This is from WITHOUT END, Chapter One of THE ENDLESS JOURNEY, 50 YEARS OF PINK FLOYD
The careful tread of oars dissecting a river. The faded-in sound of a heartbeat, not your own. Birdsong delighted over an acoustic guitar. A nuclear wind blowing across a dismantled landscape. Or, as it began, in 1967, alien static coming in from the sky, voices distorted, buzzing like flies.
Only rarely has a Pink Floyd album begun with anything so mundane as a guitar or a drum. But then only rarely has Pink Floyd done anything quite like any other rock band. So that even to describe them (whoever ‘they’ are, another fluctuating fact of Pink Floyd’s near half-century existence being the interchangeability of its ‘leaders’) as a ‘band’ is to miss the point entirely. For rarely has any musical conglomeration in the rock era been less suited to the conventional idea of what a ‘band’ supposedly is than Pink Floyd. At the height of their superstardom in the mid-Seventies, as The Dark Side Of The Moon settled into its eventual 14-year run on the US charts, very few of the near 50 million people that bought that album even knew what the four members of Pink Floyd looked like. Were not sure even who the singer was.
The strangest fact of all was that – unlike The Beatles or the Rolling Stones, unlike The Who or Led Zeppelin, unlike any other globe-straddling rock artist of the same era – when it came to Pink Floyd it never did matter. The only thing that mattered with Pink Floyd was the collective sound they made – and what that sound could do to you when left alone with it. As the darkness became visible then doubled, as lightning struck itself, repeatedly. Music that ebbed and flowed like the sea, coming at you in waves, like pulses, like life and death and the secrets in between. Carrying you away on its endless river, that ancient symbol of time. Times past that lie before you, in perpetual futurity.
Partly, this was down to a certain decorous, stereotypically English middleclass horror of sticking too far out from the crowd. Mostly, it was down to the fact that Pink Floyd’s original in-house star, singer-guitarist and main songwriter Roger ‘Syd’ Barrett had flamed-out so spectacularly after just one hit single and album, leaving his friends with a planet-sized hole to fill, not just musical, an impossibility on its own, but characterful, an equally daunting prospect they couldn’t help but shrink from. Until there was nothing left of them to be seen, hidden as they became behind a wall so terrifyingly high none of them would ever truly manage to clamber back over it. Not in one piece. For it wasn’t just Syd Barrett who would apparently lose his mind while helming the Pink Floyd, who would sacrifice his rock star status in exchange for a hill of dreams.
Retreating into the background, as one, allowing their audience to fill-in the sizeable blanks left by Barrett’s traumatic and never fully understood departure, the music Pink Floyd came to make would always have to stand alone, separate from the individuals in the group, supported only by its own gravity. To the point, paradoxically, where the more the group members drifted apart from each other, the more exquisitely painful the focus of their music became. So that by the time of their artistic and commercial apotheosis, The Wall, in 1980, bassist-vocalist and main writer in the post-Barrett era, Roger Waters, and guitarist-vocalist David Gilmour, who had replaced Barrett, and would eventually replace Waters, too, were no longer speaking to each other.
Similarly, Rick Wright, once the yin to Syd’s yang, as pretty as the boy wonder, full of light where Syd was found by darkness, and almost as prolific on his fairy-tale keyboards, had also been frozen out by 1980, fired from his own group for daring to add his voice to the conversation. Drummer Nick Mason, meanwhile, always a smooth operator when it came to interpersonal relationships, everybody’s friend on nobody’s side, had become more interested in his growing collection of vintage cars than he was in being in the studio, listening to the rants and raves of his warring musical partners. Nick always did have the best seat in the house; from where he could see everyone’s backs, as well as the nearest fire exits.
Indeed, it might be said that the Pink Floyd of the 1970s became a juggernaut international success almost in spite of themselves. Moreover, that not even they, ultimately, really understood what it was they did – or didn’t do – that made them so spectacularly, peculiarly popular. In the words of Roger Waters, speaking in 2011, Pink Floyd had “never been interested in making things just to entertain people.” Instead, their aim had always been to leave their audience, “moved and emotionally engaged.”
This from the man who by his own admission would become so horrifyingly disengaged from his own audience that by the end of the Seventies he was spitting at them even as they threw their arms open to him, gathered in the world’s largest stadia in rowdy supplication even as he dreamed of machine-gunning them all down, one by one.
Half a century and over 150 million albums sold later, the sheer weight of their achievements still tend to disguise the utter strangeness of the Pink Floyd story. Even the drastic changes in line-ups have not dented their universal appeal. No more than the awful confessions of greed and hate, of bitter feuding between Waters and Gilmour, have stemmed the tide of endless fascination. No group since The Beatles has paraded their human fragilities to such a damagingly public extent as Pink Floyd and still found their music left so apparently unsullied and fawned over.
For anyone else, losing not one but two leaders, then three, would have spelled career-suicide. For Pink Floyd, now into their fourth coming with their first album in 20 years, The Endless River, there would appear to be no new beginnings, no real endings. Just one circular musical movement, a life force unto itself throughout the several regenerations. Inhaling and exhaling, in space and time, the clicks and breaths of living history, seen through the lightless gaps between stars.
As Nick Mason remarked drolly in 1994, “We don’t have to promote a Bono or a Mick Jagger. The thing you have to remember is, we’re so wonderfully boring.”
Don’t be fooled, though, by this adroit piece of English obfuscation. Substitute the word ‘boring’ with ‘clever’ and you come much closer to the truth. For what this quintessentially English group has never been able to conceal is its equally, wincingly English history of childhood friendships and tangled teenage alliances. The most significant of which – those between the two Rogers, Barrett and Waters, and the man who would eventually stand beside them, neither very like one nor particularly unlike the other, David Gilmour – continue to cast long, deepening shadows over the lives of all the members of Pink Floyd, even as they now glide ever closer to their own sunsets.
This then is their story, in ambient miniature. For how else to usefully tell a tale as impossibly tall, or improbably inverted as that of the band that would not bond but still somehow endure, far beyond its own legacy, as it drifted, like its music, along the unforeseen bends and often tricky currents of its own endless river?
As David Gilmour once said: to make it as big as Pink Floyd did, “Raw talent is never going to be enough. Massive drive is needed.” But then, in the same interview, with my colleague Mark Blake, in 2008, he insisted: “I can see how important this Pink Floyd business gets for other people. But it just isn’t for me. I had some of the best times of my life and we created some wonderful music, but to do it again, it would be fakery. It would be trying to be something that we are not. At my age, I am entirely selfish and want to please myself. I shan’t do another Pink Floyd tour.”
Gilmour was telling the truth but what he was saying was of course entirely the opposite of what actually happened next: Pink Floyd in epigrammatic miniature.