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The four phases of Pink Floyd



There are at least two fun ironies in the rather ugly dispute that has separated leader-songwriter Roger Waters from his erstwhile teammates in the greatest dinosaur rock band of them all, Pink Floyd. The first is that Pink Floyd wasn't really Roger Waters's group at all: it was the conception and (originally) the execution of Syd Barrett, an alleged genius and extravagant acidhead who is generally credited with inventing Brit psychedelia and, by extension, creating the progressive rock movement. It's a lot to answer for, but it's hard to hold Barrett personally responsible: he quickly became one of the first major LSD casualties, and has, since 1968 or so, been said to be under the care of his mother, though in the last decade or so he's put out an album or two and made a couple of catatonic live appearances. After Barrett's breakdown bassist Waters, keyboardist Richard Wright, and drummer Nick Mason hired David Gilmour as guitarist and lead singer, and the reconstituted group began the inchoate experimentation that would produce Meddle and The Dark Side of the Moon in the early 70s. That Pink Floyd was a much different animal from Barrett's, but the members displayed few qualms at continuing with the (financially established) original group name. In this context, Waters's current complaints about the group pressing on without him but with the now platinum-plated name come across as a tad disingenuous.

The other irony is that Waters, whose two solo albums (The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking and Radio K.A.O.S.) should have been the inheritors of the huge popular success of The Wall and The Final Cut, hasn't exactly seen his solo career go rocketing up the charts. This is partly because his records have been flawed, and partly because the average Pink Floyd fan isn't capable of handling advanced concepts like solo careers with any great confidence. But mostly it's because Waters, despite a growing egotism that put his name no less than 39 times on the packaging of The Wall (this for a group that hadn't had its picture taken since 1969 and on an album that didn't even mention Mason or Wright), nonetheless typified the reclusive never-give-an-interview arrogance of the rock star; he kept his privacy, but missed out on the cults of personality forming around everyone from Mark Farner to Jimmy Page. Now Waters is giving interviews to marginal rock magazines (like California's BAM) and talking about how he'd be making more money these days if he'd taken a higher profile in the press in the past.

But those are just two interesting aspects of the split, which came about either because of a growing despotism on Waters's part (Gilmour's version), or a growing slug-ism on Gilmour, Mason, and Wright's parts (Waters's version). Now Waters has released his second solo album, Radio K.A.O.S., and a regrouped Pink Floyd, Gilmour firmly at the helm, has given us A Momentary Lapse of Reason; we have the tools to decide for ourselves. Who's right? Who's wrong? Which one's Pink?

The answer is that there are, or have been, four Pink Floyds. The first was Barrett's, and was informed primarily by the very weird but very real pop sensibility that created the group's original string of British hit singles: "Arnold Layne," "See Emily Play," "Apples and Oranges"--little bits of oddly structured but somehow engaging radio confection that resembled at times Peter Townshend bizzarities like "I'm a Boy" or "Happy Jack." But the debilitated Barrett's contribution to the group's second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, was nearly nil.

The reconstituted band--the second Pink Floyd--retreated into the group's other strength: a charming and original infatuation with sonic experimentation. Now, to paraphrase Goebbels, when I hear the words "sonic experimentation" I reach for my revolver, and indeed today it takes a near-herculean effort to listen to, much less appreciate, efforts like Atom Heart Mother and Ummagumma. The technology and instrumentation are woefully dated, and the depths of thought that produced song titles like "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving With a Pict [i.e., a Celt]" are better left unplumbed. Even the production is so rough edged that the contributions of Gilmour, who had become the instrumental heart of the band, sound cluttered, even clunky.

It has to be remembered, however, that the dated feel of these albums is mostly the result of sonic advances throughout the genre that the group inspired and made possible. Those albums--Atom, Ummagumma, a couple of film sound tracks--are about the search for meaning in sheer sound; their successors, Meddle (1971) and The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), are about finding it. Meddle was when the group took control of the studio, and Moon was when, with the help of engineer Alan Parsons (later of Project fame), they mastered it. "One of These Days," Meddle's opening track, is one of the great rock instrumentals; powered by a throbbing bass, it articulates itself solely through a monstrous synth noise (actually, I think it's a piano run backward through a phase shifter) and Gilmour's frantic guitar. The album's other landmark was, of course, the 23-minute, 21-second "Echoes," a too-long but vastly influential tour through the windmills of Pink Floyd's collective mind. Starting with just an echoic "ping" vaguely suggestive of a stalactite dripping far away in a glacial cave, the piece ventured occasionally into lyric but mostly served to articulate, step-by-step, the musical ideas that would power the group through its next four or five albums. With Pink Floyd, you have to say this: progressive rock, which has given us everything from Hawkwind and Can to Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, was a dumb idea, but it was their dumb idea. Its zenith was these two albums.

Some think Meddle is the masterpiece. I fall in the Dark Side of the Moon crowd, (a) because it's a genuine sonic landmark, which Meddle isn't; (b) because it's the first consistently successful synthesis of lyrics, instrumentation, and effects in the group's career; and (c) because when the hullabaloo died down it turned out that the album was an easy-listening stunner, with aesthetic qualities (that sax! those synths!) that make it listenable years later, over and above the iconic status the thing has earned on the economic front. For those of you who were raised on Pluto (don't laugh, I was in a room with a half dozen of them recently), DSOTM has been on the Billboard album charts for about 750 weeks, making for a penetration into three or four generations of teenagers roughly akin to that of Mao's little red book in the PRC. Despite Waters's having written all the lyrics, Moon seems to be a group album in a way that wouldn't be seen again: Gilmour's vocals, which have a distinct and beguiling facelessness, are as much a part of the album's appeal as Waters's rather benign odes to alienation and Wright's organ fills. (Also important was Parsons's engineering, which is generally credited with helping the group achieve the extraordinary spaciousness and power of the arrangements.)

DSOTM was the key transition album between the second and third versions of Pink Floyd, between a group that was Waters and Gilmour's and a group that was Waters's almost exclusively. This latter version began with DSOTM's successor, Wish You Were Here, continued through Animals, The Wall, and The Final Cut, and has finished with Waters's two solo albums. Through them, he honed his depiction of an ever-bleaker world of scheming authority, pointless love, and, most important, victimized artists. Waters is the Phil Ochs of space rock: a genuine talent sunk by a humor turned into sarcasm, idealism turned into condescension, belief turned into a hugely egotistical series of polemics.

While Waters raged against the deadening effects of contemporary politics, the British educational construct, social mores generally, he was disengaging himself at the same time, retreating into a self-absorption that bordered quite often on the monomaniacal. The signs began immediately on Wish You Were Here: "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" (a nice tribute to Barrett), "Have a Cigar," and "Welcome to the Machine" are all, directly or indirectly, about how awful life became for Waters after DSOTM's success; and The Wall, of course, was a two-record set on just that same subject. His complaints have a certain archaeological value, to be sure, and production standards remained high. Even a monomaniacal rage of the sort that could produce "Welcome to the Machine" or The Wall's "Run Like Hell," "Young Lust," or "Another Brick in the Wall" has to be credited, and there were occasional leavenings, like Wish's quiet and moving title track. Still, The Wall, Waters's alleged autobiography, was a shockingly revealing portfolio of self-pitying woes, unfunny sardonicism, and bone-crunching metaphor (even if, like me, you thought that the central wall construct had possibilities, you're mighty sick of it by album's end).

Despite instances of crystalline, elemental brilliance rhythmically and instrumentally, Waters was falling into the psychological traps he'd been limning so effectively in the establishment figures he railed against: he was arrogant and unleashable; he confused his terrors, his problems, with those of the world generally; and he started forgetting the past--i.e., the teamwork that had produced the group's best music.

The Final Cut (1983) was a ponderous and unfriendly work that saw Waters exchange the autobiography of The Wall for an in-memoriam biography of his father. Typically, the work's central metaphor was a clumsy one that equated his father's death in World War II as a senseless waste on the scale of worldwide annihilation. Granted that Dylan Thomas made the same equation, Waters undermined his own with rampant heavy-handedness and a humorless sense of irony ("Not Now John"). Waters was never profound ("Everyone's looking for something, they say / I get my kicks on the way" was an early lyric), and on what appeared to be Pink Floyd's swan song he outdid himself: the song cycle's last line ("We were all equal in the end") is awful first on the hippy-dippy level and second because it contradicted the theme of the whole album: what, in the end, may cause a nuclear holocaust, and what indeed probably caused his father's death, was the fact that we're not all equal before the end.

By The Final Cut there was hardly a group anymore: the album was credited "by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd" (minus Wright, whom Waters'd fired after The Wall). Though the record suffered, it was easy to believe the billing, and easy to forget that a group so much of whose appeal had been sheer sound could scarcely afford to lose the participation of its chief instrumentalist, singer, and overall balancer of the excesses of its main writer--it was Gilmour, after all, who gave The Wall its humanity and, if you paid close attention to the credits, cowrote three of the album's best four or five songs. Given Pink Floyd's genre--space-art-progressive rock--it was also easy to go overboard at Waters's signs of intelligent life in this particular universe, and some critics did. While DSOTM has always been a critics' darling, Wish and Animals were not so kindly treated. But gradually Waters wore down his critics; The Wall was seriously received, and The Final Cut, unbelievably, was given five stars in Rolling Stone, proving once again that if you do something long enough, someone will come along and call you an auteur.

Waters left the band, daring it to proceed without him, and made a lousy solo album (The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking). Cursed with a one-track mind and a cartoonish voice, he diddled around with his holocaust metaphors and talked his way through the vocals. In the BAM interview (his first, as far as I can ascertain, in 15 years) he says he wanted to experiment and make an album all in the same key and with the same rhythm. The result is predictably nightmarish. Radio K.A.O.S., by contrast, is such an unbelievably silly affair that it almost defies description. There's a holocaust involved, of course; the story's hero is "apparently a vegetable" (this from the liner notes) who uses a phone to access computers and, among other things, to communicate with a radio DJ, and finally manages to teach us all how close we were to the brink of destruction. There's rare power here, folks, and raw drama; there's also, from the man who'd already given us the most pretentious album subtitle of all time (The Final Cut: A Requiem for the Post-War Dream), the most pretentious song title of all time: "The Tide Is Turning (After Live Aid)." The apparently-a-vegetable kid had an uncle, you see, who'd worked on the Manhattan Project, but now wants to atone, because he's been "decynicized" by, of all things, Live Aid, and--oh, never mind.

Waters is so obsessed about the continuation of Pink Floyd that his recent Radio K.A.O.S. tour saw a DJ onstage, repeatedly reminding the kids in the audience that this was, after all, the Roger Waters, the guy who'd written "Money." Granting Waters the need to make up for all those years of anonymity, the self-infatuation evident in both conception and execution was almost pathological. Waters couldn't fill auditoriums in cities where Pink Floyd was selling out four- and five-night stands. Aghast at the name's enormous economic pull, he's suing to stop the group from using it. "Pink Floyd is me," he says. How right; how wrong.

Gilmour, seconded by Mason and with Wright returned as a second-class member, put out A Momentary Lapse of Reason a few months ago. It's easily the worst album in the Pink Floyd oeuvre, and it completes the sad cycle we've seen so many other rock bands go through. Sure Waters was an egotistical jerk, and sure Gilmour was an essential part of the Pink Floyd sound; that doesn't mean that what is essentially a Gilmour solo album is going to be compelling. "Dogs of War" is about--surprise!--mercenaries, the fall-back subject of choice for every overly testosteroned rock musician since the Creation. The thing was recorded at seven different studios and with about 50 supporting musicians. Gilmour's lyrics can be charitably said to be a bit weak: when he waxes supremely poetic, he's liable to start talking about "silence that speaks so much louder than words." The unique and valuable Pink Floyd sound has been reduced to funny synth noises.

This fourth and hopefully final version of Pink Floyd hit the road as well. Where Waters's show was egotistical, flaccid, and self-indulgent, Gilmour's, surprisingly enough, was self-deferential, engaging, and fun. It was, to be exact, the most spectacular show in rock. The kids didn't even notice the disparity between product and concert, concentrating instead on an otherworldly laser and light show that was punctuated by appearances of fabled Floydian paraphernalia like a forty-foot-long inflatable pig (from Waters's Animals period) that floated above the crowd, and a thirty-foot-long bed that suddenly materialized in one corner of the arena, then shot across the crowd and crashed into a corner, exploding in a 50-foot-high ball of flame. This is what rock and roll is all about, sort of; deep down inside I knew that it was false, that all the lasers in the world couldn't hide the fact that this was a gravy-train ride for Gilmour and Mason, or that the whole affair was comparable to Wings touring without McCartney. But how could you frown at the sight of a whole new generation of space-rock-loving youth being inducted into the mysteries of Floydian imagery? And yes, the music was bad, but Pink Floyd isn't about music anymore. For years the Beach Boys held the title, and until recently it was the Grateful Dead; now Pink Floyd is the biggest nostalgia act in the world, and for some reason it's not a big weight on my mind. If you've got problems with it, give Roger Waters a call: you can have a beer or two and grouse about how rock and roll is a cruel mistress.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin.

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