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Anthems of rebellion: The enduring legacy of Pink Floyd

With Pink Floyd’s entire catalogue up for grabs – and private equity firm Blackstone among its most significant bidders – we take a look at the massive influence of the greatest rock band of all time.

August 28, 2022 / 07:39 PM IST
For Pink Floyd fans, the band remains inseparable from their politics, and the cool rage with which they’ve harmonised against exploitative systems, conflict and the worst of human impulses. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

For Pink Floyd fans, the band remains inseparable from their politics, and the cool rage with which they’ve harmonised against exploitative systems, conflict and the worst of human impulses. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

A block print tie-and-dye sheet covered the only window in the room. Posters of The Doors, Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and more were tacked up on walls with peeling mint-coloured paint. Incense sticks burned in one corner. A laptop hooked up to cheap wired PC speakers sat in another. A bunch of cushions, a stack of dog-eared books (Jim Morrison biographies prominent among them) and some tobacco rolling paraphernalia lay on the floor in a third. On the laptop, the entirety of Pink Floyd’s discography (or what could be found on Limewire), sat open on Winamp, on display like a prized acquisition.

It’s a December afternoon in 2005. Four college kids – students of literature, history and the liberal arts at Delhi University – have dozed through classes, and now feel fresh and bright for their weekly music listening session. Today, they were exploring The Dark Side of The Moon, Pink Floyd’s biggest, most commercially successful – and arguably accessible – album.

In the next 43 minutes, like millions before them, they have their breath taken away by the sheer genius at play: The alarming chorus of clock chimes on “Time”, the rhythmic ka-ching of a cash register ringing on “Money”, the utter sing-along-ability of “Us and Them”, the perfect segues between songs, the ticking heartbeat that bookends the whole thing. “Wow” was all they could come up with right then, but it was enough for each of them to go deep down the rabbit hole of Pink Floyd fandom.

TDSOTM was so much more than the sum of its parts. Its subject matter, “the nature of human experience”, was universal. Its lyrics were direct, forceful and angry enough to speak to millennials sitting on a whole other continent, 32 years after it was released. Its left-leaning politics – coded in songs about corporate greed, war, capitalism, social alienation, madness – has influenced and resonated with successive generations. Its sound was futuristic and familiar at once. Its form defined the concept album; indeed, what was possible for musicians to do in the name of an album. TDSOTM was Pink Floyd’s brightest moment. It was also, as the British prog-rock band’s diehard fans will tell you, the beginning of the end.

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In the Pink Floyd mythology, there exist two or three versions of the band. The first was born in 1965, when four shaggy-haired boys from Cambridge – Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Rick Wright and the enigmatic, charismatic Syd Barrett – came together as “The Pink Floyd Experience”. Their first album, The Piper At the Gates of Dawn – released a few months after The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s – was a mad mash of psychedelia, atonal but deft and elaborate instrumentation, and songs about gnomes and scarecrows that hopped through fairy tales, children’s stories and abstract cosmic metaphors.

In their spectacular live performances, they reportedly incorporated complex light work, making Pink Floyd a spectacular hit in the London Underground. As the journalist Jenny Fabian described it in Nick Mason’s book Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd: Floyd “were the first authentic sound of acid consciousness. . . They’d be up on stage like supernatural gargoyles playing their spaced-out music, and the same color that was exploding over them was exploding over us. It was like being taken over, mind, body and soul.”

Syd Barrett’s slow descent into madness – too much LSD, schizophrenia or something else, this will always be speculation – brought the guitarist David Gilmour into the loop. This was Pink Floyd 2.0, at their best. Gilmour, also considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time, preferred a structured sound instead of the improvisations of Barrett. With Waters, Gilmour defined the sound of Pink Floyd that you hear in mainstream consciousness. Two years after TDSOTM came Wish You Were Here, featuring the epic 9-parter “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, considered by many to be Pink Floyd’s actual best work. A tribute to Syd Barrett, the track “Wish You Were Here” has also been read as proof of Waters’ disaffection with his own band.

Wish You Were Here was followed by Animals: An album Orwellian in tone and punk in essence that became the base for Pink Floyd’s experimentations with stage design and live concert art, including the famous giant pig-shaped helium balloons and giant inflatable octopus swimming out of ponds. And then came The Wall, a bigger commercial success than a critical one. Never mind that this was Roger Waters’ mostly whining about the pain of being a rock star. The Wall gave the world anthems of rebellion in “Another Brick In The Wall” and “Comfortably Numb”. On the live tour, a wall was literally erected and broken down each night of performance. And it came with a movie. Let no one say Pink Floyd didn’t know and give the people (once referred to as “the great unwashed” by Waters) what they wanted.

Pink Floyd 3.0 began in 1985, when Waters left the band and led an ugly legal battle over who got to keep the Pink Floyd name. With A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987), Gilmour, Rick Wright and Nick Mason’s Pink Floyd was now putting out music with remarkably less acidic content but stunning production and instrumentation. A Momentary Lapse of Reason was followed by Pink Floyd’s most successful live tour in the band’s history: A fact that irked Waters no end.

Pink Floyd, with and without Syd Barrett and Roger Waters, put out 15 studio albums, four live albums and 12 compilation albums. No matter which Pink Floyd you relate to most, no matter where you stand on the Barrett vs Waters and Waters vs Gilmour debate – the thing we can all agree upon is that Pink Floyd was a force unto its own in the counterculture 1970s. But also that their music still speaks to us. They remain a massive influence on musicians of all stripes (not just rock) in the scope of their ambition, their ability to frame and execute conceptual albums, their craft and courage, the largeness of their vision, in their sheer showmanship.

For their fans – and let’s be honest, the Pink Floyd fan, enamoured with their moral, ethical loftiness, is usually minted in that sliver of time between adolescence and young adulthood, a time of idealism and disillusionment – the band remains inseparable from their politics, for the cool rage with which they’ve harmonised against exploitative systems, conflict, the worst of human impulses and more. And I’m not talking about a Waters-era Floyd alone. This year, Gilmour and Mason, along with bassist Guy Pratt and Indian-origin British composer Nitin Sawhney grouped up to put together a song against the Ukraine war. “Hey Hey! Rise Up” was “a show of anger against a superpower invading a peaceful nation.” Waters was not part of this collaboration.

Which is why it isn’t hard to see why there’s been some trepidation about the fact that private equity firm Blackstone is among several firms bidding for the rights to own the entire back catalog of Pink Floyd. Blackstone is believed to be willing to spend as much as $500 million for this. But why should it matter, when everyone from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen have sold their discographies?

After all that railing against corporate greed on tracks like “Money”, Pink Floyd might appear to be ‘selling out’ if they take a fat cheque from a firm like Blackstone. A report on the website Inside Hook puts this in context, especially in the case of Roger Waters: “Waters has been outspoken about preserving the Amazon rainforest, traveling to the region in 2018 and calling out Chevron for polluting the area. Blackstone has been accused of contributing to the deforestation of that very same rainforest.

“Waters also bragged last year about turning down “a huge amount of money” from Facebook to use “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” in an ad for Instagram, citing the social media company’s “insidious movement to take over absolutely everything” as his reason for rejecting the deal. Maybe he just hasn’t gotten around to reading up on how Blackstone exploited low-income families and people of color to fuel the global housing crisis in 2008 yet.”

Here’s a fan who first listened to “Money” in 2005 – and stayed wary about the pursuit of green ever since and also thinks there’s nothing in the world that can outshine Wish You Were Here – earnestly hoping the better, not necessarily the richest, bidder wins. Who needs the cruel irony of Pink Floyd becoming the very thing they wrote cautionary tales about?
Nidhi Gupta is a Mumbai-based freelance writer and editor.
first published: Aug 28, 2022 07:32 pm
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