When it comes to his opinions on other bands, Pete Townshend has never been one to keep his card’s close to his chest. He has fired shots at everyone from The Beatles to Led Zeppelin in the past, but he also isn’t shy of a compliment or two either. While Pink Floyd and The Who might exist in two separate musical worlds, he has always been full of praise for the prog-rock pioneers.
In fact, when Townshend inducted Pink Floyd into the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005, he glowingly recalled the first time he witnessed the band play live and the major impact it had on him as a young musician. “I first saw Pink Floyd during the Christmas break in 1966 at the UFO club in London, it was a great club,” he began.
The mid-sixties era for ‘The Floyd’ was one that saw them heavily guided by their near-mystic late former frontman, Syd Barrett. The tragic figure was renowned for his enchanting performances, and he certainly wowed Townshend. “Syd Barrett was on guitar at the time,” he continued “astonishing, the whole band were wonderful, just wonderful. Roger had the most extraordinary impressive presence and their sound were swirling, cosmic and enveloping.”
However, of all the bands looking to create a swirling sound in that era, Pink Floyd proved most unique and this was also reflected on by Townshend. “You could dance to them and that was quite a big thing in the psychedelic era because you had to dance like this…” he remarked before flailing his arms around like an inflatable outside of the car dealership.
He then comically continued: “A Pink Floyd gig is the only reason that I ever missed a Who show, period. Apart from car crashes or serious illness. January the 20th, 1967 I skipped a Who gig in Morecambe to take the famous Eric Clapton to see this guy Syd Barrett play guitar with Pink Floyd.” If Townshend and Clapton are enamoured by your very singular guitar work, then you know you are doing something right.
What’s more, these early shows were dazzling to Townshend and just about everyone else because of the band’s attention to visual detail. One of the attendees at their first underground show was Peter Mercier. He was a photographic student at the Ealing School of Photography in 1966. “We were having a lecture about fashion photography,” he recalls. “We were being assisted in this exercise by a young model who at the end of the afternoon invited me along ‘to a gig in a church hall where one of the new psychedelic bands will be playing’.”
“Believe me it was another time and another place, for it turned out to be a very early Pink Floyd gig, featuring Syd Barrett, Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Richard Wright,” he adds. Beyond the music, the alternate time and place that the band created was a photographer’s dream. It was also a dream that spurred Townshend on to new musical heights as he pushed the band towards more introspective territory inspired by the magic that he had seen.