It would have been the late Syd Barrett’s birthday today, and thus it seems a fine time to look at the career of Pink Floyd. Ever since John Lydon took a Floyd t-shirt and scrawled “I hate” on it, it’s been fashionable to hate on the band, denouncing them as pretentious prog-rock behemoths with a liking for long-winded concepts and overlong guitar solos (even if Lydon himself later retreated from his views.) Haters gonna hate, but we’re having none of it — we’re not even remotely ashamed to admit to being big Floyd fans, and as such, we’re going into bat for them here, with a selection of ten songs — both with and without Barrett — that we reckon embody everything there is to like about the band.
“See Emily Play” (1967)
Before we get started, though, we should confess that we’ve never really been fans of Barrett-era Floyd. Nearly half a century later, the affected whimsy of Piper at the Gates of Dawn-era songs like “Scarecrow,” “Bike,” and (shudder) “The Gnome” is pretty difficult to stomach, while Roger Waters’ sole composition on the band’s first album — “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk” — didn’t exactly hint at great things to come. The brief period where Barrett’s songwriting flourished, however, certainly had its charms, and arguably reached its peak before the first album was even recorded. Specifically, Barrett’s output peaked with Pink Floyd’s second single, a character sketch of a Pan-like figure trying and ultimately failing to fit into a world that doesn’t understand her. It doesn’t take a genius to draw a parallel between the character and her creator, but the greatness of “See Emily Play” is that everyone can find something to relate to in its endearingly awkward protagonist (who was apparently based on a girl that Barrett saw in the woods one day).
“Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” (1968)
The band’s second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, found Waters taking the songwriting reins in Barrett’s continuing (and soon to be permanent) absence. This epic track was definitely the highlight, taking its cue from the first record’s “Insterstellar Overdrive” and laying a space-rock template that’d provide inspiration for everyone from My Bloody Valentine to Spacemen 3 (along with a bunch of other bands who’d never admit to liking Pink Floyd). It also gets referenced by James Murphy, of all people, in a characteristically wry lyric from “All My Friends”: “We set controls for the heart of the sun,” he sings, “one of the ways that we show our age…”
“The Nile Song” (1969)
Taken from the first album Pink Floyd recorded without Barrett, Soundtrack from the Film ‘More’, this is pretty damn heavy, no? Somewhere in Birmingham, one Ozzy Osbourne was listening very carefully indeed.
“Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In a Cave and Grooving with a Pict” (1969)
Like much of the band’s early material, 1969 double album Ummagumma navigated a fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous, frequently falling off to one side or the other. The first LP of the set encompassed a complete live album, but the really interesting stuff is on the second, which comprises a bunch of wildly different solo compositions by each band member. There was a four-part symphony by Richard Wright, a three-part piece by David Gilmour, something called “The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party” from Nick Mason… and then there was this. The weird Scots-accented ranting at the end provides the comedy value, but really, the interesting part of this remarkable track is the weird rhythmic proto-techno Waters produced from tape loops of, yes, field recordings of several species of small furry animals. Anyone who argues that Pink Floyd were never, y’know, really experimental can generally be relieved of such views by playing them this.
It’s possible that it was Melody Maker who gave rise to what’d become a well-worn music criticism cliché by describing this 24-minute track as “the soundtrack to a non-existent film.” In the context of the sadly defunct UK music paper’s review, the description was a pejorative one, but in our opinion it’s both entirely accurate and really quite a compliment. “Echoes” plays out like an entire album, moving smoothly through moods and sounds, and also exemplifies the transition from old Pink Floyd to new.
“Free Four” (1972)
Obscured by Clouds was another soundtrack, and also an important piece of work because it presaged the sound of The Dark Side of the Moon (mainly because the band were already working on that album when they recorded these songs). It also contained this song, which introduced lyrical themes that’d dominate subsequent releases — specifically Waters’ burgeoning skepticism of the music industry, along with his childhood and relationship with his father, both of which would inform The Wall, in particular. Like much of Waters’ later work, it’s strikingly dark and misanthropic, both aspects of his output that those who casually dismiss Pink Floyd generally seem to overlook.
We discussed this song a while back when we looked at unfashionable albums that are totally worth your time. We don’t really want to go over old ground again, save to say that “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way” is probably the single best line that Waters ever wrote, and that this song is as fine a depiction as anyone’s ever created of the way life can pass you by if you’re not paying attention.
“Wish You Were Here” (1975)
The epic “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” dominated Wish You Were Here, a sprawling meditation on the rise and decline of Barrett that was made all the more poignant and strange by the fact that the man himself arrived unannounced at the studio during its recording, and was so changed from the person the band remembered that no one recognized him. But really, it’s “Wish You Were Here” — at two verses and a chorus, as opposed to nine parts and 25 minutes — that’s the most simple and ultimately moving tribute to a lost talent.
Pitchfork, bless them, gave Animals a 10.0 when they reviewed it back in 2000. Good. It’s a fucking great record, and even now, is an overlooked piece of the band’s back catalog. It dropped in early 1977, just as punk was setting fire to England, and you can’t help but think that if instead of making T-shirts, Johnny Rotten had just listened to Animals, he would have found plenty to like. The record deals with many of the issues that informed punk — social breakdown, the divide between rich and poor, alienation, boredom, disgust — and does so in the context of a narrative arc based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
“In the Flesh?” (1979)
The Wall came to embody many people’s problems with Pink Floyd — it was undoubtedly overblown and self-absorbed, and also overshadowed to an extent by its accompanying film, which director Alan Parker later denounced as “the most expensive student film ever made.” But while it’s easy to deride rock stars singing about how difficult their lives are, we’ve always thought it was a rather brave decision for Waters to look into the darkness behind rock ‘n’ roll mythology. And given that the music industry is a place that remains rife with self-destruction and dysfunctionality — both exemplified, of course, by one Syd Barrett, amongst others — perhaps there’s something to be said for listening to what The Wall has to say.