Pink Floyd

      The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (Capitol, 1967)
    A Saucerful of Secrets (Capitol, 1968)
    Ummagumma (Capitol, 1969)
   More (Capitol, 1969)
  Atom Heart Mother (Capitol, 1970)
     Relics (Capitol, 1971)
     Meddle (Capitol, 1971)
   Obscured by Clouds (Capitol, 1972)
      Dark Side of the Moon (Capitol, 1973)
      Wish You Were Here (Capitol, 1975)
   Animals (Capitol, 1977)
    The Wall (Capitol, 1979)
    A Collection of Great Dance Songs (Capitol, 1981)
    Works (Capitol, 1983)
   The Final Cut (Columbia, 1983)
   A Momentary Lapse of Reason (Columbia, 1987)
  Delicate Sound of Thunder (Columbia, 1988)
     Shine On (Columbia, 1992)
  The Division Bell (Columbia, 1994)
  Pulse (Columbia, 1995)
  Is There Anybody Out There? The Wall: Live 1980–1981 (Columbia, 2000)
      Echoes (Columbia, 2001)
   Oh By the Way (Capitol, 2007)

One of the most popular and successful rock bands of all time, Pink Floyd is actually a brand name linking three different eras. The Sixties Floyd, led by singer/songwriter Syd Barrett, was a pioneering psychedelic band from Cambridge, England, recording a handful of hits before Barrett succumbed to massive acid damage. The Sevenites Floyd, led by bassist Roger Waters and guitarist David Gilmour, recorded the high-tech art-rock classics Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall, memorized in their entirety by generations of stoners who used the original LP covers as spliff-rolling tray tables. Since Waters split bitterly in the early Eighties, Pink Floyd has carried on as an oldies act, releasing a couple new albums that nobody listened to.

Much to Pink Floyd's chagrin, and occasionally its indignation, the group has never escaped the shadow of Syd Barrett, the original "lunatic on the grass." He founded the band as a conspicuously blues-free U.K. echo of San Francisco psychedelia, as in the guitar/organ jams "Astronomy Domine" and "Interstellar Overdrive"; his Floyd recorded a couple of hits ("See Emily Play," "Arnold Layne") and one classic album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Syd had a taste for whimsy, leaning to lyrics about cats and gnomes, but his daft wit and eerie melodies made the album a rock version of the Mad Hatter's tea party. In "Flaming," "Matilda Mother," "Lucifer Sam," and "Bike," his voice and guitar teeter between euphoria and mental collapse. "Astronomy Domine" is a thunderstorm of stargazing guitars and scary keyboards, full of druggy optimism but exploring the "icy waters underground" of the psyche.

But Barrett was already cracking in the summer of 1967, one of rock's first drug burnouts and a doomed figure who barely lasted six months as a functional songwriter. "I'm full of dust and guitars," Barrett once said. By A Saucerful of Secrets, he was down to the disturbing "Jugband Blues," with Waters providing the other standout track, "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun." Syd's childhood friend David Gilmour came on board; with Waters, he also went on to produce and play on Barrett's two excellent solo albums. Without Syd, Pink Floyd struggled through a couple of miserable prog albums, Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother, the former at least padded with good 1969 live performances, including a ten-minute "Astronomy Domine." Relics was a 1971 retrospective; More and Obscured by Clouds were dull film soundtracks. But Meddle introduced the Floyd's mature style in the 23-minute instrumental "Echoes," coloring the slow guitar ripples with deep-in-the-studio sonic details that only the truly baked would notice, much less appreciate.

Pink Floyd finally achieved peak "like wow man" heaviosity with Dark Side of the Moon, a meditation on death and madness that stayed on the bestseller charts for nearly 15 years. This most hip-hop of rock classics is all about flow, shifting through the headphones from stereo sine waves to spoken word fragments ("there is no dark side of the moon, really—matter of fact it's all dark"), gospel piano, sax, the early VCS3 synth, ticking clocks, heartbeats, and soulful surges from guest singers Doris Troy and Clare Torry. The stoned keyboard dribbles get boring, and so does the whining annoyance "Money," but the tone is stately and somehow brotherly as well, especially the morose grandeur of "Time," "The Great Gig in the Sky," and "Brain Damage/Eclipse." It's the sonic equivalent of one of those 3-D placemats where you can see Jesus' eyes move.

If Barrett's mental breakdown was the subtext of Dark Side, Wish You Were Here was an explicit tribute to their lost friend. "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" was a sad space-rock elegy for Barrett, built in several long segments based around a four-note slide guitar phrase from Gilmour. The futuristic instrumental textures have real bite and drive, especially "Welcome to the Machine" and "Wish You Were Here." It's not as famous as Dark Side or The Wall, but Wish tops them both because the special effects have so much emotional resonance, mourning lost innocence in the spirit of male camaraderie that was always the band's most underrated strength.

Animals was just a laser show looking for a soundtrack. If there's one ironclad rule of rock & roll, it's that songs about pigs are always lame. The Wall was Waters' big autobiographical rock opera, the tale of a sensitive musician oppressed by the cold cruel world, including but not restricted to his wife, his mother, his teachers, their wives, the government, the bleeding hearts and artists, and chicks in general. If you went to high school in the Eighties, you probably recall The Wall fondly. But if you go back and try listening to "Waiting for the Worms," "Run Like Hell" or "Young Lust," you may be aghast at how The Wall sucks much worse than you remember—the music is just tossed-off atmospherics, and Rog never shuts up. Still, it's a piece of history, and there are a few good songs: "Comfortably Numb," a hymn for adolescents already nostalgic over their lost youth; "Hey You," a rewrite of Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain"; and "Nobody Home," which never gets played on the radio but holds up as the album's most touching moment. (Even when Waters complains about "the obligatory Hendrix perm"—didn't anyone tell him Jimi's hair could do that naturally?)

The Wall was the last croak of vintage Floyd. A Collection of Great Dance Songs and Works were pointless "hits" collections from a band that disdained hits, and The Final Cut was basically a mediocre Waters solo album of antiwar rants. He can't sing, by the way. Floyd's subsequent studio reunions, A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell, are fluffy tour merch cut without Waters; the only echo of past success is the 1987 hit "Learning to Fly." Shine On is a redundant eight-CD box with no previously unreleased material. Oh By the Way is even more redundant, with all twelve studio albums plus two film soundtracks, though the packaging is kind of cool.

The Floyd have released various live albums (Pulse, Delicate Sound of Thunder, Is There Anybody Out There?), pointlessly re-creating their meticulous studio effects onstage. But the two-CD Echoes is an ideal career summary, with "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" segued together into a 17:32 whole, a generous helping of five ace Barrett songs, highlights from Dark Side and Wish You Were Here, all 16:31 of "Echoes," and one unbelievably bad song from The Final Cut.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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