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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: A Darker Shade of Pink Floyd

Creem's Ira Robbins looks back on Syd Barrett - andthe radical Pink Floyd makeover that was 1973's Dark Side of the Moon--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock'sBackpages

It didn'tseem like a bad idea at the time I accepted this assignment. Just because PinkFloyd hate the press and won't be interviewed seemed no reason to bediscouraged.

I alsorefused to be put off by the unavailability of tickets to their last gig atMadison Square Garden, or by the stories I had read about journalists who hadbeen found dead, lying in a heap of dry ice with a laser beam hole throughtheir ears after writing a rude article about the (Dark Side Of The) Moonies.It couldn't happen here. Or could it?

It was July13th, a torrid Wednesday evening in the Apple, around 9:30, and the heat showedno signs of giving up. The entire populace seemed terminally cranky, and Iwasn't really up for writing about the Floyd. They must have known, becausearound the second page, as I listened to the fourth side of Ummagumma, it happened.

The lightsdimmed and died, the turntable ground to a growling halt, the TV flickered off,and all four air conditioners made noises like expiring wildebeests. There Iwas, sitting in the darkness of BLACKOUT '77, as the networks later dubbed it -the worst New York disaster in years. And to think it was all because I...

*

New York had its first power failure in November,1965. To shift the frame of reference eastward by about 3,000 miles, that sameyear found some architecture students at a London college playing together in apart-time band called the Architectural Abdabs.

The lineup was not very stable, nor was the name,which was Sigma 6 at one point, and Meggadeath at another. Their songs werestandard R&B classics like 'Roadrunner' and pop hits like 'Louie Louie'.What made the group stand out was the things they did between tunes - feedbacksolos, and various odd noises very unlike the rest of their approach.

By thebeginning of 1966 the group had become set - a four piece named the Pink FloydSound, led by Syd Barrett. The other three, all old friends, were Roger Waters,demoted from lead guitar to bass; Rick Wright, capable on various keyboardinstruments, and Nick Mason, the group's drummer.

Barrett'ssongs were a far cry from those Pink Floyd had begun with. Twinky little tunesof psychedelic double entendre mixed with heady workouts builtaround one chord tied Floyd in with the embryonic "underground" scenein London. Growing up at the same time as San Francisco hippie music, PinkFloyd took their influences from groups like Love and Hendrix. Prompted by someAmerican multimedia artists, Pink Floyd began using lights and slideprojections at their club dates.

The group'sinterest in non-musical accompaniment deepened, and by the end of 1966, theyhad hired a full-time lighting director for their concerts. With their stunningvisuals and their trippy psychedelic music, Pink Floyd established a strongfollowing in London and attracted the attention of a few would-be moguls, whothought there might be money to be made off this young group. In the wonderfultradition that still continues in pissholes like CBGB's and Max's, the directorof the UFO Club offered to make a record for the group so that they couldapproach a label and try to get signed up for real.

At thebeginning of the ever-so-hip-and-groovy year of love, 1967, they went in thestudio and cut a single; a Barrett song called 'Arnold Layne', which concerneda pervert who stole lingerie off clotheslines so that he could transvest, orwhatever. The trick worked and the group got a record deal (with an enormousadvance of about $10,000) which led them back into the studio to record analbum. The studio they were working in happened to be Abbey Road, and the groupin the next room the Beatles, who were working on something called Sgt. Pepper.

Amid thesesessions, the Floyd played a major London concert, billed as "Space Agerelaxation - electronic compositions, color, and image projections." Justyour basic average psychedelic happening in the Summer of Love.

A singlereleased from the group in June became the anthem of the underground. 'SeeEmily Play' was going to be 'Games For May', but it got changed and became atop five hit in Britain. Pink Floyd were pop stars, which was good and bad.

The rigors ofbeing successful took their toll on Syd Barrett. An extremely neurotic guy tobegin with, his penchant for dropping acid unleashed some very foul tendenciesand the creative demands placed on him to come up with more hit songs drove himover the brink. He started not showing up at gigs, refusing to rehearse andallegedly beating up his girlfriend, all of which made him an impossibleliability for a successful chart band.

With greatreluctance on the group's part, they started working without Syd and askedanother guitarist to join the group so that they could proceed with or withoutthe "unreliable maniac" who still was calling Pink Floyd "myband". Dave Gilmour was the fifth Floyd for seven weeks, until the bandthrew Barrett out, unable to watch him sink into the pit he was digging forhimself. The challenge was very difficult - Syd was the genius/leader theylooked up to. He had directed the band into its successful period, and now theywere without him.

Looking backnow, zillions of platinum albums later, the Floyd did quite a bit betterwithout Syd than they might have if he had stayed. On the other hand, Barretthas become a huge cult figure, even though he has not recorded or performedsince the end of 1970. Stories of his madness abound, but the most tellingevidence of his warped genius came towards the end of his tenure with PinkFloyd. Nick Mason recounts:

"Sydcame in with some new material one day. The song went 'Have You Got It Yet?'and he kept changing it around so that no one could learn it."

Roger Waters:"It was a real act of mad genius. I stood there for an hour while he wassinging 'Have you got it yet?'. I kept trying to explain that he was changingit all the time so I couldn't follow it. Terrific."

WithoutBarrett, Waters became the group's chief songwriter, and that's when thingsbegan to get spacey. Frustrated in their desire to provide the film score for 2001, they accepted commissions forother soundtrack projects and did some high quality music for some distinctlylow calibre movies. Fully enmeshed in their spacey style of long pointlessinstrumentals that had certain amounts of missing rhythm and cohesiveness,Floyd plowed along consistently through 1972. They were popular and successful,making no great strides either forwards or backwards, and playing concertsmostly to stoned hippies around the world.

Then came Dark Sideof the Moon, and the newFloyd began to emerge. With Waters as sole lyricist, the songs began to take agentle turn towards the pessimistic. While the music on Dark Side is so even and carefulthat it verges on muzak, the words convey an uneasy feeling: a pointlessfrustration about greed and despair that is very easy to overlook when youclose your eyes and open your ears. It's not the music that says it.

While Dark Side began hogging the recordcharts as one of the biggest and longest-selling albums of all time, Pink Floydbegan working out songs that would not appear on record for more than twoyears.

Between 1973and 1976, Waters worked on songs that would show up on Wish You Were Here and Animals. These last three albums make up a distinctive era in PinkFloyd history. In order, the mood shifts from uneasiness to definite cynicism,to out-and-out spite for the human race. The music has followed along, gettingprogressively sparser, sharper, and with less soft edges each time out.

The totaleffect has been that, of the three, Animalsis the strongest, the most direct of the trio, with enough venom contained inthe grooves to poison an entire sheep farm. The viciousness of the lyrics matchesthe bleak despair of the cover artwork, but what about the pig on the wing?There's no way to explain the dichotomy, but the Floyd sense of humor is mostdefinitely a strange one. Their taste for the absurd only serves as a foil fortheir unrelenting scorn.

With theeasily mixed human/animal metaphors flipping back and forth imperceptibly,lyrics like these (from 'Dogs') illuminate Waters' view of the meaning of life:

You gotta keep one eye looking
over
your shoulder
You
know it's going to getharder...
as
you get older
And
in the end you'll pack up andfly
down south
Hide your head in thesand
Just another sad old man
All alone and dying of cancer.

Even a songlike 'Anarchy in the UK' can't make a stronger statement than that.

Losing Barrettwhen they did, Pink Floyd lost the sense of madness and poisoned-eye-view thathe had sketched out for them. Like Brian Wilson or Iggy or Jim Morrison,Barrett was one of those poet/visionaries who just can't relate to societywithout going flippers.

Back in 1968,the Floyd was giving out with the psychedelic mumbo-jumbo and seemed determinedto continue doing so until the next version of 2001 appeared. Without Syd they seemed doomed to their ladeda's,but thank goodness that's all gone out the door. Maybe I'm in a minority, butI've always loved miserable-rock, and these days the Floyd are about asmiserable as any band I've ever heard.

Read more fab Floyd pieces at www.rocksbackpages.com. Over 19,000 articles by the greatest writers from the finest rock publications of the last 50 years.

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