Pink Floyd are one of classic rock’s most renowned bands. Several generations have appreciated the studio wizardry of 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon and the themes of alienation and self-examination of 1979’s The Wall. But the group’s catalogue is much deeper than their 1970s big sellers like Wish You Were Here and Animals.
Their’s origins go back to 1963, when Roger Waters, Richard Wright, and Nick Mason, London architecture students, formed a band. Eventually, they joined forces with Syd Barrett, naming their band Pink Floyd after two bluesmen in Barrett’s record collection. After their epochal debut Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Barrett burned out on LSD and was replaced by David Gilmour. The group then spent a few years finding their feet without their leader, during which they were always intriguing but sometimes indulgent.
Roger Waters emerged as the band’s leader and conceptualist for 1973’s Dark Side Of The Moon, where his more straightforward lyrics about everyday life resonated with a wider audience, coupled with Alan Parsons’ pristine production. But as the 1970s ended, Pink Floyd felt more and more like Roger Waters’ backing band, and 1982’s The Final Cut was effectively a Waters solo album. Waters left Pink Floyd and Gilmour took charge for 1987’s A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, and two subsequent albums.
Pink Floyd’s early work is psychedelic in style, while their 1970s albums have elements of progressive rock. Their sound is spacier and minimalist compared to contemporaries like Yes and King Crimson, and stadium rock is also a good descriptor for albums like Animals and The Wall. Pink Floyd were consistently creative and interesting, earning their legendary reputation.
Pink Floyd Album Reviews
The Piper At The Gates of Dawn | A Saucerful of Secrets | More | Ummagumma | Atom Heart Mother | Meddle | Obscured By Clouds | The Dark Side of the Moon | Wish You Were Here | Animals | The Wall | The Final Cut | A Momentary Lapse of Reason | The Division Bell | The Endless River
Favourite Album: Wish You Were Here
Overlooked Gem: Obscured By Clouds
The Piper at the Gates Of Dawn
Pink Floyd’s debut was their only full album recorded with original frontman Syd Barrett. Named after the most surreal chapter in Kenneth Grahame’s children’s book The Wind in the Willows it’s aptly titled – Syd Barrett’s persona bounces between childlike innocence and acid fuelled mania. I always find psychedelic-era albums tough to digest and Piper is no exception. It’s a difficult listen initially, careering between tuneful ditties like ‘The Gnome’ and ‘Bike’, and the droning intensity of ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ and ‘Astronomy Domine’.
Piper is occasionally indulgent but has many flashes of brilliance and the weakest tune is the song that Barrett didn’t write – Roger Waters’ ‘Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk’. The most arresting material is Barrett’s nursery rhyme style songs like ‘Lucifer Sam’ and ‘Bike’, but the spiralling, spacy jams like ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ are also effective.
Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is an acquired taste – it’s very 1967 and sometimes indulgent, but it took Pink Floyd a few attempts to make a stronger record and it’s the only full-length document of Barrett’s time as Pink Floyd’s leader.
A Saucerful Of Secrets
Syd Barrett’s LSD-exacerbated mental health issues made him unreliable on stage. The band drafted guitarist and vocalist David Gilmour to cover Barrett on live performances. The band envisioned Barrett staying on in a Brian Wilson type role – writing material for the band and working in the studio. Unfortunately, even this arrangement wasn’t successful and Barrett only contributed one song to the band’s second album, A Saucerful Of Secrets.
Instead, Waters and Wright stepped up as writers, and while there’s a sense, as in the other interim Pink Floyd albums, that they’re casting around for their identity, there’s strong material here. Saucerful still has traces of psychedelia, but it’s less pronounced, and there are also signs of the sparse, pretty music they were moving towards. Gilmour’s smooth guitar and voice are part of this style change – the opener ‘Let There Be More Light’ and ‘See Saw’ are pretty and gentle. Without Barrett’s magnetic persona, some of the longer songs drag, but the mantra-like ‘Set The Controls For The Heart of the Sun’ is effective, and Barrett’s sole contribution, ‘Jugband Blues’, is excellent.
Even though Pink Floyd were still finding their feet after the loss of Barrett, there’s plenty of excellent music on A Saucerful of Secrets.
Pink Floyd had already cultivated a high brow reputation for a pop band, so it wasn’t surprising that they started providing the soundtracks for art-house movies. The counter-cultural movie More deals with heroin addiction in Ibiza. More feels like a hybrid between a studio album and a soundtrack – full-fledged songs that work outside the movie, sharing space with pieces of incidental soundtrack score. In some ways it’s a good opportunity for the band, still establishing their post-Barrett identity, to try some different things – the record ranges from gentle psychedelia to David Gilmour cock-rockers.
I like Gilmour in riff-rock mode, but ‘The Nile Song’ and ‘Ibiza Bar’ are almost identical. Instead, my favourites are the dreamy psychedelia of ‘Green Is the Colour’ and ‘Cymbaline’. The first half of More is stronger than the second, which largely concentrates on the movie’s instrumental themes. Interestingly, Gilmour takes all the lead vocals on More – the only time this would happen until Waters left the band. Waters is responsible for most of the key songs, including opener ‘Cirrus Minor’ and ‘Cymbaline’.
There’s plenty of worthwhile material on More, but as a soundtrack, it’s less coherent than Pink Floyd’s previous albums.
If you find Pink Floyd’s commercially successful 1970s albums a little arty and weird, they’re mild compared to 1969’s Ummagumma, a two-disc set, with a studio disc of new material and a live album with four of their lengthiest pieces.
It’s the studio disc that’s the most difficult. Each of the four members is given their own space, and it’s almost like a compilation of four solo EPs. Wright starts with his avant-garde series of ‘Sysphus’ compositions. Waters’ section is the most accessible- ‘Grantchester Meadows’ is pretty and acoustic, while the fabulously titled ‘Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict’ is enjoyably silly. Gilmour’s ‘The Narrow Way’ guitar pieces are pretty, but Mason’s ‘Grand Vizier’ suites are self-indulgent.
Compared to the weirdness of the studio disc, the live album is much more consistent. The highlight is ‘Be Careful With That Axe Eugene’, which heightens the intensity of the underdeveloped studio version, stretching it into an arresting piece, while ‘A Saucerful Of Secrets’ also works well.
With such an indulgent studio disc, Ummagumma is recommended only for dedicated Pink Floyd fans.
Atom Heart Mother
Pink Floyd’s first album of the 1970s starts to shape their direction for the decade – the psychedelia of the 1960s is disappearing from their sound, although song titles like ‘Summer 68’ and ‘Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast’ indicate their 1960s counter-cultural mindset is still in place. Gilmour and Wright’s textural choices on the title track provide a template for their more celebrated albums later in the decade. Although Pink Floyd are arguably the milder end of the progressive rock spectrum, there are parallels with the symphonic sounds and long suites that were emerging from contemporary bands like King Crimson.
This is clearest in the title track, a side-long suite that the band created with Ron Geesin. It’s a piece of classical crossover, the band augmented by a choir and orchestra, and there are enough ideas to make it work. The second side is given over to four shorter songs, and they’re generally strong. ‘If’ and ‘Fat Old Sun’ are gently acoustic, while ‘Summer ‘68’ hops between pastoral verses and an upbeat chorus. The most problematic piece is the closing ‘Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast’, the last vestige of 1960s self-indulgence from the band. Amazingly, in the wake of Ummagumma and given the nature of the album, it was a number one record in the UK.
Even though the band didn’t attempt a classical hybrid like the title track again, there are lots of signs of the future successes of 1970s Pink Floyd on Atom Heart Mother.
1971, not rated
I’m not rating this album as I have a weird 19 track bootleg version that I found in my local second-hand CD store, which includes material from the Zabriskie Point soundtrack. It’s a frustrating compilation that combines early singles with previously released album tracks – a dedicated collection of non-album material would have been more useful. I’m mainly listing it here as a reminder that the group have some great Syd Barrett material that’s not on studio albums, Relics includes the excellent early singles ‘Arnold Layne’ and ‘See Emily Play’, but neglects well-known outtakes like ‘Scream Thy Last Scream’ and ‘Vegetable Man’.
Their best-known work, Dark Side Of The Moon, was still a couple of albums away, but Meddle is the beginning of Pink Floyd’s run of excellent albums in the 1970s. It’s similar in structure to Atom Heart Mother – a side long suite paired with a handful of shorter songs. But this time the side-long suite is one of the best things the band’s ever done – ‘Echoes’ is richly textured and grandiose, all the things I love most about Pink Floyd distilled into one remarkable track.
The first side is less remarkable, but the sinister, pulsing opener ‘One Of These Days’ is one of the group’s best-loved songs. ‘A Pillow of Winds’ is another of Pink Floyd’s pretty pastoral songs, while ‘Fearless’ has a memorable riff. The quality eases up a little at the end of the first side, with the lighter-hearted ‘Seamus’ and ‘San Tropez’, the kind of goofiness that the Floyd would soon dispense with altogether, but they work in this context.
If you love the best-known 1970s Pink Floyd albums, make sure you check out Meddle as well.
Obscured by Clouds
While the group’s previous soundtrack, More, felt like background music at times, Obscured by Clouds is the overlooked gem in the Pink Floyd catalogue The group apply their newly focused sound to some relaxed, half-forgotten material. While there are several instrumentals, they’re generally strong, and ‘Mud Men’ in particular is one of the disc’s best pieces.
‘Childhood’s End’ and particularly ‘Free Four’ show Waters’ material moving into the soul-baring, autobiographical material he would write on Floyd’s best-known albums. ‘Stay’ is pretty, while ‘Burning Bridges’ and ‘Wot’s.. Uh The Deal?’ are other strong overlooked Floyd songs.
There aren’t any well-known Floyd songs on Obscured by Clouds, which is perhaps why it’s been overlooked, but there are a bunch of very good tracks that make it a treasure trove for fans who may have burned out on their more popular releases from the same era.
Dark Side of the Moon
Dark Side of the Moon marked the point where Waters began writing all of the group’s lyrics. While the group’s 1960s lyrics were often LSD inspired children’s tales or hippie pastoralism, Waters creates a cycle of songs based on the human condition, making Dark Side of the Moon more universal than any previous Pink Floyd album. The production is also a step forward, with engineer Alan Parsons utilising newly developed 16 track recording, and it’s often held as a landmark of studio techniques.
As much as Waters’ lyrics are important, the best moments of Dark Side are musical. ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’, features gospel wailing over Richard Wright’s piano, and ‘Any Colour You Like’ has tasty organ and guitar interplay. My favourite song on Dark Side of the Moon is the epic ‘Us And Them’.” The single ‘Money’ is strong but feels out of place, rooted by Waters’ memorable bass line instead of going into interstellar overdrive like the spacier material.
Dark Side of the Moon has enhanced its cult status through its rumoured synchronisation with the movie The Wizard of Oz; there are conjunctions between the lyrics and music with what appears on the screen. The screaming in ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ appears as Dorothy’s house is being blown in the tornado, while the witch appears as Waters sings “no-one knows which[witch] is which or who is who.”
Wish You Were Here
Pink Floyd struggled to construct a follow-up to the huge-selling, iconic Dark Side of the Moon; their original plan was to record an album using household paraphernalia as instruments. But when it emerged, Wish You Were Here was an album that vied with Dark Side for the title of the band’s best album. The two most famous tracks are both rumoured to be inspired by Syd Barrett – the title track and the nine-part suite ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’. Barrett visited his former group during the recording of Wish You Were Here but was so bald and overweight that his former band-mates initially failed to recognise him.
The Syd tributes are joined by two attacks on the wider music industry. Waters’ bile is highly effective here. ‘Have A Cigar’ is laced with irony (“The band is just fantastic…by the way, which one’s Pink?”), but guest vocalist Roy Harper gives it a bright facade, contrasting with the ominous ‘Welcome To The Machine’. Despite a combined length of twenty-six minutes the ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ suite is constantly enthralling.
Wish You Were Here is often recognised as Pink Floyd’s best album, the golden period where Waters’ concepts and the band’s music worked in grand unison.
1977 was the year of punk in the UK, and Pink Floyd responded with the more abrasive Animals. It’s more guitar-driven than before, although with only five tracks, including the 17-minute ‘Dogs’, no one’s going to mistake it for the Sex Pistols. More than ever, Waters is dominating proceedings, taking most of the lead vocals, and his rougher voice is well suited to these Orwellian tales of pigs, dogs, and sheep. Wright is largely squeezed out of the writing process and he’d leave the band during sessions for The Wall.
The album opens and ends with short acoustic songs, but the meat of Animals is in the three songs that profile the three animal classes in Waters’ concept. Of the three, the aggressive ‘Sheep’ is my favourite, while ‘Dogs’ has some great moments in its seventeen minutes of running time. ‘Pigs (Three Different Ones)’ has crunchy guitar and the memorable aah-aah-aah hook.
While many of the punk groups were gone within five years, Waters and Pink Floyd were still around in 1982 to decry Margaret Thatcher and the UK’s involvement in the Falklands. Animals is the last of the golden run of 1970s Pink Floyd for me.
During the Animals tour, Waters was involved in an incident that culminated in him spitting on a fan. This was the inspiration for The Wall, a concept double album chronicling a troubled rock star, loosely using Barrett and Waters’ stories. For many introspective teens in the 1980s, The Wall’s tales of alienation were an essential rite of passage, and perhaps as I heard it for the first time in my twenties, I’ve never had the same emotional connection to it.
If Ummagumma, released ten years earlier, was split equally between the four members, The Wall is 85% Waters with a sprinkling of Gilmour. Despite the terrific production job, my impression of the album is often Waters narrative, Waters narrative, Awesome Gilmour spotlight, Waters narrative, Waters narrative. Pink Floyd worked brilliantly in the mid-1970s because Waters had the musical acumen of Gilmour and Wright to back his grand concepts, but he doesn’t utilise them enough here.
The most arresting moments are when Gilmour steps into the spotlight, like the soaring chorus and guitar of ‘Comfortably Numb’, the adrenaline rush of ‘Young Lust’ and the pulsing guitar riff of ‘Run Like Hell’. That’s not to say Waters doesn’t come up with some great musical ideas – ‘One Of My Turns’ has a climactic neurotic rant, ‘Mother’ is beautiful, and ‘Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2’ is one of Floyd’s signature songs.
There’s some great material on The Wall, but it’s spread too thinly over two discs, and as a result, it’s an album that I tend to cherry-pick the highlights from rather than listen to in its entirety.
The Final Cut
If The Wall was primarily a vehicle for Roger Waters, The Final Cut is even more so, effectively a Roger Waters solo album. It’s even more nakedly autobiographical than The Wall, touching on his father’s death in World War Two, his divorce, and The Falklands War. Gilmour’s role is even more limited than on The Wall, only fronting one song, the entertaining but wildly out of place ‘Not Now John’. But I regard it as an improvement on The Wall – it doesn’t have that album’s stunning highlights, but the more personal nature and more manageable length make it a stronger record.
Of Waters’ work, my favourite is ‘The Fletcher Memorial Home’ with its roundup of political figures before Gilmour launches into a great guitar solo. ‘Not Now John’ sticks out like a sore thumb; it’s an adrenaline burst on an otherwise introspective album, with its cock-rock guitar and exuberant backing vocals, but in all honesty, it’s my favourite song here. The title track is Waters at his most harrowing, the final line providing the album’s focal point.
It’s effectively a solo album from Waters, with a few spotlights for Gilmour, but The Final Cut is strong enough to be worthy of the Pink Floyd brand.
A Momentary Lapse of Reason
The Final Cut was the last time Waters and Gilmour would appear on a Pink Floyd album together- Waters would leave the band, only to have Gilmour continue with the Pink Floyd name. Despite legal action from Waters, involving the testes on the band’s inflatable pig, Gilmour has made three more albums as Pink Floyd. While Mason and Wright are both credited on A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Gilmour later commented that they barely played after their confidence was destroyed by Waters. A Momentary Lapse of Reason lacks the thematic heft of Waters’ Pink Floyd – it’s effectively a Gilmour solo album. Its 1980s stadium-rock sound hasn’t aged as gracefully as most of Floyd’s earlier work, but it was successful commercially, with Floyd undertaking the biggest tour of 1987.
Gilmour’s musicality was one of Floyd’s strongest points, but it feels less weighty without Waters’ big concepts. Instead, its corporate rock often evokes earlier Floyd records – the gospel female backing vocals of ‘Learning To Fly’ and the saxophone of ‘The Dogs of War’ recall classic moments from The Dark Side of the Moon, but are much less iconic. The main appeal is Gilmour’s guitar – the record’s often better when it’s not aiming for commercial appeal, with Gilmour’s guitar recalling its 1970s heyday even as the drums are slapped in reverb.
A Momentary Lapse of Reason is one of Pink Floyd’s weaker records but it’s accessible and ensured the band’s ongoing appeal.
The Division Bell
For the first time since the 1970s, The Division Bell is a collaborative effort between two of the members. The past few albums were dominated by a single member – firstly the Roger Waters’ era, then Gilmour on A Momentary Lapse of Reason. On The Division Bell the creative axis is Gilmour with recalled keyboard player Richard Wright, while Gilmour’s fiancee Polly Samson wrote most of the lyrics. Reportedly the material for the album was decided by group votes, complicated by Wright awarding all of his own material 10/10 and everyone else’s 0/10.
The Gilmour and Wright interplay is in evidence right from the atmospheric opening track ‘Cluster One’, with Wright’s piano and Gilmour’s guitar interweaving and recalling the old magic of 1970s tunes like ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’. Gilmour’s vocals are impassioned on ‘What Do You Want From Me?’, and his guitar work sparkles on ‘Poles Apart’. After an impressive start, The Division Bell largely lapses into tasteful adult contemporary, but the folk-flavoured ‘Lost for Words’ is an impressive highlight in the second half.
The Division Bell recaptures the magic of old Floyd in places – it’s not surprising that it’s the most highly regarded album from the Dave Gilmour-led era. It failed, however, to impress Waters, who labelled it as “Just rubbish … nonsense from beginning to end.”
The Endless River
The 1970s Pink Floyd lineup reunited for a performance at Live 8 in 2005, including Roger Waters. A final album appeared in 2014 – it doesn’t feature Waters, but does feature Richard Wright who passed away in 2008. ‘Autumn ’68’ features Wright playing the pipe organ in Royal Albert Hall in 1969. The Endless River was largely compiled from material recorded in the sessions for The Division Bell. Mason and Gilmour revisited this material in 2012, with the help of producer (and Roxy Music guitarist) Phil Manzanera. Overdubs were added with musicians like Youth and Guy Pratt.
There’s only one song with vocals – the closer ‘Louder Than Words’. Polly Samson wrote lyrics for this after observing Pink Floyd’s Live 8 performance, noting that they didn’t talk to each other off-stage but communicated musically on-stage.
Instead of songs, The Endless River is dominated by pretty instrumentals that highlight Gilmour and Wright’s playing. While the pair’s ambient noodling is at the heart of a lot of Floyd’s best-loved material, a full album of it is a little one-dimensional. It’s a dignified closing to Pink Floyd’s impressive catalogue, but it’s not something that I’ll revisit often.
10 Best Pink Floyd Songs
Shine On You Crazy Diamond
Careful With That Axe Eugene (live)
Us and Them
See Emily Play
One Of These Days
Back to 1970s Album Reviews….