When excavating for deep cuts from Pink Floyd, you must first avoid Dark Side of the Moon which, after its decades-long run on the album charts, has a distinct air of been-there-done-that familiarity. We also stayed away from Wish You Were Here, mostly because that album often works as an interlocking whole.
Instead, we plucked out a key moment from Pink Floyd’s pre-Dark Side era, then dug through the wreckage of the period following The Wall — which saw a series of uneven recordings, both with and without Roger Waters. All things considered, that may be the list’s biggest achievement: Finding something memorable on snoozers like The Final Cut and A Momentary Lapse of Reason.
The final tally included a song from the 1960s, 1970s and 1990s, with two from the 1980s. Our list is rounded out by a return-to-form track from The Division Bell, and a signature freak-out from The Wall …
SET THE CONTROLS FOR THE HEART OF THE SUN, SAUCERFUL OF SECRETS (1968): The idea of “space rock” begins right here, with Richard Wright’s keyboards lacing through Roger Waters’ barely heard, weirdly intriguing incantations.
Dig deeper though, past the lyrics (which Waters cribbed in part from a Chinese book called Poems of the late T’ang), and even past Wright’s gloriously diaphanous performance, and you’ll find an almost endless amount of new musical treasures. There’s drummer Nick Mason, playing in a ruggedly tribal manner using timpani mallets. Also, the first — and, alas, last — time that the soon-to-depart founding guitarist Syd Barrett appeared on record with successor David Gilmour.
Waters’ brilliant, ever-pulsing bass work holds everything together, as the “Set the Control” creates a droning, sound-sculpture template for where Pink Floyd — and then many others, of course — would go in the aftermath of Barrett’s frenzied psychedelia.
“POLES APART,” THE DIVISION BELL (1994): Recommended because, more than any other post-Animals release (by Pink Floyd or its principal songwriters), “Poles Apart” recalls the band’s earliest psych-rock songcraft. That means long keyboard moments, these echoing, sustained guitar chords– and segmented song-cycles effortlessly flowing into one another.
Really, the whole of this record is like a long, slow exhale after the novelization of Pink Floyd on The Wall and The Final Cut. Sure, the songs, written without the departed Roger Waters, often weren’t as narratively strong. But Division Bell, with Gilmour, Richard Wright and Nick Mason each making important contributions, emerged as Pink Floyd’s clearest group effort in years — and, though this was later, as a keepsake final recording before Wright’s untimely passing sent the band into retirement. Together in the studio one last time, they crafted something that recalls the rangy, at times almost free-jazzy, triumphs like the title track on Saucerful of Secrets and the bulk of Wish You Were Here.
This is the album, I think, that Gilmour and Co. hoped to make after the exit of Waters, though they ended up with the transitional Momentary Lapse of Reason — something which actually felt like a Gilmour solo work, more often than not. Division Bell finally sounded like Pink Floyd again, if for only a moment.
“ONE OF MY TURNS,” THE WALL (1979): I first heard this tune as a B-side on the single “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” its own anomaly in the digital age. Back then, the story was that “One of My Turns” was inspired by Roy Harper, the lead singer on Pink Floyd’s earlier “Have A Cigar” who in 1975 had trashed his caravan at the Knebworth Festival. Yet “One of My Turns” fits perfectly on The Wall, mainly because within one song cycle it encapsulates the larger theme.
A rock star (“Pink” in the movie from three years later) finds himself on the road and thus surrounded by people, but yet unknown to all of them. He brings a groupie back to his room only to discover this overwhelming regret over what his life has become. Pink’s marriage, left unattended, has grown cold — and this encounter is no better. While the girl marvels over his sprawling suite, Pink catches a bit of “The Dam Busters” — a 1955 film highlighting the wartime efforts of England’s RAF 617 Squadron — on television, and he’s hurtled back into the deeper loss that separates him from this girl, and from everybody. His thoughts, famously, draw tight as a tourniquet, and the character explodes into a furious line of questions about how this empty evening might play out: How could he have become so very disconnected from his own life? How could that yawning chasm ever be filled with this thoughtless interaction with a stranger?
After Pink rages through a series of sad scenarios by which he might entertain this now stunned and then silent and then quickly fleeing guest, Waters’ character — so self-involved as to have forgotten that he mentioned grabbing his “favorite axe”; meaning, what? A guitar? An actual axe? — plaintively wails: Why are you running awaaaaaay? The song’s title provides its own subtext. If this was only one of Pink’s turns, then we know why. There must have been others. Still, like a great moment in literature, you’re left wondering if it had gone worse the last time our protagonist got unbalanced. Was there, that other time, really an axe? Running away seems perfectly reasonable, right?
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Everybody went through a Pink Floyd phase, right? But, the child is grown; the dream is gone. Let’s face it, some of this stuff, well, sucked.]
“YET ANOTHER MOVIE/ROUND AND ROUND,” MOMENTARY LAPSE OF REASON (1987): Waters, having been invited back for a project featuring Gilmour and Mason, refused and then later unsuccessfully sued over the rights to use the band name — stating that Pink Floyd was a “spent force creatively.” Some said the subsequent release Momentary Lapse of Reason proved it — despite having included “Learning to Fly,” which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Rock charts.
This dream-like track, to me, represents the best of what the remaining Floyds still had to offer, with a bouyant keyboard signature (though the late Wright was still being listed as a session musician at the time), the appropriate lifting of soundbites from “Casablanca” (get it?, another movie?), and an extended, elegiac coda in “Round and Round” — part of a trio of demos apparently rejected by Waters for The Final Cut project.
It succeeds in ways the too-poppy hit single, the too-draggy “Sorrow” and the too-familiar “Dogs of War” never did — and provides a glimpse into the smaller successes that the trio of Gilmour, Wright and Mason would muster for the Floyd finale Division Bell.
[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.]
“YOUR POSSIBLE PASTS,” THE FINAL CUT (1983): Originally envisioned as a soundtrack to the motion picture component of the group’s multi-media project The Wall, 1983’s didactic “band” project The Final Cut became a stand-alone effort when Waters got tuned up over England’s involvement in the early-1980s’ Falkland Islands conflict.
In full megalomaniac mode by now, Waters had already sacked founding keyboardist Richard Wright, and subsequently relegated Gilmour to just four interludes. That reportedly led to a heated exchange in which Gilmour said: “Look, if you need a guitar solo, phone me.” Still, each of Gilmour’s showcases is a coiled delight. He’s pushed into concise bursts of angry brilliance, in particular on this recommended last-gasp cut.
Meanwhile, Waters once again unleashes a series of searing societal critiques like this one: “By the cold and religious, we were taken in hand: Shown how to feel good, and told to feel bad.” Pink Floyd’s devolution into a Waters cover band, nevertheless, was complete. The back of the original liner notes actually read: The Final Cut: A Requiem for the Post-War Dream — by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd.
Gilmour, perhaps rightly, objected. After all, they had already made this album — and, some argued, done a better job of it the first time. Despite its glimmers of brilliance, and “Your Possible Pasts” is certainly one of them, The Final Cut couldn’t achieve liftoff without meaningful contributions from Wright and Gilmour.
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