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Political Pink Floyd

A Short History

Roger Waters performing his political antithesis to Trump and co. 

Pink Floyd produced seminal works in the creation of the concept album during '70s. Of these concept albums, The Dark Side of the Moon perhaps is the most famous. Released in 1973, The Dark Side of the Moon has since spent almost 1000 weeks on the Billboard Albums charts, one of the highest of any other album created thus far.

However, it all began with a psychedelic, and relatively childish-sounding album, reflecting alienation, existentialism and space travel. Named after a chapter in the classic child’s novel The Wind in the Willows, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn also reflects the impact their home town, and surrounding area, had on them. Their first single, "Arnold Layne," along with the B-side "Candy and a Currant Bun," was released early on in 1967, depicted a transvestite who stole women’s clothes from washing lines, and was banned from several radio stations as a result of this. Despite this, it reached the U.K. Top 20, the band’s second release, "See Emily Play," a song reflective of despair, reached the Top Ten, paving the way for the release of their first album. On their full-length album leaned toward the more experimental genres, most notably in the instrumentals "Astronomy Domine" and "Interstellar Overdrive," resulting in an album that had a major influence on others not only upon its release, but also into the future. However, this golden age with Syd at the helm would not last. Due to declining mental health Syd experienced from extensive experimentation with then-legal drugs, such as LSD. After the release of their second album in 1968 A Saucerful of Secrets, Syd’s situation was such that the other members of the band had to sack him. They quickly drafted in another school-friend David Gilmour. Their next album, [, featured many contributions from Ron Geesin, a British composer, and eventually became the band's first number one album in the U.K. They then set off on tour in support of the album, including performances with whole orchestras at times, all the while experimenting with their sound. Their seminal work, The Dark Side of the Moon featured lyrics, written by the now figurehead member Roger Waters, based upon every day issues, including death, money, isolation, and politics.

This change in direction, from a psychedelic influenced sound, to more focus lyrically on politics, and a progressive sound is noticeable in The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, and mainly Animals. Beloved many but rarely played outside of listener’s homes, Animals runs for 41 minutes, with just 5 songs; Parts one and two of “Pigs on the Wing” that bookend the album, and 3 songs of over 10 minutes anthropomorphising different societal groups. “Pigs on the Wing” part 1 and 2 are short, more hopeful musically, comprising of just an acoustic guitar and Waters’ voice, but portraying, lyrically collective apathy. Many, therefore, would associate with this, as the collective mindset to both of 2017’s greatest shocks was that of ‘Brexit definitely won’t happen’, or ‘Trump has no chance!’. Waters’ comments also display lack of responsibility felt by us a race: “Wondering which of the buggers to blame.” The album is linked to the structure of the three animals which originates George Orwell’s popular allegory Animal Farm. The dogs the capitalist bourgeoisie, uncaring and unafraid to climb the ranks at the expense of others; the pigs are tyrannical overlords, likened to Mary Whitehouse, an activist strong in opposition to liberalism (“Hey you, Whitehouse! / Ha ha, charade you are/…”). The pigs could also be linked to many of today’s world leaders, such as Donald Trump, or the military dictators in Indonesia. The sheep, are quiet and unassuming, and displayed a succumbing to the wrath of the former. By labelling a group of people as “sheep,” it simplifies the message, making it more accessible to those perhaps unaware of the situation, increasing the brevity of Waters’ message. The album has many links to today’s post Brexit society through ‘true British people’ having jobs taken away from them by ‘the foreigners’, all the while causing trouble. From this, Waters implies how easy it is for a mass of sheep to become swept up by media verging on propaganda. When one looks at today’s society it is easy to see this, some major examples including the majority of the British public unaware of what Brexit actually meant, and Trump retweeting a video posted by a Britain First leader. In this instance, the subject of the video, in which a ‘Muslim migrant’ beat up a person on crutches, happened to be a Dutch citizen, born and raised in Amsterdam. This displays how easy it is to become swept up by the media’s representation of incidents, as it affects even the most powerful people in the world.

Waters is also highly critical of Thatcher’s government, throughout the duration of The Final Cut, which turned out to be the last Pink Floyd album he would contribute to. The central theme of the album is based around the effects of war. It goes over stories of people losing their lives in conflict, and veterans’ lives once they come back home. A particularly unsettling piece is “The Gunner’s Dream,” in which an RAF gunner details his ideal society, 

“You can relax on both sides of the tracks/And maniacs don't blow holes in bandsmen by remote control”.

Waters begs us in the final line to “Take heed of the dream,” but with a slight hint of desperation, implying that this perhaps is unlikely. Waters’ acidity comes through again in the track “Not Now John,” in which his vehement distaste for the vain society we live in is made clear: 

“Hollywood waits at the end of the rainbow/Who cares what it's about/ As long as the kids go?”

With the advent of the Waters era, the future of Floyd was uncertain. In a vicious legal battle over the rights to the name, many wondered whether they would continue to create music under this moniker. However, this they did creating a further two albums in the 20th century, without Waters. In 1987, Gilmour, Mason and Wright released A Momentary Lapse of Reason, their 13th studio album. Including the lyrical themes of disillusionment, sorrow and love, it presented a distinct change from the lyrical content of their previous albums from Dark Side of the Moon, to The Final Cut. Waters continued, resolute, but garnered a much less avid following, through his solo project Radio K.A.O.S, released in the same year as AMLR. Reaching 25 and 50 in the British and American charts respectively, compared to 3 and 2 for Floyd, Waters proves that despite the lyrical content the name and the music matters more. Although it is evident that, for the most part, Waters is a more lyrically adept musician than Gilmour, AMLR was clearly more musically ambitious and sound than Radio K.A.O.S. This is similarly true of The Division Bell, and Amused to Death, both decent albums, but the latter carrying the weight of name-influence, and musical quality. Although Waters claims Amused to Death is a looked-over masterpiece, others argue that without the backing of Pink Floyd, Waters’ music is irrelevant.

Pink Floyd’s career has spanned six decades, and fifteen albums that encapsulate major lyrical themes, and reflect the political zeitgeist of many during the 70s and early 80s. Roger Waters, the main lyricist, uses the medium of music to spread his word to the masses, and in doing so became one of the icons of music. Whilst the genius of Pink Floyd has its origins in the American Psychedelic scene, and the eccentric Syd Barret, it was cemented in the classic line-up of David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Rick Wright, and the themes they explored during their heyday, amongst the political turmoil of the 20th century.

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