This is going to be a fairly music-heavy spotlight, since I believe that in many cases the music speaks for itself better than I could.
Pink Floyd’s origin story is somewhat murky and hard to explain, to make it short, they coalesced from about 1963 to 1966 in Cambridge, England, where most of the band had gone to school. In their early lineups they were known as Sigma Six, later the Tea Set, but upon finding another band also called the Tea Set, lead singer and guitarist, Roger Keith “Syd” Barret, improvised a new name based on his record collection, which included bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Their earliest material was neither the Psychedelic rock nor the Progressive rock they became known for, but rhythm and blues, mostly covers. Over the course of 1966 they began to experiment and found success as a psychedelic band, which is where our story really begins, I suppose.
The Early Floyd, under Syd Barret’s leadership, are marked by a childlike, almost regressive sense of playfulness and subject matter, though even then an undercurrent of melancholy could often be detected. To represent this era I’ve chosen their second single, See Emily Play, as well as Matilda Mother, from their first Album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and the album’s final song, Bike. Despite its noisy, often sonically-dense nature, I find that Piper is a wonderful album to just put on and relax to, and surprisingly enough I think it’s actually one of their most accessible works, especially if you’re not much a fan of their later sound.
By 1967, Syd’s behavior had become erratic as a result of heavy LSD use, and his old school chum, David Gilmour, was asked to become the band’s touring guitarist, while Syd could focus on just singing, songwriting, and recording. However it was a tense, tenuous period, as Syd often simply refused to perform, and eventually the band stopped traveling with him at all. His only contribution to their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, was the heavily bipolar (some might even call it schizophrenic) Jugband Blues, is essentially a lash out at his bandmates. Syd left the band shortly after. During their last practice session together, Syd brought in a new song called “Have You Got It Yet”, which he kept radically changing between takes. The other members of the band, reportedly, appreciated the cleverness of the prank, but had had enough, and on April 8th, 1968, announced that Syd was no longer a member of the band.
The next few years would be a transitional era for Pink Floyd. During this interregnum, they released Ummagumma, their first live album and their first double album. The second, studio disc of Ummagumma set the pattern for their records of this period– an elaborate full-band piece, then a few smaller songs, usually one primarily composed by or prominently featuring each member of the band in turn. They also provided the soundtracks to two experimental films, More and La Vallée, the soundtrack for which was released under the name Obscured By Clouds. Roger Waters, the band’s bassist, ultimately emerged as the primary creative force for the band. To represent this era, I’ve chosen songs from Atom Heart Mother, reportedly the mutual least favorite album of both Waters and Gilmour, as well as from Meddle, which apart from one weak song is probably their single greatest artistic triumph up to this point in their history.
Of course, perpetual urban legends of the strange synchronicities between Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz persist, but I find this rather more interesting and enjoyable: here is the 24-minute epic Echoes, off of Meddle, synchronized to the final sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey
By 1972, Roger Waters’s creative control over the band was well-established. Over the course of the 70s, their lyrics became increasingly cynical and involved with themes of society, isolation, and the madness that ensued from either. It was during this period that they achieved their greatest critical and commercial success, producing the four albums that even non-fans associate them with: Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here (written as a tribute to Syd, who briefly attempted to rejoin Pink Floyd during its recording), Animals (Loosely based on the concept of Orwell’s Animal Farm, but intended as a critique of capitalist society rather than Soviet communism), and The Wall. For these four albums, I have elected to eschew their most well-known singles, which you are probably familiar with, in favor of other favorite or thematically-important songs.
While Meddle, Dark Side, and Wish You Were Here each make a strong case for being Pink Floyd as a whole’s magnum opus, Roger Waters’s great work is undoubtedly Pink Floyd’s 1979 rock opera The Wall, a partially-autobiographical parable for the destructive and dehumanizing effects of choosing isolation over empathy in response to pain. The Wall was conceived after a concert in Toronto during which Roger literally spat in the face of an unruly fan in the front row and found himself horrified by what fame was turning him into.
During the recording of The Wall, longtime tensions within Pink Floyd started to crack, and the band would lose one of its defining sonic elements when Waters fired longtime Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright. The Wall also represented a visual break for Pink Floyd, as rather than their usual collaboration with Storm Thorgerson of the design group Hipgnosis, the band turned to political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe to produce art for the album and its associated concert tour– one of the most expensive in history. For this tour, Wright was re-hired as a session musician, and reportedly as a result of the tour’s great expense he was the only member of the band that actually made any money on it. In 1982 the Wall was made into a film, a collaboration between Waters, Scarfe, and director Alan Parker, starring Boomtown Rats lead vocalist Bob Geldof in the lead role. Some of the film’s imagery was inspired by Roger’s memories of Syd’s breakdown. We’ll talk more about the continuing evolution of The Wall a little later.
1982 also saw the release of The Final Cut. Initially envisioned as a soundtrack album to the cinematic version of The Wall, the declaration of the Falklands War resulted in Roger reworking the album– in its finished form it ended up including no material from the Wall, but being one part anti-Thatcher/anti-Nuclear War protest album, one part expansion of The Wall‘s themes, and one part memorial to Roger’s father, who had died at Anzio and whom he never knew; and a Waters solo album in all but name. After The Final Cut, Waters deemed Pink Floyd “a spent force, creatively speaking”, and attempted to dissolve the band. This led to a lot of nasty lawsuits he ultimately came to regret, which ultimately left Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason holding onto the Pink Floyd name, and Waters retaining the rights to The Wall and The Final Cutand embarking on a modestly-successful solo career. We mostly won’t talk about that except where it continues to intersect with Pink Floyd.
In 1990, Roger Waters performed the Wall live once again, on the site of the former Berlin wall, as a charity concert. He was backed up by a veritable cornucopia of stars, including the Scorpions, Cyndi Lauper, Joni Mitchell, The Band, Van Morrison, Sinead O’Connor, Bryan Adams, Marianne Faithful, Thomas Dolby, and Tim Curry.
With Waters out of the band, David Gilmour took the lead as far as songwriting and general frontman stuff. He rehired Richard Wright, first as a session/touring musician and then as a full member of the band. During this time only two albums were produced, 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason and 1994’s The Division Bell. For the most part, both albums are similar in thematic content, continuing on Waters’s themes of isolation, but with a more mournful edge to them and somewhat less cynicism. I’ve always seen them as reflective of regrets about the acrimonious near-breakup of the band. Gilmour’s partner Polly Samson contributed heavily to the lyrics of The Division Bell, and I’ll just say it here, she’s mostly not very good.
And that was where it left off for years.
On July 2nd, 2005, all four members of Pink Floyd’s longest-running lineup reunited in London for Bob Geldof’s Live 8 charity event, performing several of their biggest hits. Some fans were hopeful for a reunion tour, but it never materialized. Syd Barret passed away in 2007; and Richard Wright followed in 2011.
Roger would later perform Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety on tour from 2006 to 2008, and in 2010 would revisit The Wall for a final time. He recreated many elements of the original 1980-1981 concert tour, including the elaborate puppets and the erection of a massive artificial wall between the performers and the audience that was destroyed during the finale. But he also reworked the themes of the album slightly, increasing its anti-war themes and inviting fans to send in photos of loved ones that had been killed by war to feature in the show, as well as writing an entirely new song, The Ballad of Jean-Charles de Menezes. Waters reunited with Gilmour and Mason during the May 12, 2011 performance at London’s O2 Arena.
In 2014, Pink Floyd released what will most likely prove to be their final album, The Endless River, a reworking of unused material– primarily from the Division Bell sessions– into a suite of four instrumental pieces, as well as one original song with lyrics by Peggy Samson.