THE FLOYD BIT (9/27/02)
An associate of mine just informed me that one of the most popular rock bands in Pakistan is Pink Floyd. Though many will shake their heads in confusion at the thought of stoner rock anthems emanating from the mouths of the citizens of Islamabad, I would simply say: Of course they like it. It's good.
The talented gentlemen in my favorite rock band of all time have been much maligned throughout their career, both by the press and the record-store cogniscenti. Being a musician, I am forever running into rocksnobs who bristle at the mention of such influential albums as Dark Side of the Moon, insisting that the only notable music made by the Floyd was done under the erratically brilliant guidance of über-rockgod Syd Barrett. Surely no one would suggest otherwise.
Allow me to lay a bit of history on you for a moment. The original Pink Floyd came to fame rather haphazardly in the mid-to-late 1960s. The London underground scene of 1966-67 was a primordial soup of drug-addled hippies. English hippies, mind you, which meant that not only did they enjoy getting fucked up, but they were incredibly fastidious about what made it into their ears whilst flying the acid kite. A new band called The Pink Floyd were among the few groups like The Soft Machine and Tomorrow who were non-commercial enough to be accepted into clubs like the UFO or get write-ups in leftist mags like the International Times. Songs like the 11-minute-plus feedback fest Interstellar Overdrive assured the hipsters that this band would never fly with the squares, keeping them safely cool.
All of this isn't to say that the Floyd weren't creating some good music at that time. But the music had a stamp on it: Certified Authentic British Psychedelia. The driving force behind Floyd at that time was a fellow named Roger Keith "Syd" Barrett, who, in addition to being a talented songwriter, was all about the London underground scene. Drugs, drugs, & rock-n-roll. Several press articles of the time went as far as using Barrett to personify that scene, being that the Floyd had naturally caught the attention of the music industry, who regardless wasn't sure what to do with this odd little band.
Nonetheless, singable-yet-disturbing singles like Arnold Layne and See Emily Play helped propel British Psychedelia into the English mainstream, helped by the success of The Beatles in their own psychedelic switcharound. Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, in fact, was recorded in the studio adjacent to where the Floyd were assembling their debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. It is still historically unclear as to who borrowed the most from whom, but it is inarguable that a great deal passed between those studio walls.
But whereas The Beatles were the fucking Beatles, essentially occupying their own musical stratosphere, the Floyd enjoyed little success outside of England. British Psychedelia largely did its own thing, separated from the American movement of similar name. Why? It could be argued that there was cultural divide between the faerie-like British & the more muscular American sound. After all, more blistering, blues-based English acts like Cream did particularly well in the U.S. But I believe there's an simpler reason: The bands of the London underground were good, but not great.
Those who bother to dig up little nuggets of British Psychedelia today are mostly looking for cultural artifacts of a rather fascinating transitional time in rock's history. They are seldom looking for great songwriting, because it really didn't happen much. Songs like Tomorrow's My White Bicycle and Floyd's Arnold Layne are somewhat interesting, but not really mind-blowingly great like the well-known psychedelic tunes from that era. Ruby Tuesday, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, hell, even The Moody Blues did better with Nights In White Satin than any of the London underground set.
So when the London underground came screeching to a halt shortly after Mr. Barrett lost his friggin' mind and the UFO was shut down for good, the footprints of the scene were quickly trampled by incoming giants like Led Zeppelin and obscured by the continuing success of British Invasion lingerers like The Who & The Fucking Beatles.
But here's where it gets interesting. Their scene largely gone, their leader gone into the mists of insanity, the remaining members of Pink Floyd kept going. They just didn't give a shit. A gentleman named Roger Waters, originally just the silent bassist, decided he wasn't finished making music. Another gentleman named David Gilmour, who was at first merely Barrett's stage replacement, decided he wasn't finished either.
What's supposed to happen in these sorts of situations is that an oddball band who's lost its creative head either dries up or goes mainstream. Mainstream's generally the more viable option, if you can pull it off. Witness Fleetwood Mac, or, God forbid, Jefferson Starship. The beast isn't supposed to grow another head and keep walking, but that's exactly what Pink Floyd did. Except this time, the head was smarter, and wasn't tempted by the lure of a scene. It did what it wanted to do. Pink Floyd lost a lot of its original fan base after Barrett left, but the growing quality of the songwriting eventually brought in far more fans than the London underground ever dreamed it would.
People like to call Pink Floyd's 1970s output "Progressive Rock", but it doesn't really fit with tempo-juggling acts like King Crimson or Yes. And they were no longer British Psychedelia, that much is evident by the startled reactions modern Floyd fans give to old tracks like Matilda Mother or Astronomy Domine. This, to me, is the essence of why Floyd still holds so many in its musical grip: There is simply no other.
If you're a fan of Claptonesque blues, you can always throw on a Jeff Beck or even an old ZZ Top album. If you dig Clintonian P-Funk, you can hang with Sly & the Family Stone. But what to do if you're a Floyd fan? There is simply no sonic equivalent. People have tried and people have failed. Witness the early Alan Parsons Project, for starters. Somewhere in the combination of Roger Waters' songwriting, David Gilmour and Rick Wright's arranging, and even Nick Mason's listless plodding, a mold was broken. And you can't find it anywhere. This is a property that many bands acknowledged as Great share. Who really sounds like R.E.M.? Or U2?
When modern artists list Pink Floyd in their influence-bags, I know exactly what they're referring to: Swirly keyboards, heavily-effected guitars, wispy vocals. And do you want to know why none of those bands makes the Floyd grade? The songwriting. Take away all of the innovative production, the dated synth sounds, the distinctive guitar solos, and you've still got to have a song that sounds great with just a piano or an acoustic guitar.
This leads me to the next problem with those who would batter the Floyd rep. Other than on Classic Rock stations, where is the most common place to find Pink Floyd? Coming out of the stereos and amps of stoner dudes. THIS is probably the most problematic part of the Floyd's struggle for legitimacy. As far back as the Barrett era, people have chosen Floyd's music to fit the buzz rather than for its own sake. And apparently acid trips are better with Floyd cranking than with the Sex Pistols. It's just the way the stuff works, I guess.
This very problem was what led to Roger Waters composing the second-best selling album of Floyd's career, The Wall. He was frustrated with a great deal of his audience, because he was well aware that they were there for the hallucinogenic effect far more than for the music. He felt alienated from them as a result, and who can blame him? The Beatles went through the same thing in 1966, only their problem was a rabid, screaming female fan base, who wanted Paul McCartney's dick more than they wanted to hear any actual music (this was not a problem Floyd ever had, mind you).
And here's the other thing: The remainder of your average stoner guy's record collection doesn't look a damn thing like the Pink Floyd section of it. It's full of spandex-wearing cock rockers like Sammy Hagar and Dokken, or worse, Slipknot & its microphone-swallowing ilk. So why the fuck, in the middle of Solid Hate's garage rehearsal, would they whip out a twee number like Breathe? I have a theory: It's just too damned good not to play. These guys have no quality songwriting in their record stacks, but they know Floyd because they got fucked up listening to Wish You Were Here in 7th grade. It's their only exposure to good songwriting, and it doesn't matter that there's no supersonic, rubberized guitar solo in it, they like it.
The inevitable conclusion I reach is that today's Floyd critics are identifying the band with its most visible fans: the stoners. Oh, it must be stoner rock, they played it right after Running With the Devil. The Beatles don't have that problem, because their songs generally have too many chords for stoners to fuck with. And as I said before, the Beatles occupy a rarefied (and deserved) airspace that extends to multiple demographics. But even their catalog gets segmented by the wary record-hipster, who won't touch anything pre-Rubber Soul for fear of brushing hands with a soccer mom, or, horror of horrors, George W.
And if we're judging the music based on its audience, you can't really be safe with Barrett, either. Many of those fashionably thin waifs in the UFO archive photos have moved on to larger waistlines, Spotted Dick, and seats on the Islington Neighbourhood Association. Barrett himself now looks more like a cab driver than the Ultimate Rock Myth.
The reason being a Barrett fan is attractive to the modern rocksnob is that you'll never hear Octopus in your local sports bar. You'll also never be confronted with his creatively diminished modern output, because there isn't any. He might as well be a real rock casualty like Hendrix or Cobain, always young, always hip, always on the edge, because he disappeared before he fell over it.
But the remaining members of Pink Floyd weren't so lucky. They did fall off the edge at roughly the same time, in the mid-1980s (what a horrid time for music, I swear to God...). Neither Waters' Radio KAOS nor the Gilmour-led Floyd's A Momentary Lapse of Reason were up to the standard they themselves had set, and live they both began following the hits-only path that is the lot of aging Boomer rockers.
However, it is not surprising to me that the Pink Floyd catalog continues to sell at a brisk pace. I myself became a fan of their 1970s discs in that dark mid-80s period, and albums like Animals were just as fresh to me as I'm sure they were to the first people who spun them at home in 1977. Nothing prepares you for Pink Floyd, because nothing has been able to copy it in later years, even poorly. When I attended Roger Waters' In The Flesh concert in 2000, I wasn't particularly surprised by the variety of the crowd. Young, old, stoners, geeks, even the occasional sneaky rocksnob, all were out to appreciate what is, quite simply, good music.
I've heard it said that Pink Floyd gains each member of its audience in their teens, when they are emotionally susceptible to the dramatic, even melodramatic worldview of Mr. Waters and the sad, crying guitar of Mr. Gilmour. To some extent that's true, but I think it could also be said that most teenagers have yet to witness the horror of hearing Comfortably Numb issuing from the mouth of a mulleted plumber, resplendent in his Confederate flag muscle shirt. The fewer preconceptions you bring to music, the more you will see its true nature.
So I urge you all to do something for me: Forget, for a moment, what you think you know about Pink Floyd. Forget about the biker bars, forget about your drunken uncle, forget about Syd Barrett. And just put on a Floyd record. I dunno, go for the obvious one, the one you couldn't bring yourself to pawn. Turn off the lights, and just listen to it. Sober.
I think you'll find that the boys deserve another chance. How 'bout it?