Who They Were: Pioneering psychedelic rockers turned progressive music titans turned arena rock superstars turned fierce litigants and creative combatants turned cultural icons of deep and lasting significance. The group’s formative members began playing together as early as 1962, with their original break-through line-up of Roger “Syd” Barrett, Roger Waters, Rick Wright and Nick Mason coalescing around 1965. The group’s live shows were epic and highly acclaimed, and their early singles and debut album (1967’s The Piper At The Gates of Dawn) have come to carry legendary and hugely influential stature. Barrett’s mental health deteriorated rapidly after their popular ascendance, and David Gilmour was brought in as a fifth member to support and supplement the group’s fading luminary. After one album as a five-piece (1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets), Barrett left the group, and Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason went on to achieve massive global success as both an innovative studio act and a truly powerful live draw. Their 1973 concept album The Dark Side of the Moon charted on the Billboard Top 200 Albums list for over 950 weeks, and it remains an audiophile’s dream, with incredible textures, production, engineering, songs and performances, along with a smart and timeless libretto that has spoken deeply, richly and meaningfully to generations of young people. Waters eventually (and somewhat unilaterally) assumed a lead songwriting and public spokesperson role for the group, which began to fracture around the time of 1979’s blockbuster release The Wall, when Wright was pushed out, largely at Waters’ direction. 1983’s The Final Cut was essentially a Waters solo album, with Gilmour and Mason being sidelined and supplemented by studio session players. After that album, Waters left the group, assuming that the other members would retire the name and get on with their own solo careers. He was wrong in that estimation, as Gilmour and Mason brought Wright back into the fold and soldiered on for for three more studio albums and countless live shows under the Pink Floyd moniker. It was a culturally controversial move that resulted in years of litigation, eventually, essentially, settled in Gilmour’s favor. Many fans still decry the Waters-less Floyd, but (to be fair) Gilmour’s voice and guitar were every bit as important to the classic-era Floyd sound as Waters’ songs and lyrics were. I think a lot of people presumed that because Waters wrote the words and much of the band’s music, he was the “front man” lead singer of the group, most of the time. That was never true, as he was but one (and the weakest) of three regular vocalists in the group, and to my ears, the greatest, truest magic of the Pink Floyd sound was the ways in which Wright’s and Gilmour’s keyboards, guitars, and vocals worked together, while presenting Waters’ certainly brilliant songs. Wright died in 2008 of cancer, but he spent his final years touring in Gilmour’s solo band, and they were truly special and wonderful together, always.
When I First Heard Them: My introduction to the group was through the breakthrough (in America) lead single “Money” from The Dark Side of the Moon, which I no doubt would have heard on American Top Forty and the types of pop radio stations that aired it, as it rose up the charts during the summer of 1973. Sometime soon after that, I was in South Carolina with my family, and we visited someone in Savannah, Georgia (presumably a relative, or maybe some friends of my parents, though I can’t remember who it was, exactly) for an afternoon party-type gathering, and as the adults chatted and drank and smoked (as they all did at the time) in the main part of the house, the few kids there (of whom I was the oldest) were sent to the rumpus room den-type space to amuse ourselves. There was a Baldwin Fun Machine organ there, and I noodled away on that for awhile, before deciding to explore my host’s record collection, while wearing their choice ’70s can-style headphones. Their album rack included an odd black gate-fold record with a cool prism and rainbow design on it. I didn’t actively make the connection that it was the album that contained “Money” until I got to side two and the extended version of that song (better than the radio edit, by a long shot) rolled out. That was cool, but by that point, I was already deeply sold on the music, the message, and the group that created the utterly brilliant The Dark of the Moon and unleashed it on the world. I bought the 8-track tape version of the album soon after getting home from that trip, and it has remained a favorite in every format all these years on, opening doors to the rest of the Floyd’s tremendous catalog along the way. When The Wall came out in 1979, Waters conceived of an over-the-top stage show that was so complicated that it only played two venues in the United States in its initial run, one in Los Angeles, and the other (Nassau Coliseum) in Long Island’s Uniondale, less than a mile from my high school home at Mitchel Field. In those pre-Internet/Ticketmaster days, physical proximity to the box office was gold, and as soon as ticket sales opened for that show, me and a few buddies raced over to the venue on our bikes and snagged our seats. It was one of the most amazing live events I’ve ever seen.
Why I Love Them: Many times over the years here, I’ve noted that there are three guitar players who make up my most-revered Holy Trinity of String-Benders: Robert Fripp (King Crimson), Paul Leary (Butthole Surfers), and David Gilmour. Now, add to that level of personal devotion the fact that Gilmour is also a truly exceptional singer, and that he had an utterly perfect vocal and instrumental foil in Rick Wright for most of Pink Floyd’s peak run, and you’ve already got a special group of note in my pantheon. But then, add in Roger Waters’ conceptual and lyrical work, which was highly poetic, profound, and provoking when he was at his best, and that takes things to an even higher level of acclaim in my book. And then, of course, there’s Nick Mason, the only member of the group to have served on every album and every tour from Pink Floyd’s inception to its demise. Is he a favorite drummer of mine? No, but he was just right for the roles he needed to play, and he seemed to have been the genial glue that held the other fractious elements of the band in some form of nominal stability, and that’s a truly important role in a long-term creative group dynamic, and worthy of value and praise. I’m probably something of a Floyd heretic in that I think that much of the recorded evidence of Syd Barrett’s time in the group has not aged particularly well, and with a couple of exceptions, I don’t much listen to many cuts from his era. But his early creative sparks and the tragedy of his later life are big parts of the Floyd story, whether one still likes his work or not, and that’s important too. When you get down to brass tacks, Pink Floyd could rock you hard on one song, then make you trip balls (with or without drugs) on the next, all with utterly pristine and magical studio sound, while making you think about things that popular rock groups rarely sing about, and almost never with such eloquence. Has there ever been a better “Headphone Band”? I think not. When I wrote my long form Best of the Blockbusters article in 2010, attempting to divine which of the world’s highest selling albums was the best from quality and content standpoints, I ended up selecting The Dark Side of the Moon, and that choice still feels right, and true, and accurate. I also selected David Gilmour’s Rattle That Lock as my Best Album of 2015. When I did the original Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands series, the two groups that it most pained me to exclude were COIL and Pink Floyd, who have given me decades of regular musical joy, even if they were never quite my most favorite bands at any particular point in time. I now feel better having rectified those omissions.
#10. “Astronomy Domine” (Live Version) from Ummagumma (1969)
#9. “Brain Damage/Eclipse” from The Dark Side of the Moon (1973) (Note: I am probably cheating by counting this as a single song, but it tracks that way, and you can’t play one without the other).
#8. “Sheep” from Animals (1977)
#7. “The Hero’s Return” from The Final Cut (1983)
#6. “Comfortably Numb” from The Wall (1979)
#5. “Wish You Were Here” from Wish You Were Here (1975)
#4. “Run Like Hell” from The Wall (1979)
#3. “Free Four” from Obscured By Clouds (1972)
#2. “Fearless” from Meddle (1971)
#1. “Us And Them” from The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)