Despite being two of the most era-defining groups of the 1960s and ’70s, Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead rarely crossed paths. The two bands are often regarded as falling under the same broad umbrella, but their approaches were markedly different. They came from opposite sides of the Atlantic, after all.
Before the homogenising effect of the internet, a band’s geography had a noticeable impact on their output. Whereas The Grateful Dead’s music is enriched with uniquely American genres such as R&B, bluegrass and gospel, albums like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here seem more a product of germanic avant-garde styles such as Kraftwork-era electronica and Krautrock. Really, the only connection the two groups share is that they were both featured on the soundtrack for Michelangelo Antonioni’s cult film Zabriskie Point. In fact, pretty much the only evidence we have that Jerry Garcia had even heard of Pink Floyd comes from an interview he gave in 1980, in which he talked about some of his favourite bands of the ’70s.
During that interview, Garcia was asked what he’d been listening to on the radio during that explosive decade: “Just the stuff that hit everybody. I like The Wall a lot. Everybody likes that. I like Elvis Costello. I’m a big Elvis Costello fan,” he said. “I like Warren Zevon a lot, I mean, I’ve heard good stuff from almost everybody, just like I’ve heard bad stuff from almost everybody.” The Wall certainly captured the world’s imagination.
Released in 1979, the album was Pink Floyd’s first venture into the world of rock opera. It follows the story of a jaded rock star who gradually withdraws from society. His isolation from the rest of the world is the very thing that forms the metaphorical wall from which the album gets its name. The record’s central character was based on Pink Floyd’s tragic one-time frontman Syd Barrett, who was forced to leave the band after suffering a mental collapse as the result of his frequent use of LSD.
Although The Wall received mixed reviews in release, with many accusing Pink Floyd of being overblown and pretentious, the LP gave Pink Floyd their only UK and US number-one single with ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2’. Today, the album, which features tracks like ‘Comfortably Numb’ and ‘Run Like Hell’, is regarded as one of the best concept albums of all time and one of Pink Floyd’s best works, imbued with all the tension of a band on the cusp of implosion.
The Wall also marked the beginning of a slump in Pink Floyd’s creative output throughout the 1980s. But, as Garcia noted: “I don’t think there’s anybody who’s consistently putting out great stuff, time after time after time. But everybody’s got something to say and there’s moments in all of this that are real excellent. I go for the moments. I keep listening till I hear something that knocks me out.” For Garcia, The Wall was one of those moments, an exhilarating and impactful album that, so many years later, still feels as prescient as ever.