Seventy-six years ago this month, Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett was born in Cambridge, England. As a young man, he formed a band with a boyhood school chum named Roger Waters. The band scored a few hit singles. Then Syd discovered LSD and he had a major mental breakdown. Eventually, he was replaced by another chum from Cambridge named David Gilmour. And then the band went on to sell hundreds of millions of albums and stage mammoth concerts in stadiums all over the world.
The story of Pink Floyd is one of the foundational myths of classic rock history. It is a band that never seems to go away. At this very second, the FM radio station in your town known as “The Bear” or “The Eagle” is playing one of their songs. There is also at least one group of teenagers somewhere in the world right now packing a bowl while cueing up The Dark Side Of The Moon. And surely a head shop just sold a blacklight poster featuring the two guys shaking hands on the cover of Wish You Were Here.
But what if by some chance you know nothing about this band? Where do you begin? How do you make sense of their catalogue? It’s enough to send one over the brink like Syd Barrett.
You don’t need no education? I beg to differ. Follow me on this journey into Pink Floyd. I’ll see you on the dark side of this list.
15. The Endless River (2014)
By 1987, Roger Waters finally came to a crucial realization a few years too late. In the mid-’80s, he had exited Pink Floyd after the torturous sessions for 1983’s The Final Cut, the most difficult and misanthropic LP ever released by a frontline classic rock band, topping even Floyd’s own double album, 1979’s The Wall, and that record’s bleak predecessor, 1977’s Animals. His assumption was that the decision to leave the band would end the band. He was, after all, Pink Floyd’s main songwriter, “big idea” man, conceptualist, resident philosopher, spokesman, bass player, and de-facto leader. But his bandmates, David Gilmour and Nick Mason, did not agree. They opted instead to record a new Pink Floyd album, 1987’s snarkily titled A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, without him. Waters was stunned — by their insolence, which exceeded even his own impertinence. But also by the fact that their stunt had worked: A Momentary Lapse Of Reason sold three million copies, and launched an absurdly lucrative world tour.
How could this be? he wondered. Don’t people care about an “authentic” Pink Floyd?
“It’s taken me two years to make some fundamental connections,” he reflected to Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke at the time. “There is the legal issue, which is the only thing that can be resolved in court. And that is, who owns the piece of property that is the name Pink Floyd? That is a legal issue; you go to court and fight over it.
“The other issue is completely separate,” he continued. “The whole issue about what is or isn’t a rock group. What is The Beatles? Are Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr The Beatles? My view now is they’re not, any more than [Jimmy Page’s post-Led Zeppelin band] The Firm should have been called Led Zeppelin, even if John Paul Jones had been there.”
Waters couldn’t have fully grasped it at the time, but “what is or isn’t a rock group” would come to define Pink Floyd’s legacy in two essential ways. First, in terms of Waters’ objections in 1987, Pink Floyd redefined the word group for rock bands. Traditionally, rock bands have always been centered on recognizable stars — the strutting lead singer, the enigmatic guitarist, the wild drummer, the charismatically stoic bass player. At the very least, fans knew what their favorite bands looked like, and that visual component mattered, whether the musicians were seen pouting insouciantly from album covers or reigning supreme on stage.
But Pink Floyd was never about pushing individual “stars” at the expense of contemplating the cosmos. In this band, the musicians hit behind dry ice, light shows, inflatable pigs or — at the height of their popularity, when they somehow managed to score a No. 1 radio single — a literal wall. All of these inanimate signifiers represented Pink Floyd far more than the identities of the musicians. Their identity was no identity: Album covers not only omitted band photos, but even their band name. The result of this is that Pink Floyd, like Coca-Cola, became an incredibly popular brand in which much of the public couldn’t name a single employee.
In the future, this type of branding would become commonplace for aging rock bands continuing to tour even after many or even most of their original members died. The overall sum of the experience of seeing a brand would be sold as amounting to more than the individual parts of the band. It would also prove influential for future generations of stadium-ready electronic acts, who commanded the attention of tens of thousands of people by appearing to do very little behind lavish laser-light facades. (The most important stadium EDM group ever, Daft Punk, are famously vocal acolytes of The Dark Side Of The Moon.)
But Pink Floyd was ahead of the curve. They were anonymous in their prime.
For Waters, this only became a problem when he tried to convince that same public that his absence from Pink Floyd at all mattered. “It is frustrating to find out how many people don’t know who I am or what I actually did in Pink Floyd,” he complained to Rolling Stone. “We get on a plane, and people ask what band we’re in. I tell ’em I’m Roger Waters, and it doesn’t mean a thing to them. Then I mention Pink Floyd, and they go, ‘Yeah, “Money.” I love The Wall.”
Pink Floyd also reimagined the rock part of the “rock group” concept. When they started in the mid-’60s, their early repertoire consisted of the usual rock ‘n’ roll chestnuts like “Louie Louie” torn apart by unexpected psychedelic guitar pyrotechnics. But just one decade later, when The Dark Side Of The Moon made them one of the most successful bands on the planet, their sound had evolved — to quote the New Musical Express – into a “distinctive brand of instant cosmic epiphany soundtrack Muzak” utterly disconnected from rock ‘n’ roll’s roots.
Both the rock and the group innovations of Pink Floyd’s career can be heard on their ostensible swan song. Composed of refurbished instrumental outtakes from their previous ostensible swan song, 1994’s The Division Bell, it was assembled by Gilmour with help from Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera and engineers Andy Jackson and Damon Iddins and a legion of session musicians. Nick Mason was also involved, in the way that a husband is involved in cooking Thanksgiving dinner by occasionally sticking his head in the kitchen and asking noncommittally if he can “help out with anything.” Keyboardist Rick Wright, who was forced out of Pink Floyd by Waters in 1980 and then brought back as a salaried employee once Waters departed, died in 2008.
Musically speaking, The Endless River is the most “instant cosmic epiphany soundtrack Muzak” album of their career. It’s the sort of music you can imagine playing in the background as two senior citizens sit together outside in adjoining bathtubs overlooking some tasteful sunlit vista in a Viagra commercial. And yet it still manages to sound and feel thoroughly Floydian, in part because it has a familiar theme as expressed in the only song with lyrics, “Louder Than Words”:
We bitch and we fight
Diss each other on sight
But this thing we do
These times together
Rain or shine or stormy weather
This thing we do
It’s louder than words
14. Obscured By Clouds (1972)
Communication — or the inability to communicate — is the theme to which Pink Floyd returned time and again throughout their imperial phase, which lasted from the early ’70s to the early ’90s. This obsession stemmed from two traumas: The mental dissolution of their original leader, Syd Barrett, who died in 2006; and the hate-fueled rivalry that subsequently developed between the duo that succeeded Barrett, Waters, and Gilmour. You can imagine “Louder Than Words” being about the latter, particularly the “bitch and fight” line. It also evokes the former, particularly the part about “rain or shine or stormy weather.”
But it took a while for this theme to develop and embed itself on every Pink Floyd record. Before that happened — and after Barrett left the group in 1968 — there was a five-year stretch when Pink Floyd made trippy musical wallpaper. In time, Pink Floyd albums would feel like films; in the late ’60s and early ’70s, however, their music was used in other people’s films.
Their highest-profile collaboration was with Michelangelo Antonioni on 1970’s Zabriskie Point, a film in which a hippie steals an airplane and lands in Death Valley, where he encounters a beautiful hippie girl and they engage in extremely dusty love-making. (If you look up the antiquated hippie lingo “far out” in the dictionary, you will read this very same plot description of Zabriskie Point.) To the Floyd’s chagrin, they were not tapped for the sci-fi epics to which they seemed most suited — Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (because the director opted instead for classical composers like Richard Strauss and Györgi Ligeti), and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune (because no studio was insane enough to finance the insanely ambitious film).
Pink Floyd instead worked with Swiss director Barbet Schroeder on two projects, of which this was the second. While it came out 42 years before The Endless River, it plays like a slightly harder rocking version of the geriatric Floyd’s instrumental sonic mist. But the blankness of this era of Floyd would also prove to be influential, most notably on the French duo Air, whose 1999 soundtrack to The Virgin Suicides plays as an homage to (and an improvement on) Pink Floyd’s soundtrack period.
13. More (1969)
The first Schroeder collaboration, which you can stream on Criterion Channel. I saw it for the first time recently, and it enhanced my enjoyment of the album, which otherwise has more fully-formed songs than Obscured By Clouds. Schroeder’s film is a time capsule that portrays beautiful young European drug addicts doping themselves into oblivion while sunning in the nude in Ibiza. This context certainly elevates the likes of “Green Is The Colour” and “Cymbaline,” which seem more interesting when you can play them while also visualizing the stunning Mimsy Farmer pulling weed out of a garbage bag and rolling fat joints on the LP cover of the first Blood, Sweat & Tears album.
More isn’t a great film, but it does speak to why Pink Floyd continues to resonate with each new generation of young people. And that reason, of course, is drugs. Pink Floyd is a band that teens and twentysomethings still want to play in the background when they do drugs, at least until they become self-aware about how doing drugs to Pink Floyd is a cliché. Anytime I see a 16-year-old in a Pink Floyd T-shirt, my assumption is that kid started smoking pot three months ago. And I smile, because there is something beautiful about this.
The blankness of Pink Floyd’s identity enhances the narcissism of the teenaged drug experience, when taking drugs is as much about the idea of “taking drugs” as getting high. There is no protagonist in Pink Floyd’s music in the vein of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, or Jim Morrison — chemical adventurers the listener imagines surviving death-defying disasters like rock superheroes. Pink Floyd’s music takes you back into yourself; you are your own THC-fueled hero with a properly mind-bending soundtracking scoring your mental excursions.
(I should say this is true of post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd. Syd was certainly a tragic protagonist in this band’s story. But we’ll get to that later.)
Back to the music: The most blazing track here is “The Nile Song,” a raging slab of primordial hard rock in which the Floyd dare to snarl and thrash with the stupid abandon of Grand Funk Railroad. Gilmour sings it with such ballsy authority that it makes the misspelling of his name in More‘s opening credits — he’s listed as “Gilmore” — all the more insulting.
12. A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987)
Here’s how I would explain this album to anyone who has never heard it: In Season 10 of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David opens a “spite store” next to a Mocha Joe’s coffee shop with the expressed purpose of putting Joe out of business after Larry comes to believe that Joe has mistreated him.
A Momentary Lapse Of Reason is David Gilmour’s spite store.
The title of this album is a deliberate troll of Roger Waters. The ridiculous inner sleeve band photo — in which Gilmour and Mason pose back to back with shit-eating grins like the stars of an ’80s detective show — is a deliberate troll of Roger Waters. The lyrics to the album’s breakout hit, “Learning To Fly” — a song about Gilmour’s love of flying his private plane, a topic significantly less weighty than, say, the horrors of the Falklands War addressed on The Final Cut — might not be an intentional troll of Roger Waters, but they made him cringe. (“I think the songs are poor in general,” he groaned to Rolling Stone in 1987. “The lyrics I can’t believe.”)
Here’s a sample from “Learning To Fly”:
A soul in tension that’s learning to fly
Condition grounded but determined to try
Can’t keep my eyes from the circling skies
Tongue-tied and twisted, just an earth-bound misfit, I
This subtextual needling by Gilmour of his rival is my primary reason for loving A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. Their mutual hatred gives the album — an otherwise textbook example of domineering FM radio corporate rock — an edgy vitality. The music itself is pretty clumsy and lumbering, though its Big ’80s shininess sounds more contemporary now than it has at any time since the late Reagan era. (It occurred to me upon my recent re-listen for this list that “A New Machine” might have inadvertently invented Bon Iver’s 22, A Million period.) Ultimately, it’s not a surprise that a track from this exceedingly hubristic and excessive album appeared in an episode of Miami Vice — it’s the one Pink Floyd record that sounds like it was designed specifically to accompany the consumption of cocaine on a large boat.
But what I find most interesting about this album is how it spotlights, along with Waters’ contemporaneous solo albums The Pros And Cons Of Hitchhiking and Radio K.A.O.S., how much these two unfriendly combatants needed each other. A Momentary Lapse Of Reason is bombastic and melodic but intellectually bankrupt, and Waters’ solo work is lyrically incisive and thematically ambitious but musically bereft. Gilmour came out ahead in the marketplace because his voice and guitar are the band’s most distinctive musical attributes; for all its weaknesses, A Momentary Lapse Of Reason sounds like Pink Floyd, whereas The Pros And Cons Of Hitchhiking sounds like a man grumbling about this mid-life crisis. But at least when Waters grumbles it’s not in the Yoda-like cadence of “tongue-tied and twisted, just an earth-bound misfit, I.”
11. The Division Bell (1994)
It all comes back to the “what is or isn’t a rock group” question, which for Pink Floyd existed long before Roger Waters left the band. (Again, we’ll talk about Syd Barrett in a minute.) Though by the time of The Division Bell — Justin Bieber’s favorite Pink Floyd album, fwiw — there wasn’t even a pretense of Pink Floyd being a gang of friends and musical co-conspirators. “Nowadays we get along well,” Gilmour mused in 1994, “like business partners who have been working together for a long time.”
For Waters and Gilmour, it’s clear that the band worked best when they were together and producing foundational songs like “Wish You Were Here” and “Comfortably Numb.” I know this is the opposite of an original observation, but just because it’s thunderously obvious doesn’t make it any less worth repeating. More than any other partnership in a major rock band, the one in Pink Floyd is the most codependent. McCartney and Lennon could make Beatles-sounding music on their own; what they contributed to each other’s songs seems harder to delineate the more we learn about their creative methods. But what Waters and Gilmour respectively brought to Pink Floyd couldn’t be easier to parse. Waters is a great writer, and Gilmour is a great musician. Put them tougher, and you get incredible songs. The math here is simple. They complemented each other perfectly in a creative sense, and not at all in every other sense.
So how best to appreciate the post-Waters Pink Floyd albums? Should they be classified as Pink Floyd 3.0, the final stage for a band that somehow endured after two visionary leaders departed? Or are they merely glorified David Gilmour solo records? I lean toward the latter. This seems especially true of The Division Bell, where Gilmour’s primary lyrical foil became his wife, Polly Samson, an extremely “solo record” development, though the explicit “why can’t we communicate” theme proved, perhaps subconsciously, that Gilmour couldn’t quit Waters even as an imaginary presence in Pink Floyd, just as Waters couldn’t quit the ghost of Syd Barrett.
When Pink Floyd became an arena band, and then a stadium band, Waters proved to be uniquely gifted at coming up with musical concepts that made the most of these cavernous spaces as theaters of extreme grandeur while also simultaneously critiquing how those spaces dehumanized artists and fans alike. Gilmour’s achievement during this period is less elegant but no less vital — he fashioned himself into the greatest arena-rock guitarist of all time, consistently spinning riffs and solos that were simple and direct yet also unapologetically grand and uplifting. His intention was always to make the audience feel as if God was slicing and dicing up their cerebellums, but he achieved this with a style that basically derived from the blues. In essence, he transplanted this gritty musical technique from the dirt of the Earth to the dust of the moon.
What redeems The Division Bell for me is that it’s straightforward David Gilmour “guitar hero” porn. The songs are vehicles for his solos, which makes this a pretty basic Pink Floyd record except, man, what solos! The centerpiece of The Division Bell, “High Hopes,” boasts some of his finest playing, particularly the climactic workout on lap steel guitar that sounds like the conclusion of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind set at the Grand Old Opry. At the risk of belaboring the porn analogy, The Division Bell is hardly an edifying or deep experience, but it does deliver pleasure in no-nonsense fashion.
10. Atom Heart Mother (1970)
One of two pre-Dark Side albums that Gilmour later called “pretty horrible.” Maybe Dave was dwelling on the inclusion of “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” the interminable 12-minute sound collage overseen by Nick Mason that closes the record, in which roadie Alan Styles recounts the contents of his breakfast over found sounds, instrumental noodling, and other indulgences of extremely stoned-ass whimsy.
But I love this record anyway. With Ummagumma, it forms the core of Pink Floyd’s “goofy” era, the time when they were willing to actually be silly before the extreme self-seriousness of the post-Dark Side era set in. (It’s like if Radiohead had made a couple of Primus records before OK Computer.) As I revisited these albums, hearing Alan Styles crack eggs as Gilmour rubs bong resin on his acoustic guitar was a pleasant chaser after wallowing in the (gorgeously!) miserable likes of Animals and The Final Cut.
The other big set piece is the semi-orchestral 24-minute title track, a collaboration with the Scottish composer Ron Geesin that starts off like a bad Moody Blues tune and then slowly gathers stream once the pompous brass section fades away. “Atom Heart Mother” improved considerably on stage, where it sounded like a worthy forerunner to the epic “Echoes” on the next record, Meddle. But the strongest bits are the short songs in the middle, which hit upon the rich electric/acoustic blend that Pink Floyd nailed at their peak and Radiohead later borrowed in the ’90s: Waters’ paranoid folkie ballad “If,” Wright’s nostalgic sunshine pop number “Summer ’68,” and Gilmour’s brilliant guitar showcase “Fat Old Sun.”
Here is what Atom Heart Mother is not: prog. Yes, two of the songs are extremely long. But Pink Floyd is not a prog band. Their music is not a vehicle for instrumental virtuosity or exceedingly complex song structures. Gilmour doesn’t play as many notes as Robert Fripp or Frank Zappa, Wright isn’t near the show-off that Keith Emerson is, and the rhythm section of Mason and Waters doesn’t come close to how crazy Bill Bruford and Chris Squire play in Yes. Pink Floyd’s music not only is about space — both outer and inner – but it also leaves space. The space is the secret sauce. It’s a big reason why Pink Floyd sold exponentially more records than King Crimson.
Here’s another reason: What you hear on Atom Heart Mother is the profound influence of The Beatles, specifically side two of Abbey Road. Put on “Here Comes The Sun,” “I Want You” and “You Never Give Me Your Money” and you hear so much of where Pink Floyd was headed in the ’70s. George Harrison handed all of those majestic descending guitar lines from heaven down to David Gilmour.
9. Ummagumma (1969)
The other pre-Dark Side album that Gilmour called “pretty horrible,” though he conceded that the live disc “might be all right, but even that isn’t recorded well.” Gilmour’s standards for live recording are apparently much higher than mine, because I find the live material on Ummagumma to be far better than “all right.” Along with “The Nile Song” and “Sheep,” the live half of Ummagumma — recorded in Manchester and Birmingham in the spring of 1969 — is the most visceral and hardest rocking music Pink Floyd ever committed to tape. It includes definitive versions of the B-side “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” and “A Saucerful For Secrets,” in which Pink Floyd shreds with the noisy velocity of prime-era Sonic Youth more than a decade before there was a Sonic Youth. I know these shows took place two years before the historic Live At Pompeii concert film, but I still imagine Gilmour going topless whenever I hear the first half of Ummagumma. Is it possible he actually was topless at these concerts? How common was it for David Gilmour to play sans sleeves?
(Also: Can I give a shoutout to Nick Mason’s drumming? Nobody ever talks about Nick Mason’s drumming, because his playing is so simple on Pink Floyd’s records, and then because he barely played on Pink Floyd’s records at all, as he was more interested in race car driving. But early on, he was in a “how busy can I play?” arm’s race with other English drummers like Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, and Bill Ward. On Ummagumma he really holds his own.)
The concert stuff is obviously the main draw here. But I’ve also warmed to the studio half, where Pink Floyd again indulges their subsequently buried “goofy” side on a series of inconsistent but amiable experiments. It was Waters’ idea to give each member their own LP side to explore their own creative whims, which seems incredibly generous given his control-freak tendencies later in Pink Floyd’s history. It might also be a conspiracy to embarrass the other guys into giving him that control. But I don’t think so, as he’s the one who makes the most batshit contribution of all, the infamous “Several Small Species Of Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving On A Pict,” a track no amount of accompanying drug experimentation will render logical or necessary. (Then again, many serious stoners I’ve encountered love Ummagumma, so maybe I’m wrong about this.)
8. A Saucerful Of Secrets (1968)
Let’s finally talk about Syd Barrett.
There’s a famous story about Roger Waters attending an R.E.M. concert in the late ’80s, and then going backstage to meet the band and getting snubbed by Michael Stipe, who apparently wouldn’t even turn around to look at him. Then Stipe went back in front of the audience and sang an a cappella cover of Barrett’s “Dark Globe,” from his 1970 solo debut, The Madcap Laughs (which Waters co-produced, with Gilmour). To Waters, the meaning of Stipe’s gesture couldn’t be more obvious, as he later related: “Syd was all right, but you’re an asshole.”
Having grown up on the indie and alternative rock of the ’80s and ’90s, I was taught this lesson over and over again: Syd was the handsome young drug casualty, and Roger Waters was the gazillionaire rock star who made music for your dad.
Along with his considerable talent as a songwriter, Syd was easy to romanticize. He was Pink Floyd’s Brian Wilson figure, the enigmatic drug fiend teetering on the brink of insanity — only, unlike Brian, he actually fell flat into the abyss. You can actually hear him fall in real time while listening to A Saucerful Of Secrets, the only album to feature all five members of Pink Floyd. Syd’s boyhood friend David Gilmour was brought on board during the sessions to help shore up Pink Floyd’s shambolic live act, which degenerated into chaos as Barrett rapidly lost hold of his mental faculties. It’s been said that toward the end of his tenure he was wearing lipstick and high heels and rubbing Brylcreem and crushed up Mandrax pills into his skull on stage. Which, if true, means he could’ve been David Bowie if he had avoided losing his mind.
This clip of Pink Floyd performing “See Emily Play” on American Bandstand is less outrageous, though Barrett’s detachment nonetheless is unnerving.
Considering the turmoil Pink Floyd was in at the time, A Saucerful Of Secrets sounds surprisingly coherent, with Gilmour slotting in more or less smoothly, as he was presumably hired to do. Rarely is a sophomore record described as “transitional” but A Saucerful Of Secrets has that feel. The songs on which Gilmour appears, including the title track and “Let There Be More Light,” indicate the more professional band Pink Floyd will become.
But it’s Barrett who dominates the proceedings, somehow, by how often he isn’t on the record. Even when he’s on the record, he feels … removed. Like the first-person account of creeping mania on “Jugband Blues,” this album’s queasiest moment, and the farthest Pink Floyd ventured toward the proverbial “dark side of the moon.”
It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here
And I’m most obliged to you for making it clear
That I’m not here
7. The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (1967)
Herein lies the original “what is or isn’t a rock group?” question for Pink Floyd. In a way, Barrett became an even bigger star when he stopped being a physical presence in the band and instead became Pink Floyd’s central metaphor.
Syd was the genius of Pink Floyd, but he also represented the sinister underbelly of Pink Floyd. That “edge of sanity” thing was always part of their appeal. When I first heard them as a teenager, the band seemed to signify the very real possibility that you could go crazy if you took too many chemicals while listening to this music. So many bands promised danger, but Syd confirmed that the danger was real. Or so it seemed. And that made this sometimes lethargic sounding rock group more magnetic than they would otherwise be.
But this, again, derives from Barrett’s absence, which forms the thematic basis of two of Pink Floyd’s most popular albums, Wish You Were Here and The Wall. But on the one album in which Syd Barrett is fully present and in creative control, Pink Floyd is at their poppiest and most charming. Yes, there are some evil undertones to “Lucifer Sam” and “Interstellar Overdrive.” But there are also songs about gnomes and bicycles and flying in outer space. It’s a good hang with a foxy McCartney-style tunesmith, a blissful trip on a sunny spring afternoon, a fun record.
The melancholy of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn isn’t that Syd Barrett seems doomed. It’s that his subsequent doom seems inexplicable whenever the record is on.
6. The Final Cut (1983)
As much as Roger Waters and David Gilmour came to hate each other — and this is the album where their relationship finally cratered — they always shared an undying love for Syd Barrett. It feels like trite armchair psychology to suggest that Syd represents their own lost innocence, or that elusive “end of childhood” feeling Waters writes about in “Comfortably Numb.” But on a more practical level, Syd was an unquestioned leader to whom they could both defer. Pink Floyd would have been easier with (the sane version of) Syd at the head. Without him, they only had each other, and their own respective stubborn dispositions, which fueled Pink Floyd’s incredible post-Dark Side run until it ripped them apart.
The story of The Final Cut is that it was originally going to be a collection of outtakes from The Wall called Spare Bricks, but then Waters was inspired by current events (namely Britain’s 10-week war in Argentina) and very old events (the death of his father in World War II) to fashion a new song cycle. In retrospect, there’s been disagreement over whether The Final Cut should’ve been a Waters solo project, given the personal nature of the subject matter. Gilmour has said he would have been fine if Waters kept The Final Cut for himself, as he didn’t like many of the songs anyway. Waters meanwhile maintains that Gilmour and Mason wanted more Pink Floyd product, and since they didn’t have any material of their own, they insisted on taking a cut of The Final Cut. What’s undisputed is that Waters insisted that Pink Floyd was no longer a band anyway, which justified him doing whatever he wanted.
In that moment, the “what is or isn’t a rock group” issue was briefly moot. In terms of spiritual ownership, there’s no doubt whose record this is. Waters sings practically every song in his anguished “Ebenezer Scrooge holding back a sneeze” howl, which immediately sets The Final Cut apart from every other Pink Floyd album. There’s also relatively little guitar, or any of the spaciness one associates with this band. It’s an extremely literal record, with little daylight between Waters’ intense words and equally strident delivery, and this is entirely intentional.
“I was always trying to push the band into more specific areas of subject matter, always trying to be more direct,” he told Rolling Stone in 1987. “Visually, I was always trying to get away from the blobs. I wanted to work with visual material that meant something, where there isn’t much left for you to interpret.”
Normally, not leaving much for the listener to interpret is a bad thing. But my grudging respect for The Final Cut — as a genuinely uncompromising work with virtually no commercial appeal — has evolved over time into genuine love. Waters might be difficult, and a bad bandmate, and even a jerk. But he’s not dishonest. And this is the most candid record about a band being at the end of their creative life that I’ve evert heard. At one point, Waters’ pained scream morphs into a mournful sax solo. It’s that kind of album.
This verse from “Paranoid Eyes” always stops me in my tracks:
You believed in their stories of fame, fortune and glory
Now you’re lost in a haze of alcohol soft middle age
The pie in the sky turned out to be miles too high
And you hide, hide, hide
Behind brown and mild eyes
5. Animals (1977)
Does Rogers Waters hate people or love people? Is he a misanthrope or a humanist? Based on this album and The Final Cut, I’d say he’s a misanthropic humanist. Based on his lyrics, I imagine he enjoys individuals and despises groups of individuals. This seems like a perfectly reasonable position to take, frankly.
This record is partly based on Animal Farm by George Orwell, another person who seemed to like individuals and loathe groups of individuals. Waters divides mankind into three groups: Pigs (the ruling class), Dogs (the ruling class’ enforcers), and Sheep (everyone else). The album ends with the sheep killing the dogs and then returning to their homes, a short-lived revolution if there ever was one. (Quick tangent: Why does Roger Waters apparently have a such low opinion of dogs? Every dog I’ve ever met would prefer a long nap to waging warfare with lambs.)
Anecdotally, I find that Animals is a favorite of self-styled Pink Floyd connoisseurs, and it’s easy to see why. Of the “big four” albums they put out in the ’70s — the run from Dark Side to The Wall — Animals sold the worst. It had no hit singles, because three out of its five tracks run for more than 10 minutes. (The two short numbers are on either end; it’s the inverse of Wish You Were Here or Atom Heart Mother.) It’s possible that The Wall is more downbeat, but there is no “Another Brick In The Wall” to leaven the gloom. It’s the rare album you can describe as “Orwellian” and mean it literally.
As for me, this is the “big four” album I play the least, because I find it exhausting. I assume Waters felt the same at the time, seeing as how he subsequently made The Wall the most song-oriented LP of Pink Floyd’s career. My secret to enjoying Animals is going beyond the “humans are doomed to be dominated” rhetoric and digging instead into the album’s under-appreciated arena-rock signifiers. This is the Pink Floyd album with the most prominent use of talkbox guitar. It’s also the Pink Floyd album with the most cowbell. I’m also a fan of the “woo!” Roger Waters yelps in “Pigs (Three Different Ones),” because it reminds me of The War On Drugs.
4. Meddle (1971)
Actually, this album is the one for self-styled Pink Floyd connoisseurs. Meddle is the pre-“big four” record, the table-setter for Dark Side and the conquest for world domination — or at the very least the world of wood-paneled suburban basements — in the ’70s and beyond.
And that reputation has a lot to do with “Echoes,” the 24-minute composition that takes up the entirety of side two. The story is that Pink Floyd entered the studio in January of 1971 without any material, and commenced dicking around with a project of “music” played on household objects. Eventually, they hit upon a lunar plunking sound created by Wright playing a single piano note through a Leslie speaker. This set them off from the “household objects” whim and put them on the course to “Echoes,” which was meticulously pieced together from some of the Floyd’s funkiest ever jamming. (Which proves that even the greatest bands of all-time are often saved from their worst ideas by an inability to fully execute them.)
The deep groove of “Echoes” — which really kicks in around the 7:15 mark — proved to be the most fruitful development for Pink Floyd before they started working on Dark Side. Herein lies another crucial difference between Pink Floyd and the English prog bands with whom they were lumped: Pink Floyd made music you could plausibly imagine people playing while fornicating. You can feel the hips in “Echoes”; the music swings so hard that you don’t notice you’ve been stuck in this twilight zone for nearly half an hour. They sound like The Meters after a fistful of Quaaludes. And that swing carried over to Dark Side, and enabled the album to become a blockbuster.
But, like Wyatt Russell in Everybody Wants Some, I must also turn Meddle over to side one and bliss out on “Fearless,” one of the great “lost” Pink Floyd classics. Listen to this progression here — listen to how it goes up, boom gang-de-gang gang-de-gang gang-de-gang goon cha-bang, it goes there! Finding the tangents in the framework, therein lies the artistry, man.
3. The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973)
The perfect Pink Floyd album, and maybe the perfect classic rock album. It’s so perfect that I’ve heard it one million times in one million different places, and therefore am a little tired of it. But this is the “best” Pink Floyd album in the same way that Led Zeppelin IV is the “best” Zeppelin album, though neither is my favorite by either band because I received both of those tapes as gifts on my 13th birthday which means they’ve have been embedded in my brain for the past 31 years. I don’t need to listen to them anymore than I need to listen to my pinky toe or left elbow. They’re a part of me.
I will however make it a point to force The Dark Side Of The Moon on my kids when they each turn 13. Normally, I don’t force music on my kids, because I believe they should have their own culture and, also, I know it wouldn’t actually work anyway. But I am going to insist on some Dark Side listening, because I think this record is (here’s that word again) perfectly attuned to the teenage mind. The low, dull throb of the music (shoutout to “Echoes”) and the mournful certainly of the vocals simultaneously evoke sex and death, the two main obsessions for anyone ensconced in puberty.
You want to get laid and you can’t so you want to die. But you can’t die because how will you get laid? That’s not what this record is “about,” per se — watch the all-time great Classic Albums doc for that one, as I have at least 25 times, because I can’t get enough of David Gilmour’s melding of sweater-plus-button down dad-core fashion and his (one more time) perfectly replicated guitar solo from “Time.” But it is what it feels like to play Dark Side for the first time for listeners of a certain age. It’s what “The Great Gig In The Sky” feels like to me now.
2. The Wall (1979)
Is this the most divisive Pink Floyd album? Again, I’m relying on anecdotal evidence here, but I find that enjoyment of this record is inversely proportional to your degree of personal chill and/or the square tonnage of weed you consume in a given year. Put another way: The heads prefer the early stuff, and they find The Wall to be a drag. As for me, I love the early stuff, too, but The Wall ranks high for me because I am a music critic and The Wall is a brilliant work of music criticism. It’s rock’s greatest example of meta commentary.
Animals is traditionally positioned as Pink Floyd’s reaction to the punk movement, because it was released around the time that Johnny Rotten was seen wearing an “I Hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt. But The Wall is actually more “punk” in the sense that (1) the songs are short, punchy, and even danceable, and (2) it is a treatise on the fascist nature of big-time arena rock. The famous origin story for The Wall is that Waters became so disillusioned during the massive stadium tour in support of Animals in 1977 that he spat in the face of a fan in Montreal, an extremely Johnny Rotten move. But for Waters, who was later horrified by this act, it was a sign that he had become alienated from his audience. This caused him to ruminate on the power of rock stars, and how that power could be easily abused. And he began envisioning a stage show in which the very distance between band and audience would itself be transformed into a highly visual and entertaining stage prop.
“I wanted to make comparisons between rock ’n’ roll concerts and war,” Waters later told Rolling Stone. “People at those big things seem to like being treated very badly, to have it so loud and distorted that it really hurts.”
(To see how far Waters pushed this on the brief but spectacular tour in support of The Wall, check out the stage patter before “Run Like Hell”: “This is for all the weak people in the audience!” he yells malevolently. “Is there anyone here who’s weak?” And then the crowd screams in the affirmative.)
Making one of the most popular arena-rock albums ever an indictment of the very thing it embodies is — I’m sorry to David Gilmour, Rick Wright, and anyone else with just cause to hate Roger Waters — a genius idea. I’m not sure there are five better ideas in the history of classic rock. Which is why, hands down, this is the greatest rock concept album of them all. It rocks harder than Tommy. It has a deeper mythology than The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. It’s better satire than Garth Brooks … In The Life Of Chris Gaines. (Apologies for this hackneyed comparison, I made a bet that I could get sneak a Chris Gaines reference into this Pink Floyd column. A meta album demands a meta response.)
The Wall also has my favorite Pink Floyd song: “Comfortably Numb.” The absolute peak of Gilmour and Waters marrying their respective best music and best lyrics. Gilmour’s anthemic guitar solo is rightly legendary, and this verse represents the finest words that Waters ever wrote. (RIP, Christopher Moltisanti.)
When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone
1. Wish You Were Here (1975)
The dream is gone! He really meant it. “Back in the early ’70s we used to pretend that we were a group,” he told Rolling Stone in 1982, right as the “classic” lineup of Pink Floyd was imploding. “We used to pretend that we all do this and we all do that, which of course wasn’t true. And at one point I started to get very resentful, because I was doing a lot more and yet we were all pretending that we were doing it.”
This album represents the final moment before that resentment took over Pink Floyd. Or maybe it took over as they were making of Wish You Were Here but they were able to rise above it. Either way, Wish You Were Here more than any other Pink Floyd record sounds like the work of a band, with the spirit of Syd Barrett informing everything. Which is why it gives you everything you could want from a Pink Floyd record. You have the long, languid set piece that bookends the record in “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” You have Roger Waters ranting his ass off in “Welcome To The Machine.” You get a glimpse of that underrated sense of humor in “Have A Cigar,” in which very special guest star Roy Harper delivers my favorite vocal performance on a Pink Floyd record that’s not an orgasmic scream. (Even though Roger Waters still insists he could’ve sung it better.)
And then you have the classic title song, a tune so sturdy not amount of overplays on The Bear or The Eagle can ruin it, in which the two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl could be Roger and Syd, or David and Syd, or Roger and David. They are all separate and yet trapped together in the same space. How’s that for a definition of a band?
Years later, this was one of four songs they played at Live 8, their one and only reunion gig. And, incredibly, they seemed to enjoy sharing a stage again. For about a half hour, they were a band again. And then they weren’t.