High Times Greats: Pink Floyd

Where did Pink Floyd get their name? What were they like in the early days? Why did they become so successful? Questions answered herein.
High Times Greats: Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd circa 1967/ Michael Ochs Archives

In February, 1988, writer Lenny Kaye’s sweeping story about Pink Floyd was printed in High Times magazine. In conjunction with the band’s 55th birthday this year, we’re republishing it below.

Pink Floyd was an essential part of the soundtrack to the ’60s psychedelic renaissance—the era when our collective unconscious was turned inside-out and paraded around the streets like a flashy new wardrobe. Though the Pink Floyd name has survived through years of subsequent history, the band has had numerous distinct musical incarnations, each with its own devoted cult of raving and drooling fans. The Floyd began with songs of psychedelic whimsy and sonic adventurism, which metamorphosed (after the exit of founding member Syd Barrett) into a cooly hypnotic trance groove, leaving them in the ’70s as the foremost non-American “tripping” band on the planet. The end of that Meddle-some decade saw the emotional temperature of their music drop even further, as they Walled themselves into a frigid corner that could only be escaped through a Final, fragmenting Cut. (Careful With That Axe, Roger!) A new, X-minus-one Pink Floyd emerged from the rubble in 1987 to reclaim the spaced-out blues high ground, while hitch-hiking runaway Roger Waters took full possession of the family soapbox.

Pink Floyd’s impact has been enormous, their influence pervasive—from the astronomical reaches of synthesizer space-rock, to the more Earthbound regions of garage psychedelia.

And what of Syd, that crazy diamond? Syd lives on, playing that great gig in the sky. Just ask Lenny Kaye…

The needle is stuck in “Interstellar Overdrive.” No, it’s not. It’s just Syd, on an endless tape loop.

There is a knock at the door. Slowly, the last man on Earth gets up to answer it.

It’s another writer. He wants to know what Syd’s been doing lately, man. Maaan. Everybody always asks him the same question. But he’s given them the answer.

Have you got it yet? That was the song he’d try to teach the band, over and over and over. Have you got it yet? The trick was that it was always a different song.

Syd stands looking out of the door, past the stranger, into the sunrise.

Yippee, you can’t see me but I can you…

They are Pink Floyd, a musical life-form whose existence transcends identity, who becomes and grows as the years mutate one into the other.

Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink?” The query from “Have A Cigar” on Wish You Were Here, is too perfect, of course.

They all are. Syd Barrett, the founding visionary who took them out as far on a limb as it’s possible to go, and then started sawing madly; Roger Waters, bass, whose dour commentary added caustic cynicism and a back-to-The Wall despair to the band’s flowerchild idealism, manifesting Pink’s triumph as a ’70s superstar; David Gilmour, a Strato-master whose airy windswept landscapes and soaring guitar lines have gained ascendence in the current Floydian state of the art, especially in the reeling senses of “Learning To Fly”; and Nick Mason and Richard Wright, without whom…

The newest album, released under the Pink Floyd imprimatur, is called A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. Though the title is meant to imply a sudden release from our everyday thought processes, a sidetrip into the slipstream of the surreal and unexpected, I prefer to put the emphasis on “Momentary”—as in, “We’ll be back in a…” But when they began, the Floyd had abandoned Reason altogether.

The spirit of irrationality might be discovered anywhere. It wasn’t merely drugs, though the invention of LSD offered a transcendental option to the let’s-get-ripped mentality usually accorded clandestine highs. Rather than obliterate one’s place in the cosmic order, the new psychedelics—including rock music—affirmed it. Set and Setting. On the bus or off it. There are any number of ’60s advertising-like slogans; still, twenty years later, two of the most radical exponents of its pop-cultural possibilities—San Francisco’s Grateful Dead and London’s Pink Floyd—define the Top 10, while their New York counterpart, the Velvet Underground, has set the avant-garde standard for two decades of subversion. Spare change, anyone?

These were participants in a (western) worldwide upheaval in social mores and kultural values, recalibrating a generation’s perception of pleasure and their own artistic possibilities. But aesthetic tugs-of-war usually play badly in the Real World; the payoff is an interregnum backlash, an inevitable “correction” between our private and public selves.

Take the Floyd. For a band that for many years tried to submerge individual personalities ‘neath a group overmind, the rift in their ranks has taken on a scarlet patina, expiating and scourging Original Sin. What does it matter who has the moral rights to a name when, really, it was Syd himself who combined the personas of ’20s North Carolina bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd “the Devil’s Daddy-in-Law” Council? By 1965, with art and architecture school backgrounds at the ready, (the) Pink Floyd had anti-gravitated to a spontaneously expanding Inevitable in which rock spilled over the fringes of other plastic arts: film, television, pop radio, fashion.

Syd’s songs provided the framework, offering perplexing bits of chorus and verse that switched moods, dialogued within themselves, and ruminated on a strange parade of human para-experience. Listening to the debut Pink Floyd album, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, released in August 1967, with ears that have grown accustomed to the vagaries of well-sampled Synclaviers, is to know the meaning of the word “unpredictable.” The songs follow no pattern but one of whimsy, changing keys and time signatures, scrambling instruments to the point where a duck’s squawk becomes percussive and melodic, echo chambers are reversed, and voices swirl as if they’re caught inside your cranium.

It was the mixing of media that allowed the Floyd this cinematic freedom, at times becoming a soundtrack narrating events that ran in timecode alongside images on a screen, remaining in afterglow when the eyes were closed. Despite mood pieces for More and Zabriskie Point, the Floyd always did best scoring their own mise-en-scene; a fact made evident when Bob Geldof starred in the screen adaptation of The Wall. The “book” was better.

By 1965, the Pink Floyd were officially en performance. Syd had been introduced to the nucleus of Mason-Wright by Waters, who knew him from the Camberwell Art School where Syd had been a painter. They were probably—especially given Syd’s interest in mysticism—all well-attuned to the craze for “happenings” that was captivating the artists-in-residence of a swinging London popularized by Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Transforming pop culture into Pop Culture, they participated—not without some inkling of its media value—in experimental scenemakings which promised a total assault on the senses: groups played before screens of abstract visual images, bathed in pulsating lights—a psychic arena where performers and spectators (who chose who?) were encouraged to exist within the sensational moment.

This immediately freed the Floyd from the demands of traditional songwriting. Waters has described it as their move from “R&B” to long, improvised one-chord jams, heavy on the feedback. It was similar in style, if not content, to the Velvet Underground/Fugs axis in New York (the Velvets appeared behind the screen at Andy Warhol’s Cinemathetique, while the Fugs cut up Burroughsian wordplay with rock’s sense of the scatological); Frank Zappa’s Sunset Strip morality plays with Suzy Creamcheese; and the variety of blues and folk-based acid bands of the Bay Area, combining free-form renditions of light and sound.

By the time the English scene crystalized (in more ways than one), the Floyd had earned their reputation as psychedelic kings. Using such launching pads as “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Astronomy Dominé” for their flights of fancy, the Floyd’s reputation as sonic surfers reached kaleidoscopic proportions. By comparison, the California bands seemed almost jugband-like. Bedazzled by technology and the new sense of bohemian community engendered by London’s leading underground paper, The International Times, the Floyd’s solar mastery made them the band of the moment.

They might have stayed that, had it not been for Syd. From the “Spontaneous Underground” held every Sunday at London’s Marquee Club, to the celebratory IT festival at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse in October of 1966, he continued writing songs of slightly askew clarity, constructing portraits of an “Arnold Layne” or “The Gnome” or “The Scarecrow”, empathizing with these inhabitants of a dying British colonial empire bred in upon itself. Far more than the Floyd’s aural snapshots of alien terrain, he became the magnetic core of the band, its pole-to-pole wild card.

Unfortunately, like many artists who step out on the edge of human ken to create their art, the psychologic toll he paid was immeasurable. In time, as the shadows of 1966 lengthened into what was supposedly the brave new world of 1967, Syd increasingly became that about which he wrote—and sang.

“Remember when you were young/You shone like the sun,” crooned Roger in his 1975 tribute to Syd, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” “Now there’s a look in your eye/Like black holes in the sky…”

The space imagery was apt. The Floyd were always regarded as scientifictional, though whether the reference was to inner or outer space was always a matter of discussion—is there a difference? Yet from such conceptions as “Astronomy Dominé” did their legend flow, piloting a music whose stellar reaches required a grasping imagination of quasars and light years, a bold attempt to reproduce the sound of a planoforming sailship bending time and space to its own device.

The brilliance of Piper, given the paradoxes of the time, was that it could be made at all, that it simply didn’t whirl apart from the centrifuge of its divergent directions. The album survived, even as Syd’s creative potential didn’t, providing the required elements of ritual tragedy and sacrifice. By early 1967, the more down-to-earth members of Pink Floyd had invited David Gilmour to “join” Syd on second guitar, hoping to make room for Syd’s increasing eccentricities, like not showing up for gigs, or continuing to strum a single chord long after the others had moved onto another song.

Gilmour was a logical choice to fill Syd’s slot, as he’d originally taught Barrett some elementary riffs when they were both Cambridge schoolboys. It was a peculiar position for the group to be in, since though the Floyd was a band in every sense (the improvisations within the recorded version of “Interstellar Overdrive” bespeak a communication that could not be orchestrated by one member alone; and this was a version that fans of the live band said paled before the original half-hour concert extravaganza!), Syd was regarded as the group’s progressive mainstay. How could they survive without him ?

A Saucerful of Secrets, released in June of 1968, shows Pink Floyd attempting to react to this harbingering change. Waters “Set The Controls For The Heart of the Sun”, assuming nominal captainship, while Syd’s idea of the band was contained in “Jugband Blues”; the schism between the two was insurmountable. Only on the title track did the group, without Barrett, look on the verge of creating something new. Practically a suite, its sound was more classical than rock, with overtonals recalling 20th century composers like Alan Hovanhess and Terry Riley, culminating in Wright’s hymnlike organ progressions (all hail the North German followers of Sweelinck!) and massed “celestial” voices. Syd, for his part, sang “I’m wondering who could be writing this song” against a Salvation Army band in “Jugband Blues.”

The group continued without him. “A Saucerful of Secrets” had pointed them toward their next musical incarnation, a reconstituted Pink Floyd opening out the twin ‘tures of struc and tex. Ummagumma, one of the final albums of the 1960s (released in November of 1969), positioned the Floyd as ready to undertake this transition to a post-hippie era. The naively splashing light shows of their early beginnings became sophisticated displays of spectral magnificence; their azimuth-coordinated quadraphonic sound provided decibilic depth and resonance to a well-planned theatrical show, an experience designed with the word atmospheric in mind.

A double-album set, Ummagumma divided its energies between live and studio, though most fans would opt for the former with its extended renditions of “Astronomy Dominé” (inexplicably left off the American release of the first album in favor of the group’s underground hit single, “See Emily Play”) and a tender little ditty called “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” featuring some of the most blood-curdling shrieks ever committed to vinyl. By contrast, the studio sides highlighted compositions by each group member on his own, with somewhat prosaic results, despite a penchant for intriguing song titles (Waters took top honors with “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave and Grooving With A Pict”). The group’s fascination with sound effects and long stately explorations of abstract sound became a hallmark for extrasensory headphone fans of all ages, and the group’s cult exploded as a result.

The bovine Atom Heart Mother, released in 1970, was perhaps the Floyd at its most cerebral, still grappling with the problems of presenting a serious music in the guise of rock ‘n’ roll. Meddle (November 1971) seemed more true to the Floyd’s antecedents than the overly-orchestrated Mother, expecially the glorious “Echoes” track which comprised the whole of side two. Composed within the studio, indulged as a group effort in which parts were overlaid with an element of surprise (often with other band members out of the room), each segment responded to and mixed into another in a continuum of motifs and themes. At times a formal song might bob to the surface, only to be captured by the tides and borne away again. This was a music in which the connectives were as important as the melodic release, the getting there as much a part of the tale as the coming attractions. Pink Floyd showed a penchant for the slow four tempo, for the gradual crescendoing build, for the surprise ending in which one mode fades into a completely different set of emerging emotions: the art of the segue.

With Dark Side of the Moon, the Floyd perfected the concept so well as to bridge the gap between albums. “One of These Days,” which had opened Meddle, was as close to a pop song as the Floyd liked to get, with an irresistible bass hook sublimated through a Binson echo unit. They remembered these roots in succinct song on Dark Side, much to the excitement of FM radio programmers everywhere and nearly ten million buyers who have kept the album on the charts for more than seven hundred consecutive weeks. That’s approaching fifteen years, Jack, a hell of a long lifeline in the moment-to-moment meteorics of the Billboard Hot 200. It’s reminiscent of those science-fiction stories in which a faster-than-light ship takes to the stars from Earth, its passengers hardly aging while generations go by on their home planet; in the end, they return to Sol III to marry their own great-grandchildren. Will Pink Floyd be there to greet us on our return from Alpha Centauri?

For an album that would ultimately prove Floyd’s commercial breakthrough, the dominant sound one takes out of Dark Side is the infernal ring of cash registers, shimmered into contrast by the lush vacuum of the Floydian ether. You can almost hear the silences existing between the instruments. A strumming acoustic guitar, a long legato line played by Gilmour resolving into nothingness, an organ pad, a swirl of cymbals. The sound was tranquil and appealing, almost inviting, and it was only after repeated listening that the essentially unnerving quality of Roger Waters’ lyrics became apparent. “The dark side of the moon” could eclipse even the sun, a promised land forever beyond reach. Its unknowables resigned us to melancholy, hurried along by the passage of time, humbling human creation: “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.” It was a far cry from Syd’s bouyant anything-goes impossibilities.

Waters must have felt this on some level, a sense of loss for the might-have-beens of the band’s prehistory. Along with Floyd’s chariot ride into the pop ionosphere, he began brooding about his relationship with Syd. Perhaps because of the elegiac Gilmour guitar lines that open Wish You Were Here (1975), or his own coming to terms with Barrett’s demons now that Pink Floyd had proved they could escape from his lengthy shadow, Waters began remembering the waste of creative potential and individual tragedy that Syd had undergone in becoming a star. “It’s all right, we told you what to dream”, he sang as a long guitar solo swirled down from larger-than-life to a crackly piece of sound emanating from a radio. The Floyd were surely “Riding The Gravy Train,” but they refused to accept its music industry version of “Heaven and Hell.” In the end. Waters’ affection and admiration for Syd shines through, as it were, and the madcap becomes a beacon of purity and innocence in a world fit for… well, Animals.

Try as he might, Waters’ perception of life was souring, turning bitter even as Floyd survived phenomenon to become archetype. Animals seems evolved more from the curiosities of Syd’s pair of early ’70s solo albums in its opening “Pigs On A Wing” imagery than Floydian meistenworks; an idea that had a real-life antecedent when an inflatable pig being hoisted for the LP-cover photograph broke loose from its moorings and floated lazily over the ruins of post-war industrial London. The album was released in 1977, at about the same time the Sex Pistols were underscoring similar points about their homeland and the business of making music.

The Floyd were christened dinosaurs by the emerging squads of punk guerillas. But if anything, their take on life—or at least that of Roger, who had been deeded artistic control over the lyrics—was more dog-eat-dog than most budding Sid Viciousi. Given the increasingly alienated stance of the albums, even as the music became more seductive and appealing, the conflict within Floyd past and future was antagonistically brought out into the open.

Á la Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” their 1980 theatrical extravaganza The Wall took itself literally, building an actual wall over the course of a show between band and their audience. The concept was taken down to a final ashen image of our Rock Star lying dissolute and isolated in a motel room in Hollywood’s famed Tropicana, come to the end of his rope. Just hanging around.

As they cemented each brick in the wall, oohing and aahing the audience with their crashing airplane, animated cartoons, and inflatable pig, it looked as if the Floyd had made their ultimate statement on the repercussive price of societal square pegs in a polygonal hole. Despite the band’s triumphal Joshuan reentry at the climax of the show, the personality rifts between Floyd members had compartmentalized them one from the other. Passions that had reached boiling point in the studio during the recording of The Wall now exploded during the making of The Final Cut, which consisted of Waters’ extending musings on the death of his father in World War II. The rest of Pink Floyd felt they were in danger of becoming a disposable adjunct to Roger’s seizing the creative reins, and they parted unamicably in 1984.

Now there is Roger Waters and Radio K.A.O.S.; and Gilmour-Wright-Mason using the name Pink Floyd. Both are the Floyd, as simply as Barrett is still the Floyd, despite not having been a part of the band for, lo, these twenty years.

Waters’ concept album carries the social burden of his misgivings in the character of Billy, a wheelchair-bound mute (shades of Tommy, just as The Wall shaded Townshend’s Quadrophenia) who is able to receive and transmit radio waves. Using his extraordinary powers to stage a fake nuclear war, he attempts to convince us to avoid the real thing. Gilmour’s version of Pink Floyd is less bound to earthly concerns, an uplifting and harmonically converged audio event that sounds like the Floyd of their golden era. As usual, each faction loses a bit without the presence of the other. Waters minus the Floyd tends toward the overly expletive in his desire to propagate a Message; while there is something insubstantial about the Gilmour-led Floyd, lacking as it does Waters’ sense of bite and irony.

And as for them missing Syd…

It’s quiet now. His mother bustles about in the back. All of E. Kilbride has gone to bed for the night. He sits back on the couch and dreams.

In his mind’s eye, he wears a brown tweed overcoat and he needs a shave. His hair is longer. Much longer than it is now. Unconsciously, he rubs a hand over the stubble on his scalp.

The walls are painted yellow. His feet are bare, and so is the girl. Her buttocks are shaped like a heart. She faces away from him. A vase with daffodils is placed on the wood-striped floor.

The last man on Earth sits alone in a room. There is a lock on the door.

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