A beginners’ guide to Pink Floyd

With The Beatles having called it a day, Bob Dylan walking in the opposite direction of the psychedleic counter-culture and The Rolling Stones having reached a critical mass they would never exceed, throughout 1970s there was only one band that even vaguely threatened Led Zeppelin’s positiion as the biggest act on the planet. That band was Pink Floyd, a progressive rock four piece that had started as counter-culture darlings, carelessly lost their iconic frontman, regrouped and released one of the biggest selling albums of all time that has become part of the very fabric of rock music.

One obvious things about this guide is that the massively selling The Dark Side of the Moon isn’t featured in this beginners guide, simply because it doesn’t need to be. It is Pink Floyd’s equivalent of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Neil Young’s Harvest, in that it’s an album that has become almost obsolete due to it’s omnipotence and familiarity. If you’re a fan of rock music, chances are you have Pink Floyd’s best known album already, so where to go from there?

Here then are six other albums you should investigate as a newcomer to Pink Floyd, following their transition from psychedelic standard bearers, through more structured prog rock, then on to global megastardom, via ego-driven infighting.

1) Piper at the Gates of Dawn – 1967

The creative force behind Pink Floyd’s debut was their psychedelic flower-child leader Syd Barrett. Piper at the Gates of Dawn would be the only one of the band’s albums that he was the primary influence on, as he would depart the band during the early sessions for it’s follow up, Saucer Full of Secrets.

Piper is very much Barrett’s statement, taking in space travel, gnomes, bicycles and scarecrows, making it Pink Floyd’s most naieve statement. When Barrett departed, so did much of the band’s sense of playfulness, something which they never recovered, leaving Piper at the Gates of Dawn as the most sonicly unique album in Pink Floyd’s history.

Available in both mono and stereo versions, Piper at the Gates of Dawn is perhaps the band’s most studied album due to Barrett’s input and subsequent drug-casualty status, however such cold analysis can often obscure the fact that at it’s heart it’s a great psychedelic pop album.

2) Meddle – 1971

Prior to Barrett’s departure, the band had recruited David Gilmour to create a five piece band, with the hope that Barrett could become their studio-based creative genius, while the rest of the band could tour and perform live with minimum of disruption. When this arrangement didn’t work out, Pink Floyd effectively became a democratic four piece, and they spent the next few albums trying to re-establish their sound.

After a few years of thrashing about trying to find a new direction, the band finally found their new sound on their sixth album, Meddle. A prototype for the later albums which would see them conquer the charts on a global scale, it’s a little bit more loose and less structured then their later material, and all the better for it, with tracks as diverse as the sinister rock of “One of These Days”, to the gently rolling singalong that is “Fearless”.

Keyboard player Richard Wright is the band’s secret weapon throughout Meddle, nowhere more so than the second side epic, “Echoes”, the track which effectively provided the nutrients for the roots of the band’s next four albums.

3) Wish You Were Here – 1975

Where The Dark Side of the Moon is the band’s most popular album in terms of sales, it’s follow-up, Wish You Were Here, is arguably the better album, and certainly Pink Floyd’s most widely influential. This album’s audio DNA can be subsequently traced into industrial rock, dance music, techno and synth-soundscapes.

For many people, Wish You Were Here’s selling point is the two-part “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”, Pink Floyd’s tribute to their fallen leader which bookends the album’s other three tracks. As good as the song is, it doesn’t overshadow the busker-friendly title track, the industrial nightmare of “Welcome to the Machine”, or the Roy Harper sung “Have a Cigar”.

Wish You Were Here is the only Pink Floyd album untroubled by a weak track and is one of those releases whose influence and reputation continues to grow exponentially with the passage of time. While it’s predecessor has the popular vote, it’s this album which is arguably the band’s definitive statement.

4) The Wall – 1979

The double album had been a fixture of progressive rock for over a decade, however times and fashions had changed by 1979 when Pink Floyd released self-nominated band leader Roger Water’s despotic The Wall. The Wall wasn’t the band’s first double album, as back in 1969, they had released Ummagumma, a relatively clumsy release consisting of half and half live and new studio material, but it is their most notorious.

The Wall was, perhaps inevitably, a concept album, however unlike the majority of Pink Floyd’s previous work, The Wall’s concept was narrative driven, reflecting Water’s obsession with the downside of fame, fortune, and how terrible it was being a rock star. Self-pitying whining it might have been, but that didn’t prevent the album being one of Pink Floyd and Progressive Rock’s strongest statements, and even resulted in a rare hit single for the band, courtesy of producer Bob Ezrin’s input on “Another Brick in the Wall Pt.2”.

While The Wall was a great album, behind that wall, Pink Floyd were in turmoil. Water’s had wrestled creative control from the rest of the band and had subsequently given Wright the boot from the band during the recording sessions, however kept him on the payroll for the live dates. Waters had also ensured that drummer Nick Mason had no credit on the Gerald Scarfe designed album artwork, indeed the only reason the Gilmour had been given credit was his input on songs like “Young Lust” and “Run Like Hell”, and he also takes the lion’s share of credit on “Comfortably Numb”, The Wall’s only attempt to cater to the band’s old core fanbase of stoners, as his fluid meandering guitar work offers the opportunity to roll a spliff as respite to the suffocating paranoia of the rest of the album.

5) The Final Cut – 1983

Inevitably the most controversial choice on this list, The Final Cut is the Pink Floyd album that people love to hate. The album finds Roger Waters using the Pink Floyd name as a vehicle for his own opinions and agenda, resulting in The Final Cut being single mindedly unambiguous in terms of its concept and message, with Pink Floyd (well Waters) at their (his) most uncharacteristicly passionate.

Whereas The Wall was a personal story with universal themes, The Final Cut was much more of a personal statement. This opinionated material was at odds with the direction that Waters’ bandmates wanted to head, as Waters took full artistic and creative control, leaving Gilmour as little more than a session man and sidelining Mason so much to the point that he doesn’t even appear on the apocalyptic closing number, “Two Suns in the Sunset”.

Musically, you can’t take anything away from The Final Cut and lyrically Waters’ has rarely been better, as he puts the world to rights and grieves for a global community that was rapidly forgetting the sacrifices an entire genre made during World War Two. However, as great as the emotionally crushed “Paranoid Eyes”, the raging “Not Now John” and the impossibly perfect title track are, they simply don’t fit in with the rest of Pink Floyd’s output, resulting in The Final Cut being their most unique album and therefore securing its place on this list, above other, better received, albums.

6) Echoes: The Best of Pink Floyd – 2001

There have been many attempts to pull together a satisfying Pink Floyd compilation album, but none have succeeded better than Echoes. It covers a lot of ground, not just the band’s most popular albums, making sure that both post-Waters albums are well represented and there’s plenty of Syd Barrett penned material on offer too.

Echoes’ party trick is the fact that the songs featured on both discs segue seemlessly together, thus neatly sidestepping the fact that the compilation is non-chronological, resulting in a more free flowing listening experience. It also has the added bonus of the rather po-faced “High Hopes”, being immeadiately followed by the playful “Bike”, highlighting the sharp contrasts between both ends of Pink Floyd’s career.

Almost every Pink Floyd album has something to go for it (trust me, Animals only very narrowly missed the cut for this list), but the first post-Waters album, A Momentary Lapse of Reason, features some of the band’s least substantial material. Effectively a David Gilmour solo album, A Momentary Lapse of Reason was, like The Final Cut, a Pink Floyd album in name only, however the contrast between the quality of the two albums couldn’t be more pronounced. It wasn’t until 1994’s The Division Bell that Gilmour, Mason and Wright proved that a decent Waters free Pink Floyd album wasn’t impossible. Since then there have been one off reunions, the odd legacy release, however it was only with the sad passing of Wright that Pink Floyd fans finally stopped clamouring for there to be one last reunion album and tour.

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