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How To Really Understand Pink Floyd

The host of Best Show on WFMU wasn't on board with the band's entire catalog until Roger Waters' The Wall stage show blew his mind.

There might not be a band that I’ve had a more confusing relationship with throughout my life than Pink Floyd. The Wall was one of the first albums I bought with my own money, and I fell hard for all of their “big” records. As I moved on to college rock, learning about Syd Barrett made me turn against anything past A Saucerful of Secrets, the last Floyd album to feature Barrett. I discovered their amazing post-Syd/pre-Dark Side period years later, and after years of dismissing the Roger Waters-driven albums, I saw Waters' production of The Wall live this summer and came crawling back to their most famous works with open arms.

This is the first time in my life I’ve been on board with the entirety of their catalog at the same time, so allow me to explain why they’re worth the trouble of disassociating the name Pink Floyd from the dummy in your dorm who wouldn’t shut up about how deep The Wall was.

The Stuff With Syd Barrett Is As Good As It Gets (1967-68)

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Piper At the Gates of Dawn is a straight-up masterpiece, and if you choose to detour from this to the solo Barrett albums, that’s fine. This was Syd’s band – he set the tone lyrically and visually, and his guitar work is wildly underrated, slashing and sweeping over the top of Richard Wright’s expert keyboard structures.

He was a doomed captain of a ship that would continue to sail, and he left behind one perfect Pink Floyd album. If the band would’ve packed it in after this, the legend of Syd Barrett would maybe stand even taller than it does now.

Without Their Leader, They Didn't Quit and Got Really Great (1968-72)

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Once it was clear that Barrett wasn’t fit to helm the band, the remaining members did whatever they could to keep Pink Floyd going. The addition of David Gilmour initially meant the band would be a five-piece, with Gilmour holding down the guitar duties since Barrett was increasingly catatonic onstage. When that didn’t pan out they then hoped Syd would assume a Brian Wilson position in the band, writing songs at home while the band pounded the pavement. But Syd was fried and disinterested, so the remaining members moved on.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing – the studio disc for the double-LP set Ummagumma is a mess, each member barfing out indulgent solo works (Although the live disc is absolutely amazing!) – but endeavors like their soundtrack to the Barbet Schroeder film More showcases a band commonly known for spending months on end in the studio laying down tracks hard and fast. They had ideas and they were steadily figuring out what worked.

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None of the albums from 1968-72 are perfect. But their imperfection is exactly what makes these albums so great – they’re getting better each time out, to the point where 1972’s Meddle stands as the apex of their pre-Dark Side albums and could very well be their best album overall. A song like “Echoes” is Pink Floyd putting all their strongest suits – Gilmour’s ethereal vocals and mammoth guitar, Waters’ increasingly humane lyrics, Richard Wright’s textured keyboards – in one side-long epic. The band was at the peak of their powers, arguably surpassing the Barrett era. And they did it their way. And watch how Nick Mason – not known as the most spectacular drummer – absolutely KILLS IT on this version from Live at Pompeii.

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They Became One of the Biggest Bands On Earth With Their Most Personal Work (1973)

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By this point Waters was determined to have Pink Floyd actually say something on their next album. So over the next year-plus – with Waters transitioning into the sole conceptual/lyrical force, a position he would never cede control of – Pink Floyd produced an album that dealt with mortality, greed and the sad spectre of Syd Barrett, now a ghostly shadow floating around the band’s hometown of Cambridge. The jams were reined in, melodies assumed the forefront and the result was Dark Side of the Moon, one of the biggest-selling albums of all time – around 50 million copies sold since its release.

The band had pulled off the impossible, coming all the way back from losing their guiding light to conquering the world with an album that distanced them from a prog rock movement that they barely ever had anything in common with (you can’t have musicians as merely capable as Waters and Mason in a real prog rock band!) But they spent four years in the wilderness to ultimately make what is their version of a Beatles album, and from that moment on they would be a band that dealt with Big Ideas every time out. Yeah, they’d go to places that they – or anybody else, really – had never been before, but they’d never be as innocent or as perfectly flawed again.

At The Height Of Their Fame They Got REALLY Dark (1975-1979)

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Pink Floyd had achieved everything that a band could ever want – universal acclaim, inconceivable amounts of money and complete artistic freedom. But the follow-up to Dark Side was Wish You Were Here, an album that is as resolutely sad a record you could imagine, the story of a band that had every dream come true only to realize the price they paid might’ve been too costly – the band’s internal dynamic was fractured (and never recovered), marriages were going south and Floyd’s once-attentive audience was replaced by fans screaming during the quiet parts for “Money.

Songs like “Have a Cigar” and “Welcome to the Machine” are about how even gigantic bands feel like cogs in a, well, machine. It’s really one of the most depressing albums ever, because if these guys couldn’t be happy after having everything go their way, can ANYBODY be happy?!

And if Wish You Were Here is “being in Pink Floyd sucks”, Animals is “humans suck”. Breaking down people into three Orwellian categories of pigs, dogs and sheep, Animals is a record I still can’t get a handle on. If you told me you thought it was terrible, I would agree with you on some level – the album kind of just is, a smothering and oppressive affair that shouldn’t work but does. The Cure couldn’t match this nihilism on their most depressive day; check out these lyrics from “Dogs”:

You gotta keep one eye looking over your shoulder / You know it's going to get harder, and harder, and harder as you
get older / And in the end you'll pack up and fly down south / Hide your head in the sand / Just another sad old man / All alone and dying of cancer

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And that’s how things go if you WIN! Suck it, Leonard Cohen! Nick Mason has said Animals was the band unconsciously reacting to England’s punk explosion, but I think that Waters would’ve landed in this tarpit no matter what was going on with England’s youth.

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The Wall is the culmination of Roger Waters’ conceptual brilliance, an album loosely built around his life as an increasingly isolated rock star unable to shake the pain of his tortured childhood. The Wall is an all-or-nothing affair; it is bloated and silly and brilliant, often at the same time.

The 1980 tour famously suffered technical problems, but they are a thing of the past – Waters has been staging performances of the album for the last few years, and it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I didn’t check it out until it became a show that filled a baseball stadium, and it was so great that I saw it two more times and now feel vaguely haunted that it’s gone. If that sounds sad or pathetic, YOU DIDN’T SEE THE SHOW BECAUSE IF YOU DID YOU’D FEEL THE SAME WAY.

Think about it this way – the show starts off with a ton of explosions and the greatest video projection I’ve ever seen and sounds of warplanes circling around the stadium and more explosions, culminating in an airplane flying over the audience and crashing into the wall and that is in THE FIRST FIVE MINUTES.

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But it’s not just about the explosions. Waters has expanded the concept beyond its depressed rock star to address the myriad casualties of war and technology. It’s admirable to see a guy pushing 70 actually making his once-mushy story infinitely edgier; can you name another band that incorporates Wikileaks video into their live show? And it made me appreciate the original album for the first time since I originally bought it; it’s a concept so introspective that everybody can relate to part of it, if only because we’re all human.

Oh, And There Are Three Other Albums

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While The Final Cut has some transcendent moments that bring to mind early Eighties Robert Wyatt, it's ultimately more a Waters solo album than a Floyd record (which he threatened to turn it into if Gilmour didn't let him get his way during its recording), and the two Gilmour-led records are dated and visionless blobs that exist to justify the massive Waters-less tours the band undertook through the late Eighties and early Nineties.

Tom Scharpling is the host of The Best Show on WFMU and the Low Times podcast. He's also a noted comedy writer, and the director of music videos by The New Pornographers, Aimee Mann, Ted Leo, Wild Flag and Real Estate.