Pink Floyd: The Prog Rock Archetype

It isn’t that Pink Floyd made some of the best albums of the ‘70s (they did), or that Pink Floyd moved the art form forward (they did); it’s that Pink Floyd did the impossible: they made music that is unlikely to marginalize, and more than any other band, brought progressive rock into the mainstream. This, along with the unparalleled streak of top tier albums they created, elevates them above all others as the prototypical and most significant prog band.

As much praise as the group rightly receives, they may not be fully appreciated for the ways they changed the future of music. The Dark Side of the Moon did for progressive music what Sgt. Pepper did for rock ‘n’ roll: elevating it from pop to art, and through one indelible and irrevocable triumph, granted authenticity — for all time– to an entire genre. It simply cannot be overstated how meaningful it was, and remains, that one of the best-selling and influential albums in history happens to be the apotheosis of prog rock’s canon. In short, Pink Floyd made it not only possible, but inevitable that other bands would attract more — and more serious — scrutiny, however much many of them suffered by comparison. (My album-by-album analysis of the band’s output can be found at “All Things Reconsidered: Why Not Pink Floyd?”, PopMatters, 11 November 2011.)

Needless to say, The Dark Side of the Moon did not arrive as an abrupt burst of brilliance (great art seldom does) so much as the end result of a long and at times excruciating process, a sort of prog rock apprenticeship. Casual fans may be unaware that Pink Floyd made as many albums before The Dark Side of the Moon as they did after. Even more casual fans may be unaware that Pink Floyd made any albums before The Dark Side of the Moon. Of course, before there was prog rock, there was psychedelic rock. Pink Floyd’s debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) was, in its way, a Sgt. Pepper for the underground, and it remains the most fully realized expression of lysergic-laced pop whimsy: deeply surreal songs you can sing along with.

The initial high from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn proved short-lived as the band’s principal songwriter, troubled genius Syd Barrett, suffered a drug-induced breakdown. His mate David Gilmour was hastily recruited and, at least at first, did his best Barrett impression. Suffice it to say, no one could — or would — have predicted Pink Floyd’s eventual breakthrough based on their early struggles. As a result of Barrett’s departure two crucial changes occurred: Waters gradually assumed chief lyrical responsibilities and Gilmour became the primary vocalist.

Getting from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn to The Dark Side of the Moon required several years and several albums, none of which sounded especially alike — a fact that seems more remarkable with the benefit of hindsight. Each release, however, had one particular track, often an extended instrumental, that served as a centerpiece that at once set it apart and connected the sonic dots that burst through the prism in 1973: “Interstellar Overdrive” (from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn), “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” (from A Saucerful of Secrets), “Quicksilver” (from More), “The Narrow Way” (from Ummagumma), “Atom Heart Mother Suite” (from Atom Heart Mother) and “Echoes” (from Meddle).

Perhaps the single-most important song Floyd produced during the earliest stages of their extended transitional period is the title track from their second album. The ways in which “A Saucerful of Secrets” expanded and crystallized is documented on the live section from Ummagumma, as well as the definitive version, recorded for their movie Live at Pompeii. Gilmour’s guitar and vocal contributions delineate the ways in which he was asserting himself as a major musical force within the group, forging — along with keyboardist Rick Wright- – an increasingly melodic and ethereal sound.

This performance, recorded just before the sessions for The Dark Side of the Moon commenced, is very much the realization of a sound and style the band had been inching toward, carving away at the stone with each successive effort. The pieces finally came together (or fell apart, if you like) in the form of “Echoes”, the song that officially ended their transition and prepared them to make their masterpiece.

But if “Echoes”, combined with the shorter, snappier (and raw, earthy) tunes from 1972’s Obscured By Clouds provides a blueprint for the sensibility they would sharpen in the service of The Dark Side of the Moon, it’s 1970’s “Atom Heart Mother Suite” that epitomizes the extremes and excesses prog rock would become embrace, for better or worse. Where King Crimson can, and should, be credited with creating prog rock’s first unfettered proclamation, In The Court of the Crimson King (1969), Pink Floyd can, and should, be credited — or rebuked — for dropping the first truly progressive side-long “suite” on Atom Heart Mother (1970).

After this one, all bets were off and for the better part of a decade, many bands—including Pink Floyd—attempted to refine and improve upon this opus. Their most ambitious (and uneven/inscrutable/unlistenable, according to seemingly everyone who has written a review) work to that point, clocking in at over 23 minutes, it remains the most blatantly uncommercial track from an album that reached number 1 in the UK.

Making use of a chorus, an orchestra, the band’s growing facility for studio slicing and dicing and an inimitable élan concerning the art of the segue, Pink Floyd created a very odd, endearing and English work. And that’s just the first few minutes. It remains an intriguing question whether or not “Atom Heart Mother” (the suite and the album) would enjoy a better reputation, or at least seem less pretentiously impenetrable for many fans, if the band has stuck with its working title, “The Amazing Pudding”, quite apropos for such a gloppy, sweet, not especially easy to digest jumble.

It’s not just that Pink Floyd did everything first, it’s just that they often did things bigger, and more convincingly. However much Emerson, Lake and Palmer was admired/eviscerated for their audacity, typified by the insufferably titled Works, wherein each player had his own “solo” side, Pink Floyd did the same thing (sort of) on Ummagumma. They were not the first, and certainly not the last band to lie down tracks occupying entire album sides, but they made it acceptable, even inevitable.

Back when Pink Floyd was the first band in space, they remained mysterious, and cool, by keeping invisible. For being one of the biggest rock groups in the world all through the ‘70s, the average fan would not have recognized any of them in an airport. With few exceptions, their faces weren’t on the album covers, and as the resulting records prove, they always put the music first.

Although they became hugely successful, Pink Floyd championed a type of integrity that seems uniquely associated with progressive rock: they never imitated anyone else or copied their own previous efforts. For Pink Floyd it was always about feeling and the evocation of a particular mood (the altered states in sound of “Quicksilver”; the solidarity of human voices, literally via the chanting football crowd in “Fearless”; the frenzy of modern travel/life in “On the Run”; the almost inexpressible sorrow of loss and remembrance in “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”).

It’s interesting: although a “faceless” band celebrated for their inimitable blend of complexity and precision, Pink Floyd endures as one of the more soulful bands of the ‘70s. For this we can thank Roger Waters, whose development as a lyricist is responsible for a body of work that holds its own against anyone else’s. With the possible exception of Peter Gabriel (with and without Genesis) no songwriter composed more sensitive yet compelling statements concerning the human condition.

From “If” to “Echoes”, then “Free Four” to everything through The Final Cut, Waters was rock music’s consummate psychologist, turning a keen (and increasingly wary) eye on Western culture. His calling card became a series of trenchant takes on the intersection between the personal and the political as they relate to a society turned sideways. His insights on the forces governing our affairs, be they corporate, military, nationalistic or religious, were fodder for some of the most engaging artistic reflections of our time.

Perhaps, when measuring the true scope of their import, it’s most instructive to consider the way Pink Floyd handled their post-The Dark Side of the Moon career. With the exception of “Money” there were no obvious or intentional attempts at a crossover song that might receive airplay. As phenomenal as they remain, it seems certain that “Wish You Were Here”, “Have a Cigar” and “Welcome to the Machine” all became classic rock staples once Pink Floyd was already Pink Floyd. Or, these were the last three songs until The Wall sufficiently short to even get played on the radio.

Beginning with The Dark Side of the Moon and stretching through The Wall, Pink Floyd at once exemplified prog rock while transcending it. Every album was a perfect calculation; from the album art to the sequence of the songs, each entirely convincing on its own but an irreplaceable part of the whole. Again, considerable credit must be given to Waters who, through a tense combination of talent, ego and will, claimed ultimate control of the band’s direction. His acerbic personality and control freak tendencies took their toll, inexorably leading to his departure and one of rock music’s most bitter, protracted soap operas. But attention must be paid: his drive and vision demanded indelible work that may otherwise have been merely excellent.

A well-documented instance would be the two songs that served as prototypes for later masterpieces. “Raving and Drooling” and “You Gotta Be Crazy” were road-tested contenders for inclusion on The Dark Side of the Moon‘s follow-up. If the rest of the band had had their way, they would have comprised one side of the new album while “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” would have run, uninterrupted, on the other. Waters was not satisfied and, judging from the fascinating but far from flawless live versions, he was correct.

As a result, he busied himself on a set of new songs that became “Welcome to the Machine”, “Have a Cigar” and “Wish You Were Here” — a triptych of disenchantment, alienation and bereavement that are crown jewels in the Pink Floyd canon. As important, the temporarily sidelined songs were refined and reworked into Waters’ most cohesive concept album, Animals. With major contributions from Wright and Gilmour, “Sheep” and especially “Dogs” represent some of the best work the band ever did.

It’s not, in sum, that Pink Floyd became the most visible and best band to carry the progressive rock banner (they were). It’s not that they sold the most albums (they did) and had the best album art (they did — R.I.P. Storm Thorgerson!). It’s that they provided cover, through their influence and example, for smaller, equally brave bands who sought to push past the tedious Top 40 boundaries. By the time 1977 rolled around, space rock seemed as prehistoric as hippies and Johnny Rotten became the punk rock poet laureate, insolently scribbling “I Hate” above his Pink Floyd t-shirt. How much street cred would he have had sporting similar sentiment on a Gentle Giant or Jethro Tull t-shirt?

To this day any band, whether it’s The Flaming Lips, Bjork or Radiohead, who emphasize sound and feeling over accessibility, are in some way emulating the standard Pink Floyd set. The key to understanding Pink Floyd’s magnitude is that they made consistently challenging, progressive music, and still found an audience. Indeed, they did not find an audience so much as their audience found them. Pink Floyd was the first truly underground band to cultivate a sound too remarkable to remain obscured by clouds. They willed themselves to be consequential, and their eminence is undiminished today.