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The Complete Pink Floyd Story: From The Piper At The Gates To Building The Wall

pink floyd

Either you write songs or you don’t. And if you do write songs like I do, I think there’s a natural desire to want to make records

– Roger Waters 

It seems strangely appropriate that a band formed by architecture students in swinging sixties London would eventually become global superstars by building, and then tearing down a wall.

But the band who eventually became Pink Floyd didn’t begin their long illustrious and often turbulent career as the leaders of the psychedelic movement and counterculture ambassadors that they were destined to become.

The band that changed the world, and expanded the minds of, and changed the personal ideologies of multiple generations began life as Sigma 6, a humble Searchers cover band who rehearsed in the basement of their college tearoom. 

Roger Waters of Pink Floyd

In The Beginning

Formed by Roger Waters and Nick Mason, who were both studying architecture at London Polytechnic (which would later become the University of Westminster) in 1963, the first line-up of Sigma-6 was (rather unsurprisingly) a sextet which included the fledgling keyboard player Rick Wright, who was also studying architecture in the same college as Mason and Waters. 

The first year was a rollercoaster of name changes (the band was, at various points in the initial twelve months of their career known as the Spectrum Five, the Meggadeaths, Leonard’s Lodgers, and the Screaming Abdabs) and personnel, before finally becoming The Tea Set and adding the musician who would help to craft and hone their early sound, Syd Barret to their ranks.

Contrary to the myriad of strange and almost magical myths and rumors that have materialized about how Barrett came to join the band the truth is actually a lot more mundane.

Syd was a childhood friend of Waters, who had heard him play guitar and thought he’d be a good fit for the band as he was, as Mason later said “unfashionably outgoing”. 

By the time 1965 rolled into view, Barrett had also, after they’d tried out other singers, become the band’s frontman and they had somehow become the resident band at the Countdown Club in Kensington.

Being forced to play three ninety minutes sets a day taught the Tea Set that they couldn’t stretch their rhythm and blues covers to the limit each time they played, and their solution to the problem was to rely on solos, usually improvised from various members of the bands.

It was a strategy that not only worked but also helped them to build the foundation of the sound that would later imbue them with all of the trappings, wealth, and success that walked hand in hand with fame and fortune.

The band had no idea that, in the words of astronaut Dave Bowman, “something wonderful” was about to happen and that their lives would never be the same again. 

The Name’s Floyd… Pink Floyd 

The axiom about change being the engine that drives invention was a hypothesis that the Tea Set proved when they finally assumed the identity that they would become known by around the world.

Change is never easy, and it was with a heavy heart that the band adopted another name after discovering that they were due to play a show with a band called, funnily enough, the Tea Set, which prompted Barrett to change the band’s name on the spur of the moment.

While the name he chose, Pink Floyd sounds like it was rooted in beat literature, it was actually an amalgamation of the names of two of Barrett’s favorite musicians, Floyd Council and Pink Anderson. 

Armed with a new name, and a new sound that was largely influenced by their endlessly inventive ways of filling their three daily sets, it wasn’t long before Pink Floyd became the subject of a record company bidding war, as the executives and accountants began to circle one of the hippest and most happening bands on the London circuit.

Or so the psychedelic rumor mill would have us all believe. The truth, as it always invariably is, is a little more boring and entailed two more years of crafting and honing their set and sound, building an enthusiastic and receptive audience, and signing a management contract with Blackhill Enterprises.

But good things come to those who wait and by the time the Summer of Love arrived, Pink Floyd had made their choice and signed on the dotted line with EMI

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Traveling To The Gates Of Dawn

Things used to move pretty fast in the music business and having been given an, at the time astronomical advance of five thousand pounds, by EMI  Pink Floyd entered the studio and recorded their debut single, Arnold Layne.

The song wasn’t the smash hit that their new label hoped it would be, as Barrett and Water’s subversive guitar-drenched anthem about transvestism didn’t find the audience that they thought it might, and barely managed to scrape its way into the British Top Twenty.  

Their second release, See Emily Play did however bring them to the attention of their home nation’s disenfranchised youth, helped in no small part by the fact that they were asked to appear on a popular BBC show, Look Of The Week.

As well as mining to a backing track of their then single, which was standard practice at the time, the show’s host interviewed Waters and Barrett who proved themselves to be charismatic, charming, and slightly different from the usual musicians who strolled into the studio. 

Which is probably why their second single-ended up climbing to Number Six in the UK Charts. Pink Floyd had proved themselves to be more than capable of taming the Top Forty, which meant it was time for the band to move up a gear and return to the studio to record their debut album. 

Barrett And The Piper… So Long Syd

As the band entered the studio to record The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, it started to become glaringly obvious to everyone who worked with them that something was amiss with Barrett.

He was withdrawn and uncommunicative and started using an unhealthy amount (even for the sixties when such things were commonplace) of LSD, and even though their debut album sailed straight into the UK Top Ten and remained in the charts for fourteen weeks, their frontman gradually became more and more withdrawn. 

Despite being forced to cancel a number of shows due to Barrett’s worsening condition, and his refusal to seek any form of psychiatric help, Pink Floyd embarked on a European and then a US tour to support the release, but things with Barrett went from bad to worse, and finally came to a head when his strange behavior culminated in a duo of trainwreck appearances on the Dick Clark and Pat Boone shows, after which the band was unceremoniously flown home by their label. 

And following a final UK tour supporting Jimi Hendrix that was just as embarrassing and painful for them, thanks to Barrett’s ongoing mental disintegration, as the American tour had been, the members of Pink Floyd reached a common consensus. If things didn’t improve and change quickly, for the good of the band, and his own wellbeing Syd Barret would have to go. 

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Climbing Aboard The Saucer With Gilmour

An interim solution to the Barrett problem was found in Dave Gilmour, a friend of the increasingly eccentric frontman who agreed to join the band as a fifth paid member to disguise Syd’s disturbing behavior. And for a while, the sticking plaster answer worked until the singer and guitarist’s declining mental health made him impossible to work with.

In March 1968, the band asked Barrett to leave, and he readily agreed but they put off telling their rapidly increasing fan base about Syd’s departure until the following month. 

They hit the road again, but this time stopped focusing on the material that Barrett had written and began to concentrate on the songs that Waters and Mason had written instead, and encouraged Gilmour to take a more active role in the band.

It was the perfect way to prepare for the recording of their second album, A Saucerful Of Secrets, which was recorded in 1968 and released in June of the same year. Described by cult DJ John Peel as being akin to a religious experience, the record entered the UK charts at Number Nine and stayed there for eleven weeks. 

Less than twenty-four hours after A Saucerful Of Secrets was released, Pink Floyd played the first-ever free Hyde Park concert and used it as a live practice run for their new material before returning to the US a month later with The Who and Soft Machine.

Without Barrett in tow, the tour was easier, and far more successful and encouraged the band to release their fifth single, Point Me To The Sky, which would be their last single release for five years. As a band, Pink Floyd had started to become acutely aware that their success was dependent on album, rather than single sales. 

One Of These Days I’m Going To Cut You Into Little Pieces 

The next three years, 1969 to 1971 became the bands most prolific, and arguable most creative period, as they released three albums, the experimental double-LP Ummagumma (which contained one track from each band member on the second half of the album, while the first half was compiled from a live performance at Manchester College that the band had recorded) in 1969, Atom Heart Mother in October 1970 and the critically lauded and praised Meddle in December 1971, which became their most successful album up to that point, spending nearly eighty-three weeks in the UK charts and climbing to Number Three. 

The lengthy US and European tours that Pink Floyd undertook between the release of Atom Heart Mother and the recording of Meddle enabled them to become a watertight, razor-sharp musical ensemble in which each member of the band understood how the others thought creatively, which prepared them for the record that would begin their journey to global superstardom and created the musical blueprint for the most successful chapter of their career. 

Money, It’s A Gas 

When Pink Floyd finished the touring cycle for Meddle, they were ready to finalize writing the songs the bulk of which had been written while they were on the road, for their next album, and in May of 1972, they began to record The Dark Side Of The Moon, a record that took nearly eight months to complete. 

A concept album that focuses on the fragility of sanity and explores the very human concepts of greed and avarice, The Dark Side Of The Moon was a departure from the more familiar, psychedelic influence of the band’s earlier material and was eagerly devoured by critics and fans alike. 

However, before the record was released, the band refused to attend the official press launch, as they felt that the label had rushed it and that the record wasn’t properly mixed, and such wasn’t representative of the album that they intended their fans to hear. 

At least, that was the official story, the behind closed doors rumor at the time, was that after spending so long in each other company without a break, both on the road and in the studio, tempers had started to fray, and on a personal level, things weren’t what they had been in the band.

How Waters and Gilmour and Mason and Wright felt about each other became immaterial when the record was finally released though, as it became one of the biggest rock albums of all time. 

The Dark Side Of The Moon would become Pink Floyd’s first US Number One and would go on to spend more than fourteen years in the charts and sell forty million copies. It is still the world’s third best-selling album, a record that doesn’t look like it’s going to be broken anytime soon. 

The tour that the band found themselves on to support a record that they really didn’t really need to promote lasted for more than a year, and they didn’t return to the studio to record their next album until January 1975. 

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Wish You Were Here And Animals 

Long tours can be grueling, daunting affairs, and by the time the band returned to the studio to record Wish You Were Here, Nick Mason’s marriage had collapsed, and there was a general lack of creative direction that was only kicked into gear when Waters finally took charge.

The record is loosely based on the experience of Syd Barret, and his journey with the band, and during the time that they spent recording it, their former frontman visited them but was still visibly plagued by his demons, a battle that he would keep fighting until his premature death in 2006. 

Even though it didn’t reach the same dizzying heights as its predecessor, a feat would have been nigh on impossible for any band to achieve, after Pink Floyd played the record in its entirety during their 1975 Knebworth Festival headlining appearance, when it was released in the UK, Wish You Were Here entered the UK charts at Number One and followed suit soon after in the US.

To date, it has sold more than twenty million copies worldwide. 

Animals, the band’s tenth studio album, which was based on the societal model that George Orwell created in Animal Farm is regarded as being a pivotal moment in the history of Pink Floyd both because of the records uncompromising content and because it was the album that largely tore the band apart on a personal level, due to a contractual dispute about royalties and the disparate amounts that each member received according to their songwriting credits. 

Not as immediate or as endearing to their fans as The Dark Side Of The Moon or Wish You Here had been, Animals is still one of the bands most critically acclaimed records, and despite the fact that it failed to reach the top spot in either the UK or the USA, the album has sold twelve million cities since it was initially released in 1977.

Dave Gilmour is on record as stating that he felt that the band had achieved all that they possibly could after the record was released, and keyboard player Rick Wright threatened to quit the band on numerous occasions during the tour to promote the record. The writing, as far as Pink Floyd was concerned, was well and truly on The Wall. 

How Can I Complete The Wall? 

The band’s finances were a collective mess by the time they reconvened in 1978, and when Waters suggested that the next record should be based on a concept that he had written called Building The Wall, Mason, and Gilmour reluctantly agreed.

The band began to write and record the album, called The Wall which was eventually released in November 1979.

During the time that the band spent recording the album, the other members of the band fired long-time keyboard player Rick Wright (who would later return to the fold for the tour that followed the record’s release) as they felt that he was contributing nothing to the writing process and had become a de facto producer. 

The Wall was a strange record for Pink Floyd, as even though it’s their most immediate and is regarded as being their most emotive, it marked a number of separate highs and lows for the band.

It spawned their most successful single, Another Brick In The Wall Part II, which sat on top of the US Billboard Charts for fifteen weeks and climbed to Number Three in the UK Top Forty, but due to the sheer size of the stage production that the band insisted on, the tour lost more than a half a million dollars. 

It did, however, go on to sell more than twenty-three units worldwide, and became the basis for a feature-length film, Pink Floyd -The Wall about the rise and fall of a rock star played by former Boomtown Rats singer, Bob Geldof. The film, which was released in 1982, just like the record that inspired it, was a worldwide box office hit. 

All Good Things Must Come To An End – The Final Cut 

Following the success of The Wall, Pink Floyd gathered to record their next album, and almost immediately the tension between Waters and Gilmour that had previously been bubbling under the surface of the choppy waters that Pink Floyd sailed, exploded.

Neither of them could or would agree about the direction that the record should take and while Waters wanted to use leftover songs from The Wall for the record, Gilmour didn’t want to use what he considered to be “outtakes” and wanted to write and record a completely new album.  

Wright and Mason’s contribution to the record is minimal, as they refused to take sides in the ongoing conflict between Gilmour and Waters, who both wrote and recorded their respective parts for The Final Cut separately.

When it was finally released in March 1983, the album was a critical and financial success despite Gimour’s protestations and would reach the top spot in the UK charts and sail into the Billboard Top Ten. 

Creatively, however, it was the last time that all four members of the band would work together in the studio.

Following some time apart during which Waters and Gilmour both released solo records that took ill-advised potshots at each other, the band finally arranged a meeting over dinner at a restaurant in London.

Wright and Mason left the meal convinced that the band would eventually continue, while Waters left in no doubt that Pink Floyd, and his tenure as the band’s bass player and vocalist, was over. 

The End? Not Quite 

After Waters left Pink Floyd in 1984, the band continued under the guidance of Dave Gilmour, releasing another three records, A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987), The Division Bell (1994), and The Endless River (2014), and following the release of their last album, finally hung up their guitars and switched off their amplifiers for good in 2014.

They came, they saw, they built their wall, they conquered the world and became, and remain, one of the greatest bands in the history of rock and roll. 

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