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With the release of 1973's The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd abruptly went from a moderately successful acid-rock band to one of rock music's biggest acts. The recording, in fact, remained on Billboard's Top 200 album chart for 741 weeks, longer than any other album in history. Along with 1979's The Wall, it established Pink Floyd as purveyors of a distinctively dark vision. Experimenting with concept albums and pot-friendly studio effects and breaking free of conventional pop-song formats, Pink Floyd prefigured the progressive rock of the Seventies and ambient music of the Eighties.
As early as 1964, Pink Floyd's original members, except Syd Barrett, were together studying architecture at London's Regent Street Polytechnic School. With Barrett, an art student who coined the name the Pink Floyd Sound after a favorite blues record by Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, they began playing R&B-based material for schoolmates. By 1967 they had developed an unmistakably psychedelic sound, performing long, loud suitelike compositions that touched on hard rock, blues, country, folk, and electronic music. Adding a slide-and-light show, one of the first in British rock, they became a sensation among London's underground as a featured attraction at the UFO Club. Barrett, who was responsible for most of the band's early material, had a knack for composing singles-length bits of psych-rock, and Pink Floyd hit the charts with two of them in 1967: "Arnold Layne" (Number 20 U.K.), the tale of a transvestite, and "See Emily Play" (Number 60 U.K.).
In 1968 Barrett, allegedly because of an excess of LSD experimentation, began to exhibit ever more strange and erratic behavior. David Gilmour joined to help with the guitar work. Barrett appeared on only one track of Secrets, "Jugband Music," which aptly summed up his mental state: "I'm most obliged to you for making it clear/That I'm not really here." Without Barrett to create concise psychedelic singles, the band concentrated on wider-ranging psychedelic epics.
From 1969 to 1972 Pink Floyd made several film soundtracks — the most dramatic being Zabriskie Point, in which Michelangelo Antonioni's closing sequence of explosions was complemented by Floyd's "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" — and began using its "azimuth coordinated sound system" in concert, a sophisticated 360-degree P.A. With Atom Heart Mother, they topped the British chart in 1970; stateside success, however, still eluded them.
Their breakthrough came in 1973 with Dark Side. The themes were unremittingly bleak — alienation, paranoia, schizophrenia — and the music was at once sterile and doomy. Taped voices mumbling ominous asides (something the band had used before) surfaced at key moments. Yielding a surprise American hit in "Money," (Number 13, 1973), the album went on to mammoth long-running sales success. Dark Side showcased the talents of Pink Floyd's chief members: Waters' lyrics, Gilmour's guitar. The two would continue to dominate the band but soon furiously contend against each other.
Subsequent albums explored similarly dark territory, although the relatively warm Wish You Were Here (Number 1, 1975) was dedicated to Barrett, elegizing him with "Shine On You Crazy Diamond." The Wall, a brooding concept album about a troubled, isolated rock star named Pink, topped the U.S. chart for 15 weeks, and its nihilistic hit, "Another Brick in the Wall," was banned by the BBC and in 1980 became the band's only Number One American single.
Meanwhile, Pink Floyd's stage shows had become increasingly elaborate. For the Dark Side and Wish tours, there were slide/light shows and animated films, plus a giant inflated jet that crashed into the stage; for Animals, huge inflated pigs hovered over the stadiums; for The Wall (due to enormous expense, performed 29 times only in New York, L.A., and London) an actual wall was built, brick by brick, across the stage, eventually obscuring the band from audience view. Shortly after touring for The Wall Wright left the band, due to conflict with Waters.
With The Final Cut (Number Six, 1983), subtitled A Requiem for the Postwar Dream, Waters penned his darkest work yet. It also marked the effective end of the original Pink Floyd, with Waters bitterly departing, and Gilmour and Mason cementing their alliance. (Two films related to the original band (minus Barrett) have been made: the documentary Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii  and The Wall . The latter featured stunning animation by Gerald Scarfe; Bob Geldof starred in the live-action sequences. The first remains a cult movie; the second was a massive commercial success.)
In 1978, with Gilmour's David Gilmour and Wright's Wet Dream, Pink Floyd's members had started releasing solo albums. Mason had begun a sideline career as a producer in 1974 with Robert Wyatt; ultimately his very diverse roster included Gong, Carla Bley, the Damned, and Steve Hillage. Solo work continued into the Eighties: In 1984 came Waters' The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking, Wright's Identity, and Gilmour's About Face (with lyrical contributions by Pete Townshend). A year later Mason released Profiles. Concurrently, Gilmour played sessions with Bryan Ferry, Grace Jones, and Arcadia; in 1986 he formed David Gilmour & Friends with Bad Company's Mick Ralphs.
In 1986 Waters brought suit against Gilmour and Mason, asking the court to dissolve the trio's partnership and to block them from using the name Pink Floyd. A year later Waters lost his suit, and the other members, as Pink Floyd, released Momentary Lapse of Reason (Number Three, 1987). As Waters put out his own Radio K.A.O.S., the others launched a Pink Floyd tour that grossed nearly $30 million. (Though Wright was included on the tour and album, he wasn't legally considered an official band member but a salaried employee.) With the live Delicate Sound of Thunder, Gilmour, Mason, and Wright again billed themselves as Pink Floyd and went on to more successful touring, including a gig performed in Venice aboard a giant barge, which was televised worldwide.
In 1990 Waters presented an all-star cast, including Sinéad O'Connor, Joni Mitchell, and Van Morrison, in a version of The Wall performed at the site of the Berlin Wall (chronicled in The Wall - Live in Berlin). Two years later he released the dour Amused to Death.
With Wright rejoining Gilmour and Mason as a full band member, Pink Floyd garnered immediate success with The Division Bell (Number One, 1994) and the live album P.U.L.S.E. (Number One, 1995). In 1996 Pink Floyd was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Still antagonistic with his former band mates, Waters didn't attend the ceremonies. After a successful solo tour in 1999, he embarked upon writing a modern opera about the French Revolution, recording with an 80-piece orchestra and 100-member choir.
In the interim, Dark Side of the Moon had taken on yet new life, when certain Pink Floyd fans began playing the album while watching The Wizard of Oz and noting how the 1973 album seemed to provide an uncannily appropriate soundtrack to the 1939 film. The band itself denied that it had intended any sort of parallel between its music and the movie, but rumors persisted of an eerie connection between the two. Pink Floyd also entered the new millennium by releasing a live version, from 1980, of The Wall, in double-CD format, with a lavishly illustrated history.
After decades of turbulence, Dave Gilmour, Rick Wright, Nick Mason and Roger Waters finally stood on the same stage together to perform at the global Live 8 concert on July 2, 2005. It had been 24 years since all four band members had played together. Although the appearance remained a one-time only affair, the classic line-up embraced at the end of their set. One year later, on July 7, 2006, Syd Barrett died at his home in Cambridge from complications related to diabetes.
That same year the Rogers Water led line-up of Floyd hit the road — albeit in two different camps. David Gilmour hit theaters in America with Richard Wright on keyboards, while Roger Waters revived Dark Side Of The Moon in arenas with Nick Mason playing drums at select gigs. While promoters salivated over the prospects of a reunion tour, Gilmour remained steadfast in his refusal to even consider the possibility. Sadly, Wright's death in 2008 from cancer permanently ended any chance of a real reunion.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Andy Greene contributed to this article.