AF: Matt, I was wondering if you could go a little bit into your memories and experiences of Pink Floyd's music: where and how you heard Floyd for the first time, what eras of Floyd music were important for you, and what their place in rock history is?
MS: I was aware of Floyd from classic rock radio, which is to say, THE WALL and DARK SIDE OF THE MOON. I had the usual WALL obsession phase rather late, as was the case with many of the stations of my adolescent development.
My introduction to the deeper catalog occurred during my first stint at college, at Susquehanna University. I was invited to a "party"/smoke session by a friend who lived in an off-campus frat house (where Murray Head - I think that was his name - who taught philosophy - was once seen literally dancing on a table). I remember being in the smoke room, with a good buzz on, when the stereo system began to play a menacing instrumental that sounded very much like the Dr. Who theme. I sat upright and asked, what the hell was this? It was fascinating. One of my friends told me it was Pink Floyd’s MEDDLE album. Right about then, a gruesome distorted vocal growled out: ONE OF THESE DAYS, I'M GOING TO CUT YOU IN TO LITTLE PIECES....Terrifying!
My response to terror and unease - sensations I don't enjoy - is to work through them if they're not coming from something obviously physically inimical. So I popped into the campus bookstore later that week and shoplifted a copy of MEDDLE, still possibly my favorite Floyd album.
On my roommate's advice, I also got a copy of DARK SIDE OF THE MOON and laid down one night with a head full of hemp and some headphones to "really get the experience." I hadn't heard the full album before, so I wasn't ready for the Nick Mason-orchestrated sound collage at the beginning. Consequently, when the screaming started, I bolted upright and tore off the headphones. It took me a minute to calm down, rewind the tape and try it again.
I notice that fear is a key emotion in the aspects of Floyd's "atmosphere." It's even there in the Barrett material - alienation and anxiety. You hear it in "Pow R Toc H" and "Jugband Blues." But the big spectral instrumentals, from "Saucerful of Secrets" on, have that dark vacuum chill of outer space. DSOTM is musically pretty, but still pretty grim. Floyd's aggression came in the form of volume and strangeness rather than velocity and harshness (though they could be pretty harsh if they wanted: "Nile Song" for example).
I suspect that the chill comes from a lack of pure improvisation, or is somehow connected to it. Floyd's compositional style involves those big architectural structures we've mentioned, which may incorporate greater or lesser degrees of improv but bounded by the overall push of the composition. "Echoes" on MEDDLE is the classic of the type. Compare it to the more abstract (and scary!) stuff on the studio part of UMMAGUMMA, probably their wildest (and most Eris-influential) music. Also compare to ATOM HEART MOTHER, not my favorite and incidentally the most typically pseudo-classic prog-rock of their stuff.
Later Floyd...I'd have to say that they delivered on the "concept album" concept better than anyone. The Kinks tended to be very narrative with their rock operas. Time and many critics have led to a re-evaluation of SGT PEPPER as a not-quite-successful effort. TOMMY and QUADROPHENIA were intermittently successful, but kind of obscure. LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY much the same. But on DSOTM, ANIMALS, and THE WALL, it was quite clear what Waters was talking about. He managed to craft intelligent material in a way that rock fans (and succeeding generations of rock fans) can relate to. This is partly because he was stung by critic's reviews of spacey Floyd albums as meaningless.
Without getting to into his own material, we should discuss the extent and limitations of Barrett and the catalyst to Floyd's initial success. We can also discuss the way that Floyd was the main British band to work with light shows and full-environment performances, influenced by rumors of the Grateful Dead and other San Francisco acts plus the pop art/op art/multimedia art happenings around London in the 60s.
AF: Well, I can say that Barrett-era Floyd and the sort of shows they did were a huge influence on me. When they were “The Pink Floyd,” Barrett and the others did a series of performances associated with something called the London Free School. As I understood it, the London Free School was a loosely knit organization oriented around putting on rock shows and other performances in a multi-media context: rock with movies, movies with poetry, etc. I’ve always been attracted by the ambience of multi-media in the arts, and in the mid-Aughts I put together something called the Philly Free School here, in emulation (I thought) of the London Free School, and we hosted a string of multi-media performances mixing all the art forms we could in as Swinging London-ish a fashion as we could. Syd Barrett, as a talented painter who was also a talented rock songwriter, was an excellent avatar for that whole vibe. What has been implicit in Floyd from the beginning is that music is never seen to be enough: there has to be some spectacle to go along with the music to enliven it in a live context. It may be that one of the reasons this was is that the band members all had more advanced ideas about popular music than other pop musicians of their generation: they were products of a relatively sophisticated middle-class environment (Cambridge), rather than coming out of the proletariat. If I don’t consider them pretentious, it’s because, as you already noted, their ambitiousness musically has always been undercut with the sense that they build a real sense of harmony and beauty into their songs, to make them not just palatable but enjoyable, in a manner that other psychedelic and or prog-rock bands didn’t. Barrett wrote killer hooks, and in songs like “Arnold Layne,” actually tackled risque subject matters in a way that few else had.
As for “Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” if it remains a psychedelic masterpiece to me it’s because the “spacy” elements (“Interstellar Overdrive,” “Pow R Toc H”) are balanced by the whimsical pop stuff in such proportions that the album never drags. There isn’t much platonic child-like innocence in pop music, and scarecrows and bikes and Siam cats were and remain an essential diversion away from both the sleaze and grime of much rock music (even good stuff like the Stones) and the nihilism of later-era, Waters-dominated Floyd. They also provided an interesting template for mid-era, between-Piper-and-Dark Side Floyd, and people like Robyn Hitchcock have made sure that no one’s ever going to forget Syd. In terms of weighing who Syd was, what’s your feeling about the whole child-like innocent vibe? Also: did Waters turn to some kind of nihilism in his lyrics just to rebel against Syd, “spaciness,” and the way the whole band started?
MS: Re: the origins of Floyd - your "Philly Free School" is quite similar to the impulse behind the UFO club/London Free School/IT magazine scene that produced Floyd (and Soft Machine) in the swinging London psychedelic & art scene; aside from the obvious parallels of multimedia happenings, the London scene was inspired greatly by second-hand reports of the West Coast/San Fran scene - Ken Kesey's parties and then the psyche club scene in San Francisco. The idea of a rock band having their own light show crew was inspired by reports of the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead. And of course, there were the drugs and the new technologies, creating a bit of a scene just as they did in the US. So PFS seems to me very much part of The Tradition. Personally, I'm proud when I feel Radio Eris is part of The Tradition.
Anyway, it's interesting to consider that the Floyds had the interest in experimentation, Cage, Stockhausen, electronic compositions like Morton Slobotnik, etc, because being relatively privileged they could afford to be weird. Perhaps it takes the urge to commercial success (and consequent discipline and craftsmanship) that came from working class desperation, plus the willingness to be bold and experiment that came from the art school background, to create the formula that pushed the big bands over the top.
An interesting tangent: There's a lot of back'n'forth influence between the Floyds and the Beatles. If you listen to ABBEY ROAD and DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, you'll here a lot of the very same synth, guitar, and keyboard sounds, and not just cause they were in the same studios. Also, the somewhat working-class Beatles, having their initial success, started making the London psyche scene and were introduced to weird noises partly by events at which Pink Floyd performed. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure Barrett's pop songwriting was very much inspired by the Beatles. And if it hadn't been for the commercial prospects created by Barrett's way with a song, Floyd would never have had any serious management, which allowed them to capitalize on their initial success, creating the breathing space needed to synthesize their experimental and commercial sides.
A quick word about Roger Waters' lyrics: Rog's nihilism seems to be largely personal neuroses coupled with a Marxist social conscience. The lucidity of the lyrical content to Floyd from DSOTM on, while influenced by Rog's personality, was very much (as far as I can tell from interviews I've read) a reaction to the hurtful comments of British rock critics, taking Floyd to task for being abstract and experimental at a time that the counter-cultural zeitgeist was zagging towards MC5-style social radicalism. So in a sense, yeah, Rog's lyrics darkened, but less as a direct rebellion against Syd. The ghost of Syd haunted Roger all through the latter phases of the band's career from DSOTM through WISH YOU WERE HERE to the WALL.
"It could never have happened without (Syd), but it couldn't have gone on with him" was the general take on the situation expressed by the other founding members of the band. It's interesting to speculate whether a Floyd with Syd could have delivered work like DSOTM. Would a break have to have occured anyway? A common strategy of the music industry is to focus on the primary songwriter in a band and run a divide-and-conquer maneuver at some point, as the songwriters (and the song rights) are the main source of income. It's possible that such pressures would have fissured the band anyway. I might suggest that without the romantic Hanged Man/Fisher King character in their origins, and the psychic tragedy associated with the story, Floyd would not have had some of the...magic? Aura? which contributed to their eventual success. Peter Jenner and others will talk about how, once Barrett was definitely out of the band and not able to write usefully - preventing even a Beach Boys type of arrangement where Brian would stay home and compose songs the band would perform without him on the road - pressure was bought to bear on the band to step up and start writing. "Julia Dream" is occasionally mocked for being an obvious attempt to imitate Syd's style. Likewise "Point Me At The Sky" (a song I think is really cool but apparently not that successful commercially). Some fans swear there's a whispered "sssSyd" at the end of "Julia Dream." I think that this accounts for the transitional period with lots and lots of instrumentals but little lyrics of consequence until DSOTM came along. Sometimes they'd stumble on something for the vocals to do, like "Nile Song," but it's nothing to build a big fan base on... as with most bands, either you like their flavor of filler or you don’t.
AF: Okay. The back and forth between Floyd and the Beatles is certainly interesting. If Floyd have an advantage to me, it’s because their albums sustain a cohesive mood, while most of the Beatles records are all over the place, mood wise. Paul McCartney has talked extensively about his adventures in Swinging London among the avant-garde cognescenti, and the result we hear in a track like “A Day in the Life” is striking, and influenced by some of the then au current names you mentioned. Here’s a twist, though: why did the media react to the Beatles like they were prophets and seers, and (then and now) pay very little attention to Floyd? The Beatles were “personalities,” while the Floyd guys seemed to seek to be faceless. It would be funny, if a bit daffy, to think of Syd-era Floyd on the Ed Sullivan Show, or of the early Floyd doing a movie like A Hard Day’s Night, but it didn’t happen that way. Could it have been the middle-class maturity of not wanting the crass aspects of “show biz” to accrue to their work? On the other hand, John Lennon (the only Beatle who grew up solidly middle class) was very vehement about schematizing himself as an artist in later interviews, just as it would be easy to think young Syd or Roger Waters does. And the Beatles are a strange phenomenon simply because they became so powerful and influential to the whole of Western society, just for being rock musicians. Floyd’s power doesn’t seem to work politically, i.e. they’re not on any left-wing frontlines the way Lennon was in the 70s, but if there’s something political about The Wall, it’s in the way it implicates society for crushing individuality out of innocent individuals, both directly (teachers) and indirectly (a war that kills one’s father).
Which brings me to the next issue I thought it would interesting to cover: The Wall. I saw the movie about a month ago, and I found it intermittently gripping. The cartoon stuff, I thought, was a bore and a waste of time. But again, I can’t hear those songs, as trenchantly written as some of them are, and not miss the musicality of Rick Wright that’s gone from the record. There’s a gracefulness to Wright’s Floyd stuff that morphs into something crass and gauche without him in the mix. Do you agree?
MS: Very much agree that Wright's influence is audibly missing in the THE WALL. Interestingly, the tours for TW involved use of a "click track" to keep the band in sync with the stage show...almost all chances for improv were frozen out by now. Old friends of the band (Peter Jenner, Joe Boyd among others) really felt TW was a Roger Waters album. THE WALL seems so much a scream of frustration, and yet at the same time it’s oppressive and over-controlling, both as a recording and as a theatrical production and movie. I've gone back and forth on it over the years; mostly, I think it's a great piece of work that I don't particularly need to hear any given year. It definitely doesn't breathe, sonically, and once could argue that's either the cause or the effect of Roger's freezing Rick Wright out of the band. More on THE WALL at the end of this chuck of gabble.
It's interesting that there was very little marketing of personality with the band after Syd left - their faces rarely even popped up in the cover art, except for UMMAGUMMA and a promotional "newspaper"/program done up for some shows. Members of the band could actually wander about before shows and rarely be recognized - compare that to the lack of privacy experienced by the Beatles. I'd prefer the Floyd approach myself if forced with the choice.
I think the facelessness works with the abstract & spacey aura; compare to my point about later Floyd being much more controlled and insistent on message, whereas the mid-period music works better as wallpaper for one's own thoughts. Somewhere around here we'll find the line Floyd crossed that makes some count them as "prog rock" and the Beatles not "prog rock." Floyd's big, abstract, instrumental compositions and moody instrumentals aren't "songs" properly, and the Beatles mostly did songs. Mostly...the Beatles did some of everything, after all.
Floyd in the media game...Syd did not do well playing the TV game. When Floyd did successive TOP OF THE POPS appearances one year, Barrett apparently had little patience for the lip-synching required. It's noticed that his Carnaby-street finery degenerates from show to show; at the final appearance it's soiled, stained and ragged. On the Syd-era Floyd's US tour, they popped up on a TV show, can't remember on the top of my head - American Bandstand? - and Syd wouldn't talk and leveled a dead-eyed stare in response to the typical dopey questions asked by the host. It's my opinion that the media frenzy of a Beatlemania would've destroyed him even more quickly than his eventual fate as it occurred. In fact, I'd bet it was the aftermath of that experience that disinclined the Floyds from pursuing mass-media-personality status.
There was probably an embrace of counter-cultural values involved. The Beatles were too big; they belonged to everyone, and started out as purveyors of pop who became experimentalists. Pink Floyd started out (after initial scuffles - ever head the EMI acetates of "Queen Bee" and "Leave Lucy?" Of academic interest mostly) as the house band of the cultural underground. You could say the Beatles started commercial and bought in to the counter-culture - they weren't faced with tensions of selling out until well down the line. Floyd as an organization, until DSOTM, constantly danced a line to avoid being labeled as sell-outs, whatever the life-styles and pursuits of the individual members. They did an ad for a French soft drink which created a bit of a flap among their fans and the British rock press for a bit; I think they had to turn around and donate their fee to charity or something, "and we never did drink the damn stuff anyway," Gilmour groused after the fact. DOTSM was the moment where, like the Beatles, they became too big to be counter-anything.
Roger Waters was the most politically engaged Floyd - very active with left wing causes, especially the nuclear disarmament movement. You see echoes of this in the movie of THE WALL. His first wife was a committed neo-Marxist. I think the second was more of a socialist; maybe I'm getting them confused. Nick Mason and Rick Wright both dove cheerfully into their roles as wealthy playboys and tax exiles. Gilmour enjoys work too much to lose himself in than, apparently. Consequently, he was the only member of the band to fight for his role in the teeth of Roger's control-freak-ness.
As a band, Floyd's political stance came more from their origins than their art, except for the anti-commercial art-for-art's-sake stance they settled on in their middle period. There are definitely political aspects to DSOTM, ANIMALS, and THE WALL; not quite so much WISH YOU WERE HERE unless you interpret the critique of the music industry as political - one could, fairly, I suppose. ANIMALS would be their most explicitly political album. But Roger's lyrical pessimism is very de-powering, isn't it? You're basically fucked and trapped by The System.
It's interesting to consider the interplay of Pink Floyd and the English punk movement:
- leftover drop-out political types joined or followed many of the punks. John Lydon could tolerate Hawkwind - aggressive psychedelic guys who followed in Floyd's footsteps and emerged from the same scene - and was a pot-smokin' fan of Kraut-rock bands like Can as a young guy; both his and Sid Vicious' mothers were hippies. Incidentally, when told that Johnny Rotten was recruited into the Pistols in part due to his t-shirt, an old Pink Floyd shirt to which he'd added in marker "I HATE...", Nick Mason chuckled that he'd not have gotten as much mileage from an "I HATE YES" shirt. In interviews, many of the Floyds expressed support for the impulses of the punk movement that often reviled them; they were canny enough at least to see it was much less of a new revolution than it was being advertised as.
- ANIMALS is sometimes considered Pink Floyd's "response" to punk. Many of the new generation of British rock writers hailed it as a sign of life and conscience on the part of old hippies...it was surprisingly well received at the time. Musically it's pretty aggressive compared to DSOTM or WYWH.
- Nick Mason produced the first album by The Damned and I think he dabbled in some other punk group production as well (Meanwhile, Gilmour had helped Kate Bush get her start). BTW as good a place as any to mention the many, many ways "Arnold Layne" was re-worked by various punks. I'm thinking specifically of "Grimly Fiendish' by The Damned, but I know there's a couple of other instances of old Arnold being re-tooled for the new era. Madness, the ska-punks from East London, had a song on similar themes - less cross-dressing, more panty-sniffing on the part of the protagonist. Is it Floyd influence, or is it just some aspect of British culture in general? Don't ask me...
- Syd's cult expanded among fans of bands like The Television Personalities ("I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives") and Barrett and early Floyd numbers were covered by various second-wave punks. It was easier to like Barrett as he went away early and didn't get rich and "sell out."
Re: THE WALL/ TW movie
I think the movie's quite successful. Frankly, it buries TOMMY (to think of one example). Father going off to the war...a part of TOMMY and also The Who's earlier (and for me, better) opus "A Quick One While He's Away." XTC masquerading as The Dukes Of Stratosphere have "(You're A Good Man) Albert Brown" which talks about it some. I suspect we could find a few other examples, but Pete Townshend's the main one that springs to mind. I don't think The Kinks did so much with it. I'm not sure, but The Pretty Thing's SF SORROW concept album might deal with that theme to some extent. I might be mistaken; I haven't heard the whole piece.
TW's over-produced aspects, influence of / lack of Rick Wright, see paragraph at top. Incidentally, consider that THE WALL has the most danceable Pink Floyd ever - Gilmour produces disco and funk sounds all across the album. And disco and late 70's (white) funk is a very controlled, produced style of music. "Brick In The Wall pt 2" sounds like a Niles Rodgers/Chic production, or like the stuff the BeeGees did for SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. Tight, baby.
AF: The last thing I want to investigate is Pink Floyd’s place in rock music history. Writers who deal with rock music tend to think in clusters: British Invasion (Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who), punk (Pistols, Clash), and so forth. Pink Floyd remain sui generis for a number of reasons: their mystique is all about the albums and not the personalities, their music changed several times in a more substantial fashion than other big-name rock acts, their middle-class stance could be perceived as distant, calculating, and pretentious by a business populated at the top by those from working-class backgrounds, and (besides Syd) they weren’t big on debauchery (an extension of rock stars acting out their flamboyant “personalities” like Keith Moon or, in the 90s, the Gallagher brothers). No one seems to put Roger Waters in the grouping of the “big songwriters” with Neil, Bruce, Bob, Van, Joni, Lou, etc, nor did they give rise to an army the way the Cure and Led Zeppelin did. To make a long story short, Pink Floyd and their legacy remain amorphous.
What key points would help carve an apropos place for them?
MS: I question the phrase "middle-class stance"; should be "bourgeois" to be more precise. Floyd were definitely exemplars of art for art's sake, making the least concession to traditional consumer models of the music industry while still raking in the cash for their live performances during the lower-profile middle period. Interesting that they managed to stay together for a long time compared to most of their peers. I think on could argue the band dissolved at any given point from THE WALL onwards. I'd argue that they were still Pink Floyd as much as the Rolling Stones are anything (for example) all the way through DIVISION BELL. But I wouldn't argue strongly.
Floyd's biggest musical legacy tended to be on the Continent via the Krautrock bands. In a sense, i guess, until DSOTM onwards, they were the biggest cult band in the world, although some would argue that for the Kinks as well. I don't know what to make of the Radiohead phenomena in regards to all this, but I'd be open to the idea that Radiohead followed a similar career path only guided by knowledge of history: early Pop success followed by a move to more abstract sounds in the teeth of conventional industry wisdom, finding continued success there despite not playing the established Brit music industry game. The primary difference to me is that Radiohead came up via the usual Britpop channels, whereas Floyd emerged from the underground. It's easy to forget, but, Syd's pop success aside, they started from the most commercial, idealistic scene in 60's London, and clung to those ideas for a surprisingly long time. They're too big to summarize neatly. Some people love Syd and the myth of the lost mad genius. Some people love them for their space/ambient rock, and the larger part of their audience know them mostly from their hugely successful concept albums. It's similar to the way many Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen fans hate the larger part of the Rolling Stones/Springsteen fandom.
Adam Fieled and Matt Stevenson, 2012
P.S. If you listen to these Floyd tracks in this order, you will be delivered righteously into the arms of extreme space:
Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun
Atom Heart Mother Suite
Careful with that Axe, Eugene
A Saucerful of Secrets