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When Johnny Rotten first walked into Malcolm McLaren's life, Rotten was wearing a torn Pink Floyd tee shirt with the words "I Hate" in magic marker scrawled all over it. Maybe you're of a similar persuasion these days, even if you own several Floyd albums. Or maybe, like the sleazy record executive in the band's hit "Have a Cigar," you're truly confused about "which one's Pink?" For, you see, the Pink Floyd saga is really the story of four bands housed under one logo:
The Pink Floyd led by acid avatar Syd Barrett.
The "We Can Pretend to Be Just As Crazy As Syd" Pink Floyd.
The "I Am Waters, Hear Me Roar" Pink Floyd.
The "Hey, Let's Be Pink Floyd Without Roger" Pink Floyd.
The following is a primer to help set you right on such delicate matters. Only the last aggregation is still recording; its latest release, The Division Bell, arrived in stores April 5. Neither TDB's merits nor the band's sold-out date Sunday at Tempe's Sun Devil Stadium can fully be appreciated without first getting in touch with our feelings about the band's past work. Besides, what's a Pink Floyd article without a couple of acid flashbacks?
In 1965, Syd Barrett forms a rock group with his Cambridge colleagues Roger Waters, Rick Wright and Nick Mason. Although composed of art students, a more artless group than the Architectural Abdabs would be hard to imagine. Its repertoire consists mainly of "Louie Louie" and "Roadrunner," occasionally peppered with bursts of psychedelia. Its fate and its name are about to change.
One London day, Barrett spots an album featuring Georgia bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Immediately, he seizes upon the combination of the two names as the perfect new handle for the group. After deciding that the Anderson Council sounds "too establishment" (or, worse, like the name of a bad Ben Gazzara movie), they become the Pink Floyd Sound.
Almost immediately, the Pinks gain notoriety for being the first British band to perform with a distracting light show superimposed over it. However, no amount of blinking, blue spots can disguise the fact that the group is still performing "Louie Louie." Needing original material to secure a record contract, Syd takes it upon himself to become the band's resident Lennon and McCartney.
"Arnold Layne," the first Floyd single, is blocks away from "Penny Lane," the Beatles' hit of the day. Though both are set in London suburbia, Barrett's ode is not about community helpers like the barber, the banker and the firefighter, but rather about the neighborhood transvestite who procures women's undergarments from the washing line. The BBC and Radio London waste no time banning the song for promoting a disturbing alternate lifestyle--stealing!
Regardless, Floyd's first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, is a great success in Britain, largely because of Syd's eccentric pop songwriting. He collaborates with the band on two of the songs, and with massive amounts of Mandrax tablets on the remaining eight.
By the time the second Pink Floyd single, "See Emily Play," is issued, Syd's daily intake of acid could rival all of Haight-Ashbury's. Although Barrett could probably use extensive psychiatric care at this point, the group's manager prescribes a few appearances on American television instead.
In December 1967, Pink Floyd makes its U.S. TV debut on American Bandstand. Mixing psychedelics with ventriloquism, Syd refuses to move his lips while miming to the single (not unlike Johnny "I Hate Pink Floyd" Rotten will do when Public Image Ltd appears on the show in 1981). Syd's even more antisocial on The Pat Boone Show; he rewards the cheery host's questions with blank and catatonic stares.
It soon becomes obvious even to Pink Floyd's stoned-out-of-its-gourd audience that Syd's only playing a C-chord throughout the entire live show. This necessitates the band expanding to a five-piece, with guitarist David Gilmour essentially there to parrot Barrett licks from the records. The lads continue to tolerate Syd's fascination with jug-band music, but when he suggests Pink Floyd's commercial breakthrough hinges on adding two saxophone players and some girlie singers, they send Syd packing.
With rock's first volatile Syd now out of the picture, the group loses all vestiges of a personality. And for the next four years, the Faceless Four will maintain a lower profile than most vice presidents. On its initial post-Syd albums, the band pioneers the instrumental space-rock genre, scoring music for artsy European films few people will ever see. Amazingly, these experiments snowball into a rabid cult following for Pink Floyd. But the group soon becomes bored with its image as the "band that eats asteroids for breakfast" and comes hurtling earthward.
Floyd's first album of the Seventies, Atom Heart Mother, arrives in record stores with a very attractive cow on the front cover. The record inside, however, contains nothing but utter disappointments. By now, a familiar Floyd holding pattern has emerged--when in doubt, apply sound effects!
Waters, the band's in-house Mr. Rogers, seems dead-set on proving you can make music using any common household noises. "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast," the album's finale, consists of little more than the sound of bacon and eggs sizzling in a pan from speaker to speaker.
David Gilmour also has an agenda, which includes the art of subliminal song-stealing. Rewriting Ray Davies' "Lazy Old Sun" as "Fat Old Sun," Dave utilizes the identical church-bell sound effects the Kinks used on "Big Black Smoke." Things get even worse on the Meddle album with "San Tropez," Dave's entry in the Nilsson sound-alike sweepstakes! Somebody set the controls to the dark side of the moon--and hurry!
In 1973, the group releases its masterwork. When its label wants to premiäre Dark Side of the Moon with a quadraphonic listening party at the London Planetarium, the band members, eager to ditch their cosmic image, beg off appearing. EMI is forced to send four life-size cutouts of the band in their place, and it's a testament to Floyd's continuing lack of personality that no one complains.
Yet a personality finally does emerge from within the ranks--Roger Waters. Once he assumes all lyric-writing duties, the band's random experimentation has the direction it's lacked since Syd's expulsion. Oddly, adding the girlie vocals and the saxophone they scoffed at Syd for suggesting helps make this their most accessible album to date. The band even scores an unlikely AM radio hit in the U.S. with "Money." But worldwide success and a hit single don't sit well with Waters. He begins to regard the whole mindless adulation surrounding the group as if it were a suspicious boil on the back of the neck. On the last show of the Animals tour, Pink goes punk when Roger hurls a clammy goober in the face of a worshiping fan. This inspires Waters to erect a wall between himself and the audience on the next tour.
It could've been worse. He could've been inspired by the audience featured in the film Pink Floyd at Pompeii and decided that what Floyd's audience really needed was hot, molten lava poured all over it. That'll teach it not to yell out requests for "Money."
The Wall reveals Waters' contempt for Floyd's audience in full bloom. Why else would he choose such an illegible calligraphy in which to scribble the lyrics? Plus, he enlists producer Bob Ezrin, a man incapable of working with an artist--Alice Cooper, Kiss, Peter Gabriel and Lou Reed, to name a few--without sticking singing children all over the album. Pink Floyd proves no exception. Kiddy voices and all, "Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)" zooms to No. 1 on the singles chart, while the double album goes on to sell 17 million copies.
The all-powerful, all-mighty Rog is quick to take all the credit. After the album's completion, he ousts keyboardist Rick Wright and decrees that no one else in the band will get a writing credit on the next Floyd album. Not that they'd want one on The Final Cut, aptly named since all one can think about while listening to this dreck is, "When is it going to be over?" A Roger Waters solo album in Pink clothing, it does disappointing business and is a harbinger of the chilly reception his next three solo albums will receive. Surprisingly, he ignores this omen and leaves Floyd to pursue the aforementioned unsuccessful solo career! And they said Syd was nuts!
Unwilling to give up a perfectly good brand name, Gilmour rounds up all the nonvegetating Floyd members he can to record A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Waters, incensed that the group doesn't just roll over and play Syd, starts harassing it with lawsuits. At one point, the infighting gets so bad that the Sun runs a story stating that Waters commissioned an artist to make 150 rolls of toilet paper with Gilmour's face stamped on every sheet.
Undaunted, the two-ply guitarist mounts one of the most lucrative tours in rock history. Whereas the Stones, the Who, Bowie and McCartney all vie to pull in megabucks with their "greatest hits"-styled shows, the Floyd introduces a new wrinkle--a "greatest props" tour! But this is no mere recycling job. Note the inventiveness involved in bringing back the infamous, 40-foot inflatable pig from the Animals tour--this time equipped with male genitals!
And instead of a flaming plane dive-bombing into the stage after "On the Run," a flaming, inflatable gurney does the honors. Likewise, the Gilmour special-effects team builds a white wall of smoke during "Comfortably Numb," since Waters retained custody of all 2,500 bricks used on the 1979 The Wall tour.
Count Roger Waters among the new props brought out of storage for The Division Bell. Just as Syd Barrett's presence haunted every Floyd album that followed his absence, so now does Roger Waters rattle his chains in the distance.
On "Poles Apart," it's unclear whether Dave's still feeling guilty about replacing Syd (I never thought you'd lose that light in your eyes") or if he's pissed off at Roger (Why did we tell you then you were always the golden boy?") or if he's just smug that he wound up with the franchise (Did you know it was going to be so right for me?"). In the end, he's talking to a wall, one that's not about to argue back. This song cycle about communication breakdowns also draws heavily on Gilmour's broken marriage for inspiration. But unlike Waters, who gave his marriage ending an over-the-top treatment on The Wall, mild-mannered Dave never breaks any dishes or gives any specifics. Always a reactionary, never a visionary, Gilmour makes his verbal inadequacies known on "Lost for Words" and "Keep Talking"--songs about the inarticulate speech of the heart that he actually needed a lyricist to help him with! You get the feeling if Dave ever underwent marriage counseling, he'd try to bring a lyricist along there, too.
Floyd's audience makes it clear it was more than willing to embrace the band even without Waters' challenging words. Gilmour, grateful for their patronage, seems afraid of pissing off the fans with a new direction. This time, he's avoided glaring and pretentious missteps like last album's "Dogs of War" (voted by the Floyd fanzine The Amazing Pudding as very worst song of all time). But the decision to pattern much of this album after Wish You Were Here (voted by the same fanzine as its all-time favorite album) smacks of market research.
Wish You Were Here began with four notes played over and over until the drums kick in at 4:26. On TDB, plotting the same coordinates, drummer Nick Mason awakens on his drum stool at precisely 4:27. That's progress for you.
"Cluster One," the one-part "Echoes"/two-parts "Crazy Diamond" opening piece, segues into "What Do You Want From Me," yet another Waters-treading exercise. This photocopy will probably fool Roy Harper, the man who sang vocals on "Have a Cigar," into thinking he's got another royalty check coming. Just to ensure that even the brain-dead can't miss the point that they are listening to Pink Floyd, Rick Wright hauls out those same cheesy, synth/horn sounds he used on "Shine On, Part IX." Not to mention more stock-in-trade sound effects, like the superimposing of boxing-ring noises over a song about quarreling. If the band wants to revive old Floyd stylings, how about trying a fast song? We haven't had anything with more than 44 beats per minute since Piper's "Lucifer Sam."
If the new album sounds too melodic and soothing to the ear, it's because this is Pink Floyd as seen through adult-contemporary eyes. When it's good (Cluster One," "Wearing the Inside Out"), it could almost be mistaken for Sade. When it's bad (Keep Talking," "High Hopes"), it could be--ugh!--Mike and the Mechanics.
Pink Floyd, from its earliest days, has always been about exploration, experimentation and excess. For all of Barrett's and Waters' faults, they, at least, defied even their harshest critics to ignore them.
Gilmour, like a guitar-pickin' Sally Field, just wants people to like him. The Division Bell confirms that his voice and guitar are the sound and soul of Pink Floyd's music. Now if it only had a brain.