In my occasional series of posts about essential music, I’ve covered some well-known musicians and composers, and many lesser knowns. But it’s almost a given that Pink Floyd fits in the essential music category, at least for people who like a certain type of music.
Last night, I watched two documentaries about the band: The Making of Dark Side of the Moon, available on DVD (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), and The Story of Wish You Were Here, available on DVD and Blu-Ray (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Both of these were very interesting, featuring interviews with the musicians, engineers, and others, including the album cover designer and animator Gerald Scarfe. Afterwards, I put on Dark Side of the Moon, very loud; I could recall the first time I heard the album, nearly 40 years ago.
One cannot underestimate the importance of Dark Side of the Moon in popular music. Not only is it a highly musical album, with unforgettable tunes, but it’s a single long work, and arguably the most successful “concept album” of the time. Add to that the technical prowess of the recording and production, and it’s not surprising that Dark Side of the Moon defined a genre, and became the second highest selling album in music history. (Do you know what the first is? Look it up if you don’t…)
The confluence of the musicians of Pink Floyd, the engineer Alan Parsons, and the at times simple, at times deeply textured music on the album make this a work of great depth. Watching this documentary, it’s interesting to see just how carefully the album was crafted in the studio, with overlays, doubled guitars and vocals, and myriad effects. Yet one of the most striking parts of the album came when singer Clare Torry belted out her improvised non-lexical singing in The Great Gig in the Sky; originally paid £30 for her work, it’s good to see that she has since obtained royalties for co-writing that song.
Wish You Were Here was a different story, and one that nearly didn’t make it to record. After the unexpected success of Dark Side of the Moon, the musicians found themselves in an impasse, and the recording process was painful. There’s a concept in half of the album; the story of Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett, whose tale is told in Shine on You Crazy Diamond, the song that bookends the album. However, the other three songs – Welcome to the Machine, Have a Cigar and Wish You Were Here – aren’t about Syd at all. While the first two are about the music industry, and they relate Pink Floyd’s experiences long after Syd left the band.
“Just as the final mix of Wish You Were Here was being produced, an overweight-man with shaven head and eyebrows, and holding a plastic bag, entered the room.” No one recognized Syd Barrett, who they hadn’t seen in years, and would never see again. The crazy diamond went away, to live an uneventful life, eventually dying in 2006.
Musically, I find Wish You Were Here more satisfying than Dark Side of the Moon. The production is less layered, and the guitar and saxophone in Shine on You Crazy Diamond make more solid statements than many of the songs on Dark Side. And the song Wish You Were Here is, in my opinion, Pink Floyd’s best song, as David Gilmour said in the documentary. It’s a simple yet moving song, and it works well as an interlude in this album.
Nevertheless, I feel these two albums go together, as flip sides of the band’s work. Dark Side of the Moon was their first real hit, and it was the culmination of their music up until that time; Wish You Were Here was about their struggling with success, and about what happens when you fly too close to the sun. Their next two albums, Animals and The Wall, are certainly excellent records, but they pale in comparison to these classics. After the 1983 album The Final Cut, the band split up, and, while David Gilmour led the group called Pink Floyd, it wasn’t the same without Roger Waters.
I only saw Pink Floyd live once, during the 1980 Wall tour at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, Long Island. It was an astounding show, but it was an opera, not a concert. It was essentially the album, note-for-note, with brilliant effects. I was never lucky enough to score tickets for earlier tours, and had no interest in seeing the band after that.
There are very few official releases of live recordings of Pink Floyd, the most important being Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), which isn’t a concert, but a staged performance. The band released some live material on second CDs with recent release of the “experience editions” of their 2011 re-releases. Dark Side of the Moon (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) includes a live performance of the album from 1974, and Wish You Were Here (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) has live tracks from the same performance, as well as a few alternate versions and outtakes.
Unfortunately, these live performances are mostly copies of the albums; as much as they can be in the concert context. I’d love to see more official releases of live recordings when the band was working out these songs before they recorded them, and, perhaps, with no more studio material to reissue, we’ll see something like that in the future. (There are plenty of bootlegs, which are not hard to find, many of which have poor sound.)
In the meantime, Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here remain two of the most powerful albums of the 1970s, and bold statements of a band at its peak. As old as they are, they still sound fresh today, and I listen to them more often than just about anything from that decade (except for the Grateful Dead, of course).
For more on Pink Floyd, see the book Pink Floyd, Pigs Might Fly, by Mark Blake (Amazon UK; released in the US as Comfortably Numb: Amazon.com, but the UK edition has been updated in 2013 with a new chapter).
I would even argue that it’s the only truly successful concept album. While there were many others, which strung songs together in a “concept” structure, only Dark Side of the Moon succeeds musically. The closest to it would be, for me, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, which is a long musical suite, unfortunately marred by the first part of the second side, which simply doesn’t belong. There were many “concept sides,” though, such as Yes’s Close to the Edge, and Genesis’s Supper’s Ready, which are both musically satisfying.
I wouldn’t really consider The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to be a true concept album, and recordings such as The Who’s Tommy, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Pink Floyd’s The Wall are more musicals than actual concept albums, and Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here is not really a concept album (half of it is; the other half is not), and Animals is, to me, not a great work musically. But many will disagree with my appraisal… ↩
Pink Floyd’s entire back catalog was reissued in 2011, with several versions of each album, some at exorbitant prices, offering little interesting additional content. The “experience editions” are two-CD sets, with the studio albums and one disc of live recordings and/or outtakes. ↩