Friday, January 23, 2009

Eric Burdon and the Animals

FOLLOWING Dave Van Ronk’s lead, Bob Dylan had given it his unique personal touch in the finest folk tradition. But The Animals, led by charismatic singer Eric Burdon, took the traditional song, House Of The Rising Sun, by the scruff of the neck and turned it into a rousing, electric folk-rock song which changed the face of popular music forever.

It is one of my strongest recollections. Playing tennis against the wall at the Beaconhurst Tennis Club some time in my primary school years – ie the mid- to late-1960s - and hearing this song on a portable radio carried or brought by one of the many kids who hung out there. How great to hear really gutsy, bluesy music at a time when there was so much schmultz around – especially on South African radio stations like Springbok.

The Animals, Wikipedia tells me, were a Geordie group, formed in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1962-63 when Burdon teamed up with the Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo. Price, a brilliant organ and general keyboard player, to me was the smooth, sophisticated side of the band, while Burdon brought a bold, brash aggression through his powerful vocals which proved a highly successful combination. Also part of that original group was bassist Bryan “Chas” Chandler, who would later be the lucky man to “discover” a certain Jimi Hendrix. Hilton Valentine on guitar and John Steel (drums) completed the line-up.

The group moved to London in 1964, enabling them to become part of what was known as the British Invasion – as the UK, on the strength of the Beatles’ mega-success, set about recolonising the US, this time musically.

Working with rhythm and blues numbers, Columbia’s subsidiary EMI recorded their first single, Baby Let Me Take You Home, a rocking version of Baby Let Me Follow You Down, which Bob Dylan also covered in his early folk phase.

But it was in June 1964 that the band achieved huge international success with House Of The Rising Sun. As Wikipedia puts it: “Burdon’s howling vocals and the dramatic arrangement created arguably the first folk rock hit. The song had already been recorded by blues singer Josh White in 1944 and 1949, and be singer Nina Simone in 1962.” And, while all five Animals are credited with the arrangement, the website says it is highly likely to have been an Alan Price project.

The Animals had a two-year flirtation with fame, and guess who was behind their success? None other than producer Mickie Most, who would also help catapult Donovan Leitch to chart glory. The band’s list of singles from the era, most of which were subliminally part of my upbringing though not on the scale of the Beatles and Stones singles, included covers of Sam Cooke’s Bring It On Home To Me and Simone’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (though it was written by Bennie Benjamin, Gloria Caldwell and Sol Marcus). Interestingly, at a time when the electric guitar was the hallmark of the new sound, the Animals’s hits, and their more bluesy numbers on their albums, were characterised by Price’s powerful work on the organ, alongside Burdon’s deep, soulful vocals. But Price left the group in May 1965 to pursue a solo career. Dave Rowberry took over on the keyboards for such hits – working-class anthems according to Wikipedia – as We Gotta Get Out Of This Place (“if it’s the last thing we ever do”) and It’s My Life.

While I later caught up with all these songs, and more, on a tape of the Animals’ Greatest Hits, as a family, apart from House Of The Rising Sun, it was the Animals in their psychedelic incarnation a few years later that really caught our attention.

The group underwent changes in the mid-1960s, both of personnel and record label – they switched to Decca and MGM in the US, which released The Best of The Animals in 1966 – which is probably the early version of the tape I bought a dozen years ago and which is now mortally damaged. It was a big hit in the US. The band disbanded later that year, with Chandler going on to manage Hendrix. They had made very little money.

However, in October that year, Eric Burdon and the (New) Animals was formed, with John Weider (guitar, violin, bass), Vic Briggs (guitar, piano) and Danny McCulloch (bass) joining Burdon. And they moved from damp England to sunny California, where Burdon honed his psychedelia and, as Wikipedia puts it, “became a spokesman for the Love Generation”. This is really where we picked up on the band, from sunny, apartheid-racked South Africa.

Winds of Change

Indeed, San Franciscan Nights for me was the real anthem for the love generation, to which we as nascent hippies had attached ourselves, albeit only subconsciously. “Cop’s face is filled with hate. / Heaven’s above, he’s on a street called Love.” These lines are brilliant because of Burdon’s wonderful use of irony. Remember how the song, which opens side two of the album, Winds of Change, from 1967, begins? After those immortal first notes, dun-de-dun-dun, Burdon speaks in his wonderful British accent and implores people to “save up all your bread and fly TransLove Airway to San Francisco, USA. Then maybe you’ll understand this song. It will be worth it. If not for the sake of this city, then for the sake of your own peace of mind.” The mood changes, the tempo drops. Then Burdon launches into the lyrics: “Strobe lights beam creates a dream, / Walls move, minds do too, / On a warm San Franciscan Night. / Old child, young child, feel alright, / On a warm San Franciscan night.” As one who settled in the area, he reveals his complete infatuation with the place: “I wasn’t born there, but perhaps I’ll die there, / There’s no place left to go.”

Winds of Change is your classic blues rock album, an ideal showcase for Burdon’s powerful vocals. There is only one really jarring note: the bizarre Man – Woman. For the rest it is a lovely, low-key bluesy collection of well-crafted songs, and one or two gimmicks. Burdon’s penchant for commenting on the current music scene and the blues roots of modern rock seems to date from here. The opening track, Winds Of Change, is a kind of homage to the founding fathers of blues and rock. Against an interesting sitar and gushing wind, he intones the likes of “Robert Johnston sang the blues” and later mentions BB King, Charlie Parker, Ray Charles and Chuck Berry. With the arrival of the Beatles and the Stones, “a whole new thing was going on”. Further on he sings that “Frank Zappa zapped”, before eulogizing Ravi Shankar. Finally, the title’s allusion is confirmed when he says that “Bobby Dylan sang about the winds of change”.

In Poem By The Sea, it is the sound of a fiddle, and later a fine electric guitar solo which creates the vibe against the crashing of the surf. “… and I saw how tall I was; realized how small I was”. Then, brilliantly, this seques into the Stones’ Paint It Black, with the band giving this song probably its best treatment ever, Burdon conveying the full angst of the forlorn lover whose loss has led to his depression.

The Black Plague starts with some medieval chanting and the tolling of a bell, setting the scene for the tale which Burdon talks-sings, about how a population is decimated by plague. Of course as impressionable youths, for us this evocation of death - “diseased eyes roll upwards, / As if knowing in which direction their souls must travel” - was a very powerful one. Not noted at the time, however, was the salutary message of how the rich, trapped behind the castle walls and seemingly safe, end up dying of hunger and thirst because of their fear of the peasants outside. This form of talking blues was no doubt pioneering for those days. It certainly was a hit among us teenagers.

Then, in answer to Jimi Hendrix’s question, Are You Experienced, Burdon replied with Yes I Am Experienced, which even includes the words, “you hear me Jimi?”.

After the brilliant San Franciscan Nights, Hotel Hell on Side Two is another Burdon blues classic, characterised by muted trumpet and sitar. I love how it starts: “The neon sign flashes, / Leaves its mark against the wall; / The TV is silent and will stay that way till dawn. / The sheets are so cold, the telephone is dumb, / And I’m so very far from my home.”

Good Times is another song which carried me through my high school years. Again, the songwriting and lyrics are superb. In typical philosophical mode, it starts: “When I think of all the good time that I’ve wasted … / Having good times.” There is a slowing of tempo as it branches into a Stones-like party scene: “Well, here we all are having a jolly good time and everything is working out fine”, said in a droll plummy voice, before returning to that wonderful melody which was an anthem of our youth.

Anything is a mild, mellow blues song, with strings adding the necessary impetus: “For you, my friend, I’ll do anything. / Shine your shoes, anything, / Lose your blues, make love with you, / Take you under my wing, anything”.

Finally, on It’s All Meat, he rounds off the earlier tribute to the blues roots of rock music, declaring “it’s all meat on the same bone”. Sounding a bit Cream-like, it is no surprise that among others he refers to in the song is one Eric Clapton.

The Twain Shall Meet

Their next album, The Twain Shall Meet (1968), was for me one of the great albums of all time. Not only was the title clever, refuting the idiomatic “never the twain shall meet”, it also had a sleeve cover design that set a new standard. Of course we only had the local pressing, so it is possible the cover was slightly different abroad, but for me this was a lovely anti-war statement and a fine piece of pop art by Fred Otnes. Comprising a series of different size squares, the images include, naturally, close-ups of Burdon’s face, snatches of acoustic guitars, a white dove of peace, soldiers marching, another combatant with his helmeted head in his hands, flowers, a painted egg in a nest, and a piece of rusty barbed wire over the word WAR!.

It was all about war and peace, with the first track, Monterey, paying tribute to the epochal 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, where Hendrix, as Burdon says in the song, “set the world on fire”. He set his guitar on fire, too, which was probably the point. This song encapsulates something of the spirit of the times and is worth looking at in more depth. It is my contention that music, in the 1960s, supplanted organised religion of the traditional Christian style among a large section of Western and westernised youth. We became, in a sense, a post-Christian society largely due to rock music, and this song is an expression of just how that happened, at Monterey, in 1967. Indeed, the lyrics have a biblical feel to them, as if they were handed down by a higher power. The song opens with some lovely sitar work (is it electrified?), over which Burdon intones, also biblically, as it turns out: “In the beginning …”, whereafter some of the greatest blues-rock music bursts forth, with the bass moving all over the fretboard. Then those inspired lyrics: “The people came and listened / Some of them came and played / Others gave flowers away, yes they did / Down in Monterey / Down in Monterey.”

Then, apropos of what I said above, consider the second verse: “Young Gods smiled upon the crowd / Their music being born of love / Children danced night and day / Religion was being born / Down in Monterey.”

The young gods were clearly the musicians, considered virtual gods by the crowds who flocked to see them. And yes, many would say that love was what motivated them. As the children (young people) danced, religion was indeed being born.

Then come the references to the people who played. In the version of the lyrics I found on the Net, they used lower case birds and airplane, but I think it should read: “The Byrds and the Airplane did fly / Oh, Ravi Shankar’s music made me cry / The Who exploded into fire and light / Hugh Masakela’s music was black as night / The Grateful Dead blew everybody’s mind / Jimi Hendrix, baby believe me, set the world on fire, yeah / His Majesty, Prince Jones, smiled as he moved among the crowd / Ten thousand electric guitars were grooving real loud, yeah.”

Here, then, were some of the big names, the new Gods of the baby-boomer generation. The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Hendrix, the Grateful Dead. Also Ravi Shankar, who brought sitar-based Indian music to western ears, and of course South Africa’s own exiled trumpet genius, Hugh Masakela. Strangely, it is only now, as I read the lyrics, that I discovered the line about Masakela, who with Miriam Makeba and other great artists and musicians, went into exile rather than live under the inhumane apartheid system. In my youth, I must confess, it sounded like he was singing, “You must think music was black as night”. And what of Prince Jones? Brian Jones of the Stones was indeed there, but the band did not play.

Burdon even concludes by proffering music as that elusive truth which all religions are supposed to provide: “You want to find the truth in life / Don’t pass music by / And you know I would not lie, no I would not lie / No, I would not lie / Down in Monterey.”

This is the quintessential psychedelic album of the era, with tracks like Just The Thought, Closer To The Truth, No Self Pity and Orange And Red Beams on side one really one long, interlinked, composition.

Just The Thought kicks off with the lines: “There’s a staircase in my livingroom and it leads to nowhere land / There are flowers growing from my wall, / They lend a touching hand…” As usual, Burdon includes a bit of philosophy, thus the line: “As I play I see me winning / And I gain what’s called self pride.” Indicative of how in awe of this album I was, I recall in my final high school year, 1974, being asked by my teacher, as he admired my slovenly uniform, what I understood by self pride. I could, I suppose, have told him that it is no recommendation, but instead I quoted that line from the song.

The songs really do seque, I loathe the word, but I assume it means merge into one another. Anyway, the next song, Closer To The Truth, sees Burdon in full philosophical flow. The song seemed to pioneer the use of echo and muting or muffling devices. Initially, the voice is faint, before it emerges in all its full, rounded glory, alongside an incredibly evocative rock background: “There is a man, there is a man, / There is a man somewhere who is closer to the truth. / He’s not looking outward, / He’s looking to within, / But there is a man somewhere who’s closer than you’ve ever been.” The song, reverberating, echoing rock, goes on to look at people in various occupations: “He may be in Italy helping in a field / Or a medic in Vietnam helping bodies heal”. Again the musicianship is superb.

The wonders of nature are explored in the penultimate song on Side 1, No Self Pity: Again it is the sitar which emerges from the last notes of the previous song, before Burdon launches into: “Electric light shines bright, but against the sun it is dim / Jet airplane sure travels fast, but how fast is the speed of light?” The song then explores life quantitatively: “And no matter how low you are / There is always somebody lower”, with slow, high and other nouns substituted. When it comes to “no matter how ugly you are”, he deviates by saying “there is no such thing as ugly”. Finally, after the music stops and in a philosophical coup de grace, he declares, and you have to believe him, so forcefully is it announced: “I am blind, I am blind … / But I see behind my eyes.”

The final track on the side, Orange And Red Beams, again makes use of muffled voices for interesting effect. A McCullogh composition, it is only now I come to grips with what precisely they were singing, again against a haphazard bit of whimsical rock, steeped in curious inhalations and exhalations of sound. “Orange and red beams / In and out / Peek through my window / In the night / The baby was born / Before a storm / And now I believe them / What they said / The thousand people / Who aren’t really dead / The baby was born / Before a storm / And now a fate calls him a mile away / ’Cause orange and red beams / Yes, are here to stay.” It seems to have some biblical connotation, especially in the second verse where the birth of the baby is seemingly dismissed. “Now I believe him / Before I escape / The thousand people / Do not really care / The baby was born / Before a storm / Orange and red beams, orange and red beams / Orange and red beams, orange and red beams / Orange and red beams, orange and red beams.”

Side 2, in those good old days when there were two sides to albums, starts off with one of the great songs of the era, Sky Pilot. It may not have pioneered the white sound – or maybe it did – but it certainly used it more effectively than possibly anyone else. Apparently created using a revolving microphone, the effect is to make the drums, especially, fade and emerge, fade and emerge, at speed, giving the song a new, almost ethereal dimension. And this is ideal for the subject of this incredibly powerful anti-war anthem. Burdon would have made a great stage actor. The song starts with him talk-singing the opening lines of lyrics that look at the role of religion; of how men of the cloth, Sky Pilots, can send young people off to war in the name of God. Remember that we were listening to this mainly in the early 1970s, with the ever-growing threat of military conscription hanging over our heads and the Vietnam war having given us a rather nasty awareness of how kak war can be.

And so Burdon blurts: “He blesses the boys as they stand in line / The smell of gun grease and the bayonets they shine / He’s there to help them all that he can / To make them feel wanted he’s a good holy man.” Powerful bass notes boom as the revolving mic scatters the drums as the chorus pours forth: “Sky pilot … sky pilot / How high can you fly / You’ll never, never, never reach the sky.” The nitty-gritty of battle is explored as the cleric considers the “boys’” prospects. “He knows of their fear in the forthcoming fight / Soon there’ll be blood and many will die / Mothers and fathers / Back home they will cry.” All the time, the sounds of battle grow as, Hendrix-like, the guitar weeps and cries and the drums and bass reverberate bomb-like. There is one chilling moment where the guitar note rises in pitch and velocity – or so it seems – like the terrifying approach of a fighter bomber. Later, as bagpipes, so emblematic of war down the centuries, wail to the fore, there are sounds of general mayhem and the cries of wounded soldiers. As the mood quietens, a solo violin leads to the point where, a subdued Burdon sings: “In the morning they return / With tears in their eyes / The stench of death drifts up to the skies / A soldier so ill looks at the sky pilot / Remembers the words / Thy shalt not kill”

I wonder if anything akin to this sort of song-writing has been achieved in the past 40 years since this album? Apart from Hendrix, I mean.

What to follow such a forceful song with? That must have been a tricky one, at the time, but the solution was sublime. A single man whistling the Second World War tune, Lily Marlene, launches the seven-minute We Love You Lil. This is an instrumental track which serves almost as a requiem in the wake of the carnage that came before. However, there is no escaping the dogs of war, for again it is a plaintive lead guitar, along with the tolling of church bells, which make this track a pivotal point of the album.

As if to reinforce the theme of humankind, indeed the universe, being a single inter-related entity, the final 7-minute track, We Are One, has the didactic tone of someone issuing the commandments for the new “religion”. This time it is the Scots bagpipes which emerge from the embers of the previous track, and they continue for a good minute or two before a sitar takes over with a tight little arpeggio. As the bass enters, Burdon unburdens: “We are all one … your neighbour is your brother”. It is all sung from the heart, incredibly convincingly. The tempo picks up, driving one ineluctably on, as he expounds about our universal oneness, a concept which has been proven scientifically as the same elements in our bodies have been found to exist throughout the stars and planets. “Everything is one – the wind, the rain, the sun”. As the strings move in, the tempo drops before picking up for a final assault, during which Burdon declaims the likes of “By thinking I am superior, they are only making themselves inferior. / Now can’t you see that?” Finally, as the song winds down, he stage whispers: “Well you should know by now”. What it all meant we weren’t quite sure at the time, but hell was it one heck of a trip – even without any artificial “enhancements”.

Love Is

Interestingly, I notice that in July 1968, one Andy Somers joined the lineup as a guitarist. He, of course, was to make himself even more famous with the new wave group The Police in the late 1970s. And he performed on the band’s last album, Love Is, which is no doubt their apotheosis, also from 1968. We had this album too, with its cover of a purple sky and the band tucked away inside a cloud, but today I only have a naughty CD copy of someone else’s original. It is a heavier, bluesier, less psychelic and more plain rock album – and probably one of the finest albums ever. Here Burdon and the group are in their prime, full of inventiveness, but not at the expense of the general rock thrust of the eight tracks on this double album.

So when it starts with Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High you know you are in business. “When you were a young girl did you have a ragdoll …” sings Burdon as this rollicking rock song gets under way. Soon, as the mood simmers, you get your first experience of the “echo” sound which characterises the album. It is probably made on an organ, though it could even be electric guitar. In any event it is played at a slower pace than the basic beat of the song, creating an interesting dichotomy. As the tempo changes, he again refers to a contemporary musician: “I love you baby like a flower needs the spring / I love you baby like Aretha Franklin needs to sing”. Near the end, as a reverb sounds sets in, he asks: “Have you seen Tina Turner?”, with her name being chanted further as this humdinger of an opening track concludes.

I’m An Animal starts with a heart-like thumping beat, as Burdon belts out the opening lines: “I’m an animal – here to blow your mind” and later “… of the English kind”. Then comes the first bit of wah-wah lead guitar, another hallmark of this album. There is a Doors-like chanting and panting as the song explores “Animalism”, with Burdon at one point singing, “A woman is my prey”, something the feminists might baulk at. Again, it a classic work.

I’m Dying, Or Am I has a Cream feel to it. “Got that sleepy feeling ... got that sleepy feeling / When the lights go out ... know the lights go out / Well, I know I should not do things ... know I should not do things / But I really must work out ... really must work out / Really must work out / It’s a chemical reaction to state your piece of mind / God knows I’m dying…” Having built up to a crescendo, the verse concludes, joltingly with words I’m only now seeing for the first time: “Body can’t keep up ... with my mind.” This seems to be about a bad old trip. “Heard many people like me ... many people like me / On this manufactured trade ... manufactured trade / Tying to satisfy people ... trying to satisfy people / When you know they’ve got you whipped ... know they’ve got you whipped / Know they’ve got you whipped / One can only hope / Someday the sun will shine / God, knows I’m dying / My body can’t keep up with my mind.” This was clearly not the sort of stuff an impressionable teenager should have been dwelling on. “You told me I’d be dying / At the temple was the living / But even when you’re dying / There’s some sweet joy in giving giving / Giving, giving, giving.” I often experienced, after coming “down” from a marijuana “trip”, that the return to normality was the biggest “high”. This next verse, for me, alludes to that. “Sometimes I sit and wonder ... sometimes I sit and wonder / In a wine and smoke filled room ... in a wine and smoke filled room / Why we sit here talking ... why we sit here talking / Only adding to the gloom ... adding to the gloom / Adding to the gloom / Then I see the wonder / The sky bursts into flame / God knows I’m dying.” In my case it was not so much a death as a rebirth, after hours of torment. It’s weird, though, to think that for decades I heard that opening line to read “got that slipping feeling”, not “sleeping”. There is a slipping-away quality to this song which probably justifies that error.

Ring Of Fire is notable for Burdon’s intimate, up-close-to-the-mic vocals as he opens the song, against subtle acoustic guitar. While Johnny Cash did early justice to a classic composition by his wife, June Carter, and Merle Kilgore, it took Burdon to turn country into steamy blues-rock. “Love, is a burning thing, and it makes a fire ring / Bound by wild desire, I fell into your ring of fire.” As teenage boys, we can I think be forgiven for reading all sorts of sexual connotations into this song, which features some great lead bass work, before the guitar starts dueling against a choral background. Again, the group’s ability to cover a range of moods is showcased on this track.

There is a Canned Heat feel to some of the lead guitar solos on the next track, Coloured Rain. “When I was a young man, searching for my way, / Not knowing what I wanted, living life from day to day, yeah – / Till you came along there was nothing but an empty space, not a trace / Feels like coloured rain, tastes like coloured rain, bring down coloured rain”. In the song, the girl is warned that her lover is fallible: “If you want my sunshine, you’ve got to accept my rain, hail, snow.” Wikipedia tells us that Coloured Rain was written by Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Cooper and recorded by Traffic in 1967 for their debut album Mr Fantasy. Running to more than nine and a half minutes on Love Is, guitarist Andy Summers later wrote, says Wikipedia, that “this recording contained ‘one of the longest guitar solos ever recorded until this point ... a “soaring hymn to ecstasy” style solo that is so long that I find it impossible to play in a full trance state and still come out at the right place, so Zoot (Money) stands in the studio, counting the whole way, and at bar 189 he gives me the cue out’.” Wikipedia adds that “supposedly this solo earned Summers a ‘slight legendary reputation’.”

The next song is probably the best ever rendition of the Bee Gees’ To Love Somebody. It opens with a rising crescendo of “you don’t know what it’s like”, before slowing to allow the soulful voice of Burdon to begin with: “There’s a light, a certain kind of light, / That never shone on me, / And I want my life to be, / To live with you…” On this super-tight arrangement, a standout for me is the great harmonising between Burdon and the female backing vocals. Then, of course, the bit at the end that we loved as teens, as he wraps up the song .. “the way that I, love …. Good God! …. Yooouuuu…”.

Next up is arguably the greatest bit of blues by a white singer. Unassumingly titled, As The Years Go Passing By, this starts with some solo piano, as the artist seems to search for a melody. As he finds it, Burdon enters, talking: “Ah, the blues, the ball and chain that is around every English musician’s leg. / In fact every musician’s leg. / Try to kick it off baby, / No, no, you’ll just never do it. / And these are the blues of time, / And the blues of a woman, / And of a man thinking of her, / As time rolls by.” Then he launches into song: “There is nothing I can do …”, and the electric guitar responds in a dialogue which continues throughout “… if you leave me here to cry”… As the song progresses, you have a wonderful blues piano played alongside two serpentine lead guitars, one transformed through a wah-wah pedal. A jazz-like rhythm section provides the perfect foundation for some brilliant improvisation before Burdon seamlessly interjects with that powerful, powerful voice of his: “You think that you have left me behind and that with your other man you are safe …”. But, he says, “there is no escape from this man … this man’s love is gonna haunt you …”. It is a song about obsessive love. As the song gets quieter and quieter, so the chanting, alongside that slow blues, continues. He will haunt her, he says, “… till the day I die. / Till the day I die. / Till the day they rest my head.” Eventually there is just a whispered, hoarse, “die… die … die”

What better way to end this album than with the seminal Gemini – The Madman, which has something of the mood of that other classic, Elton John and Bernie Taupan’s Madman Across The Water. A lengthy 17 and a half minute song seemingly about schizophrenia and split personalities, it features a pulsating rhythm that is sustained throughout. “You ask me how / I’ve become mad now / There was a day, / I had so much say / What of my feet? / Life seemed to be sweet / I was admired / But I was so tired.” It is a rollercoaster ride through the tortured mind of man who “can’t control what is in the stars”. “I’ve got two sides and I’ve got one life.” The guitar solo in the middle is a masterpiece, but only within the greater context of some organ wizardly, haunting foot (or hi-hat) cymbal sounds and those mysterious echoes mentioned earlier. There is such a weird Catcher In The Rye feel to the last section where he chants: “Isn’t that the madman running through the fields? / Isn’t that the madman, wonder how he feels” against a background of acoustic guitar and flute. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find the full lyrics or a website where a professional could unpack these songs further, so you’ll have to get this album yourself to see why I rate it one of the best in the history of modern music. “Well I love today but I hate tomorrow / I don’t spend time I only borrow / Don’t blame me for the way I am / Because I can’t control / What is in the stars”.

Alan Price

And that is where our interest in Eric Burdon kind of ended. Those albums remained favourites, but other music meant we took no real interest in what became of him. However, we enjoyed a brief interlude with that lost Animal, Alan Price, in the mid 1970s, when we got hold of his solo album, A Price On His Head (1967).

I “spotted” Price, looking very youthful, in a snippet of that D A Pennebaker documentary on Bob Dylan’s 1967 UK tour, Don’t Look Back. By then he had formed the Alan Price Set. In 1967 he scored hits with The House That Jack Built, his own composition which is on the album. I also recall Don’t Stop The Carnival, a hit from 1968. In the early 1970s he teamed up with Georgie Fame and they scored a Top 20 hit with Rosetta. Significantly, the articulate Price also hosted a musical slot, Price To Play, on BBC television in the late 1960s which explained and played the music of such guests as Fleetwood Mac and Jimi Hendrix. Cutting edge stuff, in other words.

Ah, and I had forgotten. Wikipedia reminds me that he wrote the music for the film O Lucky Man!, an album which we also had and enjoyed. He also had several acting rolls, such as in Alfie Darling.

Entirely self-taught, by the late 1950s Price was known as one of the great talents in the Newcastle area.

According to the Price website, the name The Animals was adopted while his Rhythm and Blues Combo were performing at the Club A-Go-Go in London. A member of the audience was overheard saying that “the animals are playing again tonight”, referring to the wild way in which the band performed.

The House Of The Rising Sun, released in June 1964, saw the Animals become the first UK band after the Beatles to reach Number 1 in the US. The single sold millions and made them an overnight success.

After a virtual nervous breakdown, when he withdrew from the Animals in their prime, Price came back with a vengeance with his new group, the Alan Price Set, scoring an early success with Screaming Jay Hawkins’s I Put A Spell On You.

A Price On His Head

Price’s work with Randy Newman compositions seemed to have been pivotal. He reached No 4 on the UK charts with Newman’s Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear. The House That Jack Built also reached No 4 that year, 1967. And, I discover, A Price On His Head was his second album, which also got rave reviews. Price credits Newman with giving him the confidence to “write personal songs”. He later describes the lyrics for House That Jack Built as “just nonsense poetry about all the daft things that people do”. Be that as it may, it is, for me, one of the great classics of the Price oevre. Indeed, the album, which features several Newman compositions, four by Price and even one by Bob Dylan (To Romona), is a remarkable work. Chris Welch, of Melody Maker, says on the sleeve notes that: “Here is music with drive and feeling, emotion and originality . . . (by) one of the major contributors to the British music scene.” Listening to it again, I was struck by the similarity in singing style, at times, between Price and Burdon, particularly on the song, On This Side Of Goodbye. Clearly it was a case of two bulls in one kraal – it couldn’t last for long having two such strong personalities in one band. One would have to go. Price did. But albums like this one gave him an opportunity to give full expression to his talent. His version of Romona is superb. Sung with great feeling, it demonstrates again Dylan’s brilliance as a poet/songwriter: “Romona, come closer, shed softly your watery eyes ...” Price’s own song, Grim Fairy Tale, is a lyrical look at how those who are lucky in gambling are often unlucky in love: “Don’t you know any fool can win the pools, like I did…” The album is also a showcase for the extraordinary songwriting talents of Randy Newman. I’ve always liked the start of Living Without You: “The milk truck hauls the sun up, / Paper hits the door, / Subway shakes the floor, / And I think about you …”

After the band fizzled finally in 1968, the Animals got together for a final gig in Newcastle that year, with Price, bucking the trend of the times, wearing a suit while the others wore jeans or ponchos.

O Lucky Man!

I didn’t see the Lindsay Anderson film O Lucky Man! but the soundtrack from 1973 was a staple in our home for a while. “If you have a friend / On whom you think you can depend / You are a lucky man.” With all the songs, and instrumentals, Price originals, the stand-out lyrics for me are on Justice, a cynical look at the legal system contained in lines like “only wealth will buy you justice”. There is a lovely old world feel to My Home Town: “Down on the corner of the street where I live we used to meet and sing the old songs …” and “you live forever on the never never back in my home town”. The song O Lucky Man! Starts and ends the album, and it is the final reprise which really gets you rocking.

After O Lucky Man! we also lost track of Price, but I see that a solo album, Between Today and Yesterday, was considered his finest work. It reached No 9 in the UK album chart, with the single Jarrow Song reaching No 6 in 1974.

Metropolitan Man, an album from 1975, also sounds like a good fun, featuring songs like Fools Gold, Nobody Can and The Drinker’s Curse.

Also clearly worth exploring is a brief reunion album by the Animals, Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted, from 1975, which made the Top 100 in the US and, says Price’s website, “yielded a fine collection of solid performances”.

Price continued to work steadily, organising another Animals reunion in the late 1980s, and producing his own solo albums, while also touring. His work is evidently excellently overviewed in a CD compilation, Geordie Boy, from 2001. He is recognised as one of the great talents from the 1960s British Beat Boom.

Eric Burdon

Meanwhile, a glance at the Burdon website reveals that many of those linked to the band have died, though by 2006 Burdon was still producing albums. Chandler died in 1996, aged 57. In 2003 both Mickie Most and Dave Rowberry died within 10 days of each other. This is a humble salute, then, to a bunch of guys who helped turn the 1960s and 1970s into the most important, most fun, couple of musical decades we were fortunate to be part of.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pink Floyd

WHILE most people know Pink Floyd best through their most famous album, The Dark Side of the Moon, in the late 1960s we first came under their spell when a zany character called Syd Barrett was the driving force.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was the title of their first album, a psychedelic wonderworld released in 1967, and it was altogether different to what would emerge in the post-Barrett era, when the likes of David Gilmour and Roger Waters took the band on a unique progressive rock course that is instantly recognizable. And we did not even have The Dark Side of the Moon, although like so many other albums, this would have been borrowed and listened to avidly. No, the Floyd album which most impacted on me in the early 1970s was Meddle, which featured a close-up photograph of an ear – later I discovered to my loss that it was a pig’s ear – seemingly submerged in water. On this album, which I haven’t heard in some 30 years – they reached the height of their creative powers, especially on the track Echoes, where those single notes struck on the guitar are given such significance as they seem to fill an echoing vacuum which is desperate to suck in some sound.

Then in the late 1970s, when I was forced into the apartheid army, it was The Wall which entrenched the band in our consciousness – for me primarily through the title track, which the National Party government was very wary of in the wake of the June 16, 1976, student uprising. “We don’t need no education / We don’t need no thought control / No dark sarcasm in the classroom / Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone / All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall.”

But how did the original Pink Floyd emerge, and what led to their taking such a sharply different new direction after the departure of Barrett? Thankfully, Wikipedia, provides some of the answers.

As usual, Wikipedia initially encapsulate the group in a few paragraphs, saying that this English rock band first earned recognition “for their psychedelic rock music, and, as they evolved, for their avant-garde progressive rock music”. They were also known for “philosophical lyrics, sonic experimentation, innovative cover art, and elaborate live shows”. I obviously never saw them live, not even in the later years when they were old toppies, but can certainly attest to their using sonic experimentation. Indeed, that probably lay at the heart of their success.

And what a success it was. Wikipedia says they became “one of rock music’s most successful and influential acts”, selling over 250 million albums worldwide, 73,5 million of them in the United States alone.

They had “moderate success” in the late 1960s as Barrett’s psychedelic band, but due to his “erratic behaviour” his colleagues were “forced” to replace him with guitarist and singer David Gilmour. And, after Barrett left, Roger Waters “gradually became the band’s leader and main songwriter”.

It was under Waters, Wikipedia notes, that the band recorded several concept albums which achieved worldwide success. These were The Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, Wish You Were Here (1975), Animals (1977) and The Wall (1979). Just to complete this short history, it emerges that in 1985 – when South Africa was in upheaval with a state of emergency in force – Waters declared the band defunct. However, the remaining members, led by Gilmour, continued recording and touring under the name, “enjoying commercial success and eventually reaching a settlement with Waters”. Wikipedia says Waters performed with the band for the first time in 24 years at the 2005 London Live 8 concert, “playing to Pink Floyd’s biggest audience ever”. However, while the band did not stay together, there remains a chance they’ll perform again. (It should be lucrative. It was reported in 2007 that a reunion concert by Led Zeppelin planned for the 20 000-seater Millennium Dome – or whatever it’s now called – in Greenwich, London, attracted ticket applications from 20 million people!

Syd Barrett

It seems Waters was the founding member of a band in 1965 which had various names, including The Megga Deaths and The Abdabs. When it split up, some members – guitarists Rado “Bob” Klose and Waters, drummer Nick Mason and wind instrument player Rick Wright – formed a band called Tea Set, which Syd Barrett joined as guitarist and vocalist, with Waters moving to bass. And it was Barrett, it seems, who gave the band its final name. Evidently Tea Set found themselves on the same bill as another band with the same name, so Barrett came up with the alternative name, The Pink Floyd Sound, after two blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. “Sound” was soon dropped, but the definite article still used occasionally for several years, with Gilmour referring to the band as The Pink Floyd as late as 1984. However, they never released any albums under that name.

Wikipedia says they covered rhythm and blues staples, but as Pink Floyd they increasingly did psychedelic interpretations “with extended improvised sections and ‘spaced out’ solos”. The jazz-orientated Klose left the band before they started recording to become a photographer (his loss!). This left Barrett on guitar and lead vocals, Waters on bass and backing vocals, Mason on drums and percussion and Wright on keyboards and backing vocals. And Barrett was the songwriter, influenced, says Wikipedia, by US and UK psychedelic rock “with his own brand of whimsical humour”. The band became “a favourite in the underground movement”, playing at key venues like the UFO club, Marquee Club and the Roundhouse. Their first “break” occurred at the end of 1966 when they were invited to contribute music for Peter Whitehead’s film, Tonite Let’s Make Love in London. They were filmed recording Intersteller Overdrive (later to make the Piper album) and Nick’s Boogie. Though hardly any of the music made the film, the session was released as London 1966/1967 in 2005. In March 1967 they issued the single Arnold Layne, which I don’t recall, and in June that year, See Emily Play, which I do. The former reached No 20 in the UK, and the latter No 6, which led to the band’s first TV appearance on Top of the Pops in July 1967.

Wikipedia says their debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) is today considered to be “a prime example of British psychedelic music” and was generally well received by the critics. With its cover of the band’s faces as if seen through a sort of kaleidoscope, it was this album we got into in a big way in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mainly written by Barrett, the tracks “showcase poetic lyrics and an eclectic mixture of music, from the avant-garde free-form piece Interstellar Overdrive to whimsical songs such as The Scarecrow, inspired by the Fenlands, a rural region north of Cambridge”, which was Barrett, Gilmour and Waters’s home town.

(It is perhaps fitting that this intelligent group’s key players were all originally from Cambridge, that esteemed and ancient centre of learning in the English heartland.)

“I want to tell you a story / About a little gnome, lived in his home …” Wikipedia says the lyrics were “entirely surreal and often referred to folklore, such as The Gnome”. Already they were exploring new technologies in electronics through the “prominent use of stereo panning, tape editing, echo effects and electronic keyboards”. The album peaked at No 6 in the UK, but only No 131 in the US, and then only when it was released in the 1970s on the back of the band’s commercial success. Wikipedia says that during these early years the band toured with none other than Jimi Hendrix, “which helped to increase its popularity”. Impossible act to follow I guess, but a good one to precede.

Syd Barrett’s loss was David Gilmour’s gain. Due to the rigours of life on the road and “a significant intake of psychedelic drugs”, Barrett’s mental health deteriorated, till in January 1968 he was replaced by Gilmour. Initially, however, he was still part of the band, but he would often be totally unstable, “staring into space while the rest of the band performed”, says Wikipedia. Finally, he was simply left behind when the band travelled to concerts, though it was hoped he would still write songs for them. But even his song-writing failed him and in April 1968 his departure was formalised. What became of that troubled genius? He made two solo albums in 1970 – The Madcap Laughs and Barrett – on which some of the band helped out, but these only achieved moderate success. He then went into seclusion. He lived a quiet life in his native Cambridge for the next 30 years, before dying at his home on July 7, 2006.

But back then, in 1968, the rest of the band were gearing up for a stellar career, during which they would become one of the most innovative rock outfits in an era of, well, supremely innovative rock outfits.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

However, before we trace that trajectory, let us pay some homage to Syd Barrett, because that first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was not just a great debut album, it was also Barrett’s finest creation. Indeed, having just given it a fresh listen – a friend gave me a copy of the CD – I have to admit to being astounded at just how innovative and creative he must have been. And what a guitarist! There are areas here where comparisons with the late, great Jimi Hendrix would not be far off the mark.

The album starts with the Barrett composition Astronomy Domine, and it is a cracker, full of interesting electronic effects and distortions in the Hendrix mould – but with an altogether different feel. Slurred voices and a peep-peep-peep guitar, then heavy chords and incredibly good bass get the thing moving. Imagine how this sort of thing impacted on a child of, what, 15 or 16? At the time we did not have the lyrics, so it is interesting to note what, precisely, it was Barrett was singing against that psychedelic backdrop: “Lime and limpid green, a second scene / A fight between the blue you once knew. / Floating down, the sound resounds / Around the icy waters underground. / Jupiter and Saturn, Oberon, Miranda / And Titania, Neptune, Titan. / Stars can frighten…” Then I think the words “you, you, you” come in, though it is not reflected on the site I got these off. Barrett was a past master at changing the song’s tempo, for at a point it slows and that ping-ping guitar which was to become a Pink Floyd hallmark, is employed, before a wonderful piece of improvised rock. Given that the space race was on at the time, the band also employ a muffling effect on the voice at some point, evoking the sound of astronauts communicating via radio. “Blinding signs flap, / Flicker, flicker, flicker blam. Pow, pow. / Stairway scare Dan Dare who’s there? / Lime and limpid green / The sounds surrounds the icy waters underground / Lime and limpid green / The sounds surrounds the icy waters underground.”

The thing with songs is you need a few great lines of poetry to hang them on, and this is what Barrett does. The band – and let’s not forget he was working with the best – then creates its work of musical art around that basic theme. And don’t forget that these were also all good singers, so there is a lot of great harmonising here too.

Wikipedia emphasises the whimsical nature of Barrett’s psychedelic vision, and this is wonderfully illustrated in Lucifer Sam, a song about a cat. But, while the lyrics have a gentle domesticity about them, the song itself is a full-blooded rock track, again with plenty of electrical experimentation, including lashings of great work on the organ. Again, this is the first time I am discovering the actual lyrics. “Lucifer Sam, siam cat. / Always sitting by your side / Always by your side. / That cat’s something I can’t explain.” Anyone who has watched a cat will identify with this song’s sentiments. “Ginger, ginger you’re a witch. / You’re the left side / He’s the right side. / Oh, no! / That cat’s something I can’t explain.” And talk of whimsy! “Lucifer go to sea. / Be a hip cat / Be a ship’s cat. / Somewhere, anywhere. / That cat’s something I can’t explain.” Finally: “At night prowling sifting sand. / Hiding around on the ground. / He’ll be found when you’re around. / That cat’s something I can’t explain.”

Mathilda Mother, the next track, is quieter and features some great harmonising, with Barrett’s voice clear and strong. “There was a king who ruled the land. / His majesty was in command. / With silver eyes the scarlet eagle / Showers silver on the people. / Oh Mother, tell me more.” This leads into a long jam session, with the organ again prominent. The great thing about these songs is that they are based on strong melodies, a bit like the Moody Blues. The tempo picks up for: “Why’d’ya have to leave me there / Hanging in my infant air / Waiting? / You only have to read the lines / They’re scribbly black and everything shines.” Then back to that dreamy, mystical mood: “Across the stream with wooden shoes / With bells to tell the king the news / A thousand misty riders climb up / Higher once upon a time.” Then the conclusive: “Wandering and dreaming / The words have different meaning. / Yes they did.” But the childhood journey continues: “For all the time spent in that room / The doll’s house, darkness, old perfume / And fairy stories held me high on / Clouds of sunlight floating by. / Oh Mother, tell me more / Tell me more. / Aaaaaaaah / Aaaaaaaah / Aaaaaaaah.”

Flaming, the next track, is almost a folk song. Another Barrett composition, it starts with some fuzzy bass and electronic sounds, before bursting into this idyllic world of whimsy: “Alone in the clouds all blue / Lying on an eiderdown. / Yippee! You can’t see me / But I can you.” It is a fantasy world, free of malice, with the peep-peep of a train whistle and the ringing of bells adding to the sense of child-like euphoria. “Lazing in the foggy dew / Sitting on a unicorn. / No fair, you can’t hear me / But I can you.” Then: “Watching buttercups cup the light / Sleeping on a dandelion. / Too much, I won’t touch you / But then I might.” Beautiful acoustic guitar work marks the conclusion of this track: “ Screaming through the starlit sky / Travelling by telephone. / Hey ho, here we go / Ever so high.” Is it a childhood reminiscence, or just a very good trip on LSD? Perhaps the two were similar… “Alone in the clouds all blue / Lying on an eiderdown. / Yippee! You can’t see me / But I can you.”

All four band members are credited with writing the next song, a four and a half minute instrumental, Pow R. Toc H, which was another example of the progressive nature of the band. It starts with drums accompanied by chee-chee and ape sounds, then screams and other weird incantations – a bit like an electric tribal dance. Suddenly there is a wonderful bluesy piano section, some intense acoustic guitar strumming and more weird and wonderful electronic sounds.

The biblical connotation of the next song’s title only dawned on my when I listened to it now, 35-odd years later. Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk is a Roger Waters composition, and proves that he was right up there with Barrett as a composer. It starts with drums beaten hard, staccato-fashion, followed by the chant: “Doctor doctor! / I’m in bed / Achin’ head / Gold is lead / Choke on bread / Underfed / Gold is lead / Jesus bled / Pain is red / Are goon / Grow go / Greasy spoon / You swoon / June bloom.” There are echoes of the Velvet Underground here, with the guitar even doing a bit of “talking” in a long instrumental section, as the song switches mood: “Music seems to help the pain / Seems to cultivate the brain. / Doctor kindly tell your wife that / I’m alive - flowers thrive - realize - realize / Realize.”

It was probably rare for an album to have one instrumental in those days, but this one had two, and Interstellar Overdrive, a joint composition almost 10 minutes long, is a classic. It is the defining work on an album that in my eyes ranks among the finest of its time. While the guitar and bass, and indeed drums, are all “heavy”, there is always a playfulness about this sound, like it’s telling you not to take life too seriously. Spidery and brittle are the adjectives I came up with for the sound of the guitar. The song moves along like a train, before gradually winding down, whilst all the time the bass holds the edifice together. There is some electronic device used here which sounds decidedly like the sound effects achieved by Strawbs several years later on Brave New World. It is on this track that I detected distinct Hendrix-like lead guitar feedback. How many other guitarists have managed this sort of electronic mastery?

Does any album today offer the sort of diversity and inventiveness showcased here? After nearly 10 minutes of intense creativity, Barrett’s The Gnome is again a delightfully light little folksy song, with lovely acoustic guitar and bass and light, lyrical, well, lyrics. “I want to tell you a story / About a little man / If I can. / A gnome named Grimble Crumble. / And little gnomes stay in their homes. / Eating, sleeping, drinking their wine.” The fun continues. “He wore a scarlet tunic, / A blue green hood, / It looked quite good. / He had a big adventure / Amidst the grass / Fresh air at last. / Wining, dining, biding his time. / And then one day - hooray! / Another way for gnomes to say / Oooooooooomray.” Now, when I heard this initially, even today, I thought that line read: “Another way for gnomes to say / Mooooonlight”. But what, I wonder, is oomray? Anyway, oomyway, a reflective quality falls over the vocals at this point: “Look at the sky, look at the river / Isn’t it good? / Look at the sky, look at the river / Isn’t it good?” Before returning to the up-tempo: “Winding, finding places to go. / And then one day - hooray! / Another way for gnomes to say / Oooooooooomray / Ooooooooooooooomray.” It ends with a long, extended oomray.

But the album is only getting going. The next track, Chapter 24, another Barrett composition, contains some of the nicest bass you’ll ever hear. It starts with the beating of a large, resonant gong, or cymbal, accompanied by a bit of philosophy: “A movement is accomplished in six stages / And the seventh brings return. / The seven is the number of the young light / It forms when darkness is increased by one. / Change returns success / Going and coming without error. / Action brings good fortune. / Sunset.” After that, prepare for a soft, lovely enveloping bass riff. It happens after each verse: “The time is with the month of winter solstice / When the change is due to come. / Thunder in the other course of heaven. / Things cannot be destroyed once and for all. / Change returns success / Going and coming without error. / Action brings good fortune. / Sunset, sunrise.” The vocals here are incredible, while the organ soars off at a tangent and piano notes dance up and down. “A movement is accomplished in six stages / And the seventh brings return. / The seven is the number of the young light / It forms when darkness is increased by one. / Change returns success / Going and coming without error. / Action brings good fortune. / Sunset, sunrise.”

The Barrett magic continues on The Scarecrow, which seems to draw from a visceral English affinity with the farm and the country that predates the Industrial Revolution. It starts with stomping and clicking sounds, among others, with an organ playing the tune over and again: “The black and green scarecrow as everyone knows / Stood with a bird on his hat and straw everywhere. / He didn’t care. / He stood in a field where barley grows.” This precipitates some of the most beautiful acoustic guitar and bass sounds you are likely to hear. There is nothing earth-shattering, just soothing, as they lead you lullaby-like into the next verse. “His head did no thinking / His arms didn’t move / except when the wind cut up / Rough and mice ran around on the ground / He stood in a field where barley grows.” Isn’t that some beautiful writing? It continues in similar vein: “The black and green scarecrow is sadder than me / But now he’s resigned to his fate / ’Cause life’s not unkind - he doesn’t mind. / He stood in a field where barley grows.” We’ll hopefully get to Traffic fairly soon, but the obvious similarity here is to their arrangement of the traditional song, John Barleycorn Must Die. Both seem steeped in a culture that grew up alongside fields of corn, and warm pubs with rich, dark beer.

The final track – for yes, the album does eventually come to an end, jampacked as it is with wonderful goodies – seems like a last laugh kind of effort, but in true Barrett fashion it provides the framework for some of the zaniest sounds I had yet encountered. As a teen who dabbled in dagga (marijuana) this would probably have blown my sweet little mind. Today, sans external stimulants, I am able to appreciate its incredible inventiveness. Bike is a song about a bike: “I’ve got a bike, you can ride it if you like. / It’s got a basket, a bell that rings / And things to make it look good. / I’d give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it.” The song slows for: “You’re the kind of girl that fits in with my world. / I’ll give you anything, everything if you want things.” Then the next, even more bizarre verse: “I’ve got a cloak it’s a bit of a joke. / There’s a tear up the front. It’s red and black. / I’ve had it for months. / If you think it could look good, then I guess it should.” We, being naughty teens, were convinced at the time that he sang, “then I guess it’s shit”. The verse concludes with the chorus: “You’re the kind of girl that fits in with my world. / I’ll give you anything, everything if you want things.” All the time, the music happens around the voice like something out of another world. There is much banging of drums and scary sounds. “I know a mouse, / and he hasn’t got a house. / I don’t know why I call him Gerald. / He’s getting rather old, but he’s a good mouse.” Next verse: “I’ve got a clan of gingerbread men. / Here a man, there a man, lots of gingerbread men. / Take a couple if you wish. They’re on the dish.” Finally, as the sounds encircle one: “I know a room full of musical tunes. / Some rhyme, some ching, most of them are clockwork. / Let’s go into the other room and make them work.” This provides one with access to a room, more a mansion in my imagination, packed with clockwork creatures, which seem very much alive. A weird and wonderful cacophony continues for what seems like several minutes, before ending with the distinct quacking of a clockwork duck.

Syd Barrett probably achieved more on this one album than most musicians do in a lifetime. Small wonder he decided to chuck it all in soon afterwards. He, with the help of a highly talented group of musicians, had hijacked the Sixties at their zenith and made the decade their own. They were now ready to explore the stratosphere, following this mind-boggling exploration of the psyche.

A Saucerful of Secrets

The next phase in the group’s development is sub-titled “Finding their feet: 1968-1970” on Wikipedia, with Gilmour, Waters and Wright all contributing songs and vocals. As I’ve said, my knowledge of the band was confined to really just that first album, Meddle and The Dark Side of the Moon, though I certainly would have heard much more along the way, remembering of course that Pink Floyd were competing with a myriad other bands at this pivotal moment between the decades, when the outpouring of creativity was at its height. What Wikipedia tells us is that Waters wrote mainly “low-key, jazzy melodies with dominant bass lines and complex, symbolic lyrics”. Gilmour “focused on guitar-driven blues jams”, and Wright “preferred melodic psychedelic keyboard-heavy numbers”. This culminated in the album, A Saucerful of Secrets, which comprised “some of the band’s most experimental music” and consisted “largely of noises, feedback, percussions, oscillators and tape loops”. Then there was something called “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict”, which was “a series of sped-up voice tape-samples resembling rodents and birds chattering that reaches its climax in a nigh-incomprehensible Scottish dialect monoloque”. Finally, there was “Careful with That Axe, Eugene”, which was “a very Waters-driven song with a bass and keyboard-heavy jam culminating in crashing drums and Waters’s primal screams”. I have to confess I don’t think I heard any of this. Perhaps it was just too obscure. Nonetheless, Wikipedia says A Saucerful of Secrets, which was released in June 1968, reached No 9 in the UK, but was the only Pink Floyd album not to chart in the US. It contained only one Barrett song, Jugband Blues, an outtake from the Piper album. Wikipedia says the album while still psychedelic, was uneven due to Barrett’s absence, but its 12-minute title track “hinted at the epic, lengthy songs to come”. Poorly received by the critics at the time, it is today, says Wikipedia, seen in a kinder light in the context of the band’s overall output.


Another album that passed us by was the soundrack to the film, More, from 1969, which also reached No 9 in the UK, but only No 153 in the US. Interestingly, I see that many of the songs were “acoustic folk songs”, such as Green Is The Colour and Cymbaline, with the latter apparently the first Pink Floyd song to reveal Waters’s “cynical attitude towards the music industry”. The band seemed to receive much leeway, with Ummagumma, the next album, a mix of live recordings and “unchecked studio experimentation”. Apparently the title is Cambridge slang for sexual intercourse. The studio part of the album was “wildly experimental”, and included Waters’s “pure folk Grantchester Meadows”, “an atonal and jarring piano piece”, and so on. That long-titled creature mentioned earlier, which ends with Pict, is a Waters creation comprising his voice “played at varied speeds”. The live disc, however, apparently features “acclaimed performances of some of their most popular psychedelic-era compositions”. The album hit No 5 in the UK and No 74 in the US.

Atom Heart Mother

This was a time when every good prog rock band deserved to perform at least once with an orchestra. Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother (1970) was such an album, a collaboration with avant-garde composer Ron Geesin. The most bizarre-sounding piece on the album seems to be Psychedelic Breakfast, which, Wikipedia says, “was a sound collage of a man cooking and eating breakfast and his thoughts on the matter, linked with instrumentals”. But all this was leading somewhere, with Wikipedia saying “the use of noises, incidental sound effects and voice samples would thereafter be an important part of the band’s sound”. While slated as inaccessible, it reached No 1 in the UK and No 55 in the US – even though both Waters and Gilmour later called it rubbish. However, its success did enable to group to embark on their first US tour.


The years we probably got back into Pink Floyd coincided roughly with my high school years. Wikipedia calls 1971-1975 the “breakthrough era”, and says it came about after they quit the psychedelic scene and “became a distinctive band who are difficult to classify”, which seems a contradiction. This is because the sound was new and unique, a merging of the “divergent styles of the primary songwriters, Gilmour, Waters and Wright”. It is an era, says Wikipedia, which contains “what many consider to be two of the band’s masterpiece albums, The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here”. It was a truly collaborative period, says Wikipedia, “with the philosophic lyrics and distinctive bass lines of Waters combining with the unique blues guitar style of Gilmour and Wright’s light keyboard melodies”. Gilmour, it seems, was the dominant vocalist, while female choirs and saxophone contributions by Dick Parry also contributed. The “very smooth, mellow and soothing sound” was encapsulated in the lengthy epic, Echoes. But, says Wikipedia, from 1973 Waters’s influence became more dominant musically and lyrically. Until he left the band in 1985. I have read this before, but it is worth repeating that the famous Shine On You Crazy Diamond on Wish You Were Here was a tribute and elegy to Barrett. I’ll get back to those albums, but I see Meddle approacheth. This is the album, from 1971, which I personally found so appealing. Wikipedia says the band’s sound was “considerably more focused on Meddle”, on which Echoes at 23 minutes takes up the entire second side of the LP. This song offered one a “trip” without the need of drugs. So long as all was peaceful around you, you could settle back and soak up what Wikipedia calls a “smooth progressive rock song with extended guitar and keyboard solos and a long seque in the middle consisting largely of synthesised whale song produced on guitar, along with samples of crows cawing, described by Waters as a ‘sonic poem’ ”. Nick Mason apparently described Meddle as “the first real Pink Floyd album. It introduced the idea of a theme that can be returned to”. Apparently the song One Of These Days became a concert favourite, especially when Mason menacingly says “One of these days I’m going to cut you into little pieces”. I’d love to hear this album again. One Of These Days evidently contains “distorted and bluesy lap steel guitar, and a melody that at one point seques into a throbbing synthetic pulse quoting the theme tune of the cult classic science fiction television show, Doctor Who”.

Fearless has a mellow, country feeling which is echoed in the later albums, as does A Pillow Of Winds, an acoustic love song. Then there was Waters’s jazzy San Tropez, the mood of which I can still recall. A look at the lyrics, reaffirms my affinity for these songs. But the only song that is really familiar is Echoes itself. A joint composition by all four, it is, for me, the quintessential Pink Floyd sound. With the music described earlier, imagine these words encased in that smooth, flowing, soothing eiderdown of sound: “Overhead the albatross / Hangs motionless upon the air / And deep beneath the rolling waves / In labyrinths of coral caves / An echo of a distant time / Comes willowing across the sand / And everything is green and submarine.” It is like a long, lyrical poem, which just takes one on a journey to pleasant places. “And no one called us to the land / And no one knows the where’s or why’s. / Something stirs and something tries / Starts to climb toward the light. / Strangers passing in the street / By chance two separate glances meet / And I am you and what I see is me.” The journey continues. “And do I take you by the hand / And lead you through the land / And help me understand / The best I can. / And no one called us to the land / And no one crosses there alive. / No one speaks and no one tries / No one flies around the sun.... ” The song moves ineluctably on: “Almost every day you fall / Upon my waking eyes, / Inviting and inciting me / To rise. / And through the window in the wall / Come streaming in on sunlight wings / A million bright ambassadors of morning.” Isn’t that a marvellous line? Finally: “And no one sings me lullabys / And no one makes me close my eyes / So I throw the windows wide / And call to you across the sky ... ” Even the words alone for me evoke something of the peace that this song generates. It’s title is apt, because in those long periods where single guitar notes ping and re-ping in a seeming void, you find your mind taken on a gentle journey away from the humdrum humilities of life.

For most people, Meddle – which reached No 3 in the UK but only No 70 in the US – probably doesn’t really feature on their Pink Floyd must-hear list. Wikipedia, however, says that today it “remains one of the most well-regarded efforts”. Which is a massive understatement.

Obscured by Clouds

Obscured by Clouds, from 1972, was the soundrack to a film, La Vallee, and it reached No 46 in the US and No 6 in the UK. While I knew of the album, I can’t recall hearing it. Wikipedia says the songs are generally shorter, “often taking a somewhat pastoral approach compared to the atmospheric use of sound effects and keyboard on sections of Meddle”.

The Dark Side of the Moon

The “massively successful” The Dark Side of the Moon was released in 1973, when I was in Standard 9, or Grade 11. I recall our headmaster, Eric Cragg, even played it once for us at assembly. There was a turntable on the stage and he simply walked up to it, without saying a word, and put on the record, which he played for about 20 minutes, possibly a whole side. I forget the reason he did it, but the memory remains. Wikipedia says the album’s release was “a watershed moment in the band’s popularity”. Even though not a hit-single-driven group, the track Money became a US Top 20 hit. The album was the band’s first US No 1, and by December 2006 had become one of the biggest selling albums of all time in the US, with more than 40 million copies sold. It remained on the US Billboard Top 200 for an unprecedented 741 weeks, which included 591 consecutive weeks from 1976 till 1988, a world record. Ironically, back home in the UK, the album only reached No 2, though it stayed on the charts there for 301 weeks.

I have to confess that up until yesterday, as I write, I had not really listened to The Dark Side of the Moon. Of course I had heard it, and the song Money was very familiar, but I had never really sat down in a quiet house and given it my undivided attention before. My conclusion? The album is not nearly as inventive as Piper, or as mellow as Meddle. But it does have a new formula for success, a new Pink Floyd “sound” which seemed set to last, based on great vocal harmonies and a new form of inventiveness. I had not realised, either, that this is really one single track, with each song “sequeing” into the next. As a concept album it is a cracker, well worth spending the time listening to it. It is probably also the first LP to contain the key Anglo-Saxon expletive in the first line of its lyrics, albeit that these are background spoken words. The album starts – and ends - with a heart beat. Well, some sort of electronic wizardry provides a heart-beat rhythm on Speak To Me. A voice says: “I’ve been mad for fucking years, absolutely years, been over the edge for yonks, been working me buns off for bands ... I’ve always been mad, I know I’ve been mad, like the most of us ... very hard to explain why you’re mad, even if you’re not mad ...” It is a bit rambling, but sets the tone, as what sounds like a military chopper (shades of Vietnam) pours out of the speakers, along with screams and then, and then the big, full, wholesome sound of PINK FLOYD. But while the chords are big, the sound is gentle and soothing, as the next song, Breathe, takes over.

This was not an album packed with hits. Instead, it was among the first fully fledged concept albums, with the division between tracks being virtually non-existent.

At least on an old vinyl album it was possible to see when you moved from one track to the next, but on CD – which I listened to recently – unless you keep a beady eye on the player, you wouldn’t be able to tell.

Track one, Speak To Me, a Mason composition, is short, just 1:16. The next track, Breathe, a Waters, Gilmour, Wright composition, is a welcome, soothing breath of fresh air after that somewhat harsh introduction. Those typical Pink Floyd harmonies are superb: “Breathe, breathe in the air. / Don’t be afraid to care. / Leave but don’t leave me. / Look around and choose your own ground.” The next verse is so typically Pink Floyd. “Long you live and high you fly / And smiles you’ll give and tears you’ll cry / And all you touch and all you see / Is all your life will ever be.” The use of special sound effects was a key part of their act, and here we have a woman’s voice making airport-type announcements, running footsteps, more chopper-like sounds and a warlike organ. There is a Star Wars-like feel to the sounds, with space travel evoked through feedback in similar fashion to how Hendrix achieved it.

Time, the next track (over seven minutes long and another joint composition, is fairly rudely announced, with the shrill ringing of an old black telephone, and the chiming of bells. As big bass chords are sounded, there is a sense of urgency: “Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day / You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way. / Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town / Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.” A nice bluesy guitar steps in as the song gets gentler: “Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain. / You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today. / And then one day you find ten years have got behind you. / No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.” Soaring, searing lead guitar – (reminiscent of Crosby Stills Nash and Young on Fourway Street) and a strident female choir follow, before the song mellows.

Piano and slide guitar introduce The Great Gig in the Sky, a Wright composition, followed by the spoken words: “ ‘And I am not frightened of dying, any time will do, / I don’t mind. / Why should I be frightened of dying? / There’s no reason for it, you’ve gotta go sometime.” The beautiful round Floyd sound is again to the fore here, with organ and a shrill female choir, with Clare Torry on lead vocal, getting increasingly shrill and Janis Joplin-like before the song again mellows, along with sensual oohs and aahs.

As with the others, this song seques into Money, probably the most well known song off the album. Here, instead of an alarm clock, it is a cash register which sets the song in motion, and sets up a rhythm. It is soon joined by great bass, guitar and drums. Wikipedia had mentioned that this album was big on saxophone, and it is here that a really great, jazzy saxophone lead brings the mid-section to life. The succeeding lead guitar solo is even heavier, leading to a long and impressive bit of improvisation. Oh, and there is also some great work here on the organ.

We all probably know the tune of Roger Waters’s song, but what of the lyrics? “Money, get away. / Get a good job with good pay and you’re okay. / Money, it’s a gas. / Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash. / New car, caviar, four star daydream, / Think I’ll buy me a football team.”

It’s a song about materialism. “Money, get back./ I’m all right Jack keep your hands off of my stack. / Money, it’s a hit. / Don’t give me that do goody good bullshit. / I’m in the high-fidelity first class travelling set / And I think I need a Lear jet.” And didn’t the money just start rolling in for this band? “Money, it’s a crime. / Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie. / Money, so they say / Is the root of all evil today / But if you ask for a raise it’s no surprise that they’re / giving none away.” In typical Floyd style, the song fades out with a British-accented voice chatting away.

The album has echoes of the Beatles near the end of their reign, not only in these touches, but also in the sort of harmonies the group achieve. This is probably even more noticeable on Us and Them, the next track, which starts with that typical gentle, full Floyd sound, and some incredibly lovely bass sax. A Waters/ Wright composition, nearly eight minutes long the song starts with echoed lyrics: “Us, and them / And after all we’re only ordinary men. / Me, and you. / God only knows it’s not what we would choose to do. / Forward he cried from the rear / and the front rank died. / And the general sat and the lines on the map / moved from side to side ...” This song has some lovely passages – or perhaps it was the next one, the instrumental, Any Colour You Like, a Gilmour, Mason, Wright composition. That female choir and piano, jazzy sax and organ, lovely Beatles-like chords and sharp, quirky lead guitar make this a key part of the album, which leads to the song that gave the album its title.

Brain Damage, a Roger Waters song, leads into Eclipse, which he also wrote. The two inextricable really, are, I guess, the climax of the album, which started with a madman and ends with one. Precisely what the whole project means I’m sure has been analysed and dissected over the years, but let’s look at those lyrics, which initially are sung to a quiet, folksy sound. “The lunatic is on the grass. / The lunatic is on the grass. / Remembering games and daisy chains and laughs. / Got to keep the loonies on the path. 2. The lunatic is in the hall. / The lunatics are in my hall. / The paper holds their folded faces to the floor / And every day the paper boy brings more.” The song then gets a whole lot heavier: “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.”

There you have it - a song that owes much to the lunar programmes which so recently preceded it. The moon had become common poetic currency. But it is not a happy song, with some mad laughter accompanying the next verse: “The lunatic is in my head. / The lunatic is in my head / You raise the blade, you make the change / You re-arrange me ’til I’m sane. / You lock the door / And throw away the key / There’s someone in my head but it’s not me.” The song reaches a cracking climax with the lines: “And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear / You shout and no one seems to hear. / And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes / I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon. / I can’t think of anything to say except ... I think it’s marvellous! HaHaHa!’ ”
Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s Madman Across the Water and Eric Burdon’s Gemini: The Madman. This surely ranks alongside those gems of lunar-cy. And it reaches its apotheosis in Eclipse, the last, interlinked, track on the album. Has there ever been a gloomier conclusion to a highly successful song: “All that you touch / All that you see / All that you taste / All you feel. / All that you love / All that you hate / All you distrust / All you save. / All that you give / All that you deal / All that you buy, / beg, borrow or steal. / All you create / All you destroy / All that you do / All that you say. / All that you eat / And everyone you meet / All that you slight / And everyone you fight. / All that is now / All that is gone / All that’s to come / and everything under the sun is in tune / but the sun is eclipsed by the moon.”

And then the concluding lines: “There is no dark side of the moon really. Matter of fact it’s all dark” and that slow heart-beat rhythm. It is a very British album. Somehow, for me, it evokes the claustrophobia of a small densely populated island, where you cannot easily escape other people’s business, and vice versa.

Is there a bright side to the Pink Floyd moon?

Wikipedia, of course, helps to analyse the album, noting that the incidental sound effects and snatches of interviews used in the songs were often taped in the studio, with Waters asking things like “when was the last time you were violent” and “are you afraid of dying”. It concludes that the album attempts to “describe the different pressures that everyday life places upon human beings”. The concept, it says, was conceived by Waters in a band meeting in Mason’s kitchen. It “proved a powerful catalyst for the band and together they drew up a list of themes, several of which would be revisited by Waters on later albums, such as Us and Them’s musings on violence and the futility of war, and the themes of insanity and neurosis discussed in Brain Damage”. On the technical side, Wikipedia says the “complicated and precise sound engineering by Alan Parsons set new standards for sound fidelity; this trait became a recognisable aspect of the band’s sound and played a part in the chart success of the album, as audiophiles constantly replaced their worn-out copies”. They might have added that with the advent of CDs, this ensured yet another round of album sales.

Live at Pompeii

In the wake of the album’s success, director Adrian Maben released the first Pink Floyd concert film, Live at Pompeii, which we saw as a midnight show at an East London cinema in the mid-1970s. The main performance was at an amphitheatre in Pompeii with no audience other than film crew and stage staff. The film also included behind-the-scenes footage of the band recording The Dark Side of the Moon at Abbey Road Studio. Full-length rock movies like this were rarely given a proper run at local cinemas. Ironically, it was a couple of shorts before the main movie which – possibly because I may have nodded off during the film itself after much booze – had a bigger impact on me. The first was a few songs performed by Cat Stevens, and then there was a delightful short film featuring the songs from Strawbs’ Brave New World. My love of folk and folk-rock always, in the end, takes precedence over the heavier genres.

Wish You Were Here

As noted earlier, the next album, Wish You Were Here, released in 1975 (my first year out of school), contains the “largely instrumental, nine-part song suite”, Shine On You Crazy Diamond, which as noted earlier is a tribute to Syd Barrett, with the lyrics dealing “explicitly with the aftermath of his breakdown”, according to Wikipedia. The website says the album carries “an abstract theme of absence: absence of any humanity within the music industry and, most poignantly, the absence of Syd Barrett”. Best known for its title track, which anyone alive at the time would have been aware of, I doubt we ever actually owned this album but it certainly would have done the rounds. Most of the songs’ titles are familiar. Welcome To The Machine and Have A Cigar are evidently harsh criticisms of the music industry, with the latter in fact sung by British folk singer Roy Harper. Wikipedia detects eclectic influences, on Shine On, such as atmospheric keyboards, blues guitar pieces, extended saxophone solos by Dick Parry, jazz fusion workouts and aggressive slide guitar. These culminate “in a funeral dirge played with synthesised horn and end with a musical quote from their early song, See Emily Play, as a final nod to Barrett’s early leadership of the band”. The album was Pink Floyd’s first to reach No 1 in both the US and UK, and was highly acclaimed by the critics.

But was the album also as bleak as it sounds? And if so, why did so many people buy it? Having recently acquired a copy, I gave it a listen, and was bowled over. I mean this album is over 30 years old, but it is like the high point in the rock revolution. It is, to me, where the Beatles might have ended up. It has echoes of David Bowie, and Lindisfarne. It is a beautiful work of musical art. Art for art’s sake, and not at all depressing, despite what Wikipedia says. On the contrary, this is uplifting stuff; a moving tribute, for the main part, to a guy, Syd Barrett, who clearly meant a hell of a lot to the band.

It is another concept album par excellence. The band and its producers have, by this stage, truly mastered the art of sequeing tracks, so you get absorbed by the entire work. The album starts and ends with Shine on You Crazy Diamond, in effect a tribute to Barrett totalling some 26 minutes.

And it starts like most Floyd albums: very quietly. Indeed, like The Dark Side of the Moon, you’d be forgiven for thinking there is no sound on the album at all, until a gentle synthesiser sound gradually builds up a wall of sound – in the best possible sense of the term, not Phil Spector’s wall of noise. No here it is subtlety itself, a veritable electronic orchestra. It is difficult to tell if what sounds like a wind instrument – clarinet, flute – is that, or perhaps some synthesised sound. But there is no mistaking when the electric guitar is introduced, with big bell-like chords. Drums and bass transform the work into a sort of blues-rock sound, an orchestral, sophisticated blues.

“Remember when you were young, / You shone like the sun (laughter). / Shine on you crazy diamond. / Now there’s a look in your eyes, / Like black holes in the sky. / Shine on you crazy diamond.” This is a poignant tribute to a genius, a man before his time: “You were caught on the crossfire / Of childhood and stardom, / Blown on the steel breeze. / Come on you target for faraway laughter, / Come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine!” Roger Waters seemed to be the lyric writer, and he doesn’t mince words: “You reached for the secret too soon, / You cried for the moon. / Shine on you crazy diamond. / Threatened by shadows at night, / And exposed in the light. / Shine on you crazy diamond. / Well you wore out your welcome / With random precision, / Rode on the steel breeze. / Come on you raver, you seer of visions, / Come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine!” I wonder what Barrett, who was still very much alive, made of it? Certainly he would have loved it as a work of art. It is on this song, during that short lyrics passage, that the Bowie influence seems to come across in vocals that are outstanding. There is a lovely section where a saxophone solo runs jazzily alongside some great acoustic guitar. Raw yet sophisticated, this is one of the great songs of the modern rock era.

But of course it is only the beginning. Because soon we are hearing mechanical sounds. An engine thumping, buzzing rotor blades, steam emitted, and a steady bass line. Then some big acoustic guitar chords, a la Traffic, before the immortal lines: “Welcome my son, welcome to the machine. / Where have you been? / It’s alright we know where you’ve been. / You’ve been in the pipeline, filling in time, / Provided with toys and ‘Scouting for Boys’. / You brought a guitar to punish your ma, / And you didn’t like school, and you / know you’re nobody’s fool, / So welcome to the machine. / Welcome my son, welcome to the machine. / What did you dream? / It’s alright we told you what to dream. / You dreamed of a big star, / He played a mean guitar, / He always ate in the Steak Bar. / He loved to drive in his Jaguar. / So welcome to the Machine.” This, according to Wikipedia, is an indictment of the music industry, but for most of us these lyrics were never written down or heard properly – just the welcome to the machine refrain. It was really about the music, not the words. This was probably the first time, however, that a rock band had so convincingly evoked the image of a machine-driven world - much like the clockwork world they achieved on that first Barrett-led album, but far more sinister.

More overtly anti the music establishment is the next track, Have a Cigar, another Waters composition. This starts with some really tight blues, before the synthesiser steps in and soothes matters. It is a really cynical look at an industry which was devouring young men and women, and often leaving them dead, like Hendrix, Joplin and Jim Morrison: “Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar. / You’re gonna go far, fly high, / You’re never gonna die, / You’re gonna make it if you try; / They’re gonna love you. / Well I’ve always had a deep respect, / And I mean that most sincerely. / The band is just fantastic, / that is really what I think. / Oh by the way, which one’s Pink? / And did we tell you the name of the game, boy, / We call it Riding the Gravy Train.” The scene is set for the last turn of the satirical blade. “We’re just knocked out. / We heard about the sell out. / You gotta get an album out. / You owe it to the people. / We’re so happy we can hardly count. / Everybody else is just green, / Have you seen the chart? / It’s a helluva start, / It could be made into a monster / If we all pull together as a team. / And did we tell you the name of the game, boy, / We call it Riding the Gravy Train.”

Like Lennon and McCartney, Waters and Gilmour were capable of absolute brilliance, and I think that is an apt description of the title track, Wish You Were Here. That previous track, Have A Cigar suddenly cuts off as a lead guitar solo has spread its magic. In the ensuing silence, all one hears is the tinny sound of an acoustic guitar as if played on a shortwave radio station. Then, the cleverness of whoever was responsible becomes evident as we hear this sound being “answered” by the crisp studio sound of another acoustic guitar, like someone jamming along with something on the radio. Then, from this melody picked out on the guitar, some broadly strummed chords provide the backing for vocals which recall Lindisfarne: “So, so you think you can tell / Heaven from Hell, / Blue skies from pain. / Can you tell a green field / From a cold steel rail? / A smile from a veil? / Do you think you can tell? / And did they get you to trade / Your heroes for ghosts? / Hot ashes for trees? / Hot air for a cool breeze? / Cold comfort for change? / And did you exchange / A walk-on part in the war / For a lead role in a cage? / How I wish, how I wish you were here.” This is a bleak, Cold War scenario. I always imagined it was about wishing someone “were here, on holiday with us” sort of thing, not “here, in some tormented state”. “We're just two lost souls / Swimming in a fish bowl, / Year after year, / Running over the same old ground. / What have we found? / The same old fears. / Wish you were here.” The irony is that I don’t think many people cared much about those lyrics and what they meant. It was the song itself which so impressed, including the Paul McCartney-like da-da-daing near the end, before the song fades into the sounds of a wind storm.

And out of that emerges, a thump-thumping bass line, which is soon blanketed with synthesised violin and then bold, incisive drums, before the song coalesces into a slow fusion of blues, jazz and rock. This is the final, lengthy second part of Shine On You Crazy Diamond. “Nobody knows where you are, / How near or how far. / Shine on you crazy diamond. / Pile on many more layers / And I’ll be joining you there. / Shine on you crazy diamond. / And we’ll bask in the shadow / Of yesterday’s triumph, / And sail on the steel breeze. / Come on you boy child, / You winner and loser, / Come on you miner for truth and delusion, and shine!” It is not as if Barrett had died, yet musically it was clearly a death blow, psychologically, which took him out of circulation, and this song is a eulogy which reflects that pathos. But at the same time it retains that typical Pink Floyd playfulness which characterises most of their work, and makes it so listenable. Here is some lovely, perky electric piano which as it threatens to get monotonous fades out, only to be replaced by a new sound, a new rhythm, a new melody. Eventually, dirge-like, the song and the album, fade out into the silence with which it started.


Wikipedia lists the period from 1976 till 1985 as the “Roger Waters-led era, but for me it was essentially only about one Pink Floyd song, Another Brick In The Wall. Not even the album, The Wall, just that song. So let’s see how it came to pass. Wikipedia says as Waters became more assertive, so Wright’s influence waned, and he was “fired from the band during the recording of The Wall”. The website says the music during this period was largely considered secondary to the lyrics, which explored Waters’s feelings about this father’s death in the Second World War, and his “increasingly cynical attitude towards political figures such as Margaret Thatcher and Mary Whitehouse”. It seems the music becomes more guitar-based, with keyboards and saxophone now mainly adding background texture. But a full orchestra played a “significant role” on The Wall and especially The Final Cut.

The next album was Animals (1977), which made No 2 in the UK and No 3 in the US. I have probably not heard it, because like most of the world, I came under the spell not so much of punk rock, but of its more refined successor, New Wave. Also, there were just so many other great sounds out there at the time that frankly, having first heard Pink Floyd nearly a decade earlier, they were pretty much old hat. Wikipedia says the album is the first not to have a single songwriting credit for Rick Wright. It again has lengthy songs “tied to a theme, this time taken in part from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which used pigs, dogs and sheep as metaphors for members of contemporary society”. While many found the album tedious and bleak, says Wikipedia, others liked it for those very reasons. For many it is best known for its album cover artwork – a giant inflatable pig floating between the chimney towers of London’s Battersea power station. Wikipedia notes that from then, inflatable pigs became a key part of the band’s live performances.

The Wall

But what was The Wall all about? The 1979 “epic rock opera”, says Wikipedia, was conceived by Waters and dealt with “the themes of loneliness and failed communication, which were expressed by the metaphor of a wall built between a rock artist and his audience”. And there was I thinking this was all about global politics, and the most notorious wall in the world: the one dividing Berlin, the one that symbolised the great division between capitalist West and communist East which throughout my lifetime had threatened to lead to a war that would blow the world asunder. But no, it seems this was all about one musician’s artistic expression. Which is fine, if a trifle thin as far as a concept is concerned. Certainly, the song, Another Brick In The Wall, had connotations for South Africa. Bantu education – the inferior tuition offered to black people under apartheid – precipitated, following the forced use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, to the June 16, 1976, Soweto uprisings, the ramifications of which were still being felt in 1979. And July 1979 was the month that I finally succumbed to military conscription, having spent the past four years studying fine art at the East London Technical College, and thereby avoiding the call-up. So it was while in a military base in Kimberley that I became aware of just how seriously the military commissars took the impact which songs like Brick In The Wall were supposedly having. “We don’t need no education” was definitely not written with the Soweto school pupils’ uprising in mind, but the apartheid apparatchiks didn’t care. They had a “total onslaught” by the “outside world” to manufacture in order to justify their “total strategy”, which entailed keeping the lid on black aspirations and opposition, and nailing us young white males through seemingly endless bouts of military camps.

I see, from Wikipedia, that the album “gave Pink Floyd renewed acclaim and their only chart-topping single with Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)’. I have been remiss in not getting hold of the album, but as I said, there was so much else out there at the time. Evidently Comfortably Numb and Run Like Hell later became concert staples. I don’t think I know them, but would certainly like to hear them. As Wright’s influence waned and he was fired from the band, Wikipedia says he only returned “on a fixed wage” for the live shows in support of the album. And, ironically, as a result he was the only one to earn any money from the concerts, with “the rest covering the extensive cost overruns of their most spectacular concerts yet”. This was probably at the height of those lavish, over-the-top live shows where spectacle replaced musical substance as the key ingredient. The current unpleasant commercialisation of serious rock music probably stems from this, no doubt sincere, attempt to replicate the early experiments of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, whose “exploding plastic inevitables” – helium-filled silver pillowcase-shaped balloons, which floated about the stage during their performances in the late 1960s. The Wall hit No 3 in the UK and spent 15 weeks at No 1 in the US in 1980. It sold over 30 million copies worldwide, 23 million of them in the US. The band was the first since the Beatles to have the best-selling albums of two years (1973 and 1980) in less than a decade. I’ve seen snatches of the 1982 film, Pink Floyd: The Wall, which includes most of the music off the album, but never really got into it, which is something else I promise to do sometime. Starring Bob Geldof and animation by British artist Gerald Scarfe, film critic Leonard Maltin called it “the world’s longest rock video, and certainly the most depressing”. Which is probably why I never really got into it. Nonetheless, it grossed $14-million at the North American box office.

It is probably worth looking at those lyrics of Another Brick In The Wall which got the apartheid rulers in a froth. Part 1, which was not the single, clearly deals with Waters’s loss of his father: “Daddy’s flown across the ocean / Leaving just a memory

Snapshot in the family album / Daddy what else did you leave for me? / Daddy, what’d’ja leave behind for me?!? / All in all it was just a brick in the wall. / All in all it was all just bricks in the wall. / ‘You! Yes, you! Stand still laddy!’ ”

Part 2 is the one that rang alarm bells for our apartheid rulers, who had had quite enough of kids objecting to the sort of education they were receiving, not to mention claims of indoctrination and thought control. Also, the song had a militant, aggressive tone, which I am sure they feared might be taken up by the “revolutionaries”. Little did they realise that a) most township kids had probably never heard the song, and b) it would be that same generation of 1976 high school pupils who, in 20 years’ time, would be among those running the country. But consider the impact a song like this had on the psyches of our narrow-minded, paranoid rulers: “We don’t need no education / We don’t need no thought control / No dark sarcasm in the classroom / Teachers leave them kids alone / Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone! / All in all it’s just another brick in the wall. / All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.” This verse is repeated before there is a change, and the lambasting - including a line from Dickens’s Oliver Twist - begins: “ ‘Wrong, Do it again!’ / ‘If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding. How can you /have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?’ / ‘You! Yes, you behind the bike sheds, stand still laddy!’ ” All in all, I can only think Waters must have had a rather traumatic childhood, especially his schooldays. The song must also have reflected opposition at the time in the UK to the regimented, authoritarian nature of the state schooling system.

The Final Cut

It is only now, in retrospect, that I realise how important it is to show generosity of spirit when reviewing music, or fine art. It is ever so easy to be dismissive of something without first engaging with it, opening yourself up to whatever it offers. If, in the end it is crap, you’ll know it soon enough. But if there’s merit, you’ll only discover it if you make the effort to listen to the music, or look at the art works. So it would be easy for me to dismiss the 1983 album, The Final Cut, which Waters dedicated to his late father, on the strength of Wikipedia’s observation that it is “even darker in tone” than The Wall. But it is clearly also an important work by a band, and Waters especially, who were gifted composers. In it, Waters expresses anger at Britain’s role in the Falklands War of 1982, and concludes with “a cynical and frightening glimpse at the possibility of nuclear war (Two Suns In The Sunset)”. Which reminds me of that classic song, sung by The Dubliners, in which they sing of how “the sun has come to earth / shrouded in a mushroom cloud of ash”. It was, and still remains, a major global concern, especially as developing nations like India and Pakistan become nuclear powers.

Roger Waters

The album, it seems, was a Waters solo album in all but name. Indeed, with no band listed on the front cover, the back called it “The Final Cut – A requiem for the post-war dream by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd: Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason.” Waters was the sole songwriter. Criticised for being repetitious, the album still made No 1 in the UK and No 6 in the US. Meanwhile, Waters and Gilmour were growing further and further apart. It was thus no surprise that they then went their separate ways, with Gilmour releasing his first solo album, About Face, in March 1984. Waters responded with The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking, two months later.

David Gilmour

The years 1987 to 1995 are cited by Wikipedia as the David Gilmour-led era, with Waters having finally left the band in December 1985, describing it as “a spent force creatively”. The new band saw Gilmour and Mason working on a new album in 1986, with Waters launching a legal challenge to the continued use of the band’s name, which was settled out of court. A Momentary Lapse of Reason was released, without Waters, and reached No 3 in the UK and the US. It is at about this point that I have started to lose interest. The collapse of bands and their reincarnations are tedious. Sure, these are gifted musicians and composers, and I’m sure they continue to make impressive albums and play at awesome live concerts. But I prefer to recall the band, Pink Floyd, from those heady days of the late 1960s and 1970s, when they gelled and were in the pink of their prime. Because the acrimony seemed to continue. In 1996, for instance, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but Waters did not attend. Inevitably, the re-releases are going ahead apace, which is good, because it enables those with clapped-out LPs to get the albums on CD, and lets the youth of today sample some of the greatest sounds of the modern rock era.

One noteworthy reunion occurred on July 2, 2005, when Gilmour, Mason and Wright got together for a one-off show at the London Live 8 concert – and were joined by Waters, making it the first time in 24 years all four were on stage together. After the show, as Gilmour walked off stage, Waters called him back and the subsequent group hug became the most famous picture of Live 8. The reconciliation lasted, though not musically. On November 16, 2005, the band were inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame by Pete Townshend. Gilmour and Mason attended, Wright was in hospital, and Waters appeared on a video screen from Rome. Since then, speculation of a reunion has continued. After the death of Syd Barrett in July 2006, it was hoped they would reunite to honour their late founder, but to no avail.

As I write, in late 2009, it a full 42 years since that bizarre, brilliant first Pink Floyd album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, burst on the scene. The world has been enriched beyond measure by the work all members have done down the years.

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