Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Pink Floyd

Many people can tell you exactly where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot.  For myself, I'm not quite sure but most likely I was safely tucked up in my cot on the other side of the world, totally unaware that there even was such a person.

I do remember clearly the moment I first heard of John Lennon's murder.  I was working in the dingy upstairs office of the Maryborough Housing Action Group, and the guy whose business rented the next office popped his head in to tell me about it.  I was sad, of course, but not deeply affected.

A much more significant moment for me is the time I first heard Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.  I must have been about 14 years old, riding my bike along Breton Street in Sunnybank.  It was evening.  On one side of the street was the railway, on the other a row of houses.  The chorus of 'Brain Damage' rolled across the street from one of these houses. 

And if the dam breaks open many years too soon
And if there is no room upon the hill
And if your head explodes with dark forebodings too
I'll see you on the dark side of the moon.

Transfixed, I pulled my bike over onto the grass verge and listened as the song segued into 'Eclipse' and rolled to its explosive finish.  It was love at first listen.  The stately, measured rhythm, the carefully constructed arrangement and lovely vocal harmonies, the beautiful melody were streets ahead of anything else I had listened to.

It was the start of a lifelong love affair, one I shared with millions and to which I remained faithful through the ups and downs of musical fashion.  When Johnny Rotten performed in an 'I Hate Pink Floyd' T-shirt a few years later I was unimpressed.  I soon learned it was a pose - my punk friends may have disliked Dark Side-era Floyd, but they were huge Syd Barrett fans.

Over this holiday I've been catching up on this particular piece of my musical history by reading Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd, by Nick Mason, the band's drummer.  Mason is a witty and humble chronicler, generous towards his band-mates and their many collaborators, self-deprecating about his own contribution, honest enough to provide an insight into the group's often fraught dynamics, especially if you are able to read in the considerable spaces between the lines.

It's interesting that Pink Floyd's music has stood the test of time while that of many of their prog rock contemporaries sounds decidedly dated.  It's not because they were better musicians in a technical sense.  The members of Emerson Lake and Palmer, for instance, or of Yes, were much more accomplished instrumentalists.  Yet these days their music is little more than a curiosity.  It just goes to show that technical mastery will only take you so far.  You still have to have something to play.

In my ignorant youth I was awed by the complexity of Floyd's music, yet what impresses me most about it these days is its simplicity.  I can be amazed by Keith Emerson's long, incredibly fast keyboard solos but after a while I find myself getting bored.  By contrast, I never tire of the four notes which introduce the second part of 'Shine on You Crazy Diamond', gradually building in volume and intensity, picking up guitar, keyboard and drum parts as they go.  You feel you are going somewhere and indeed you are, into the evocative and beautifully sung lyric mourning Syd Barrett's descent into mental illness.  Floyd's music bristles with melodic and harmonic ideas, each piece carefully shaped into its own distinct identity.  Certainly there was a 'Pink Floyd sound' but they were careful not to keep repeating themselves.

I think perhaps part of this uniqueness comes from the path they took into the music business.  They neither paid their dues on the pub and club circuit like most of the blues and rock musicians of the 1960s, nor studied classical music like Rick Wakeman or Elton John.  Instead, they cut their teeth in London's radical underground, playing their spacy improvised pieces at happenings where blissed-out hippies sat on the floor and waved their hands in time to the music.  These events were early essays in multi-media, the music accompanied by primitive light shows projected onto screens behind the band.  As Pink Floyd became more famous and played bigger venues the visuals got more elaborate until they reached the absurdity of The Wall, the stage show for which was so elaborate that even with sold-out stadium concerts the tour lost piles of money.  The result of this left-field approach to making music was that Floyd didn't sound like anyone else, although later many people tried to sound like them.

They also had something to say lyrically.  Not that their words are great poetry.   Roger Waters, who wrote most of them after Barrett's departure, has been known to dismiss the Dark Side of the Moon lyrics as "sixth form stuff", with some justification.  Still, their explorations of madness, mortality and human frailty make a refreshing change from songs about love, seduction and playin' in a travellin' band.  Waters' dark wit can cut to the bone and if subtlety is often sacrificed to dramatic effect, the interplay of words and music draws you in to a strange, yet strangely recognisable, world.

Some bands seem to keep on keeping on, touring the world playing their hits long after their creative energy has ebbed.   Not Pink Floyd.  Including their two film soundtracks Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason made ten albums together between 1968 and 1979, before the tensions between them became unsustainable and they went their separate ways.  Although they have continued to perform alone and in various combinations since, their sole appearance on the same stage since 1980 was their one-off 2005 appearance at Live 8.  It won't happen again in this life - Rick Wright died in 2008.  I think I prefer it that way.  When you have finished you should stop and move onto something else.  But I still love what they created, it's part of me and I guess always will be.

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