Monday 7 May 2018

Pink Floyd Essay: Why Absence Makes The Sales Grow Stronger

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Well done, you made it to the halfway part of the book (or halfway through our 'music' section at any rate!) We can't give you a prize to celebrate I'm afraid though you probably deserve one, but we can shake things up a bit by moving outside talking about our respective AAA bands' discography and moving on to what makes them stand out from their peers and offer something no other band can. In truth these essays kind of run across the whole book and you can read them in any order, but now we've reached the halfway point it's quite useful to take stock of where we've been and why before working out where we will go next. Pink Floyd, though, are a band who never really changed that much: oblivious to fashion, always doing their won thing, you can track a very Floydian arc all the way through their career from 1967 to 2017, together and apart. There are, though, certain themes that are always ‘present’ in their work, weirdly enough including ‘absence’…
There is a moment for every Pink Floyd fan, dear readers, when they get a shock and actually see what the band looks like for the first time. It could be the psychedelic pose in ‘Piper’, the picture-within-a-picture of ‘Ummagumma’ or maybe the modern Floyd getting it back together for ‘Live 8’ or opening some museum stuffed to the gunnels with flying pigs and talking heads. For me it was the inner sleeve of ‘Meddle’ when the band out-stare the camera with the intense gaze of a heavy metal band. Whatever it is, it’s a moment that comes as something of a shock: Pink Floyd are a band that feels as if they weren’t meant to have a ‘face’. Never the most exuberant or photogenic of bands on stage, they preferred to let the music do the talking for them – or let their audience be transfixed with flying spitfires, giant prisms or blow-up mother-in-laws. To be fan you had to really dig deep and do your research to find out what they looked like and they are, in all likelihood, the only band to be *that* famous that most fans wouldn’t recognise if they bumped into them at a gig. There’s a reason Pink Floyd have as many tribute acts as they do (more than anybody besides The Beatles and Elvis): it’s the sound and spectacle that matter, not whether the musicians are clutching their instruments in just the right way. While other bands pose and gurn for the cameras The Floyd go for the idea of ‘absence’ in their work: the spectrum light that can only be seen at the ‘right’ prism, the flying pig barely visible in the distance, the off-focus film still of ‘More’, the dress blowing in the breeze on ‘Wish You Were Here’ or an entire album cover hidden by bricks.
This isn’t just on the album covers but buried deep within this band’s DNA, a major part of their catalogue too. Most of the Syd Barrett years are about loss, about something that used to be there but isn’t as Pan/Peter Pan/Syd Pan retreats to the woods to lick his wounds and dream of his days in the nursery. Many of Syd’s best songs are about what is ‘really’ going on when the world’s back is turned and we aren’t looking: the [19] Scarecrows dance, the [18] gnomes frolic and his pet cat [13] Lucifer Sam is off having adventures. It’s a world where everybody else is having fun but you, something which is playful for the early years ([11] ‘See Emily Play’ even finds a girl who thinks the same way whose imagination Syd gets to play with) but downright creepy by the time Syd falls apart and ends up leaving the band, as heard on songs like [25] ‘Vegetable Man’ and [35] ‘Jugband Blues’ where poor Syd isn’t there in any physical form himself but trapped in an isolated imaginative world of his own making. It may be significant too that The Floyd enter with two songs about absence: [1] ‘Lucy Leave’ is the name of the first song committed to tape and [9] ‘Arnold Layne’ is the first that all but the band’s biggest fans ever got to hear – about a man who steals clothes off washing lines, hidden in plain sight.
It may be significant that the last of these is inspired by the first lodger that Syd’s mum took in after her husband and Syd’s father died just short of the boy’s sixteenth birthday. Syd never talked about it and it’s perhaps too easy to guess without knowing, but there’s a sense across Syd’s work that this is an adult age past which he never wants to pass. His world was turned upside down as he lost a role-model and a major part of his childhood just at the age when childhoods traditionally come to an end anyway. But Syd wasn’t ready to grow up: he had been a precocious child talent brimming with beauty and was born to be young – he couldn’t cope with growing old and having responsibilities. My guess (and like so many things in so many of these books is only a guess) is that the theme of loss came from Syd who used rock and roll as a chance to delay and ultimately escape the clutches of a cruel world that wanted to turn him into everybody else. The irony is that the pop world made him worse, eroding his confidence, depleting his creativity and leaving him an inward shell of himself, too far gone inside his own brain to play with Emily or anyone else ever again.
Instead it was Syd’s loss that will dominate Pink Floyd’s sound for the rest of their career. Though the years 1968-1969 were mostly spent trying to keep career path momentum going and fool people that the band hadn’t just lost their lead writer, guitarist and singer (mostly successfully, given the band’s anonymity) the years from 1970 see a growing trend of songs that are all about the loss of Syd. There’s a big Barrett-sized hole on many songs on many of these albums: Roger bidding a guilty goodbye to his best mate on [67] ‘If’, the spooky farewell of B-side [37] ‘Julia Dream’ where Roger’s ghostly whispered voice mourns ‘Save me…Syd!’, the big finale to ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ where everyone can end up like Syd, ‘the lunatic on the grass’, the lyrics to [131] ‘Nobody Home’ which was almost all taken from Syd’s last days and painted out as Roger’s character Pink descending into the ame gloom of madness and David’s later [175] ‘Lost For Words’ where first Syd then Roger depart, leaving a big hole in David’s band and life. 1975’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ is almost an entire suite of songs about absence that are bookended by a song about Syd not being there anymore ([110] ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’) punctuated by the [113] title track which is just dripping with loss. Obviously the Floyd would have been very different had Syd stayed well and stayed a member (it would have had more lyrics about pixies and transports for one thing), but the rest of the band wouldn’t have written quite the songs they did either.
However it’s not just the loss of Syd at the heart of this band. Roger too writes naturally about absence because he lost his father at an even younger age than Syd did, Eric Fletcher Waters losing his life in Anzio in the Second World War even though he had been a conscientious objector and his son had been raised by his socialist parents to look down on all forms of warfare. This is surprisingly rare amongst AAA musicians: though many of them did lose their parents in childhood to illness and accidents, none of the others ever lost a parent due to the war. Roger did – and the fact that the death was so unnecessary and something his father so fought against clearly had a huge effect on him. Starting with [95] ‘Free Four’, a bitter song all about loss and emptiness as a life in a ‘foxhole’ is replaced by one of endless touring, much of Waters’ work heads in this direction: his lyrics to ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ are a tour de force about human beings missing the point as they fill their empty existence with worries and pressures instead of simply living and making the most of what they have (there’s even a song named ‘Eclipse’, the perfect image for a band that’s-there-but-isn’t-there). ‘The Wall’ and ‘The Final Cut’ are extended metaphors about loss and losing part of yourself, having it battered out of you by war-weary teachers, uncaring girlfriends, suffocating mothers and unfeeling tour managers. That way fascism lies, says Roger, turning Pink into a rallying crusader against everybody he’s afraid of – when really he’s afraid of himself. Only by hiding behind a ‘wall’, keeping things at a distance and pretending they aren’t there, can any of us function – and that’s what leads to the wars that killed his father. [150] ‘The Fletcher Memorial Home’ is particularly telling, as every tyrant and dictator is clearly missing something in their lives and need love and care, getting to live out their days in retreat without troubling the rest of us – in a home named for the parent that they blew up, causing Roger to feel these things instead. It’s a vicious cycle that’s never broken.
David Gilmour too covers loss, usually with pangs of nostalgia for childhood places. When asked to write songs for the band without really knowing what to do, he seems to have reached back to Syd’s love of childhood but spoken about it in more ‘modern’ terms, as he actively looks back to the past for solace rather than having the past come to ‘him’. [69] ‘Fat Old Sun’ is a memory of a mis-spent childhood bunking off school and playing by the riverbanks in Cambridge. It re-appears in [176] ‘High Hopes’ where the ‘grass was greener, the nights were brighter’. It’s absent entirely from David’s modern life on [59] ‘The Narrow Way’. It’s tantalisingly out of reach on [83] ‘A Pillow Of Winds’ (a very Floyd theme as winds are also colourless and absent but have a ‘tug’ on what can be seen as leaves blow or trees bend: they return frequently such a sound effect at the start of [82] ‘One Of These Days’ and the gusty noise at the start of part two of [110] ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, the ‘icy wind’ of Roger’s own nod to David’s childhood nostalgia [57] ‘Grantchester Meadows’ and one of the pictures on the cover of ‘Wish You Were Here’). In his solo career too David uses the loss of close friends as a recurring theme for his works, including his moving song for Rick ‘A Boat Lies Waiting’.
As for Rick Wright, he too sings about loss, but in a personal more guilty way than the others. His background nostalgia all dates back to things he got wrong in the past and can’t put right: [68] ‘Summer ‘68 regrets a night spent with groupie Charlotte Pringle, [23] ‘Paintbox’ laments ‘feeling rather empty’ as he tries to chat up a girl and [171] ‘Wearing The Inside Out’ is all about Rick’s (and co-writer Anthony Moore’s) regret of his own life path after joining the Floyd, over-ruled by Roger and under-rated by everyone around him, turned inwards to the point where he may as well not have existed. Then too [30] ‘Remember A Day’ is even more of a goodbye to childhood than Syd’s or David’s work, as a sweet and innocent past is juxtaposed with a cold and heartless present. Rick’s solo work, too, is dominated by loss: ‘Wet Dream’ is written for the end of a marriage he knows won’t last much longer and [Broken China’ is written for the start of a second as he watches his wife suffer with depression and wondering what to do and how to care for her when she isn’t ‘there’ in anything but physical form. However Rick also wrote perhaps the most famous song of loss written by anybody as [100] ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ plays its role in Roger’s concept suite of songs about the pressures of modern-day living by dealing with grief and death.
There’s one other factor that might contribute to this idea of absence. Of all the English bands Pink Floyd might well be the most English. They’re a band who never talked to each other even during the brief time (half of 1969?!) when they genuinely seemed to like each other. Not a band for socialising or parties, most of the time working on a record the Pink Floyd way (members turning up randomly, each putting their input in then going home) meant that the band didn’t actually sit down and confront each other about anything. Even the way Rick was pushed out of the band in 1981 was pretty much done by Chinese whispers and passed messages, just as it was when the band decided not to both picking Syd up for a gig in 1968, signalling his end with the band. When Roger started fighting the rest of the band for his piece of the band’s name in 1985 it shocked people not because Roger didn’t have a point (he had dominated the band’s compositions for ten years) or because the rest of the band didn’t have one (it’s not up to someone else to tell you what you can do or not) but because it brought all that bad blood out into the open for the first time. Pink Floyd were a band who never ever talked about their problems and still don’t like talking about it much now if some of the squirming interviews in documentaries down the years are anything to go by. Even their promotional duties tend to feature a giant talking head or a weird online marketing campaign rather than the band themselves. The next logical step from this very English reserve was always going to be absence – they’re a lot closer to it than presence. Maybe, too, the fact that the Floyd were (by AAA standards) quite posh and well-off had something to do with it to. There’s a particularly feel about Southern England (particularly Cambridge) that makes you want to whisper rather than shout and makes you aware that you don’t want to upset the horses too much. A childhood spent in ‘quiet desperation’ (the ‘English way’) is surely going to have an impact on a band whose natural bent is to write about their past with a sense of nostalgia anyway.
It’s not just the individual songs that deal with absence, but arguably the whole of the canon pretty much. There’s a certain musical sound the Floyd have which no one else does: long soundscapes where not much happens, which makes every single note sound special and important. The opening to [110] ‘Crazy Diamond’, for example, is more or less five minutes of nothing marked by only three chord changes across the whole first section before David’s guitar comes in and starts revving things up. This isn’t a band who played hard, fast and loose very often (though it’s striking when they do such as on [125] ‘Young Lust’ [82] ‘One Of These Days’ or [44] ‘The Nile Song’). Instead the Floyd would go for epic pieces that were made for leisurely thinking – apart from the songs where something nasty might or might not be pursuing the author ([39] ‘Careful With That Axe Eugene’). Though the band chopped and changed it a lot, the ‘default’ Floyd sound is made up of Rick’s pulsating churchy organ, which ebbs and flows and throbs with every note, Dave’s remarkably clear yet remarkably feedback-heavy guitar, Roger’s pounding pulsating bass line that prowls like a tiger deep in the mix and Nick’s drums which vary in noise from a whisper to a yell. Each of these factors make us question whether what we’re hearing is really there or not: when does one of Rick’s notes bend and another begin? When has David’s guitar been possessed by the great rock and roll ghost of feedback who makes all songs better? Just what is Roger actually playing directly with his bass rather than shaping the instruments around him? And is Nick there at all or is it a sound effect? This is the very epitome of a sound that’s there-but-not-really-there.
So, was this theme of absence a conscious decision or not? I would think not on balance: Syd didn’t have time to analyse what he was doing – he was too busy writing it – and the others picked up on what they liked in his work and changed it around to suit themselves (Roger’s anger, David’s hope and Rick’s sadness). The fact that two of them had pretty miserable childhoods dominated by loss and that they were brought up in a quiet out-of-the-way part of English pastures where children – and musicians – were seen and not heard (and ultimately not even seen) makes the theme of absence a natural recipe to come up with out of the ingredients they were given. However that doesn’t always explain an extra ‘factor’ – the sense throughout many of their songs that something is happening just out of our grasp, something great and beautiful and bold and brilliant that disappears when we turn to look at it. Like the Grateful Dead, many fans of the early Floyd went to their concerts simply because they never did the same thing twice, ever – even after knowing this band’s back catalogue really well it still feels as if it shifts underneath my feet from time to time, moving but still, with so many layers in the production that it feels as if I can find something new in it every time I hear, just out of my reach. I keep thinking I’ve found it – and then the whole lot get obscured by clouds, or a flying pig, or a song about [103] ‘Money’ and I find I’ve lost it again – till the next playing anyway…

A Now Complete List Of Pink Floyd and Related Articles To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

‘Wish You Were Here’ (1975)

‘Animals’ (1977)

'The Wall' (1980)

'The Final Cut' (1983)

'A Momentary Lapse Of Reason' (1987)

'Amused To Death' (Waters) (1992)

The Best Unreleased Pink Floyd Recordings

Surviving TV Clips 1965-2014

Non-Album Songs 1966-2000

Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part One 1965-1978

Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part Two 1980-1989

Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part Three 1990-2015

Landmark Concerts and Key Cover Versions

Essay: Why Absence Makes The Sales Grow Stronger

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