Thursday, April 19, 2007

Pink Floyd: The Wilderness Years (1968-1972) - Part I

People often talk about Pink Floyd as if they were just one band that did their Pink Floyd thing and that was pretty much it. But in reality, like the Beatles, Pink Floyd were a long, consistently evolving entity that, by virtue of their own artistic instability, never recorded the same album twice. Most people haven't taken the time to explore their entire output, and until recently, I was one of those people. But in the name of completeness, considering that I call myself a serious fan, I finally decided to listen to every single Pink Floyd album. Instead of confirming the conventional opinion (often voiced by the gleefully ignorant such as myself) that they floundered around in half-baked psychedelic mediocrity until they hit Dark Side of the Moon, what I've discovered has only deepened my absolute, limitless allegiance to the band.

Part of the pleasure and fascination inherent in this period in the band's discography is that most people barely realise it exists. There are millions of hard-core Pink Floyd fans, particularly in America, who've never really felt that they were missing anything. To them, Pink Floyd began with Dark Side of the Moon, and everything before that was just a meaningless prelude. Then there are the snobby, cultish Nuggets fans who worship at the altar of Syd Barrett and heap scorn upon the frat guy masses trying to cue up Dark Side to The Wizard of Oz while stoned because they've never even heard of Piper at the Gates of Dawn. But what about that period between the flame-out of Syd and the ascention of Roger? We know one part of the story, and then we know another part of the story, but what about all those years in between? How did they get from Point A to Point B? Or to paraphrase Tom Waits: "What were they building in there?" Since nobody really knows about this era of the band, and since this period consisted of a relative lack of direction (when compared to the periods before and after), I have dubbed this period "The Wilderness Years."

The Wilderness Years represent a rare occurence in the rock world: namely, a situation where a famous and successful rock band suddenly consisted of four people who hadn't really planned on actually being in charge of a famous and successful rock band. Syd Barrett wasn't just any old member of the group: he was the lead singer and songwriter. It would be like if Pete Townsend went crazy and the other members of the Who suddenly had to cover for him. Forever. In other words, by all rights and privileges, post-Barrett Pink Floyd should have sucked big donkey balls. But talent works in mysterious ways, and by some strange combination of skill, chance, situation and luck, Pink Floyd not only remained a good band, but, in my opinion, actually became a better band.

Nevertheless, as a result of this situation, Pink Floyd spent several years grasping (some would say floundering) with their sense of artistic identity. At first, they tried to do imitation-Syd, but they soon realized that they simply weren't mentally deranged enough to do it right. So then they tried anything and everything, throwing songs at the wall and seeing what stuck. They did Kinks-style music hall pop. They did bad "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"" rip-offs. They did Grateful Dead-style country rock. They did Hendrix knock-offs. They did Nick Drake-esque baroque folk. They did long, meandering sonic freakouts - not so much because they liked doing them, exactly, but probably because they didn't require the band to come up with any actual lyrics. Even Roger Waters at this stage had no idea what the hell he was doing. Often you get the sense that they were just trying to fill up the album space.

So while this means that the era is inconsistent and disjointed, it also means that the era will hold a certain fascination for people who think of Pink Floyd only as the ultra-cautious AOR mega-concept album monsters of the mid-to-late 70s. While that Floyd was meticulously crafted and allowed little room for the chaos typically associated with great rock and roll, the Floyd of the Wilderness Years could be a lot more off-the-cuff and unpredictable (they were a little more Velvet Underground, a little less Eagles). So while most mainstream music fans will probably find the Wilderness Years mostly half-assed and annoying, certain indie rock fans might discover that this is the only Floyd for them. I've always felt that no matter what a person's taste, there is almost always, without fail, at least little bit of Pink Floyd that they will like. Because, contrary to popular belief, Floyd dabbled in a little bit of everything.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the Wilderness Years, for me, was discovering that these guys I thought I knew so well had tried out styles I simply did not associate them with. "What if Waters tried to write a love ballad?," you ask. Turns out he actually did. "What if Gilmour tried to sound like Jimmy Page?" He did. "What if Rick Wright became their lead singer?" For a time, he actually was. Since Pink Floyd were not yet "Pink Floyd" as we know and worship them, they displayed traits and influences at this stage that they would eventually abandon entirely. Instead of being a detriment, it's actually this era's strength. It's like discovering that The Rolling Stones tried to do Sinatra, and didn't suck at it either. Or it's like learning that the boring girl in the cubicle across from you used to be a stripper. Just when you thought you knew Pink Floyd, you realize you didn't know them at all.

Ultimately, for the fan like myself that is sick to death of the famous albums, exploring the Wilderness Years is like suddenly finding six brand new Pink Floyd albums. While I can admit that these albums are not as "good" as the famous ones, I'm more inclined to actually listen to them, because they still have some secrets to give up. Nevertheless, for every hidden gem they threw out there, there's an equal amount of pure wankery. Thus I felt that a compilation would be the best way to show off the virtues of the Wilderness Years, both for myself and for others.

To be continued...


yoggoth said...

6 albums? I didn't realize it was that many.

Little Earl said...

Oh yeah baby. Get ready for the album-by-album breakdown...