Their sound is timeless - an exotic, trance-inducing throb, fortified by soaring guitars, ethereal organ swells and airy vocal harmonies. That it is instantly recognizable is hardly surprising, for after 25 years of unmatched creativity and over 140 million records sold world-wide, Pink Floyd have become an indelible part of rock history.
And now, after a five year absence, the band that launched a thousand trips returns with a powerful new release, following it with a dazzlingly innovative stadium tour. Recorded on guitarist David Gilmour's houseboat on the Thames, THE DIVISION BELL is a sophisticated meditation on what happens when human beings fail to communicate. More than a concept album, the record resonates with deeply felt universal themes: the inevitable isolation of individual consciousness, the inexhaustible desire for communion, and, finally, the very real possibility of transcendence brought on by shimmering moments of grace.
"Our last album, A Momentary Lapse of Reason , was intended to show the world, 'Look, we're still here.' Consequently, it was very loud and crash-bangy," says Gilmour. "The new album is much more reflective, and as such I personally like it more than anything we've done since Wish You Were Here ."
Like the band's very best efforts, THE DIVISION BELL features a perfect blend of melodic, acoustic-driven ballads ("Poles Apart"), majestic instrumentals ("Marooned"), high drama ("Keep Talking") and, of course, plenty of the band's exquisitely atmospheric ensemble playing. Gilmour's vocals also plumb a new emotional depth, reflecting bittersweet lessons learned, no doubt, while playing in one of rock's greatest and most volatile bands.
It all started in 1966, amid the psychedelic explosion then sweeping swinging London. In small, smoky clubs like the UFO and the Roundhouse, Syd Barrett, Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Rick Wright galvanized the vibrant British rock scene with their extended free-form instrumentals and surreal pop songs -- all performed to the accompaniment of bobbing blobs of multicolored liquid lights. Perhaps even more than Cream and Jimi Hendrix, the quartet known as The Pink Floyd were psychedelia personified.
"We started out playing rhythm and blues, but after Syd joined the band our direction changed," recalls keyboardist Rick Wright. "The music became more improvised, which suited me because I didn't like R&B much. I was a jazz fan."
By the end of the following year, the four satin-shirted darlings of England's counter-culture became budding pop stars, scoring two British top 20 singles, "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play," and a top 10 album, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.
But not all was well within the Pink Floyd camp. It soon became apparent to anyone close to the band that Syd Barrett, the band's innovative, brilliant young songwriter/singer/guitarist, was slowly losing his grip on reality. Some blamed his increasingly erratic behavior on drugs -- Barrett's LSD intake at that time was excessive by any standard. Others pointed to the general pressures of success. Whatever the cause of their leader's disintegration, by the end of 1967, the future of Pink Floyd looked bleak.
David Gilmour, an old school friend of the troubled guitarist, was drafted to help the band complete their second album, 1968's Saucerful of Secrets.
While the Pink Floyd sound was unquestionably invented by Barrett, it was Gilmour and his lyrical, blues-based guitar work which provided the new Pink Floyd with the sonic signature that would carry them into the Seventies.
"Originally, the idea wasn't to kick Syd out of the band," explains drummer Nick Mason. "We wanted to arrange something similar to what the Beach Boys were doing with Brian Wilson at the time, where we'd go out and play live, and Syd would stay home and write." But that plan was short-lived, and soon Barrett was out of the band.
"Initially, they hired me to play Syd's parts and sing his songs," elaborates Gilmour. "Nobody else wanted to sing them, so I got elected. While all this was happening, we were also trying to make Saucer Full Of Secrets. When I joined I remember thinking that they were actually a bit of a shambles, and that I could knock them into shape, because I considered myself to be a superior musician. I loved the first album, but the early gigs were pretty interminable."
With Gilmour firmly in the ranks, the band continued to explore rock's more avant-garde pastures. While subsequent albums and film soundtracks like Antonioni's Zabriskie Point expanded the band's international audience, it was 1971's Meddle and the now-legendary Dark Side Of The Moon (1973) that finally transformed Pink Floyd into a major force in contemporary music.
"Meddle is really the album where all four of us were finding our feet -the way we wanted Pink Floyd to be," says Gilmour. "Although our two previous albums, Ummagumma (1969)and Atom Heart Mother (1970) had some pointers to where we would finally go, they just aren't as important."
"Meddle was the first real Pink Floyd album," agrees Mason. "It set a tempo, a feel and style that we liked, and it introduced the idea of the theme that can be returned to. It sounds a bit ham-fisted now, but the concept thing I like."
"The concept thing," introduced so effectively on Meddle, came to brilliant fruition on the band's very next release. Described by band members as a "meditation on the strain and stress of everyday life," Dark Side Of The Moon would sell over 28 million albums worldwide, become the third largest selling album of all time, and remain on Billboard's album chart for 15 years, eclipsing all previous records.
Meticulously recorded and distinctively packaged, the genuinely experimental Dark Side Of The Moon crystallized Pink Floyd's new sound and set their agenda for future albums and tours. The group established themselves as the champions of progressive rock -- and the masters of music technology. Lyrics exploring alienation, madness and death were set to intricate instrumental passages, cunning sound effects and the whir of sci-fi synthesizers. It was a formula that would serve Pink Floyd well on their next three releases: Wish You Were Here (1975), Animals (1977) and The Wall (1979).
"Dark Side Of The Moon was the first time when the music, the lyrics and the visual design all came together," says Gilmour. "And to an extent, I think it's success was problematic. You have objectives, goals and desires, and suddenly they were all achieved. We were left with that feeling of 'What do you do when you've done everything?' But I think we got over that."
The next two Floyd albums were sketched out in several marathon sessions conducted in 1974, at which three long pieces were composed. Two of these eventually appeared as "Sheep" and "Dogs" on the 1976 Animals album; the other, "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," was used as the central theme for their next release, Wish You Were Here (1975). This time the subject was personal -- the album was a song cycle dedicated to their original guiding light, Syd Barrett, whose mental illness had forced him into seclusion.
"For me," explains Gilmour, "Wish You Were Here was very satisfying. I'd rather listen to it than Dark Side Of The Moon. I think we achieved a better balance of music and lyrics. 'Dark Side' went a bit too far the other way -- too much importance was placed on the lyrics. And sometimes the tunes were neglected."
The 1975 sessions were also memorable for other, more bizarre, reasons: "It was the weirdest coincidence," recalls Rick Wright. "I walked into the studio and Roger was working on 'Shine On,' and I saw this big, bald guy sitting on the couch behind him. I didn't think anything of it, because strangers were always turning up in the studio in those days. And then it clicked. It was Syd -- none of us has seen him in five years. He kept getting up, brushing his teeth with a toothbrush he had in his pocket and sitting down again. After that, he just disappeared again."
As Pink Floyd's concepts grew more complex, their stage show became increasingly elaborate. Concerts regularly featured slide/light shows, animated films and a giant inflated jet that crashed into the stage. But the very stage show that was considered a band hallmark was fast turning into a source of frustration for the group's lyricist and conceptual director, Roger Waters. Pink Floyd concerts, Waters felt, had lost their intimacy and power to communicate.
Ironically, Water's discontent fueled the band's biggest the concept album to date, The Wall. Simply put, the complex double-album set explored the relationship, or lack of one, between the star performer and his audience.
"I liked Roger's story line," says Gilmour. "Although I didn't totally agree with it, you've got to let a chap have his vision. I just had a different view of our relationship with our audience than Roger did. He didn't like touring and felt there was no connection between him and the audience. I had a different view of it; I still do."
Despite growing philosophical disagreements within the band, The Wall went on to sell 20 million copies worldwide and spawned a Number One single, the anti-authoritarian anthem, "Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2." The stage show for the subsequent tour, one of the most ambitiously theatrical the rock world had ever seen, was subsequently made into a film by director Alan Parker, with Bob Geldof starring as the mad rock dictator, Pink.
The album's success unfortunately fanned the flames of the band's disintegration. By the early Eighties, the group had virtually dissolved into an association of solo artists, with each member pursuing individual projects. The Final Cut, recorded in 1983, was -- not surprisingly -- a somewhat dispirited affair. "It was really Roger's solo album," says Mason. "The rest of us just sort of drifted into it."
Two years and one solo album later, Waters announced that he was leaving the band. Waters' departure sparked a creative renaissance among the remaining three members, resulting in another Floyd classic, A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987). The album was universally hailed as a return to form, delighting even die-hard Floyd fans. Pulling out all the stops, the trio hit the road with yet another live extravaganza, documented by 1988's Delicate Sound of Thunder. Both albums combined sold over 11 million copies, with the live set achieving the distinction of becoming the first rock album to be played in outer space by the crew of the Soviet-French Soyuz-7 mission.
"The album and the tour were a rehabilitative process for all of us," says Gilmour. "When the three of us sit down and play, it sounds like Pink Floyd. There's a very distinct value in that, which was important for me to discover. There's something bigger than any one person's ego."
The band's new album, THE DIVISION BELL, represents a return to those cooperative group principles which disappeared in the late Seventies. In the beginning of 1993, Gilmour, Mason and Wright spent two weeks improvising together, compiling nearly 50 song ideas. The next step was to enlist producer Bob Ezrin, who had helped pound The Wall and A Momentary Lapse of Reason into shape. The result? Perhaps the most achingly beautiful album of their long career.
Joining the Pink Floyd triumvirate on THE DIVISION BELL are several guest musicians, including Tim Renwick (guitars and vocals), Guy Pratt (bass guitar and vocals), Gary Wallis (percussion) and Jon Carin (keyboards and vocals); backing vocalists are Durga McBroom, Sam Browne and Claudia Fontaine. The new release also marks the return of Dick Parry, who played saxophone on Dark Side Of The Moon .
It may be, as Gilmour dryly asserts, that Pink Floyd have "not all that
much to prove anymore." Then there is Mason's view that "the madness is
still rampant. There is still everything to play for." Whatever the case
may be, it's good to hear that--as the band's illustrious past forms a
billowing cloud around the promise of an even more exciting future--the
members of Pink Floyd have never sounded so confidently, and radiantly,