|Tom Hull's Old Rock Critic Writings|
Growing Up Grim With . . . Pink Floyd?
When the new Pink Floyd opus, Animals, arrived I took a long, admiring look at the cover art -- industrial motifs have long been a favorite -- slapped it on the turntable, dug up the rest of the Pink Floyd catalogue, occasionally snuck in the Television album for a mild change of pace, and generally settled back into a tech manual I'd been writing. For three days this ritual went on, me listening to the album without ever paying any real attention to it. Which ain't hard to do with Pink Floyd: while much of their output has been soundtrack mush anyway, even their strongest music, even the primal screams that cap off "Careful With That Axe, Eugene," on Ummagumma, is keyed to some vaguely subliminal level. A Pink Floyd lyric sheet is more a suggestion than a document; without that hint it might never occur to one that any of their lyrics might merit closer scrutiny.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with subliminal music; it is highly functional, and Pink Floyd have been pretty good at it. Dark Side of the Moon was my most heavily played album for the better part of a year -- something I probably have in common with a couple million other folks -- and when I wasn't playing that slick sham-masterpiece I would likely be digging into their strange, discordant toons of the Syd Barrett era, handsomely collected on A Nice Pair. As subliminal music Animals was pulling par or better ratings; their oft-criticized guitar work seemed particularly sharp -- and then the album even rocked out -- and the vocal snatches exhibited a good deal more conviction than is their norm. But the album didn't really hit me till I sat down, picked up the lyric sheet, and gave it the once over. I was shocked and amused.
Let me digress a bit. Pink Floyd's history has generally been divided into two periods: with Syd Barrett, and without. The Barrett period lasted from 1964, when Barrett joined a skiffle group known as the Ab-Dabs and rechristened them, borrowing from the names of two obscure bluesmen, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, until January 1968, when under the growing stress of commercial success and use of psychedelics he completely broke down and was eased out of the band. This period is represented by just one album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, but that mix of space noodling, circus melodrama and nursery rhyme consciousness, tempered by analytic rigor and technological extravagance, knows no parallel in the legacy of Acid Rock.
The architect of Pink Floyd was Syd Barrett, so it is hardly surprising that he should be held in high esteem. But two factors serve to magnify that accomplishment, and a third, rather ghastly one has forever dialecticized it. The first is that what Pink Floyd did in the mid-sixties was New. Revolutionary, even. Whereas the colossal inventions of the first Machine Age brought forth a wholly new art, ranging from the fascist Futurists in Italy to the revolutionary Constructivists in Russia, the new revolutions in technology, from the outer space exploration made possible through new electronics to the inner space exploration of psychedelics, forced a thorough update. While Futurists like Giacomo Balla wanted to create toys for the glory of war, Barrett opted to take the newest technologies and treat they as toys. In his hands, complex sounds and dazzling images are melded with an imagination that eschews any logic of categorization. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is not simply a revolutionary image, it is a millenarian one; so sure is it of itself that even the utilitarian need to be able to think clearly is discarded.
That is the point of history; Pink Floyd rode the crest of heady times, when revolution seemed likely to rear its head at any moment, and every aspect of one's life seemed to be changing in anticipation. Which makes the second factor a natural: from the beginning, even before their first record, Pink Floyd were a popular success. For the progressive-minded they were avant garde; for the hedonistic their attack on the senses was a delight. Above all, one could sense that this band was somehow important, that the vistas Barrett had opened up were only the beginning. Even after Barrett, after the counterrevolution of 1969-70, Pink Floyd's popular success continued to magnify the significance of everything they did.
The third factor, though, is Barrett's burnout, an almost textbook case of catatonic schizophrenia. He has often been described as an "acid casualty," but that strikes me as simplistic, or at least one-sided; as the leader of an up-and-coming rock band he was under any number of special pressures he had little desire to accommodate. But more important is the realization that for Barrett not only were psychedelics tools to explore new horizons with, so was madness. One need only note the coincident publication of R.D. Laing's Politics of Experience to show that the realization was hardly peculiar to Barrett. There is no way to separate Barrett's innovation from his madness; the best one can hope for is to modulate the extremes.
The other members of Pink Floyd -- Nick Mason, Roger Waters and Rick Wright -- were architecture students by day, with various interests like electronics and music. And, although they, and replacement guitarist David Gilmour, himself a close friend of Barrett's, retained a certain analytical sense about them and never really bought the millenarian shit, they were sympathetic to Barrett, his insights, his innovations, and his madness; one can well imagine their experience to have been harrowing. As Michael Bloom put it, Barrett had "led them up a high hill to show them his kingdom, and then just about pushed them off."
Which brings us to the post-Barrett Pink Floyd. In July, 1968, A Saucerful of Secrets was released, with one Barrett tune and Waters' very Barrett-like "Corporal Clegg," a marvelous circus-farce. But already the tendency was to reduction, to shrink away from the brink Barrett had been steering them towards. By 1969's Ummagumma a kind of efficient democratic centralism had set in, with each member allotted half an album side for some odd experiment or another. 1970 saw Atom Heart Mother and 1971 Meddle, each with side-long tone poems backed with minor fragments. And then there's the soundtracks, and their famous 360-degree stereo system, and the tons of gadgets and light shows and smoke screens and stuff. All through this time their skills improved, their capital accumulated, and they became more and more popular, the very definition of Progressive Rock. Which they acknowledged in Dark Side of the Moon, their stab at a true art-statement and the beginnings of what amounts to a third stage in Pink Floyd's history, the ascendancy of Roger Waters as lyricist and group theoretician.
In Progressive Rock terms, Dark Side is a complete masterpiece. And in a world where Brahms and the Beatles are marketed as Art, it was one of the greatest commercial successes of the decade. But consciousness has never been at a premium in such Art. The album is full of serious intentions, but what winds up salvaging it is the technical details: Clare Torry's piercing vocal in "The Great Gig in the Sky," or the synthetic interlude in "Any Colour You Like," or the raw urgency of "The Eclipse." In "Us and Them" lyricist Roger Waters writes, "Down and Out/ It can't be helped but there's a lot of it about/ With, without/ And who'll deny that's what the fighting's all about" -- serious issues, but Waters fails to own up to them. He maintains an aloofness that wavers between irony and cynicism. In "Time," when he seems to be getting somewhere he comes to a hasty conclusion: "Ranging on in quiet desperation is the English way/ The time is gone the song is over, thought I'd something more to say."
Of course, lyrics don't count for much in the Progressive idiom; I myself must have listened to Dark Side two- or three-hundred times without ever giving them a second thought. But things have changed. Syd Barrett was freaked when "See Emily Play" became a hit. Multiply that a few jillion times for Dark Side of the Moon, and then consider Roger Waters, a middle class future architect, who happened to run into the madcap Barrett, who happened to wind up fronting one of the most successful music aggregates in history, and try to balance it all out. Waters and company spent over two years trying to cope with that success, and trying to cope with the very real legend of Syd Barrett; there was a lot of introspection, a lot of retrospection, and finally a new album: Wish You Were Here.
Basically, three things happened on the album: 1) engineer Alan Parsons was scooted out of the way, along with about 85% of the cheap schlock; 2) the musical textures, especially the guitarwork, grew deeper and more acute, exhibiting a sense of purpose that had never before been evident; and 3) Waters' lyrics, sharply focused on two rather narrow themes, were for once downright lucid, showing a self-consciousness that had previously eluded him.
The two centerpieces took on the music industry, or inversely, Pink Floyd's own success. "Welcome to the Machine" is legitimately scary, with stark, gloomy textures and and a lyric doublespeak that leaves no out; "Have a Cigar" is the softer sell, butter you up and we're all on the same team, that bit. The other two pieces recall Barrett. In the title cut, Waters reflects, "We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year." A grim image that had never dawned on them before. The other piece, "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," is divvied up in two parts, to open Side One and to close Side Two, and in its evocation of Barrett's madness it could hardly be more vivid: "You were caught on the crossfire of childhood and stardom, blown on the steel breeze/ Come on your target for faraway laughter, come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine!"
In Animals Waters attempts to take Barrett's radical energy and extend it for whatever it's worth. Structurally, Animals includes three sequences, "Dogs," "Pigs (Three Different Ones)," and "Sheep," with the brief "Pigs on the Wing" serving both to open and close the album. "Dogs" starts with the words, "You gotta be crazy," which suggests it was originally the number "Gotta Be Crazy" that Michael Bloom described as "a critique of the nine-to-five lifestyle nobody in the band has ever led." That may have been its origins,k but the piece as presently constituted cuts far deeper: "You have to be trusted by thepepole you lie to/ So that when they turn their backs on you/ You'll get the chance to put the knife in . . . And you believe at heart, everyone's a killer." Not your ordinary nine-to-five, these are special cases, "broken by trained personnel . . . fitted with collar and chain."
They are also special in another respect: Waters counts himself among the Dogs. His sense of justice leaves the Dogs "ground down in the end . . . found dead on the phone . . . dragged down by the stone." The whole piece is rife with terror, that this may really be the end; running scared, Waters throws himself into the thick of the fury: "Gotta stay awake, gotta try and shake off this creeping malaise/ If I don't stand my own ground, how can I find my own way out of this maze?" The question to Animals is laid down in the first "Pigs on the Wing": must we "zig zag our way through the boredom and pain . . . wondering which of the buggers to blame?"
Waters finds blame everywhere; but he finds other things as well. "Pigs (Three Different Ones)" takes on the priggish, narrow-minded bourgeois, the once you can always make fun of, with sarcasm and a touch of sympathy, ending each case with the line, "But you're really a cry." "Sheep" brings in another class, the meek and obedient, "Harmlessly passing your time in the grassland away," who are set upon by the dogs; "the lowly ones," in turn, "through quiet reflection and great dedication" learn to defend and avenge themselves. Waters changes person and, to a burst of music filled with the joy of revolution, ravages: "Bleating and babbling we fell on his neck with a scream/ Wave upon wave of demented avengers/ March cheerfully out of obscurity into the dream."
"Sheep" matches Barrett to Marx: for his own part, Waters steps back to something more realistic. The vengeance is sweet, its ritual enactment opens all sorts of tangible possibilities, above all the knowledge that people sharing certain experiences -- "the boredom and the pain" -- are not alone and can act together with authority. The second "Pigs on the Wing" is a triumph of the lesson that "Sheep" taught, though it is stated minimally, as a personal victory, and even then with a tag to show it's no permanent victory but one that must continually be guarded: "Now I've found somewhere safe/ To bury my bone/ And any fool knows a dog needs a home/ A shelter from pigs on the wing."
That, at least, is the story line, but it's a fair indication of the music as well. As on Wish You Were Here, the textures are tailored closely to the lyrical concerns, hardly surprising, given Pink Floyd's extensive soundtrack experience. What Animals does do is tip the balance to a third Pink Floyd: where the first Pink Floyd few straight in the teeth of history, offering revelations in lieu of analysis, and the second Pink Floyd floundered in doing their own thing, the third is staunchly analytical, a reflection on history and a strategy for dealing with it today.
In fact, both Wish You Were Here and Animals show a healthy self-consciousness and a sense of purpose that makes the older post-Barrett oeuvres look like so many calculated dimestore artifacts. Which is good for Pink Floyd. And, even as subliminal mood music, their textures have lost none of their attractiveness -- if anything, the quickness and sharpness they have gained makes for much more interesting music -- so they should be able to hold onto most of their mass consensus, perhaps even to expand in some instances. Which is good for us. But the combined effect is unfathomable. In no sense is Animals agitprop, nor should it be. Pink Floyd's situation is far too exotic, far too peculiar, to generalize from. But their mass outreach means that what they do is present in the lives and thousands, even millions, of people.
More than that, it's an omen. That something so pragmatic could come from as far afield just goes to show that common sense is indeed gradually being revised and extended into something approximating Gramsci's notion of "good sense." Revolutions aren't acts of will -- in fact, pace Lenin, they never were. Mass movements are spontaneous reflections of common sense; their quality is written in the character of that sense. So keep your ear to the ground; interesting vibrations are coming from all quarters.
This was retyped from an edited manuscript. The piece was published in one of the Voice's "Rock and Roll Quaterly" special inserts.