[24 April 2008]
England in the ‘60s was Europe’s pop-music petri dish, analogous to the laboratory that America was at the same time. Between 1964 and 1967 — in cities and towns from Liverpool (birthplace of the Beatles) to London (the Who, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones) to Manchester (the Hollies, Herman’s Hermits) to Birmingham (the Move, the Moody Blues) — the music scene was a madly organic thing that welcomed all comers.
Even Cambridge got in the act. The city known for its 800-year-old university was the birthplace of Pink Floyd, the celebrated and vilified band whose conceptual breadth and musical daring made it some of the necessary DNA of music and musicians to follow — from the arena-rock grandeur of Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer to jam bands like Phish, moe. and Widespread Panic to the brittler sonic inventions of Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails.
In 20 years, Pink Floyd achieved the metamorphosis from experimental stylists to rock icons, incorporating its expansive vocabulary into the language of the modern rock song. The Floyd’s triumph, Dark Side of the Moon, is a staple of modern music. In that same time, though, the group would fragment under the weight of internal rifts, drugs, creative expectations, and its own success.
With Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, author Mark Blake peels back the layers of mystery around the band’s history with a supple, readable biography, replacing much hearsay and apocrypha with details and facts conveyed with the skepticism of a journalist and the passion of a fan.
Blake, a former editor with Britain’s Q Magazine and longtime contributor to Mojo, is especially good at exploring the clash and union of the personalities that formed “the Floyd” in all its permutations. He focuses on the two primary forces pivotal to its early and later creative fortunes: bass player and songwriter Roger Waters, the band’s mercurial philosopher, the legendarily difficult architect of the Floyd’s ascension as a pop-cultural force; and Roger (Syd) Barrett, artist, singer and songwriter, the visionary Icarus whose psychological breakdown changed the band’s view of itself, its music and the way the world viewed Pink Floyd.
Blake shows how the group —certainly like other bands that rode the wave of the storied British Invasion—formed in the context of family, either an extension of one that was intact, or as a surrogate for a broken one. Barrett and Waters had lost their fathers by the time of the Floyd’s genesis; guitarist-singer David Gilmour’s parents, traveling to and from the United States, were willfully absent and left him to his own devices. Others in the creative orbit of what would become Pink Floyd endured physical or emotional separations from parents, as well.
One of the things that will make Blake’s biography the definitive read on Pink Floyd is its dedication to the circuitous routes of its origin. For reasons of money, obligation or chemistry— the lack of that creative gel that makes a band a band—a number of groups formed the basis for Pink Floyd. The birth of the Floyd engaged many mothers; Blake is an able tour guide, with a map to all the midwives.
Blake’s bio is being marketed as “published to coincide with [Pink Floyd’s] 40th anniversary”, but the Floyd We Know & Love — the hit version — couldn’t have existed without its wilder, more experimental predecessors, back in 1964. Barrett was caught up in the relentless cultural cross-pollination going on among musicians and artists in Cambridge and London.
With a creative tension all his own, some thoroughly original balance of the cool and the erratic that suited the times, Barrett became Cambridge’s artistic center of gravity, the sun around which much of the city’s underground orbited. He’d capture the attention of Mick Jagger and Mary Quant; others would be drawn to the elfin, elusive art student and aspiring songwriter who infuriated teachers and friends alike.
Barrett and Gilmour knocked around playing guitar for groups in Cambridge. Waters, drummer Nick Mason (initially a fan of bebop) and keyboard player Richard Wright (an early aficionado of John Coltrane and Miles Davis) briefly formed a group back in the fall of 1963. If there was any one moment that’s identifiable as the conception of Pink Floyd, it may be, Blake reports, the hatching of plans by Barrett and Waters on a train ride to Cambridge:
For Roger Waters, the arrival of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had thawed his resistance to rock music. One evening, he and Barrett traveled to London to see a package rock n’ roll show featuring the Rolling Stones, Helen Shapiro and Gene Vincent … The brooding, leather-clad Vincent had none of Elvis’ pretty boy charm. An alcoholic who permanently damaged his left leg in a motorcycle crash and walked with a pronounced limp, stories circulated of Vincent being rolled up in a carpet by his bodyguard and forcibly carried on stage after he refused to perform. Maybe something about Vincent’s outsider image and damaged persona made its mark on Barrett and Waters. Whatever the catalyst, on the train back to Cambridge, the two sat together, sketching a picture of the amps they would need when they started their own rock ‘n’ roll group.
The nuclear Pink Floyd — Barrett, Waters, Mason and Wright — made its debut in August 1967 with The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, a trippy collection whose arrival dovetailed with the emergence of psychedelic music and culture in the United States. With its embrace of extended improvisations, and a weave of LSD and psychedelia into their music and their own growing mythology, Pink Floyd was in some ways the British counterpart to the Grateful Dead.
But the arc for Barrett—the captivating artist-lead singer who wrote the Floyd’s earliest hits “See Emily Play” and “Arnold Layne”—was already declining as his band’s was on the rise. Blake records the singer growing increasingly unstable, partly due to the strains of the band’s successes, partly due to taking what were apparently prodigious amounts of LSD. Blake’s survey of Barrett in a seemingly helpless free-fall is moving, at times even wrenching.
With Barrett’s exit in 1968, Gilmour joined the band, establishing the group’s most celebrated lineup. With Gilmour aboard, Pink Floyd settled into its own interstellar overdrive, pursuing on records like “Ummagumma”, “Atom Heart Mother” and “Meddle”, an increasingly adventurous sound that pushed the envelope on rock music’s sense of itself.
Blake charts how it all came together in 1973, when the group released its most commercial album. Dark Side of the Moon, a blend of rock, soul, blues, electronics and musique concréte (sampling of non-musical sounds). Even today there’s no escaping the grand intentions of Waters, its prime instigator; the sadness at the record’s core; its frustration with modern life; its uncanny grasp of fundamental questions and futility about the answers; its universality, understated but powerful, inventive yet familiar. Dark Side of the Moon may be rock music’s defining existential statement.
It’s certainly been the soundtrack of choice at untold stoner parties in darkened college dorm rooms, bongs in circulation, everywhere in the world. The popular appeal for its message and the music of a band at the top of its game made Dark Side of the Moon, with more than 40 million copies sold, the sixth biggest-selling album in history.
Through Blake’s numerous interviews with various Floyd friends, ex-wives, producers, managers and associates, what emerges is a band of four personalities that is, despite great success, just barely able to mesh at times — figures in a fractious marriage that holds itself together just long enough to create some of the most infuriatingly original music in rock.
Blake recounts the continued rise of Waters as the Floyd’s emotional barometer. The Wall, the band’s other singular breakthrough (25 million copies sold) is examined both as music and as Waters’ self-psychotherapy, a confessional concept album derived from his desire to “tear down the walls” between he and the audience.
Waters’ view of humanity—a desperation punctuated with moments of emotional uplift—would typify the mood of records such as Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Final Cut. Blake nimbly shows the escalation of the bickering within the Floyd, the clashes that led to later releases being Pink Floyd “in name only”. We get the blow-by-blow as Waters’ dark sarcasm and perfectionist tendencies clashed with Gilmour’s intentions and, especially, with the shy, retiring Wright, who eventually quit the band in disgust (only to return later).
Later, with all the acrimony of a bad public divorce, Waters himself left the group. Gilmour, the replacement for Syd Barrett almost 20 years earlier, had through force of musical contribution and sheer dogged will, become the leader of what amounted to Pink Floyd II—with he and Mason as the nucleus, sometimes with contributions from Wright.
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Blake’s sure hand at documenting the Floyd’s history doesn’t stop him from diverting touches that make this a brisk, enjoyable read. One of the sunny Beach Boys, it seems, sang vocals on that despairing masterpiece The Wall, along with Toni Tennile, of the MOR pop duo The Captain & Tennile. We learn about the band’s canny financial moves in the face of 83 percent British taxation, or about Waters and Mason discovering the joys of Southern Comfort, courtesy of Janis Joplin.
And then there’s Blake’s hilarious recounting of the story behind the Animals album over, one of the most arresting covers in rock-art history. The cover image—a 30-foot inflatable pig floating serenely in the air over a power station in south London—took a logistical effort that eventually involved the air traffic controllers at Heathrow and the Royal Air Force. Blake’s report on that porcine voyage is worth the price of admission.
Blake brings us full circle as a kind of observer at a wake, if not an autopsy, faithfully reporting the last concert with the classic Pink Floyd lineup — a one-off appearance of Gilmour, Waters, Mason and Wright at Live 8 in London in July 2005, a concert that signaled a momentary lapse of antagonism, just long enough for an 18-minute performance still widely hailed as one of Pink Floyd’s very best. Waters skipped appearing with the Floyd at a May 2007 tribute concert for Barrett, the co-founder of the group who died, quietly and privately, of pancreatic cancer in Cambridge on 7 July 2006.
With Comfortably Numb, Blake has pulled off that toughest balancing act: maintaining critical distance between writer and subject. Like any sound biographer, Blake is the fly on the wall — but one careful not to breathe the smoke in the air. What could have been Pink Floyd hagiography has the weight and distance of clear-headed scholarship, charitable but candid. It’s the book to beat for a serious comprehensive study of this most elusive of rock legends.
But even a scholar gets to hold up a cigarette lighter at a concert. Ever the fan, Blake quietly bears the hope of another Pink Floyd reunion. Can rock’s longest dysfunctional marriage be revived? The conventional wisdom says ‘no,’ but you never know.
Pigs have flown before.