Marcus Berkmann

The missing sixth

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I’m confused. Did five-sixths of the world’s population really watch Live8? If so, what did the other sixth think they were doing? Did they ask permission? I and my friends were playing cricket on the day, and during the tea interval, while stuffing cheese and pickle sandwiches into our faces, we naturally and automatically tuned into Williams v. Davenport on BBC1. (The pavilion didn’t have Sky Sports for the cricket.) But we all agreed that, if any market researchers or undercover policemen challenged us, we would say we watched Live8 like everyone else. ‘Pink Floyd were good, weren’t they?’ we rehearsed. ‘And why on earth were The Who given only two songs?’

Musically, of course, Pink Floyd were the story of the day. Impartial observers had long assumed that it would be a cold day in hell, with an Englishman as Wimbledon champion and the moon found to be made of cheese, before Roger Waters and David Gilmour kissed and made up — but there they were, on stage together, apparently cheerfully playing four old Floyd songs. For 30 years these two men have been arguing about who led Floyd, who owned Floyd, who was Floyd, to all intents and purposes.

There’s no doubt that by the time of The Wall in 1979, Waters was very much in charge. He wrote almost all the songs, threw his weight about in the studio and sacked Rick Wright, the keyboard player. The whole album is infused with his misery and paranoia, which clearly reflected the public mood of the time, for The Wall sold millions. This rather settled the leadership issue and led to the even barmier The Final Cut four years later, an album even hardcore Floydists listen to only rarely with a large drink to hand. Waters then stomped off to a furious and unloved solo career, Gilmour took charge, and Pink Floyd were transformed into a lucrative but dull stadium rock band releasing ever less interesting albums — a little like Coldplay today.

A decade or so ago Gilmour got bored and band activity ceased. But the bickering continued, with Waters in particular expending far more energy and creativity on lawsuits and bitchy interviews than on writing his loopy songs. What they were arguing about had happened so long ago that you began to wonder whether Pink Floyd had ever been any good. But then you listened to Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here and, to a lesser extent, Animals and all doubts were banished.

Some Floyd fans, though, have become nearly as polarised as the band’s two leaders. Waters fans believe in his version of events (creative giant hamstrung by Lilliputian dullard collaborators); whereas Gilmour fans point out that the guitar solos were awfully good and Waters, as a mere bassist, could never have played those. But neither standpoint can quite account for the sad decline in the quality of both men’s output in the past 20 years. Or, to be honest, for the brilliance of their mid-70s work, when no one was clearly in charge.

Do we pay too much attention to the ‘leaders’ of bands? They are customarily the most charismatic and often the most photogenic of band members, and usually talk the loudest as well. But the best bands work precisely because they are bands: it’s the chemistry between the members that counts. In Floyd, let’s not forget Nick Mason, the drummer, or Rick Wright, the keyboard player. Mason was the facilitator, the peacemaker, the oil in the machine; every successful band needs one of these. And Wright came up with a lot of their best ideas. He wrote ‘The Great Gig In the Sky’, and co-wrote ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’. In 1978 he and Gilmour both released solo albums: a strategic mistake, it turned out, because by using all their best songs on these albums they allowed Waters to stride in and take over for The Wall.

Gilmour’s album is surprisingly colourless. Wright’s album, which labours under the appalling title Wet Dream, suffers from his weak vocals and has a few weedy tunes, but much of it is glorious in an understated, diffident English way. The highlight is an instrumental track called ‘Waves’ which starts off as a band number with Mel Collins playing the melody on tenor sax, but the band gradually disappears and is replaced by grand, symphonic washes of synthesiser. It’s quite strikingly beautiful, and if it had been recorded by Pink Floyd it would be world famous. Waters may have been the lyricist and conceptualist, Gilmour may have played excellent 11-minute guitar solos but Wright was the texturist and, in some respects, the band’s main musical innovator. Waters sacked the wrong man. Or, if you are a conspiracy theorist, the right man. What a bunch of maniacs. Shine on you crazy diamonds.