How ironic that Pink Floyd's most famous song "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)" is so far removed from what is special about the music of this, quintessential psychedelic spacerock band. In a re-appraisal of the band's music in 1988, *new Musical Express* wrote: "No rock group experiments with sounds as imaginatively as Pink Floyd, with such limited technology and a commercial feel...and whether you enjoy it or not, their music was informed by a wealth of ideas that puts most of their peers to shame, past and present." Roger Waters' talent as a lyricist notwithstanding, Pink Floyd's best music is, more that anything else, about sound - a sound achieved though a combination of offbeat ideas, innovative recording techniques and a cosmic feel that has always been peculiarly their own.
Their original line up consisted of Syd Barrett (guitar & vocals), Nick Mason (percussion), Roger Waters (bass & vocals) and Rick Wright (keyboards & vocals). Adopted as a virtual house band by London's swinging underground in the mid-60's, the band held audiences spellbound with live sets of swirling, improvised, often instrumental music created under the leadership of the charismatic Syd Barrett. His spontaneous, madly energetic guitar playing was highly innovative for its time and his surreal, whimsical style of songwriting - though less apparent in their live shows - is preserved splendidly on the band's first album *The Piper at the Gates of Dawn* (1967). Thirty years on, Barrett's acid-drenched fairytale world of astrology, scarecrows and magical kingdoms is still a wonder to behold. *Piper* is perhaps the classic slice of British psychedelia. Unfortunately the Floyd's trippy concert workouts of this period were never captured on record, though the album does contain a few exploratory instrumentals. "Interstellar Overdrive" in particular sees the band laying the groundwork for extended epics to come.
However, it was to be a future without Barrett, whose drug-fueled mental disintegration was clearly effecting group cohesion by the time *A Saucerful of Secrets* appeared in 1968. Far less consistent than its predecessor, the album's standout track is a group composed title piece - a sometimes startling kaleidoscope of music and noise with a glowing choral climax. As for Barrett's last contributions, witness "Jugband Blues" for a poignant, funny but ultimately chilling portrait of descent into madness. Although he would go on to record two solo albums of delightful, eccentric songs, he was no longer capable of working within the group and was soon replaced by his old school friend David Gilmour. As well as developing into a probing, melodic guitarist, Gilmour's smooth, resonant vocals would also become a Floyd trademark in the years to come.
With the undeniably gifted Barrett gone, few people at the time were banking on the Floyd's future. First from the new line-up came the patchy film soundtrack *More* (1969), a collection of lyrical songs and moody, spacious instrumentals, all tinged with a curious melancholy. It's actually an intriguing record, but it was the double album *Ummagumma* (1969) that redeemed them. Coming in two distinct parts, the first half consists of four largely instrumental taken from British concerts. Graced with Wright's exotic Farisfa organ work and Gilmour's spacey guitar line and textures, tracks like "Careful with that Axe, Eugene" and "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" see the quartet brilliantly extend and improvise on the original studio recordings to create otherworldly, primordial soundscapes. This is the Floyd at its peak as a live band: daring, experimental and wonderfully inspired.
*Ummagumma's* second half contains the bands most experimental studio work - an erratic yet still fascinating collection of pastoral folk-like pieces, startling tapestries of sound effects and strange, gothic-sounding dirges. The whole album is a daring mixture of rock music, electronics and avant garde techniques, and became one of the blueprints for a whole range of emerging electronic artists into eh late 60's including Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and Klaus Schulze.
The centerpiece of *Atom Heart Mother* (1970) is the ambitious six-part title suite featuring brass and choir arrangements written with the Floyd by Scottish composer Ron Geesin. While the main theme of the peace resembles the schmalzy music from some awful Western, the middle section builds splendidly from slow, a funky jam into a dramatic choral arrangement perfectly matched by the Floyd's hypnotic pulse. The experimental inroads made on *Ummagumma* were now beginning to get into a more accessible sound. The standout track from *Meddle* (1971) was a further refinement: the extraordinary twenty minute-plus opus "Echoes". Largely instrumental, "Echoes" brings together everything the early Floyd did best: an expansive, richly integrated tapestry of rock improvisation melodic themes and surreal passages of abstract sound.
Another film soundtrack *Obscured By Clouds* appeared in 1972, but it was really only marking time while the band worked painstakingly to complete their legendary opus *The Dark Side of the Moon* (1973). This was the album which skyrocketed the Floyd to superstar status and spawned the hit U.S. single "Money". Revolving around Roger Waters conceptual lyrics about madness and the pressures of everyday, the compositions and the sound effects are woven together seamlessly with a standard of mix and production that at the time was unprecedented in rock. It's a fine album, although with a few exceptions - note "The Great Gig in the Sky" - a significant departure from the Floyd's more cosmic explorations of the past.
Perhaps more satisfying in that context are *Wish You Were Here* (1975) and *Animals* (1977), which have longer instrumental passages and a spacey mood and intensity that is uniquely the Floyd's. The mammoth nine part "Shine on you crazy diamond" from *Wish You Were Here* is a magnificent example of what Rolling Stone critic John Rockwell once called the Floyd's special sense of 'line and continuity and ritualistic repetition'. The opening sequence, featuring Wright's richly textured keyboards and a simple Gilmour guitar solo, is mournfully, breathtakingly beautiful.
Unfortunately, following these two albums the quartet's chemistry dissolved rapidly. In 1978 the increasingly dominant Waters offered two solo projects to the band to record un the Floyd banner. In the absence of other material, and with bankruptcy looming following an investment bungle, the Floyd chose to record *The Wall* (1979). It certainly brought financial salvation, but both it and *The Final Cut* (1983) marked a mayor shift in direction. Both albums ditch most of the bands spacerock leanings in favour of harrowing, often compelling narratives about war, alienation and loss. In the face of such weighty concepts, it's perhaps no surprise that the music lacks the subjective qualities and sustained mood that made the band's earlier work so distinctive. Waters' narratives quite deliberately reign in the music instead of letting it fly.
Gilmour managed to continue exerting some musical influence during this period, but the band's other creative force Rick Wright was a disillusioned man. His marriage was in tatters and heavy cocaine use was making him near useless in the studio. With acrimony between he and Waters growing by the day, Wright was fired from the band soon after the release of *The Wall*. Then, after lengthy group silence following the release of *The Final Cut*, Waters officially dissolved the name Pink Floyd. Said Nick Mason: "Roger said Pink Floyd was dead, and he was right. But by him leaving, it suddenly regenerated".
Amid lawsuits and ridiculous legal squabbles, the remaining duo of Gilmour and Mason managed to record *A Momentary Lapse of Reason* (1987) with the aid of producer Bob Ezrin and numerous lyricists and session musicians (Wright briefly among them). With Waters' weighty narratives gone, Gilmour was free to return the band to more cosmic spaces. And to some extent he succeeded. "Terminal Frost" is an engaging, majestic instrumental, "On the Turning Away" sighs and surges in all the right places, and that Floydian sense of space seems to be swirling around once again. But *Lapse* is too often faceless and distant, not to mention short on decent melodies. At its heart something is definitely missing.
Warmer and more approachable is *The Division Bell* (1994) featured a fully reinstated Rick Wright and some genuine collaboration amongst the members. The opening instrumental "Cluster One" takes the band tripping gloriously back into outer space, while Gilmour's songwriting displays a newfound force and maturity on the piano-driven "High Hopes", a lament for unfulfilled dreams as intense and haunting as anything the group has done since *Dark Side*. Even a clutch of substandard Gilmour songs in the album's second half doesn't dispels the felling that on *The Division Bell* the Floyd almost escape Waters' shadow.
The recent live albums show the 90's version of Floyd at both its best and worst. The double set *Delicate Sound of Thunder* (1989) is so anonymous, slick and over produced it can hardly be considered a live document. *Pulse* (1995), on the other hand, finds the band more together and focused, relying less on their supporting player and generating some real chemistry. There's a blistering rendition of the Syd Barrett penned "Astronomy Domine", and their full performance of "Dark Side of the Moon" contains some magical moments. Of course, it's still worlds away from the spontaneity and risk-taking of *Ummagumma's* live sides. That version of Pink Floyd is, alas, gone forever. Why? "Money, it's a gas". Ah yes. . .