For many people, Pink Floyd are much more than a band. They are an institution, a frame of reference, a portal to a bygone era. Their anthems offer listeners a chance to re-connect with the world at large, while their albums instil a certain nostalgia for an England fading away like the history they hope to contain.
That’s a hefty boast for a band centred on the trappings of rock, but Floyd are deserving of the praise, and then some. What emerges from their canon is the sound of five precocious men eager to cast away the shackles of limitations for something more interesting and expressive
It didn’t hurt that Pink Floyd had two brilliant musical directors and three powerhouse musicians. After Syd Barrett left the outfit, his schoolmate Roger Waters slotted naturally into the role of spokesperson and chief songwriter. And following Waters departure, the other three rallied around each other to keep the banner flying.
Richard Wright’s death put a stop to future reunions, although the three surviving members (Barrett died in 2006) did appear on stage in 2011 to promote Waters’ tour of The Wall. Drummer Nick Mason, meanwhile, currently tours with his own group, featuring Spandau Ballet songwriter Gary Kemp, who specialise in Floyd’s early work.
Here, we pick out ten numbers, flitting from the punchy pop numbers of their early days, into the stream of instrumental suites that makes up many of their subsequent offerings.
Pink Floyd’s 10 best songs:
10. ‘Apples and Oranges:
Cambridge rockers Pink Floyd were fronted by Syd Barrett, who served as the band’s in-house songwriter. From their humble beginnings as a psychedelic lo-fi outfit, the band snowballed into something grander, resembling something of a Progressive outfit.
By the time they began writing elegies about the pull of the moon, Barrett had left the band, for a quieter, more contemplative lifestyle. A natural wordsmith, Barrett directly inspired David Bowie and Blur.
‘Apples and Oranges’ is one of his more charming compositions, and also dispels the rumour that his guitar skills weren’t as sharp as David Gilmour’s. The riff that cements the tune soars.
9. ‘Corporal Clegg’
Although Barrett wrote the first few singles, his band-mates were finding him harder and harder to work with. Keyboardist Richard Wright started composing in his absence, but bassist Roger Waters – a self-confessed workaholic – proved a worthier substitute.
In what would become a common theme in his work, Waters reminds listeners of the devastation that the second world war held on Britain. Waters came from a generation robbed of their fathers, and the sadness soaks ‘Corporal Clegg’.
Yet there is levity, as evinced by the cooing of a kazoo. Bandmates Gilmour and Wright sing this one, leaving Waters to tackle the harmony vocals. Even more surprisingly, drummer Nick Mason contributed to the vocals, making it one of the few songs to feature the four members of the classic lineup singing together.
Embarrassed by his voice, Waters regularly deferred to Gilmour during the early part of their career. Still, this tune – written as part of a soundtrack project – might have suited the bassist’s mellifluous tones.
That said, Gilmour acquits himself nicely to the tune, flitting from a ghostly falsetto into something more anthemic during the chorus. Behind him comes Wright’s jaunty, jangly piano, pirouetting across his instrument, like a drunken lover looking for his coins to procure one final drink.
Waters is also deserving of praise. He’s rarely given credit for his bass playing, but ‘Cymbaline’ features a riff that could only be described as funk-driven. In many ways, this track proves the blueprint for the universally adored ‘Money.’
Forget ‘Shine On, You Crazy Diamond’, this is the band’s masterpiece as a progressive rock band. Coasting at a leisurely 23 minutes, the song luxuriates in demonstrating the prowess of the band.
Mason has never sounded tighter, Waters has rarely sounded so creative, and Wright sings as if his life and soul depends on it. Indeed, the song could well be Wright’s defining moment with the group, which might explain why his band-mates have refrained from performing it since his death.
For Gilmour in particular, no one else should sing the tune but Wright. “There’s something that’s specifically so individual about the way that Rick and I play in that,” he admitted, “That you can’t get someone to learn it and do it just like that.”
6 ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’
This one divides people: For some, it’s an aesthetic representation of carnal female desires, and for others, it’s just plain old Floydian wank.
What it does boast is a soaring performance from Clare Torry, searing through the speakers with a vibrancy that could only have arisen from intense concentration. Purportedly a two take job, the band queried whether or not they should use the performance, before bowing down to the urgency of the tune.
“It’s a great chord sequence,” Waters boasted. “The Great Gig in the Sky” and the piano part on “Us and Them,” in my view, are the best things that Rick did – they’re both really beautiful. And Alan [Parsons] suggested Clare Torry. I’ve no idea whose idea it was to have someone wailing on it. Clare came into the studio one day, and we said, ‘There’s no lyrics. It’s about dying – have a bit of a sing on that, girl’. I think she only did one take. And we all said, ‘Wow, that’s done. Here’s your sixty quid’.”
5. ‘Wish You Were Here’
It’s common knowledge that Waters and Gilmour aren’t the chummiest of men. They seem intent on raking each other in public, decades after they finished working in a band together.
But I have no doubt that they recognise the strengths in each other, and ‘Wish You Were Here’ is the representation of this collaboration, incorporating Waters’ mournful lyric against Gilmour’s dynamic arpeggio.
Given the separation from his wife, the words were too probably too painful for Waters to perform, but Gilmour (arguably the most accomplished singer in the band) handles them with the tact and the integrity they deserve.
By Animals, Waters’ creative hold on the band was paramount, and he wrote the group’s tenth album virtually alone. Gilmour was awarded a co-writing credit on ‘Dogs’, and deservedly so, his plunging riff drives the song along.
Starting off as a blues number called ‘You’ve Got To Be Crazy’, the song soon enveloped into a 17-minute monster, featuring Gilmour on lead vocals. Following a blinding succession of flourishes, Waters emerges on the microphone, closing the tune with tremendous gusto and menace.
Behind the scenes, tensions were rising, culminating in The Wall, a magnificent, but uncompromising double album that saw Wright leaving the band at the bassist’s insistence. By the time they recorded album number 12, Pink Floyd proved a thinly veiled pseudonym for Waters.
3. ‘Two Suns In The Sunset’
Although nobody, not even Waters, would call The Final Cut a triumph, it does hold a number of finely crafted compositions, and ‘Two Suns In The Sunset’ is definitely one of the more memorable.
Sounding like the loneliest man in the world, Waters warns listeners of a world destroyed by war and challenges the British government to sit down from the fight. Having grown up without a father, Waters feared that other children would have to suffer as he did.
Never the greatest vocalist in the world, Waters nonetheless summoned enough energy and spirit to carry the record on his own shoulders. Judging it as a Floyd album, The Final Cut comes across as an oddity, but it’s his best work as a Roger Waters album.
2. ‘Learning to Fly’
Waters left Pink Floyd in the mid-1980s, certain that the band would crumble without him. Gilmour had other ideas, however, and convinced Mason and Wright to work with him on A Momentary Lapse of Reason.
Understanding that he lacked Waters’ songwriting abilities, Gilmour headhunted a number of outside writers (10cc keyboardist Eric Stewart among them) to help craft the record.
Unsurprisingly, the album sounded unfocused and certainly derivative, capturing many of the cliches that drowned audiences in the late ’80s. But for the choppy riff alone, ‘Learning to Fly’ is worth listening to, and the song carries a happy message. In times of trial, it’s important to soldier on and re-discover your wings. A comment about Waters, perhaps?
1. ‘High Hopes’
By 1994, Gilmour had found a more appropriate substitute: his wife, Polly Samson. Understanding his roots, Samson wrote a song littered with imagery of green, agrarian countryside, changing before Gilmour’s ageing eyes.
Better still, the song was accompanied by a giddily inventive video, struck in the heart of the English countryside. Surrounded by great beauty, Gilmour had been spurned on into musicianship, hoping for a sign that could take him to greater heights.
And here it arrives: an eight-minute ode to the city that spawned Monty Python, W.H. Jude and Pink Floyd, culminating in one of Gilmour’s steeliest solos. The song remains a mainstay in Gilmour’s solo career, and he remains resolute that Pink Floyd should not reunite.
Listening to this tune, I can’t blame him. It’s as if he was disconnecting himself from the act he had spent 25 years steering, before thrusting himself into the endless river where new possibilities awaited him.