Conversely, drugs were an implicit presence. It was a common (and somewhat correct) assumption that Barrett’s child-like whimsy was the result of LSD trips. So Barrett-era Floyd as a cultural sign are a mixed bag. As a “sub-sign,” it remains intact— signifying a moment of avant-garde cultural ferment in London, in which rock musicians believed they could be in the vanguard. Syd emerges in this sub-sign as a “cult hero,” a charmed and charming artist who quickly met a tragic end (even if he lived for thirty-eight more years in a state of severe catatonia). The voyage from Syd to international blockbuster success (Syd-Floyd not having reached the US much) is an interesting one: ’67-73. Floyd went through a perpetual process of restructuring from the ground up. They never remained settled for long— between ambient “space-rock,” full orchestra accompaniments, jazzy diversions, and a lack of strong lyrical focus, they had substantial UK commercial success, but (again) the US was slow to respond. By Dark Side of the Moon, they had discovered a new kind of cohesion— Roger Waters’ lyrics went for the big-picture jugular in songs like “Time” and “Money,” teetering between realism and fatalism (and achieving at least parity with Barrett’s whimsy); and David Gilmour and Rick Wright added enough polish and pop-sense that people could hum along, even if the general mood was pensive and foreboding.
The album was a titanic success, and Dark Side-era Floyd emerged as another sub-sign— rather than Barrett’s pin-up looks, a prism being struck by a beam of light against a stark black background. This Floyd meant wide musical spaces and dark perspectives; a heavy sign. This was maintained until the end of the 70s, with no one member of Floyd elevated. Floyd remained platonic and anonymous-seeming. The gargantuan success of the Wall initiated the construction of another sub-sign for Pink Floyd. This version had Roger Waters in place as an auteur, steering the band; David Gilmour as an accomplice; and Rick Wright and Nick Mason very much relegated to background roles, or even AWOL. Wright’s defection (willing or unwilling) was especially noticeable— with him went a sense of “space,” a certain amount of musical nuance and sophistication (gone were jazzy chord changes). The Wall, as a “big lyrical statement,” has to do with extreme alienation and the inability of individuals to connect with other individuals. Waters pulls out every stop to make these themes as explicit as possible. Waters’ gestures could be taken as either extremely (and positively) intense, or merely bombastic. But The Wall sold, and with it emerged this Floyd sub-sign— Waters and the rest as hard-rock philosophers, offering a bird’s eye perspective of the human race and its foibles. The Wall also won Roger Waters exceptional prestige as a rock auteur, even if the film wasn’t as rabid a success as the album.
So, when you put all these sub-signs together, what does Pink Floyd add up to? They’ve been massive enough to fill stadiums; but they’re yet not widespread enough beyond rock culture to represent overwhelming popularity, like the Beatles do. The Wall could be interpreted as cancelling out the “space-rock” tag; and the Barrett-Waters chiasmus might seem to negate the notion of a decipherable whole. The lesson could be that some cultural signs are just meant to remain amorphous. Fans can pick what sub-sign they feel most drawn to at any given moment, even if the natural human inclination towards simplicity remains unsatisfied.