Reflecting on 50 Years of Pink Floyd (Part 1 of 3): The Progressive Era
By: Matt Fricks
This is the first in a three part series in which Matt explores Pink Floyd's unique career over three distinct eras and fifty years of constant change. It chronicles the internal and external forces that established them as one of the most singular voices in rock music. Check out part two and part three.
Perhaps one of the most interesting stories in music is the legacy of Pink Floyd. Often associated with an array of genre classifications, such as progressive rock and psychedelic jam, the tale of Pink Floyd is a story of enduring tragedy, loss, and madness in the midst of great success. It is a story that has captivated audiences for 50 years and will continue to mesmerize forthcoming generations.
The story tells of five individual musicians that established a highly respectable entity with the name Pink Floyd. This group went on to become one of the most innovative names in the industry with their spellbinding music, crusading lyrics, iconic visuals and brilliantly complex live shows. Yet, the band couldn't quite hold it all together, leaving many to wonder on several occasions if the name Pink Floyd would be no more.
Despite the struggles endured by the musicians, and though we may have reached the possible conclusion to their catalog, the name Pink Floyd remains a vital and polarizing presence to this day. If 2015 truly is the end of Pink Floyd, it ended appropriately with the final notes of their surprise fifteenth studio album, The Endless River, reflecting on the sound, the success, and the story that made them a dominant force in the music industry. Perhaps only a band that started like this could have had such a long, prosperous and controversial run.
“Lime and limpid green, a second scene, a fight between the blue you once knew.” These are the opening lyrics to one of the most fascinating discographies in the history of music. It is the first line to Pink Floyd’s 1967 “Astronomy Domine” from their debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. While 1967 marked their first major studio release, the band formed two years prior to that, making 2015 the year to celebrate 50 years of Pink Floyd.
The psychedelic madness of Syd Barrett was the driving force of Pink Floyd’s early stages. He was a golden child gifted with the artistic ability to construct trippy guitar soundscapes engrossed in rich melody and coated them with strange lyrics that played games with the mind. He was an innovator.
Alongside him were Roger Waters (bass, rhythm guitar, vocals), Rick Wright (keyboards, vocals), and Nick Mason (drums, percussion). Together, the four created a signature, singular progressive rock sound.
I refer to this first era as “The Progressive Era.” Driven by the ingenuity of Barrett, it placed Pink Floyd on the track to becoming successful purveyors of psychedelic rock and roll. While The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was a groundbreaking initial release, the band was immediately launched into turmoil involving their primary songwriter.
The early success of Pink Floyd seemed to work against Barrett, who suffered from a lack of mental stability and heavy drug use. His unstable mindset proved to be incredibly detrimental to the band’s progress when performing live and attempting to compose material for a follow-up album. Barrett was the face of Pink Floyd that was slowly becoming unrecognizable -- his emotional state was not prepared for the band's success.
In an attempt to rectify the situation, Waters, Wright, and Mason recruited David Gilmour (guitar, vocals) to join Pink Floyd and ease some of the pressure on Barrett by incorporating additional guitar personnel in a live setting. Gilmour proved to be a worthy asset but did not alleviate the band’s initial concern -- it failed to bring Barrett to a clear and stable mind.
Pink Floyd decided that moving forward with Gilmour at the helm of lead guitar -- without Barrett -- was the best decision. Their second studio album, A Saucerful of Secrets, featured Barrett’s final contribution to Pink Floyd on the closing track, “Jugband Blues,” appropriately ending with the lyrics, “And what exactly is a dream? And what exactly is a joke?” Syd was caught in a dream that became a nightmarish demise and his time in Pink Floyd was finished.
After letting go of Barrett and following A Saucerful of Secrets, Pink Floyd struggled to find direction. They continued on their path of space rock with the releases of More (a soundtrack for the film of the same name) and Ummagumma in 1969– a bizarre album that features dissonant instrumental pieces, live segments, and individual contributions from each of its members. There was a lack of cohesion. The necessary collaboration to reach a unified sound was proving to be somewhat problematic. Perhaps it was the absence of Barrett that loomed large -- to move they would have to embrace his spirit but also seek to reconcile themselves with the situation.
Ummagumma’s follow-up, Atom Heart Mother (1970), has a central focus of three short pieces – one written by Waters (“If”), one written by Wright (“Summer ‘68”), and one written by Gilmour (“Fat Old Sun”) – bookended by two extensive instrumentals: “Atom Heart Mother” and “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast.”
This is an often-overlooked time of Pink Floyd’s career. Die-hard fans often demonstrate appreciation for some of the songwriting while the collective, including some of the band members, do not look fondly back on the Ummagumma sessions and style of composition at the time. Let’s face it: this is not signature Pink Floyd. There was something missing on each release during this time of confusion. It was not until the following year that Pink Floyd began to maneuver into the mainstream of rock and roll.
Pink Floyd’s lack of direction ended in 1971 with the release of Meddle. Aside from a much more collaborative approach to the album’s songwriting, the band found a direction -- and one that would be foreshadow their work in their second era -- with their first concept album. Meddle opens and closes with the same whirlwind sound, giving the album the fell of a story by ending where it began.
For a band with real life drama at the heart of their existence -- they discovered a way to bring the novelistic ups and downs of their first six years of a band to the music. From 1971 and onward, the band seemed to be striving for a more unique listening experience -- built on listening to an album in its entirety rather than individual tracks. Pink Floyd had finally found their sound. Complex, narrative and pushing sonic boundaries.
Meddle is still recognized as one of Pink Floyd’s best albums. It features a heavier side to their signature progressive sound on the opening track, “One of These Days”, and space-induced rock on the iconic masterpiece, “Echoes” – a song written and composed by all four members. It also features acoustic ambience, particularly on the soothing “A Pillow of Winds,” featuring a top-tier Gilmour vocal and some of Waters’s finest lyrics. Meddle is every aspect of Pink Floyd covered in six tracks.
Reverting to their previous experience with More, Pink Floyd took on the songwriting responsibilities for another soundtrack to a film titled The Valley with their release of Obscured By Clouds. This has been an overlooked album, partly due to the fact that it was in the middle of two of the group’s more prominent releases: Meddle and The Dark Side of the Moon. Obscured By Clouds featured more collaborative efforts from the band, with Waters providing lyrics for Gilmour and Wright on some of the album’s finest tracks, such as “Wots…Uh the Deal” and “Stay.”
Pink Floyd had reached a comfortable plateau of success, despite the loss of one of its founders. Though Barrett was the original icon of the band, The Progressive Era was not the peak of Pink Floyd. Waters would soon step in to take control of the concept album idea and bring the group to a new height in terms of mainstream acceptance, leading to some of the most popular album releases of all-time, elaborate stage productions, and another tragic downfall.
The most important thing that Pink Floyd established in The Progressive Era was their ability to compose albums with cohesive concepts. Though Pink Floyd always had well-written material for the duration of their career, their songs tend to gain impact within the flow of an album and the concept of storytelling. There was the initial struggle with this for the band; but the direction was eventually found, leading to successful storytelling.
“Echoes” is the first undisputed triumph for Pink Floyd – an absolute masterpiece of a composition that highlights each individual’s important contributions to their overall sound. It is this storytelling approach that seemed to give Pink Floyd the confidence to expand on the idea for full-length albums.
From loose, psychedelic and space rock roots to structured and collaborative longform pieces, the experience Floyd brought in its earliest years was the catalyst for the band's most successful era. All of those find a home in the next phase of the band's career: The Big Five.