The 2008 Polar Music Prize is awarded to the British group Pink Floyd for their monumental contribution over the decades to the fusion of art and music in the development of popular culture. Through extensive sonic experimentation, they captured the mood and spirit of a whole generation in their reflections and attitudes. Pink Floyd managed to evolve and create exciting music and albums over the years, When rock’n’roll developed, Pink Floyd was foremost in shaping the sounds that would influence artists for ever.
Both Roger Waters and Nick Mason, who appear in this interview made shortly before the Polar Music Prize Ceremony in Stockholm in August 2008, were original members of Pink Floyd in 1965. They can look back on a tremendous career in music, creatively as well as in commercial terms. The albums Pink Floyd made, especially during the 1970s, are among the most innovative, influential and commercially successful records ever were made in rock history. The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975) and The Wall (1979) are still among the world’s most popular and respected rock albums. But the group’s history started much earlier. And it went on for much longer.
The origin of Pink Floyd is in 1963-64 London. Roger Waters and drummer Nick Mason met while they were studying architecture at the London Polytechnic in Regent Street. So did keyboard player Rick Wright, and they played together in Pink Floyd’s predecessor, Sigma 6. Syd Barrett, an old friend of Waters from Cambridge who also played the guitar and was in London studying art, joined the band in 1965. They called themselves the Tea Set and played mainly rhythm and blues songs. In late 1965 they became the resident band at the Countdown Club in London, playing from late night until early morning, three sets of 90 minutes each. Now they realised that songs could be extended with lengthy solos.
The name Pink Floyd was created on the spur of a moment by Syd Barrett, when another band, also called the Tea Set, was to perform at one of their gigs. The name came from two blues musicians in Barrett’s record collection; Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.
By 1967 Pink Floyd had developed an unmistakably psychedelic sound; long, loud suitlike compositions that touched on hard rock, blues, country, folk, electronic and classical music. Adding a slide-and-light show, one of the first in British rock, they became a sensation among London’s underground as a featured attraction at the UFO Club. Syd Barrett, who wrote most of the band’s early material, had a talent for composing singles-length bits of psychedelia, and they had hits with two of them in 1967: “Arnold Layne” (#20 U.K.), the tale of a transvestite and “See Emily Play” (#6 U.K.). The latter, however, was the last hit single they would have for over a decade. Space-epic titles like “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive” were more typical. Their first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was released in August 1967, recorded in EMI Studios at Abbey Road.
Departure of Barrett
Around mid 1967, Syd Barrett began showing increasingly alarming signs of mental instability, allegedly because of an excess of LSD experimentation. He would go catatonic on stage, playing music that had little to do with the material, or not playing at all. An American tour had to be cut short when he was barely able to function at all. Around the beginning of 1968, guitarist David Gilmour, a friend of the band who was also from Cambridge, was brought in as a fifth member.
The idea was that Gilmour would enable Pink Floyd to continue as a live band; Barrett would still be able to write and contribute to the records. That didn’t work either, and within a few months Barrett was out of the group. It was a hard blow for Pink Floyd – but early in the game yet.
From 60s to 70s
Pink Floyd went through a huge development from the late ‘60s into the ‘70s. They moved from Barrett’s concise and vivid songs to spacy, ethereal material with lengthy instrumental passages. Their third release Ummagumma (1969) was a double album, one live and one studio record, showing a more skilful and musically developed group, and with a sound that was much louder and harder.
Atom Heart Mother (1970) goes even further, starting with a side-long, 23-minute extended orchestral piece. In 1970 Pink Floyd toured extensively across America and Europe. 1971’s album Meddle is considered to be their strongest record between Barrett’s departure and The Dark Side of the Moon.
The 1973 album with its iconic refracting prism design on the cover became Pink Floyd’s definite breakthrough – one of the most commercially successful rock albums of all time.
The Dark Side of the Moonwas a hard act to follow. After extensive touring, Pink Floyd returned to the studio in 1975 to record their ninth studio album, which became Wish You Were Here, highlighted by a melancholy tribute to the long-departed Barrett, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”.
The lyrical themes on The Dark Side of the Moon had been insecurity, fear and the cold sterility of modern life. Wish You Were Here and 1977’s Animals explored these themes even more explicitly.
Now, Roger Waters was the conceptual leader of Pink Floyd. And there was more to come.
“Bricks in the Wall” was one of two conceptual ideas that Roger Waters presented to the group in 1978 for the next album – about the material and emotional walls modern humans build around themselves for survival. The other idea would later become Waters’ first solo album, The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking.
Both Mason and Gilmour chose the former idea for the new album. The Wall (1979) became a huge success, especially in the U.S – in part because the music was losing some of its heavy duty electronic textures in favour of more approachable pop elements. It was largely a lyrical piece. The show was the most ambitious the rock world had ever seen and it was also turned into a film by Alan Parker. Keyboard player Rick Wright was very passive during the recording, and left the band as a result.
1986-94: Gilmour at the front
The Final Cut was released in 1983 and looked like it would be Pink Floyd’s final album. It was almost entirely Roger Waters’ – the concept, the lyrics, all compositions – although Gilmour and Mason played on it. It is dedicated to Waters’ father who was killed in World War II, and is critical to Margaret Thatcher’s response to the invasion of the Falklands. It got mixed reviews but was commercially a success. Following the album’s release, each member of the band concentrated on solo projects, but Waters then announced that he had left the group, and later attempted to keep Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason from using the Pink Floyd name.
Gilmour fought back legally and in 1987 he recorded A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Pink Floyd’s first album without Waters – with Rick Wright back in the band, Nick Mason still there and with the assistance of several songwriters.
2005: Back on stage
Another David Gilmour-fronted Pink Floyd album, The Division Bell, was released in 1994 and became a number one album in both the U.K. and U.S. But after the following tour, on which they played The Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety, no more studio recordings of Pink Floyd have been made.
The dispute with Roger Waters was settled legally at the end of 1987. The parties reached an agreement where Mason and Gilmour retained the right to use the Pink Floyd name in perpetuity and Waters received exclusive rights to, among other things, The Wall. In 2005, Waters, Gilmour, Mason and Wright reunited to perform at the Live 8 concert in London’s Hyde Park and later on in 2011 at the O2 Arena also in London. Syd Barrett and Rick Wright passed away, respectively, in 2006 and 2008.