Assessing a Legacy: Why Pink Floyd? Reissue Series

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EMI just reissued all 14 albums from Pink Floyd, and we asked writer Stephen M. Deusner to take a look back through the entire four-decade catalog, album-by-album.

Piper At The Gates of Dawn
Rating: 9.5

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this new series of Pink Floyd reissues, which covers every major album over a nearly 40-year period, is the emphasis on the very odd trajectory of the group, which started out and ended up in very different places. Long before they became the bloated juggernaut that restaged The Wall every other year, they were an ambitious London quartet trying to free themselves from rock’s blues-based strictures. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, their 1967 debut, aspires somewhat self-consciously to art, which is just another way to say the band sought something more than just hormonal release in rock ‘n’ roll.

Of course, that could be said of every band from that decade, but by exploring musique concrete and psychedelia, Pink Floyd juxtaposed headlong jams like “Lucifer Sam” with Syd Barrett’s odd pastorals about gnomes and scarecrows. The nursery rhyme images and sing-song melodies jamb up against the noisy discursions of “Interstellar Overdrive,” yet the band—in particular, founding frontman Barrett, who wrote all but one of the tunes here—treat them all as those they emanate from the same troubled brain. That makes Piper less a rock album than a happening, and as such it’s good when it’s on the verge of freaking out and even better when they indulge that urge. As the line-up shifted and Barrett succumbed to an actual mental breakdown, Pink Floyd would rarely flirt so promiscuously with real chaos as they did on this auspicious debut.

A Saucerful of Secrets
Rating: 8.3

Syd Barrett was the creative force on Pink Floyd’s debut, but in the year between Piper and their follow-up in 1968, he was demoted to a merely ancillary member, writing only one song and playing on only a few tracks. New member David Gilmour took over guitar duties, and Roger Waters stepped forward as the band’s primary songwriter. You can hear his influence immediately on “Let There Be More Light,” the shapeshifting opener whose ominous chorus foretells the demonstrative and dramatic heft of Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. Even better is “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” a tense incantation whose power derives from its understatement. The song constantly threatens to explode into interstellar overdrive, but never does; it’s all the more effective for being so insistently coiled. That change in dynamic suggests a much more confident and capable band, yet the various aspects of Saucerful of Secrets never quiet gel the way they do on Piper. It’s a transitional album, made by a band developing at an ambitious rate yet still trying to figure out exactly what this adjusted line-up can do.

Music from the Film More
Rating: 5.9

To follow up A Saucerful of Secrets, Pink Floyd recorded a soundtrack to the first film by Barbet Schroeder, 1969’s More, about recent university grads hitchhiking through Europe and experimenting with heroin. It’s essentially a picaresque, which suits the band surprisingly well: While Pink Floyd isn’t the most grounded band, this soundtrack makes for a good road-trip mixtape, as the shifts in style suggest new locales and the headlong instrumentals evoke the forward momentum of travel. There’s a greater emphasis on acoustic folk tunes like “Cirrus Minor” and “Cymbaline,” although instrumentals like “Main Theme” and “More Blues” are by this point in their career beginning to sound redundant.

Still, More might sound better with, well, more. These reissues are all incredibly stingy with bonus materials, boasting only upgraded packaging and a new remaster that improves only minimally on the 1990s master. While that may preserve the original album sequencing, it makes this particular reissue sound like a missed opportunity. Several of these songs appeared in the film in slightly altered versions, and there were two songs that didn’t make the final soundtrack. Including those tracks and subsequent live performances might have diminished the scattershot quality of More and given some important insight into Pink Floyd’s creative process. Rather than rehabbing or recontextualizing the band’s third album, this edition simply lets it flail.

Ummagumma
Rating: 5.0

Nobody ever mistook Pink Floyd for modest, but their fourth album is rock excess of the worst kind. Ummagumma is a double, of course, with the first disc comprised of live cuts recorded in Birmingham and Manchester and the second devoted to one composition from each member. The live material represents a typical setlist from the late ‘60s and therefore bears some historical curiosity. They draw out “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” nicely, toying with that understated tension as they race toward their destination, but of these four tracks, only “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” sounds truly definitive, although that has the benefit of being a previously unrecorded live staple.

The studio material on the second disc corrals some convoluted suites by drummer—excuse me, percussionist Nick Mason and keyboard player Richard Wright, who aren’t frontmen for a very good reason. Their multi-section compositions meander noisily and pointlessly, with none of the kinetic din of their previous material. Only Roger Waters’ “Grantchester Meadows” strives toward any sort of traditional song structure, yet it segues smoothly into five minutes of animal sounds. Ummagumma is Pink Floyd at their most bloated, although at this point in their careers it’s a very different kind of bloated than The Wall (thematically overstuffed) or A Momentary Lapse of Reason (sonically swollen). Looking for transcendence in synthobirds and what sounds like monkeys cavorting in a Steinway showroom, they mistake aimlessness for import, in the process creating a towering monument to rock self-indulgence.

Atom Heart Mother
Rating: 6.2

Roger Waters and David Gilmour have spent 40 years playing this 1970 album down, labeling it pompous, overblown, embarrassing—a low point in the band’s creative history. They’re not exactly wrong, but they’re not exactly right either. Yes, the album stretches its six-part title track across an entire LP side, and yes, that suite meanders wildly and seemingly without purpose, as though they’re making it up as they go along but getting distracted almost constantly. But “Atom Heart Mother”—all six movements—at the very least shows the band developing and entertaining new ideas, consciously moving away from the space rock label they’d been saddled with. In this case, they cast an orchestra and a choir as the leads, and the horn fanfare and choral harmonies hint at the even more ambitious arrangements throughout that decade.

The second half borrows the least productive idea from Ummagumma and divides songwriting duties among the band. The results are somewhat better, though, and almost uniformly folksy. In particular, Waters’ “If” stands among his best compositions, and with his low vocals and Richard Wright’s breezy piano, the song actually brings to mind Nick Drake’s first two records (trivia: Drake’s producer, Joe Boyd, also helmed Pink Floyd’s first single, “Arnold Layne,” in 1967). Oddly, Pink Floyd never made a full psych-folk album in the vein of “If” and Gilmour’s “Fat Old Sun,” which becomes even more of a shame when they end Atom Heart Mother with “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” a cut-and-paste assemblage of sounds that never coalesces into much of anything.

Meddle
Rating: 8.8

Following the excesses of Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother, Pink Floyd retreat to simply being a band on Meddle, with no distracting orchestras, choirs, or wildlife noises. All but one of the songs is credited to multiple members of the band, suggesting a conscious effort to work as a unit instead of as four individuals, and the change in mission is immediately evident on “One of These Days,” arguably their best opener. Roger Waters’ rumbling bass sutures the song together, generating a sinister momentum that recalls some of their earlier, more streamlined instrumentals. Of course the 20-minute closer doesn’t need to be that long, but there are enough big moments that it never becomes tedious.

The real star of Meddle is David Gilmour, whose guitar shapes most of these songs. He scribbles furiously over “One of These Days,” sketches out crisp blues-based riffs on “Fearless,” and adorns Waters’ jazzbo “St. Tropez” with jazzy licks. His style is multivaried and unpredictable, deploying earthy rhythms and majestic solos with equal command yet never sounding as showy as some of his blues-rock contemporaries. With Gilmour taking a more prominent role, Meddle transitions easily, even gracefully between hurried jams and hushed folk, between loud and quiet, revealing a band finally mastering dynamics and making their best album since The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Obscured by Clouds
Rating: 7.0

Obscured by Clouds isn’t just another Pink Floyd soundtrack. It’s another Pink Floyd soundtrack to another obscure Barbet Schroeder film: 1972’s La Vallée, about Europeans exploring their sexuality while exploring the rainforests of New Guinea. That alone might make the album a somewhat spurious project, especially considering the scattershot More, but just as they did on that soundtrack, Pink Floyd take this opportunity to try out a few new ideas and gently expand their sound. “Free Four” may be their most pop-oriented song since the Syd Barrett years, and “The Gold It’s in the…” sounds like arena-bound blues rock, much more direct and wankier than you might expect from Pink Floyd.

Even those experiments are couched in what is now an unmistakable Pink Floyd: simultaneously heavy and weightless, leaden and spry, spacey and earthy. All those contradictions come to bear on “Childhood’s End” and “Mudmen,” as Richard Wright’s piano moors the song to earth even as David Gilmour’s guitar arcs ever higher skyward. Obscured still sounds a bit patchwork, but every song sounds like it comes from the same band, and while they couldn’t have known it at the time, these songs sound like rehearsals for the biggest album of Pink Floyd’s career.

Dark Side of the Moon
Rating: 10

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Pink Floyd’s eighth album not only in terms of the band’s career but in the history of British rock. Dark Side of the Moon raised them from the prog ghetto and lodged them squarely into the mainstream; whereas once the members had been rock artists, now they were rock stars, and they would try to balance the two for the rest of their careers—often with great results, often not. Likewise, Dark Side cemented an era of excess in the early 1970s, which would prompt the back-to-basics rebellion first of pub rock and then of punk rock. Yet, even forty years later these songs still manage to transcend their genre and era and capture the imagination of subsequent generations of listeners even when they’re not cued up to The Wizard of Oz.

Its popularity is certainly no accident. The album represents a mighty step forward for the band, not only in realizing certain sounds but in conceiving an album as a strictly unified whole wherein every note and noise contributes to the impact of the whole. In that regard, it makes good on the promise of both Schroeder soundtracks in the way it uses music to evoke the visual and explain the narrative—in this case, a growing alienation from contemporary consumerist society. Mapping such madness, “Time” and “Brain Damage” retain their disgust and longing; they cut loose like never before on “Money,” and “Us & Them” is Pink Floyd at their anti-gravity best. Even instrumentals like “On the Run” and “Any Colour You Like” have more purpose than they might have in the past, as essential to the shape of Dark Side of the Moon as any of the vocal-driven songs. For the first time in the band’s career, everything flows and nothing is wasted.

Nothing except this opportunity, that is. Despite the high rating above, the reissue strategy for this album seems both awkward and excessive. The 1xCD version includes only the remastered album, and the 2xCD Experience Edition adds a live disc recorded in 1974. Playing the album in its entirety, Pink Floyd notch a great performance, but don’t take enough liberties with the album to show how malleable the music could be. It’s more a historical document than a revelatory bootleg. And finally, the six-disc Immersion Edition includes that live disc, a collection of demos, a live DVD, and a DVD of alternate mixes by prog legend Alan Parsons and Jim Guthrie (who remastered the catalog for this series). For a band so often accused of overindulgence, this edition is truly monumental—just not in a good way.

Wish You Were Here
Rating: 10

Wish You Were Here really ought to be a more divisive record. Not only is it split into two multi-part suites separated by a few bitter anti-industry rants, but it moves away from the full-band enormity of Dark Side of the Moon and puts a heavy emphasis on Richard Wright’s synths. As a follow-up to one of the definitive albums of the decade, it sounds risky—less reliant on concept than on simple faith that these songs will build into something meaningful and worthwhile.

Do they ever. Reportedly inspired by Syd Barrett’s mental breakdown and by the band’s growing disgust with the music industry, these songs flow together gracefully and naturally, tied together by Wright’s keyboard textures and David Gilmour’s agile lead guitar. They set the tone on opener “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V),” which takes nearly nine minutes to build and resolve before Waters sings his first line. Closing out the album, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts VI-IX)” changes shape fluidly and without fuss, ending on a particularly somber note.

Perhaps more crucially, the personal subject matter humanizes Waters as a singer and lyricist. Previously, he threatened to become the very thing he railed against on songs like “Money”—the wealthy rock star, entrenched in the establishment and foisting his beliefs on his audience—but Barrett softens him considerably and allows him to get outside of himself. On “Welcome to the Machine,” he sings with a palpable desperation, as if he’s walled himself up in this sad world and doesn’t know how to get himself out. Ultimately, there’s a spiritual generosity on Wish You Were Here, a solemnity that gives the music the weight of real tragedy. It may always live in the shadow of Dark Side, but this is Pink Floyd at their most humane, their most poignant, their most effortlessly affecting.

Animals
Rating: 6.4

Especially after Wish You Were Here, which was inspired by former frontman Syd Barrett’s mental collapse, Animals sounds almost defensively conceptual. It’s reportedly based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which makes a perfect filter for some of Roger Waters’ most cynical lyrics. The seventeen-minute “Dogs” is almost ugly in its bitterness, but at least there’s a fine synth solo by Richard Wright and some fine guitar fanfares by David Gilmour. And “Sheep” contains one of Pink Floyd’s most patently ridiculous moments: a self-serious recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. When Waters incants “He converteth me to lamb cutlets,” the whole album folds in on itself. What works on the pages of a book doesn’t necessarily translate to an arena stage.

As the ‘70s bore on, Pink Floyd had more and more problems related to its unprecedented success: squabbles between band members, squabbles between band members’ wives and girlfriends, Wright’s painful divorce, and a new generation of punks targeting the band as bloated and pretentious. It’s not surprise, then, that Animals is such a distracted album, despite the inspired playing by Wright and Gilmour. These songs sound exploratory, less like the spiritual quests of their early psychedelic material and more like a rough draft. Pink Floyd are trying to figure out exactly what they want to say, but Animals sounds like a statement album without much of a statement.

Great album art, though.

The Wall
Rating: 5.4

For decades, The Wall has been a dorm-room staple inspiring amateur theorists and pot-addled deconstructionists to decipher its strange narrative and pull apart its metaphors brick by brick. Its continued popularity is odd, however, considering the album is Roger Waters at his most solipsistic and self-pitying. Exploring the horrible problems facing wealthy rock stars, The Wall too often sounds like a laundry list of those who’ve wronged him over the years: his dead father, his overbearing mother, his strict teachers, his wife, even the fans who bought records and went wild at shows. He’s hardly a sympathetic protagonist, especially since he’s so hostile and condescending toward his own audience.

So much of The Wall is bloated and preposterous, from the joyless screed of “Another Brick in the Wall (Part Two)” to the blindly Oedipal “Mother.” The fourth side takes the album to histrionic heights, as Waters stages his own trial before a wormlike judiciary and nearly kills the rock opera as an art form stone dead. Still, there are some truly inspired songs hiding on this double album: “Goodbye Blue Sky” sounds like someone’s last lonely breath, and “Comfortably Number” evokes a narcotized state with no showy gimmickry, just David Gilmour’s guitar tracers and Water’s anti-gravity melody. But such moments are strangled by the overwrought concept and execution. For all its baroque self-absorption, there’s almost no self-searching on The Wall.

The Final Cut
Rating: 7.8

“What have we done, Maggie… what have we done to England?” That’s Roger Waters singing on “The Post War Dream,” the opening volley on Pink Floyd’s twelfth album, The Final Cut. “Maggie” is, of course, Margaret Thatcher, who—along with Reagan, Haig, Brezhnev, and a “the ghost of Nixon”—had led England astray. Reportedly inspired by the country’s involvement in the Falkland Wars, it’s the most overtly political statement in the band’s career, which lends the song an immediacy that, strangely, hasn’t diminished twenty-eight years later.

The songs on The Final Cut grew out of the sessions for The Wall and overlaps in style and subject matter. It’s a concept album about the death of Waters’ father at the siege of Anzio, Italy, which comprised merely a few fragmented chapters in the previous album. Often dismissed as Waters’ solo album, The Final Cut is much more modest than The Wall, not least because David Gilmour’s guitar is given such a small role and keyboard player Richard Wright is entirely absent. That means the music tends to be either startlingly anonymous or cluttered with sound effects. Still, at a mere thirteen tracks on one LP, it’s much more compact and digestible, and Waters keeps the narrative focused, the stakes high, and the lyrics often disarmingly direct.

If it all comes back to that father-shaped hole in Waters’ psyche, then at least The Final Cut has a greater emotional impact than The Wall, mostly because he is so much more willing to get outside of himself and see the world through someone else’s eyes, which pitches the album at a very human level. Waters may still be wallowing, but ultimately he knows there’s so much power in a man—even a rock star—gauging the measure of human life: “Was it for this that Daddy died?” That question lingers even after the music fades.

A Momentary Lapse of Reason
Rating: 3.9

Following their 1983 flop The Final Cut, the members of Pink Floyd clashed more than they collaborated, recording a number of largely forgotten solo albums and fighting in the high court over the use of the band name. Waters left the group and sued the other members to keep them recording and touring as Pink Floyd. He lost, and David Gilmour assumed the role of frontman, brought in lyricist Anthony Moore, and a squadron of session musicians for 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason. In retrospect, should we blame the courts?

Lapse is a slog: bloated, pompous, joyless, undeserving of the Pink Floyd label. Even failures like Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother sound spirited and adventurous by comparison. Where once their din was subversive, these songs show a band that has become a lumbering, small-brained dinosaur. With no outlandish theme to shape the album or give weight to the lyrics, Lapse sounds big yet empty, like that pig balloon flying over their concerts. “The Dogs of War” only mimics the thumping blues rock of previous album, so it plays less as a rousing anthem than as a weak rebuke to Waters’ anti-war concept albums. “On the Turning Away” could have been a lovely hymn in the manner of “Wish You Were Here,” but instead it’s overburdened with synths, a gospel choir, and a tedious guitar solo. Nearly twenty-five years later, Lapse has aged the most gracelessly of all the Pink Floyd release. It sounds like an incredibly expensive 80s album, and all the remastering in the world can’t help that.

The Division Bell
Rating: 6.1

The lack of an overarching concept—some big, bizarre them to tie everything together—doomed Pink Floyd’s first album without founding member and main idea man Roger Waters. Seven years after A Momentary Lapse of Reason begat the band its most expensive flop, self-appointed frontman David Gilmour finally devised a good concept for an album, and that concept is, Screw you, Roger Waters. Most of these songs re-examine the psychic toll of the endless squabbles over the Pink Floyd name and catalog, and at times the recrimination curdles into petty bitterness for being so one-sided. Mostly, however, it gives The Division Bell its considerable bite, and while Gilmour no doubt intends his lyrics to be extremely serious, there’s no small amount of campy cattiness: “Did you know… it was all going to go so wrong for you?” he gloats on “Poles Apart.” “And did you see it was all going to be so right for me?”

Musically, The Division Bell recalls the blurred-edge psychedelia of Dark Side of the Moon, only less bold and more blurred. Finally settling in as the new Pink Floyd frontman, Gilmour shirks his guitar responsibilities, reverting to a bland blues-rock style that renders his solos thoroughly anonymous. That could be anyone riffing through “What Do You Want from Me” and “Marooned.” Tempering his timidity is Richard Wright, whose keyboards give these songs their shape and size. Sidelined for years with personal problems (he was technically not even a member of Pink Floyd during the Lapse sessions), Wright asserts himself as an essential part of the band, tying songs like “Keep Talking” and “Poles Apart” back to the band’s ‘70s heyday.

The Division Bell may boast a heightened dynamic between its remaining members, but it still comes across as open-ended and unresolved. Gilmour’s hostility toward his former bandmate leads to no firm conclusion, no great realization about the nature of their relationship. In other words, it doesn’t sound like a final chapter, but a midpoint in an ongoing story. Looking back, it’s surprising that the band has subsisted on subpar live albums and reissues over the past seventeen years, and that paltry output makes this Why Pink Floyd? series all the more disappointing. The band has such a large archive of rarities, outtakes, and unreleased rarities that bootlegs of excellent quality easily outnumber their studio albums. Hopefully, these stingy editions won’t cap the life of Pink Floyd but enable a deeper exploration of their catalog, which remains as vital today as ever.

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