Nobody is going to accuse Pink Floyd — whether collectively, or apart — of inundating the market with product. The group has only issued three projects in the last 30 years, while its members have been just as stingy with solo albums.
In fact, David Gilmour, Nick Mason and the late Syd Barrett and Richard Wright, between them, only issued 11 total studio recordings over the first 45 years or so after Pink Floyd’s debut.
Wright’s most recent project, before he passed four years ago, had been back in 1996. Mason hasn’t put out an album under his own name since 1981. Barrett, the damaged early leader of the band, last issued a studio effort in 1970 before his own death in 2006.
Roger Waters, the group’s middle-period creative mastermind, has been — perhaps unsurprisingly — the most prolific of all of the members of Pink Floyd. But even Waters (with nine solo albums) has hardly been a productive juggernaut lately, having most recently released a new studio rock project in 1992.
Again, perhaps unsurprisingly, these solo efforts tend to get overlooked in a world where Dark Side of the Moon stays on the charts for nearly a generation, and Waters tours The Wall for what seems like another. That’s where we come in, with our list of the the Top 5 solo albums from members of Pink Floyd …
ROGER WATERS – RADIO K.A.O.S. (1987): Commercial flourishes like sequenced drums and programmed keyboards all but sunk this project, which today comes off as a plasticine bid for MTV acceptance.
Sort through those aural missteps, however, and you find in tracks like “The Powers That Be” modern versions of Waters’ patented call to arms against bloated bureaucracy and war-mongers — “they like fear and loathing; they like sheep’s clothing” — and a memorable, driving horn signature.
Elsewhere, “Home” featured some of Waters’ most biting commentary, despite the dated production. Here, he challenges us all to stand up to the creeping indignities that eventually coalesce into true injustice. Waters then hits a riff, talking about any number of unexpected personalities who might one day provide the greatest danger to our every day lives — neatly presupposing the sweeping fear that eventually gripped this nation in the wake of September 11, 2001.
DAVID GILMOUR – DAVID GILMOUR (1978): Arriving as it did between two Waters-heavy Pink Floyd releases (Animals and then The Wall), Gilmour’s self-titled debut is destined to forever be compared to them — yet the record holds its own as a smaller, personal statement.
Loose and collaborative, with some interesting instrumentals, David Gilmour is recommended because it’s neither trying to sound like Waters or (like, say, the Gilmour-led albums in the band’s third-act) trying to “sound like Floyd.” Instead, everything feels familiar and comfortable. Credit goes, I think, to Gilmour’s backing band — old buddies who had been members of Bullitt, an early Gilmour solo group.
Together, they construct what stands as Gilmour’s most varied offering — from a tough, ominous rocker in “There’s No Way Out of Here” to a somber and sweet vocal showcase in “So Far Away,” from the driving “Short and Sweet” to the closer “I Can’t Breathe Anymore,” which builds off a simple reading on isolation into a soaring guitar solo.
SYD BARRETT – BARRETT (1970): Recorded while his old band was holding tandem sessions for what would become Atom Heart Mother, Barrett’s second solo album would be co-produced by Gilmour and Wright, who also served as sidemen on the date. Yet, in many ways, Barrett doesn’t sound anything like what you might expect.
Gone are Pink Floyd’s early, more whimsical atmospheres. In fact, there’s almost none of the punky psychedelia that marked the Barrett-composed breakthrough songs “Arnold Layne” or “Apples and Oranges.” In its place are undercurrents that might rightly be ascribed to the Beatles, though Barrett’s music could be much heavier. Despite his well-documented mental state, Barrett’s wild-eyed whimsy was evolving into pop songcraft of the highest order.
In no way was this morose flower-power stuff, even though it has a vague elegiac tone. Believe it or not, Syd sounds tough — and incredibly modern. The whole of Barrett, and in particular “Baby Lemonade,” “Maisie” and “Gigolo Aunt,” could still fit easily into a college-radio rotation.
DAVID GILMOUR – ON AN ISLAND (2006): A wee-hours recording, utterly controlled — even when it rocks a little — and completely mesmerizing. On an Island was just Gilmour’s third solo project ever, and first in nearly 20 years. It was worth the wait.
He completes a transformation here from the alternately pissed off and/or diffident figure of the late Waters years (best heard on “Comfortably Numb” and “Not Now, John”) back into his early-period persona. This album is, in fact, as un-extravagant as it can be — poles apart not only from the Wall/Final Cut era, but also the over-thought, occasionally stuffy things Gilmour later did as frontman with Pink Floyd on Momentary Lapse/Division Bell. That’s its lasting charm.
Critics said On an Island sounded too much like it was: a pet project constructed by this semi-retired 60-year-old multi-millioniare Brit, hanging out with his wife and buddies (Wright, David Crosby and Graham Nash, Phil Manzanera) aboard a houseboat on the Thames. I say, listen closely and you’ll hear for the first (last?) time in forever a complete return to the cerulean placidity that made pre-Dark Side era Pink Floyd recordings so special.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: You could call this 1994 Floyd concert “Rain Like Hell,” as the grandest effect of all was provided courtesy of God — actual creator, you are reminded, of the moon and its dark side.]
ROGER WATERS – AMUSED TO DEATH (1992): Like the great Pink Floyd albums released so many years before it, Waters finds his greatest success as a solo artist through a collaborative bond with a forceful and equally artful guitarist … this time, Jeff Beck.
Waters again focuses on the problems of modern life — needless war, out-of-control capitalism, mindless entertainment consumption. Sounds familiar, right? But Amused to Death stands today as the most coherent reiteration of Waters’ mindset since he left Pink Floyd: We have maybe his best take on the conflicts within organized religion (and that’s saying something) during “What God Wants, Pt. 1.” Equally trenchant is Waters’ contempt for warlords in “The Bravery of Being Out of Range.” His duet with the Eagles’ Don Henley, a meditation on the 1989 Chinese youth movement against Communism called “Watching TV,” is the most sadly beautiful thing Waters ever attempted — while “Three Wishes” might be the best song Pink Floyd never did.
After the too-wordy, too-synthy Radio K.A.O.S., Roger Waters was, quite simply, back on his game. He needed a strong partner like Beck, not to mention long-time orchestral collaborator Michael Kamen (The Wall, The Final Cut). Together, they crafted music that matched Waters’ lyrical intensity once more.
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Syd Barrett – The Madcap Laughs, 1970: Aptly titled, these sessions threatened to go off the rails over and over again; yet, there are still these shiny-diamond moments. What a loss. … Nick Mason – Fictitious Sports, 1981: Really a Mason solo album in name only, fans of keyboardist Carla Bley will find an inviting song cycle. … David Gilmour, with the Orb – Metallic Spheres, 2010: Gilmour again returns to his roots as a narrative instrumentalist, with a band that always owed a huge debt to Pink Floyd.
Richard Wright – Wet Dream, 1978: Amateurish and, as with the title, at times garish; Wright was so important to Floyd, yet he often seemed lost without them. … David Gilmour – About Face, (1984): Guests like Pete Townshend and Toto’s drummer weren’t able to save this too-slick trifle; it even includes a belated pass at disco called “Blue Light.” … Roger Waters – Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking, (1984): A drab, mid-life-crisis record, something its high-concept presentation in “real time” can’t disguise.