Syd Barrett & Pink Floyd
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Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Magic and Majesty of Pink Floyd

The Magic and Majesty of Pink Floyd
The ugly truths and bitter rivalries behind rock's most visionary band
This is an excerpt from the new issue of "Rolling Stone," on newsstands until April 5th, 2007.

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You've heard the legend: Cue up "Dark Side of the Moon" and "The Wizard of Oz," and trippiness ensues. Now we've set it up so you can judge for yourself. Watch the four creepiest sync-ups right now!

There was no reason these men should ever stand together again. Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Rick Wright -- the four musicians who carried Pink Floyd forward after Syd Barrett fell from reason in 1968 -- had not appeared on a stage together since June 1981, and it hardly seemed possible they ever would again. Waters and Gilmour had famously shown contempt for each other for a quarter-century -- each felt the other had tried to dishonor his life's work and hinder his future. After Waters started a solo career in 1984, he went on to disparage his former bandmates. Guitarist and singer Gilmour, he said, "doesn't have any ideas," and drummer Mason "can't play" (Waters had long before thrown keyboardist Wright out of the band). Gilmour gave as good as he got. When he took his version of the band on tour, he appropriated Waters' most famous prop, a gigantic pig balloon, and attached testicles to it, which some read as a commentary on how he viewed the band's former bassist. ("So they put balls on my pig," Waters said. "Fuck them.")
The long squabble resulted in the deepest, ugliest split in rock & roll's history, and almost certainly the most irreparable. On that warm London night in early July 2005 when the four men finally gathered again as Pink Floyd in London's Hyde Park at the historic Live 8 concert, it's unlikely that all the past anger and hurt was easily forgotten or healed, but that's partly what made the moment so moving. They played and sang despite their bitterness, in part because the evening's cause -- to try to persuade the world's richest countries to forgive the debts of the poorest -- was in keeping with belief systems they genuinely shared.
But there was another reason for assembling that night that ran deeper in their history. They had a debt to pay that could never be paid, but it had to be admitted. Syd Barrett, a man who had been mysterious and lonely for decades, had been the heart of Pink Floyd in its earliest days -- he wrote their songs, gave them their style, made them a force in the British music scene -- but in 1968, Waters, Mason and Wright threw him out of the band after he slipped into mental disintegration. None of them had seen him since a surprise encounter in 1975 that left them stunned and in tears, but over the years he continued to define Pink Floyd, as they evolved the style he had left them, and as they began to think and write about the darkness that had eclipsed him. They owed Barrett something -- in a way, everything -- and if they failed to honor him that night at Live 8, before the world, they could never meaningfully attempt it again. That's because they knew Pink Floyd would not exist past this night, and perhaps they sensed that in the much-too-near future, neither would Barrett, the man who gave the band its name and original purpose.

The story of Pink Floyd is the story of the themes that raised and obsessed and tore at the band for almost four decades. That is, it's a story of madness, alienation, absence, hubris and a self-willed grace. There's really nothing else quite like it in popular music history. From the time they helped ignite a pop-cultural upheaval in London in the late 1960s to that touching appearance at Live 8, Pink Floyd always meant something in their moment. Indeed, the album that transfigured them in 1973, The Dark Side of the Moon, managed to reflect the doubts and fears of a generation that had to cope with the loss of the ideals of the 1960s, and did it so effectively that it established Pink Floyd as one of the biggest, best-loved bands in rock & roll. Seven years later, the epic and bleak The Wall only made them bigger. But iThe Wall -- a story about a bitter, fucked-up loner rock star who could not bear the world around him -- proved even darker than it first seemed, as its author, Waters, increasingly could not bear the band around him. "If one of us was going to be called Pink Floyd, it's me," he told Rolling Stone in 1987, though the rest of Pink Floyd had other ideas.
Despite both triumphs and wounds, the band's members couldn't escape a certain bond -- not just a hatred for one another, but also a realization that without the community they once had, their music could never have mattered. Most of them were either born in or grew up around Cambridge -- a well-off university town that prized a progressive streak -- and appeared headed for careers in the arts. But what would bring Waters, Barrett, Mason and Wright together was a passion for the promising sounds of rock & roll, blues and R&B. Like other key British musicians -- including John Lennon, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page -- Pink Floyd would take the spirit of experimentation that they gained from art school and apply it to the raw form of rock & roll, with results that would transform the culture around them.

Waters left Cambridge in 1962 to take architecture courses at Regent Street Polytechnic in London, where he met fellow student Mason. He was already playing guitar -- in fact, he sometimes practiced in class when he didn't want to study. In 1963, he and Mason joined an existing group, Sigma 6, where they met keyboard player Wright, who loved jazz and classical music. Wright and Mason were still fairly earnest about their possible architectural futures, but not Waters. He was already trying the patience of his lecturers. "I could have been an architect, but I don't think I'd have been very happy," he told journalist Caroline Boucher in 1970. "I hated being under the boot."

Barrett -- another young guitarist and art student -- arrived in London in September 1964, to study painting. Waters and Barrett had known each other back in Cambridge, where the charismatic Barrett was part of the bohemian set, learning about French existentialism and the 1950s Beat movement, and where he was already studying guitar with his friend David Gilmour. Barrett had a passion for the melodic form of the Beatles' music and for the blues-steeped pop of the Rolling Stones, but he was also given to unusual guitar tunings and an odd slide-guitar technique, and he became interested in finding a looser form of spontaneity when playing rock & roll. By the time Barrett joined up with Waters in London, Sigma 6 had become the Abdabs, then the Tea Set. By the autumn of 1965 they had settled on a four-man lineup: Waters on bass, Wright on keyboards, Mason on drums and Barrett on lead guitar and vocals. Barrett also gave the group a new identity: the Pink Floyd Sound, derived from the first names of two obscure blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council (and from the names of his cats). "It was great when Syd joined," Wright said, according to author Barry Miles, who would also be a witness to the band's rise. "Before him, we'd play the R&B classics, because that's what all groups were supposed to be doing then. . . . With Syd, the direction changed; it became more improvised around the guitar and keyboards. Roger started to play the bass as a lead instrument, and I started to introduce more of my classical feel."

After that, the first phase of the Pink Floyd story played out quickly -- for better and worse. The better part came out of a confluence of the band's ambitions and the fast-rising movement in London's youth culture. Experimentation and a daring new sense of social play increasingly became a part of not just popular culture in Britain but also daily life. In London, from 1965 to 1968, this all became enmeshed in a movement known as the London Underground. Whether they intended to or not, Pink Floyd, more than anybody -- more than the Beatles, for example -- became the sound, the central house band, of the movement. That's because Pink Floyd, billed sometimes as "London's farthest-out group," developed themselves and their music in the midst of it all, live, night after night, at events made up of a participatory audience that included many who were experimenting with marijuana, hashish and psychedelics. There were other acts popular in this circuit, including Soft Machine, Arthur Brown, Procol Harum, Tomorrow and the jazz group AMM, but Pink Floyd set themselves apart with two features: an increasingly complex and resourceful display of light projections that appeared to envelop and react to the band as it played, and their abstract style of improvisation that could appear formless and unruly one moment, then precise, pounding and exhilarating the next. Artist Duggie Fields, who was a close friend of Barrett's, said that "suddenly they got an enormous following in a very short space of time, shorter than it took for the Rolling Stones to happen."
By the end of 1966, Pink Floyd had signed a rather lucrative deal for the time with EMI (5,000 British pounds), which allowed them unlimited time to record their first album at the label's Abbey Road Studios. (They ended up recording during the same early-1967 stretch that the Beatles spent making Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.) EMI assigned the group to Norman Smith, who had been the Beatles' sound engineer. Smith appeared a strange fit -- reportedly he wasn't initially fond of the band's instrumental experiments in "Astronomy Domine" and "Interstellar Overdrive" -- and in later years he disparaged the group in unnecessarily unkind terms. "I could barely call it music," he said.

Still, what resulted from those sessions was something wonderful and enduring. With Pink Floyd's debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the band loomed as a potentially matchless force in British rock, though Barrett was clearly the group's imaginative center. He wrote Lewis Carroll-indebted wordplay in songs about fantasy and childhood and horror and the I-Ching, all paired with remarkably intuitive melodies. He was the reason Pink Floyd were now the most notable new band in Britain, and he loved being a part of the cultural adventure that surrounded them. Jenny Fabian, who has done some of the best writing about the London scene, later told Mason in his book Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd that 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."

This matter of the band's psych-edelic effect was about to take on a painful resonance. At the peak of Pink Floyd's early creative powers, with a remarkable album now finished and set for a summer 1967 release, Syd Barrett began to fall apart. The onset was sudden. As the group's second single, "See Emily Play," vaulted into the Top Ten, Pink Floyd were set for three consecutive July appearances on a weekly British program, Top of the Pops. Barrett looked haggard and wary as the weeks progressed, until finally he walked off during the third show, frantic and angry. That was just the start. In the beginning of August, just as The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was being released, Pink Floyd's managers, Peter Jenner and Andrew King, canceled the band's English tour due to Barrett's "nervous exhaustion," and sent the singer on vacation with a doctor to a Spanish island. While there, Barrett spent some nights sleeping in a graveyard. Come November, during tours in America and Britain with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Barrett only grew worse. At too many shows, he stood onstage staring at some unknown space beyond the heads of the audience, not touching his guitar. Years later Mason told Barry Miles, in Pink Floyd: The Early Years, "You're trying to be in this band . . . and things aren't really working out and you don't really understand why. You can't believe that someone's deliberately trying to screw it up and yet the other half of you is saying, 'This man's crazy -- he's trying to destroy me!' "

There has been a lot of conjecture and mythmaking over the years about what went so terribly wrong for Barrett in such a short amount of time. Many have attributed his disintegration to a steady overconsumption of LSD. He had taken the drug since his days in Cambridge, and in 1966 he lived in an apartment with people who ingested acid regularly and purportedly fed it to Barrett whether he was aware of it or not. ("We never ventured inside," said Mason. "It was not a world the rest of us frequented.") Others -- including Waters -- believe that the psychedelics triggered a dormant schizophrenia in Barrett. However, author Tim Willis, when researching 2002's Madcap: The Half-Life of Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd's Lost Genius, discovered that Barrett had never been diagnosed with schizophrenia nor given medications, "on the grounds that he has an 'odd' mind rather than a sick one."
At the beginning of 1968, the band brought in Barrett's old Cambridge friend David Gilmour to take his place on guitars and vocals. The hope had been that Barrett might continue as a songwriter -- similar to the way that Brian Wilson still wrote material for the Beach Boys but no longer toured with them -- but even that seemed unfeasible. The band was having difficulty with some of Barrett's material -- "Vegetable Man" and "Scream Thy Last Scream" were songs they thought emanated from madness -- and they discarded those recordings. A few days after Gilmour joined, the band minus Barrett was en route to that night's performance when somebody asked, "Shall we pick up Syd?" The response was: "Fuck it, let's not bother." The band drove on and performed his songs that night without him, and never played with him again. As Pink Floyd worked on their next album, Barrett would sit in the studio's lobby with his guitar, waiting to be called into the sessions. He also stood before the stage one night at a club, glaring as Gilmour sang the songs Barrett had written. The instance unnerved Gilmour so much that he came close to quitting the band.

At the end of Pink Floyd's second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, the band included only one Barrett song, "Jugband Blues." It's doleful, even humorous, but its heartaching lyrics have always been seen as Barrett's self-diagnosis: "It's awfully considerate of you to think of me here/And I'm almost obliged to you for making it clear that I'm not here. . . . /And I'm wondering who could be writing this song." Those lines could work on another level, as Barrett's way of saying to the band, How could anybody so damaged or dispensable write a song this beautiful and original?

Waters, having set aside his higher education and any other ambitions, now made Pink Floyd his purpose. "He was the one," Gilmour told Barry Miles, "who had the courage to drive Syd out, because he realized that as long as Syd was in the band, they wouldn't keep it together, the chaos factor was too great. Roger always looked up to Syd and felt very guilty about the fact that he'd blown out his mate." Others, though, credited Gilmour -- now lead singer as well as lead guitarist -- with changing Pink Floyd's direction. In contrast to Barrett, Gilmour favored a more clearly structural and melodic approach. It was both this collaboration and competition between Waters and Gilmour that would largely drive Pink Floyd toward its triumphs, though it would also make for its troubles. In his early days in the band, Gilmour was already reacting to Waters' domineering manner, describing him as "a pushy sort of person."

For the next few years, the band made music that was as close to twentieth-century avant-garde methods as it was to rock & roll. "Pink Floyd is about pushing forward and taking risks," Waters said, and the music they made bore out his boast. Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother featured lengthy experiments in serial atonality and orchestral composition, and EMI may have felt at a loss at times for what to do with such records -- especially in America. That Pink Floyd's albums continued to prove hits in England was testament to a number of things -- including that much of the British pop audience at that time was receptive to the post-psychedelic form emerging as progressive rock. It also owed to the band's matchless sense of stagecraft. "In the future," Syd Barrett said in a 1967 interview, "groups are going to have to offer more than a pop show. They are going to have to offer a well-presented theater show." Pink Floyd would pursue that vision tirelessly, with performances that featured increasingly sophisticated light effects and giant props (including a massive octopus that rose from a lake during an outdoor show). In the late 1960s, these theatrics sometimes accompanied thematic suites such as The Man and The Journey, early tastes of Waters' appetite for conceptual works.

With Pink Floyd, there was a sense that this was a band working toward something -- some amalgam of music and ideas that would define its place in modern arts.

You've heard the legend: Cue up "Dark Side of the Moon" and "The Wizard of Oz," and trippiness ensues. Now we've set it up so you can judge for yourself. Watch the four creepiest sync-ups right now!
This is an excerpt from the new issue of "Rolling Stone," on newsstands until April 5th, 2007.

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