Pink Floyd: A Band in Interstellar Overdrive Part One [Parts Two and Three immediately follow.]
Pink Floyd has been one of the most influential of British rock bands, after the Beatles, inspiring whole movements (space rock) and many specific bands, notable among them Tangerine Dream. Pink Floyd also produced a mega-hit album with Dark Side of the Moon, which went to #1 in the U.S. and #2 in the U.K. and spent 15 years on the Billboard charts.
The band began as a rhythm and blues group called Sigma, which became The T-Set and then The Abdabs. When Syd Barrett joined he owned recordings by bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council and those names were condensed into Pink Floyd. Collectors will find the band’s first interview was given in 1965 to the Regent Street Poly Magazine, published by the Regent Street Polytechnic school in London, while the band was still calling itself the Architectural Abdabs and attending that school.
As Pink Floyd the group began gigging at local London clubs like the Countdown Club and the Marquee Club. Just before Christmas, 1966, they began a residency at the UFO Club, giving them a preeminent position in the London underground music scene. This had just followed their appearance at the Royal Albert Hall in December 12th, their first large-venue performance. Collectors eagerly seek out the tickets for this appearance – unused copies fetching upward of $300. And their residency at the UFO Club was advertised with psychedelic rainbow day-glo posters which are now going for $400 and up.
Their first single was “Arnold Layne,” written by Syd Barrett, and released in March, 1967 on the British Columbia label (a part of EMI and not then affiliated with the American Columbia label) (DB 8156). It was a quirky ditty about a young pervert who stole women’s underwear from laundry lines, and it was banned by the BBC from airplay. That didn’t stop it from making it to #20 on British charts, making it the first psychedelic underground single to gain prominence. A follow up, “See Emily Play” (DB 8214), went to #6 that summer.
In August, 1967, the band released their first album, The Piper At The Gates of Dawn (Columbia S(C)X 6157) – the name taken from Wind in the Willows, the popular British children’s book about Mole, Rat, and Toad. (The album was released in America on EMI’s low-rent Tower label as ST 5093.) This album established the band with an international audience and was dominated by Barrett’s compositions. Two of them, “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Astronomy Domine,” went beyond the quirkiness of the singles to carve out new territory – which would subsequently become known as “space rock,” and would point to the band’s future directions after Barrett’s departure.
Syd Barrett had psychological problems. They were apparently magnified by his use of psychedelic drugs, and by early 1968 he would sit on the stage staring blankly and playing only the odd note on his guitar. His unreliability made him harder and harder to work with, and he left the band in April, although he maintained some ties with the band’s members, and the 1975 Pink Floyd album Wish You Were Here is dedicated to him, and was mixed down with his presence and assistance.
Barrett was replaced by David Gilmour. Barrett himself made two solo albums in 1970, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, which had a sketchy, acoustic quality but were not without their charms, both lyrical and melodic. In June, 1968, the second Pink Floyd album was released. A Saucerful of Secrets (British Columbia S(C)X 6258; American Tower ST 5131) was a transitional album, and Barrett was on at least one of its tracks and perhaps as many as three (out of seven altogether), depending on whom you ask. Barrett was also on the band’s third single, “Apples and Oranges” (DB 8310), which he’d written and which is now considered rare and a collectors’ item due to its poor sales. This single has appeared only on the British LP, The Best of Pink Floyd, and not on any American collections.
Barrett’s autographs are rare and highly prized. They go for between $150 and $300, and are difficult both to acquire and to authenticate. Other band members’ autographs top out at $100 and can start lower, although anything signed by the entire band from the early days is worth as much as $700.
The original Pink Floyd was very much a product of its first leader, Syd Barrett, who wrote the band’s early singles, all of its first album and a portion of its second. It was he who established Pink Floyd first as a band which played quirky, eccentric psychedelic songs, and then as a pioneer in a brand new musical area: space rock. But he was mentally unstable and his avid consumption of psychedelic drugs didn’t help. Onstage he became a liability, and in April 1968 the band asked him to step down. He was replaced by guitarist David Gilmour.
With Barrett’s departure went the oddball lyrics and eccentric ditties which characterized the first Pink Floyd album, The Piper At The Gates of Dawn (British Columbia S(C)X 6157; American Tower ST 5093), although he contributed to the second album, A Saucerful of Secrets (UK: Columbia S(C)X 6258; US: Tower ST 5131). Roger Waters (bass and vocals) assumed leadership of the band. Perhaps as a result of this shift, Pink Floyd’s spacier music began developing its melodies from the bass line, elevating harmonic lines to front-line melodic prominence.
But the band’s third album was a movie soundtrack, More (UK: Columbia SCX 6346; US: Tower ST-5169). Pink Floyd had already contributed to the soundtracks of The Committee and Tonight Let’s Make Love in London, and would also have several songs in Zabriskie Point a year later. (The Zabriskie Point soundtrack was issued as an LP by MGM in 1970, as MGM Special 2354 050. There are three Pink Floyd tracks on it.) More was an obscure European film which is probably better known to Pink Floyd fans and collectors today for the album which resulted from it than to the movie-going public. Roger Waters wrote nearly half the album’s music, Gilmour wrote one piece, Nick Mason (drums) and Rick Wright (keyboards) cowrote one piece, and the remaining half was written by the entire quartet. The album, released in early 1969, was only a prelude, however, to their fourth album.
That album was Ummagumma, a double-LP released late in 1969. It also marked the group’s move to a new label EMI had established for its more adventurous bands, Harvest. In Britain the Harvest label stood on its own; in the U.S. it was a subsidiary of Capitol Records. The album was released as SHDW 1 / 2 in the U.K., and STBB-388 in the U.S. (There is an interesting difference in the covers of the British and American versions of the album: The cover is a photo showing the members of the group posed in a doorway and beyond in a garden. The photo is replicated as a framed picture in the upper left of the shot, creating a picture-within-a-picture-within-a-picture which recedes to infinity. On the floor, under that framed picture, a record album leans against the wall. On the British version it’s easy to see it’s the soundtrack album to Gigi. On the American version that cover has been made completely blank. Gigi was not issued by Capitol Records.)
Ummagumma consisted of two LPs. The first was a live album, featuring long versions (two to a side) of their space-rockers like “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” The second LP gave each member of the quartet half a side to explore on his own. This is probably the most experimental material Pink Floyd ever recorded. Ummagumma had the effect of declaring Pink Floyd’s complete independence from Syd Barrett. Each member of the group had demonstrated his musical value.
This independence was consolidated with Atom Heart Mother (UK: SHVL 781; US: SKAO-382), which came out nearly a year later, in October, 1970. Considered thematically weak, it nonetheless climbed to the top of the British album charts. This prompted their record company to look for more Pink Floyd material to release (the band was turning out only one studio album a year at this point). In May 1971 EMI released Relics (UK: Starline SRS 5071; US: Harvest SW-759), a catch-all of tracks from the first three albums (including “Bike” which was on the British version of the first album – which had two more tracks – but not on the American version), plus singles like “Arnold Layne” (their first) and “See Emily Play” (their second – which was on the American version of their first album but not on the British version).
And in November, Pink Floyd released Meddle (UK: SHVL 795; US: SMAS-832), which was notable for its side-long track, “Echoes,” which occupied all of side two. (Part of “Echoes” was used in the film, Crystal Voyager.) In June 1972 another movie soundtrack was released, Obscured by Clouds (UK: SHSP 4020; US: ST-11078), the soundtrack to La Vallee. It was also in 1972 that Pink Floyd began seriously touring the world. An on-stage pass for the Hollywood Bowl for the Pink Floyd date of September 22, 1972, is worth $50 and up, and a program from the 1972 Japanese tour is worth from $250 to $300.
Pink Floyd has been one of the most influential of British rock bands, inspiring whole movements (such as space rock) and many specific bands, notable among them Tangerine Dream. And by 1970 the early Syd Barrett-led version of the band had been eclipsed by the post-Barrett band led by Roger Waters. Atom Heart Mother, their fifth album which had come out in late 1970, had gone to the top of the British charts.
The early quirkiness of melody and lyric was replaced by slow, dreamy, spaced-out music and pieces which filled entire sides of LPs. This reached a peak with Meddle, released in November 1971, which had five songs on side one and the epic (and much-played in college dorms) “Echoes” on side two.
There is a danger in doing too many slow, dreamy, spaced-out pieces: they all turn into the same piece eventually – both in performance and in the minds of listeners, to whom they begin to all sound the same. This was clearly obvious to the members of Pink Floyd, and even as their record company, Harvest, was looking for more material to release (and falling back on such minor movie soundtracks as More and Obscured By Clouds/La Vallee), the band was slowing its recorded output and approaching new recording sessions cautiously. It was time to rethink the music they were creating. It was time to move on to the next step.
That step was The Dark Side of the Moon (Harvest SHVL 804 in Britain; Harvest SMAS 11163 in America), released in March 1973 – a year and a half after their last studio album, Meddle. There were no side-long spaced-out pieces on this album. No track lasted even eight minutes. Instead, the album’s nine tracks were each honed into mini-symphonies, making extensive use of VCS3 synthesizers (three out of the four band members played them) and tape effects. It also featured some of Pink Floyd’s best-realized material in pieces like “Money,” “Us And Them,” “Brain Damage,” and “Time,” the latter opening with a perfect cacophony of alarm bells. “Money,” which opened to the sounds of cash-registers, was released as a single in the U.S. and climbed to number 13 in the charts here.
The album itself went straight to the top of the American charts. In Britain it went to the second spot. In both countries it exhibited extraordinary staying power, staying in the British charts for 301 weeks – or almost six years – while it spent 741 weeks, or nearly 15 years, on the Billboard charts in America! Pink Floyd toured extensively in support of the album, and by now was mounting elaborate stage productions for their shows – which were among the first to use large venues like stadiums. Of course all items – tour books, programs, passes – associated with the tours are much sought by collectors, as are the press kits, posters and displays which accompanied the album’s release. A complete promo merchandising kit can command $300 to $500. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the album’s original release, a limited edition box set was created and marketed. It included five art-cards. Other Dark Side of the Moon memorabilia include a 16-inch tall “Discover What’s Beyond the Dark Side of the Moon” mobile ($20 to $25), a Dark Side of the Moon EMI promotional Swatch (only 100 were made), and a frisbee with the pyramid/prism design from the album’s cover.
The band would not release another album for more than two years, a wait which was filled with bootleg LPs. These albums, usually recorded live from the audience of a concert, were of dubious sound quality, but offered special treats. That was because Pink Floyd often played material in concert before recording it for an album, thus previewing it for concert audiences and bootleg listeners. This gave many a foretaste of Wish You Were Here, the last of the important Pink Floyd albums.
Wish You Were Here was released in Britain on Harvest (SHVL 814) as the immediately previous Pink Floyd albums had been, but in the United States it was released on the Columbia label (PC 33453) marking a major change in label affiliations. Columbia had bid highly for the band and its next release after Dark Side of the Moon. The album’s delay – it was released in September 1975 – was in part due to the fact that it replaced an earlier project, Household Objects, which was scrapped. It was made with founder Syd Barrett in attendance, and included a tribute to him, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The album began slowly but went to the top of both the American and British album charts.
The most sought-after Pink Floyd collectible of 1976 was a giant balloon – a 40-foot inflated pig which broke loose from its mooring above the Battersea Power Station during a film shoot for the cover of the next album, Animals, and was last seen heading for Germany at 18,000 feet. Animals (Columbia JC 34474) seemed to lack the finesse which had been employed in making the previous two albums; it was rough and ready, all of its material having been developed in performance. Subsequently the failure of the Norton Warburg investment company cut the band’s financial underpinnings out from under them, and Roger Waters wrote what many consider Pink Floyd’s epitaph, The Wall. Using an outside producer, Bob Ezrin, a man then associated with bombast and loud rock and not known for the subtlety of his work, Waters built The Wall (Columbia PC2 36183) into an overblown but very popular album. The album was performed live only 29 times in three cities – New York, Los Angeles and London – due to its production costs, which included a real wall. Tour artifacts quickly became instant collectibles – but were mostly the tickets themselves. The Wall also spawned limited 3,800) edition lithographs (by album and stage-set designer Gerald Scarfe), the plate signed by both Scarfe and Waters ($40 to $50), as well as songbooks ($15 to $30), comic books ($3 to $4), calendars ($6 to $8), postcards ($1 to $3) and a stamp sheet of 25 stamps ($4 to $5). The Wall was also made into a movie, released in 1982, from which a separate set of four postcards were released ($7 to $10).
By now the group was breaking up. Tensions between keyboardist Wright and Waters caused Wright to leave soon after the release of The Wall album. Subsequent albums have been released by various members of the band, some of them labeled as Pink Floyd albums, but the trip was over by then. No one looks to Pink Floyd for another major release – and there have been none in the last 20 years.