How I Learned to Stop Worrying and (Almost) Love Pink Floyd

For someone who spends his life either listening to or making music, it’s convenient that I like quite a lot of it. I have my areas of natural allegiance – indie/alternative rock and early-80s pop to name perhaps the main ones – but broadly speaking, there’s very little of it that I don’t care for. I always find it quite perplexing when people profess to be “huge” music fans, but whose list of musical dislikes is endless. All sorts of things put them off: “Ooh, I hate the singer’s voice.” “The synths are so lame.” “Too many widdly guitar solos.” “Pur-lease! The lyrics, the lyrics.” “Can’t stand saxophones.” There are even some (clearly insane) people who claim to not like The Beatles. After meeting such lunatics I often sit and ponder to myself, usually over a glass of iced something-or-other, that the idea of indiscriminately turning your nose up at the entire oeuvre of an undeniably groundbreaking and influential rock group with a large, varied and much-loved back catalogue is fucking bonkers. Then, as the ice slowly melts, I remember that I too have such a large zone in the great Venn diagram of my own musical taste, and within that zone are written two words. Those words are “Pink” and “Floyd”.

Oh, I’ve heard all the arguments. That I needed to discover them when I was a student; that it’s all about the setting – I need to sit down, preferably on a bean bag in a dimly lit room with a lava lamp, and listen to a whole album in one go; that the Gilmour stuff is rubbish, I need to get into the Waters stuff; that the Waters and Gilmour stuff is rubbish, I need to get into the Barrett stuff; that the Barrett stuff is mental and I need to ignore it completely; that the only way to truly enjoy Pink Floyd is to be monstrously stoned throughout the entire listening experience. I have tried all these things. Really I have. Often simultaneously. But none of it has worked. I… just… don’t… get it.

And it’s not as if I haven’t had ample opportunity. Since 1993 I have been good friends, musical colleagues, and some might say manacled together with possibly the world’s biggest Pink Floyd fan: Fink’s bass player Guy Whittaker. To his credit, he’s never forced Floyd on me (he tried that with Frank Zappa once on a Danish road trip and it didn’t end well), rather, his Floyd selections have remained a quiet, bubbling background presence, but these sounds have never remotely intrigued me, unlike some other bands he’s introduced to me over the decades: System Of A Down, Ben Folds Five, Soul Coughing, Moxy Fruvous, The Tragically Hip and Dead Kennedys to name but, erm, six. But the Floyd have never registered anything at all on my interest dial. I might be risking a brick through my kitchen window when I say this, but I’ve always preferred Supertramp. So, eager to put an end to the whole vexing business, I called up Mr Whittaker and asked him to do what I’ve never asked him to do in 23 years: shove Pink Floyd down my throat. Make me a playlist. We can call it something big and strong, e.g. If You Don’t Like Pink Floyd After Listening To This Playlist You Probably Never Will. So he did… and here are the results:

(IMPORTANT NOTE TO FLOYD PURISTS: Throughout this process Guy has repeated, with almost geriatric frequency, that carving out and extracting one Pink Floyd track from an album is madness. “Yeah, yeah,” I replied. So if you find yourself spitting, “But… but… you can’t just listen to ‘Eclipse’ on its own!” – it’s my fault, not Guy’s.)

1. Echoes (from Meddle)

Guy admitted that he’d deliberately included this one because it’s about half an hour long and he wanted to test my “commitment”. What is this, marriage counselling? Anyway. A nearby submarine clearly sneaked into the studio at the beginning, but that aside, very little of note happens in the first six minutes. Mellowish early-seventies rock, which in the great shopping centre of pop music, I feel like I can get better elsewhere. But soon Wright and Gilmour do a nice harmonised lead vocal thing, it all gets a bit more aggressive, and at seven minutes Waters and Mason lock into a two-note groove and remain there for several days until the submarine comes back with some spooky wind and a couple of seabirds. Then I put the kettle on. There are nice organ chords, accompanied by some cool chugging from Gilmour and some thumping from Mason, and at 18.14 I get my first “I see what all the fuss is about” moment when Gilmour’s arpeggio blows the whole thing open. Genuinely atmospheric and quite thrilling. For one minute. Then we return to the mellowish rock/vocals thing and it’s all a bit humdrum again. Oh dear. Am I going to get lynched?

2. A Saucerful Of Secrets (from A Saucerful Of Secrets)

I mean, I’m tempted to say it’s all a little silly, like the musical accompaniment to a Monty Python horror film spoof or a Woody Allen dream sequence. But I need to keep reminding myself that, in 1968, this was absolutely the groundbreakingest thing to be heard in all of the Western universe. While this was being recorded, everyone on the morning train to Waterloo was still wearing bowler hats and carrying umbrellas. So in that respect, it’s awesome. Nice choral and keyboard bass combo in the last few minutes. Next!

3. Careful With That Axe Eugene (from Ummagumma)

Well, no one can accuse Guy of picking all the catchy singles. It’s pretty hypnotic and trippy, but for me, it’s definitely doing-something-else music (like the hoovering), as opposed to sitting-and-listening music. Then the screaming starts. Christ. I heard bands like this at East End art galleries’ private views about 15 years ago. But then I suppose that’s the whole point: they were all trying desperately to be Pink Floyd.

4. Bike (from The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn)

Now, this is more like it! Am I joking? Well, partly. But unlike all the other songs so far, it displays songwriting craft, which I suppose is What I Enjoy. And also, some humour. There’s been something rather po-faced about the previous tracks, but Syd Barrett, by all accounts, spent most of his sane life taking the piss. I love the quirky arrangement and Wright’s piano, Barrett’s accent and the way everything is hopelessly out of time, but above all I love hearing the name “Gerald” in a pop song. Could it be the only occurrence? Let’s hope so.

5. Us And Them (from The Dark Side Of The Moon)

Well, this is fabulous. Of course I’ve heard it before, millions of times, but like a dunce I never realised who or what it was. It’s partly written by Richard Wright, who might be shaping up to be my favourite Floyd member. So yeah, I get it. Definitely a bit better than Supertramp.

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The Dark Side on the kitchen table.

6. Eclipse (from The Dark Side Of The Moon)

It must be a good sign when I’m wondering why the song is so short. I recall what Guy said about not listening to the songs in isolation, so I rewind a bit, taking in Brain Damage and some of Any Colour You Like. Then I realise I’m being a knob and I just play the whole thing from Us And Them onwards, and a good time is had by all. Eclipse – which Guy describes as “the greatest last track of an album ever, by anyone, ever” – is certainly the crowning moment, managing some great lyrics (“All that is now / All that is gone / All that’s to come“), dealing with huge subjects but avoiding cheesiness: no easy task. Rather clever, that Roger Waters chap.

7. Have A Cigar (from Wish You Were Here)

Right. So I suppose this song – along with Money from Dark Side – exemplifies what’s always been my main problem with the Floydsters. Rather than being trippy and atmospheric and stirring, they just sound like they’re having a break and playing some MOR American rock to relax. Having said my “po-faced” comment above, my beef with these two tracks is they’re just too lighthearted. It’s like those bits in Shakespeare plays when you’re really getting into the action and the story, and then the bloody comedy characters come on for a bit of light-relief. The keyboard sounds are grating, Gilmour’s guitar is too widdly, and the vocals are too Americanised for my liking. And yes, I know Have A Cigaris supposed to be a satirical stab at the insincerity of the music business, so in that respect they’ve succeeded admirably, but… I dunno. The Supertramp record is edging closer to the turntable.

8. Mother (from The Wall)

What a strange, brilliant, disturbingly complex man Roger Waters is. Despite my opening statement of Floyd indifference, I’ve long harboured a bit of a fascination for this undisputed creative powerhouse. It all started one Glastonbury. It was raining on the Sunday and I was on my own, trying to get from one group of friends to another. For some weird and possibly alcohol-influenced reason I decided the quickest way between A and B was across the Pyramid Stage audience area, which you can imagine was an arduous carnival of “excuse me!”, “sorry!”, “do you mind if I…” and “Oy, mate, piss off, you’ve just spilled my pint”. Halfway across, I gave up and watched the remainder of the current band, which was Roger Waters. Admittedly, I found myself transfixed. There were three main things I noticed. One: Waters got Glastonbury, by which I mean he demonstrated an understanding that Glastonbury is an event far greater than the sum of its parts – essential for any Pyramid Stage act. Two: his presence was astonishing. Every molecule in his body seemed to completely believe in what he was doing, and the power of his own performance, even without the big screens, could be noticed a mile off. Three: I remember being jolly glad I wasn’t playing in his band. As a musician you develop a bit of a sixth sense for who will be tricky and who will be lower maintenance, and Roger Waters had “camping overnight in the studio until you play the parts right” written all over him. Mother was on the setlist that day, and I do recall finding it a nervous experience, with its lyrics of maternal intensity (“Mama’s gonna wait up till you get in / Mama will always find out where you’ve been“). And 14 years later, what have I just discovered? Apparently Nick Mason couldn’t master the drum part quickly enough on the recording, so they had to get Jeff “Toto” Porcaro to play it instead. I knew it! Waters is a total ball-buster!

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The Wall. Next to an, erm, wall.

9. Nobody Home (from The Wall)

Guy described this as “the flipside of the Spinal Tap touring experience”, and he’s got a big fat point. Many may envy a touring musician’s lifestyle, but believe me: sometimes those days off in a foreign hotel in the middle of nowhere are the pits. Being away from the family makes sense when you’re playing a show, but when you’re not, the feeling of emptiness is quite profound. I’d never heard this track, but it’s further evidence of the anxious genius rattling around in Roger Waters’ skull. Beautiful orchestral part, and no widdly stuff from Gilmour. Supertramp: you can all go home now.

10. Comfortably Numb (from The Wall)

Of course, I heard this song four trillion times in my university years alone, but something in my brain refused to welcome it inside until the aforementioned Waters Glasto slot. Perhaps, after all, this proves one of the most popular pro-Floyd arguments correct: namely, you have to be a bit fucked-up to really enjoy them, and by the Sunday at Glastonbury the melting pot of all the various bits and pieces you’ve ingested has matured like an overripe pumpkin, leaving your pickled emotions prime candidates for a bit of soppiness. So it was that I found myself swaying along with the other thousands, arms in the air, those distant ships bobbing away happily on the horizon, my lips moving but I probably couldn’t hear a damn thing I was saying. The song is, naturally, a masterpiece, and I’d been foolish to neglect it all those years. I’ll even forgive Gilmour for his power-widdling at the end. Aahh. Dontcha just love a happy ending?

But, tellingly, none of these songs makes me want to rush out and buy (or, let’s be honest, rush to Spotify and stream) a Pink Floyd album. For the most part, I fully understand why they are so popular and revered, but they’ll have to continue residing in a small shaded bit of my ol’ Venn diagram, where “respected” overlaps with “appreciated”, but not “loved”. I totally get the massive part they played in the world’s acceptance of the rock album as a true piece of art, and in the expansion of the stadium live circuit, and the surge in sales of the Fender Stratocaster. I enjoy the stories of rivalry between band members, their unique and touching approach to their former tragi-comic frontman, and their cover art, which is of course all amazing – hell, they even managed to get Ely Cathedral onto the sleeve of The Division Bell. Perhaps one day I’ll hear one of their albums from end to end, take my headphones off and say, “wow, the earth moved that time,” and our relationship will finally be consummated. But until then, Pink Floyd and I remain just good friends.

(Many thanks to Guy Whittaker.)