April 18 – The Eyes Of Pink Floyd

His art took the music world by “storm.” Today we look at a “behind the scenes” type personality who passed away last decade after quietly shaping the music world of our lives. Storm Thorgerson passed away from cancer on this day in 2013. He was 69 years old.

Thorgerson wasn’t exactly a household name. But he had a hand in some of the best-known music of the ’70s through ’90s and was even sometimes referred to as the “fifth member of Pink Floyd.” Not bad for a guy who said he didn’t know one end of a guitar from the other.

Thorgerson was a graphic artist who has made a number of rock’s best known album covers and some of the videos that brought the music to our ears through the TV screen. He grew up in Middlesex, England and went to a school I imagine a lot of our readers would have liked to have gone to. While he was there, Syd Barrett and Roger Waters both attended as well; his family and Waters knew each other and he and Roger played rugby together. Meanwhile, David Gilmour hung around as well and became friends with the others. Thorgerson remembers them as being a little unusual (Barrett especially) but “They’re not as weird as hell,” he told Guitar World, speaking in the present tense about their youth some fifty years earlier. “They have the usual set of passions, but they also have a drive and talent obviously.” And while he first was friends with Waters, he left little doubt as to whom he figured was the epicenter of Pink Floyd’s greatness later on. “I think Dave (Gilmour) lent them a sense of musicianship that helped them to be very successful,” he pointed out.

While the others took off to college and formed Pink Floyd, Storm went off to get a master’s degree in visual arts from the Royal College of Art. Once he completed that, he helped form a graphic arts firm called Hipgnosis, which did visuals for any number of clients. None more famously though than his friends in Pink Floyd. Not only did he create the majority of their album covers and associated art, including Meddle, Animals and most famously the iconic pyramid-and-prism for Dark Side of the Moon, he hung out with them so much the trio of Waters, Gilmour and Nick Wright included him in discussions when figuring out what to do with Syd Barrett when his behavior became detrimental to the band.

Gilmour and Storm became particularly close, with Thorgerson being the best man at the guitarist’s wedding. Gilmour says of Storm’s artwork, “his ideas are not linked to anyone’s idea of marketing… they are atmospherically linked to the music.” And upon his passing away, Gilmour spoke of Storm, the man: “(he was) a constant force in my life, both at work and in private, a shoulder to cry on and a great friend.”

As much as he was in with Pink Floyd and made our image of the “look” of that band, he didn’t limit himself to working on their LP covers. Through the years he did the covers for instantly-recognizable albums like AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds…, Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat, no less than 10 different albums for Alan Parsons including Eye in the Sky and Pyramid, as well as albums by 10CC, Bad Company, Led Zeppelin and later on, the Cranberries and Blinker the Star just to name a few. Although many were drawn or painted images, he said “I like photography, because it’s a reality medium” but adding “I like to mess with reality… to bend reality” with his designs.

Little surprise that such a visually-oriented guy would shift gears in the ’80s, when music videos came to the forefront. When Hipgnosis folded in ’83, he turned his attention to producing videos for most of the rest of the decade and came up with ones including Paul Young’s “Wherever I Lay My Hat”, Nik Kershaw’s hits “The Riddle” and “Wouldn’t It Be Good?”, Glass Tiger’s “Thin Red Line” and of course, Pink Floyd’s “Learning to Fly.”

Prog magazine now has an award given to the best packaging for a musical product. They call it the Storm Thorgerson Grand Design Award. Fittingly, Storm himself won the award in 2012, the last year before he passed away.

April 8 – Pink Floyd Rises Up To Red Bear

It was a big week for Pink Floyd 28 years back, with their 1994 album The Division Bell debuting on British charts at #1. It was a momentous moment for them and their fans too. It was only the second one for the band since their acrimonious split with Roger Waters and it came a full six-and-a-half years after their previous album, A Momentary Lapse of Reason. In the years between, Waters had put out two solo records and kept them all busy in court suing over the use of the name “Pink Floyd.”

Unlike some of the previous Floyd albums, this one was put together rather easily and convivially, with most of the recording being done on David Gilmour’s large houseboat. He, keyboardist Richard Wright and drummer Nick Mason, as well as Bob Ezrin (who co-produced it with Gilmour) recorded it at a leisurely pace while Gilmour’s girlfriend, journalist/novelist Polly Samson joined them and co-wrote a good chunk of the lyrics with her beau. The general, loose theme of it all was “communications,” or generally interpreted to be that, although Rolling Stone pointed to “lyrics so opaque and inert, one cannot hope to plumb their meaning.” Mason suggested the album was about “people making choices, yeas and nays” while Gilmour bristled at suggestions that seemingly prickly songs like “Poles Apart” were aimed at his former bandmate. “People can invent and relate reasons in their personal was,” he said but insisted he wasn’t “conjuring Roger up.”

The album had their trademark superb craftsmanship and playing, and the usual share of Pink Floyd quirks and flourishes, like using a sample of Stephen Hawking speaking on the song “Keep Talking.” Mason loved how it “feels more homemade (than the previous album)…a band playing together in one space.” The easy-going feel didn’t win over critics that well though. Entertainment Weekly gave it a “D” and Rolling Stone a so-so 2.5-stars. They cited it having an OK “quieter, more contemplative mood” than most of the band’s efforts but thought it “seems to cry out for someone with an over-riding zeal, a passion…in short, a nettlesome overbearing visionary like Roger Waters.”

Fans didn’t care much though. Apart from spending a month at #1 in the UK, it topped charts in the U.S., Canada, Australia and a good chunk of Europe, and sold seven million worldwide – not Dark Side of the Moon territory (and actually fewer than the predecessor despite doing better in the States) and far from a flop. It also landed them a rare British top 30 single, with “Take it Back”, one of two major rock radio hits off it in North America, “Keep Talking” being the other. They then toured in a big way… and more or less disappeared. Fans assumed that was the final cut for Pink Floyd, a sense heightened with the death of Wright in 2008. So imagine the surprise when yesterday we found out there was a new Pink Floyd single – “Hey, Hey Rise Up!.”

It would take a lot to get Gilmour to dust off the old “Pink Floyd” name, something important… something like the unprovoked attack of Ukraine by Russia and the subsequent war now unfolding. Gilmour was irate for general and personal reasons. It hits close to home, he says because “my daughter-in-law Janina is Ukrainian. Her grandmother was in Kharkiv until three weeks ago. She’s very old, disabled, in a wheelchair.” Thankfully, Janina and family were able to get grandma out and to Sweden, but it highlighted the human toll of the war to Gilmour.

As well, he saw Ukranian rock singer Andriy Khlyvnyuk in a video, dressed in military garb, holding a rifle, singing a traditional Ukrainian protest song (translated as “The Red Viburnum Of The Meadow”) in front of a Kiev cathedral. Gilmour knew Khlyvnyuk, having performed at a British benefit concert together in 2015. “I thought ‘that is pretty magical’…maybe I can do something. I’ve got a pretty big platform (the name Pink Floyd) …it’s a really difficult and frustrating thing to see this extraordinary, crazy attack by a major power on an independant, peaceful democratic nation.” So he called up Nick Mason and said “listen, I want to do this thing for the Ukraine. I’d be really happy if you played on it.” Mason didn’t hesitate. So they took the audio of the Ukrainian song and created music to back it, showing both that Roger Waters didn’t have the monopoly about caring about world affairs and that Gilmour can still play some pretty dazzling guitar when he feels like it. The video went out this week and the song is available for download on major platforms, with all proceeds going to Ukrainian humanitarian causes. A little thing, but a pretty good use of his “big platform,” we think.

February 22 – Hurricane Stormed Onto Charts Just In Time For 50th Birthday

Not many musicians only enter the fray and take the musical world by storm within sight of their 50th birthday, but that’s what Hurricane Smith did in 1972. Or appeared to. Of course, Norman Smith, who was born this day back in 1923, had been a veteran of decades of music by then and had been associated with some massive hits long before he had one of his own.

Smith was born near London and was of age to serve in WWII, being trained as an Air Force pilot. He loved music, and after the war, took to the trumpet, being an aspiring jazz musician. But that never took off, so in 1959, he applied to EMI Records (lying about his age because he figured he’d be seen as too old) and got hired on as an intern, soon becoming a well-respected studio engineer of theirs…at Abbey Road studios. Thus, he knew the Beatles back before the masses did.

Norman, described as “smartly dressed and politely-spoken” remembers seeing the Beatles for the first time. He said “I couldn’t believe what louts they looked, with their funny haircuts!”. Nonetheless, he and the Fab Four hit it off, particularly him and John, who nicknamed him “Normal Norman.” So too did he and the younger producer the Beatles got, George Martin. Martin relied on Smith to get the sounds he wanted out of the boys’ instruments and onto tape. Smith would go on to be in on recording of over a hundred Beatles songs, through Rubber Soul, and was tasked with remixing most of the early mono recordings into stereo.

He was perhaps a wee bit too good; his time working with what was by then the world’s biggest group (as well as Gerry and the Pacemakers) was cut short by EMI who decided that he should be promoted, and become a record producer himself. That worked out quite well too though. Soon after that he saw a new band in a show and was blown away. That band was Pink Floyd. “What I saw absolutely amazed me,” he told interviewers. “I was still creating and developing new electronic sounds in the control room and I could see Pink Floyd was exactly into the same thing. It was a perfect marriage.” And it was, with Smith convincing EMI to sign them. Then he produced their first four studio albums, including early hits like “See Emily Play”, as well as “Remember A Day”, which he drummed on when they got frustrated with Nick Mason not getting the sound they wanted. Smith was apparently quite good on drums and piano as well!

His own career happened almost accidentally. He (and his wife Eileen) wrote songs, and he’d written a few he thought John Lennon might like and could record. So he made demos of “Don’t Let It Die”, and “Oh Babe What Would You Say?” However, another famous British producer, Mickie Most, heard them and convinced him that he sounded good enough on his own, so Smith put out an album in 1971, under the moniker Hurricane Smith, taking the name of a 1952 pirate movie. “Don’t Let It Die” hit #2 in the UK, but the next single, “Oh Babe…” was a worldwide smash, making it to #3 in the U.S. and Canada, and the top ten in his homeland, Australia and New Zealand. The very retro-sounding song, written with his wife, cheered with its “simple and happy melody” which, combined with the lyrics of the shy boy wishing for the girl of his dreams were “designed…to re-capture the era I grew up in.” Perhaps surprisingly, the rememberances of pre-war Britain appealed to the post-Hippie crowds of the ’70s.

Smith issued another album soon after, but it went nowhere, and he largely retired from music by that decade’s end, although he did play trumpets and other instruements on a record or two by The Teardrop Explodes in the ’80s. He put out a new album in 2004, with liner notes written by Paul McCartney and Pink Floyd. Around that time he also wrote a memoir, John Lennon Called Me Normal, which Ear Candy say is “one of the best of the lot” of Beatles-focused memoirs, full of “studio lore and history of the halycon days at Abbey Road.”

Smith died in 2008 at age 85, survived by Eileen and two grown children.

January 6 – The Crazy Diamond Began To Shine

The crazy diamond began to shine back on this day in 1946 – Syd Barrett (Roger to his parents) was born. Few artists have built up such a reputation and influenced so many in so short a time.

As a child, Barrett was obsessed with art of all kinds, and a friend of Roger Waters. After enrolling at an art school, seeing the Beatles and Rolling Stones and meeting David Gilmour in 1963-64, he began writing songs . However, it was old friend Waters with whom he’d really get things going, they soon had a band called the Abdabs, which a few names later became The Pink Floyd Sound. Barrett was big into experimenting with musical techniques like distortion and feedback, and with psychedelic drugs. The band soon became the darlings of the London underground scene during the Summer of Love and after two reasonably successful singles which Barrett had written (“Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play”) the band had a contract with EMI and were recording at Abbey Road next door to the Beatles. Barrett was a huge factor in the debut, Piper at the Gates of Dawn but his weird and unpredictable behavior got him kicked out of the band, replaced by Gilmour ironically, soon after. Not a step they took easily apparently; all of them were fond of Barrett and their 1975 album Wish You Were Here was dedicated to him, with the lengthy two-part song “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” about him.

He died in 2006 from cancer after withdrawing from society, by and large, to paint and live with his Mom. Gilmour remembered him fondly as a “genius who made us smile with his wonderfully eccentric songs about bikes, gnomes and scarecrows…he touched more people than he could possibly imagine.”

September 12 – So, Which One Was ‘Pink’?

Well they got their wish- and didn’t recognize him! Pink Floyd put out their excellent Wish You Were Here on this day in 1975, loosely an homage to their former band-mate Syd Barrett.

Syd actually showed up in the studio one day, and at first the band didn’t recognize the suddenly overweight and bald, odd man. He had taken to eating a lot of pork chops, and liked the demo of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” although he showed no signs of recognition of the subject matter being himself. Roger Waters recalled crying, saying “Syd sat ’round and talked for a bit, but wasn’t really there.” It was the last any of the band saw of him.

As for the follow-up to Dark Side Of the Moon, it was at the time often considered a disappointment and although it hit #1 in the U.S. and UK (and sold 6X platinum in the U.S.) it was considered a slight commercial misstep as well. Hard to imagine that, given that it was certified gold in the U.S. after only five days and set a record at the time for pre-orders. The album is not your typical rock record. It consists of only three songs, sandwiched by one long, 32 minute piece which is broken in half. Essentially it’s a thematic homage to their former bandmate, Barrett and at the same time a bashing of the music business (Blender would later note “Waters bitches beautifully, biting the hand that feeds him.”) David Gilmour sang lead on “Wish You Were Here” and “Welcome to the Machine”, Waters took the mic for the sprawling “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” while they recruited their friend Roy Harper to take lead on “Have A Cigar.” That track, mocking the glib, condescending industry types, was the only single released off Wish You Were Here, and even that, only in selected countries. (It was a top 20 hit in France for instance, but not released as a 7” vinyl in North America.)

Despite – or because of – the massive success they’d had with Dark Side of the Moon it wasn’t an overly happy time for ‘Floyd. Alan Parsons, who’d been so instrumental in the studio for their last album had declined to work on this one, being busy with his own new band. Instead, a new engineer was brought in to Abbey Road and had some technical difficulties including erasing some of the tapes, requiring re-recording. Drummer Nick Mason had a “sense of apathy,” according to David Gilmour, who noted that he wasn’t in an ideal mindset either. “All your childhood dreams had been sort of realized. We had the biggest-selling record in the world…the girls and the money, the fame. You had to reassess what you were in it for. (It was) sort of an empty time.” Perhaps it’s remarkable it turned out as well as it did.

Part of that apparently also comes back to Gilmour, who thought Dark Side‘s songs didn’t get the basic concept over well enough, so this time “I thought we should work harder marrying the idea to the vehicle that connects it.” Time has treated the record well. Rolling Stone, which at the time called it “lackadasical” and suggested the songs might as well have been about Waters’ brother-in-law getting a parking ticket, would later give it a perfect 5-star rating and Q in 1998 ranked it the 34th greatest album ever. David Gilmour has called it his favorite album of the Floyd’s catalog. 

July 21 – When Walls Collide

One of the important political milestones of the 20th Century merged with one of the century’s important entertainment ones on this day in 1990. That was when Roger Waters staged a concert of The Wall on the site of the Berlin Wall.

The Berlin Wall of course had been the physical manifestation of the ideological concept of “the Iron Curtain” – a separation of the “West” from the communist Soviet regime. The concrete wall, about 11 feet tall in most spots was over 60 miles long and had over 300 East German (communist) guard towers along it. Erected in 1961, it divided the East and West sides of Berlin and aimed to keep the people in the communist/Soviet side from escaping to freedom in the West. Of course, it also divided the city, split up many families and led to at very least 200 people being killed trying to scale it and escape. However, by the late-’80s things were changing. Soviet satellite countries like Poland were rebelling and declaring independence from Moscow, the USSR was engaged in talks with the U.S., and in a famous 1987 speech by the western side of the wall, President Reagan urged the Russian leader along : “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

In 1989, signs began to emerge suggesting that might happen. By November of that year, the East Germans announced they’d open gates and their people could go back and forth and within a year, demolition had begun and the two Germanies were reunited politically. It was one of the major events of the entire century.

Musically of course, Pink Floyd’s The Wall was one of the highlights of the decade if not century. The 1980 (well, actually 1979 if you’re a trivia buff – it came out in the final days of that year) double-album of dsytopian societies and dreams became one of the biggest-sellers of all-time (at least 30 million copies, even more impressive given its size and price at the time) and one of many fans’ favorites. By 1989 though, the two leaders of Floyd – Roger Waters and David Gilmour – were at each other’s throats, as much enemies as the U.S. and USSR had been. Legal battles had ended up with Gilmour (as well as the other members) retaining legal rights to the name “Pink Floyd” but Roger Waters having all rights to “The Wall”, since it was an album he wrote close to single-handedly. The album had launched a movie and a concert tour, but by the decade’s end, Waters didn’t plan on playing it live again.

Indoors, it made no sense financially. It’s too expensive,” he told a journalist back then. “And as it’s partly an attack on the inherently greedy nature of stadium rock shows, it would be wrong to do it in stadiums. But,” he teased, “I might do it outdoors if they ever take that wall down in Berlin.”

Well, take down the wall they did, and Waters decided to follow through. Interestingly, it wasn’t the first rock concert at the Berlin Wall. David Bowie had performed on the Western side in ’87 (only days before Reagan’s speech) and Bruce Springsteen had been allowed to play on the Eastern side in ’88. The Communists thought it would show how accommodating they were; instead it seemed to just increase the desire of the youth there for freedom and a unified Germany.

For the Waters show, a huge stage right by the Bradenburg Gate was planned. First, as some of it would be on the “no man’s land” immediately adjacent to the wall, they had to have professionals scan for landmines. They actually turned up a wartime bunker no one knew about they figured Hitler might have used. When the all clear was given, construction began on the set which would include a 550′-long, 80′ high wall of styrofoam blocks. Most of it was built before the show, with the last few blocks added during it and Waters triumphantly tearing it down at the end. Continue reading “July 21 – When Walls Collide”

November 30 – Double Album Meant A ‘Wall’ Of Money For Floyd

November 30th is a big day for releasing big albums. In 1982, Michael Jackson put out his game-changing Thriller, and three years before that, Pink Floyd released their 11th album, The Wall this day in 1979.

The band was using the same lineup they’d had since 1967, but there was a growing disconnect between the co-leaders, Roger Waters and David Gilmour. Evidence of that could be seen in the fact that all 26 songs (it was their most monumental work, running over 80 minutes in length) were written by Waters, 22 entirely by himself. As one reviewer noted, “how do you reason with two guys who once went to court over the artistic ownership of a big, rubber pig? That was Bob Ezrin’s mission when he agreed to co-produce.”

Waters came up with the idea for this album in 1977, after a particularly bad concert in Montreal in which he spat on the crowd. He said after the show he “loathed” playing stadiums and was “not really enjoying this.” He had the idea of a psychological wall between the band and the crowd, and expanded on that to a whole story of a character named “Pink” who felt alienated by everything and everyone around him, from war to abusive teachers to a bad marriage and, as a result, built a virtual “wall” around himself. The album follows his story.

It remains best remembered for the anthem of bored schoolkids everywhere and posed the question we all had asked so many times – “how can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?” – (“Another Brick in the Wall, Part II” , their only #1 single at home or in the U.S. and their first top 10 anywhere in 13 years) – and was full of glum, somewhat unremarkable numbers. However, its few lasting highlights were likely the ones in which Roger had some help writing, like the trio of songs David Gilmour co-wrote: “Young Lust,” “Run Like Hell” and most of all, “Comfortably Numb.”

That one, at 6:23” is not only the longest track on the album but by most accounts, the pinnacle of the record. For instance, it’s on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 greatest songs of all-time and Guitar World have it pegged as the fourth greatest guitar song of all-time (right behind “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.) They quoted Ezrin talking about Gilmour’s guitar work : “you can give him a ukulele and he’ll make it sound like a Stradavarius.”

Despite The Wall being about the disconnect between the artist and the fans, fans connected. Especially away from their homeland. In the UK, it reached #3 on the charts (their first since ’72 not to get to #1 or 2) and went double-platinum. Not too shabby but only a shadow of what it did in other places, especially here in North America. In Canada, it went to #1 and is by now one of an elite few albums to have gone double-diamond, or 20X platinum. In the U.S., it was the biggest-seller of 1980 in the U.S. and spent 15 weeks on top of the album charts and is 23X platinum. All that even though reviews were middling – Rolling Stone gave it 3-stars and Melody Maker weren’t sure if “it’s brilliant or terrible.” The Village Voice gave it an average grade saying it was “dumb tribulations of a rock star epic.” Gilmour said it showed the last embers of him and Waters being able to work together.

But the album lives on. In time, Roger Waters would play the whole album live while touring post-Pink Floyd. That was after he’d turned the concept album into a movie, which drew similarly middling reviews. Bob Geldof, pre-Live Aid fame, starred as “Pink” in it. While it only turned a smallish profit at the box office, when one considers the relative debacle that was made of making another classic concept album – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – into a film, Roger probably could be said to have ended on the right side of the wall.

Oh, and at the start we noted that it came out on the same day of the calendar as Thriller. The two albums have another thing in common besides that and both being mega-sellers. Yep, those everywhere guys – Toto. Drummer Jeff Porcaro of that band was the drummer on about half of Jackson’s record and for some reason, also was the drummer Pink Floyd used on the song “Mother” on this one.

October 29 – The Moon Kept Spinning A Decade On

The Police were sitting on top of the Billboard album charts this day in 1983, with Synchronicity occupying the #1 position for its 14th week. But it’s possible the British band celebrating the chart even more that day was Pink Floyd, because David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Richard Wright made some history with it. Their epic 1973 release Dark Side of The Moon was still on there… in its 491st week. As such it became the longest-running hit album in Billboard‘s history. Maybe not as happy, Johnny Mathis’ the velvet-voiced crooner whose 1958 album Johnny’s Greatest Hits got relegated to silver medal status. Previously its 490 week run, which ended late in ’68, had been the longevity champ.

There was obviously a little magic in that rainbow prism record. Now, Dark Side of the Moon is a great rock record that spans conventional sub-genres. As Gilmour notes, “the combination of words and music hit a peak. The cover was also right.” But still, one wonders what it was that kept it selling and selling and selling when other greats had dropped off, their fanbase finally sated. Of course, one thing that benefitted it (as well as other greats of the ’60s and ’70s) was the introduction of compact discs. Obviously, many copies were sold to people who might have already had an LP copy (or even 8-track gathering dust!) who wanted a more portable, upto date version. Dark Side... came out first on CD in ’83 in Japan, and the following year it most other places including the States. It was re-released, remastered, on CD in ’92.

Its estimated the Floyd opus has sold 45 million or so copies worldwide, making it the fourth most-popular album ever, behind only Michael Jackson’s Thriller, AC/DC’s Back in Black and Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell. In the U.S. it’s certified 15X platinum, for sales of over 15 million, but considering that it’s sold nearly 10 million copies just since Nielsen began Soundscan (around the end of ’91), that tally seems low. It’s 14X platinum in Britain, where it never got to that #1 spot on the charts, making it the biggest-selling record there not to be an actual chart-topper.

Mathis’ album needn’t hang its head in shame mind you… it still holds on to that #2 rank in weeks on, just ahead of the My Fair Lady soundtrack and Jackson’s Thriller (which spent 441 weeks on, according to Billboard.) And Johnny has another feather in his chart hat – his Heavenly album had a 295 week run, making him the only artist with two of the ten most enduring sellers.

Needless to say, Dark Side of the Moon didn’t stop selling in its 491st week. It went on to stay on the chart until some time in 1988. And since then, it’s reappeared at times on the list, making for 950 different times you could look at the Billboard album chart and see it on there.

September 15 – Richard Was ‘Wright’ Man For Floyd

The Beatles had George, Pink Floyd had Richard. A good comparison perhaps, especially since it was made by fellow band member Nick Mason. Today we remember Richard Wright, who passed away from cancer this day in 2008, at the age of 65.

Actors famously bid each other “break a leg” as a way of saying “good luck,” but breaking one’s leg seldom would be good luck. Wright might be the one exception to the rule though. Growing up in Middlesex, England, young Richard liked music, especially jazz like Count Basie. But he didn’t seem to act much on that until he had the “misfortune” of breaking his leg when he was 12. It gave him a lot of down time and in that time, he decided to learn to play. He quickly set in on self-teaching himself piano. And trumpet as well!

At school, he met Roger Waters and Nick Mason, and as teens they formed a band called Sigma 6 in the early-’60s. Nothing much came of that, but for the idea that they liked making music together. It bubbled back up a few years later when they met Syd Barrett and started Pink Floyd.

While Syd was the clear-cut leader of the earliest version of Floyd, Wright took on a prominent role co-writing with him as well as being the keyboardist, and on rare occasions, singer. He got along great with Barrett (he helped Syd on his second solo album) and considered quitting the band when Syd was fired to form a new one with him, but let common sense prevail and stayed on. Pink Floyd were going places; Syd, although probably a nice guy, was too strung out and mentally ill to be relied on to make anything work.

In the “new” Floyd, Richard was, in the words of drummer Nick Mason, “the quiet one…the one that knitted it all together.” Not only did he play keyboards – preferring an old organ but comfortable on just about any, including mellotrons and any new synthesizer to hit the market – but he co-wrote quite a few tracks in the early-’70s. On Dark Side of the Moon, he composed “Great Gig in the Sky” and shared the mic with David Gilmour on “Time.” And even though he was a keyboardist, he took care of tuning Roger Waters and David Gilmour’s guitars and basses before gigs! That was a busy “in the shadows” guy!

By the time Animals came around in the late-’70s, Roger was becoming not only the driver but navigator for the band, and Richard began to do a little less, focusing more on his family. By the time The Wall was done, there was conflict between the two. Wright felt unappreciated (by Waters at least) and “I was depressed,” while Waters railed that he wasn’t doing enough to be worthy of a full share of the band’s revenue. He left by mutual agreement, but returned to the David Gilmour edition of Pink Floyd in the mid-’80s after Waters was out. He stayed with them more or less until his death, but as their schedule got more open, he spent more time pursuing his other passion, sailing, around the Meditteranean and Caribbean. Fittingly, his last performance was in 2007, playing in a tribute to Syd Barrett with Gilmour.

Upon his death, tributes were many, with even Roger Waters saying it’s “hard to over-state the importance of his musical voice in the Pink Floyd of the ’60s and ’70s.” David Gilmour called him a friend and decided it was pointless to try to carry on as “Pink Floyd” without him.

Often over-looked behind the voices and strings of Gilmour and Waters, at least a few paid attention to his playing. Record Head magazine ranked him as the greatest keyboardist in rock, ahead of Keith Emerson, while noting “besides playing keyboards, he was a composer and songwriter (and was) highly experimental incorporating sound effects into his music to give unique effects.” A unique guy who had unique good fortune breaking a leg.

August 27 – Bonus Bit : Pink Floyd

It’s that time again… my sixth piece for Hanspostcard’s Slice the life summer event whereby I, and nine other fine music writers, review ten great albums a piece over 100 days (or so.) Today, I look at one of the truly iconic pieces of the 1970s…

A different kind of album for my next pick. A piece of cultural bedrock that’s about as iconic as they come in pop (and rock) music but far from typical or easy to describe. Hope I have some headphones with me, because my sixth album is made to be heard through them – Pink Floyd‘s huge 1973 opus, Dark Side of the Moon.

My last pick, Scarecrow, was a somewhat unified-sounding collection of songs, and a good one at that. Dark Side of the Moon is unified-sounding, but to me doesn’t even seem a collection of songs. Rather, it is a work. It’s a full-blown symphony put into the context of modern instruments, 20th-Century concerns and rock sensibilities. So popular and renowned is it that if there ended up being aboriginal natives on the “desert island”, I bet they’d come on in and say “Oh, Pink Floyd” if I started playing the album; many a 90-year old with dementia could probably name the record just from looking at the iconic prism and rainbow album cover designed by rock’s best visual artist, Storm Thorgerson. But so meaningless are the song titles and breaks that I imagine half the diehard fans who’ve had the album in their collection for four decades could identify it with about four seconds played from anywhere in the record… but couldn’t name half the “songs” on it.

Pink Floyd were incredibly ambitious and energetic back in the day. Even though their original leader, Syd Barrett had succumbed to a combination of mental illness and drugs so much as to be kicked out of the band and relegated to the sidelines of society, the band had rolled along. Dark Side… was already their eighth LP in only six years of existence. Along the way, they’d veered from a rather band that favored rather pop-py, psychedelic short, standalone songs into a much more complex, prog rock outfit. As well, as Barrett’s departure initially left a vacuum in the band’s leadership, when it came to writing and charting their course, that role was more and more being taken over by Roger Waters. A few years later it was essentially Roger Waters and hired hands making music, but this still showcased the band when David Gilmour had considerable input and Richard Wright co-wrote five of the album’s pieces. Even drummer Nick Mason was credited with composing one song, “Speak to Me.”

Those who argue the record is a bit pompous and overblown wouldn’t necessarily get an argument from me. Then again, many things we love – fireworks displays, Macy’s parades, weddings, Christmas trees – could be said to be the same. It is the flash and over-the-top quality which makes them special. So too Dark Side of the Moon. And a note to those few rock fans who dislike the album – if it’s too orchestral, overblown and ethereal for you, at least thank it for punk. As much as any album, it was probably responsible for the likes of the Ramones and Sex Pistols who popped up a couple of years later more or less as a reaction to the “excesses” of contemporary rock as they saw it. It also probably can be thanked for leading to the Alan Parsons Project, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

Dark Side… was rather unlike anything else on radio back then. It really highlighted Richard Wright’s keyboards and proficiency with synthesizers, a rarity still in the early-’70s. And it was an album of sound effects. From cash registers and clinking coins to helicopters to a cacophony of alarm clocks ringing and Wings’ member Henry McCullough’s random adlibbing “I don’t know, I was really drunk at the time” on “Money”(the record was recorded at the Abbey Road Studios the Beatles loved, during their days and later when working solo so presumably McCartney’s band was sharing the space with Floyd), there were lots of things going on. And a sonic landscape painted by Alan Parsons who did things like run numerous tape loops, play piano pieces backwards, bring in Clare Torry to add her lyric-less operatic wailing on “Great Gig in the Sky” and record it all on a state-of-the-art 16-track recorder. For all that, the band only gave him minor credit as “engineer” – most producers do far less and get more pay and more prominent notice on records – which, it’s suggested miffed him enough as to use his skills to make records of his own, which became Alan Parsons Project.

While Waters suggests the album is a concept about “empathy” and the “human experience” (hence the heartbeat sounds which open and close the album) it’s a stretch. Then again, pretty much any record not about UFOs is likely about the “human experience,” is it not? Some of the lyrics are fine and contain great little bon mots – “don’t be afraid to care”, “ Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today” – the thing that ties it together and makes it memorable is the actual music and the way the album rolls up and down, but steadily forward like a tide. The songs all segue together quite like many symphonies but unlike most rock albums. So much is the effect that it sounds quite jarring and well, wrong, to hear a track like “Time” or “Eclipse” isolated and played as a single track on radio, or to get one of the early editions of the CD release which had tiny breaks between each track. Don’t get me wrong. The songs on it are quite great; “Time”, “Us and Them” and “Breathe” are the absolute standouts to me that rank at or near the top of anything the band ever did. Still, this is an album to be listened to from start to finish, 43 minutes at a time.

Wright notes “it was not a deliberate attempt to make a commercial album (although) we knew it had a lot more melody than previous Floyd albums.” I believe that. Melodic yes, outwardly commercial no. It came out at a time when “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” and “Crocodile Rock” were smash hits. It would seem Pink Floyd went out of their way to make a work that would get overlooked and ignored and against all odds, had turn into a hit. A hit it was by the way; their first #1 album in the States, Canada and New Zealand; a record 900+ weeks on the Billboard album sales chart and up there with Thriller and Rumours with its worldwide sales nearing 50 million. But that isn’t what makes the album great any more than the omnipresent “laser shows” run in tandem with the music at planetariums everywhere in the ’80s and ’90s were. It is just a great record.

To get ready for this review, I listened to it again a couple of times in the car. It sounded ok. Huh? That’s not too complimentary, is it? But that’s the point. Dark Side isn’t an album to be heard in six minutes snippets when driving through city traffic on a hazy, 95 degree afternoon. It’s an album to lie back and become absorbed by, let take you away for three-quarters of an hour. There’d be no traffic jams on a desert island and I’ll have records to listen to in short bursts to pump me up and get me going. This is the quintessential, “turn the motor to idle, and slow it down and chill out for the night” kind of record we all need sometimes.