Just Another Brick: The Phases of Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd
Oh By the Way

Pink Floyd turned 40 in 2007, and the band is being commemorated with Oh By the Way, a 16-disc box set containing all 14 of their studio albums. For you sticklers out there, yes, this includes the live half of Ummagumma. Each CD comes in a slipcase made to replicate the original LP, only, you know, smaller. Such strict attention was paid to recreating the packaging of the old vinyl versions that the immediate visceral impact of plucking, say, Piper at the Gates of Dawn from the box is pretty underwhelming. Oh, it’s just a cardboard sleeve with a CD stuck inside. Apparently, the group’s early platters were pretty paltry.

As the band’s profile and production budget grew, however, Pink Floyd started getting the gatefold treatment. In these instances, discs from the set such as Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall take on the aura of the original LPs. For a moment, the past two or three decades melt away, and the siren call of sentimentality imbues these CDs with an extra dose of seeming specialness. Or maybe that’s just the chemicals talking. Oh By the Way has a new car smell that’s probably masking some kind of airborne sedative. Still, aside from tripping down memory lane and huffing sweetly noxious chemicals, what does this box set offer that you couldn’t get from buying the individual CDs? Were you hoping for bonus tracks? Well, too bad. But what of a folded-up poster and two lovely coasters? Now, that, my friend, ye shall have. And all for the low, low price of US$236. Um, did I mention the coasters?

So, clearly, Oh By the Way is for the major enthusiast. The set’s cheeky title is your first warning that purchasing the prettily packaged complete discography of one of rock’s most enduringly popular bands is not a casual affair. This baby is for the ultimate fan of the band. But who is the quintessential Floyd-head? The group went through many transformations over the years, undoubtedly picking up and sloughing off constituencies along the way. Similarly, different stages of their 27-year output ought to appeal to different kinds of music listeners. The band’s sound in the late 1960s is barely even comparable to their mid-’90s output. Could any one person love it all? Does this box set have a target audience? Well, what better opportunity than a review of this career-spanning box set than to sort through their discography and issue some broad generalizations. Here, then, is the low-down on Pink Floyd, one era at a time:

Hipster Floyd:

The band formed in London in 1965, fronted by psychedelic pop king and legendary burnout Syd Barrett. The rest of the group was comprised of future leader Roger Waters on bass, Richard Wright on keyboards, and drummer Nick Mason (the only member to appear on all 14 albums, incidentally). After the success of early singles “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play”, The Pink Floyd (as they were known back in the day) issued their first album, 1967’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn. For a thorough investigation of the record’s merits, check out D.M. Edwards’ PopMatters review of its three-disc 40th Anniversary Edition. The LP is a great debut, running from the tripped-out extended jam of “Interstellar Overdrive” down to little ditties like “Scarecrow” and “Bike” that hinted at Barrett’s solo albums of a few years later. The album also features that classic of psychedelia, “Astronomy Domine”, with its sci-fi soundtrack-like descending scale making for one of the most unlikely hooks in all of rock music. Piper has inspired legions of surrealist popsters throughout the years, from Robyn Hitchcock to Neutral Milk Hotel to the Decemberists. It’s always been the coolest Pink Floyd album to own. Now, I’m not saying that one’s record collection should have any impact on social status, but if you don’t possess Piper at the Gates of Dawn, then you might as well get a big ol’ capital L tattooed on your forehead.

Pink Floyd – Astronomy Domine

Sadly, Syd Barrett’s psychosis had peaked by early 1968. Becoming basically useless on stage, he wasn’t so much kicked out of the band as left at home. Syd’s old friend, guitarist David Gilmour, joined as what was intended to be a temporary replacement. Half a lifetime later, and the guy’s still showing up for rehearsals. Without Barrett, Floyd’s hipster quotient dips slightly, but would remain intact for a few years still. With Gilmour on board, the new version of the band hopped back into the studio quickly, dropping A Saucerful of Secrets that June. Clearly, the band were trying to maintain a sound consistent with Barrett’s unique approach. Although his writing credits appear on only one track, the album feels like a continuation of Piper. Less melodically dense, their approach remained acid-kissed rock ‘n’ roll for astral journeys. On their more intergalactic tracks, Pink Floyd board their flying “Saucerful of Secrets”, “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”, and one-up God by proclaiming, “Let There Be More Light”. Coming back to Earth, the group get pastoral on “Remember a Day” and “See-Saw”. The album closes with the cut-‘n’-paste pop on the Barrett-penned “Jugband Blues”. Although not as stellar as Piper at the Gates of Dawn, A Saucerful of Secrets was a solid outing from a band trying to regain its footing shortly after losing its leader. Pink Floyd would find their way soon enough, although some failed experiments still awaited them.

Pink Floyd – Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun

1969 wasn’t a great year for Pink Floyd in the studio. In all fairness, their first release of that year, July’s More, was recorded as a film soundtrack. Predictably, it doesn’t fair too well as a stand-alone album. What works for mood music on celluloid comes across as aimless on meandering tracks like “The Crying Song” and “Quicksilver.” In sharp contrast, “Ibiza Bar” and especially “The Nile Song” are hard rockin’ bouts of acid blues. Mostly, though, More is an ironically-titled release of lesser importance. In October of that year, Floyd delivered another four sides of vinyl (that’s two CDs, kids) in the form of Ummagumma. The release matched one LP of lengthy live cuts to another platter of aimless noodlings, with half a side recorded solo by each member of the band. Although the record was a hit at the time and is perhaps viewed as a classic, the studio recordings are ridiculously self-indulgent and give a bad name to experimental composition, musique concrete, Sysyphus, and small furry animals everywhere. The live half, however, showcases late ’60s Pink Floyd at the top of their powers, grooving long and hard on classics such as “Astronomy Domine” and the awesomely titled “Careful with that Axe, Eugene”. Now you can stop pretending to like Floyd’s studio meanderings of ’69. From that year, Ummagumma‘s live CD is all you need.

Pink Floyd – Careful with that Axe, Eugene

It’s a well-known fact that nothing is hipper than a Holstein dairy cow. So, just one look at the cover of 1970’s Atom Heart Mother lets you know that we’re still in the first era of Pink Floyd’s career. The other means of detection is by noting the band’s proclivity for epic suites of orchestral rock. This was before the popularity of progressive rock really took off and became the lumbering Brachiosaurus that the meteor of punk rock would later annihilate. Starting a trend is hip; following said trend to its hot tar grave is not. Pink Floyd were definitely following their own muse here. “If” and “Fat Old Sun” are hazy folk songs from Waters and Gilmour, respectively, while Wright contributes the strummy-cum-strident “Summer ’68”, and the record concludes with the epic and sunny “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast”. Mmm, nothing like a tab of LSD to make those Frosted Flakes taste grrr-woahhhh! The album’s highlight, though, is the 20-plus-minute title track that opens Atom Heart Mother, a melding of hazy space rock jams to “O Fortuna”-like choral audacity. By this time, Pink Floyd had truly sharpened their instincts. What should come across as absurd is actually pretty cool, especially when Gilmour’s slow-handed guitar begins winding into a sexy solo over Wright’s bluesy Hammond phrasings. This is an approach that would soon become one of the band’s hallmarks. That passage is the transition to the next era of Pink Floyd’s music, when they would become giant stars and accomplish amazing feats of durability, all while making LPs that remain the ultimate soundtracks to recreating youth’s fleeting insights into the nature of, like, stuff. Dorm room monitors beware, here comes…

Pink Floyd – Atom Heart Mother (Part 2)

Stoner Floyd:

In 1971, Pink Floyd moved in a new direction. Meddle is something of a transitional album, but the dark, chugging pulse of Roger Waters’ bass on opening instrumental “One of These Days” would become another trademark of the band’s sound, remaining even in his absence. As evidenced on Roger’s lilting “San Tropez”, Syd Barrett’s influence still lingered, despite the band’s gaze shifting toward their future approach. The whole middle of the album is quite folksy, really. It all seems like a warm-up to side two, the 23-minute “Echoes”, which has a surprisingly spare and funky groove for Pink Floyd. Not surprising is the rich nebulae of heady atmosphere generated by Gilmour and Wright. This is yet another template that would remain with the band throughout their career. Also important, “Echoes” reveals Roger Waters’ oddly potent and appealing monotone vocal pattern. While lacking the charismatic wow of Bowie or Plant, Waters’ one-note recitations would become an equally iconic aspect of the 1970s.

Pink Floyd – Echoes (Part 1a, Live at Pompeii)

Not having learned from the mediocrity of their previous soundtracking venture, Pink Floyd were drawn again to the silver screen. More so than More, 1972’s Obscured by Clouds comes across as something close to a regular album. That said, it feels half-baked, as if Pink Floyd offered their only sometimes-completed tier-two material for the soundtrack. Around half the tracks are instrumental, but their structures are those of standard rock songs. On the cuts where the band bothered laying down vocals, the results are good, if not exceptional. The surprisingly lovely “Wot’s … Uh the Deal” is the highlight of an otherwise largely forgettable entry in the group’s discography. Let’s just move along to the good stuff then, shall we?

Ah, Dark Side of the Moon. It makes me a little misty-eyed just looking at the cover. I’ve been a fan of this album since its March 1973 release. I was three years old at that time. The chiming clocks, the ka-ching of the cash register, the rabbits that run – it’s perfect children’s music (if your parents are hippies). As it turns out, grown-ups liked the album, too. Once Dark Side entered the Billboard 200, it remained there for an astounding 741 weeks. By the time the album finally slipped off that chart, I was in college. Now, that is endurance! The reason for the longevity is simple: Dark Side of the Moon is one of the best albums ever made. Recorded by an assured yet creatively restless group, Pink Floyd seemingly threw in every sound they could rummage out of Abbey Road’s foley room. Yet they did so both artfully and passionately, eschewing the indulgent screwings around from their Ummagumma days in favor of the perfect synthesis of proto-electronic, gospel, psychedelia, experimental composition, warnings against greed, questions of mortality, and tributes to old friends. What’s amazing is that Floyd took all of these ingredients and turned them into digestible rock ‘n’ roll. What could have been a murky mess of a cult record became a masterpiece. Pink Floyd had hit the big time.

Pink Floyd – Money

Here’s where a lot of bands would either crank out a watered-down retread of their recent success or stumble mightily by reaching for even greater heights. Instead, Pink Floyd spent the next two years recording a follow-up to Dark Side that, ironically, delved far deeper into the band’s darker, more serious, political side. 1975’s Wish You Were Here had no hope of, um, eclipsing the feats of its predecessor, but it was its artistic equal. The group had further refined their sound, leaning less on other-worldly jams and more on arena-ready rock. While Dark Side of the Moon pulled you into its world, Wish You Were Here came right at you like a tank. It wielded big, slow, mean, inevitable domination. Pink Floyd’s paranoid blues rock was its own Orwellian city state, emanating from your massive wood-paneled speakers (or your earbuds, if you’re living in the present day). Just the title “Welcome to the Machine” tells you where Roger’s head was. Ostensibly, the whole album is about Syd Barrett (he’s the “crazy diamond” who’s told to “shine on”), but it’s hard not see Waters’ protagonist as a member of the proletariat being destroyed by government, corporate greed, society, the steamroller of capitalism, the tank, the machine. Whatever the message, with Wish You Were Here and Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd had unleashed back-to-back all-time classics.

Pink Floyd – Welcome to the Machine

Poor Animals. Floyd’s 1977 LP is the runt in a litter of timeless albums. It fared pretty well when released, hitting Billboard’s number three slot and reaching number two in the UK. Still, sandwiched as it is between Wish You Were Here and The Wall, Animals has slipped through the cracks for future generations of listeners. Roger Waters got even more Orwellian, clearly alluding to the novel Animal Farm with the record’s title, a track named “Pigs (Three Different Ones)”, and the two cuts called “Pigs on the Wing” that bookend the album. The presiding theme here is that everyone is out to get you, that “no one has a real friend”, that “things are not what they seem”. Hey, I never said it was a fun record. But it is perhaps the best showcase ever for the guitar playing of David Gilmour, who really gets to stretch out on the three extended tracks at the heart of the LP (“Dogs”, “Sheep”, and the aforementioned “Pigs”). His playing is so tasteful that, even when soloing, he’s not stealing the show. Although Roger Waters had become the compositional leader of the band, Animals was very much a group effort, displaying wondrous interplay, power, and finesse. No, it doesn’t quite live up to the pair of albums that preceded it, but Animals is a great Pink Floyd album, nonetheless.

Pink Floyd – Pigs

“We don’t need no education / We don’t need no thought control”. By 1979, Roger Waters’ vision of a bleak, gray-hued, totalitarian society had crystallized into a concrete narrative. What do you do when you’re a rock lyricist with a book-full of ideas in your brain? Well, you make a double-LP concept album, of course. The Wall would become Pink Floyd’s greatest success in the US, spending 15 weeks at number one and eventually selling 23 million units. This had somewhat less to do with the quality of the music on the album than with the easy accessibility of its vision of oppression at the hands of authority figures. The first single, “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)”, encapsulated this message clearly, offering chant-ready slogans, a great groove, and a killer Gilmour solo that you can probably play in your head from memory (just watch out that you don’t accidentally slip into “Hotel California”). This was the perfect music for alienated teens, kids with mean parents, and that group of potheads out in the school parking lot. Like a lot of concept albums (and their rock opera pals), The Wall has its share of filler, alongside a handful of truly great songs. “Mother”, “Hey You”, “Comfortably Numb”, and “Another Brick” are all classic Floyd, while much of the rest serviceably fills out the story. Regardless, the great moments and the story’s arc rise above, and The Wall looms large in the pantheon of rock.

Pink Floyd – Comfortably Numb

Boomer Floyd:

Despite Pink Floyd’s commercial triumph, their days as a true band were over. Shut out of the writing process, Richard Wright dropped out during the recording of The Wall. (Bizarrely, he was hired back on as a session musician for the ensuing tour, which meant he was the only one who actually made money from the outlandishly staged concerts.) Pink Floyd was the Roger Waters show at this stage, but not for long. His final album with the band was 1983’s dismal The Final Cut. An angry anti-war album without any big melodies to latch onto or any stand-out singles to drive sales, the LP was a disappointment to fans, critics, and record label suits alike, peaking at Billboard’s number six and selling only two million copies to date. Sure, figures like those could make the career of a new band, but they were like a death knell for Pink Floyd. The youth that had gobbled up The Wall were perplexed by The Final Cut‘s lack of anthems and insistent hooks. The album felt more like homework than hanging out. If Pink Floyd were speaking to anyone, it was to the group’s middle-aged contemporaries, the children of World War II, the Baby Boomers.

Pink Floyd – Not Now John

In 1985, Roger Waters decided he didn’t need the Pink Floyd name anymore and went solo. This left David Gilmour and Nick Mason to carry the band’s mighty mantle. Wright returned, but again as a session man. This was the trio behind 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Many others pitched in, though, including lyricist Anthony Moore and keyboardist Jon Carin. The album was generally panned on its release. No, it’s not a great record, but it has its merits. Lead single “Learning to Fly” is soaring and dreamlike, while the menacing “Dogs of War” manages to condense the three previous Floyd LPs into one good song, and “On the Turning Away” is quite pretty. Moreover, A Momentary Lapse of Reason sounded like Pink Floyd again, suggesting an appropriately mellowed version of the band’s mid-’70s vibe. For their graying fanbase, this was enough. Well, that and the group’s first tour in six years. I saw them at the Oakland Coliseum, surrounded by folks who looked like my parents, all of us straining to pluck the melodies of yesteryear from the muddled airwaves that drifted toward us from the opposing end zone. Still, Floyd lived on.

Pink Floyd – Learning to Fly

Pink Floyd took seven years to return with their next studio release, 1994’s The Division Bell. Wright was a full-fledged member again, making his greatest contributions to an album since Wish You Were Here. David Gilmour relied on a different outside lyricist, this time sharing writing credits with Polly Samson. The two have since gone on to share a whole lot more, marrying during the album’s tour and bringing three baby Gilmours into the world. The record was a great success, hitting number one on both sides of the Atlantic. This was despite poor ratings from the critics. (Don’t you people listen to a word we say? Just nod if you can hear me.) For those accustomed to the cynicism of Waters, Samson’s positive, hope-filled lyrics read like Hallmark cards. A little goopy and New Agey, they would’ve been better received in the harmonically converging late ’80s than in the irony-as-oxygen atmosphere of the 1990s. The same holds true for the music, which was quite out of place in an era of discordance and fuzz. Today, The Division Bell seems deserving of better than Robert Christgau’s bomb, but its chart-topping popularity is a bit mysterious. The record features some elegant passages and, of course, a few great Gilmour solos, but it’s a little too flaccid to satisfy deeply. If this remains the final studio album from Pink Floyd, it’s a disappointing finale. Thankfully, it’s not one on which too many of us will dwell.

Pink Floyd – Take It Back

Altogether Floyd:

That all of this music, from all of these eras of the band’s career, should be collected in one set borders on the ridiculous. Aside from the “Pink Floyd” sobriquet and the presence of Nick Mason behind the drum set, what is the force that binds the Syd Barrett-led “Astronomy Domine”, through the reign of Waters, and to the David Gilmour-headed nostalgia machine of more recent years? Well, a cardboard box seems to do the trick pretty well. And we shouldn’t discount the power of a brand name. People will swear by car manufacturers for decades and root for sports teams for generations, even after their trusted model has been discontinued and their favorite players have retired. Still, words like “Ford”, “Yankees”, and “Eagles” (band or team, take your pick) encapsulate associations that are powerful — or at least pleasant — enough for us to keep shelling out the bucks. So, if you fully bought into the Pink Floyd name sometime in the last 40 years, then Oh by the Way is an inescapably alluring treasure chest that you’ll barely hesitate to buy, despite its redundancy in your collection.

For any other level of fan, however, this set yields too much dead weight without offering anything new. Pink Floyd’s albums have already been remastered, and sometimes re-remastered. And the group’s greatest albums (minus Piper and with two lesser works) were already lavishly packaged together on 1992’s Shine On. Don’t let the powerful pull of the commemorative coasters obscure your thinking and cloud your judgment. Really, they’re kind of redundant. College kids have been setting beer cans on Floyd CDs for 20 years now. Besides, you probably already own most the individual releases you want. Maybe you’ll be inspired to pick up one or two more. Despite its intoxicating aroma, leave the complete studio collection to the completists. All in all, Oh by the Way is just another brick of CDs. For the price, it should be made of gold.

Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Rating: 9

A Saucerful of Secrets

Rating: 7


Rating: 4


Rating: 6

Atom Heart Mother

Rating: 7

Obscured by Clouds

Rating: 5

Dark Side of the Moon

Rating: 10

Wish You Were Here

Rating: 10


Rating: 8

The Wall

Rating: 8

The Final Cut

Rating: 5

A Monetary Lapse of Reason

Rating: 6

The Division Bell

Rating: 4