Exactly 40 years ago, Pink Floyd’s 11th studio album The Wall was released. So too was the first single from the album, “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”. They hadn’t troubled the singles charts in the UK since the halcyon days of the Syd Barrett era more than a decade previously, so the 45’s subsequent success was probably as much of a surprise to the band as to anyone else.
“Another Brick in the Wall” became an international smash, selling over four million copies, giving Floyd a totally unexpected Christmas No 1 in the UK. It remains one of Pink Floyd’s most popular songs. But it long ago became the norm to expect the unexpected from a band for whom the term “sonic adventurers” might have been coined.
After first coming to prominence with their acid-fuelled experimental residencies at London’s famous underground music clubs the Marquee and UFO, followed by a brief flirtation with pop stardom in 1967, Pink Floyd survived the departure of their de facto leader and main songwriter Syd Barrett, who became one of rock’s first high-profile drug casualties, and continued to evolve thereafter. These legendary psychedelic/art rock/prog rock behemoths have produced some of the greatest music of the rock era.
Here are just 10 of their greatest songs.
10. “Astronomy Domine” (The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967)
Once heard, never forgotten, the opening track from Pink Floyd’s astonishing debut album was light years away from “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play”, the pair of whimsical singles that established Pink Floyd as unlikely pop stars in the Summer of ’67. A psychedelic voyage through the universe, Syd Barrett’s “Astronomy Domine” is the perfect distillation of Floyd’s experimental freak-outs that so bewitched the underground cognoscenti in 1966 and ’67, and even helped coin the term “space rock”, thanks to its otherworldly ambiance and references to celestial bodies.
9. “Money” (Dark Side of the Moon, 1973)
Heavy on irony, “Money“, with its cash register and jangling coins sound effects, was a fully-fledged attack by Roger Waters on the evils of wealth and avarice, particularly in the rock milieu, just as Dark Side of the Moon launched the band to stratospheric mainstream success. The song’s unusual time signature, roaring sax solo, chunky bass riff and David Gilmour’s dynamic soloing all add up to Pink Floyd at their rockiest and most commercial, and “Money” became a rare hit single for them in the US but not in the UK.
8. “Us and Them” (Dark Side of the Moon, 1973)
”Money” segues into ”Us and Them“, one of the angriest yet most beautiful songs in the entire Pink Floyd canon. Roger Waters’ lyrics rail against war, poverty and injustice amid a warm haze of lustrous harmonies, gospel backing vocals and gorgeous tenor sax solos from Dick Parry. The music is by Rick Wright and it ranks high in his list of achievements with Pink Floyd. Wright’s Hammond organ takes us to church on the intro, and he then contributes some hugely affecting piano until all the elements come together for the emotive crescendo at the song’s climax.
7. “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”, (The Wall, 1979)
Inspired by Roger Waters’ experiences at grammar school and with its decidedly unfestive message – protesting against the misuse of power, the group’s first UK hit single in 12 years made for a rather unlikely Christmas No 1. In fact, “Another Brick in the Wall” reigned for five weeks in their homeland and topped the charts around the world. No doubt, many buyers wouldn’t necessarily have been Pink Floyd fans but were attracted by the disco beat and the chorus sung by pupils of Islington Green School, and David Gilmour’s guitar solo is one of his very best.
6. “Echoes” (Meddle, 1971)
Meddle was the Pink Floyd album that straddled their experimental psychedelic era and the progressive conceptual direction they would soon embark on with Dark Side of the Moon, and the monumentally ambitious “Echoes” is the magnum opus of that transitional album. At a shade under 24 minutes, this side-long, slow-building soundscape may come across as improvised, but “Echoes” is a carefully structured ensemble piece showcasing each individual member’s particular skills. Much of what we came to love about post-Syd Barrett Floyd is here – long instrumental passages, dreamy vocals, liquid guitar, sumptuous melodies and harmonies, all punctuated by trademark Floyd sound effects – the sonar bleep on the intro, corvids cawing and what to me sounds like whales communicating.
5. “Comfortably Numb” (The Wall, 1979)
This David Gilmour/Roger Waters collaboration was a fractious affair by all accounts, but the result was one of Pink Floyd’s most celebrated songs and a huge live favourite. The lyrics from Waters allude to his medicated state when performing at a gig a couple of years previously and closely mirror The Wall album’s recurring theme of the mental breakdown of “Pink”, the jaded rock star. Gilmour’s two guitar solos reach for the heavens and succeed on a song so great that it even survived a Scissor Sisters remake.
4. “See Emily Play” (1967)
One half of the brace of cherished early Floyd singles written and sung by Syd Barrett, which along with their debut album, summed up the cosmic experimentation of 1967. “See Emily Play”, originally called “Games For May” followed “Arnold Layne” into the charts, reaching No 6, and formed part of the definitive soundtrack of the so-called Summer of Love. Barrett, however, viewed singles as a compromise and was unhappy at appearing on Top of the Pops, and even as this wonderful evocation of childhood was riding high in the charts, he was already showing signs of the drug-induced breakdown that would lead to his departure from the band the following year.
3. “Time” (Dark Side of the Moon, 1973)
Dark Side of the Moon’s greatest song has so many pleasures – the famous cacophony of chimes and alarms and ticking clocks leading into thumping power chords and Nick Mason’s iconic solo on rototoms drums. Richard Wright’s dreamlike vocals on the first bridge setting up David Gilmour’s soaring guitar solo, and the reprise of “Breathe” which leads into the last track on side one of the original album, the majestic “The Great Gig in the Sky” – which when I think about it, really should have made this list. However, perhaps the greatest pleasure of ”Time“, albeit a bittersweet one, is Waters’ lyrics (“Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way“), the theme of which is something most of us will have experienced at some point – the fear that life is slipping away with the passage of time.
2. “Wish You Were Here” (Wish You Were Here, 1975)
Tasked with following the huge success of Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd’s next album was initially met with disappointment, but is now viewed as quite the equal of its storied predecessor. Wish You Were Here explored inter-band friction and their growing disenchantment with the music industry, but is best known as the album on which Floyd finally confronted the lengthy shadow of the long-lost Syd Barrett head-on. The almost unbearably melancholic and moving title track isn’t overtly about their former colleague, but with its gentle acoustic vibe and heartfelt lyrics, it’s impossible not to agree with David Gilmour when he said he couldn’t sing it without thinking of Syd.
1. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts 1 to V” (Wish You Were Here, 1975)
Originally a 26-minute suite, the majestic ”Shine On You Crazy Diamond“ was split into two parts, bookending Wish You Were Here. “Parts 1 to V” opens the album and Roger Waters’ lyrics referring to the “piper” who “reached for the secret too soon” make this the Pink Floyd song above all others that directly speaks for and about Syd Barrett. This deeply moving tribute to Barrett is made all the more poignant with the knowledge that at some point in the recording of the Wish You Were Here album at Abbey Road studios, an almost unrecognisable Barrett turned up unannounced and spent some time with the band. Many tears were shed and that was the last contact the band had with their former comrade. Rock lore has it that the band was working on this track, Pink Floyd’s greatest song. Although some parts of the story may be apocryphal, that seems entirely appropriate.