Approached with little prior knowledge, Pink Floyd is an enigma. A stadium rock band renowned for massive laser light shows and a pioneering use of quadraphonic and holophonic sound, they are also best appreciated at home — alone or with a few true fans — on a pair of high fidelity stereo speakers or headphones, under the hazy purplish-greenish glow of a blacklight poster. The experience of their classic albums is paradoxically one of “shared solitary contemplation”; their live shows are an expansion of the home listening environment, where fans first received an “education from cousins and older brothers of friends as to the seriousness (and stoner sacrament) of The Dark Side of the Moon,” as Martin Popoff writes in Pink Floyd: Album by Album. Both enormously popular and daringly experimental, it’s hard to place them comfortably in one camp or another.
Listeners who came to the band during their 1970s heyday, “in the years between The Dark Side of the Moon and The Final Cut,” Bill Kopp writes, “were largely unaware of what the band had done before the period….. The fact highlights a remarkable feature of Pink Floyd’s popularity: casual fans knew of the band’s work from The Dark Side of the Moon onward; more serious students of the group were familiar with the band’s 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, made when Pink Floyd was led by its founder, Roger Keith ‘Syd’ Barrett.”
The split is curious because the 70s space rock version of the band who made the third best-selling album of all time owed so much to its psychedelic founder, who slipped completely from view as he slipped away from the music industry.
As Andy Mabbett writes in his book Pink Floyd: The Music and the Mystery:
Barrett’s withdrawal from music had long ago become a source of intrigue, one of the most mystifying sagas in rock, but his contribution to the group as their first singer, guitarist and songwriter was crucial to there ever being a Pink Floyd in the first place. Syd might not have played much of a role in the classic recordings Pink Floyd produced in the Seventies, but everyone — not least the group themselves — long ago realized that all this might never have happened were it not for Syd’s initial inspiration.
At their best, during the golden years of Dark Side and Wish You Were Here, the band remembered their history while expanding their early avant-blues rock into the outer reaches of space. Dark Side contained their first hit singles since their 1967 debut and introduced new fans to Barrett indirectly via the lyrics of “Brain Damage” (originally called “Lunatic”) and the “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” suite. The cynicism and sense of doom that seemed to take over as Roger Waters became the band’s primary songwriter found its foil in Barrett’s continued influence — in his absence — on the band during the early 70s.
But in the 70s one had to work particularly hard to get caught up on the early mythos of Pink Floyd, tracking down LPs of albums like Meddle, Atom Heart Mother, and Ummagumma. As early albums were reissued on tape and CD, it became a little easier to familiarize oneself with Pink Floyd’s many historical phases — from experimental psych-rock pioneers to stadium-filling prog-rock superstars. These days, that experience can be had in an afternoon on YouTube. The band has put their studio discography and three live performances online and you can find links below (with a few choice cuts above).
Does the ridiculous ease of finding this music now clear up the enigma of Pink Floyd? Maybe. Or maybe no amount of streaming convenience will dispel “the mystery,” Mabbett writes, “that grew around their reluctance to be photographed or interviewed for much of the Seventies, the lack of singles during the same crucial period, the imaginative album packaging, the crisp live sound, the spectacular theatrical shows — and, of course, a special magic that cannot be copied no matter how much money or equipment is available.”