Mojo Magazine – 70s Rock Special – June 2006.
(Transcript thanks to Natalie Lyons)
Pink Floyd – Back to Earth
By 1973, Pink Floyd were fighting against their cosmic rock tag. The Dark Side of the Moon would soon change all that, but, as John Harris explains, Floyd’s guiding light, Roger Waters, has never escaped its gravitational pull.
On June 16, 1973, three months after the release of The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd set off on that year’s second tour of the USA. Their 12 shows in such locations as Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Louisville, Kentucky marked their decisive arrival in the bracket reserved for transatlantic rock stars.
The trek was bookended by performances at vast outdoor auditoriums – Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium to start and a closing stop in Tampa, Florida. Here, it seemed, was the stuff of any musicians fantasies: mass adoration, sky-scraping ticket receipts and the first stirrings of the lifestyle so prophetically crystallised in Money, Pink Floyd’s recent US hit single and a song that had played such a crucial role in their elevation – “I’m in the high-fidelity first-class travelling set / And I think I need a Lear jet…”
A few years later on, the song’s author, bassist Roger Waters’ recollections of their new life came with a clear sense of regret: what with the Floyd’s legendary crabbiness and their keen belief that they were in the habit of creating something more than mere rock music, it was probably no surprise that becoming a stadium attraction caused them an almost hilarious discomfort. “It took me until 10 years ago to stop being upset that people whistled through the quiet numbers,” he said. “I used to stop and go, ‘Right! Who’s whistling? Come on – be quiet!’”
“When you get to that size, there’s not a prayer in hell of everyone being there because they love your music,” says guitarist David Gilmour. “A lot of them are there for the party, and they’re not necessarily there because they’ve bought your record and loved it. They’ve paid their money, so it’s their choice. That was a big change at that time: they wanted us to play more up-tempo stuff, and they wanted to groove around and dance and shout and drink beer from their coolers. Did we feel compromised by that? Yes. But what can you do about it? You’re kind of stuck.”
Two years previously, things had been rather different. Though not exactly down on their luck, both in Britain and America Pink Floyd remained the property of an adoring cult, largely made up of the kind of young men who favoured respectful silence, army great-coats and the sort of art-driven music bundled up in the voguish category known as ‘progressive rock’. In the long slipstream of the drug-fuelled exit from the band of original frontman Syd Barrett – and through A Saucerful of Secrets, Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother – the band’s calling card had become an expansive, experimental strand of rock, big on musical ambition but rather lacking when it came to the question of what exactly they were trying to say. “We don’t want to come across with some incredible message,” Gilmour pondered in 1969. “There’s no special thing we deliberately work out. We’re just trying to move ahead, to get things done.”
Given such fuzzy intentions, the most common view of the Floyd’s underlying philosophy tended to focus on the idea that their music was somehow bound up with the Great Beyond. “We all read sci-fi and groove to 2001,” said Gilmour; in 1970, Waters claimed that “there’s nothing I’d like to do more than the music for Arthur C Clarke’s next screenplay.” In the minds of their more enthusiastic admirers, such ideas were quickly rendered dizzyingly cosmic: Ummagumma might have been a rum assemblage of live recordings and whimsical solo efforts, but the usually level-headed John Peel paid frenzied tribute to its “incredibly melancholy sounds, which cross one another sounding like crowds of dying galaxies lost in sheer corridors of time and space”.
By 1971, such talk was beginning to cause Roger Waters no end of annoyance. In the three years since founder member Syd Barrett’s split from Pink Floyd, Waters had slowly become the group’s de facto leader, endowed with a drive that the musicianly Gilmour and Wright and eternally easy-going Nick Mason rather lacked. In retrospect, he also claims an ongoing quest to found the band’s songs on more direct thoughts than either psychedelia or space rock would allow. “That was always my big fight in Pink Floyd: to try and drag it, kicking and screaming, back from the borders of space, from the whimsy that Syd was into – as beautiful as it was – into my concerns, which were much more political and philosophical,” he says today. “Even now, people talk about space. What the fuck is that? None of it had anything to do with that. I don’t know what’s wrong with people. Space – what the fuck are they talking about?”
In fairness, the author of Floyd’s 1968 space odyssey Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun probably only had himself to blame. Though, from 1968’s Corporal Clegg to If from Atom Heart Mother in 1970, Waters had indeed made occasional attempts to root the Floyd’s art in a more straight-forward vocabulary than their reputation as musical astronauts might have suggested. His decisive move in that direction arrived with Echoes, the expansive suite that formed the bedrock of their fourth studio album proper, Meddle, released in November 1971. Many of its lyrics were couched in a swooning dreaminess that could be traced back to Syd Barrett, all coral caves and rolling waves, though its most head-turning stanzas served notice of something new. Written in his compact flat in London’s Shepherd’s Bush as Waters surveyed the crowds teaming through the local streets, at least three of its lines – “Strangers passing in the street/By chance two separate glances meet/And I am you and what I see is me” – crisply summed up his quest for a fresh kind of subject matter.
“They expressed a preoccupation that I’d had and that I was going to continue to have,” he says, “with the potential that human beings have for recognising each other’s humanity and responding to it, with empathy rather than antipathy. That fundamental notion is what that lyric deals with.” In retrospect, that was one facet of Echoes’ importance. Another was altogether more simple: in its combination of R&B-influenced grit, understated serenity and straightforward musical power, its 23 minutes proved one thing beyond doubt: finally, Pink Floyd were getting to grips with who they were.
In December 1971, the band congregated at a shabby rehearsal space in Broadhurst Gardens, near West Hampstead tube station. A 17-date British tour was looming, and they were desperate to add new music to their set. Old staples such as Set The Controls…, Careful With That Axe Eugene and A Saucerful of Secrets were starting to sound distinctly hackneyed; even reliably patient drummer Nick Mason had told one journalist that when it came to the band’s live manoeuvres he was “dying of boredom”. There was also the small matter of beginning the path to the album that would follow Meddle.
They started, as was a long-standing Floyd habit, with the process David Gilmour calls “plundering the rubbish library” – dusting down odds and ends they had amassed over the last couple of years. From this source came a gorgeous piano piece, then called The Violent Sequence, that Rick Wright had authored during Floyd’s work on their score for Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, and another instrumental known variously as Religious Theme and Mortality Sequence. Further old material was used as a loose jumping-off point – as with Breathe, a song Waters had recorded for the soundtrack of an educational film called The Body, whose opening lines were re-set to music that arose in the course of endless jamming (whose basic idea, according to Waters, was “Let’s play E minor and A for an hour or so”).
As a clutch of songs began to take shape, Waters came up with an idea that, given the Floyd’s fondness for pushing their music way beyond the parameters of mere pop music, was hardly shocking: why not tie them together as one big themed piece? “I suspect that the big idea came before the writing of quite a number of the lyrics,” he says. “I can remember explaining it to the rest of the band. Nick Mason had a house on St Augustine’s Road in Camden Town – I remember sitting in his kitchen and explaining this idea; that the whole record might be about the pressures and preoccupations that divert us from our potential for positive action.”
Waters’ alternative explanation of the abiding theme have included “an exhortation to join in the flow of natural history – to embrace the positive and reject the negative” and “an expression of political, philosophical and humanitarian empathy”. If none of that sounds exactly clear, in the context of the songs they were creating, his intentions were obvious enough. In the most broad terms, the new material focused on human potential, and the factors – time, money, ambition and the prospect of death – that might conspire to either frustrate it or send people crashing into madness. To avoid such a fate, there was one possible way out: in Waters’ words, to tap back into “some kind of gestalt being – the rebel or the child within us all – who embodies what’s precious about us in our innocence when we’re conceived, and what becomes subverted through living.” In that context, the new song-cycle’s opening words reduced his idea to the simplest of instructions: “Breathe, breathe in the air/Don’t be afraid to care.”
However, as well as such child-like sentiments, there were rather more grown-up concerns at play. In Us And Them, the song alchemised from Wright’s Zabriskie Point music, Waters devoted a verse to the death of his father, killed in January 1944 during the Battle of Anzio in Italy. For Time, he tapped into the realisation that, though his mother had long advised him to carefully prepare for the eventual arrival of adulthood, he was actually there already (“I was 29 in 1972,” he says, “and very suddenly it struck me: ‘Fucking hell – this is it’”). Perhaps most remarkably of all, in Brain Damage, Waters paid subtle tribute to Syd Barrett, whose story inspired not just particular lines – “The lunatic is in my head”; “And if the dam breaks open many years too soon”; “And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes” – but somehow bled out into the piece as a whole.
“There was a residue of Syd in all this,” he says. “It was pretty recent history. Syd had been the central creative force in the early days… and so his having succumbed to schizophrenia was an enormous blow. And also, when you see that happening to someone you’ve been very close friends with, and known more or less your whole life, it really concentrates the mind on how ephemeral one’s sensibilities and mental capacities can be. For me, it was very much ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ That was certainly expressed in Brain Damage: the sense that one is not necessarily the master of one’s own identity; that we’re all marionettes, and the strings of our lives are pulled by our history, our backgrounds, our parents, our ancestors, and so on.”
Waters, then, was thinking admirably big thoughts – and also cementing his role as Pink Floyd’s unchallenged boss. That he piloted the band’s new music with such hard-headed drive would firm up the power relations that prevailed until his ugly split from the group in the mid-1980s, as subsequent accounts of The Dark Side Of The Moon attest. “I didn’t pull my weight when we were writing The Dark Side Of The Moon,” David Gilmour later reflected. “That wasn’t true when we were playing it live and recording – but I went through a bad patch. Roger worked all sorts of hours on the concept and the lyrics while the rest of us went home to enjoy our suppers. I still feel appreciative of that. He did a very good job.”
For the first year of its life, the new song-cycle was entitled Eclipse, and strap-lined “a piece for assorted lunatics”. After an abortive premiere in Brighton on January 20, 1972, where the backing tapes went haywire during the opening bars of Money, it was played in full in Portsmouth then various other UK cities before being taken to Japan and later the USA. It’s some token of the Floyd’s frantic workrate that between tours they also found time to travel to France and write and record the music the director Barbet Schroeder’s hippy movie La Vallee – released as an album called Obscured By Clouds, and in terms of both lyrics and music (not least in Free Four, in which Waters bluntly claimed that “life is a short warm moment, and death is a long cold rest”), something of a signpost for the record that would follow it.
Finally, in June 1972, Pink Floyd went into Abbey Road, to begin putting their new music to tape. Here, though, sessions were regularly interrupted by the band’s live commitments, they bolstered the songs with the kind of imaginative aspects that made their live versions sound like mere sketches. Synthesizers, then the stuff of mind-boggling musical exotica, were used on Time, Brain Damage, the instrumental makeweight Any Colour You Like, and – most impressively of all – On The Run, a pared-down piece of proto-techno that had initially been played as a drab guitar improvisation. The tape loops that had underpinned onstage versions of Money were expanded and polished, leading to the spectacle – in David Gilmour’s words – of “mike stands set up in the control room with yards and yards of tape, doing a circle… a major logistical nightmare”. Dick Parry, an old associate from Gilmour and Waters’ days in Cambridge, contributed gorgeous saxophone to Us and Them and Money. And towards the end of the sessions, Waters came up with the inspired idea of sprinkling the music with spoken-word segments, culled from interviews in which the songs’ themes were reflected in such questions as “When was the last time you were violent?” and “Are you scared of dying?”
Those whose responses made it on to the record included a handful of Floyd roadies, Abbey Road’s Irish doorman Gerry O’Driscoll – who contributed the album’s last words, “There is no dark side of the moon, as a matter of fact it’s all dark” – and Henry McCullough, then the lead guitar player with Paul McCartney’s Wings. The ex-Beatle himself had been enlisted to take part, only to find that his responses did not quite meet Waters’ designs. “He was the only person who found it necessary to perform,” he says, “which was useless, of course. I thought it was really interesting, that he would do that. He was trying to be funny, which was not what we wanted at all.”
Thanks to Alan Parsons, the £35-a-week Abbey Road engineer, the recordings were pristine: impressively dimensioned without teetering into bombast, and allowed to take on a real sense of emotional intimacy. All of this was crystallised in the piece that formed the album’s most heart-stopping segment: The Great Gig in the Sky, the piece based around Rick Wright’s piano that had lain unfinished for months, pending one last touch of magic. Initially, Parsons had suggested dubbing on a tape of radio conversation from a NASA mission, only to be told – presumably on account of Waters’ distaste for the dreaded space rock – that that would not do at all. Instead, at the tail-end of the sessions, they enlisted session singer Clare Torry, called to Abbey Road, played the track, and asked her to improvise something “emotional”.
Though Torry’s work was jaw-dropping, as was usually the case, the band seemed incapable of of much in the way of approval. In Alan Parson’s recollection, the sessions were “all very calm; very unenthusiastic. They would never be jumping up and down with joy when something was working. Even after an amazing take on a guitar solo, Roger would say something like, ‘Oh, I think we might be able to get away with that one, Dave.’ It was really very low-key.”
Nonetheless, once the sometime Roxy Music producer Chris Thomas had worked on a final mix – according to Floyd lore, to navigate a midway between Gilmour’s quest for a reverb-heavy ‘wet’ sound and Waters’ desire for something much more stripped down and ‘dry’ – the band’s accomplishment was obvious. The Dark Side… was launched in the UK at the then voguish London Planetarium. Yet, unhappy with the venue’s sound system, all of the band, except for Rick Wright, refused to attend. Within months, with Money confirmed as a fixture on American FM radio, Billboard hailing a “tour de force for lyricist Roger Waters” and the album in permanent residence in both the UK and US charts, its effects on Pink Floyd’s career were just as plain to see – though for now its wonders were reflected in episodes that took place a little closer to home. “My strongest memory of listening to it is when I played it to Judy, who was then my wife,” says Waters. “She listened to it all the way through, and when it had finished, she burst into tears. She was very moved by it. I thought, ‘That’s a very good sign. We’ve definitely got something here.’”
Pink Floyd “Clung together for many years after that,” says Roger Waters, “mainly through fear of what might lie beyond, and also a reluctance to kill the golden goose. But after that, there was never the same sense of purpose. It slowly became less and less pleasant to work with each other and more and more of a vehicle for my ideas, and less and less to do with anyone else, so it became less and less tenable.”
On the three albums that followed Dark Side…, the malign aspects of its legacy were all too clear. Seemingly shell-shocked by their success, it took Pink Floyd until January 1975 to begin their next album, and the disenchantment and introspection streaked through Wish You Were Here was all too obvious. That album was followed, in 1977, by Animals – on which Waters effectively staked a claim to be the band’s lead vocalist and piloted the group through yet another conceptual work, this time founded on a bitter kind of angst. By the time of the rock star cri de couer that was The Wall, Waters’ disgust with the band’s ongoing success was defining almost everything they did, and its contrast with Dark Side… spoke volumes: whereas the latter oozed an affecting generosity of spirit, the former was bleakly misanthropic. Finally, when Waters called time on his involvement in the Floyd with 1983’s The Final Cut and became bitterly estranged from David Gilmour, one of Dark Side…’s most ironic side-effects became clear: the success of a record based on the need for greater human understanding would lead, in the end, to two men not speaking to one another for the best part of two decades.
Not surprisingly, Dark Side… remains Pink Floyd’s signature work, full of motifs – the opening heartbeats of Speak To Me, the seven-to-the-bar intro of Money, the astral music that begins Breathe – that have long sat at the very core of the band’s identity. A decade after Waters had departed, the band were still so wedded to the record that their 14-night run of concerts at Earls Court in 1994 (farewell shows in all but name) found them repeatedly playing it in its entirety; Dark Side…’s place in Waters’ personal story is symbolised by the fact that this summer he has been doing exactly the same, doubtless aware that, 33 years after its release, it remains one of rock music’s four or five greatest touchstones.
“I have a suspicion that part of the reason it’s still there is that successive generations of adolescents seem to want to go and buy The Dark Side of the Moon at about the same time that the hormones start coursing round the veins and they start wanting to rebel against the status quo,” he says. “I think it says, ‘It’s OK to engage in the difficult task of discovering your own identity. And it’s OK to think things out for yourself.’”
With all that in mind, when Waters joined Gilmour, Wright and Mason for the Floyd’s deeply unlikely four-song reunion at Live 8, it was not exactly a shock that three pieces from Dark Side… – Breathe, the same song’s reprise, and Money – were in their set, delivered with a grace and panache that sealed the performance’s sense of long-overdue closure. Relative to the frantic days of the mid-1970s, however, there was perhaps one source of surprise: that day, presumably to Roger Waters’ great delight, the multitudes gathered in Hyde Park stayed reverentially quiet.
John Harris is the author of The Dark Side of the Moon: The Making of The Pink Floyd Masterpiece (Da Capo Press, 2005).