Take a moment to picture a stereotypical Pink Floyd listener. What springs to mind? I imagine that the person you’re looking at is wearing at least one of the following: a tie-dye shirt, a shark tooth pendant, Birkenstocks. No? OK, well, at least for me, Pink Floyd are symbolic of a very particular type of music fan, the type who likes their listening experience to be accompanied by a thick slice of psychotropic adventure. I admit this is something of a cliche, but you have to accept that, for the general public, the very mention of Pink Floyd conjures up the image of some blissed-out hippy staring at his hands in stunned contemplation. For Roger Waters, however, the link between the pioneering psych-rock band and drug culture is ill-founded and inaccurate. In his opinion, Pink Floyd’s reputation exaggerates the role that drugs actually play in the group’s music. To the outsider, Pink Floyd are writing mind-melting music every day and going on expansive hallucinogenic trips every night. But, as Waters has tried to make clear countless times, that idea takes away from the artistry and creative spirit at the very heart of his band.
Back in 2013, Waters addressed this issue directly, challenging the public’s warped image of Pink Floyd. In the interview, the musician’s frustration is front and centre. It’s clear that Waters has no idea “how Pink Floyd fans ever came to formulate the philosophy that somehow it was all to do with outer space, which happened earlier”. What’s fascinating is that Waters’ comments would seem to imply that Pink Floyd’s music was taken out of context almost immediately. It’s an example of just how difficult it is for a musician to have complete control over their artistic output. While Waters was attempting to imbue his lyrics with a more literary sensibility, fans and critics soon took control, interpreting them in a way that Waters had never intended them to. As he makes plain, the band’s image was actually out of date as soon as it was invented: “I think it had to do with the fact that one song was called ‘Interstellar Overdrive,’ and another song was called ‘Astronomy Domine,’ both compositions of Syd’s,” he said.
The reality is that unlike Syd Barret – who would eventually become one of the ’60s many acid casualties – Waters only tried LSD twice. Apparently, the worst addiction he had was to nicotine. And yet, Pink Floyd’s image remains firmly rooted in the drug culture of that era. But why? Barrett left the band in 1968, well before the band released Dark Side Of The Moon. If Waters is to be believed and the drug associations were a product of Syd’s prominence in the group, surely they would have dissolved when he was replaced by David Gilmour. But, instead, the opposite happened. Dark Side Of The Moon only solidified Pink Floyd’s relationship to mind-altering substances, with ‘Breath (In The Air)’, becoming a cliched stoner anthem almost as soon as it was released. Is it that artists such as Pink Floyd actually have very little control over their legacy?
To me, it seems quite possible that, as the years have passed, those pioneering bands of the 1960s and ’70s have been reduced to their most surface associations. In our cultural memory, the period evokes a few very specific images: drugs, free love, and music being just a few. As a consequence, the bands who dominated the charts during that time have become shallow personifications of those same images. In reality, the era was far more complex and nuanced, but that’s not how memory works.
Clearly, Waters’ frustration is to do with more than just people’s assumption that Pink Floyd celebrate drug culture. Perhaps his greatest fear is that the farther we get from the ’60s and ’70s, the likelier it is that Pink Floyd will become just another of society’s false memories.