Everything you thought you knew about the guys who penned the song “Money” is wrong. The so-called Australian Pink Floyd Show has been playing it—and the rest of the famous band’s repertoire—longer and better than Roger Waters or David Gilmour. That’s what we saw, a couple of weeks ago, in Madrid, Spain, on an early leg of their ambitious new European tour.
I have just bought myself an official t-shirt of the band that has just played at Madrid’s Palacio de Congresos. And it feels weird, because I have always had this rule of never buying merchandise of any band, regardless of the feelings I have for it, or even if the gig turns out to be really awesome—just in case everybody will wear the same t-shirt the next day. I’ve always been a bit of an individualist. But tonight, February 5th, 2008, is a night I want to remember. It’s been my tribute-band-baptism (that is, the first time I have ever attended the gig of a tribute band), and I’m not sure if I am ever gonna see a better show than the one I have just seen (either from an ‘original’ or a tribute band). The only band in the world that has made me invest my savings in their merchandise is called the Australian Pink Floyd Show, and they actually are what their title implies: a bunch of Aussie folk who only play Pink Floyd songs. The t-shirt I’ve just bought copies the rounded design pasted on the center of the original LP of the 1975 Wish You Were Here album, but with a slight variation in the middle of it: Instead of the tridimensional handshaking picture, there’s a kangaroo!
Pink Floyd Is Actually Australian
Before the show had even started, I’d seen the original Floyd design hanging on the jacket of Gonzalo, this guy I met in the hall of the venue. He had printed it, cut it out, and pasted over his jacket with tape, as a true soccer aficionado would do to show the colours of his team. “I’m not sure who these guys are, but I believe some of the original members are still in the band”, he tells me, when I ask him why he has come. He is wrong, there are not nor have there ever been any members of the real Pink Floyd in this band—although originals and fakes have met at different times, and the Aussies even played at David Gilmour’s 50th birthday party, and jammed with original Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright (as can be read on the Aussies’ official website). But after I try to explain the reality to him, who is and who is not in the Australian Pink Floyd, he stares at me and says “Then I’m sure I’m not the only one who is, or was, wrong about who’s playing tonight.”
Are these the kind of people who attends these kinds of shows, the tribute bands’ shows? We’ve yet to see, but it seems as if we’re already on good track…
For a start, the people standing in line to enter the venue are not the people you usually find at any rock gig. “I look around and get the feeling of being about to walk into the bus driver or the woman at the laundry; pretty normal people, actually,” my friend David points out. We’ve come here (I must confess) filled with a certain feeling of superiority and ready to laugh as much as possible at the prospects of an apparently surreal premise: How can a band that plays another one’s music be taken seriously? What kind of people might attend such a questionable event?
Gonzalo, who must be in his fifties, is a strong guy—“I bought you the Extra Large; it was the biggest,” says his wife (we suppose) as she approaches us—with a worked-on face and a showy recent scar on the (broken?) nose. And he doesn’t look straight.
“Do you have any t-shirts of the real Pink Floyd?” I ask Gonzalo.
“I don’t think so,” he answers.
“But did you see them live, when they were still touring? Or have you seen Roger Waters performing Pink Floyd stuff?” I insist.
“I don’t recall doing it, so I’d say no. It’s been so long, I can’t remember.”
“So did you really think you were going to see some of the original Pink Floyd members today?”
“Yes, yes. I know they have gone through many changes since Syd Barrett’s departure but… the drummer has always been there. I’m no expert, but I’ve always dug them. I have even tried to look into their website. Anyway, I’m sure that… there are surely more people confused about the line-up of the band.”
More people who I would like to talk to, but Gonzalo happens to be a talkative pal. And he wants to know which media outlet we’re coming from—“What the hell is this for?” he asks, and wants to know when exactly his words will be published. “Don’t you have a card with the URL of your website?” But being talkative has some risks, and one of them is that the person that’s suffering you may strike back. Which is exactly what I do.
“Why did you wear that?” I ask, pointing at his poor self-made Wish You Were Here kind-of sticker. “Have you been wearing it all day?”
“No, no, I have just put it on. I always wear something related with the shows I go to…”
Suddenly, I’m lost in a discussion about the tickets’ price; 38 Euros is not expensive for Gonzalo. “You are trying to have me say that it is, but we should compare it with the price that a David Gilmour-plus-Roger Waters ticket would have….” I believe he is right, so in order to make up, I tell him that I think Pink Floyd’s songs have achieved modern classic status, that it doesn’t matter who plays them anymore, as long as someone plays them. He agrees, and we see the way to escape. As we leave him and his wife behind, David says something that makes me wonder: “I really think you have just found the clue to this story.” I’m about to ask him what he means by that, but something suddenly gets my attention, something that shines around the neck of another attendant. Without further word to David, I quickly walk the way of the guy that’s caught my attention and salute both him and his friend.
“Why are you here, so far from downtown, on a Tuesday night?” I ask. “Such a big effort for a band who hasn’t got the guts to play their own songs?”
“Ha, ha, ha. No, man,” Juan says; he is the one with the funny rainbow scarf that’s kind of hypnotized me in the first place. “We’re simply here because we like Pink Floyd so much, but as they don’t give concerts anymore, we try to enjoy these kind of gigs instead.”
I realize Juan has just made the perfect diagnosis of what is going on here. Anyway, as today I feel determined to look for trouble, I shoot again:
“Imagine that you buy one of those t-shirts they’re selling over there,” I challenge. Apart from the one I described before, there are others, based on the iconography of albums like Dark Side of the Moon (1973), The Wall (1979) and even the late The Division Bell (1994)—in every one of them, some important element has been substituted either by the kangaroo or by the shape of the Australian continent. “Are you pathetic because instead of wearing a piece of merchandise from the original Pink Floyd, you have only been able to buy one from this bunch of guys who imitate them, or, on the contrary, are you the best Pink Floyd fans in the world, ‘cos you even go to their tribute bands’ gigs?” I ask this with the extreme satisfaction of a model pupil who has finally hit the nail on the head.
“Well,” starts Juan, without much hesitation, “to tell you the truth, one of the things that has made me come today is that we saw this other Pink Floyd tribute band the other day, the Pink Tones, and their show was really impressive.”
Ah!, I think, so tonight’s fight is not going to be between the original and the false Pink Floyd, but between two different but equally non-original versions of the mythical English band! It’s such a tangled argument, that I’m sure Waters could make a completely new (concept) album with it. Before we say goodbye, I make some fun of what got me in front of these guys in the first place: the rainbow scarf.
“Hey!” I say ““And this rainbow scarf of yours? Is it some kind of homage to the Dark Side of the Moon cover? Where did you buy such an outstanding piece of merchandise?”“
“Hahahaha! That has nothing to do with it, pal. I’m no freak.”
Again, humour as the definitive social laxative weapon. One single joke has been enough to invert our roles, and I instantly find myself being interviewed. I tell them that I saw Roger Waters performing the complete Dark Side of the Moon album last year, in Barcelona, and that, of course, that’s going to be my reference guide for tonight, the canon against I’ll measure what these Aussies may do on stage.
“So you have never seen a tribute band?” they ask me.
“No,” I confess. “And I’m quite skeptical about them.”
“I have seen plenty of them,” says Sergio, Juan’s quiet friend. “And have always liked them. They’re usually bands that play very well. Of course, none of them has the merits of the ones whose songs they play, but they really do a great job. Nothing to do with trying to make easy money, or living off some kind of plagiarism.”
A few days later, on the phone from Paris (where they will be playing that night—the three Spanish dates have only been the start of a European tour comprised of more than 60 gigs, including a couple of shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall), Jason Sawford, keyboardist of the Australian Pink Floyd Show, will insist on that point:
“We’ve been playing Pink Floyd’s songs for 20 years now, but it took us a lot of time to be able to make a living from it.”
But in Madrid, the show’s about to start, and my friend David and I look for our seats. From there, we contemplate the venue and confirm our worst suspicion:
“There’s not a single dancy kind of chick,” my colleague confirms, not without regret.
With British punctuality (the Commonwealth obliges, too; or maybe it is just because the Australian pink floyd members have been living in London for some years now), the show starts with a faithful reproduction of the first five tracks of The Wall. It sounds great; at times, really great. Their imitation is as good as that of any music shop attendant (you know, these guys that, before they lend you the bass or the guitar you want to try, inevitably try to impress you by playing a short but recognizable riff or slapping). After all, both “In the Flesh” and “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 1” are compulsory subjects in every guitar mag, and the use of the delay on “Part. 1” is one of the most recognizable examples in rock history of what can be done with that effect. Sawford and I will talk about that later:
“The other day, when you were playing in Madrid,” I say to him over the phone, “I was thinking that you have better tools today—plenty of modern pedals, the latest technology in effects—than the actual Pink Floyd had when they were recording the original albums; it should have been much more difficult for them than for you…”
“Yes, except you’re leaving something aside,” he answers, with the attack of a good funk keyboard player, “and it’s that they were never looking for a definite sound—how could they? Instead, they were just experimenting, and choosing the more suitable sounds that they were able to come up with. A good part of our work has been trying to reproduce all these sounds that they found by accident. And, believe me, it’s been really hard at times.”
But there’s one more thing about the live show of the Australian Pink Floyd Show: the bass player, Colin Wilson, not only sings the songs that Roger Waters, bassist of the real Floyd, sang originally; he sings them all exactly as they were recorded on the original albums. And that is a great difference from what I saw last year in Barcelona, when the actual Waters sang these same songs his way (that is, in the way he liked/could at that very moment, regardless of his own original voice inflections on his albums); of course, it didn’t matter, because the songs he played and sang were his, and if he had sung them upside down, we wouldn’t have cared less, as long as it was Waters who was on stage.
But we will never allow that freedom to a tribute band; in fact, the appeal of any of them is precisely measured by their capacity to faithfully reproduce the original sounds that were recorded by other people (and these are, by the way, the sounds that people are used to, the ones they have listened to, once and again, at home, in the car, and on their iPods). Sawford and the rest of his band perfectly know this:
“Our playing is always based on the official albums; only from time to time, if we believe a different version, from a live album, is worth studying, we may use it as another reference.”
Again, during Madrid’s show, the final frontier gets crossed when they play “Learning to Fly”, the first single from A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987), a clearly minor song in the band’s discography, as it is part of the post-Waters era. It’s then when I gradually understand that this is not about a bunch of crazy folk that have taken learning the riff of the song “Wish You Were Here” a little bit further. This is some kind of incredible feat. A triumph of will. Because it really sounds great. And, wait a minute, the guy that’s singing… isn’t that David Gilmour? My friend and I are in row 20, too far away to distinguish the faces of the musicians, but close enough to have a general idea of their dimensions and to read their corporal language. And this guy’s face is not only similar to Gilmour’s, but he seems to weigh the same! He even holds the guitar at exactly the same height and sings keeping the same distance from the microphone as Gilmour would do. Needless to say, his voice is 100% Gilmour’s. And it is encapsulated within a global hell of awesome sound. Then I think I feel the first shivering of the many I will have tonight; or maybe it’s just flatulence…
That’s precisely what’s missing in the scenography; a couple of guys agree with me, in the bar, while we wait for the intermission of the show to end. They are the rough kind—or maybe it’s just what having a tape recorder in front of you does to some people—that have come with their wives or girlfriends: “It’s all pretty good, but the stage feels a bit soulless, doesn’t it? It lacks some smoke; you can’t play these songs if there’s no smoke around!”
He’s right. There are lights everywhere. And there’s even the canonical circled screen that gets all kind of lysergic images projected upon it (some of them include a pink kangaroo, by the way—later on, I’m told that these Australian guys are graphic designers as well, and that they have done their own projections). But it’s true that there is something missing; you can actually see too much of what is going on on-stage, the (supposedly) hidden side of it all.
“Due to the size of the venue,” Sawford will explain to me, days later, “we couldn’t use all our equipment in Madrid. Apart from what you saw, we also have smoke machines, laser rays and an inflatable pig.”
There was no inflatable pig, but there was a kangaroo. A big one. Pink, made of plastic and able to follow the rhythm during the explosive end of “One of These Days”, from the album Meddle (1971), with its left paw. I recall Waters doing the same number in Barcelona last year, to less impressive results, in part due to the incredible, almost massaging, use that the Aussies give to the panning effect—you know, when the sound progresses from one side of the venue to the other, giving the impression of doing a 360 degree turn. Later on, I will read on their website that some of the technicians that worked on Pink Floyd’s Division Bell tour are now or have been involved with the Australian Pink Floyd Show.
The more songs they play, the bigger this feeling of total admiration grows inside of me, until it reaches a point when I’m not sure who deserves more credit, the guys who wrote these wonderful songs or these other people, the only ones capable of playing them all exactly as they were recorded.
The first part of the show had ended with “Sheep”, from the Animals (1977) album, and the audience clapping their hands. They informed us that they were gonna have a 20 minute break, and, while waiting for the intermission to end, I realized that the announcement of the break had been the only time this guys had addressed the audience. Apart from that, they had just played. And that made me think of another fundamental difference, one that may explain why brilliant acts like Pink Floyd disband and why other groups of people are able to stay together for 20 years, playing other people’s songs: if they only had had to play songs by other people, Gilmour and Waters would probably still be friends and maybe would have kept playing together. The feud between them was the result of the battle of egos that always breaks out when one has/wants to constantly demonstrate to his companions how great he is. “I guess we’re humble people,” Sawford will concede to me. “It’s the only way to explain how we have managed to get through so many things after all these years. Yep, I suppose we might be anything but arrogant people.” Of course you’re not, you’ve been together far more years than Gilmour and Waters were!
As a matter of fact, none of the people I ask about the show during the intermission seem interested in the actual band that is playing; they’ve just come for the music. Amazingly, the same goes for the musicians themselves: “Every time I listen to a Pink Floyd album, I learn something new,” Sawford tells me.
His favourite song—or cycle of songs—is “Shine on You Crazy Diamond (1-5)”, from Wish You Were Here, which they play at the start of the second part of the show. It’s not a strange choice, as it probably has the best keyboard part that Richard Wright ever wrote for any Pink Floyd song. “His playing is always very elegant,” his Australian impersonator will explain. “He isn’t a virtuoso, but is always doing some interesting, almost jazzy, phrases.”
This second part of the show is comprised of songs from Dark Side (when two of the three female chorus singers take turns to sing the famous “Great Gig in the Sky” crescent groans and howls, I am truly and deeply moved, like I never was during Roger Waters’ show in Barcelona last year), The Wall, The Division Bell (the original Pink Floyd can’t have played the wonderfully mathematical “Keep Talking” live many times during their last official tour, so it surely can’t have ever sounded as good as tonight, in Australian hands…) and Wish You Were Here. Of course, they play that album’s title song, preceded by the sound of a radio tuning in to different stations (again, recreated in an Australian way: “Almost every sound effect and voices that sound in the original albums, we’ve recreated in the studio,” Sawford will explain to me on the phone).
And up to the finale, “Comfortably Numb”, and its epic, never-ending guitar solo under the infinite sparks that come out of the giant mirror ball that has appeared over the band’s heads. With all senses knocked out (or stomachs about to throw out, it depends on every person), people stand up and start to applaud as if they had just seen the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert. The Aussies express their gratitude by playing the other guitar layered track from The Wall, the heavy “Run Like Hell”, which sounds a bit decaffeinated after such previous heights.
It’s been two and a half hours of great music when I run to the merchandise stall to buy myself a t-shirt before they’re sold out (which I’m sure they will be). So Pink Floyd refuse to reform? Fuck ‘em! If they did reform, these guys would be out of work. And I’m 200% sure that Gilmour, Waters and co. will never be able to play their own songs not only as perfectly, but as energetically as their Australian imitators do. It’s strange, but having your repertoire played by others, younger and harder-working people, is maybe the only real return to form for a classic act.