The opening of Shine On has always evoked strong images: the changing light of sunrise, beams of light breaking cloud cover, color rolling across a vast sky. Pink Floyd here achieves something that rarely happens in popular music: an instrumental passage that implies narrative. I often think about Fantasia – the child’s introduction to classic music – which invites us to contemplate how passages of music can tell entire stories. People working within the confines of the three-minute pop song don’t have to think about creating musical narratives with a beginning, a middle and an end. They say whatever they have to say in a few words and even fewer chord changes. Pink Floyd, of course, liked to go beyond the pop song formula, and they experimented with longer song structures and extended instrumentals. This particular narrative is only about 13 minutes, but it could have easily been a longer piece. It’s an epic composition.
There’s something magical about Pink Floyd playing amid the dust and ruins of Pompeii. There may not be any obvious connection between a dead Roman city and a psychedelic rock band from swingin’ London, but it feels right. Something in the timelessness of mankind’s creativity perhaps. The human drive to make art and the desire to find higher meaning in things – those things haven’t changed over millennia. Civilizations have grown and died, and the way people live and relate to one another has changed beyond imagining, but we still share a universal visual language. We recognize the same musical rhythms. We still look for beauty. It’s an epic connection, but it’s only human nature. Beautiful music belongs in a beautiful place, it’s really just a simple aesthetic choice.
I’ve often wondered about who Emily is and what she’s doing. I’ve read that she was everything from a British socialite to a child Syd Barrett encountered in the woods, both of which things sound legit. Either way, she sounds like kind of a sad person. If she’s a figment of Syd’s imagination, she’s clearly got to be pretty sad. Or, she’s a socialite, and her socialite life is hollow and meaningless and filled with miserable parties.
Now feels like a good time to revisit Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It has always been Floyd’s bleakest and most challenging record, and the accompanying film, well, it has always made my skin crawl. However, it needs to be seen again, because it has become relevant in ways its makers did not intend. It was, I think, intended as an inward-looking project, an attempt by its creators to come to terms with a chunk of history they were born on the tail-end of. Roger Waters was writing as a member of a post-war generation whose early life was imprinted by horrors they couldn’t remember or understand, who grew up dealing with the trauma and guilt of atrocities they had no part in. The Wall was supposed to be a generational reckoning, but it was dismissed in its own time as a rock star vanity project, then later as fodder for dorm room stoners who think they’re, like, deep, man. Today, unfortunately, it’s come to reflect reality, and it needs to be reevaluated as a work of art that has something to teach us. For one thing, it effectively illustrates the radicalization of a disaffected young man, a social problem that we’re grappling with and seeing the real-world effects of. Although it was made years before the technological leaps that have made radicalization so insidious and easy, it’s a story ripped from the headlines. A young man who is unloved, socially unsupported, mentally ill and at loose ends in his life quickly finds himself marching in lockstep just because it gives him a momentary sense of purpose and an illusion of control. It shows that self-destruction, violence and hate are, for many people, a natural reaction to feeling dehumanized themselves. A society that devalues humans and treats them as dispensable cogs creates people who want to burn down society and destroy themselves and each other. We are seeing it happen, in real time.
Let Pink Floyd set you up for an afternoon of childhood nostalgia. If your childhood nostalgia actually involves listening to Pink Floyd, all the better. Even if not, it’s the perfect mood piece for reminiscing, or daydreaming, or just dozing. It’s just great mood music. If you have drugs, good. If you have a mimosa, good. If you have a nice cup of tea, good. If you don’t have any of those things, maybe think about going back to bed.
Late sixties Pink Floyd is my favorite kind. They were so playful then! This one was written and performed by Rick Wright, who was never the dominant personality of the band and thus often has his contributions overlooked. I think it’s a very charming song, with barbershop echoes in the vocal crescendos. It was a B-side to a single nobody remembers, and can be found on the Relics compilation. It also goes to show that scraps and B-sides can often outshine more well-known material, and compilations of such can be as strong as a ‘regular’ album, if not better. Obviously, as a fan, going around scraping such gems together is unrealistic, so you have to rely on the artists’ being their own best curators. I find that no matter how good I am at being a fan, there’s still songs I’ve never heard, or even heard of, that pop up, even from the most long-dead and/or overly documented groups. So, if you’re a musician, start organizing your archive now; if you don’t, someone else is going to have to do it for you, after your death.
I’m still waiting for the day when I drop acid and watch Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii. That seems like a very necessary thing to do in life. In the meantime, it’s still a film worth watching again and again. It’s Pink Floyd at the height of their powers, and that’s enough to make for a fascinating document. I like all the footage of ancient artifacts and arid landscapes, but that’s not really the point. You could say that the act of playing, without an audience, in the middle of a ruined city represents something about the band and their spirit of innovation, as in, you know, they’re just playing just for the sake of pure artistry, man. Or you could be cynical and say it’s just a visual gimmick. I’m leaning towards the former; you rarely see so much joy in pure innovation and creativity and just playing for the sake of it. You also didn’t see much of it again either, not after the big hits started coming. Maybe success didn’t curtail Pink Floyd’s innovative ambitions, but it definitely put a damper on their sense of joy and their unity as a group.