Pink Floyd may be the only rock band that can credibly be compared to both the Beatles and Spinal Tap.
Its mid-’70s sonic triumphs — including The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here — are both aural delights and meaningful works of art whose message is conveyed through sound. The members of the band — Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright — approached their work seriously and blew minds in the process.
And it’s possible this perennially popular band has had its popularity underestimated. Over the years, I’ve become extremely impressed with an amateur music-industry analyst who lives in France, Guillaume Vieira. He obsessively collects worldwide sales data. Not sales claims; sales data. You can read his 51 pages of Pink Floyd sales data here. The upshot: Pink Floyd has sold more albums worldwide than the Beatles. Floyd recorded over a longer period, of course, but both groups have released about the same number of albums, and had about the same span of decades to sell their work to new generations — and in new configurations.
And yet … the band’s famous works were recorded over an extremely short period, in a recording career that has now stretched nearly to five decades. Much of the rest of it was filled by wildly veering musical approaches, big misfires, aesthetic excesses, pratfalls, and wide-ranging acts of buffoonery you wouldn’t find surprising in a This Is Spinal Tap outtake reel.
Anyway, this month marks the 50th anniversary of the band’s first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Few Pink Floyd fans can read those words, taken from a chapter heading of The Wind in the Willows by the band’s fey original leader, Syd Barrett, without a twinge of sadness. If you’re not familiar with Barrett’s tragic tale, read on.
The list that follows ranks all of the band’s officially released studio work, from the worst song to the best.
In its massive confusion, this accounting — which, whether we like it or not, hangs above our cultural world, as the band itself might have put it, motionless upon the air, like an albatross — is a testament to the good humor of the gods of rock, which now and again smile upon otherwise unemployable, gangly British nitwits.
165. “Round and Around,” A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987): To understand Pink Floyd, you have to understand that there are at least four, or arguably five, Pink Floyds. The first was a goofy and absurdist pop-rock band, led by one Syd Barrett, whose contributions were limited basically to a couple of singles and one album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn; more on him anon. The second Pink Floyd had its origins before Barrett joined, and then reached full pretentious flower after his departure; this aggregation was one of the founders of progressive rock, a psychedelic, space-rock-y, quasi-improvisational ensemble; it proffered a whole bunch of those multipart suites and played around with atonal bashings and funny sound effects in soi-disant psychedelic happenings in Swinging London, most of it of little or no aesthetic interest this many years on. The third Pink Floyd is the one we know and love; the organic unit that created Meddle, The Dark Side of the Moon, and Wish You Were Here. You could make the argument that this phase soon evolved into a different, fourth version of the band, which saw a domineering Waters taking control and producing increasingly what were essentially Roger Waters solo albums, starting with Animals, going through The Wall and The Final Cut, and then proceeding into his solo career. Pink Floyd Phase 5 was the band that continued after Waters left, and would have been an enormous joke were it not for its record sales (big) and tour grosses (even bigger). “Round and Around” is aimless even by the standards of A Momentary Lapse of Reason, the band’s first post-Waters album. The story is that Wright and Gilmour hashed out scores of instrumental tracks from which they picked promising tunes for their first Waters-less album. They’d had more than a decade to come up with new songs. This made the cut?
164. “Two Suns in the Sunset,” The Final Cut (1983): This is the final song on the final album by the band people feel is the “real” Pink Floyd. It was a watershed moment in the group’s career: Bassist Roger Waters, whose expanding vision and growing songwriting talents had given the band The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall, had become (by all accounts including his own) a hellacious asshole — he’d even insisted that the band fire its original keyboardist, Richard Wright, during the recording of The Wall. After The Final Cut, Waters himself left the band, and announced that Pink Floyd was over. Right about then, the two remaining members, guitarist David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason, realized that they controlled the name of one of the biggest entities in rock — and that, with that prick Waters gone, the conditions of actually being in that band had just improved remarkably. As for this song, to end the dreary song cycle of The Final Cut — subtitled “Requiem for the Post-War Dream by Roger Waters” — Waters rolls out a nuclear holocaust, a kablooey ex machina, and sings about it in a pinched little whiny voice that is an aesthetic holocaust just by itself. Speaking of disasters, Rolling Stone gave this overwrought, self-important, and almost unlistenable album five stars.
163. “Atom Heart Mother,” Atom Heart Mother (1970): This was the band’s fifth album. For the record, “Atom Heart Mother” doesn’t mean anything; it was taken from a newspaper headline. And the cow on the cover is a similar piece of absurdism. It’s just a cow. All that you can forgive. But this nonsense begins with faintly recorded horns as an intro into a six-part not-so-magnum opus. Are there passages that are vaguely interesting? Yes, but nothing to excuse the excessive length. These days the term “progressive rock” is generally used to denote ’70s aggregations that proffered hyper-noted assaults with lots of show-offy musicianship, abrupt stops and starts, and all other manner of awfulness. In the mid-to-late ’60s, though, the genre was pioneered by bands like the Nice (which featured Keith Emerson, later of Emerson, Lake & Palmer), the Soft Machine, and Pink Floyd, who were basically just poking around with what was possible. (King Crimson came along soon, too. There was even a time Fleetwood Mac, originally a blues band, was a considered a prog-rock outfit.) But truthfully, Pink Floyd guys never had the pure musicality, not to mention the vision, to pull anything like this together. About nine minutes in, in the part that I think is called “Mother Fore,” a stentorian choir comes in. It’s possibly the band’s most Spinal Tap–y moment. And in the next section, “Funky Dung,” the band lays down some hot grooves.
162. “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving With a Pict,” Ummagumma (1969): Ummagumma, the group’s fourth LP, was the nadir of Pink Floyd Phase 2, from the doltish title on down. It’s a two-disc set; the first disc has extended live versions of the band at its most space-rockin’est. The rest of the album was divided between the four band members, each of whom was given about 15 minutes to play around in his own musical sandbox. This was part of Waters’s contribution. I would like to dock it a dozen notches for the surpassingly stupid title. The thing is, it’s actually a fairly accurate representation of what you get, which is the five minutes of chirrups and squeaks, along with the unidentified ravings of some maniac in a heavy Scottish accent. (The Picts were an early British tribe.)
161. “Obscured by Clouds,” Obscured by Clouds (1972): Three minutes of nice throbby scene-setting for the Barbet Schroeder movie The Valley, not much more. In Pigs Might Fly, the best biography of the band, author Mark Blake says that Waters passed up a chance to have the band’s music in A Clockwork Orange. (In 1970, the band also contributed music to Antonioni’s goofy Zabriskie Point.) The Valley is about some Australians who go tramping into New Guinea, where they find a remote tribe living in a valley whose position is marked “obscured by clouds” on maps. For their album of the same title, the band took their soundtrack music and added a few more songs.
160. “Pow R. Toc H.,” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967): A very early experiment in sound-sculpturing from the band’s first album, with all sort of rollicking vocal effects, including crunches, hoots, and warblings, all while a patient bass and a decent jazzy piano line try, unsuccessfully, to hold it all together. It seems to go on for an eternity, but when you check it seems only four-and-a-half minutes have passed — but they are trying ones indeed. The band, thinking they were onto a hot groove, had to be persuaded to reduce its length in the studio.
159. “Cluster One,” The Division Bell (1994): The leadoff to The Division Bell, the second post-Waters album, begins with almost a minute of rustling and other sounds, in order to show that this really was a Pink Floyd album. There’s then another minute of guitar noodling from David Gilmour, in order to ditto. Wright and Gilmour really get into it — so much so that they forget to include an actual song. Nothing ever happens. And the noodling isn’t that good.
158. “Julia Dream,” single (1968): After Barrett left the band, Floyd foundered. This single (the band, like many of its British counterparts at the time, released singles that didn’t appear on any of its proper albums), written by Roger Waters, has the distinction of being one of the worst singles by a major band ever released. If Stephen Bishop had come across Waters sitting on a frat-house stairway with an acoustic guitar serenading a couple of coeds, he would have grabbed the guitar and smashed it.
Just a chorus, really; this fragment from the soundtrack to The Wall should probably be part of the “Vera” sequence. The Wall was Waters’s magnum opus and highly biographical. The story is about a rock star named Pink, raised in the damaged postwar period and forced through a pointlessly rigid schooling system. (Waters’s own school teachers, he said later, “were absolute swine.”) Pink grows up to be a rock star, but finds out it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Waters gets that pampered rock stars don’t really have problems, but viewing his own history (he grew up in Cambridge raised by his mother; his father had been killed in the war), and his own emotional deficiencies, he thought he could craft something like a rock opera around some of the alienation he was feeling, even though he should have been content. Logistically, it really wasn’t a Pink Floyd album; it was created largely by Waters and the messy but talented hard-rock producer Bob Ezrin, who had overseen decent albums by Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, and Peter Gabriel. This was a herculean task, given the vast demands the album would make on a band that didn’t really have the manpower (or the talent) to pull it off.
156. “The Final Cut,” The Final Cut (1983): Like The Wall, The Final Cut tells a story. It is about the effects of the Falklands War, seen through the prism of the Second World War, which of course hurt the country deeply, and included the tragic death of Waters’s father. Here, we have a man returned from the previous war, becoming a schoolteacher, and watching the war cries begin for the Falklands. That conflict, forgotten now, started when the dictator running Argentina occupied some British-held islands in the South Atlantic, mostly to ramp up patriotic fervor on the home front. Margaret Thatcher dispatched some warships and the world watched for a week or so as they chugged their way down the globe. The absurd conflict that resulted included the senseless sinking of an Argentine ship, which cost more than 300 lives. To Waters, this represented an enormous betrayal on the part of the British government, whose rabble-rousing for the war overlooked the terrible cost of the last one. Anyway, that’s all fine. But this song is a puzzlement. It’s another hugely bombastic number, the album’s penultimate track. At this point in The Final Cut, you deeply, deeply never want to hear Roger Waters’s voice again. His big, climactic line, “Or is it just a crazy dream,” delivered in a porcine squeal, is just this side of painful. But that’s not what makes this song inexcusable. For some reason I can’t comprehend, Waters inserts himself into the story; that’s the only way one can interpret this song’s key line, which, having no relevance to the rest of whatever story Waters was trying to tell, has the distinction of being the worst single lyric in the Pink Floyd oeuvre, and that includes the one about the albatross hanging motionless upon the air: “If I open my heart to you / And show you my weak side / What would you do? / Would you sell your story to Rolling Stone?” This from the guy who might never have even been quoted in the magazine over the real Pink Floyd’s existence. Hey, Rog: It’s a small sacrifice. Lie back and think of England.
155. “Stop,” The Wall (1979): You have to give Waters and co-producer Bob Ezrin credit: They did fashion a passably coherent narrative, and the work that went into conceiving, arranging, and recording the more than two dozen tracks on The Wall were daunting. So occasionally you get songs like this one, where they need a piece of narrative-driving. A transition number, 30 seconds long. Pink’s awaiting “trial,” the poor guy.
154. “Seamus,” Meddle (1971): Like Sonic Youth, Pink Floyd was so bad when it started (the first album aside) that even with exponential growth it took five or six efforts before they released a listenable album. That was Meddle. This is the last song on the first side, a raggedy, kind of acoustic number, mumbled, with terrible sound. And if that’s not enough, the whole song is accompanied by a track of dogs howling. Har. Dee. Har. Har.
153. “When You’re In,” Obscured by Clouds (1972): This suffers from the same tonal monotony as the title track to The Valley soundtrack, but a little more energy ensues. Unfortunately it derives from a pretty lite guitar riff and some Deep Purple–y keyboard mewling. It’s not clear why the fadeout lasts 30-plus seconds.
152. “The Dogs of War,” A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987):
The exquisite irony of the result of Waters’s departure — which Waters has always been smart enough to acknowledge — was that in 1984 the members of Pink Floyd were by far the most anonymous superstars in the world. Interviews with the band were almost nonexistent, and their picture hadn’t been on the cover of an album since Ummagumma, in 1970. (The band was never on the cover of Rolling Stone until a piece about the breakup … which was published in 1987, years after it all happened.) Who the hell cared that someone named Roger Waters left Pink Floyd? All that said, Gilmour himself had no business creating a Pink Floyd album on his own — and it was on his own, because, once the album got underway, it was plain that Mason couldn’t even drum any more. Pink Floyd had to hire outside drummers to play drums for its drummer. Gilmour also brought in outside songwriters, a motley crew that extended even to former Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard. And the record company still rejected the album! Back to the drawing board. The ultimate result was as lame a work as you can imagine. “The Dogs of War” is about mercenaries. Bad guys! But that didn’t stop the thing from selling 4 million units in the U.S. and lots, lots more overseas. The band’s undiscriminating fans ate up the accompanying Waters-less tour as well, with all the ancient Pink Floyd accoutrements, like the floating pig and the exploding airplane, brought out of mothballs. The tour grossed $250 million. I saw it. It was awesome.
151. “Pigs on the Wing, Part 2,” Animals (1977): This is the closing track on Animals, a reprise of the first song: just 90 seconds of strummed acoustic guitar and a few short lines. More on Animals later, but I want to say this: Waters is a smart guy and I don’t want to be glib criticizing his conceptions. But I don’t understand the narrator’s voice here. He’s happy he has a place to “bury [his] bone,” so he has to be a dog. Is he a dog? I didn’t get that from part one. In that one, the characters don’t care for each other, and in this case they do, which I guess is a sign of resignation as they watch the pigs fly above. What this song is really about, however, is songwriting royalties. The two little “Pigs on the Wing” snippets on Animals — basically the same song with different words, 90 seconds each, nothing more than Waters playing a casual acoustic guitar and singing — are credited to Waters alone as songwriter. Accordingly, they represented two separate tracks on the album when it came to songwriting (or “publishing” or “mechanical” royalties) separate from the royalties the band as a whole made from the record. Waters probably took home 3 cents per album sold for each track he wrote, so he would have made a total of 6 cents per album just for these two basically identical little ditties. Now let’s look at Animals’ “Dogs,” which is credited to Waters/Gilmour, and lasts for 16 minutes. That would have given Gilmour about a penny and a half per album sold. Animals sold 12 million copies worldwide, meaning Waters the songwriter might have taken away three-quarters of a million dollars just from the two little “Pigs on the Wing” snippets, compared to about $90,000 for Gilmour for his work on the epic “Dogs.” Drummer Nick Mason, in his highly honest, highly enjoyable autobiography, says that inequities like these contributed to the resentment the band felt toward Waters. (Waters, of course, might have argued and no doubt did that it was his songs that drove the record sales that kept the rest of the band in English manor houses.)
150. “Outside the Wall,” The Wall (1979): This is the last track of The Wall. After all the bombast comes this soft little ditty. It actually works lyrically — it’s a pretty knowing acknowledgment of the cost to the people around those who have put the wall up. But as the last track of the record it’s pretty lame. In the film it runs over the credits and its import is lost.
149. “Absolutely Curtains,” Obscured by Clouds (1972): The final track of the band’s last album before it started getting good. An interminable instrumental, almost devoid of ideas, unless you count letting some out-of-tune kids make funny noises for the last several minutes of this six-minute track an idea.
148. “The Gunner’s Dream,” The Final Cut (1983): This song, coming toward the end of what was the first side of The Final Cut, is where you throw up your hands. The Second World War was a terrible event in world history, and took a devastating toll. This song is an acknowledgment that there were reasons for the war. But all of its victims deserve much better than this labored, clotted, and overwrought assault on the finer sensibilities of just about anyone who might actually listen to it. (Confidential to Roger W.: Constructions like “Take heed” went out with Keats.) And if you think there’s nothing worse than hearing Waters whimper, lugubriously, the line, “And no one kills the children any more,” just wait till he repeats it for effect.
147. “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” Atom Heart Mother (1970): Another suite from the band’s dreariest period, on an album that had already given us 20-plus minutes of the title song, in no less than six parts. This one comprises a comparatively restrained three parts, and includes the sounds of an actual breakfast being made, complete with dripping faucet, which turns out to be kinda irritating. Gilmour noodles guitars in the middle, with a poorly recorded bass interfering. The third part is mostly keyboard, mixed horribly. The band actually used to play this nonsense live. The titular Alan, incidentally, was a roadie; the title is another example of the band’s jolly jocularity. The argument for this junk, I suppose, is that the band, despite its space-rock leanings, was much more down to earth and organic, as opposed to the flights of high electronic fantasy offered by your King Crimsons and the other, more energetic progressive-rock outfits of the time. Part of the reason it doesn’t work for me is the anonymity of the players. If this is supposed to be organic, there’s no personality to the music.
146. “See-Saw,” A Saucerful of Secrets (1968): Just what we needed, a pastoral, gossamer bit of wispy melody and fairy-tale vocalizing. A horrifyingly bad Wright composition from the band’s second album. The backing vocals are a parody of themselves.
145. “The Show Must Go On,” The Wall (1979):
Doo-wop vocals, synthesized drum rolls, and melodramatic lyrics. (“I didn’t mean to let them take my soul!”) One of the problems with The Wall is that it’s really not clear who the bad guys are. Why did Pink let anyone take his soul? The world Waters and Ezrin were now inhabiting was so far removed from the Floyd of old that Toni Tennille — of “Love Will Keep Us Together” Captain & Tennille fame — was brought in to do backup vocals. One of my favorite moments in the Pink Floyd story is when, after Animals, the other guys in the group decided they’d had just about enough of Roger Waters’s overbearing dominance. They were emboldened by the fact that they’d just recorded two of the biggest albums of the era, and were feeling pretty good moneywise. They’d done what they’d set out to do, and now was the time to let Waters know they were through with his Great Artiste act. Boy, was he going to be surprised! If this were a scene in This Is Spinal Tap, the band would be assembling in a room to give Waters the bad news when … the phone would ring, informing the members that — due to incoherently planned and overambitious tours, a lack of tax planning, bad investments, and inadequate oversight of their accountants — they were basically broke. At which point the members were all ears to hear what their resident genius had on tap for them next. “A two-record rock opera about an unhappy rock star rather like yourself, you say? Sounds intriguing!”
144. “The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party,” Ummagumma (1969): There are three parts to this sad waste of vinyl (then) and innocent ones and zeroes (today): “Part 1 – Entrance,” “Part 2 – Entertainment,” and “Part 3 – Exit.” Ummagumma could have been the band’s breakout after the timekeeping More soundtrack. Instead, this is the one where they gave each member of the band 10 or 15 minutes to do anything he wanted — or as in this case, making them fill up the space even though they didn’t want to or had no business doing so. This is Nick Mason’s contribution, including lots of flute played by his then wife. And here’s the thing. It’s a rock band. Why not have each member of the “band,” you know, contribute something to each song? All that said, to be fair it should be noted that what the band was doing here wasn’t on a level worse than some of the painful stuff their peers in Jethro Tull or King Crimson were putting out. “Passion Play,” anyone? “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic”?
143. “Empty Spaces,” The Wall (1979): Nice eerie instrumentalizing as the pressures start to close in on poor little Pink, but it’s really just there to set up “Young Lust” — and give Roger Waters another publishing royalty. Here’s another bit of songwriter-royalties trivia, if you care: In crude terms, with The Wall, Waters almost certainly holds the record for the greatest songwriter windfall from one album in rock history. With a lot of short fragments like “Empty Spaces,” he had the equivalent of 24 solo songwriting credits on The Wall, which, with more than 30 million copies sold worldwide, is in the top-20-biggest-selling albums of all time. No other album close to that rarefied air has so many songwriting credits from one person. Again, given his stature, he should have been netting 3 cents per song, or about 75 cents in total, per record sold. Let’s say CBS had a cap on publishing points that took it down by 10 cents. (Foreign rates vary, of course, but he probably got more than that at least in Europe, where songwriters get 10 percent of the wholesale price.) Sixty-five cents times 30 million copies sold is pretty close to $20 million in gross songwriting royalties from just one album release. That’s probably equal to about what he made from being a member of the band, and he had royalty points as a producer in addition.
142. “Burning Bridges,” Obscured by Clouds (1972): While Pink Floyd should be given credit for improvisation and the aural pleasures that sometimes resulted, particularly in a live setting, it’s not clear that any of them, this early in their career, were thinking outside the box musically. Case in point is this lazy Wright/Gilmour composition. Wright, supposedly the band’s secret musical weapon, rarely produced an actual good, you know, song. It’s painfully plain how simple both the chords and progressions are. The lyrics are all about “ancient bonds” and “gilded cages.” In one sense, maybe this isn’t any worse than an embarrassment like Crimson’s “Moonchild,” but those guys had real chops. This feels aimless and uninventive.
141-128. The 14 tracks of The Endless River (2014): Pink Floyd’s last real album was The Division Bell; a few years ago, however, came this, an album that truly no one had ever asked for. Wright died in 2006; conceived as some sort of a tribute to him and billed as the final Pink Floyd album, it’s two discs based largely on Wright keyboard demos the band had lying around, gussied up with Gilmour playing guitar and Mason playing drums over them. You’ll remember that these tracks were desperately gone over once to produce decent material for Momentary Lapse, to no avail. You might think it was unlikely that there were better tracks that were somehow overlooked; you would be right. It would bore you even more to read about them than it would me to write about each track, so let’s just stick the 14 tracks in a group here. The last song, “Louder Than Words,” is a real song, and isn’t terrible. Despite the fact that The Endless River is a joke on the band’s fans it has nonetheless sold some 2.5 million worldwide.
127. “One of My Turns,” The Wall (1979): In Waters’s conception of The Wall, and it’s not a terrible one, Pink has put an emotional wall up around himself. I like the idea, because it’s hard; back then, “the Wall” was symbolic of the Soviet Union. I liked how Waters wrested the symbol away and tried to make a statement about personal isolation. Anyway, here, Pink gets a groupie and proceeds to get a little weird.
126. “One of the Few,” The Final Cut (1983): Another fragment. Waters’s hero this time is a war veteran who returns to be a teacher.
125. “Is There Anybody Out There?” The Wall (1979): A timekeeping song from The Wall, with an extended classical guitar segment. Pink’s behind the wall, asking for help. In the film it ends with the highly cinematic scene of Bob Geldof shaving his chest. Unsuspecting viewers wouldn’t know that this is a Syd Barrett reference: During the recording of Wish You Were Here, a strange man manifested himself in the control room at Abbey Road. He was portly and quiet, with his pants belted high over his stomach, his head and eyebrows shaved. It took a while before his crushed friends recognized their former bandmate.
124. “Marooned,” The Division Bell (1994): Marooned is how you feel listening to this pallid, five-minute-and-thirty-second guitar solo.
123. “Mudmen,” Obscured by Clouds (1972): A Wright/Gilmour instrumental. There’s a touch or two of drama, and a not-all-that-interesting funny guitar noise.
122. “Scarecrow,” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967):
Lots — way lots — of cutesy percussion, which passed for experimental back in those days. Syd Barrett grew up in Cambridge, which was relatively protected from the damage the war did to England. He knew both Gilmour and Waters from a young age. Waters, who’d gone to architecture school in London, wound up in a band with keyboardist Wright and drummer Mason and eventually brought Barrett in. The group was into being wildly “creative” — they’d play “Louie Louie” for 30 minutes, improvising — but soon found themselves following the lead of the charismatic Barrett. (Barrett christened them the Pink Floyd Experience; this was soon shortened, but you can still find contemporary references to the band as “The Pink Floyd.”) He was an intriguing, protean figure — a cosmic rock-and-roll griffin, made of equal parts Ray Davies, Sebastian from Brideshead, Morrissey, and Lewis Carroll — considered by all to be brilliant and charming. His disarming off-kilter creativity early on was evidenced in things like a handcrafted book he titled Fart Enjoy. This is one of his second-tier songs. All of his tricks are here; the lines stuffed full of words, the uneven rhythms and gay little asides, the marveling at the wondrous world around us. It’s all fine but he could do a lot better.
121. “Wearing the Inside Out,” The Division Bell (1994): Another insubstantial, forgettable track on Division Bell. Waters’s dark sarcasm was looking better all the time. And then the pompous synthesized horns kick in. Repeat, for almost seven minutes.
120. “Sysyphus, Parts 1–4,” Ummagumma (1969): Starts out heavy and ponderous, then gets quickly lite, with some tinkling piano. And then it goes on and on — heavy but stalled, like that albatross hanging motionless upon the air — over four “parts.” Wright’s contribution to the second disc of Ummagumma shows off his limits. He was a pianist, and a keyboardist, there can be no doubt. But the difference between knowing how to play piano, even well, and crafting a 15-minute solo work worth listening to (and making people pay for) is a very big leap. You can laugh at Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson, or even Tony Banks, from Genesis; but they were patently heavy, significant, even spectacular players. Wright would later write a couple or three good songs — one of them a significant track on TDSOTM. His textures and creativity on piano, organ, and synthesizer transformed many of the group’s tracks and some of their best ones. But he had no business writing 15-minute on-record epics. And one of the Cambridge boys in the band should have told him how to spell Sisyphus.
119. “Childhood’s End,” Obscured by Clouds (1972):
A Gilmour track some of whose sound would be repurposed for “Time” on TDSOTM. He’s singing in a much-lower register, and his voice loses some of its power. Gilmour’s not at his best when he’s writing his own lyrics: “And then as the sail is hoist / You find your eyes are growing moist.”
118. “Southampton Dock,” The Final Cut (1983): This is apparently a wife, standing at a dock watching the British soldiers head off to the Falklands, reflecting on the former losses of the Second World War. The lyrics include the title of the album, “In the bottom of our hearts we felt the final cut.”
117. “Dramatic Theme,” More (1969): Just what it says.
116. “The Post-War Dream,” The Final Cut (1983): After some scratchy radio-dial turning, à la “Wish You Were Here,” we get the intro to Waters’s dreary post-Wall indulgence. Way too much echo on his voice. We can see from the start this will be a much less subtle (!) operation than The Wall. I don’t have the time or the mental energy to chart the disparate tonal and geopolitical shifts in this short, 16-line intro. And that’s before we get Waters, full-volume, shrieking, “Whatever happened to the postwar dream?”
115. “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” single (1968):
For the B-side to “Point Me at the Sky,” which was a normal song, the band gave fans one of its live barn-burners. On record, though, it comes across just as six minutes of meandering. One of the other things about Pink Floyd that’s hard to process is that, while they could deliver odd pop and even rock songs with Syd Barrett, they were known on the London scene for their association with psychedelic freakout events, notably in a club called UFO, where the band would make weird sounds for hours at a time for the kids to groove to. They were right there at the forefront of such stuff, so they deserve to get credit for the innovation. I always say that inventing progressive rock was probably a dumb idea, but it was Pink Floyd’s dumb idea. One of the Spinal Tap ironies is that they weren’t that good at it!
114. “Take It Back,” The Division Bell (1994): Another long, droning, musically undistinguished track from this surpassingly lame album. It is perfect, however, in one regard. It’s a perfect mediocre song to fill out six-plus minutes on a mediocre album.
113. “Paint Box,” single (1967): The B-side to the band’s last Barrett single, “Apples and Oranges.” It sounds like exactly what it is, a slightly aimless, minor song from a minor British pop band. Written and sung by Wright, it’s not terrible, though his voice isn’t strong enough to carry it.
112. “The Hero’s Return,” The Final Cut (1983): Here the hero-teacher of The Final Cut, back from the war, ruminates on his new charges, how he can’t talk to his wife, and how the memories of the war won’t leave him. Aside from some U2-like delay on the guitar, it’s pretty unmemorable, though it works all right as a bit of plot.
111. “Coming Back to Life,” The Division Bell (1994): Another minute or so of guitar noodling — reminiscent of, but much less dramatic than, the stuff on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” — begins this tepid construction. It gets really irritating when the song takes on a sort of prancing rhythm. I hate that.
110. “Biding My Time,” Relics (1971): Relics was put out early in the band’s career (note the mocking title) to collect the Barrett-era singles, the accompanying B-sides and a few album tracks. This was the only unreleased track on it. One of the most distinctive things about Floyd at the time was how haphazard their sound was. This starts out as a sort of lazy blues, which segues into a sort of ’30s jazz feel, and then all the blues get all electrified … and then the thing goes on for another three minutes. In fairness, though, a lot of the experimental bands at the time would put out albums with oddly disparate tracks on them. (Think of “Anyone for Tennis,” on Cream’s Wheels of Fire.)
109. “Poles Apart,” The Division Bell (1994): This is a song about being “poles apart”! Well-produced track, but its lackluster (and sometimes overly literal) melody and dopey (and sometimes overly literal) lyrics sink it. The song is credited to Gilmour, a guy from Dream Academy (which had the hit “Life in a Northern Town”), and one Polly Samson, Gilmour’s then-fiancée, playing the part of Jeanine Pettibone.
108. “Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert,” The Final Cut (1983): Big explosion to start things out, then some delicate strings as Waters rattles off some geopolitical ironies, very pleased with the ironic musical setting. Length: 1:17.
107. “Sorrow,” A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987): This is supposed to be the big statement on Momentary Lapse. You can tell by the big swells of muzik and the highfalutin lyrics: “The silence that speaks so much louder than words,” etc., etc. Again, we have the droney sounds with some Gilmourian ruminations up top, again going on for minutes. Then comes something like a beat, which on inspection comes from a poorly programmed friendly local synthesizer rather than, you know, the band’s actual drummer. Latter-day Floyd records sound so samey; Gilmour’s sometimes effective, but generally weak, voice can’t hold things together when there’s no actual artistic spark, however perverse, somewhere in the background. Docked ten notches for its excessively dreary (8:45!!) length, even by Pink Floyd standards.
106. “The Narrow Way,” Ummagumma (1969): This was Gilmour’s contribution to Ummagumma, in three parts. (These guys and their suites.) There’s acoustic murmurings with shitty electronic guitar sounds over it … then a driving electronic riff with some other discordant noise over it, mostly without drums. Part two has some intoned vocalizings. Part three is a passable rock instrumental. Nothing holds these three horrid-to-mediocre pieces of music together. Waters would write a lot, in subsequent years, about the dehumanizing nature of the record industry, and persuasively so. But poor EMI sure put out a lot of shitty Pink Floyd albums early on. That’s something Pink Floyd could have written a song about. (“The hovering albatross takes its chances / We complain about everything except our advances.”) Ummagumma is by far the worst album by a major band of the progressive-rock era, and that includes Tales From Topographic Oceans, Brain Salad Surgery, and Leftoverture.
105. “It Would Be So Nice / Julia Dream,” single, (1968): A Richard Wright song, one of the band’s early singles, done amid the immediate post-Barrett chaos. Has everything a pop song should have — gossamer stylings, la-la-la’s, Beach Boys–y lilts — except a melody, or a point.
104. “Corporal Clegg,” A Saucerful of Secrets (1968): This is a downright comical example of how bad Pink Floyd was immediately post-Barrett. Waters’s junk heap of dumb musical ideas marries wan Beatle-isms to wacky rhythms, a circusy break, and sideways lurches into psychedelia, all recorded poorly and overlaid with a dreadful set of lyrics. These might have been meant as a jaunty McCartney-esque picaresque, but they come off as cruel; Waters’s own experience with the war (which took his father when he was a tot) surely argues against reading this as a mocking take on a war amputee, but it’s not entirely clear why or how.
103. “If,” Atom Heart Mother (1970): More of Pink Floyd’s incoherent aesthetics. How does the dynamic and forceful “Astronomy Dominé” square with the tuneless whispering (from Waters, who wrote it) and rudimentary guitar-plucking of this?
102. “Signs of Life,” A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987): The leadoff to the first post-Waters album begins, fairly cynically, with a “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”–like dramatic intro … and continues in that vein for minute after minute. I suppose the defense of the song would be that Gilmour wanted to make it clear he was taking the band’s focus back to the TDSOTM and WYWH era, not that of The Wall or The Final Cut. There’s a production sheen, sure, and some sound effects. But it displays none of the lucidity of the first parts of “Shine On,” and really just sounds like the band tuning up. And in any case any such attempt would be fraud, because it was not that band anymore, as the outside songwriters attested.
101. “Your Possible Pasts,” The Final Cut (1983): I can’t tell if this is about schoolyards or concentration camps. Most people will remember only the overdone echoes on the word closer. Gilmour plays some wrenching guitar, but it doesn’t seem like his heart is in it.
100. “Learning to Fly,” A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987): I hate this song for the same reason I hate “Owner of a Lonely Heart” or Permanent Vacation: It’s an overproduced, fraudulent piece of commercial crap designed to distract people from the fact that, while the name of the band on the label hasn’t changed, the creative people behind the music have.
99. “Green Is the Colour,” More (1969): An early Waters vocal track, in a tentative falsetto. (More was the first of two Barbet Schroeder films the band contributed a soundtrack to.) The kind thing to say is that the band was still trying to find its voice. Then you have to cope with poesy like, “She lay in the shadow of a wave / Hazy were the visions overplayed.”
98. “Party Sequence,” More (1969):
A percussion-y tack of incidental sounds. More was the first film by Schroeder, a minor player in the French New Wave. It’s not a great movie, but it does capture a world fairly well, and it’s de-romanticized without moralizing. It’s about a male French college student who goes to Paris on an adventure. He gets into some wild stuff and then runs off to Ibiza with a female friend. Threesomes result, but so does heroin addiction, and things don’t end well. Schroeder went on to direct some U.S. commercial fare, including Single White Female and Reversal of Fortune.
97. “What Do You Want From Me,” The Division Bell (1994): This became a passable radio track for the band in 1994. It’s another one of the default, mid-tempo, mid-register Gilmour numbers. The trick of having the backup singers defiantly repeat the title words over and over doesn’t provide actual energy. Words by Polly Samson, Gilmour’s then-fiancée.
96. “The Gnome,” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967): The argument against Syd Barrett is that, to use a turn of phrase he might have heard in his Cambridge days, even his best songs are curate’s eggs — parts, that is to say, are excellent. But that’s as far as it goes with all but a few of the songs he’s left behind. I respect the Barrett amen corner; but the plain truth is that it’s hard to come up with one Barrett song that’s as good as, say, “Waterloo Sunset” or even “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” This song is the flip side — a track where his charms don’t manage to manifest in any way, and you realize you’re listening to a rock song about a gnome named Grimble Crumble.
95. “Quicksilver,” More (1969): Incidental eerie organ music from the More soundtrack.
94. “On the Turning Away,” A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987): Gilmour’s solo career has been listenable, because the albums are what they are; earnest excursions into songs he obviously couldn’t get recorded in his day band, with appropriately different tones and approaches, and if you like Gilmour’s guitar playing (I do) you get to hear him play a lot. This is basically just a Gilmour solo song on a Pink Floyd album. (His co-writer contributed just lyrics.) The musical world it’s constructed in, and the persona of the singer, are substantively different from what Pink Floyd had been doing previously. That’s fine, but then you have to point out that there’s a reason it would have ended up on a solo album: It wasn’t good enough to be on a Floyd release.
93. “Don’t Leave Me Now,” The Wall (1979): A nicely de-romanticized love plaint from Pink. (“I need you, babe / To put through the shredder / In front of my friends.”) Roger Waters is a talented guy, but he has an awful voice. He did what he could with it for a long time, but at a certain point he just decided to go with its screechy essential nature. Around this point in The Wall, listeners could be forgiven for finding it trying. You can make the case for it — the singer’s psyche cracking up as we listen, the warped interior of the English mind, I get it, I get it — but it doesn’t make any of these tracks an easy listen.
92. “San Tropez,” Meddle (1971): ’Round about here is where you throw up your hands at Pink Floyd. Meddle was a chance for the band to step up, what with “One of These Days” and of course “Echoes.” And so we get this dancehall-y hairball from Waters, who almost sounds like Harry Nilsson here. (Minus the four-octave range and ability to pitch.) Where the band got the spelling (the town is Saint-Tropez) is the least of its problems.
91. “A New Machine, Part 1,” A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987): This is filler from the unmemorable Momentary Lapse. A weird vocal, machine-y thing. Goes nowhere but nowhere, and stay tuned for “Part 2.” Gilmour was demonstrating he’d learned a thing or two from Waters when it came to solo-credit snippets on Pink Floyd albums. And damned if that unmemorable album didn’t sell 10 million worldwide.
90. “Terminal Frost,” A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987): Tucked in between the two (unnecessary) “parts” of “A New Machine,” this tepid instrumental could almost be on a Kenny G album, what with the dulcet dual saxophonal stylings of Tom Scott and John Helliwell. At this point, the second side of Momentary Lapse was shaping up to be by far the least interesting side of music the band had offered up since the dreadful days of Ummagumma.
89. “A Pillow of Winds,” Meddle (1971): Hey Dave and Rog: What’s this about “eiderdown”? I knew Syd Barrett. Syd Barrett was a friend of mine. And you’re no Syd Barrett.
88. “A New Machine, Part 2,” A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987): Another 39 seconds of the unnecessary 1:45 of the jazz we’d been subjected to just before “Terminal Frost.”
87. “Vera,” The Wall (1979): A Wall fragment; “Vera” is a reference to a British World War II pop singer; Waters is bringing memories of the war into Pink’s psyche. In Alan Parker’s Pink Floyd The Wall, it’s set against the film’s grimmest and saddest scenes.
86. “More Blues,” More (1969): It’s an actual blues, a first for the band. You can tell their heart isn’t in it though; it feels like they forget what they’re doing now and again. It lasts for barely more than two minutes.
85. “Fat Old Sun,” Atom Heart Mother (1970): David Gilmour’s contribution to the second side of AHM. His voice had never been recorded so weakly, and let’s remember that he was supposed to be a singer, and later showed he was one. The acoustic strumming at the beginning made it sound like what it was, a forced duty.
84. “A Spanish Piece,” More (1969): Just what it says, with some additional dialogue from the More soundtrack.
83. “In the Flesh?” The Wall (1979): This, the first track of The Wall, isn’t exactly an overture — it doesn’t reference any of the pop potpourri Waters had in store for us. It is an honest intro, however: It’s bombastic, screechily voiced, filled with a leaden humor, and ridden with angular and overwhelming theatrical dynamics — just like the work it’s the intro to. Reprised, without the question mark, on the fourth side. Listen close to the beginning, and you can hear the mournful accordion from the work’s last track, “Outside the Wall,” and the words “… we came in?”, which complete the last words you hear on the album, “Isn’t this where…”
82. “A Great Day for Freedom,” The Division Bell (1994): This was one of two grand statements on The Division Bell. Supposedly about the fall of the Berlin Wall. The lyrics, provided by Gilmour squeeze Samson, contain convoluted constructions like “change, that even with regret, cannot be undone,” whatever that means. Odd that during the recording process no one suggested they be improved.
81. “Keep Talking,” The Division Bell (1994): Another minor radio hit. There’s an attempt to get some churning energy going, but it doesn’t work. More ominous backup singers. The electronic voice you hear is that of Stephen Hawking. Gilmour had a lifelong interest in astrophysics and in the philosophical implications of Hawkings’s “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, which — naw, I’m just joking. Gilmour actually heard the words in a cell-phone commercial, and thought they were neat.
80. “Lost for Words,” The Division Bell (1994):
This song has always struck me as overly derivative of Springsteen’s “Independence Day.” Samson wrote the lyrics for Gilmour; they may be, in their high inartfulness, about the then-ongoing feud between the guitarist and Waters: “So I open my door to my enemies / And I ask could we wipe the slate clean / But they tell me to please go fuck myself / You know you just can’t win.” Hazy were the visions overplayed.
79. “Fearless,” Meddle (1971): A nice rising guitar line, one of Waters’s decent early songs, but the performance and production renders it an unhappy listening experience. One of the things, I think, Waters figured out how to do (though it took him six albums) is to write for Gilmour’s voice. He wasn’t there yet.
78. “Cirrus Minor,” More (1969): Wow, that’s Latin! Arma virumque cano, boys! Birds chirping, then some very serious sounding vocals and some simple organ chords.
77. “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 3,” The Wall (1979): The third iteration of the song, and we’re not even halfway through The Wall yet. Two were enough.
76. “Point Me at the Sky,” single (1968): The last of the band’s early singles, written by Waters and Gilmour. A light opening semi-explodes into a chorus, all in all fine, hampered only by the facts that (a) it was recorded poorly and (b) it kinda sounds like other, better songs, notably “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Hard to believe it got released as a single but EMI didn’t have much to work with at that point.
75. “Goodbye Blue Sky,” The Wall (1979): This is somewhat sunk due to the clotted lyrics, but other than that it’s a functional bit of The Wall, underscoring the damage, physical and emotional, of World War II.
74. “Flaming,” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967): Eiderdown and unicorns. Here’s where you really have to buy into Barrett’s dandelion whimsy. This seems to be a song about hide-and-seek in a Wonderland of the writer’s imagination; he’s trying to capture its evident corporeality in some weird music, including tinkling pianos and found sounds. One of the inexplicable parts of Barrett’s hemi-demi-semi-genius is that the result is not something laughable. Note the quizzical song title, which isn’t referenced in the song.
73. “Crying Song,” More (1969): A pretty, if forgettable, Waters song from the More soundtrack.
72. “The Thin Ice,” The Wall (1979): A minor scene-setting track for The Wall, in which we’re supposed to appreciate the precariousness of Pink’s position. He’s on thin ice, people!
71. “Remember a Day,” A Saucerful of Secrets (1968): An early Wright song. You can hear the band trying to figure out a sound and approach on the second album. This is a fairly lame effort; you can practically feel Wright trying to put something together with the (limited) tools he’d been given. You get everything here: pretty piano, intoned lyrics, some mild psychedelic freakout. It’s all pretty silly. Mason didn’t play drums.
70. “A Saucerful of Secrets,” A Saucerful of Secrets (1968): The band was stretching the patience of its producers as its second album was being recorded. Said Wright: “[Producer] Norman [Smith] gave up on the second album. He was forever saying things like, ‘You can’t do twenty minutes of this ridiculous noise.’” Ah, but they could. The real issue was the tonal discrepancies. “Corporal Clegg” on Secrets is a badly conceived, poorly executed dance-hall-style goof. And then you have 12 minutes of stuff like this, the origins of space music, in four parts, which I won’t bother delineating here, except to note that one is entitled “Syncopated Pandemonium,” which for some reason reminds me of the seven-part “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” from Chicago’s first album. If you really want to experience this, there are more convincing versions available, on video in the concert movie Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (highly recommended to anyone with a passing interest in the early band) and on record as a live track on Ummagumma. There you get a sense of the band improvising within the different sections. As a studio recording it feels pointless.
69. “The Trial,” The Wall (1979): Waters finally goes full-on Joel Grey — or is it Angela Lansbury? — in The Wall. At this point, after two discs of this stuff, you really want to put a sharp stick in your eye before listening to this Sondheim pastiche. That said, in the film, with the animation, and the collage of Pink’s terrifying memories — for impressionable teens at least — the result is something close to a spectacle.
68. “High Hopes,” The Division Bell (1994): This is supposed to be The Division Bell’s saving grace — a major song from Gilmour and his girlfriend-cum-lyricist. The good news here is that Gilmour gets his hands on an actually singable five-note melody; the bad is that he takes those five notes and sings them over and over. And over and over and over again. You’d think that, in the five years following Momentary Lapse of Reason, Gilmour would have penned a few good songs.
67. “Candy and a Currant Bun,” single (1967): One of Barrett’s minor earliest songs, turning up as the B-side to “Arnold Layne.” Not much here. Originally titled “Let’s Roll Another One,” a no-go topic at the time.
66. “One Slip,” A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987): This is a silly song, but the production and performance meld in a way few other songs do on this lame album.
65. “Paranoid Eyes,” The Final Cut (1983): Finishing off the first half of The Final Cut, this is the first actual song on the album with an actual melody that is not a minor, make that major, pain to listen to. Restating his thesis, Waters is telling us about the difficult life of the returning veteran.
64. “Wot’s … Uh the Deal,” Obscured by Clouds (1972): Another good example of just how disparate the music was that the band was making in the early 1970s. This is a purty little ballad, sung delicately, with some actual bite in the lyrics. “There’s no wind in my soul / And I’ve grown old.” (That was a pretty taboo rock-star subject in 1972.) There’s a tinkling piano, a whining organ, and a strummed guitar, and all produced just this side of adequately, nothing more. At the same time, these goofballs were working on The Dark Side of the Moon! I don’t understand the title either.
63. “A Saucerful of Secrets (live),” Ummagumma (1969): The longest of the Ummagumma live tracks is probably the most trying, though there’s a pretty credible psychedelic freakout after the four-minute mark. Maybe I’m being unfair, but I swear, whenever I really concentrate on some of this band’s “heaviest” stuff, I come away thinking, Jesus, the drummer and keyboardist are sort of low energy.
62. “Apples and Oranges,” single (1967): There’s an early TV appearance in which the band plays this second-tier single, with Barrett, part stoned, part petulant, refusing to articulate the lip-syncs. It was the band’s third release; but couldn’t hope to match the stay of “See Emily Play” in the (British) top ten. Some lovely guitar sounds, though. Done after the release of Piper; Barrett was already on his downward slide. It was almost his last contribution to the group, at the end of 1967.
61. “Chapter 24,” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967): A forgotten track from the first album. Some nice moments here but it’s not exactly light on its feet, and nor is it the song you’d play for someone to show off Syd Barrett’s reputed genius. But there is something real and engaging about the chorus.
60. “Up the Khyber,” More (1969): Something like chillin’ piano jazz, with some hot organ overlaid. And Nick Mason hitting the skins in the background. Maybe some expert in improvised avant-garde jazz can disagree, but it seems a bit random and forced to me.
59. “Ibiza Bar,” More (1969): Another good rocker from the movie soundtrack.
58. “Astronomy Dominé (live),” Ummagumma (1969): It’s good to have these early live artifacts; they allow the songs to come alive in a way they wouldn’t as studio recordings alone, and live, after all, is how Pink Floyd made its bones. So give it a listen if you want to take a step back into the past. This is a Barrett song, so it has more energy and melody than most Floyd excursions like this. But also listen to Wright’s contribution, coming between the four- and five-minute marks. This is not a dynamic player.
57. “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk,” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967): Fairly rocking — a little Kinks-y, and little Who-y, and even some early space-rock-y sounds from Barrett, highly derivative of “Eight Miles High” but fine even so. This is a Waters composition, but it’s another one of those early Pink Floyd tracks that makes you wish you could have seen how Barrett would have kept the band in line had he stayed with them. One more thing. I know I sound a little puckish when it comes to Pink Floyd’s pre-TDSOTM work. But compare this to, say, “I’ve Seen All Good People,” by Yes. Yeah, it’s a suite; yeah, it’s whimsical; and yeah, you want to slap Jon Anderson. But it’s highly musical, undeniably catchy, everyone in the band is operating at full gear … and it sounds great on the radio to this day. Leaving aside a rare spin of “See Emily Play” on an oldies station, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a pre–Dark Side Pink Floyd song played on commercial radio.
56. “In the Flesh,” The Wall (1979): Now we reprise the opening song. In the film, Pink’s disintegration is complete. He’s reborn out of a pupa into something like a fascist leader, and we head into the climax of the film and record. The equation of rock star as fascist dictator doesn’t really work for me. I’ve seen more rock shows than most people, and I’ve never seen one where the relationship of the crowd to the performer was anything like a political rally in the sense that they were on the verge of being robots who could be directed to do some terrible thing by the big bad rock star on stage. (It’s possible Queen could have pulled something like that off, but what was Mercury going to tell people to do? Wear tight pants and prance around?) It’s possible that from Waters’s perspective, standing up on a huge stage seeing his most fervent (and sometimes idiotic) fans in the first few rows (which is all most stars can see), maybe the kids looked like sheep, I don’t know. As I think I’ve said before, I don’t think Waters was writing a “pity the poor rock star” epic. But I will say that, since his name isn’t David Bowie or Ian Hunter, I’m not all that interested in what he has to say on the subject.
55. “Pigs on the Wing, Part 1,” Animals (1977): Waters kicks off Animals with an 85-second deliberately acoustic number, apparently written from the point of view of two of us sheep, hating each other and watching the “pigs on the wing” overhead. His sarcasm on Wish You Were Here was somewhat tempered by the loving nature of the title song and “Shine On” — not to mention having Roy Harper sing on “Have a Cigar.” But by the time of Animals, there’s something off here; his vocal is highly unsubtle, and he’s too obviously relishing in the images. The casually strummed acoustic guitar and his natural vocals contrast too sharply with the electronics that will follow.
54. “The Fletcher Memorial Home,” The Final Cut (1983): This is what passes as a standout cut on The Final Cut, another labored bombastic piece of political sarcasm, with a mildly recognizable melody. Fletcher, incidentally, was Waters’s father’s middle name. The memorial home in question is supposed to be for the ruling world leaders of the era — Reagan, Haig, Thatcher, Brezhnev, and so on. (There wasn’t room here for Argentina’s leader at the time, Leopoldo Galtieri, a bad hombre indeed.) Anyway (this is my favorite part) after Waters gets them all in a room together, he sings — cue the Snidely Whiplash voice — “Now the final solution can be applied.” And people say he wasn’t fun at parties.
53. “Grantchester Meadows,” Ummagumma (1969): Named after a spot near a river in Cambridge, where Waters grew up. This isn’t a terrible song. It goes on too long, of course, but there’s something sweet and lulling about it. The usual issues of tonal consistency for the band at this point, however, still apply.
52. “Stay,” Obscured by Clouds (1972): Sung by Wright, who wrote it; a pretty scene-setting thing. Again, it’s hard to square this exceedingly simple love plaint with the band’s harder-edged and sonically meaningful stuff that would give it its reputation. Could almost be a Neil Young composition, or even Carole King, though it would have a stronger melody. And better production.
51. “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun (live),” Ummagumma (1969): This was Waters’s big song back in the day. This live workout isn’t convincing for a good part of the beginning. The drums feel like they are mixed up too high and there’s just not much going on of interest in any case, despite Mason’s attempts to get a vague Eastern feel going. You know how, in “Within You Without You,” it’s really exciting when the tabla kicks in? This isn’t like that. The energy picks up four or five minutes in though. The band supposedly bridled at their music being described as “space rock,” but what the hell else is this?
50. “Waiting for the Worms,” The Wall (1979): More doo-woppy stuff, before lurching over into something of a slog on record. In the film, of course, this is where director Parker and animator Gerald Scarfe turn it up to 11, as Pink’s fascist visions continue. Highly effective, and indelibly tied, in the minds of a generation, to Scarfe’s animation of the marching hammers.
49. “Have a Cigar,” Wish You Were Here (1975):
A bruising commentary on the music business, sung with convincing authority by Roy Harper, an odd British folk musician from the ’70s. (Gilmour refused to sing the thing because his feelings about the industry were not as ferocious as Waters’s, and why would they be?) I love how the amiable funk laid down by the band is overwhelmed by the (impressive) electronic washes of sound in the intro, just as our lonely artiste is swamped by the industry. “Oh, by the way / Which one’s ‘Pink’?” is, in Floyd legend, an actual line an industry weasel had asked the band. The soundscape here in its own way is as brutal as that of “Welcome to the Machine.” And it’s funny all the way through; choose your own favorite line. (Mine is “We’re so happy we can hardly count.”) Gilmour’s fantastic and the chorus is epic, and the outro to “Wish You Were Here” is one of the most touching pieces of studio manipulation of the era. Docked 20 notches because the band, worldwide superstars on the heels of what would become the second-largest-selling album of all time, stiffed Harper, who wasn’t rich, on payment. (Harper himself never cashed in on the track either; it’s not on any of his live albums.) And docked another 20 for the fucking irony.
48. “Let There Be More Light,” A Saucerful of Secrets (1968): An early Waters track from the second album. He was still searching for a songwriting voice — which lord knows he eventually found. But there’s a rockin’ groove here at the beginning, and then things go south quickly. There’s a little homage to “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” but a lot of bullshit about “flowing robes” and “mighty ships.” Still, for Floyd at the time, really not a bad song. Has drama and force and isn’t terribly produced.
47. “Summer ’68,” Atom Heart Mother (1970): A nice tune by Richard Wright, apparently about a groupie, also has the sweet melodic feel of an early-’70s one-hit wonder, though one-hit wonders are generally economically arranged and produced well, and this is an early Pink Floyd track, so neither of those two things are true. A long time ago, I think it was Dave Marsh who cracked that Pink Floyd had never thrown an idea away; to me, the issue is more they never had an idea they couldn’t turn into a suite. Lots of fanfares here, shifts in tone and melody, and a gay flugelhorn solo, which no one — no one — had asked for.
46. “Cymbaline,” More (1969): A standout from the More soundtrack, which works well in the party scene. Great melody! Nothing Shakespearian here, though; in fact, the lyrics could have been written by Christopher Guest, not Marlowe:
Like a tube-train up your spine
Will the tightrope reach the end
Will the final couplet rhyme
(It’s one of those “creeping” subways, I guess, and what exactly was the tightrope supposed to be doing?) But it’s a focused and memorable chorus, and sung powerfully. Ends with two minutes of noodling.
45. “When the Tigers Broke Free,” The Final Cut (1983): This is a funereal, slow march, a forceful tribute to how Waters’s father lost his life in the war. Not a subtle endeavor, but I’m not going to criticize it. Originally done for The Wall; while it did not make the album, it was used as the opening scene in the film, and was even reprised. Probably for space reasons it wasn’t on The Final Cut either, but was included on a 20th-anniversary CD rerelease of it.
44. “Jugband Blues,” A Saucerful of Secrets (1968):
Barrett’s a tough call. There are only two or three of his songs that you can play for a disinterested person that would demonstrate anything other than promise. But it has to be said that there was promise. He was 21 years old, and he created a half-dozen interesting songs, and had what was by most accounts a sparkling personality and a palpable charisma, too. Where could he have gone? “Jugband Blues” is his one contribution to the band’s second album. Less jaunty, overall, than most of his other works. The Salvation Army band or whatever it is is fine, but the Beatles had already done stuff like that and the recording of course can’t compare. But somewhere in the chorus I find something real, though it’s hard to put your finger on it:
I don’t care if the sun don’t shine
And I don’t care if nothing is mine
And I don’t care if I’m nervous with you
I’ll do my loving in the winter
Go back and listen again and you realize there’s a courtly farewell right there in the first lines: “It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here / And I’m much obliged to you for making it clear / That I’m not here.” Syd Syd Syd, we hardly knew ye.
43. “The Gold It’s in the …” Obscured by Clouds (1972): Heavens! An actual guitar riff. This could be a (second- or third-tier) Kinks song. Am I the only person who thinks Mason is a weak drummer? Film exists of him actually playing actual rock ‘n’ roll drums, but as time went on he seemed to try less and less. This song tries to rock, but it drifts a bit.
42. “Main Theme,” More (1969): This really isn’t terrible, and it could be. There’s almost something reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver opening. Things get a little aimless and some of the riff seems to have been lifted from “Set Your Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” but it’s a credible piece of music and works terrifically in the film itself.
41. “The Nile Song,” More (1969): Pink Floyd rocks out! How this track fits in with anything else the band was doing or ever would do isn’t clear, but let’s thank heaven for small favors. This is a genuinely bashy triumph in a compact three-and-a-half-minute package; if you’re not paying attention, you could mistake it for the New York Dolls, though not as focused or tight. (Pink Floyd didn’t do tight. Or focus.) Gilmour kicks ass in the last minute or so. What Waters is talking about I have no idea.
40. “Careful With That Axe, Eugene (live),” Ummagumma (1969): Again, we can see the band take a somewhat flaccid studio track and turn it into something that, if you squint your ears a bit and forget about the dumb title, you could imagine passably blowing a few minds among sufficiently impressionable and adequately chemicalized London youth at the time. Nice to hear Gilmour working it on out. This track is one of the more enjoyable extended Floyd offerings on record. See also: Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii.
39. “Lucifer Sam,” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967): Another fun bashy track. “That cat’s something I can’t explain” — another imagistic Barrett vision that for some reason stays with you. The tune is a juicy and credible bit of garage rock, with some silky guitar and a rumbling below. The first two tracks of Piper are groovy indeed.
38. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts 6-9,” Wish You Were Here (1975): WYWH, one of Pink Floyd’s best albums, and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” one of the band’s best songs, together have a dirty little secret. The first five parts of “Shine On” kick off the album and as a whole remains one of the band’s most beloved compositions. The secret is that the second iteration of the song, which closes the album with another four parts, goes off the rails after the first of these. Had it ended after six minutes it would have been an effective reprise. The last two parts mar this fairly magnificent conception with overindulgent, aimless, musically uninteresting, and out-of place wankery. Someone really needed to take Richard Wright’s clavinet away from him, too. You’ve probably seen the WHYH cover with the two guys shaking hands, one of them on fire. The original LP came with a thick opaque blue shrink wrap with a sticker on the front, nothing more, and is so rare it’s hard to find a good pic of it online.
37. “Goodbye Cruel World,” The Wall (1979): Waters could have probably come up with a less clichéd title for this, which closes off the first half of his two-disc epic. He could also have come up with more ideas; it’s just a 75-second throwaway, right after the 75-second throwaway that was part three of “Another Brick in the Wall”; on the other hand, as noted elsewhere, the chore of marshaling the complex story meant that Ezrin and Waters had to just throw in some tracks to make certain narrative points. The point here isn’t that Pink is committing suicide, just that he had completed building the psychological wall around him. On the tour the band did to accompany the album, the first set ended with its famous wall completed across the stage. It’s a great iconic image. The tour was conceived with such grandiosity that it could only be staged over multiple nights in just a few cities, with a lot of “Stonehenge,” Spinal Tap-esque problems along the way. Meanwhile, Richard Wright’s contributions to the band had become marginal. As the band had to hustle to get The Wall ready for a 1979 release, Wright bridled at losing some of a planned vacation. (Note that it had been two-and-a-half years since Animals had come out.) Waters fired him — or rather, made his manager fire him, a great rock-star dick move — and the other band members, with one eye on their suffering bank accounts, went along. Amazingly, the band hired Wright back as a session player for the shows. In his autobiography, Nick Mason notes that Wright was in fact the only person who made money on that tour; the combination of the excessive conception and limited shows cost the others a small fortune.
36. “Time,” The Dark Side of the Moon (1973):
It’s a rough call, but this is probably the worst actual song on Dark Side. Some of the lyrics are trite, though they still represent a massive step forward from the hovering albatrosses on Meddle. At the end there’s a short reprise of “Breathe in the Air.” Wright adds some vocals to the chorus, bringing a necessary everyman blandness to the production. How that Meddle–Dark Side transition happened is one of the great mysteries in rock-and-roll history. The band had already been playing a similar suite of songs live — dubbed “Dark Side of the Moon,” then “Eclipse,” then “Dark Side of the Moon.” Pushed into the studio for just a relative few, noncontiguous weeks to record it, the concept somehow came together. In the meantime, Waters stopped writing nonsense and began writing in common human terms, voicing from an odd narrative position: part everyman, part all-seeing god.
There are six normal songs on Dark Side, and each one has a coherent point. The words are all colloquial, honest, and about something, and the meaning is underscored by the music, and the production, on every track. One key ingredient was an engineer named Alan Parsons, who seems to have been the catalyst for turning a band whose very existence was on the verge of pointlessness into the sensational creators of Dark Side and Wish You Were Here. (Parsons went on to have hits of his own, in the guise of an annoying pop-prog outfit called the Alan Parsons Project.) Floyd’s album originally hit number one (in the U.S.) that summer for just one week. It took a while, but industry folks started noticing at some point that the album was still bouncing around in the lower reaches of Billboard’s albums chart, where it stayed for 14 or 15 years. Dark Side was certified 15 times platinum in 1998 — after everyone rebought copies of it on CD — and has sold about 23 million copies in the U.S. to date. Worldwide, its total is 43 million, making it the second-largest selling album of all time, after Thriller.
35. “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” A Saucerful of Secrets (1968): One of Roger Waters’s early markers. You can see as early as Secrets, the band’s second album, that he’s begun to step up, rewriting most of the album’s tracks. This ten-note riff gets beaten into submission, as do the nine words of the lyrics. It doesn’t really come across on record, but as you can see from the performance in the Pompeii film, they could rock out creditably to it, this at a time when the band was helping invent the live psychedelic freakout. Upped ten notches for historical value.
34. “Not Now John,” The Final Cut (1983): Some actual energy evinced on this standout track from The Final Cut. It’s not really a Pink Floyd song — this was, after all, really a Roger Waters solo album, with all of the pinched sarcasm you’d expect, not to mention the overdone backing vocals — but it’s decent even for a Waters solo track, and having Gilmour finally singing (his only vocal on the entire album) improves the listening experience immensely. The song itself is a coherent blast at what Waters saw in British society at the time, among other things the crushing of workers’ rights using dubious rationales. (“Fuck all that / We’ve got to get on with these / Gotta compete with the wily Japanese.”) In the end, I really don’t get what The Final Cut is about, though I am given to understand that the cut in question was an unkind one indeed, though not as unkind as the one Waters was about to get from his longtime bandmates. Gilmour said good-bye to Waters but kept the name and successfully beat back Waters’s legal challenges. The fired Wright was brought back as a for-hire member, and two very bad Waters-free albums resulted, as we have seen. But they each sold more than 10 million units! (And that’s not to mention 12 million in live album sales, and those cost basically nothing to record.) To top it all off, Gilmour led the band into the era of the modern high-end rock tour — and grossed about $400 million in the decade after Waters left, enough money to make even Waters’s songwriting royalties look small.
33. “Free Four,” Obscured by Clouds (1972): This is a pretty funny song, which ended up on the soundtrack to The Valley. A lot of rock fans from the era will dimly remember this track — which was a single — but won’t be able to tell you the name of the band. It has a guitar sound out of “Spirit in the Sky” and a nice sing-along feel; Gilmour contributes a shocker of a solo, which doesn’t really fit with the rest. Lyrically it’s another step forward for Waters, head and shoulders above anything else the band had done before, a mordant meditation on life, death, war, work, and capitalism, with what I think is the first reference to the death of his father, which would take on more and more importance in his work to come.
32. “Dogs,” Animals (1977):
Animals is a difficult album. I have been quite sure since it came out that it was an inferior piece of work, with both production and the songs simply not near the band’s previous two albums. (Record buyers agree with me; it’s by far the poorest seller of the band’s classic period.) All that said, over the years I’ve come to think it’s a failed album rather than a bad one. It’s ambitious and probably a bit misconceived, but with many powerful moments. So I am collecting the album’s three major songs together in this position, with the caution that they may be deserving of a much higher or lower ranking than the one I’m settling on. I can’t be the first person to notice that Waters’s zoological cosmology here — pigs, dogs, and sheep — is basically the same as the one espoused by the South Park boys in Team America: World Police. (Their version was pricks, assholes, and pussies, respectively.) And you have to give Waters credit for having a cosmology, much less this uncompromising and socially relevant one. (Some of its prog-rock competition that year was The Grand Illusion and Point of Know Return, both recorded by pompous bozos.) At the same time, his dominance and or control over the band was tightening, with mixed results. Wish You Were Here has six co-writing credits, Animals one. Anyway, first up is “Dogs.” Gilmour is singing, but it’s a bad sign that you have to concentrate a while before you decide that it is indeed him, so highly pitched is his voice. To my ears, the sound here, while crisp — with the acoustic guitar, particularly, properly ominous — isn’t melded together with the stark art of the band’s previous two albums. (The band had spent a fortune building its own studio; but the facilities never jelled and this is the only Pink Floyd album recorded there. Beyond that, there’s no sense that a talented pair of outside ears was here to help them.) The guitar solos, the voice echo, the funny synth sounds — they all sound a little bald. But maybe it’s just because they are set against the baldness of Waters’s lyrics. “And in the end / [you’re] just another sad old man /dying of cancer” — I guess that is a coherent statement about the human condition, but I think I’ve seen it expressed more artfully. This is a very long song, 16 full minutes, which filled up, back in the day, the entire first side of the record, barring the slight opening track. Things get quiet at the eight-minute mark, and we get several very long minutes of halfhearted synth noodling, though noodling isn’t the word for Wright’s low-energy chordage here. In the second eight minutes (this isn’t a suite or anything, it’s just one long frickin’ song), the heavy-handed lyrics come back: “Deaf, dumb, and blind, you just keep on pretending / That everyone’s expendable and no-one has a real friend.” I respect that Waters was trying to make a Big Statement; it just doesn’t cohere. Who’s going through the maze? The dogs? The sheep? I thought rats went through mazes. I’ve always thought that the dogs are trained by the pigs to be their enforcers and that this song tried to find some humanity in them, but now I’m not sure. Still, while I don’t like the song personally, riffs do keep coming back into my head, so there’s something there. I do thank Roger for not resorting to dog-barking noises until about the five-minute mark. With Waters, at this point, that’s restraint.
31. “Pigs (Three Different Ones),” Animals (1977): After 16 minutes of dogs, we get 11 or so of pigs, with the pig sounds right there at the beginning. The sound is open, but I wouldn’t call it spacious. The keyboards set an eerie scene, and Gilmour’s initial guitar riff is arresting. The feel becomes almost mechanical, but without the grandeur of “Welcome to the Machine.” But Waters is back on vocal duties with that sarcastic, pinched tone, and with this set of lyrics it’s a little rough going: “Big man, pig man / Ha ha / Charade you are.” Charade you are? What the hell is that? Yoda as a drama queen? And even in non-reversed English that’s not a particularly cutting statement. In case you were wondering, the pigs are then-rising star Margaret Thatcher and a Jerry Falwell–type British activist named Mary Whitehouse. Gilmour works it on out in the closing minutes of this 11-plus-minute track.
30. “Sheep,” Animals (1977): And finally, ten-plus minutes of sheep, fronted by almost two minutes of wan jazzisms courtesy of Wright. The song has one thing to recommend it: Waters’s own vocal attack, which threads the needle of his difficult voice, which is weak when it’s normal and shrieky when it’s not. Here, it’s lacerating — one of his best vocals — particularly on the neat effect at the end of the first line of each verse. Still, this is another song that could have benefited from some song doctoring; Waters’s sense of subtlety is disappearing by the minute, and there are a lot of minutes here. “Meek and obedient / You follow the leader.” (We get it, Rog. The song is called “Sheep,” for chrissakes.) Things get a bit tedious in the middle four minutes or so. At the end, the sheep rise up, only to become, climactically, Animal Farm–style, the new oppressors. (That’s how I read it, anyway.) This is accompanied by some appropriate and long-overdue actual rock at the end — Gilmour pulls a great-sounding guitar sound out of his ass — and you can even hear Mason breaking a sweat. (Sometimes you actually feel for Waters when it comes to his lazy bandmates.) To sum up: Animals is nothing to sneer at, an authentic work of defiant misanthropy by a man facing the Me Decade on one side and on the other a snotty new generation of punks whose contempt for Pink Floyd (however misconceived) became a cliché of the era. Some people like it. YMMV.
29. “Nobody Home,” The Wall (1979): A strong, slightly overlooked Wall songs. Waters’s voice doesn’t do much for it, it’s lugubrious, and it overdoes the “fly to” echo. All that said, this is a fairly personal and knowing look at the ridiculous rock-star lifestyle, unsparing of both Rogers himself and what he’d been seeing over the previous dozen years, with what seems to be a TV droning in the background, a nice touch.
28. “Hey You,” The Wall (1979): One of the better second-tier songs on The Wall; Waters has to drive home the point that the wall is now pretty much blocking Pink off from the world. This has the lilt of great Pink Floyd on it, including some (over-amplified) pings à la “Echoes.” Waters’s voice is always better when Gilmour’s is in the mix as well, as here. The best part is when Pink/Waters is speaking to his audience: “Hey you, standing in the aisles / With itchy feet and fading smiles …”
27. “Us and Them,” The Dark Side of the Moon (1973): Let’s note to begin than this song goes on too long; during an extremely enjoyable recent full listen to TDSOTM in the confines of a long car ride, that was a big takeaway. That said, it’s a very pretty song that does its job well on this terrific record. The song has its origins in some meditative music Wright contributed to Floyd’s work on the soundtrack to Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, though it wasn’t used. (You can find it on Spotify on an album called The Early Years, if you’re interested.) Waters found a melody for it and a set of lyrics that is a standout on the record, a closely controlled series of ironies, travesties, and dichotomies marking the dead-end days of the early ’70s, as the memories of Kent State, the Weathermen, Cambodia, Altamont, and the psychedelic dreams of the ‘60s all sat soaking in the not-yet-discarded metaphorical bong-water resting on a generation’s crummy coffee table. Or something. Sung passionately by Gilmour and Wright on the chorus, it’s an authentic protest song that raises questions for those on both sides, marking a place and a time like few other songs. Pink Floyd always prided itself on its group vocal stylings; the choruses here are the apogee of all that, and funny how most of it (leaving aside the higher volume on the chorus) could be used as elevator music; it’s a quirky triumph. Richard Wright released a couple of uninteresting solo albums, but stayed with Mason and Gilmour through the two post-Waters albums (and the lucrative accompanying tours) and supported Gilmour live on his tours as well. He died in ’06 of lung cancer. The song “A Boat Lies Waiting,” off the Gilmour album Rattle That Lock, is a touching tribute to him — one of Gilmour’s best later solo songs.
26. “Mother,” The Wall (1979): Nick Mason supposedly couldn’t play the drums on this, and one of the lunks from Toto was brought in. “Mother” has its partisans; my friends Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, on an edition of “Sound Opinions” about the album, say that it’s the best track on The Wall. You might agree; the case for it is that Pink’s mother is a key part of the wall he’s building around himself, and the song as a whole is fairly not unsubtle. The case against it is that when it comes to Roger Waters, “fairly not unsubtle” is a highly relative benchmark. As I’ve said before I respect Waters’s attempts to make coherent works about things, a stark contrast to what a lot of bands were doing in the 1970s, outside of punk I mean. And again I don’t want to be glib. But I don’t know if Waters’s own issues — brought up in the relatively protected realm of Cambridge, a rock star at 25 — warrant all this extremis. Waters is a lifelong committed socialist and of course he understands that a lot of people in Britain had it a lot worse than he did. But in the end I don’t know if his particular artistry — un-self-conscious and unironic (as opposed to sarcastic) as it is — is up to the task of doing a rock opera about a rock star. You can learn a lot more about the rock-star condition — and have a lot more fun — with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, not to mention Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
25. “Speak to Me,” The Dark Side of the Moon (1973): Silence, then a heartbeat, then a cash register, a few words, and then a few seconds while the madcap laughs — and then screams. Barrett genuinely haunted the band, and was never far from their minds in their best work, here the first minutes of TDSOTM. Credited to Nick Mason.
24. “Matilda Mother,” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967): One of the great early Floyd songs, and the hits just keep on coming on Piper. There’s something majestic here in the verses. The skeptical will note that the chorus gets whimsical and aimless, and doesn’t do the verses justice, which makes you wish Barrett had either (a) had a collaborator or a strong producer to help him take his songs to the next level or (b) done a Guided-by-Voices thing 30 years earlier, and just put out short songs with his limited number of undeniable riffs in them. Note that Wright has a songwriting credit here, but I bet it was the chorus.
23. “Any Colour You Like,” The Dark Side of the Moon (1973): A Gilmour/Wright/Mason jam. It could have been — should have been — this album’s big mistake, but the amazing sounds, the clarity of the ideas, and the passable groove lets the album as a whole breathe. The engineering is exquisite; the song contains several of the most interesting instrumental passages this suite-crazy band ever laid down. Here again Wright makes his mark. Nothing high-energy, but the overlaid sounds and the keening emotion of the keyboards allow this odd track to hold its own with its fellows. Radically constructed; and the intro and outro — into “Brain Damage” — are brilliant.
22. “Young Lust,” The Wall (1979): Great sound in this Gilmour track. (Waters did the words.) Great vocal track too, and I think the band does a fine job of deconstructing the chugging guitar riff that had fueled so many sex-charged songs before it. The phone rigmarole at the end is supposed to be the rock star calling home, only to have another man pick up his wife’s phone. This is all in keeping with Rock Star Rule No.456 (a)(iv), which says that a rocker can sleep with as many people as he wants on the road, but if his wife or girlfriend cheats on him, he gets to write a song about it.
21. “Arnold Layne” single, (1967): This is the band’s first single, released in March 1967, just before Sgt. Pepper. This is one of a handful of quintessential Syd Barrett songs, but it was also, as we have seen, something not of a piece with the sounds the band was developing (or rather, had developed) in its performances in the underground scene of London at the time. So the single’s aesthetics are somewhat unstable. That said, it’s a very merry tale of a guy who goes around stealing women’s undergarments (I’m sorry, “pinching knickers””) off his neighbors’ clotheslines. There’s a pretty radical video that goes with it. Barrett fans incessantly point to this and “See Emily Play” as evidence of Barrett’s pop brilliance, but again I think they are confusing genius with promise. I don’t know if this is as good as “Happy Jack.” I don’t know if it’s as good as “In the Year 2525.”
20. “Interstellar Overdrive,” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967): Here’s the thing about Syd Barrett; besides those goofy personal compositions, he had a way with the Big Rock Song, too, and the band could actually show up when he needed them to. The first two minutes of “Interstellar Overdrive” are as good as it gets. The bass is great. The various guitar tracks are great. But the last six or seven minutes are rough going, and the physical tape-cut back to the main riff at the end of the song is done incompetently. Barrett, meanwhile, was growing more erratic. A film clip, now available on YouTube, shows him wandering around a garden on acid. But the rest of his life was getting darker. He beat up a girlfriend or two, or would manage to lock himself in a bathroom and be unable to get out.
19. “One of These Days,” Meddle (1971): Meddle is a poorly produced record, but this — credited to all four members of the band — is another signature Pink Floyd song, one that boasts sounds that no other band was producing. The band finally revisits the elemental force Barrett found on “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Astronomy Dominé”; harnessing that to an electronically altered piano noise makes this a high point of ’70s progressive rock. Gilmour steps up, too. It’s big and focused, grand and rocking.
18. “On the Run,” The Dark Side of the Moon (1973): After “Breathe in the Air” came this delectable sound collage. Note the sequencer programming; a simple melody is programmed in and then distorted and manipulated (here, obviously, sped up, among other things). It’s one of the earliest examples of the uses of this eerie and powerful new tool, which various companies were making and with which Pete Townshend and Brian Eno, among others, had been experimenting. The brilliant synth wizard Richard Wright programmed the notes and transformed them into this spectacular — just joking. It was actually Waters and Gilmour. The pair does a great job of not just using the effects to wow listeners, though they do that, but also subordinating them into the meaning needed by the song, presumably the demands and vicissitudes of modern life, right down to being chased by helicopters. Among other things, you could make the argument it’s an important step on the way to ambient, and Dark Side would not be the album it is if this track were absent.
17. “See Emily Play,” single (1967): The band’s second single, originally presented at (and named for) a psychedelic event on the south side of the Thames, Games for May; Barrett later changed the title. Stories differ as to why. The result is an interesting amalgam of then-current styles, including Merseybeat, that lurches into a plainly psychedelic mélange. Barrett’s classic early psychedelia lyrics — “You’ll lose your mind and play,” etc., etc. — cut deep. There’s a wonderful black-and-white video to accompany it, too.
16. “Breathe in the Air,” The Dark Side of the Moon (1973): The first sung words of this iconic album are bracing — “Breathe / Breathe in the air.” Gilmour is strumming his guitar almost carelessly; Waters’s bass is mixed high up serving as a contrapuntal melody line; but the MVP here might be Wright, driving his organ and pulsing other keyboard sounds into the mix. This is a plainly electronic album, but much of what we hear sounds human, organic. Waters seems to have read — or at least intuited — some philosophy, and makes clear his sympathies with positivism, among other things. While TDSOTM is often called a song cycle, in my mind it’s the first side where that is unquestionably the case. On the label of the original release, “Speak to Me” (the fragment that begins the album) and “Breathe in the Air” were designated parts one and two of the first song, indicating a clear narrative of the chaos of a birth and then this exultant order to breathe — and by extension live. And the side ends with an orgasmic rise to heaven (or maybe just to orgasm) with “The Great Gig in the Sky.” Speaking of label arcana, the original title of The Dark Side of the Moon included the initial “The,” but it has sometimes disappeared in later releases. Similarly, the song was titled “Breathe in the Air” on the original label, but was called “Breathe” on the lyric sheet inside the original album’s gatefold. On later releases it was formally detached from “Speak to Me” and generally shortened to just “Breathe” but now and again styled “Breathe (in the Air).”
15. “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1,” The Wall (1979):
One of the more effective tracks on The Wall, a spooky and evocative foreshadowing of the full “Another Brick in the Wall,” which would of course become the album’s centerpiece and a fluke hit single. (A massive hit single.)
14. “The Great Gig in the Sky,” The Dark Side of the Moon (1973): An odd bit of Floydiana: This pretty Wright track was turned into the extravagant finale of TDSOTM’s first side when engineer Alan Parsons brought a singer named Clare Torry into the studio one night to offer some vocals. Asked to wail, wail she did. Part Cassandra convulsed at the state of a world that she had predicted, part mother crying over her earth, part lover lost, part human facing fate. Who’s going to argue with her? (Rolling Stone’s original review of TDSOTM, incidentally, opined that the track should have been “shortened or dispensed with.”) Torry was paid scale; decades later she was finally compensated more appropriately and given co-writing credit, though terms were not disclosed. Let’s do the math, sticking with our three-cents-per-album-per-track supposition. “The Great Gig in the Sky” might well have delivered Wright $1.3 million in songwriting royalties. If Terry had been given just one cent per disc sold, the 2004 settlement would have been worth some $400,000 — presumably out of Wright’s pocket.
13. “Money,” The Dark Side of the Moon (1973): The jump in sound from Meddle to TDSOTM was arresting, nowhere better than here. This was an unaccountable pop hit in the United States. (Not top ten, as is often erroneously said, but it was top 15, and it unquestionably helped turn a new audience onto the charms of the album. For some reason “Money” wasn’t a single at all in the U.K.) The song is built on what should have been an indigestibly clumsy riff, supposedly rendered in 7/4 time. Someone — Waters? — coaxed out of Gilmour a remarkably tough vocal, somehow combining cynic and everyman, sage and naïf; listen closely and you can hear a very human voice straining to break out of the unnerving, unrelenting rhythm’s constraints. The single is as unconventional a hard-rock record as the era produced. The album version, six-and-a-half minutes long, slides effortlessly out of the puzzling 7/4 into a long and dazzling 4/4 Gilmour jam filled with piercing guitar lines that both undergird and de-romanticize the singer’s plaints. The ride back into the main beat is a thrill and a half. This is what the band could do when it worked together — not for nothing, one of the few Pink Floyd songs, long or short, that leaves you wanting more.
12. “Run Like Hell,” The Wall (1979): A highly credible song, from the sharp guitar attack to, for once, an appropriate setting for Waters’s cartoony voice. This is a model assemblage sonically; who doesn’t get excited when the guitars get into gear? (Pigs Might Fly says that jazz ace Lee Ritenour is playing on the track, incidentally.) And there’s some insane stuff going on in the electronics in the back. There are a lot of hard-rock classics from the late 1970s and early 1980s; hard to think of one that can touch the production schema here, possibly Waters and Ezrin’s finest moment. This is the climax to the movie, when Pink’s imaginary fascist boys go out and start roughing folks up.
11. “The Happiest Days of Our Lives,” The Wall (1979): An absolutely awesome intro to part two of “Another Brick in the Wall” and by far Waters’s greatest fragment. This is also the point at which Waters gave up and took ownership of his throttled squeak of a cartoony voice. Life isn’t fair; Waters probably deserved a voice to put across his best songs; instead he had this narrow, theatrical thing, which could at least find a place articulating the thoughts of some of the morally throttled characters in The Wall. The ending Sweeney Todd–like whistle works fabulously. “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” incidentally, is one of the most-played rock songs on American radio over the past nearly 40 years; this intro is played with it about half the time, making it played on the radio more than all but a few classics from bands like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.
9-10. “Brain Damage”/”Eclipse,” The Dark Side of the Moon (1973):
It seems pointless to divide up the two closing tracks of TDSOTM. Even leaving aside the plainly spectacular “Money,” look at how Waters’s’ game has improved from start to finish on Dark Side; he’s got solo credit on both tracks, and both, particularly in their undeniable melodies, are high points in ’70s art rock/progressive rock/space rock or whatever you want to call it. It’s too bad Waters didn’t work more closely with producers or engineers to bring more vocals like this into the mix on his work moving forward. (It helps they’re multi-tracking his singing.) You get the sense it wasn’t easy for him, but it paid off here; his careful enunciation paradoxically gives “Brain Damage” some of its delicacy and otherworldliness, and yet it’s plain enough to fit in with the everyman cast of the rest of the album. (This is the song that begins “The lunatic is on the grass.”) So many years on, the big swelling backing vocals are a bit much, but they were fairly novel at the time, and plainly the group had decided they would be a signature part of the album’s sound. Besides fitting in with the vicissitudes-of-modern-life theme Waters had going, the track is another homage to Barrett. The lines “If the band you’re in starts playing different tunes / I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon” have a particular punch. Barrett’s there too in the laughs (a reference to his first solo album) that mark the track, and hark back to “Speak to Me.” And with an organ fanfare, another of Wright’s best moments, we get to the end. Waters’s Dark Side finale is almost un-unpackable; its finishing rave up brought the album around into itself and left its buying public reasonably sated. You can’t analyze rock too much, of course, but the song does continue the record’s sense of dualities — personal choice, the effects on the world of the choices we do make, and a cautious optimism, nicely punctured by the quiet words as the thing ends. (“All of it’s dark, really.”) Impressive that, nearly 45 years on, the album’s foundation and themes have only strengthened, and deepened. John Rockwell — back then the New York Times’ senior writer on both pop and classical — heard something in the group that even Rolling Stone didn’t get. “To dismiss them simply as technically limited is philistine.” (A backward compliment, true.) You don’t have to like The Dark Side of the Moon, but so many years on it’s hard to deny the work’s thematic substance and seductive aural pleasures.
8. “Astronomy Dominé,” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967):
This was the lead-off track to Piper — more evidence that Barrett also had something to say on guitar. The beginning here is as dramatic as anything Pete Townshend was coming up with at the time. The vocal track is much less interesting, but there’s something big and powerful coming out of Barrett’s crazed brain. It’s unquestionably a major song, its hints of chaos and even danger a landmark in the development of psychedelic rock. The descending guitar line is a little trite — compare it to the thunder of “Sunshine of Your Love,” for example — but its low-fi nature has its own charms, and almost a punk feel. And it really worked live. (Not sure who told Syd “domine” needed an accent, though.) Unfortunately, Barrett’s beginning was his end. By the time the band had finished its first album, it was obvious Barrett was damaged. There’s no official diagnosis of his condition, but based on the surviving record it seems safe to say that Barrett was an early acid casualty. “He completely disappeared into himself,” a friend said. And when, temporarily, he came out, he did things like trade away his car to a passerby for a pack of cigarettes. His ability to contribute deteriorated to the point where the band brought on Gilmour to play guitar for him; they even thought they might pull off a Brian Wilson arrangement, where Barrett could stay offstage and write the songs. But that couldn’t happen. Eventually the band stopped picking him up for performances, and Gilmour stepped up to become the group’s main vocalist.
7. “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” The Wall (1979):
Pigs Might Fly says that Ezrin is the guy who came up with the idea of turning a dirgey song fragment into what was essentially a disco mix; over Waters’s objections he stretched out the material they had as much as possible over a thumping beat — and said it was a single. Waters bought into it. (Again, this was the 1970s, and it was a pretty radical fusion.) Someone came up with the idea of adding the kids’ chorus. This was farmed out to London, where a subproducer recorded a group of schoolkids — without asking the school’s, or the kids’ parents’, permission. The single spent four weeks at number one. A good part of The Wall is labored; Ezrin and Waters had given themselves an impossible job. But this is a hell of a production — Gilmour sings with utter authority, and Waters, owning his own instrument, kicks in on the “Leave those kids alone!” line. The sound and engineering on this song is extraordinary, from the disco beat to the sax to the washes of guitar, and that thin but monotonous rhythm guitar track — right down to that flimsy little guitar break that somehow brings the song together. Gilmour is MVP for the killer guitar outro. You have to give Waters credit; six years after “Money,” he’d crafted another of the most improbable classic singles of the era.
6. “Echoes,” Meddle (1971):
Meddle had both the forceful (and let’s not forget energetic) “One of These Days,” and this 23-and-a-half-minute excursion. The song begins with a set of now-famous pings, before some fairly pretty group vocals and an actual guitar riff or two. Lyrically, we start out with the albatross hanging motionless upon the air, a neat trick, and things go south from there words-wise, but no matter. Later, the pings come back, leading into quite a keyboard fanfare by Wright. All in all, it’s hard to argue with this long yet tasteful and (that word again) forceful epic. I’m upping this over the Animals jams, even though this is not as well produced, for historical value. The band could have followed the “Echoes” mold, which might have ended up embarrassing the band because, given their instrumental limitations, they were in a sense cashing a check they couldn’t cash. Instead, they took a left turn and we got Dark Side — by which I mean actual songs, conception, brilliant production, all of it. The band’s version of this in Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii, which sees the band jamming it on out in an empty Roman amphitheater, is highly recommended.
5. “Bike,” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967):
I think this is Barrett’s most touching song. Give it a cursory listen, and it’s just another nursery-rhyme-y account of his bizarre, if engaging, whimsicalities: “I know a mouse, and he hasn’t got a house / I don’t know why. I call him Gerald / He’s getting rather old, but he’s a good mouse.” Verses stop and go, speed up and slow down; the meter of the song is unclear and once in a while everything stops for a burst of something like white noise. But listen closer. This is a love song. “You’re the kind of girl who fits into my world,” Barrett sings, hopefully. This is how I live, Barrett is saying. Can you join me in it? An off-kilter song for off-kilter lovers, and exhibit A for the case that Barrett’s self-destruction, accidental or not, was a major tragedy for rock, as it was of course to the band itself. The record is clear that Barrett the person and Barrett the inspiration remained on the minds of all the Pink Floyd band members for the rest of his life and beyond. After the band had to leave him behind, Gilmour and Waters patiently assisted him trying to get a solo album together; this would be The Madcap Laughs, interesting but overrated. A second solo effort was even more difficult to birth. When a burst of royalties came in, Barrett would appear back in London to spend his money. Friends said he mostly just watched television and put on weight. He finally disappeared back to Cambridge permanently, apparently supported by his friends in the band, to be occasionally pursued by dogged fans. He died in 2006, reportedly from pancreatic cancer.
4. “Welcome to the Machine,” Wish You Were Here (1975):
Talk about musique concrète — the slabs of sound here are massive; this is one of the greatest sci-fi rock songs of all time. The words track the childhood of what seems to be a rock star in the making — “You bought a guitar / To punish your ma” — with ominous results. The mix of the high electronics and prominent acoustic guitar sets up a tension; you wait for the vocals to come and buttress the acoustic instrument. Instead, they are a mechanical scream. (It’s another one of Gilmour’s most amazing vocal performances.) One of the great parts of the Pink Floyd story is how Waters became everything he’d written about. He acted out his bildungsroman even as he wrote it. He fired Wright, whom he’d known since he was a teen. He fell out with Hipgnosis, the design firm that had done the album covers since Saucerful of Secrets. Finally, he divorced himself from the people who’d made everything he’d wanted to do possible, often despite his, Waters’s, best efforts to sabotage it all. Why, it’s almost as if he were building a wall around himself, becoming the machine he once railed against. That, Ms. Morissette, is what you call ironic.
3. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts 1-5,” Wish You Were Here (1975):
WYWH is the thinking person’s Pink Floyd album. This meditation on friendship, madness, and — what am I forgetting? oh, yes, the music industry — encourages examination and revels in its own over- and undertones. Everything that Pink Floyd is at its best is right here, the opening 12-plus minutes. Oozing soundscapes, laid down on keyboards by Richard Wright; a dramatic and meaningful guitar workout, from Gilmour; one of Waters’s most sincere set of lyrics and certainly a notably vocal performance — and all recorded with a humanizing warmth. (In the end, that’s what would be lacking in Animals.) Gilmour, at his best, starts out soft; his solos carefully dramatize themselves. Later, when Part 2 starts, his guitar’s ringing clarity — four authoritative notes — sounds familiar and also heralds something new. Things never get boring — there’s even a terrific blues solo. Now, Gilmour is not an extravagant student of sounds, and he never creates an otherworldly moment; compare this, unquestionably his greatest work on record, with say, Steve Howe’s “Going for the One.” There’s really no comparison. But for what the band did, and for what the band heeded, he was nonpareil. The song itself, of course, is Waters’s most full-bodied tribute to Barrett. The angularity of the images captures the modernity Barrett fought against, and was ultimately felled by, with a sobering and yet affectionate emotion. And when, in Part 5, the song begins to lag, saxophonist Dick Parry steps up, the tempo redoubles, and we fade into the menacing mixmaster of “Welcome to the Machine.” It’s deceiving, at first, with more talk of suns and moons and black holes; but that’s just to get the setting right for a story about a space-rock band and the leader from another dimension who drifted away.
2. “Comfortably Numb,” The Wall (1979):
More than anything else, there is a wistful melody here in the chorus, and the band lets it sink in, and go on as long as it needs to, tension rising each step of the way — another rare instance when you want something Pink Floyd is doing not to end. But you can’t forget the first chord either, ominous yet graceful. The verses, articulated by Waters, in one of the more restrained uses of his soft voice, are somewhat menacing, as poor Pink is lured once again into trouble. The release of the chorus elevates what could have just been almost a novelty track on The Wall into one of the most beautiful pieces of music of the 1970s. (And Gilmour has gone out of his way to make it clear that that beautiful chorus came from him.) Again, someone — Waters? Ezrin? — urged Gilmour to dig deep in his singing, and helped him to find something soft and vulnerable in his vocals. And then he starts playing guitar! The roots of the band’s breakup are here, too. One never had the sense that Gilmour liked stardom, or reveled in it. (I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a picture of him wearing anything but a T-shirt.) But faced with a choice — and having to ask himself the question of whether he had the goods, the talent, the voice, and the core, to lead Pink Floyd without Waters — he answered yes. So far on, everyone’s basically forgotten the sleight of hand he pulled off. Gilmour remains implacable and a star in much of the world. (One of his solo albums was a No. 1 record in the U.K.) He’ll play “Astronomy Dominé” if he wants to; for his Live in Gdansk album, he played, improbably, both his own most recent album (Rattle That Lock, with lyrics by Polly Samson) in its entirety and then an eclectic overview of his work for Pink Floyd, making room for exactly one song (“Comfortably Numb”) from its Waters-dominated period and two from the band’s (musically moribund) post-Waters period. David Gilmour is very rich and very secure in his position; and Pink Floyd’s history, it was clear, was his to limn.
1. “Wish You Were Here,” Wish You Were Here (1975):
Again, you see a good but troubled band put aside the fights, collaborate on a good song, and then record it in a way that makes the sound of it still timeless, more than 40 years on. “Wish You Were Here” is of course a funerary for Barrett, again, but it’s also a love song, and it’s also a meditation on life and ambition and a quest, and also finally about what we don’t know, which is everything. Waters had moved on from the ridiculous lyrics of Floyd’s earlier work, and passed even the plain speak of Dark Side; on WYWH, he finally achieves something like good rock poetry — which is to say, words that make it clear what they mean, even if that meaning isn’t there on the page — and here manages to deliver them that way, too. “Wish You Were Here” was sturdy enough, and magnanimous enough, to serve the band one final time, in the group’s one reunion appearance together, at the Live 8 concert in London, where it was clearly about them as well. Waters, older and wiser, clearly regretted the dissolution, and felt it was a time to hug and make up; but it was also clear that Gilmour was having none of it. After The Final Cut, Roger Waters pressed on with a series of cranky, crackpot rock operas. (Radio K.A.O.S. is about a kid named Billy, who is “almost a vegetable,” but who has some sort of telekinetic powers, or something. It’s all a little unclear, but apparently the kid, a friendly radio DJ, and a mad scientist who gets turned around by Live Aid join together to … avert a nuclear holocaust. Whew!) Waters then bore the humiliation of taking the accompanying dog-and-pony show around to smallish venues the same summer his former bandmates played stadiums. The years have mellowed Waters somewhat; he is older and even handsomer now. He remains highly politically principled and, now, since he actually gives interviews, you can hear how smart he actually is. And yet, he can probably still walk down most streets in the world and not be recognized. He actually seems happy now. We should have his problems.