Pink Floyd

Courtesy of the Rock Hall Library and Archive
1996
Category:
Performers
Performers:
  • Syd Barrett
  • David Gilmour
  • Nick Mason
  • Roger Waters
  • Richard Wright

Pink Floyd were the architects of two major music movements—psychedelic space-rock and blues-based progressive rock—and became known for their biting political, social and emotional commentary.

With 1973's Dark Side Of The Moon and 1979's The Wall, the band created two of the most ambitious (and best-selling) albums of all time—and underscored that personal torment could resonate on a massive level.

Biography

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Future Pink Floyd members Roger Waters, David Gilmour and Syd Barrett were schoolmates in Cambridge, England. And although the latter two played guitar together casually for years—in fact, both were busted busking during a sojourn to San Tropez—their respective tenures in Pink Floyd barely overlapped.

In fact, Gilmour replaced his long-time friend in the band in 1968: Barrett sadly was a casualty of the era's LSD experimentation, a brilliant songwriter and performer whose unstable behavior was becoming a detriment to the group. He eventually released several solo albums and then retreated from the public eye.

Still, both configurations of Pink Floyd did wonders to advance rock music. The Barrett-era group specialized in zonked-out space rock with shuddering psychedelic overtones and ominous grooves—and had immersive, powerful concerts to match.

Post-Barrett, Pink Floyd kept the unease, menace and guitar drone from their psychedelic era, but paired it with conceptual rigor and influences from hard and progressive rock. With 1973's Dark Side Of The Moon and 1979's The Wall, the band created two of the most ambitious—and best-selling—albums of all time.

Pink Floyd's roots were far humbler. In 1965, Barrett and Waters met drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist Richard Wright and formed a band. With Barrett at the creative helm, 1967's The Piper At The Gates of Dawn and 1968's A Saucerful Of Secrets reflected the burgeoning London psychedelic scene, where Pink Floyd had taken up residence at the Marquee Club and other hip enclaves and events. Yet despite the band's reputation for trippy sprawl, Barrett also had an ear for pop: In fact, the compact, non-album singles "See Emily Play" and "Arnold Layne" were both U.K. hits.

In the immediate wake of Barrett's departure, Pink Floyd kept up their meandering psychedelic ways on 1969's Ummagumma and 1970's obtuse Atom Heart Mother. 1971's Meddle was a turning point, however, where the hallmarks of the band's commercially successful sound—free-floating guitars suspended in more ambient, keyboard-burnished arrangements—first coalesced.

Pink Floyd hit their stride on 1973's The Dark Side Of The Moon. A somber meditation on mortality, capitalism and madness, the album was at turns both defiant and emotionally bereft—polar opposites exemplified by the sleazy blues of "Money" and the saxophone- and piano-augmented emotional dirge "Us and Them." The LP became one of the defining records of the '70s (if not classic rock in general) and stayed on the Billboard album charts for nearly 15 years.

Dark Side Of The Moon's album artwork—a ray of light refracted through a pyramid-shaped prism to reveal a rainbow—also became one of the most recognizable LP covers ever. Pink Floyd's visuals and musical presentations always went hand-in-hand, with dazzling light shows and elaborate stage constructions becoming a staple of their live concerts.

1975's Wish You Were Here was preoccupied with emotional (and physical) distance and alienation, and spawned more classic songs—including the acoustic guitar-driven title track and an extended elegy to Barrett, "Shine On You Crazy Diamond." 1977's Animals was more gnarled and progressive, which set the stage for the Waters-penned 1979 magnum opus, The Wall. Incredibly, this double album—featuring the No. 1 hit "Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2" and the soaring, dream-like "Comfortably Numb"—topped Dark Side Of The Moon in terms of sales and influence.

A concept record driven by the emotional imprisonment and isolation of a character named Pink, The Wall describes a dystopian society oppressed by war, brainwashing education, the government, entertainment and even personal demons. To underscore the themes, Pink Floyd's concerts in support of The Wall featured a literal wall built in front of them as they performed the album—a dramatic spectacle that brought even more popularity.

After The Wall, growing fissures within the band became insurmountable. Wright had taken a diminished role prior to the album, while Waters left the group and broke up Pink Floyd after 1983's The Final Cut.

A series of contentious legal battles followed, which eventually cleared the way for a Gilmour-led iteration of Pink Floyd which also featured Mason and Wright. This lineup produced 1987's Momentary Lapse of Reason—an LP containing the sterling "Learning To Fly"—and 1994's The Division Bell.

Gilmour, Mason, Waters and Wright did reunite in 2005 for a 20-minute set at Live 8. Sadly, Barrett died in 2006, and Wright died of cancer in 2008. The latter's passing especially affected Gilmour—and after 2012's The Endless River, Pink Floyd was effectively put to rest.

In recent times, Roger Waters has also revived The Wall for live tours. That led to Mason and Gilmour popping up (the latter literally, above the built wall) to perform "Comfortably Numb" at a 2011 London gig. Still, each member is content to do their own thing musically—which works out well since Pink Floyd's legacy is alive and well in countless modern bands, from the Flaming Lips to Spiritualized.