passive inheritance of this history, and cast doubt on our ability to learn from the pain of the war.
Events from Waters’ past, such as the discovery of King George’s letter of condolences to his mother, are extracted and given new, more universal context within Pink’s experience on the album. As we hear in, “Another Brick in the Wall, pt 1,” the first and most frequently identified brick in the wall is the loss of Pink’s father. The expression of the personal loss of Waters’ father empathizes with the generation of English who lost family in the war, and raises the questions of if and how we are learning from that absurd violence.
1982’s The Final Cut, much of the content of which culled from the same pool of songs that became The Wall , raises a more narrowly focused critique on right-wing recourse to violence in an era after World War Two where national leaders should know better – “What happened to the post-war dream?” Specifically, the United Kingdom’s conflict with Argentina over the Falkland Islands was the impetus behind The Final Cut. Contemporary world history is primary subject matter: Nixon, Reagan and especially Thatcher are lampooned, nuclear oblivion looms on the sunset horizon, and everyone is concerned about competing with Japanese industry. Waters implores his audience to look at their past , and learn from the pain we caused ourselves. The death of Eric Waters is recalled, but cleaned of its psychological Wall metaphors and held up as a history lesson. Two fictitious, but potentially historical, characters pick up the message of Waters father to elaborate the impact of the war, the Hero of “One of the Few” and “The Hero’s Return,” and the Gunner of “The Gunner’s Dream.” Both songs are sung in first person. The Hero is a pilot who has returned alive, becomes alienated from his wife, and cannot escape the ghost of the Gunner’s last words. The Powell and Pressburger-like character of the Gunner has a dying dream of a just and peaceful society. We are encouraged to “take heed of his dream,” but are then introduced to the world leaders who clearly have let the dream fail. The album is generally structured in this way, alternating between a requiem for what should have been and voices unsympathetic to learning from history. This requiem – interruption format is most evident on “Not Now John,” where Gilmour’s gotta get on with industry part cuts off Waters’ hesitant, conscientious reprise of “One of the Few.” The Final Cut is Pink Floyd’s most overtly historical and political album. Its shared origins with The Wall are obvious, but through a more proactive integration of the historical past, the latter album communicates a strong, more concise, and arguably less universal message. Waters’ attempted dissolution of the band in 1985 concludes the era of Pink Floyd most invested in utilizing the past.
The substance of the next and as of now, final era of Pink Floyd is primarily nostalgia. The Gilmour-led Floyd of the late 1980s and 1990s, minus Waters and plus Wright again, mounted extremely successful blockbuster world tours. I believe that the draw for these tours was the popularity of the material of the previous decade, and not the strength of A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987) or The Division Bell (1994). These tours re-contextualized the original music in a stadium rock, smorgasbord that diminishes the political potential of the songs, and makes no moves to re-invigorate the music through performance. If we use overriding concept of Time as a gauge for political potential, the second, Eternally distant, and the fourth, nostalgic era of Pink Floyd should be seen as politically inferior to the first, anarchic and present, and the third, historical and socially conscious eras of Pink Floyd.