It’s a sticky July night in Dallas, three years ago, and one time member of Pink Floyd, Roger Waters is playing a sold out show at the American Airlines Arena. It’s part of his “Us & Them” tour, and as usual, he’s brought a huge, monumental stage show for a packed house to enjoy. Humans old and young alike fill the floor and balcony, a quiet excitement simmering around the house lights.
Those same lights starts to dim, and before long the large, over ten member band strolls casually onto the stage under cover of darkness. For the nearly three hours that followed, myself and everyone else witnessed a stage show highly political, fiery, perfectly executed with a stage production and surround sound speaker system that puts most others to shame. All this is possible because of the story you’re about to read.
It starts nearly fifty years earlier, in Cambridge to be exact, during the experimental sixties when anything was possible. It’s here that Syd Barret links up with fellow classmates Waters and David Gilmour, although not exactly at the same time. At first it was Barrerts brainchild, with early albums like 1967’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” bringing a distinct contrast to the more free spirit earthly tones of their local and international compatriots. It’s experimentation and eventual effect on popular culture is a huge reason for the upkeep in the so called psychedelic genre, with everyone from Tool to Tame Impala, Animal Collective and Radiohead and countless more having admitted being influenced by the sound of the band. Now this only starts with Barret, but it’s his wild leanings that partially pave the road Floyd will essentially go down. Pink Floyd may have added and changed members a few times, but those five people who helped to shape the sound are some of the most important to ever make music.. Well get there though, in due time.
“Piper” was a fantastic introduction to the work, and with relative success, the band began to be more known. During those early years, tracks like “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Astronomy Domine” struck a chord with the younger people gladly expanding their mind when the mood and time permitted. Which basically means it happened often during that era. It feels like you’re traveling down a wormhole in space, unsure of what you’re going to find. Listening to these songs you get the sense that the band was unsure of where it was heading just as much as the people who ultimately listened and found some sort of kinship with the sound of this band.
For the next seven years, the band released an album a year, culminating with their first landmark. Before that though, came “Atom Heart Mother,” with its symphonic and powerful title track. It resembles a championship song a person would have played for them after getting the gold, and it’s a clean contrast to the proggy elements of earlier works.
It’s during these early years that the band began to really dig into experimentation in terms of song lengths. “Echoes,” clocking in at over twenty-three minutes is a meandering exploration of what is capable when you step into the darkness looking for something exciting. The bass line during the six minute mark is pompous and unafraid, and it adds a slow groove to it, even though the song is more or less sonically heavy. This is where the benefit of school becomes useful. Because of the history, the band, even early on was above and beyond when it came to the attention of details.
By this point Syd Barrett was long gone. What began as mostly a Barret project, over the years Syd slipped further into the seedy drug world of the 60’s. His love and deep obsession with LSD in an effort to help his mental issues had taken a toll. Instead of folding up shop, the members decided to forge on. It's within a few short years that the band started to lean in a different direction, most of which was starting to unfold under the watchful eye of Roger Waters.
The year is 1973 and Waters, Mason, Gilmour and Wright release something whose impact will be felt far and wide and will eventually become one of the most treasured records of all time. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for forty years, you know the record was the seminal, groundbreaking, chart topping album “Dark Side of the Moon.” This album not only was the first mega album for the band, but it was also probably the thing that got so many teenagers into experimenting with drugs.
Everyone I knew loved the album back then, but not because of the music. By this point the record is almost a rite of passage for children discovering all sorts of things, whether it be a completely timeless album, or other things that they might like. If you have forgotten, this is the album that stayed on the Billboard charts for over 14 years. That’s not a typo. It really was 14 years. Hearing it now, though it’s not hard to see why it’s one of the most popular albums of all time.
The album is cyclical in nature, ending with the same tones and elements that open up the journey. This is purposeful and plays with the idea of time as a circle. And that eventually we all get back to where we started. Life is ever changing, but things happen in waves and you end up having similar experiences over and doer again. For instance, “Time” is just an exercise in perfection. The opening drums, that kick into Gilmour singing and leading us into the netherworld, free of obligation and full of awareness and deeply lush textures are nothing if not mesmerizing. Beyond that, “Time” is a masterpiece. The song, while soaring in instrumental arrangers, juxtaposes that element with a lyrically grounded world of mundane everyday routine. It speaks to feeling stuck in a world where you aren’t sure where the right opportunity is and how to find it. It’s a common theme throughout the bands work, that unsure feeling of not knowing where you belong.
All in all, “Dark Side” contains some of the best guitar playing ever featured in the band's recording, with Gilmours expert work laying into the mix in ways that are both forceful and subtle, both swaying and presenting themselves when the time is appropriate. It reaches heights, and layers of sound that you never hear today, and then it switches effortlessly to an equally dense, but much slower, more gentle vibe. The song that best fits this is “Us and Them.” The saxophone in the background leads the song through a forest so gorgeous it’s hard to imagine. As you reach the top of a hill, the background vocals come creeping in, and you’re presented with a beautiful blue sky and a sun that only wants to warm you. Even with Gilmours brilliant work, the album isn’t carried by him solely. The level at which Mason, Wright and Waters are playing on this record is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
In a slight caveat, you may also know this album by the theory that it syncs perfectly with a viewing of “The Wizard of Oz.” As someone who’s seen it done a few times, it is quite interesting, and some parts are dead on (The clocks ringing when the witch shows up in Kansas to buy Toto), while some aren’t as in tune as you would like. Either way, it’s something fun to try at least once. “Dark Side of the Moon” stands as a monument for nearly everyone who is still discovering music that’s left of center, and there’s an extremely valid reason for it.
It’s not uncommon for musicians and bands to burn out and lose some of their creative edge as the existence of the project extend in time. During this period, the opposite happened. This is when things for the band started to get personally difficult, while also being highly inspirational for their art. After “Dark Side,” they weren’t sure where to go, and generally the band was in a foul mood. Waters had begun to miss his old friend Barret, his co-leader during the early years, and that emotion bled into the record, but it took one chance encounter for the path to become clear. Thus, the seeds of what would eventually become “Wish You Were Here” were planted and began to grow.
While in the studio making this excellent album, Barret showed up unannounced. Things weren’t going well for Syd. Ravaged by drugs, he was a shell of the man and genius he once was, and the result of that meeting, at least in my opinion, gave us the truly mesmerizing song that is the title track. Everyone can relate to the events of losing someone you are so close to you can’t imagine life without them, and once that happens, you try your best to pick up the pieces. On top of that, the push and pull of emotions throughout is tangible.
Much of this album is a tribute to Syd Barret. Not only in the names of the songs(“Wish You Were Here,” “Shine on you Crazy Diamond”) but it’s scope and style also deviates often, letting the catalogue and textures of Floyd grow even deeper. “Have a Cigar” is a tongue in cheek pseudo attack on the record industry they felt misunderstood them. Through the lyrics the listener can envision a smooth talking yet loud businessman guaranteeing success based on “his experience.” It’s a picture of everything wrong in the fight for power between executives and artists who makes them rich, and Floyd lambaste it. The band would continue with another smaller album, at least in terms of number of songs, with the 1977 album “Animals.” By then the band has been filling stadiums with ease, and although the songs were still powerful, the toll of playing to giant, faceless crowds had begun to take effect on Waters.
Around this time period saw the band take their live show to another level, incorporating giant inflatable animals into the nightly performance. My dad actually attended on these shows, and said it was one of the most incredible performances he’d ever seen. He described it as musically perfect, and with a production that was so good that you heard “One second of feedback before the technicians fixed the issue.”
“Animals” isn’t a small unnoticed record, but sandwiched in the middle of the bands most fertile popularity has its own sets of challenges. It’s more rough and adversarial than “Dark Side,” but less personally emotional than “Wish You Were Here,” giving it a different spin on an increasingly groundbreaking style. All of the songs on “Animals” are named after, you guessed it, four legged creatures, but the overarching theme of the record is contempt for the hierarchy of the earth during the 70’s(which has only gotten worse in the decades since), but also for the sheer attitude and repugnance permeating the background.
Now the record is only 40 minutes, but when the theme of your album is loosely based on Orwell’s novel of the same name, it doesn’t have to be that long. That being said, Waters and company fill the gaps brilliantly and perfectly demonstrate the world at large, and also the warning Orwell once again was trying to remind us of. You got the scavenger nature of “Dogs,” the authoritarian nobility of the powerful “Pig,” and of course the blind “Sheep,” eager to please and not make waves. It’s a remarkably blunt record, but the band wasn’t done tearing down barriers. To do that though, the has to build a wall. It resonates so much not just because of the tension, but the thick brooding heavy undertones in the music. “Sheep” especially feels like a rollercoaster, laden with funky basslines and pummeling drums.
By this time in their career, Pink Floyd had become the unanimous kings of psychedelic rock. The whole idea behind this album started with Roger Waters wanting to make something that showcased not only the feelings he had regarding his life, but also his utter contempt for modern concert audiences. Since they have blown up in a gigantic way, he had begun to feel alienated and alone, especially when playing in front of 80,000 people who he felt largely had no idea what was going on when it came to the motivations of the band. The resulting album was dark, angry and full of sadness and frustration.
For Waters, all of those elements that went along with creating art took on a life all its own, and smothered by attention and fame, as well as being misunderstood by his willing audience, he backed himself into a corner. To break free of his demons and of the pressure, “The Wall” had to be built, but even that would take on a life of its own.
Now, this might be a creation of Roger Waters, but that’s not to say that the other members were simply sitting idly by. Nick Mason, Richard Wright, and David Gilmour all bring their best to this fierce record. The guitars are fucking incredible, to say the least. Still today, you’ve never heard a guitarist and rhythm section that good. Gilmour especially excels on this record with incendiary playing. He scorches in a way even most modern drummers can’t.
From the opening, soaring nature of “In the Flesh?” the energy is clear. The roar coming from the sounds of planes crashing, guitars wailing, and, finally, a baby crying put you in the appropriately frail position to understand where the band was at this point. The bombast of the opening, mixed with thick guitar parts and driving drum beats set the stage for the ambitious building of a now classic album.
The album also has a perfect narrative flowing through it that is largely absent from music today. By the third track, the first part of the ambitious and very popular “Another Brick in the Wall” has ascended upon us. This track is a total slow burn and it adds tension in the same way a good film director knows how to. That’s what makes this band so remarkable. These songs, not only just on this album but all of them, have a very cinematic quality to it. This is probably why “The Wall” as a whole works just as well in film form as it did in album form. Repeatedly, the band is able to bridge the gaps between songs with not only similar themes, and lyrics, but also similar guitar parts and time signatures. “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” is an adequate example of this. The song evolves from “Brick in the Wall Part 1” and takes on its own shape, and before the listener knows it, we’re back in the groove for “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2.” its linear in its storytelling, but it's also linear in its orchestration and instrumentation.
The record, while deeply introspective and personal, also has more than a few big hits. “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” is easily one of the most well-known songs in the bands cannon, and you can tell why. There hasn’t been a generation of rock music fans since this was released, who haven’t at least been exposed to this song. “Teacher leave those kids alone” is a staple of rock n’ roll music. There’s no two ways around it. It tells the world we know what we’re doing, and that we refuse to blindly coddle all the rules that were no longer representative of the tone of the world.
“Mother,” followed by “Goodbye Blue Sky” and “Empty Spaces” are the heart and soul of this first half of the record. “Mother” is a pretty but bittersweet letter to the parents whose destroyed us under the pretense of sheltering, while “Blue Sky” is the reality of waking up to realize all those promises weren’t meant to be.
It’s this brilliant use of metaphors that sets this band apart. The gorgeous opening of “Goodbye Blue Sky” gives way to slightly darker vocals and the presence of ever-growing fear and fright. From there, we dive into the ominously, quiet visual presentation of “Empty Spaces.” This album was in some ways inspired by World War 2, and the marching of the feet, and the thumping time beats perfectly reflect that.
“Young Lust” and “One of my Turns” sees a slightly lighter tone, but before we get too comfortable, we’re back with the saddest sections of the album, which just so happens to be the conclusion of the first half of the album. “Don’t Leave me Now.” is very depressing and you get the feeling that the story-teller isn’t really trying to make things better at all. Again, this is the story of a man so crippled by pressure and the outside world that he convinces himself he has to build a wall, even when help is outside trying to reach him. From there, we receive the final “Another Brick in the Wall.” Part three might actually be my favorite, if only because of how in your face it is. “I don’t need those arms around me” is a violent reaction from a man who not only doesn’t want help, but he’s finding bliss in the lack of light in his life. The guitars and drums are nothing if not deliberate, and it gives way to the dark conclusion that is “Goodbye Cruel World.”
“Cruel World” is the admission that the character of Pink is finally letting go of this world. He’s not killing himself, but there are worse things than death. He’s purposely turning his back on the things he once loved because he doesn’t know how to relate to them anymore. It’s a short song, but it gets its message across.
By the end of Part One, the wall is up, and Pink is enveloped in a world of his own making. “Hey You” featuring a dreamy guitar part, isn't just an excellent starter that moves at a gradual pace until the wave of sound envelopes the listener. This is another example of great guitar playing by Gilmour, but there's plenty of that to go around. Waters’ voice here is crying out for someone to bring him relief. Unfortunately though, the character has thrown away everything in his life, and he’s left inside his “Wall” to try to figure out where things went wrong. But that doesn’t happen, at least immediately. When the band toured this record, a giant wall was literally built and torn down every night, and it only added to the theatrical nature of it all.
The first section of the show saw stage crews gradually building in front of the band while the concert was in progress, but by the end of the first act “The Wall” was intact and impregnable. This ties in with the narrative of the album in a brilliant one of a kind way. “Nobody Home,” the third song on the second disc, is perhaps the saddest, yet most poignant song heard in this section of the double album. The visuals used in the show are also amazing. By this time in the live performances of the album, a wall has been constructed in front of the band. Except for the end, this is one of the few times you see a member of the band outside of the wall. A room opens up in the wall, and you get to see Waters sitting destroyed in a hotel room wondering what the fuck caused this kind of destruction in his life. I imagine the state of the band, at this point, also didn’t hurt. Let’s just say they weren’t on good terms with each other. The album, while painful also has beautifully poignant moments. “Vera” is a story of wrecked love, but also of the fondness of remembering a sweet moment in someone's life. The choral arrangement is sheer magic for my ears, and after all these years I’m still left wondering “Vera, what did become of you?”
All those songs are great, but finally we get to the song most associated with the band. For anyone who has ever experimented with substances, you’ve likely had “Comfortably Numb” while under the influence. Again it's sort of a rite of passage for young rock kids to get fucked up listening to Floyd. The song is vastly important, and stands as the full surrender of the character. Pink is finally at the peak of full openness with himself and he doesn't care who is there to watch the end with him. He’s “Comfortably Numb” with how he's let his life spiral out of rationality. This moment is the live show is mesmerizing to say the least. Simply, Gilmour shows up at the top of the wall and sings his parts. Having seen bootleg footage a few times, it's much cooler than it sounds. If you don’t believe me seek it out. You’ll see. The lights coming from behind him are surreal and bright, and it adds an element of awakening to an already powerful song.
As far as the music goes, though, this is a triumph for the band. It might be their best known song, to be honest. The lyrics back and forth between Waters and Gilmour are executed in an exacting manner, and the overall tone of the music is mesmerizing. The album continues on, with similarly great tracks like the appropriately rushed “Run Like Hell” mixing in with operatic accomplishments like “The Trial” breaking down the concept of what can be included in a psych rock record. To say “The Wall” was a success would be a huge understatement. It was massive and changed rock music. But it also spelled the beginning of the end of the band as it was. Frictions had become too much, and it made the next record, “The Final Cut” even more difficult.
This is an interesting album if only because it's not really even a proper Pink Floyd album. All of the songs were written by Waters, and minimal work was given to the rest of the band. It’s essentially a Waters solo album. The three remaining members of the band: Mason, Gilmour and Waters, were all seemingly over it. Tensions were especially high among the two leaders, David Gilmour and Roger Waters. The album does have some good songs though. “The Fletcher Memorial Home” has always been one of my favorite “Pink Floyd” songs, and the guitar playing on it is as good as anything else you hear them play. But you can tell the band had run its course, and people wanted out.
This is where things get tricky. Both sides clearly have their valid arguments, but it kind of just depends on who you favor. I personally think at this point they were all just acting like children. The band broke up, Waters sued for the rights to the name, then Gilmour counter sued, and then Waters lost. After that, Gilmour began playing with the other two original members of the band, Richard Wright and Nick Mason, as Pink Floyd. During this time they made two decent albums, but if you’re a fan of Waters like I am, you always miss that last piece of the puzzle. The best song to come out of these albums in my opinion has to be “Learn to Fly,” off of the album “A Momentary Lapse of Reason.” Released in 1987, it’s a good album, but nowhere near as good as the band was used to. Its lush in arrangements, but, for what it's worth it doesnt ring as true as the material from the band heyday.
The last proper album came in 1994 with “The Division Bell.” Like all the rest, it was a hit, but in my opinion it didn’t really add anything to the legacy of the band, although it didn’t take away anything either. The legacy has been built and stabilized though, and little could knock it over. These five men had managed to not follow any of the traditional rules and had come through as one of the best bands in the history of music.
The effect will never die and the music and brilliance shared by these five initial men will never fade, but as far as Waters seems concerned, he's still providing the world with music as the art of resistance, and he's unwilling to compromise his views. Getting back to that show in July, it was incredible and maybe the best show I’ve ever seen, but the tour itself wasn’t without controversy. He took a hearty amount of flak for his treatment of Trump during the tour, but the only people who cried “Politics don’t belong in art” are the same ones thrilled and excited when other artists criticize the same people they dislike. The cognitive dissoance is real, and Waters is still trying to wake people the fuck up. Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it.
Landon Murray is a New Orleans native, who thrives on painting the world he interprets through the useful forms of all types of art he feels connected to. He's seen over 1000 bands, and had loved mostly every minute of it. He has an amazing 10 year old dog, and is loving life.
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