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Pink Floyd
country of origin:
Ambient rock, psychedelia, progressive
essential releases:
Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (1967, EMI)
Ummagumma (1969, EMI)
Atom Heart Mother (1970, EMI)
Meddle (1971, EMI)
The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973, EMI)
Wish You Were Here (1975, EMI)
Animals (1977, EMI)
The Division Bell (1994, EMI)


Reviewed by Mike G


It's more than a little ironic that Pink Floyd’s most famous song “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)” is so far removed from what is special about the music of this, the quintessential and most influential of the psychedelic ambient spacerock bands.

Wrote New Musical Express in 1988: “No rock group experimented with sounds as imaginatively as Pink Floyd, with such limited technology and a commercial feel...their music was informed by a wealth of ideas that puts most of their peers to shame, past and present.” Roger Waters’ talents as a lyricist notwithstanding, Pink Floyd’s best music is more than anything else about ambient sound: the slow trance-inducing bass/drum throb, the ethereal organ and synth backdrops, the sighing and crying guitar lines, the clever and unexpected sound effects. It was a sound achieved through a combination of offbeat ideas, innovative recording techniques and a cosmic ambience that is peculiarly their own.

The Barrett years

The original line-up consisted of the late Syd Barrett (guitar & vocals), Nick Mason (percussion), Roger Waters (bass & vocals) and the late Rick Wright (keyboards & vocals).

Adopted as the virtual house band by London’s swinging underground in the mid-60’s, the band held audiences spellbound with live sets of swirling, improvised, often instrumental music created under the leadership of the charismatic Syd Barrett. His spontaneous, madly energetic guitar playing was highly innovative for its time and his surreal, whimsical style of songwriting - though less apparent in their live shows - is preserved splendidly on the band’s first album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.

Four decades on, Barrett’s acid-drenched fairytale world of astrology, scarecrows and magical kingdoms is still a wonder to behold. Unfortunately the Floyd’s trippy concert workouts of this period were never captured on record, though the album does contain a few exploratory instrumentals. “Interstellar Overdrive” in particular sees the band laying the groundwork for extended epics to come.

However, it was to be a future without Barrett whose drug-fuelled slide into strangeness and paranoia nearly destroyed the group. In truth, it destroyed Barrett. He remained a recluse until his death in 2005 and one of rock's most infamous drug casualties. But his replacement proved a worthy one: old school friend and guitar tutor David Gilmour. His probing, melodic, spacey guitar lines and smooth, resonant vocals soon became one of the Floyd's most recognisable trademarks.

Galaxies and meadows

After a couple of patchy albums, the new line-up started to find its feet on the double album Ummagumma.

Coming in two distinct parts, the first half of the album consists of four largely instrumental tracks taken from live concerts in Britain. Graced with Wright’s exotic Farfisa organ work and Gilmour’s spacey guitar lines and textures, tracks like “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” and “Set The Control’s For The Heart Of The Sun” see the quartet brilliantly extend and improvise on the original studio recordings to create otherworldly, primordial soundscapes. It's masterful ambient rock and captures Floyd at its peak as a live band: daring and wonderfully inspired.

Ummagumma’s second half contains the band’s most experimental studio work - an erratic yet still fascinating collection of pastoral folk-like pieces, surreal tapestries of mellotron and sound effects and strange Eastern-sounding dirges. As a whole Ummgumma is a daring mixture of rock, electronics and classical avant-garde techniques and its influence has been enormous. It became one of the blueprints for a whole generation of emerging art rock acts including Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and Klaus Schulze.

The challenge for the Floyd at this stage of their career was to gel the experimental inroads made on Ummagumma into a more accessible sound. First came Atom Heart Mother, with the entire first half being an ambitious and highly underrated six-part suite featuring brass and choir arrangements written by Scottish composer Ron Geesin. Even if the main brass theme resembles a vaguely cheesy Western film score, the extended sequences of guitar/organ interplay are extraordinarily dreamy. The middle section builds splendidly, starting as a slow funky jam which gradually deepens as dramatic choral stabs start to appear in the mix.

The standout track from the next album Meddle is a further refinement: the extraordinary twenty minute-plus opus “Echoes”. Largely instrumental, “Echoes” brings together everything the early Floyd did best: an expansive, richly integrated tapestry of rock improvisation, melodic themes and surreal passages of abstract sound.

Both Atom Heart Mother and Meddle are also a charming time capsule for the band's way with lovely, pastoral hippie folk songs: the pristine "A Pillow Of Winds", the liquid lap-steel guitar phrases of "Fat Old Sun", and the soaring keyboards/brass/vocal blend of Wright's thrilling "Summer '68".

Ambient rock for the masses

The Dark Side Of The Moon, of course, skyrocketed the Floyd to superstar status and spawned the highly irritating but catchy U.S. hit single “Money”. Revolving around Roger Waters conceptual lyrics about madness and the pressures of the everyday, the compositions and sound effects on Dark Side are woven together seamlessly with a standard of mix and production that today still sounds exceptional (kudos to engineer Alan Parsons). It’s a fine album, and an uplifting one too despite the dark lyrical content. However with a few exceptions - “The Great Gig In The Sky” and "Us And Them " - Dark Side is a significant departure from the Floyd’s more cosmic explorations of the past.

Perhaps more satisfying in that context are the follow-ups Wish You Were Here and Animals, which have longer instrumental passages and a spacey mood and intensity that is uniquely the Floyd’s. The mammoth nine part “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” from Wish You Were Here is a magnificent example of what Rolling Stone critic John Rockwell called the Floyd’s special sense of "line and continuity and ritualistic repetition". The opening sequence featuring Wright’s richly textured keyboards and a simple Gilmour guitar solo is mournfully, breathtakingly beautiful. Entire albums of ambient music have been inspired by this one short but unforgettable sequence.

The cinematic, soaring and deeply brooding Animals proved to be the band's swansong as a tightly knit quartet producing their own albums. Like the bulk of Wish You Were Here, the long pieces on Animals were developed and played on the road for several years before being laid down in the studio. "Dogs" is epic and full of space, while "Sheep" captures the quartet in full flight, sighing and surging in a veritable sea of guitar and keyboard harmonies with Water's throbbing baseline rumbling below.

The 80's and beyond

The end of the 70's marks the end of classic Pink Floyd. While they remained an entertaining live act for several decades more, after the mid-1970's the band was exploring cosmic spaces and extended minimalist ideas much less frequently.

A period of well-documented acrimony within the band, including Rick Wright's forced departure, coincided with the release of two brilliant but wordy concept albums The Wall (1979) and The Final Cut (1983). Both are dominated by Roger Waters but have significant musical input from Gilmour, American producer Bob Ezrin and various session musicians and arrangers. Here the subjective qualities and sustained moods of the band's earlier music are gone, replaced with narratives that quite deliberately reign in the music instead of letting it fly. This is rock theatre, and while both are great albums, neither of them sit well in an ambient rock context.

A few years later Waters filed suit to dissolve the name Pink Floyd and end the partnership. Amid lawsuits and ridiculous legal squabbles Gilmour and Mason still managed to record A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987), more traditionally-Floyd sounding but rather anonymous, mechanical and cold. Again, the band called on the aid of producer Bob Ezrin and a huge team of lyricists and session players (Wright only briefly among them).

The belated follow-up The Division Bell is a much warmer effort and jettisons most of the hired help. It's the only latterday Floyd record that comes close to capturing the band's true essence and reunites Gilmour creatively with Wright. There are some fine, epic ambient rock like "High Hopes" and a lovely cosmic instrumental called "Cluster One". The album is a beautiful listen even if sonically the band shows a tendency to recycle past glories into bite-size pieces, as glorious and unique as those pieces may be. Several live albums from this period (1989 and 1995) are of limited value; latterday Floyd concerts were always a visual experience and the performances are no different from the studio albums.

The Division Bell proved to be the final studio chapter in the Pink Floyd odyssey.

Final years

An emotional and well-received reunion with Roger Waters at the Live 8 concert in London on 2005 led to no further activity from them as a band. The reclusive Barrett died in 2006 and Rick Wright's death at 65 from cancer bought matters to a quiet, sad conclusion in 2008. It was relatively sudden; Wright had not long finished an extended tour with Gilmour's band on which the pair had resurrected the Floyd's spacerock classic "Echoes".

Roger Waters, who now regrets pursuing litigation against the others, paid tribute to his shy and retiring bandmate thus: "It is hard to overstate the importance of his musical voice in the Pink Floyd of the '60s and '70s. The intriguing, jazz influenced, modulations are omnipresent in all the collaborative work the four of us did in those times. Rick's ear for harmonic progression was our bedrock". A fitting epitaph to the Floyd's most underrated member.


Further reading: 12 Great Rick Wright Moments.



  All written content on this webisite is copyright 1992-2013 Mike Watson