Monday, September 14, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd


Pink Floyd is one of the most critically and commercially successful bands in rock history, carving out their own uncompromising niche as sonic pioneers who revolutionized music and the live concert experience in the 1970s in a manner analogous to the Beatles in the 1960s. However, even to their legion of hardcore fans, there has always been an air of mystery and the unknown around Pink Floyd. Much of this is due to their carefully cultivated anonymity (these are not four distinct personalities the public knows in the way other bands are), how insular and closed-off they were during their heyday, and how little they spoke to the press. Additionally, there has been much myth making behind some of their biggest albums, and especially surrounding their gifted and ultimately doomed original leader Syd Barrett. In Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, author Mark Blake (whom I interviewed a while back about his excellent Who book which was reviewed here a while back) cuts through all of the murk from the past in order to separate fact from fiction and present the entire Floyd story as accurately as possible.

***special thanks to Sean at Da Capo Press for sending me a copy of the book to review!***


Like so much having to do with Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett is a central figure in their story even beyond his all too brief tenure in the band. It's well known that much of the Pink Floyd mythos, at least in the early years, was due to Barrett's songwriting and his subsequent mental health issues, but he remained an almost constant influence on the band and their music for the bulk of their career. Having grown up together in Cambridge, the three principal Floyd songwriters (Barrett, bassist/vocalist Roger Waters, and guitarist/vocalist David Gilmour) had known each other as kids. Along the two other members (drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist/vocalist Rick Wright), Syd's mental decline and eventual absence from the band and their lives left a wound that never really healed and had a profound emotional impact on them, borne out in much of their later music and lyrics. Drawing on extensive research as well as his numerous interviews with the members of the band, their friends, and associates, Blake lays out the complete story of the band from their beginnings as boys in Cambridge to the top of the music world in the 1970s, through the bitter legal proceedings and fallings-out in the 1980s to their eventual one-off reunion in 2005 and their status as elder statesmen of rock.  As with everything to do with the band, it always comes back to the place of Waters', Gilmour's, and Barrett's youth: Cambridge, England. Born within a couple years of each other in the middle of World War II, the three men grew up together through school and were all part of the burgeoning Cambridge scene, where numerous creative young people floated in and out of each others orbits. (The legendary Hipgnosis album art team of Storm Thorgersen and Aubrey Powell, who designed almost all of the band's album covers, also came out of the Cambridge scene). Beyond their geographical roots, Barret, Waters, and Gilmour also had in common their upper-middle class upbringings, and in the case of Waters and Barrett, a further connection of having lost their fathers: Roger's was killed in the war when he was an infant, and Syd's died when he was a young boy. Making their way through school, Roger, Syd, and Dave all played in loosely associated bands after being bitten by the rock n' roll bug like so many other British boys of their generation in the mid-to-late 1950s. Syd ended up continuing the great English rock tradition of attending art school, joining the likes of John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, and and Graham Coxon, while Waters studied architecture in the city, befriending two fellow upper-middle class students and budding musicians, Nick Mason and Rick Wright. The duo joined up with Barrett and Waters in 1965 and began playing around London as The Pink Floyd Sound before eventually shortening their name to Pink Floyd. Becoming part of the burgeoning underground psychedelic rock scene and led by the quirky and idiosyncratic songwriting and guitar playing of Barrett, the band were signed by EMI and released a successful debut album, The Piper At the Gates of Dawn, as well as the two popular non-album singles "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play." However, the eccentric but light-hearted behavior Barrett had always displayed in his youth was disturbingly exacerbated by his increased consumption of hallucinogens, such that by the time the band undertook their first US tour in 1967 he had become a liability. With their promising career suddenly in jeopardy, they made the decision to bring in old friend David Gilmour as a second guitarist and so, for the first month of 1968, Pink Floyd had five members (although Barrett spent most live gigs wandering around the stage barely playing). Eventually they made the decision to jettison him and so began Pink Floyd's classic, most commercially and critically successful period.



From here, Blake does a wonderful job taking the reader through the band's entire career, moving through each era and album and breaking down the various songs and sonic experimentation they were pioneering, as well as the developing power struggles as they became more successful. Up to and including the release of the landmark album Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, the band as a whole was truly greater than the sum of its parts, with all four members pulling together as one and creating some truly astonishing work. By this point, Roger Waters had long since taken over as the primary lyricist, and though he was starting to exert his influence as a songwriter more and more, Gilmour and Wright were still contributing quite a lot. As Blake points out via the band's own words, though, by the time they'd achieved superstardom with Dark Side of the Moon, they were left wondering where to go next. From Dark Side through the end of the decade they would make the best music of their career and solidify their place as the rock band that put on the best rock concert experience in both musically and visually, with landmark albums such as Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall rounding out their discography in the 1970s. However, now that they were wealthy and successful, they were a bit adrift. In an eerie parallel to what happened with the Beatles in the wake of Brian Epstein's death, Roger Waters (shades of fellow bass-playing songwriting genius Paul McCartney) stepped into the breach and exerted his control and drive over the rest of the band, dominating the remainder of their classic period work such that there was very little room left for contributions from the others. Gilmour managed to fight and claw his way to some co-writing credits, but while Mason was content to be the mediator, drummer, and sound effects guru, Wright stopped contributing to the writing to such an extent that he frustrated the other three enough that they sacked him during the making of The Wall in 1979. The final album from the classic Floyd, 1983's The Final Cut, had music and lyrics credited solely to Roger Waters, the only time this happened in their career. After this, there were lawsuits and nasty comments lobbed back and forth between Waters and Gilmour as the former sought to dissolve the band's interests while the latter wanted to carry on. A few more albums under the Floyd name came out in the 1980s and 1990s, and while not matching by any stretch their earlier work, they and their accompanying tours were hugely successful on a financial level. A mellowing over the years led to a reunion of the four men during 2005's Live 8, which was to be the final time Pink Floyd would ever reform. Barrett's death in 2006 and Wright's in 2008 put paid to that.



What is utterly fascinating about this band and the way Blake tells their story is how three things loom so large in their history: the Cambridge roots of Waters, Gilmour, and Barrett; the psychological decline and mental illness of Syd Barrett; and the death of Roger Waters' father during WWII. First, Cambridge was host to a vibrant scene of young musicians, artists, actors, and directors in the 1960s, many of whom decamped to London to form what many in and around Pink Floyd would dub the "Cambridge Mafia." Beyond the three band members, their lighting director, roadies, and the Hipgnosis visual arts collective all hailed from the city. Second, regarding Barrett: his sad decline and subsequent withdrawal from music and their lives had a profound effect on them, not only on a personal level as their friend but also on their music. The themes of mental illness, emotional distance, doomed rock stars, and absent friends inform much of Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here (indeed, they are the theme of that particular album), and The Wall. Finally, the death of Waters' father was a wound from which he never truly healed and impacted his writing to such an extent that The Wall and the Final Cut almost exclusively centered around this pivotal event, much to the eventual chagrin of his bandmates. Blake does a good job pointing out when each of these aspects reared their heads during specific events throughout Pink Floyd's career. In particular, the mental decline of Barrett is the most tragic as his friends and family saw it happen over a relatively short period of time in 1967, but it was dramatic and severe enough that he was never the same. To their credit, the band kept their distance as Syd requested, but always made sure that Syd's royalties made their way to his bank account while never once downplaying his contribution to their early sound and career.



When all was said and done, Pink Floyd were a collection of five well-educated young men who joined together to make some of the most interesting, boundary-pushing, experimental, dramatic, and successful music of the 20th century. Mark Blake has written an eminently compelling and readable book on their entire career that manages to cut through much of the myth behind the band and tell the true story. Their purposely cultivated anonymity, eschewing becoming a band of identifiable personalities in order to let their music and visuals do the talking, would go on to become both their blessing and their curse. It is but one of the many interesting aspect of their career that may not have been apparent to many fans before reading the book.  However, Syd Barrett is the constant thread at the heart of the band's story and indeed, of the book. To Blake's credit, he never allows Barrett to overwhelm or overtake the story of Pink Floyd. He also doesn't shy away from including passages that make Waters look like an egomaniacal rock star, nor the moments when he later admitted he was wrong. Likewise for not always showing Gilmour to be the "good guy" in the whole feud with Waters...in many instance, his behavior was as petty as his rival's. This balanced approach is what keeps the reader from taking sides in the dispute (unless you have preconceived notions going into the book, in which case you'll ether have them strengthened or confounded). This is one of the rare band biographies that I can find little or no fault with...if I were to have one complaint, it's that I wish it had since been updated to include Richard Wright's death in 2008 and the more recent controversies Roger Waters' touring of the Wall has attracted in recent years. This are but minor quibbles, though, and for any fan of Pink Floyd this has to be considered as the best comprehensive biography on this unique and beloved band.

MY RATING: 9.5/10


8 comments:

  1. I didn't know that Wright didn't contribute to The Wall. Opinions vary wildly on their albums. For me I lean towards their more experimental period up to around Wish You Were Here/Animals. I think The Wall has some good cuts, but overall pretty bloated. I prefer The Division Bell and maybe even Momentary Lapse over it.

    I can easily see why contributions among all the musicians would cause friction. Egos aside, another angle on that from what I've heard anyway is that royalty and payments are equated differently and on a sliding scale depending on who wrote the songs, who does the singing, and a few other things. So if you're just the drummer, and neither wrote any songs or sang, you'd get less than the other band. Unless, of course, the song writing chores are just labeled as an entire band effort. In the documentary, Levon Helm, Ain't In It For My Health, he points this out. Now that might be just sour grapes between him and Robertson, who knows, but it was an interesting insight.

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    1. Well, Wright played on SOME of the Wall album, but not all of it. Same with Nick Mason, honestly. They both played all the live shows, though. For me I like the album and I actually appreciate it more in recent years than I used to...I used to think it was just an overblown, bloated mess with a few good songs but it's actually quite good. For me I leave off with PF after The Final Cut...the three Gilmour-led albums (Momentary Lapse, Division Bell, Endless River) bore me to tears and beyond.

      On one hand it's not Roger's fault he was so prolific...in the case of the Wall, it was damn lucky for the band that he was as they'd gotten bilked by their financial advisors and were about to go bankrupt. His writing of the Wall and pushing them to record it against a tight deadline saved the band from economic ruin. But of course they acknowledge it now but at the time it really rankled, because as you said not only did he save them but he earned more from writing royalties. Such is life in a rock band!

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  2. (Momentary Lapse, Division Bell, Endless River) bore me to tears and beyond.

    I guess to each their own. One thing about music, and particularly the type I love, sometimes it takes time to grow on you. I thought Endless River was a wonderful homage to their past efforts. I hear snippets of Meddle (Echoes), Animals, Ummagumma, Atom Heart, and resemblances of some of their other musical melodies hidden within it. To me it's like the Hubble telescope going out further into the cosmos.

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    1. No worries, I respect your opinion! :).

      I do know that a lot of Endless River was made up of bits Rick had recorded as far back as the early 1970s that had just been sitting in the vaults. I'm not sure if it was truly a PF album though, but of course it sells way more if it's under that name.

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  3. No problem. I'm not a completest. I listened to bytes of the new David Gilmour and Keith Richards album off Amazon and I have to say neither did much for me. I didn't care for Gilmour's last album either. It's just too slow and really a rehash of more or the same. I guess as a music listener for so many years, I'm always wanting to hear something a bit different or to be challenged in some way. And sometimes that may not even be listening to something new, it might be hearing something old like Duke Ellington or something challenging like Ornette Coleman, who I'd bought albums by, but never could wrap my head around (but now I can).

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    1. Interesting takes on those two solo albums. I've not listened to either...even though I LOVE Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones, solo albums from those bands do nothing for me (other than Syd Barrett's and Roger Waters'). But I've heard loads of good things about both Keef's and Dave's newest ones...however, those might be from diehards who would love anything they've done. Based on previous Gilmour ones, I'd tend to believe your assessment over theirs.

      Since reading this book, I've been getting into a lot more live Floyd via live recordings...fantastic stuff! You ever listen to much of their live stuff?

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  4. Ever so often I'll listen to some live PF stuff. Of course there's the live side to Ummagumma, one of my favorite albums by them, but yeah, there's plenty of live bootleg stuff on the web, etc. Archive.org has quite a bit of that material ( https://archive.org/details/PinkFloyd07CarefullWithThatAxeEugene) , which I assume is legal or allowed by the band. They also have a bunch of stuff by the Grateful Dead on there, among other bands. Listening to some of that you pick up different mixes or interpretations on the songs, which is pretty cool. Bigozine2 has some of their live concerts too from time to time. I don't know anything about that site, but I'd guess it breaks copyright laws. But it's been around for some years now.

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    1. The amazing about Pink Floyd's live stuff is how they worked on new material that hadn't been released yet onstage. They started playing the entire Dark Side of the Moon album an entire year before its release! And songs from Animals and Wish You Were Here began to be played onstage in vastly different versions as early as 1974. Very gutsy move by them, but if anyone could pull it off, they could. (Led Zeppelin used to do this a LOT in the early 1970s as well)

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