Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#13)


Find out what artist was lucky enough to land at unlucky number thirteen after the jump.

There have been several incredible bands over the years that have seemed larger than life, but Pink Floyd is of that much rarer breed—they seem larger than the mind. They’re best known today as being among the most elite proprietors of “drug music” in pop history, but they were also very intellectual as they followed the trippy counterculture pulse into outer space, intuitive as musicians, pinkfloyd1innovative as writers of songs and creators of soundscapes. There are those out there who address them as pretentious hokum or ponderous emptiness, which, at their least absorbing, can be assessed as reasonable if still restricted. Even at their most extreme, Pink Floyd invites its audience into their world, but the listener has to be keen on climbing in willingly.

In 1995, Pink Floyd released Pulse, a live double album from their Division Bell tour from the previous year. This was more than a decade after their “classic period” came to an end. Most of their live reiterations of songs differ very little from the studio versions, which already sounded cinematic without needing the wide, airy space in sound. And the spectacle of their live show was absent from the audio-only discs. Yet it still leaped to #1 in about a dozen countries, including the US and UK—concerts albums climbing so high as that, especially in the 90s, was an enormously rare feat, especially for a group that had only released three original LPs in some fifteen or so years. So why was it so successful? Why were Delicate Sound of Thunder and Is There Anybody Out There? (two other live Floyd packages released well past their heyday) also hugely successful, all three selling several million copies each? Probably for no better reason than because Pink Floyd was more than just a band—they were an experience.

pinkfloyd4Incredibly talented musicians and songwriters all, Pink Floyd represented this ideal of being outside the self while frequently remaining tethered to the emotional and socio-political extremes of each and every person. It was music far flung from reality—a rock-ambient fusion of science fiction and psychedelics—but offered earthly and pragmatic commentaries on the gritty world around its audience. Their concerts were legendary (and perhaps their most demonstrative legacy)—candy as much for the eyes as ears, with plumes of foggy smoke, imaginative lighting effects, lasers, massive sets, geometric imagery that bleed randomly, floating pigs, live “wall construction,” and quadraphonic sound for a completely immersive, even hypnotically transcendent event. Even though the musicians were frequently stationary while the displays came to life all around them, they arguably outdid all of their peers in sheer spectacle—even during the time of Queen, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen and the Who, it could sensibly be declared that they were unparalleled at their ability to give their fans “their money’s worth” whenever they took the stage.

This reputation grew out of abstract but elephantine sonic development during their Mk II phase (1968-85). But before that populist space rock/psych-R&B phase there was a man named Syd Barrett, one of the most brilliant and insane songwriters pop music has ever seen. Heavy amounts of psychotropic drugs certainly influenced his vision and madness, but I suspect he was in his own little world long before he ever touched an illegal substance, believed by many to be schizophrenic or bi-polar—the acid just made his mentality more colorful and frightening. His lyrics have often pinkfloyd2been compared to the writing of Lewis Carroll and he was quirky and mischievous, a significant variation from Roger Waters’ later large-scale thematic obsessions. And for the so-called “London underground,” the experimental fringe of London’s music scene, it’s been argued that they did more for British psychedelia in those early years than even the Beatles.

Even at a time when psychedelic music was quickly becoming all the rage, very few have ever made an album more vibrantly twisted, peculiarly and piquantly exotic, or flat-out loopy than The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Having (predictably) come to that place backwards from their 70s classics, I could hardly even believe it was the same band; sure, “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Astronomy Domine” have some of the same subtly propulsive, elevated space rock vibe that’s reflected in their later progressive sound, but where does “Lucifer Sam” and “The Gnome” fit into the scheme? Nowhere, because Barrett wasn’t around for long, and after his ejection and later his impressive (and aptly-titled) solo effort The Madcap Laughs, he pretty much departed the realm of common sense altogether; it was the sort of isolated degeneration that made Brian Wilson’s breakdown from the same time period almost seem tame. Only six years after leaving Floyd, Barrett showed up at the studio they were recording in and none of the other members even recognized their old friend and bandmate. His freaky shaven appearance would even be used to reflect the mental disturbance of Pink, the lead character in the film The Wall.

And had they been terminally weird forever as they were at the beginning, we may look back at them in a similar fashion to how we regard other undernourished mavericks of the time like David Axelrod and John Cale—respect the artistry, bravery and influence, but a wonder of cult size (i.e. pocket ready). Instead, they got as brazenly huge as their soaring sound, enough so that you could practically throw a “The” in front of their name to make them seem even more ornately majestic (if Billy Corgan could do it for his Pumpkins, why not Waters’ equally massive and unstable ego?). In pinkfloyd3fact, one of the group’s original name, “The Pink Floyd Sound,” might even be more fitting the further they got from their darkly whimsical roots, if not for that “Sound” part being dated for the early years of experimental rock.

Barrett wasn’t booted so much as left behind, as suggested by the famous anecdote of how he was deported—the other band members simply neglected to pick him up one day before a performance. David Gilmour was brought on shortly before Barrett’s finale and Roger Waters assumed the role as conceptualist; although all members contributed songs of their own, he also became principal songwriter. Much is made of David Gilmour’s imaginative guitar technique and mind-blowing solos, and justly so, but it’s important not to forget how innovative Barrett was with the same instrument. His status as an investigational pop writer (and mentally deteriorating eccentric) is set in stone, but he was also making pioneering strides in the art of dissonance, webs of feedback, and using echo effects on a slide guitar—he was renowned for sliding a Zippo lighter over the fingerboard to create evocative, alien sounds.

Pink Floyd’s work in the immediate years post-Piper could be rocky—although A Saucerful of Secrets is generally underappreciated, Atom Heart Mother had a better album cover than music conceptual, and their two releases from 1969 (Soundtrack from the Film More, Ummagumma) were the least essential records the band would produce for more than a decade. But the transitional album Meddle, with its detailed textural studies and elaborate compositions, began a nearly unassailable run for many years for Pink Floyd being near (or at) the summit of the entire gamut of pop music. Two years later, after another film soundtrack (Obscured by Clouds), they would enter the studio to record one of the most famous and acclaimed albums in history: The Dark Side of the Moon.

pinkfloyd5During the 60s, high-profile groups like the Beatles, Beach Boys and the Who persisted on the album-as-statement mentality; suddenly singles were practically blasé compared to the genuine, practically holy “long player” mentality (hello, AOR). Pink Floyd took it to grand new sonic heights with elliptical songwriting, puzzleboard instrumental figures, and swooping rock-ambient textures, segues, and crescendos. It would have been enough for 99% of the groups to ever play to do a Dark Side of the Moon and decide that’s good enough (that is, if 99% of the groups to ever play were even remotely capable of such a thing). But not Roger Waters, who decided that grandiosity of sound, theme and intent has no logical boundaries. So Pink Floyd gave us The Wall.

Most people name Dark Side as their favorite Floyd record, and it’s a tough claim to dispute. But there’s something so pragmatically broken and confused about The Wall; its scope, ambition, diversity and indulgence has rarely been rivaled by anyone. In regards to “Another Brick in the Wall”: though only the final successive segment (“Part 2”) was officially released as a single, no radio station interrupts its album progression today—they deliver a nine minute, three-track epic (the center sliver being “The Happiest Days of Our Lives”) with a deadpan children’s choir, a schoolmaster gnashing his teeth about meat and pudding, helicopter noises, eerie whooshing sounds, fragmented wails and sniffs, and a disco beat—who the f-ck has the balls to do that?! pinkfloyd6Same as I champion The White Album over Sgt. Pepper, I must concede that Pink Floyd’s final masterpiece is so jaggedly immobilizing and monumentally motivated that its portentousness stuns greater than any of their previous achievements. Of course, you could also declare that Wish You Were Here is their finest work and I’d have no reasonable argument for debate (most days I even notch it just above Dark Side).

But if those three classic LPs are considered the cream of their tripped-out crop (with Piper being an outsider’s pick), that leaves plenty of time to reinvest in their more “minor” triumphs, particularly the Orwellian Animals, filled with bitter lyrics from Waters (“So have a good drown, as you go down, all alone/Dragged down by the stone,” “You f-cked up old hag, ha-ha, charade you are/You radiate cold shafts of broken glass”) that rivaled the pessimism of the band’s four-sided follow-up, The Wall. The group would finally splinter in disarray as the 80s pressed on, first with the departure of Richard Wright, the rare keyboardist to compete with the likes of Keith Emerson and Rod Argent as being considered the all-time great in his role (his showy displays on “Welcome to the Machine” alone are hall of fame), and later Waters, who decided Pink Floyd was a “spent force” by the mid-80s and left on less-than-amicable terms.

pinkfloyd7In the years after, during the so-called Pink Floyd Mk III, the battles between Waters and the rest of the band (especially Gilmour) became heated over the use of the name “Pink Floyd.” Whichever stance you happen to take, it was a fight worth bringing, especially since the lesser albums during those years—and blockbuster live records—all sold extremely well, and concert revenue never declined. Three decades after their final lasting studio statement, Pink Floyd is still at the forefront of music fans’ minds, one of the most domineering and indelible acts to ever grace rock music. They didn’t always get an enthusiastic reception from critics, some of whom were left cold by the more shapeless, enigmatic and pretentious diversions to color the group’s catalogue. But if anyone needs evidence of their enduring popularity, consider the oft-parroted statistic that Dark Side spent 741 weeks in the Billboard 200, finally dropping out in 1988—a staggering consideration by any estimate (and it climbed back in less than three years later). And if anyone needs evidence of their artistic vision and ability to surpass the limitations of the mind, just stick in one of their numerous superlative LPs and prepare to get completely lost.

See Emily Play
Arnold Layne
Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun
One of These Days
Welcome to the Machine
Have a Cigar
Wish You Were Here
Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1
The Happiest Days of Our Lives
Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2
Young Lust
Hey You
Comfortably Numb
Learning to Fly
…and the album The Dark Side of the Moon

Note: I omitted some of their beloved epic compositions like “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Echoes” because they would have simply taken up too much space on a mix CD trying to cover a lot of ground.

Also endorsed: Yes, Traffic, the Moody Blues

[Intro & Runners Up] [100-91] [90-81] [80-71] [70-61] [60-51]
[50-46] [45-41] [40-36] [35-31] [30-26] [25-21]
[20] [19] [18] [17] [16] [15] [14] [13] [12] [11]
[10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1]

Matt Medlock


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