Something snapped in Montreal. It was partly the strain of a long tour coming to a close – the accumulated jet lag, hotel; food, pre- and post-show ennui and oppressive stadium squeeze of faceless but demanding flesh of the 1977 Animals tour. It was partly the strain of that lifestyle accumulated over ten exhausting years (“How about the time at Dunstable in ’67 when the audience poured beer on us from the balcony?”) and knowing it had already sucked the heart and soul out of one bandmate and friend early on. It was also partly – actually a big part – the knowledge that they were playing a bad show their last night out. What’s more, the very vocal majority of people in that blackhole of steel and concrete were less concerned with what they had to play and say than with who they were. “They” were Pink Floyd and that was enough.
Roger Waters spit on a kid in the front rows that night. Pink Floyd’s singer-bassist-songwriter also spent a lot of time afterward brooding on what his fame had done to him and how he came to such a scary pass. He later spent a lot of time writing it all down in a series of brutally confessional emotionally graphic songs that eventually became Pink Floyd’s multi-platinum seller The Wall.
Guitarist David Gilmour had no idea at the time that the Montreal concert had struck such a devastating chord in Waters. “None of us,” he explains, meaning Floyd drummer Nick Mason and keyboard player Richard Wright, “were aware of it at the time. I just thought it was a great shame to end up a six month tour with a rotten show. In fact, I remember going offstage for the encore and going back to the sound mixing board in the middle of the audience to watch the encore while Snowy (White), the guitar player who was with us at the time, played guitar on the encore.”
But if The Wall is very much Waters’ acutely autobiographical examination of the way not just rock ‘n’ roll but society as a whole feasts at the expense of its creative spirit, its roots and lessons are hardly unfamiliar to the rest of the Floyd. Gilmour remembers, with a hint of bitter resignation, the point at which Pink Floyd’s audience changed from an attentive, devoted mega-cult hanging on Ummagumma’s every last resonating echo to an awesome often unmanageable mob that responded mostly to spectacle. It was, ironically, the Floyd’s 1973 hit single “Money,” Waters’ contemptible assessment of wealth and itself part of a fantastically successful album, The Dark Side Of The Moon – at this writing, 433 weeks on the Billboard top 200 LPs, with a bullett no less -that was a life-death-and-reincarnation cycle in song. Pink Floyd have, in one sense, only themselves to blame. They compensated for each leap in popularity and concert hall size from Dark Side Of The Moon on with expansive stage productions shooting very real, introspective (and in the case of the savagely misanthropic Animals, almost paranoiac) lyrical concerns into the realm of the visually surreal, like Floyd’s reflection seen in some sinister funhouse mirror.
What do you remember most about the Animals tour – Gilmour’s singing solo stretch on Dogs and the vengeful gallop of Sheep, or that inflatable pig with electric eyes zipping across the top of the arena like some giant fat out of hell? As an album, The Wall is a direct rebuke of that rock arena psychology and its bigger social parallel. As a film, The Wall is an all-too-literal translation by director Alan Parker of Waters’ screen- and album-play, a dazzling series of reality nightmares – a bit like one enormous Hipgnosis album cover with Gerald Scarfe’s Fantasia-in-hell animation from the concert – heavy on the fascist implications of rock’s mob complex. But as a concert, seen by an exclusive club of a few hundred thousand in New York, Los Angeles, Germany, and London, The Wall was an ingenious manipulation of that complex to make Water’s point. The gradual building and subsequent demolition of the wall, the overhead buzzing of the plane, the grotesque inflated dolls and duplicate Floyd band were all calculated, not just to illustrate the album, but to get the same roaring Pavlovian response that first pulled Water’s hair-trigger in Montreal. The Wall audience was the metaphor.
The capping irony of Pink Floyd’s staggering success From Dark Side to The Wall is the media and the public’s insistence on categorizing the group as the last living truly psychedelic band, a “space band.” Their early recordings (with and without founding member Syd Barrett) like Interstellar Overdrive and Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun, aimed at the outer limits. Yet since the Dark Side Of The Moon, Pink Floyd and Waters in particular have concerned themselves more with a murky inner space, the battered passages of the body and soul through a perilous lifetime. Where Peter Townshend is obsessed with growing old in rock ‘n’ roll, Roger Waters is worried more about surviving long enough to enjoy old age.
The Floyd have also become fanatical about another inner space, the recording studio. Longtime sound and soundprocessing freaks (they debuted a rudimentary quadraphonic sound system at a 1967 London concert), they are meticulous recorders and go as long as two years between albums. Their imminent release, The Final Cut, a collection of Wall recordings and new tracks designed as a soundtrack companion to the film, was supposed to be finished in time for the movie’s premiere in August of The Wall (with Boomtown Rat Bob Geldof as “Pink”) gave Gilmour a good promotional excuse to sit with me in the airy comfort of his plush New York hotel suite and talk of all things Floyd.
Relaxing in a summery shirt-and-pants outfit with a day-old beard, Gilmour is a willing, lively conversationalist, often amused by the serious, almost academic way Floyd fans treat some of the band’s casual studio accidents. He maintains a strong interest in music outside the Floyd, producing a number of records for the mid-70’s U.K. band Unicorn, discovering British pop thrush Kate Bush and recording the first – aside from Syd Barrett’s – of the Floyd’s solo albums (1978’s David Gilmour). According to Alan Parsons, who engineered Atom Heart Mother and Dark Side Of The Moon, he is also, “the most technically minded of the four.” For the 1980 Wall concerts, he played conductor as well as guitarist, cueing not only the band but the stage hands throughout the show. “I didn’t dare even have a beer before the show,” he cracks. “A concentration lapse for a second and the whole thing could fall apart.”
Considering Pink Floyd’s stony ten-year silence, this interview is quite an event. It may not be the last word on Pink Floyd, but at least it’s one less brick in the wall.
M: From a musical standpoint, The Wall is a very unique Pink Floyd record. In comparison to the other post Dark Side albums like Wish You Were Here and Animals, it seems to be almost conventional in its execution and songs. Where the other albums featured long, expanded pieces undergoing subtle changes, The Wall features relatively uncomplicated songs and often simple guitar-based arrangements.
DG: The idea of The Wall was so big and there was such a lot of stuff that Roger wanted to get across lyrically that there was no other way to do it, really. As it was, we had to struggle to get it on a double album. And also, none of the stuff had ever been out on the road before. The Dark Side Of The Moon was toured before the album was made. That determined things – they worked onstage before they ever got to record. And I suppose that’s the big difference on this thing. It was purely made in the studio.
M: What was the process by which the songs and the arrangements developed?
DG: Roger had done a demo, at home, of the entire piece and then we got it into the studio with Bob Ezrin (producer of The Wall album with Waters and Gilmour) and the rest of us. We went through it and started with the tracks we liked best, discussed a lot of what was not so good, and kicked out a lot of stuff. Roger and Bob spent a lot of time trying to get the story line straighter, more linear conceptually. Ezrin is the sort of guy who’s thinking about all the angles all the time, about how to make a shorter story line that’s told properly, constantly worried about moving rhythms up and down, all that stuff which we’ve never really thought about.
M: Were the arrangement of the songs developed during this demo process?
DG: Some of the arrangements are very close to how Roger originally had them. Most of them are just changed, perhaps, a bit. That’s just the normal process we use. Bash things on and try ’em…move things around if you don’t like it.
M: Did you feel a need to telescope instrumental or musical ideas you would normally have expanded on in Animals or even Dark Side?
DG: I don’t think it was a matter of telescoping. It was a matter of being economical and making things say what they’re trying to say, quite snappily and not waste the time. That was the mood we were in and certainly Bob Ezrin helped. Very snappy and to the point.
M: Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2 is an interesting case in point because it is a very simple song, actually just one verse and a chorus. Yet you built it up into a powerful top- forty single with quite a radical treatment.
DG: It was originally a very short song. There was going to be a quick guitar solo and that was it. There was only one verse ever recorded and we put the solo stuff on the end. Roger and myself sang the verse and then we thought we’d try getting some kids to sing on it. I made up a backing track with a sync pulse up on it so we could later sneak it back in with the original track. We were in L.A. at the time, so I sent the tape to England and got an engineer to summon some kids. I gave him a whole set of instructions – ten-to-fifteen-year-olds from North London, mostly boys – and I said get them to sing this song in as many ways as you like. And he filled up all the tracks on a 24-track machine with stereo pairs of all the different combinations and ways of singing with all these kids. We got the tape back to L.A., played it, and it was terrific.
Originally, we were going to put them in the background, behind Roger and me singing on the same verse. But it was so good we decided to do them on their own. But we didn’t want to lose our vocal. So we wound up copying the tape and mixing it twice, one with me and Roger singing and one with the kids. The backing is the same. And we edited them together.
M: What about the other extreme, something like The Trial, which is very Brech-Weilian with the violins and orchestra?
DG: That’s largely Roger and Bob Ezrin collaborating. I think it was written by Bob with the immediate intention to do that with an orchestra, although we did demos of it with synthesizers and stuff.
M: It’s ironic that Pink Floyd has this reputation for being a “space band,” making weird music, mainly because I find Pink Floyd is not so much about weird sounds but about sound processing. You take a basic sound, even a nice piano or acoustic guitar as on the Animals bits Pigs On The Wing, and process it, giving it a certain dramatic air.
DG: I like our music to feel three-dimensional. It’s about trying to invoke emotions in people, I suppose. You feel larger than life in some sort of way. Let’s face it – none of us in Pink Floyd are technically brilliant musicians, with great chops who can change rhythms, fifteen or sixteen bars here, there, and everywhere. And we’re not terribly good at complicated chord structures. A lot of it is just very simple stuff dressed up. We stopped trying to make overtly “spacey” music and trip people out in that way in the 60’s. But that image hangs on and we can’t seem to get short of it.
Crazy Diamond in the Rough
“The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter seven of “The Wind in the Willows”
In the beginning, there was Syd Barrett. To this day, certain Floyd freaks insist he was Pink. It is certainly true that even now the spirit of Syd Barrett – for a brief meteoric period in 1966 and ’67 the band’s main songwriter, lead guitarist and truly psychedelic adventurer – hangs over Pink Floyd. David Gilmour remembers that Syd – born Roger Keith Barrett in Cambridge, England on January 6, 1946 – could turn heads even at an early age with his arrestingly handsome manlike looks, dark tousled air and enigmatic smile. “He was a truly magnetic personality. When he was very young, he was a figure in his hometown. People would look at him in the street and say, ‘There’s Syd Barrett,’ and he would be only fourteen years old,” recalls Gilmour, a teenage pal of Syd’s. Barrett also had these deep laser eyes that shot out from early Floyd publicity photos and record covers. But that, says Gilmour with a tinge of sadness, came later.
George Roger Waters was also a Cambridge boy and a school chum of Syd’s, although two years older. When a band he was playing with in London found itself in need of a guitarist, he brought in Syd who had since moved to the city and was staying in the same flat. This was 1965. The other members of the group were drummer Nick Mason and organist Richard Wright, fellow architecture students of Waters. Barrett came up with the name Pink Floyd, Borrowing it from two Georgia bluesmen named Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.
Given the times and the town, it was only natural that Pink Floyd would soon fall in with the inevitable exploding underground. But if Pink Floyd, through their pioneering use of light shows and psychedelic theatrics, came to represent the scene, Syd Barrett surely represented its soul. His songwriting was at once whimsical and poignant – Pink Floyd’s debut ’67 album single Arnold Layne was a typically Sydian compassionate portrait of a transvestite who pinched women’s clothes from neighborhood washlines; the follow-up See Emily Play, the Floyd’s only only hit single for the next six years, captured in the paisley pop pastels of Rick Wright’s spooky organ and Barrett’s underground fuzz guitar the free spirit and second childhood of the New Acid Age. Syd played his guitar as if he were furiously digging a hole to China, building extended improvisational rave-ups like Interstellar Overdrive on vicious scratching solos and stuttering guitar monologues while the band wailed maniacally behind him. To help get wherever he was going in his mind and music, Barrett took acid, lots of it. (Ironically, Gilmour notes, the rest of the band were purely drinkers.)
It got him as far as The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, the Floyd’s brilliant, breathtaking ’67 debut album with its psychotic instrumental rampages and blowout rockers, meditative ballads and altered pop fairy tales. He wrote or co-wrote all but one of the songs. But even then, Syd started seriously freaking out.
On a brief, disastrous sojourn to America to promote See Emily Play, the Floyd did a lip-sync appearance on American Bandstand, only Syd “was not into moving his lips that day.” When Mr. Clean, Pat Boone, tried inter- viewing Syd on another TV show, Syd’s only reply was a completely blank stare. Gilmour remembers seeing the band perform in England in the Fall of ’67 and thinking, “They were a piece of crap. Syd was thrashing about on his guitar terribly and everyone thinking it was wonderful.”
The rest of the Floyd didn’t. After enlisting Gilmour to shore up the guitar end the next January, they eased Barrett out entirely by the Spring of ’68. But out of a mixture of pity and genuine respect for his native talents, they never entirely gave up on him. Gilmour, with help from Waters and Wright, produced two Barrett solo albums – The Madcap Laughs in 1969, and Barrett a year later. Shine On You Crazy Diamond, the center- piece of Wish You Were Here, seemed less a tribute to Syd than a pleading to return, particularly at a time when the group was desperately floundering on a sequel to Dark Side.
Fifteen years after Syd Barrett came to his brief fame, he is nothing more than one of rock’s great MIA’s, a tragic casualty of his own daring. Yet to hear David Gilmour talk about him, it’s as if Pink Floyd still holds on to a thin thread of hope that Syd will someday come back from wherever he went.
M: Do you feel Syd’s mental breakdown was directly attributable to the psychedelic experience?
DG: In my opinion, it would have happened anyway. It was a deep-rooted thing. But I’ll say the psychedelic experience might well have acted as a catalyst. Still, I just don’t think he could deal with the vision of success and all the things that went with it. And there were other problems he had. I think the whole swimming pool thing in The Wall movie comes from one of Syd’s episodes.
M: How far gone was Syd when you produced those two solo albums for him? How did you deal with him?
DG: With extreme difficulty. EMI understood Syd’s potential at the time. They knew he was very talented and they wanted him to carry on. So they got an EMI producer (Malcolm Jones) who started recording this album and he spent ages on it. I think it was over six months. Eventually, EMI thought that too much money had been spent and nothing had been achieved. So Syd came and asked if we could help him. We went to EMI and said, “Let us have a crack at finishing it up.” And they gave us two days to do it – and one of those days we had a Pink Floyd gig, so we had to leave the studio at four in the afternoon to get on a train and go to the show.
But basically, Roger and I sat down with him – after listening to all his songs at home – and said, “Syd, play this one. Syd, play that one.” We sat him on a chair with a couple of mikes in front of him and got him to sing the song. On some of them, we just put a little bit of effect on the track with echo and double-tracking. On one or two others, we dubbed a bit of drums and a little bass and organ. But it was like one side of the album was six month’s work and we did the other tracks in two and a half days. And the potential of some of those songs… they could have really been fantastic.
M: The second solo record, Barrett, has much more instrumentation on it.
DG: We had more time to do that. But trying to find a technique of working with Syd was so difficult. You had to pre-record tracks without him, working from one version of the song he had done, and then sit Syd down afterwards and try to get him to play and sing along, with a lot of dropping in. Or you could do it the other way around, where you’d get him to do a performance of it on his own and then try to dub everything else on top of it. The concept of him performing with another bunch of musicians was clearly impossible because he’d change the song every time. He’d never do a song the same twice. I think quite deliberately.
M: There is a popular Syd story that he actually turned up unannounced at the mixing session for Shine On You Crazy Diamond and said he was ready to “do my bit.”
DG: He did show up, yeah.
M: Did he say anything?
DG: He showed up at the studio. He was very fat and he had a shaved head and shaved eyebrows [note Bob Geldof’s eyebrow-shaving scene in The Wall] and no one recognized him at all first off. There was just this strange person walking around the studio, sitting in the control room with us for hours. If anyone else told me this story, I’d find it hard to believe, that you could sit there with someone in a small room for hours, with a close friend of yours for years and years, and not recognize him. And I guarantee, no one in the band recognized him. Eventually, I had guessed it. And even knowing, you couldn’t recognize him. He came two or three days and then he didn’t come anymore.
M: How do you feel about the cult lionization of Syd Barrett, with things like the Syd Barrett Appreciation Society (an English fan club of sorts that actually published a newsletter, Terrapin, after one of his songs)?
DG: It’s sad that these people think he’s such a wonderful subject, that he’s a living legend when, in fact, there is this poor sad man who can’t deal with life or himself. He’s got uncontrollable things in him that he can’t deal with and people think it’s a marvelous, wonderful, romantic thing. It’s just a sad, sad thing, a very nice and talented person who’s just disintegrated.
M: That feeling comes through on Shine On You Crazy Diamond. It seems a very sad song, almost pleading.
DG: It is sad. Syd’s story is a sad story romanticized by people who don’t know anything about it. They’ve made it fashionable but it’s just not that way.