Monday, August 23, 2010

Flashbacks of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Pink Floyd

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

There isn't enough good instrumental rock music out there.

I first became a big fan of music through classical stuff, especially the bombastic German Romantics like Beethoven and Wagner. So it's possible that I'm a little biased. But there's something about pure music, unadulterated by the human voice, the can truly carry you away. Lyrics are can be all right, but a lot of rock outfits just aren't that good at writing them, and excel far better at actual instrumental performance. It was true last week when I listened to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and it's certainly true of Pink Floyd as well.

Pink Floyd, like a lot of similar bands, can be criticized for their musical solipsism, filtered through ridiculous concept albums with lyrics that could have been written in any high school creative writing class. But I think a large reason why Pink Floyd has become one of those iconic classic rock bands is because of their instrumental stuff. They know how to jam. From their first album to The Wall (the last album that mattered), the band inserts both instrumental tracks and songs with extended instrumental sections.

With many bands, this might be a dreadful idea. But Pink Floyd is also very good at providing their music with a certain form that a lot of unstructured instrumental jams lack. "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" always feels like it's going somewhere through its twenty-six minutes and nine parts. Themes and motives repeat themselves, and the music doesn't just limp forward, but builds. I feel that a lot of instrumental rock pieces and guitar solos are meandering and directionless, but Pink Floyd has enough musical know-how to be able to make the best of it. It's a rare gift, and one of the reasons, I think, for their continued popularity.


WHAT I LISTENED TO BEFORE: Back in early August of 2009, I listened to The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975) and The Wall (1979). Since then, I've also listened to The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967), Meddle (1971) and Animals (1977).

MY LISTENING: I had a thousand-mile drive last week, so I actually put on all of the above albums at some point during the journey. Pink Floyd provides a much more low-key driving experience than the Red Hot Chili Peppers.


As stated above, Pink Floyd's instrumental stuff is brilliant. From the psychedelic space-surf of "Interstellar Overdrive" to the blues-rock of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" to the pop-rock instrumental of "Run Like Hell," this is a band that doesn't need lyrics to get where they're going. Their dense sonic layering and ability to play together coalesce to create tracks that feel very organic and natural, and their blues influences provide the perfect vehicle for those strange experimental twists they like to add - a song like "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" is a perfect example.

Dark Side of the Moon is justly lauded, and deserves its iconic status, being the first album in which the band was able to take their experimental blues jams and put it in a palatable format. "Money" rocks, "On the Run" terrifies me, and the climax at "Brain Damage/Eclipse" is one of the high points of the band's discography. But Wish You Were Here is my favorite Pink Floyd album, the best one they ever recorded, and the only one where I find every track without fault. There is a true sense of melancholy and worry that pervades the album, from the balladesque title track to the apocalyptic "Welcome to the Machine" to the epic "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" that bookends the album.

And, yes, "Crazy Diamond" is twenty-six minutes long, but it never bores me. Pink Floyd is one of those rare bands that can take a long track and turn it into an event, not just aimless wandering. Other examples include the twenty-three minute "Echoes" from Meddle (an underrated album, I decided this week, that anticipates a lot of the Dark Side developments) and the three ten-minute-plus tracks from Animals (an album that's a little too dark brooding for me to put in the top tier of their output). Pink Floyd knew how to play their instruments (all the solos are fantastic), but they were also masters of the studio - the songs never sound cluttered and all the tracks seamlessly meld together.

Finally, they can write a good "short" song when they feel like it. This especially comes out in The Wall, which, though disjointed, features some of the band's best singles, including the overplayed "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)," the underplayed "Hey You," and "Comfortably Numb," which ends with David Gilmour's best guitar solo of his career.


As I said, Wish You Were Here is the only Pink Floyd album I consider flawless. Dark Side of the Moon features the dull "Us and Them," which I feel goes on top long and brings the album down. In The Wall, these sorts of tracks are even more of an issue. While The Wall has some great highs, it also has a lot of tracks that are seemingly half-finished and function only has transitional pieces. I watched footage of the original concert on YouTube, where the theatrics make this sort of music work, but when just listening to the album, do we really need "The Happiest Days of Our Lives" or "Is There Anybody Out There?" Or three iterations of "Another Brick in the Wall"?

Also, while The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and the Syd Barrett-era of Pink Floyd is praised by critics, I don't get it. Some of the instrumental stuff on that album is pretty good, but songs like "Bike" or "Pow R. Toc H." are too goofy for me to take seriously, and I don't understand the critical admiration about "See Emily Play" at all. I prefer my Pink Floyd to be bluesy and smooth, not psychedelic and raving, thank you very much.

Finally, Pink Floyd's lyrics are never truly up to par with their music. There's a few exceptions - "Wish You Were Here" comes to mind - but there's also tracks with silly libretto like "The Trial," tracks with sanctimonious preachiness like "Money," and tracks with outdated political angst like "Pigs (Three Different Ones)."

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There's still more Pink Floyd, including the last Roger Waters-era album The Final Cut (1983), the post-Syd Barrett era where the band was finding itself (A Saucerful of Secrets [1968], Ummagumma [1969], Atom Heart Mother[1970]), and the post-Waters Gilmour era that no one really seems to like (A Momentary Lapse of Reason [1987], The Division Bell [1994]). And, of course solo albums, the best seemingly being Roger Waters' 1984 endeavor The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking.

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "Wish You Were Here"
Really, I should put all of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," but YouTube time limits make that rather difficult.

This song is rocking and terrifying, and a good example of the underrated stuff on Meddle.

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: I'm back from roadtripping and flashbacking next week. I'll be listeneing to Interpol.