Pink Floyd (named after two obscure American bluesmen, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council) formed in Cambridge in 1964 as a six-piece group of Syd Barrett, Nick Mason, Roger Waters, Rick Wright, Bob Klose, and vocalist Chris Dennis.
Dennis left early in 1965 and Klose followed him that summer, which left the band as a quartet.
The debut single Arnold Layne – famously banned by liberal anti-establishment pirate station Radio London for its dubious lyrical content about a transvestite kleptomaniac – had given the Floyd a minor hit, but it was See Emily Play in June 1967 that removed them from their natural constituency of the London underground and into the realms of Top Of The Pops and package tours.
The song, inspired by Lord Kennet’s ‘psychedelic schoolgirl’ daughter and UFO club regular, Emily Young, gave the band’s contemporaries an object lesson in how to weld psychedelic experimentation with irresistible pop hooks.
Pink Floyd’s first album, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, was released on 5 August 1967. The title, chosen by leader Syd Barrett, came from Kenneth Graham’s children’s novel, Wind In The Willows.
The album, clearly heavily influenced by Barrett, is textbook British psychedelia: weird, ingenious pop songs and freewheeling instrumentals crammed with experiments in dissonance and feedback.
Not long after the album was released, Syd Barrett began to show increasing signs of damage caused (so it was believed) by his over-indulgence in the psychedelic drug LSD. He became totally unpredictable and somewhat unreliable, to the point where Roger Waters invited guitarist David Gilmour to join the band.
The idea was to allow Barrett to concentrate on writing songs while Gilmour assumed his role on stage.
After about three months it became clear that this arrangement was unworkable and in April 1968, Pink Floyd parted company with their erratic leader.
When Pink Floyd played an outdoor concert at London’s Crystal Palace Bowl in 1970, they played so loud that their music killed most of the fish in the lake in front of the natural amphitheatre’s stage.
But what can you expect from a band who seriously name a song Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict ? (This song appears on Ummagumma – The album which is seemingly based on the principle that bands are often at their best when they don’t know what it is they are doing . . .)
In March 1973, their The Dark Side Of The Moon album was released to mixed reviews. The album was deliberately gloomy, a thematically linked homage to the problems of everyday life.
The band had gathered in drummer Nick Mason’s kitchen to compile a shortlist of things that bothered them – time, money, madness, death – and then wedded those subjects to vaguely funky rock compositions which they toured for a year under the title Eclipse – A Piece For Assorted Lunatics.
Recorded over eight months on Abbey Road’s then unused 24-track facility, Eclipse became The Dark Side Of The Moon, making much of sound effects and spoken sound bites. Although the suite was excellently constructed and engaging (if not exactly entertaining) it couldn’t be described as another Sgt Pepper or Electric Ladyland.
In fact, even the band couldn’t put a finger on what made it so special, and yet it spent over 14 years in the US album charts and sold over 25 million copies worldwide. The album went interstellar when parent company Capitol turned one of the tracks, Money, into a rare Floyd hit.
When it finally came out on CD, one factory in Germany pressed nothing else for several months. This record alone transformed the Floyd into a big league creative force and remains The Concept Album against which all others are judged.
The track Money had to be censored before it could be aired on American radio. The line “don’t give me that goody-good bullshit” was edited for radio and the offending word removed.
Wish You Were Here (1975) opened with the multi-tracked whir of wine glass rims circled with moistened fingers, leading into Shine On You Crazy Diamond, possibly the Floyd’s single greatest moment, complete with David Gilmour’s album-defining four-note guitar figure. Its nine parts bookend the record, a majestic 25-minute eulogy to departed leader, Syd Barrett.
Barrett’s unexpected arrival in the studio during a recording session chimed with the thread of quiet desperation that haunted the album; no one recognised the fat, bald man who slipped into the control room.
The album shot to No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic and turned the group into an even bigger number-crunching stadium-sized commodity.
In 1976, the shoot for the cover photo of their Animals LP went horribly wrong when a 40ft helium-filled inflatable pig slipped its moorings and floated off above the London skyline. The city’s airports warned pilots to be careful of a huge flying pig, and after one sighting at 20,000 feet over the Kent coast (50 miles from London), the plastic animal was never seen or heard of again.
The Wall, released in 1980, became Britain’s Number 1 album and hit the top of the US charts as the band began its world tour – not exactly the most gruelling of schedules, the band played just four locations; New York, Los Angeles, Dusseldorf and London. During their spectacular show, a 30ft wall was built across the stage and dismantled brick by brick as the band played on.
The review in Rolling Stone magazine described the show as “an enormously impressive testament to a band that doesn’t mind playing second fiddle to a lot of white blocks”.
During the mixing of The Wall in LA, producer Bob Ezrin realised he needed some crowd sounds and, since Rockpile were playing at the Hollywood Palladium that night, he and Roger Waters slipped in the back door and asked to “borrow” the audience for a quick taping. Unfortunately, the audience were not obliging . . .
When the Emcee announced Floyd’s name and asked for cheers he got scattered boos. And when he called for a hearty chant of “Pink Floyd” he got a massive “Fuck you!” back from the Rockpile audience.
1983’s The Final Cut proved to be prophetically titled as the group suddenly fell apart at the seams with Roger Waters making his famous acrimonious departure. Nonetheless, the track Not Now John hit number 30 in the UK charts, only the bands fifth hit single in 16 years of making records.
The Mayor of Venice (Italy) was forced to resign after the city was mobbed by 200,000 Pink Floyd fans attending a free concert in 1989. The damage to just one pair of Renaissance columns alone cost $46,000.
On 2 July 2005 the unthinkable happened and four ageing Englishmen who hadn’t played on the same stage for 24 years reunited for a four-song set that was the musical highlight of the Live 8 concert.
Putting aside long-standing grudges, for a brief 18 minutes and a good cause, Pink Floyd were back and sounding like they had never been away.
There was one former member who wasn’t at Hyde Park that day; Floyd’s original guitarist and creative mainspring Syd Barrett. A year later Barrett was dead from pancreatic cancer.
Keyboard player Richard ‘Rick’ Wright died on 15 September 2008, also following a battle with cancer. He was 65.