Mojo Magazine October 2007.
(Transcript thanks to Natalie Lyons)
Roger Waters “provided the mettle”, Rick Wright added the “melancholy”, Nick Mason felt “self-conscious” and David Gilmour sought “bliss in music”. As “collective ambition” drove them on to superstardom, at their core PINK FLOYD remain haunted by SYD BARRETT’s retreat into oblivion. A year after his death, all four surviving members talk candidly to Mark Paytress and unravel 40 years of tension, paranoia and emotional burden that resides in the debut album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.
It’s July 2007 and the 40th anniversary of Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is just days away. The four surviving band members have agreed to take a break from their current projects to talk to MOJO exclusively about the record that started it all. However, Roger Waters, who went out as the “creative genius of Pink Floyd” on his recent solo tour, is not in the mood for celebrating.
“If it’s something I care about, like a new 5.1 mix of Wish You Were Here, I’ll listen to it and stick my oar in,” he says. “But Piper? Frankly, I don’t really care.” The heavy whiff of his legendary provocation hangs in the air.
Originally released on August 5, 1967, two months after The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, as flower power hit full bloom, Pink Floyd’s debut is regarded by many as the real soundtrack of that psychedelic summer. Waters, who proudly boasts that he’s not heard the record in “25, perhaps 30 years”, is not convinced. “You’ll never get me to take this stuff seriously,” he sniffs. “However hard you try, it’s not gonna happen, OK? I refuse to take any of it seriously. We were just young guys getting together, wanting to be rich and get laid.”
While there’s the ring of truth in his last assertion, Waters’ insistence that Pink Floyd were anything other than deadly serious during their first year as pop professionals defies the evidence. Watch Peter Whitehead’s studio footage of the group performing Interstellar Overdrive, shot just before the Piper sessions began, for a fascinating glimpse of four earnest, well scrubbed young men adrift in pursuit of improvisational nirvana. Check out the yellowing back pages of The Sunday Times (a significant step up the cultural ladder from Rave magazine) to find Waters himself explaining the band’s lofty ambitions, “co-operative anarchy… a complete realisation of the aims of psychedelia”. Best of all, surrender once more to the masterpiece of acid storytelling that is The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Only in it for the bread and the birds? Surely there were easier ways?
Though there is no way Waters would ever admit it, there’s probably a very simple reason why, four decades on, he cannot take Floyd’s salad days seriously. Piper is a spotty reminder of a time when, neither entirely comfortable with his role in the group of with the pop process in general, Waters loitered with ominous, oddly uncertain intent. Of course The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn sounds like gentle, suck-it-and-see juvenilia to him now, because he’d hardly mastered his instrument yet, let alone found the voice that today enables him to lay claim to being the band’s key player. In 1967, there was only one creative genius in Pink Floyd and his name was Syd Barrett.
Spring 1967. Another late night locked away in Studio Three, Abbey Road, north-west London. There’s Syd, his pasty face and dark eyes partly obscured by a mop of fashionable curls and a cloud of cigarette smoke. The youngest of the group and the last to join, a little over two years earlier when Floyd were a fun-of-the-mill R&B combo known as The Tea Set, Barrett is the band’s songwriter and pop star in waiting. “Syd was absolutely up for it as soon as we signed that EMI contract in February 1967,” says drummer Nick Mason. “There was no suggestion of all that he might be uncomfortable with the idea of becoming a pop star.”
Despite Mason’s assertion, a strange dichotomy already lay at the heart of the combo then going out as The Pink Floyd. As the house band of London’s emerging underground scene, their live sets consisted of long, exploratory instrumental “freak-outs” with mind-frying oil-based light projections that transformed the four ex-students into grainy, slow-moving shadows. Yet these epic soundtracks, performed at UFO and their own ‘sound/light workshops’ at the London Free School in Notting Hill, contrasted dramatically with the dozen or so pop originals that Barrett wrote in a creative flurry late in 1966 and into the early days of ’67.
Syd’s inspired, enchanting songs, narcotic nursery rhymes and fairytales set in sound were often deceptively complex. “The first thing that came into his head were the lyrics, and his next priority was making the words rhyme,” recalls keyboard player Rick Wright. “He’d come up with a melody later, but never paid much attention to time signatures. Syd’s songs were great, but the tempos were always changing. That made things quite difficult for the band.”
At the outset, then, and months before Barrett showed any tangible sings of mental collapse, The Pink Floyd were doing things differently. Norman Smith, the newly promoted staff producer who’d served his apprenticeship engineering Beatles sessions under George Martin, had his work cut out during the 10 sessions it took to record Piper, between February and June 1967. “I think Norman was hoping we’d go the Beatles route,” Mason says, “produce, you know, a ‘pop’ album – terrible word! And perhaps we did too.”
Though lacking some of the production finesse of Sgt. Pepper, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn was wilder, more whimsical and way weirder than The Beatles’ flower power masterpiece. Nevertheless, there’s a second, perhaps even more important dimension to Mason’s analogy – one that’s stayed with the group for 40 years of incomparably crafted songs of fear, loathing and raging against the music-biz machinations. “Syd was influenced by John Lennon, particularly Lennon’s resentment of the pop machine,” Mason adds. “Even before his problems became obvious, he [Syd] was already indicating that he wanted to do things differently.”
“I liked Syd’s attitude to the business,” adds Wright. “If someone said, ‘You can’t do that’, he’d be the first to say, So what? We’re doing it our way. None of us were desperate to be pop stars. Fuck that. That was the whole point of the light show. It was the norm in those days that stages would be lit so audiences could see the lead singer. When we performed, you couldn’t really see anybody. We liked to hide.”
In 1967, Rick Wright was The Floyd’s second singer, second most prolific songwriter, and virtually neck and neck with Barrett in the ace face department. His wheezing, hammer Horror-style Farfisa Duo organ sound, combined with some bewitching Eastern scales, did much to define the early Pink Floyd sound. Today, the reclusive Wright cuts a wary, restless and somewhat lonely figure in his tidy if strangely sparse office in a quiet mews in west London. “I’m afraid I’ve got nothing to offer you,” he apologises after half a handshake, “but you’re welcome to share some of this,” he says, pointing at a bottle of water that sits on a wide table between us. Unusually for such a fit-looking man now pushing 64, Wright still smokes, but wishes he could pack it in.
Unlike Roger Waters, Rick has recently listened to Piper… again. “I don’t think I’d played the album since its release,” he admits, “and I was pleasantly surprised. Much better than how I remembered it.” Also in contrast to his colleague, Wright remembers being in a state of “absolute excitement” while making the record, hardly an emotion one normally associates with a typical Floyd recording session. His only real disappointment was hearing Pow R Toc H again. “I’d forgotten about that one,” he says. “Never did like those silly voices at the start of that song.” That it should have slipped his mind is especially surprising, given that the instrumental once considered a sequel to Interstellar Overdrive is driven by Wright’s lengthy, Dave Brubeck-on-acid piano part.
Wright takes his music very seriously, and, evidently, much else too. Not for nothing did Nick Mason write in his Floyd memoir, Inside Out, that Wright spends his time “thinking about thinking”. “Well, I’m definitely, definitely melancholy,” he says.
So even in the relatively carefree days of Piper, was he always that way? “I guess so. I mean, I will go and sit at my piano and play all this rather sad sounding stuff. That’s what I’ve always done. But I think Roger is melancholic too, in a sense, besides his obvious anger about the war. Even David is.”
Rick, though, is the only group member who tells Mojo that his instrument is “my best friend”, and though he quickly backtracks, it’s clear that music is, and always has been, both a solace and a form of therapy for him. “I know that if you get really angry or frustrated, people say go and scream in a pillow, or see a counsellor or a psychiatrist. But I head straight for my piano…”
He’s been doing that for the best part of 60 years, ever since teaching himself to play at the age of four on the family upright. “I was fascinated by the piano,” Wright remembers. “I’d just hit notes and work out the chords myself. Nobody told me where to put the fingers. I went where it felt right. Of course, my technique is completely wrong. I still can’t play a scale in the way that you’re meant to play it.” Given a second chance, he would opt for correct technique so he could sit legitimately at “a wonderful Steinway” and become a concert pianist. Fortunately for Pink Floyd, he brought his little idiosyncrasies to the fast-changing world of mid-’60s pop.
With a good head of silver hair, Wright hasn’t changed much since the Dark Side days, a fact confirmed by a classic ’70s-era portrait of himself that sits in a frame in his otherwise memento-free room. Perhaps it’s all those sailing holidays in the Mediterranean, his preferred pursuit ever since he took off to Greece in the mid-’60s after a run-in with his college authorities. In fact, there’s something perfectly fitting about Wright drifting aimlessly in the fat old Aegean sun. And that’s not just because he’s a self-confessed “lazy bastard”, his way of explaining his dramatic descent down the Floyd pecking order at the end of the ’70s. Think of Echoes on Meddle, for example, the pivotal cut in the Pink canon say the band, and the track that slammed the door on acid whimsy and opened up the most cherished chapter in their career. It’s Wright’s repeated, sub-aquatic, swelling chord progressions that give it so much of its oceanic power. “What Rick does best is colour washes,” explains Nick Mason. “And that’s an important part of what makes Pink Floyd unique.”
Unlike Syd, “a jack the lad, bopping around and getting all the pretty girls until he started to suffer from the symptoms of schizophrenia,” according to Waters, Rick Wright has always been notoriously uptight. “I mean, we used to share a flat together in the early days,” Waters continues, “and he used to lock his fucking cornflakes up in a cupboard with a padlock! How could there not be tension?” In turn, jazz buff Wright would be frustrated by his colleague’s apparent lack of musicality. When Waters’ bass needed tuning, which it often did during the early days of Pink Floyd, the London College of Music undergraduate was invariably there to sort it out. “I hated things being out of tune,” he says, confirming his status as the only band member with anything remotely like musical training.
Domiciled in New York, as he has been for many years, Roger Waters is the only one of Pink Floyd unable to show the whites of his eyes for this piece. Down a transatlantic phone line, His Master’s Voice rings out loud and clear, as animated and intractable as it no doubt was during much of 1982 when he banished his bandmates from sessions for The Final Cut, the album that closed the curtain on a decade of Floydian rock dominance and on Waters’ association with the group. In a momentary lapse of self-will, he’ll sometimes say, “OK, I’ll give you that one,” as if an interview is a kind of gentlemanly duel. But he’s far more likely to ram your questions back down your throat.
“Exploratory and free-form?” he exclaims. “Not on Piper! Apart from Interstellar Overdrive, everything else was quite ordinary.” “No,” he answers another time. Next question. “No idea.” The band played some 200 gigs during ’67… “I don’t know about that.” OK, let’s switch to safer ground. How aware was Syd that he was an outsider? “Um.” A long pause. “What do you mean? He wasn’t an outsider! Why do you think he was an outsider? He was one of the beautiful people. He was inside it all. Why do you think he was an outsider? I find that very strange…”
Waters is the big bad wolf of Pink Floyd who huffed and puffed so much that his three little pigs eventually exacted sweet revenge by calling his bluff, scarpering off with the band name, and proved to be at least as successful without him. Whether he is legitimately “the creative genius behind Pink Floyd” is hotly contested by the three remaining members, but there’s a big question over whether the band would have successfully outgrown their Piper… apprenticeship without his drive and determination. A rock’n’roll Ingmar Bergman with teeth bared, the bleak, all-too-human Waters wears his instrumental inferiority complex with admirable pride.
“No, I never learned,” he says, starting his answer with a characteristic rebuttal. “I still don’t really consider myself a musician in that sense.” Yet Waters proudly recounts, in some detail, the time when he was jamming in the studio with Eric Clapton while recording his first post-Floyd album, 1984’s The Pros And Cons Of Hitch Hiking. “And this came up, my sense of inadequacy in terms of playing an instrument. And he said, ‘Stop right there! You’re a great player, don’t let anyone ever tell you any different.’ That changed my life to some extent, ’cos this guy really is a proper player.”
Waters’ sensitivity is especially acute because the Floyd came of age at a time when technique was just starting to become king, when the ‘progress’ in progressive meant complete mastery of one’s instrument. “There was this putting-me-down thing later on in the Floyd. ‘He’s tone deaf,’ that kind of thing. A lot of that was because people felt inferior, because I was writing everything and making all the decisions, all that crap.”
According to Waters, “all that crap” began as soon as Barrett went, early in 1968. The others insist that the bassist-turned-ideas-man’s apparent coup took place some time between the mid ’70s (Wright) and The Final Cut (Mason). But what’s particularly intriguing, especially in light of subsequent events, is the relationship that existed between Waters and Barrett at the dawn of Piper and The Pink Floyd. “I wasn’t in the band then so what sort of relationship they had I really don’t know,” shrugs David Gilmour guardedly, before immediately rethinking his reply. “But I must say it’s hard to imaging Roger deferring to Syd, not least because when Syd was 20, Roger was 22, which is a big gap at that age.”
Deference – nor diplomacy for that matter – is hardly a key Waters characteristic, but while his words can look harsh on paper, there is something compulsive and good-spirited about his combativeness. “He was writing songs!” gasps the mock-exasperated bassist, on the subject of his relationship with Syd. “Don’t you know enough about rock’n’roll yet to know that’s the only thing that matters in a band? Have you or have you not got a songwriter and/or somebody with charisma, or who’s got something to say, or somebody with a direction. The songwriting is what it hinges on, and having something to say. And Syd had a lot to say.”
“In terms of musical input, you would call Syd the leader, definitely,” Rick Wright confirms. “But he wasn’t a leader at all. We all had a role to play, but I don’t think there was a leader at that time.”
“Syd was the leader,” Nick Mason agrees, “but he was a very relaxed leader. There was no sense of anyone dictating. Syd would bring an idea or a song and let us do whatever we felt was suitable.”
Mason also believes that forming the nucleus of the band while he, Rick and Roger were architecture students at Regent Street Polytechnic gave the future Floyd a particular bond, though not necessarily all good vibrations, of course. Even as far back as 1963, when they first met, Mason remembered his lanky colleague being “rather menacing [and] sporting an expression of scorn”.
The fact that Waters was deeply affected by the death of the father he never knew has been widely documented. From war-wounded Corporal Clegg on 1968’s A Saucerful Of Secrets to The Final Cut, which he dedicated to his Communist, pacifist parent killed in action in 1944, Waters has written extensively about the big themes – war, authority, institutions – that clearly relate to his childhood trauma. Less known is the fact that, despite the progressive politics (Roger was a CND activist at 15), his family background was, according to his mother in a rare 1990 interview, “unmusical and not very creative”. This might help explain the plain-speaking sense of mistrust that underpins Waters’ ungenerous attitude towards Piper-era Floyd. Certainly, his view of that time is that of a brutal pragmatist. “Well, we weren’t riding very high. I was making about fucking six quid a week. It was a very high ride, trust me.”
Wasn’t what you were doing more important than money? “No, absolutely not! No, no, no, my God…”
Indeed, fiscal matters were clearly an issue for the bassist back then. Though Waters cannot remember what he calls “the nuts and bolts” of the day job, he takes great delight in recalling every last detail of his pay packet as a trainee architect. “I was making £1,100 a year, so every week I got £22 in a brown envelope less deductions. I had to make a living. If music hadn’t worked out, I might have gone into smuggling or property development, something more rewarding than architecture, anyway, which I never really enjoyed.”
Waters had at least one good reason to make Pink Floyd a success. The immediate problem was how. With Barrett writing the songs, Waters’ role was more that of a cheerleader than a leader per se. “I provided a little mettle,” he says assuringly. “You know, ambition, backbone, steel, whatever you want to call it. You need all kinds of things in a band to keep it moving forward, and in that incarnation of Pink Floyd, maybe Syd and I were the driving forces.”
Despite never quite getting the hang of tuning his bass guitar, Waters was hardly silent on creative matters. Though often regarded as the black sheep on Piper, even by the band, his Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk was the only non-Barrett or group composition on the record. Admittedly not much in terms of songwriting craft, the extended jam that breaks in after one verse is a perfect vehicle for some magnificent sparring between Wright’s mad organ-grinding and Barrett’s guitar frenzy. Waters, as usual, plays the part of the Rickenbacker-belting octave doctor. But as the track reaches its excitable, Big Top-style finale, the fledgling songwriter lets slip that he might have been having more fun than he now cares to remember. The impassioned cry, “Music seems to help the pain/Seems to cultivate the brain/I’m alive!”, hardly sounds like the raving of an opportunistic, non-committal pop passenger.
Being “Alive!” in ’67 meant, at least for a significant minority of pop enthusiasts, testing the limits of artistic licence and commercial acceptance. The least skilled musician in the band, he nevertheless seemed the keenest to find ways to extend the parameters of pop. “Yes, I spent hours and hours in a ghastly cold basement off the Harrow Road making quadraphonic tapes for the Games For May concert,” he confesses. “I also remember following clockwork toy cars across the stage with a microphone which was, I suppose, playing around with notions of what music is. Now my feeling is that pushing a toy car across a stage and following it with a microphone is just a joke, and has absolutely nothing to do with music at all.”
Years later, of course, Waters would work with large teams of non-musicians in his highly successful quest to transform Pink Floyd from a “lights-and-sound” combo into a vast, travelling theatrical spectacle with added rock’n’roll. Some might argue that the giganticism embraced by the Floyd during the ’70s actually has significantly less to do with music than, say, Interstellar Overdrive, the 10-minute centrepiece of both Piper and the band’s set from late ’66 until the end of the decade. Remind him that he once described the piece as “beautiful” and he simply snorts. Mention that dreaded phrase “avant-garde” and Waters becomes positively icy.
“Nah. Bollocks. I hated Stockhausen and all that; thought it was absolute nonsense. I always felt much more connected to The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Who than I ever did to any of that stuff.”
Neither pure pop nor po-faced provocateurs, The Pink Floyd found themselves in an uncomfortable no man’s land. But with buzz words such as “psychedelic” and “far-out” bandied about, there was a sizable enough audience to keep the genre-busting band in business. And no one, not The Soft Machine in London nor the underground bands from hippy central San Francisco, was cooking up the electronic storm that defined the ’66-into-’67 Floyd concert mindblower. From behind his drum kit, Nick Mason was perfectly placed to observe what was going on. And as the man charged with holding it all together, while Barrett and Wright oscillated wildly into freak-out heaven, Mason has a clear and convincing explanation of the Floyd’s musical metier.
“Quite early on, we’d discovered the possibilities of musical dynamics,” he says, “the fact that not everything was played flat out, either in terms of speed or volume. That immediately gave people the impression that we were doing something a big sophisticated. Actually, it wasn’t very complicated at all, but it appeared that way because no one else was doing it.”
Nick Mason has always been a bit of a misfit in Pink Floyd. And never more so than in 1967 when the rosy-cheeked non-smoker in the purple pullover seemed so oddly normal in a group that sounded so strangely strange. As he ambles over from one end to the other of his giant warehouse space, based in a nondescript part of north London, you half-expect him to whip out a set of accounts to sign. So it’s rather a relief when he starts talking about the “mortification” the band felt when pianist Alan Price took a cheap shot at Pink Floyd and their new-fangled music from the Albert Hall stage late in 1966 by hitting the reverb on his Hammond organ and joking, “This is psychedelic music!” “We felt very vulnerable to criticism,” Mason admits. “I’m nearly over it!”
Though the drummer returned to the scene of the crime a couple of years back to catch Cream’s reunion concert, these days you’ll more likely find him in the pit at Brands Hatch or Le Mans pursuing his first long, motor sports. “In all honesty, psychedelia had been a bloody good launch pad, but it was not something we felt comfortable with,” he admits. “It was tied in with all these hippy concepts – love, crystals and all the rest of it. Whereas we were heading down this darker road, towards Dark Side…, which is a very technical piece about much more introverted ideas. It soon seemed quite important that we lose the tripping-on-acid image.”
Mason had an instinctive distrust of the counterculture, and he wasn’t alone. “Yes, hippies used to be a large part of our audience,” Wright agrees, “but I don’t think even Syd or I were hippies. In fact, none of us believed in the hippy philosophy. We were part of a wider movement that was all about freedom. And freedom for me meant, Wow, we can actually go on-stage and make these weird sounds, and people are gonna listen ad pay you for it! And the record company are prepared to give us a deal. And our managers believe in it, they’re flying us first class to America. That was the freedom. When you’re 24 and still learning about life, that’s pretty exciting.”
“It was that eye of the storm thing,” Mason adds. “Though we were apparently at the centre of it all, we didn’t entirely understand it. What we did understand was that to be successful, you couldn’t go on complaining about the suits, man, for too long. That’s the way of the world. And that’s hardly surprising when you’ve got a record company desperate for you to do something, and you’ve got a public who really aren’t that interested in poetry readings.” Or in the musical qualities of a wind-up car…
It’s Mason’s belief that the band was “torn between two cravings, between the hard sell and total success, and the belief that actually we liked a little bit of the intellectual high ground.” That’s where the Blackhill Enterprises management team of Peter Jenner and Andrew King comes in.
“They were the ones that were really pushing the boundaries,” says Waters, “getting us concerts in seated venues as well as on the old Top Rank pop circuit. It was probably because they were good, middle-class vicars’ sons with degrees from good universities, that meant the world of classical music promotion was prepared to take them seriously. And we were prepared to engage in that.”
If, as Waters insists, the Floyd weren’t as detached from the pop mainstream as their reputation suggests, then there’s little doubt that the band were united in their belief that the pop business itself was rather less than savoury.
“It was totally corrupt when we started,” Wright maintains. “The club owners, the managers, the agents, virtually all of them were absolute crooks. We were lucky that Jenner and King weren’t like that. But I remember us all going to our publisher’s office and telling him, Look, we’re playing all these gigs and we haven’t got any money to live on. And he’d have a fit about giving us a fiver. Things like that made us determined not to play the usual pop game. That was a definite force within the band.”
“Part of it was also snobbery to some extent,” Mason admits. But as the Floyd walked through the hallowed Abbey Road studio doors on February 21, just as Cliff Richard, The Beatles, even The Goon had done before them, the drummer felt sensations of both excitement and unease.
“When you’re doing something that’s supposedly radical,” he says, “you can feel a bit self-conscious about it, that somehow you’re getting away with it. And it didn’t help when one review said it sounded a bit like Acker Bilk in a Persian market. Actually, when I listen to parts of Piper now, I can say, Yeah, it does a bit!”
No one embodied Pink Floyd’s confused attitude towards their work and circumstances more than Syd Barrett. Barrett, who died last year, aged 60, having spent much of his adult life alone with his schizophrenic self, was the Pink Piper whose destiny it was to stall at the gates and remain forever entwined with the exalted highs and deranged depths of the psychedelic experience. For the rest of the band, living with his legend has been at various times an inspiration and an albatross.
The fairy story that soon became a cautionary tale, Syd’s one-way trip from dazzle to frazzle was hardly the only dynamic at work during the Floyd’s first remarkable year in the limelight. But his fate opens the most obvious door to the darkness that once drove the world’s most evasive rock stars, and has contributed much to the making – and breaking – of Pink Floyd.
After work on Piper had finished, Barrett’s songwriting took a more seriously weird twist, with Jugband Blues in particular being a clear case of sonic deconstruction reflecting personal collapse. So too did his behaviour. Whether it was drugs, disillusionment, or a serious attempt to make Acker Bilk in a Persian market appear positively normal by comparison, no one will ever know. What is certain is that, by the end of 1967, the erratic, elusive and sanity-defying Barret was no longer regarded as the strangely gifted golden boy of Pink Floyd.
“I said to Peter and Andrew, OK this can’t go on,” Waters remembers. “Syd obviously can’t perform live. Perhaps he could become our Brian Wilson figure, keep writing the songs and turn up at recording sessions. They said, ‘No, Syd wants two girl saxophone players in the group.” I went, Forget it. And that’s how our ways parted. I never felt let down by him. He was just… ill.”
Ill, not delivering the goods and quite clearly hampering the band’s chances of maintaining their two-hit momentum earlier in ’67 – these simple facts appear to have haunted Pink Floyd for the last 40 years, causing a number of diverging opinions and differing levels of guilt at the same time. In his book, Nick Mason writes that the sacking of Syd was completely callous. “Well,” says Waters, “he may have felt that. I didn’t feel callous at all. I don’t know what he’s talking about.” Nor does Waters think Barrett was aware of being phased out. “He’d ceased to have connections with all that stuff. He did turn up at one or two gigs thinking he was gonna play…”
When Pink Floyd played Central London’s hippy hangout Middle Earth in spring 1968, Barrett spent the entire gig in front of the stage staring at the man who’d replaced him, his Cambridge buddy David Gilmour. Seven years later, completely out of the blue, Barrett turned up at Abbey Road to visit his former colleagues. By a weird twist of fate, the band were putting down the vocals to Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Waters’ epic tribute to their benign ex-leader who’d recently become a cult thanks o the reissue of Piper and his two solo albums, as well as a legend-creating tribute by Nick Kent in New Musical Express. This time, though, it was Syd himself who was the object of squint-eyed fascination.
“I had to be told it was Syd,” Rick Wright remembers. “It was extremely emotional. I nearly burst into tears. He’d shaved off all his body hair, including his eyebrows and was about 20 stone. He kept jumping up, brushing his teeth with a toothbrush, then sitting down again. I couldn’t really work after that.”
Shortly afterwards, Wright began to plummet under the weight of his own problems, and history began to repeat itself. “I hadn’t offered any material for [1977’s] Animals, and Roger and I were having disagreements about all sorts of things. He was on his ego trip, had written The Wall virtually on his own, and decided he could do it all by himself.” Midway through sessions for that album, in summer 1979, Waters sacked his colleague of some 15 years. “Even back in architecture school there had been some weird tension between us,” says Wright. “He was a huge bully, and I was extremely, extremely upset and angry when it happened. It was totally unfair the way it was done.” The darkness, again illuminated by twilight talk of drug use and creative inertia, had returned.
“There comes a time,” explains David Gilmour, “when this juggernaut is moving through time and you find you haven’t got the patience to be nice enough to those who can’t quite pull their weight. Rick lost his confidence, and definitely got bullied and pushed aside a fair bit, by me as well as other people.”
Within months, Wright was back in the band, albeit on a wage. Five years later, in December 1985, Roger Waters declared Pink Floyd a “spent force” and announced his own departure. 1987 saw Gilmour, with minimal input from Wright and Mason, resurrecting the band name for A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, though after a couple of highly lucrative tours, the group has been dormant since 1995 – save for a brief reunion of the post-Barrett quartet on July 2, 2005 for the Live 8 show in Hyde Park. A last-ditch attempt to bring all four together on-stage on May 10 this year, for Madcap’s Last Laugh, Joe Boyd’s all-star tribute to Barrett at the Barbican, foundered because Waters had to pick someone up from an airport, leaving Gilmour, Wright and Mason to see the night out with a virtually spontaneous Arnold Layne.
Days after the memorable if unlikely 2005 reunion, sales of Pink Floyd CDs went through the roof. Not, of course, for The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, which is usually dismissed as pre-history by the majority of fans. It was the multi-million selling quartet released between 1973 and 1979 – The Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall – artful, middlebrow classics each one of them, that the crowds shelled out for.
From the brink of acid-induced catastrophe, the Floyd had – in a phrase tellingly used by three of the four members during their interviews for this piece – “ploughed [their] own furrow” and emerged triumphant above and beyond their progressive rock contemporaries. The catalyst for this dramatic reversal of fortunes, where all the fear and loathing that had beset the band was skilfully channelled into a series of high-gloss art-rock records, was an ex-male model and cover band copyist.
Outwardly, David Gilmour is the happiest and most fulfilled (ex?) member of Pink Floyd. A bon vivant with a warm, impressive presence and a remarkably big family, many of whom still live with him in his spacious Sussex farmhouse, he has a generous spirit (that extends, unusually for a Floyd-man, to working with a vast range of other artists), a CBE, presumably for his charity work rather than his efforts in rescuing Pink Floyd from the brink of collapse, and the manner of a man who wears his achievement with a quietly proud dignity. Barefooted in blue jeans and shirt, he takes Mojo across the gravel drive to his studio, picks up one of his many Gibsons, Guilds and Gretsches and inquires, invitingly, “Do you play…?”
Yet David Gilmour is, one senses, no less haunted than Waters when it comes to shouldering the Barrett burden. Syd’s death last year has, if anything, added to it. “I now have this lasting regret that I was so obedient to the family’s wishes not to disturb his peace,” he says, his voice genial and gentlemanly. “A few years ago, my wife Polly said to me, ‘How would you feel if he dies?’ I said, Regretful, probably. And I am. I should have gone down there, knocked on his door and said, Hey, let’s go for a pint. Because we were friends. I can’t see that seeing an old friend would have done any damage.”
As his guitar-sparring partner at college, and companion on a busking trip to the south of France, Gilmour was closer to Barrett than any of Syd’s original bandmates. Unlike the others, who only noticed Barrett’s deterioration after a mysterious, possible acid-induced breakdown in 1967, Gilmour saw a marked difference in his friend two months earlier when he dropped in on the See Emily Play recording session.
“Syd had these rather glazed, stary eyes, and he didn’t seem over-pleased to see me,” recalls the guitarist. “It was a strange moment. I felt something had already changed within him quite deeply.”
By Christmas 1967, Gilmour had been invited to join the band, initially to cover for the errand Barrett on-stage. But by February 1968, it was all to obvious that he was a bona fide replacement, the idea of a five-piece Floyd stymied by Syd’s almost complete inability or unwillingness to communicate. “I wasn’t there when the switch was flicked, and Syd was gone,” Gilmour says, on the band’s decision to eject their frontman. And yet, in another respect, he was. On January 26, 1968, the band had set off on a 70-mile journey to a gig at Southampton University, and were driving past Richmond where Syd was living at the time. “What about Syd?” said someone. “Let’s not bother,” said another voice, reported to have been Waters’. Gilmour was in; Barrett was down and out.
Since that time, Gilmour has worked tirelessly on Barrett’s behalf – joining the dots on his old pal’s two solo albums, sitting in on bass for a faintly potty performance at the Olympia, Kensington in 1970, making sure that Syd received his royalties. After Barrett’s death, Gilmour performed Dark Globe on his solo tour, a tragic, haunting, psycho-struggle of a song that Waters also singles out as a key cut in Syd’s desperately short canon. “That’s the one that represents it most strongly for me,” Waters says, “that expresses his inability to cope so eloquently.”
“Yes. He liked that!” states Gilmour. “Roger has many, many good points and many talents, but he’s a very alpha male sort of person. Right from the start, his caustic wit and put-downs were in evidence, if mostly in a jocular sort of way. He was definitely the older boy. It felt quite odd, and obviously created all sorts of problems as the years went on.
“I’m sure the band found the thought of losing Syd completely scary, but given the state of him there was absolutely no alternative,” continues Gilmour, remembering his awkward first few months with the Floyd. “I’d been in a group that played Beach Boys songs, Tamla Motown and Beatles covers, so I was used to singing in other people’s voices and copying other guitar styles. But Syd had been my friend at Cambridge Tech, where we’d swap guitar tips and he’d covet my Binson Echorec. We’d also spent one summer busking around France together. Obviously, I felt both shy and nervous about replacing him. Apparently, I spent a lot of 1968 with my back to the audience.”
That wasn’t such a bad move given Pink Floyd’s already infamous reputation for shyness. “It was well deserved,” Gilmour says. “We were a very closed off, insular little unit. We didn’t socialise much with other musicians – maybe a bit with The Soft Machine or The Who. We were happy keeping to ourselves.”
Was that a case of Cambridge boys finding themselves adrift in a large, largely unwelcoming city, perhaps? “No, I don’t think so,” he says. The Cambridge influence is more in evidence in the work, Waters insists. Barrett’s Bike, for example, and his own Grantchester Meadows on Ummagumma. “There’s a lot of bucolic sketching of the life of a young person on the banks of the River Cam discovering their sexuality and intellectuality and individuality in the ’60s Pink Floyd,” says Waters.
With the trauma of Syd Barrett’s indelicate departure behind them – “We certainly didn’t dwell on it,” Gilmour insists – the new guitarist’s first couple of years with the band were largely spent unravelling himself from Barrett’s ghost and beginning to discover his own musical identity. In the absence of a songwriter, that’s what his colleagues were doing too, which was why half of both Ummagumma (1969) and 1970’s Atom Heart Mother were given over to solo exploits. Although both benefited commercially from the growth of the new, album-orientated progressive market, no noe in the band now speaks too fondly of either record. “There was quite a long period when I think we were a little lost,” Gilmour admits.
While the band struggled to find a new musical language, their most tigerish member managed to break out from the characteristic Floydian languidity and discover the benefits of catharsis. “Roger was incredibly driven by this point, it’s true,” says Nick Mason, “but I wasn’t aware of him having a particular vision of where he wanted to go just yet”. One blood-curdlingly loud “AAAAAARGH!” midway through Careful With That Axe, Eugene suggested that he was preparing the way for bigger noises up ahead.
“I might still have been shy then, but Roger had certainly taken to leaping around, thrashing his bass and gurning a bit,” Gilmour recalls. “Then there was the dramatic striking of the gong and the screaming in Careful With That Axe. Roger had discovered letting his pain out. I know that John Lennon did that whole Arthur ‘Primal Scream’ Janov album, which Roger was very keen on, but he was screaming long before Lennon ever got to Janov.”
While Waters was exorcising his childhood pain in dramatic, almost horror-flick fashion, Gilmour and Wright had struck up a new musical partnership that spoke of their own, more subdued emotions, Wright’s melancholia and Gilmour’s quest for melodic bliss. Over several months in the first half of 1971, everything came together on a long, serene and deeply moving piece. “Echoes marked a real moment of clarity,” says Gilmour, “the moment when we all realised we were getting somewhere, finding a direction. And Rick, who in many ways is the soul of Pink Floyd, was as much a part of that as anybody. If you’re looking at who wrote what, I’d say that 80 per cent of the music on Echoes is either mine or Rick’s.”
Twenty-three minutes of pure Floydian bliss, Echoes is spatial rather than space-rock and remarkably similar in mood to Hendrix’s equally aquatic 1983 (A Merman I should Turn To Be) from Electric Ladyland. “Because I’d not been taught properly, I was simply unable to play fast,” says Rick Wright. “But I didn’t have a problem with that because one of the best things I’ve ever heard from a musician was Miles Davis, who said it’s not the notes that matter, it’s the spaces in between. I’ve always felt that, it’s always how I play. You only need to play two notes: the important thing is to discover what’s happening between them. That to me is feeling, and feeling is tremendously important in music.”
“Rick’s never been given the credit he deserves and that has to do with his own personal strength, or indeed his lack of it,” says Gilmour, who shares lead vocals with Wright on the song. “His importance in Pink Floyd was inestimable, from his vocal contributions on early songs such as Arnold Layne and Astronomy Domine.” Waters agrees. “Rick had a hugely significant musical impact on the later work, such as Dark Side and Wish You Were Here. His chord structures became big important bits on the big, big pieces of work.”
If the combination of Wright’s innate despondency and Gilmour’s expressive, quietly haunting style finally delivered the quintessential Pink Floyd sound – comfortably glum, perhaps? – Echoes also marked the moment when Waters began to discover the art of lyric-writing. “I found my niche on Echoes,” he says, “the central theme which runs through all my work, which is that human beings have the potential to recognise themselves in others – and in consequence of that recognition to have empathy with others.”
“At that moment, we all had the same objectives,” says Gilmour. “As for those deeper philosophical and political differences, you just stick ’em on the side at that point in your life. The collective ambition is more important.” Until, of course, everyone reverts to type.
As we wrap up chez Gilmour, the guitarist turns and says, “You know, as a father of eight children, I’ve learnt that people don’t actually change very much.” With those words in mind, The Pink Floyd’s very first press biog, circulated in February 1967 to promote Arnold Layne, makes interesting reading. Nick Mason doesn’t like “nasty people and unpleasant circumstances”. Rick Wright enjoys Beethoven. Syd Barrett dislikes “having no time for reading fairy stories”. And Roger Waters? Prefers “lying in bed, sunshine, Chelsea buns, very large motor cars and science fiction novels, but dislikes almost everything else”.
Little wonder, then, that the legacy of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn has resounded so loudly and with such frequency down the years. Not least of all among the band members themselves.