How appropriate that Pink Floyd would find their beginnings in the same year that saw the first person walk in space. It’s a fitting foreword to the band’s story which, over the last fifty years of their existence, has seen them embrace the rarity and mythos that is rock and roll legend with a disarming sense of apprehension, paranoia, and oftentimes rage. Pink Floyd’s most distinctive quality is likely the very thing that provided the greatest friction for the members themselves. While their contemporaries honed in on every brilliant pop music formula from places like Liverpool and Southern California, Pink Floyd’s music quickly transformed into both a cautionary tale for the easily starstruck and a deeply personal narrative that became increasingly bleak and, at its most powerful, utterly heartbreaking.
The story of the band’s beginnings has been well documented with all manner of devoted fans eager to point out the fact that after several name changes (which included the always delightful and mildly prophetic Meggadeaths), the art students-turned-musicians derived the final permutation of the band’s name from blues artists Pinkney “Pink” Anderson and Floyd Council. Originally called “The Pink Floyd Sound,” the name was an off-the-cuff moniker created by original vocalist/guitarist Syd Barrett in what would mark an almost cruel prelude for a band who despite earning every possible level of fame and fortune, would never be able to fully come to grips with those realities of losing friends, family, and even themselves along the way.
While the music of Pink Floyd has, for the most part, never embraced the happy-go-lucky ethos of so many of the band’s popular music counterparts in the late ’60s, the disparity between the band’s sound during the brief tenure of vocalist/guitarist Syd Barrett and what came in the wake of his departure is noteworthy when considering the whole of the band’s career. Barrett’s friendship with band mate and eventual sole lyricist and bassist for Pink Floyd, Roger Waters, culminated in the artistic relationship that would create the wholly distinctive sound on the band’s debut, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Primarily a blues band in their earliest days, it was not until Barrett took on the role of frontman and lyricist that Pink Floyd began to distance themselves both sonically and thematically from their contemporaries.
Having already established themselves as a force in the London underground of experimental music, the band’s 1967 full-length debut was met with considerable success both critically and commercially, though the celebration would be cruelly brief due to what had quickly become Barrett’s now completely unhinged mental state. The subject of endless speculation and mythology, Barrett’s struggle with mental illness was of course tragic in its own right as a viciously unforgiving disease, yet the effects were undoubtedly driven to insurmountable levels once brought under the microscope of celebrity and media scrutiny. Along with Waters, Richard Wright (keyboards), and Nick Mason (drums), Barrett’s role in Pink Floyd would extend far beyond the reach of Piper and into the very heart of some of rock and roll’s most flawless and perfectly realized albums.
With Barrett’s mental state rapidly deteriorating to the point of crisis, his band mates decided to bring on a young guitar player from Cambridge named David Gilmour as an additional member. Familiar with the band and even more so with Barrett himself, as the two had traveled and studied together, Gilmour’s addition at the end of 1967 would prove to be a game changer for a band who’d already garnered interest from critics and fans alike for taking experimental risks. Just two months after a photo shoot which showed a clearly disconnected Barrett standing among his band mates, Pink Floyd parted ways with the troubled yet immensely talented musician in March 1968.
Over the course of the next fourteen years, with Gilmour taking over for Barrett on vocals and guitars, and with Waters writing the lyrics, Pink Floyd would venture into a progressively darker sound as confessional as it was prophetic, with the music manifesting the pathos and disquiet of its individual creators. Of course the definitive thematic focus of Pink Floyd is not solely linked to the experience of watching their band mate’s gradual mental breakdown. Waters was as quick to explore the literal and metaphorical misgivings he had regarding Western patriarchy as he was in delving into a merciless kind of self-awareness regarding the industry hivemind and his unavoidable role as an integral part of its machinery.
Though forever (and justifiably) categorized as a “psychedelic band,” Pink Floyd’s music has always thrived and found the full depth of its power in the cruel reality of its presentation. From the thematic structure of albums such as Wish You Were Here or The Wall to the more free form and ethereal compositions of Meddle and Atom Heart Mother, Pink Floyd’s narrative has remained largely consistent in the disarming and powerful fragility of its delivery. Though the culmination of grandeur and spectacle became fully realized from a visual standpoint with 1979’s The Wall, the full scope of Pink Floyd’s music had always been as colossal as the space it inhabited.
Occasionally the music world is afforded the anomalous perfection of those bands who seem destined for legend even at their very beginnings. Though Pink Floyd is certainly a band of unequivocal legend in rock and roll’s history, theirs is not a story of perfection or even near-perfection. From the idiosyncratic keyboard and synth tremors of Richard Wright to Nick Mason’s spatial yet exacting drumming to the frantic howls and sneering cynicism of Waters paired alongside the achingly lonesome guitar and vocal work of Gilmour, Pink Floyd’s story is one that capitalized on the various imperfections and frailties of its members.
Last year, twenty years after their last full-length (1994’s The Division Bell), Pink Floyd released a post script of sorts by way of The Endless River — an album that, according to Gilmour himself, was a kind of an homage to Richard Wright, who succumbed to cancer in 2008. With fifty years of existence, the story of Pink Floyd is a narrative unlike any other in rock and roll, not for the fact that the band explored nearly every sonic and lyrical corner of the unconscious mind, but because they allowed listeners the opportunity to come along for that journey and to experience with the band those dark and harrowing realities of human existence.
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