Celebrating 50 Years of Pink Floyd: The Big Five (Part 2 of 3)
By: Matt Fricks
This is the second in a three part series in which Matt explores Pink Floyd's unique career over three distinct eras and fifty years of constant change. It chronicles the internal and external forces that established them as one of the most singular voices in rock music. Check out part one and part three.
By the end of their Progressive Era, Pink Floyd settled into a comfortable new direction, driven by the Roger Waters' role as primary songwriter. The Big Five refers to the five albums that saw Waters at the creative helm, as he composed poignant lyrics pertaining to the dissolution of society, the harsh reality of loss, and the isolation of human existence.
Many people believe that the start of this Waters-led era also served as the band’s abandonment of their psychedelic roots. While the progressive experimentation and extensive improvisation of their earlier days was not as prominent during The Big Five Era, Pink Floyd never lost the core of their sound, even when enjoying their most mainstream success. The ambient guitar of David Gilmour, powerful percussive elements of Nick Mason, and the signature aura of Rick Wright’s keyboards were a huge part of four of these albums, particularly Dark Side of the Moon.
After releasing Obscured by Clouds in 1972, Pink Floyd began recording their first major concept album. Sifting through heavyweight with themes like war, the passage of time, and societal madness, Dark Side of the Moon was the major breakthrough for the band. This is the most iconic and most complete album in the Pink Floyd discography. While Waters wrote all of the lyrics, the other three members contributed fascinating instrumentation and vocals to create a truly collective sound.
In a post-Dark Side interview with Mason, he claimed, “[Dark Side of the Moon] was not only about being a good album but also about being at the right place at the right time.”
I consider Dark Side to be one long forty-three minute composition -- and in the early seventies, it was clear that the industry and fans were ready for such a thing. The work offered meaning and purpose to an audience that was craving something more.
The success of Dark Side was astronomical and the attention that it drew from the media spawned the idea for their 1975 follow-up album, Wish You Were Here. It was on this album that Pink Floyd dug into their past and paid tribute to Syd Barrett whose mental disintegration was in part due to the pressure surrounding him.
Musically, Wish You Were Here is Pink Floyd at their best. Similar to Meddle, it covers all aspects of their sound. Book-ended by the ethereal nine-part saga “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” its middle three tracks consist of spacey synthesizers that evoked the band's sixties output (“Welcome to the Machine”), harder rock with a blistering guitar solo (“Have a Cigar”), and a mellow acoustic classic (“Wish You Were Here”).
While the band was reaching a new height of success, Wish You Were Here was probably the last true group effort from the band – and in retrospect, it sounds that way. Following the release of the album, Roger Waters music and lyrics took a decidedly darker turn. This led to the angst-driven 1977 release of Animals – one of Pink Floyd’s finest pieces.
Waters is credited as the primary creator of the entirety of Animals, with the only other contribution coming from Gilmour on the second track, “Dogs.” Though Wright often expressed his lack of passion for making this album, he is prominently featured on every track (with the exception of the short acoustic bookends of “Pigs on the Wing Pt. 1” and “Pigs on the Wing Pt. 2”) and provided some of his best keyboard playing in the band’s entire discography, particularly the introduction to “Sheep.”
Animals is filled with angst and hate…and I love it. The band had always placed an emphasis on complexity with their music, particularly in Waters' lyrics. Waters had now found the piercing bite behind his lyrical construction -- making the music startlingly less accessible. While Barrett’s madness hindered the productivity and forward progress of the band, the madness exhibited by Waters was truly artful and pushed boundaries. It also set up his bandmate quite well. Gilmour was given a platform to piece together some of his finest guitar solos and Mason found his way around a drum kit better than ever before, particularly with the stellar tom work on “Dogs” and the highlighted cowbell on “Pigs (Three Different Ones).”
Compounding these darker tendencies, the miserable experience of playing large stadiums on the 1977 tour led to a deep feeling of isolation for Waters, prompting Pink Floyd’s second biggest success: The Wall (1979). By now, Waters had taken complete control of the band, including the structure of the music – but despite the fractured nature of the creative output and darker themes, the band's popularity followed an increasingly upward trajectory.
The Wall tells the story of a fictional (though semi-autobiographical) character named Pink structuring a wall around himself to avoid being hurt or exposed to the difficulties in society. The destruction of the wall creates an interesting paralell to the dissolution of the band.
While The Wall remains one of music’s most appreciated albums, it was the beginning of the end of the Waters-led Pink Floyd. Wright was forced out of the band by Waters and then re-hired to play the live shows on the four-city tour. The Wall “Tour” from 1980-1981was a visual spectacle, featuring extravagant stage props and a literal wall across the stage; and yet, it was simultaneously a disaster.
As mesmerizing as the show was, it was perhaps too technically sophisticated for 1981. Some of the props had malfunctioned and the grandiosity of the live show caused the band to lose money from several performances (With the benefit of better technology, Waters would later revive this show for one of the biggest and most successful tours in music history). Tensions were rising within the band. The struggle to find a connection and act as a collective unit was at an all-time high and the relationships among the members were deteriorating at a rapid pace. The Wall was both a major musical success and a catalyst for the disintegration of the band.
Wright remained ousted from the band during the final album of The Big Five era. The Final Cut (1983) was Waters’ last piece with Pink Floyd. Often referred to as a Roger Waters solo album, its alternate title is “A Requiem for the Post-War Dream by Roger Waters, Performed by Pink Floyd.” While Waters certainly is the main focus here, The Final Cut does feature some fine contributions from Gilmour and Mason and retains some elements of the late-seventies Pink Floyd sound. In fact, several of the songs on The Final Cut, including the title track, were originally considered for The Wall.
The Final Cut is an overlooked album in the Pink Floyd discography that features some of the finest lyrics ever written by Waters. Though his pending exit from Pink Floyd was not fully cemented at the time of the release of The Final Cut, and while several songs maintain his chilling snarl and sharp tone, there are moments of pure beauty in which we hear Waters pleading with those no longer in his life, begging for answers to questions that cannot simply be answered. It is a political piece; however, it also seeks to answer the universal question of “Why?”
Every time I listen to “Two Suns in the Sunset” (the closing track on The Final Cut, featuring only Waters and Gilmour from the core four), I am left with a somewhat-gratifying sense of closure when I hear the final lyric that Waters ever wrote with Pink Floyd: “Finally, I understand the feelings of the few – ashes and diamonds, foe and friend – we were all equal in the end.”
Does this line simply pertain to the album’s thematic arc of war or was there something more? Was that Waters’ way of demonstrating understanding and respect for his fellow band mates? I like to think of it as a nod of appreciation from Waters and a reflection on the last ten years (1973-1983). And with those final thought-provoking and emotionally charged words, Waters had left Pink Floyd and closed the era of The Big Five with a slow fade out into silence.
But the story is not over. Though Waters had parted ways with Pink Floyd due to increasing tensions, Gilmour, Mason, and Wright would carry on the name Pink Floyd in The Post-Waters Era, touring extensively and releasing three more studio albums and two live albums. Gilmour would become the primary songwriter.
This was not the end for Waters either. Though he would endure an early struggle against the Gilmour-led Floyd, Waters would find his way with some incredible solo projects. Later, he would return as the true genius of Pink Floyd with several mesmerizing shows, including a one-off reunion performance with his former band mates that would captivate the entire world.