Nick Messitte Forbes.com 11/21/14
Pink Floyd is having a moment—which is to say that David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and the ghost of Richard Wright are having a moment; Roger Waters, having no part in Floyd’s newest record, is off doing whatever it is he does these days.
But the rest of them are enjoying a surge of popularity unseen since 1994’s The Division Bell. Their newest record, The Endless River has topped charts in a multitude of countries—France, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Israel—and even shattered an Amazon UK record across the pond.
The Endless River has also debuted, in America, with a solid 3rd place ranking on the Billboard 200, right behind two contemporary juggernauts: Taylor Swift (1989) and Foo Fighters (Sonic Highways). In the wake of Endless River‘s success, speculation of more unreleased Pink Floyd material has surfaced, even though Floyd’s surviving members have emphatically said this is it.
Most remarkably, Pink Floyd carry these numbers off the back of an album sporting little of today’s pop trappings:
There are almost no “songs” in the conventional, mainstream sense (much less hooks); all the drums are either real or made to sound real—and quietly, subtly so; the keyboard playing (the real star of the show, as Pink Floyd seeks to honor their late keyboard player, Richard Wright) bears no concession to modernization either, its aesthetic a direct descendent of Floyd’s minimoog heyday (Meddle, Dark Side, Wish You Were Here, Animals) and having nothing in common with the modern-day synth needling of Stargate, Max Martin, or any other Magic Scandinavian currently buzz-sawing our ears.
To be even clearer, this is not the Pink Floyd of The Wall or The Final Cut. This record sports nothing of Roger Waters’ ever-tightening grip—the shorter songs, the thornier subjects, the sound of bass and nasal vocals hovering above all else.
No. This is the meandering Pink Floyd, the elegiac wallowing of Gilmour’s solos and the inchoate suffering of Wright’s keyboards, and all of it offered for as long as you’re willing to listen.
It’s particularly illuminating that a song called “It’s What We Do” displays all the ruminative noodling of Pink Floyd’s extended jams without the bookends of, well, an actual song. This feels palpably different from classics like “Dogs”, which contextualized their lengthy midsections with song-oriented support beams, constructing, in the process, grand pieces of musical architecture.
Listening to The Endless River, One gets the feeling Waters might have been the chief scribbler of Pink Floyd’s blueprints, for without him we’re left suspended, ad infinitum, in a murky pond of minor chords and loss; if any song on The Endless River is less than two minutes, it’s most likely not a song but a smaller piece of a larger sonic puzzle—that’s the governing impression, anyway.
But this is not a bad thing. The album, played in its entirety, sets a certain introspective scene. And not all the songs laze along: a tune like “Sum” also yearns through melancholic and evocative chord progressions, but it holds quite a virtue for any album assembled in posthumous hindsight: the unmistakable feeling—unmistakable to a Floyd fan, anyway—that Mason, Gilmour, and Wright are playing their instruments at the same time, even though Wright died six years ago.
This, in and of itself, is a triumph: twenty years after their last proper record, Pink Floyd have demonstrated that a special and unique sound always rings out when they play together in the same room, or at least, pay homage to an impression of liveliness.
For they achieved this vibe through faithful recreation, listening to keyboard parts left fossilized in Wright’s death, and responding to them as if improvising alongside his spirit; it’s beautiful to hear these musicians gel so completely, even though one of them died six years before the album was assembled.
Still, there is a very real context with which Pink Floyd must contend: the current soundscape of pop, such as it is today, compounded by hard-nosed indie scenes in a variety of cities, towns, regions, and countries; there’s simply a lot of differently minded music out there right now.
So how did Floyd manage to compete with all of this, especially with an album like The Endless River? In an on-demand era such as ours, how did a band so distinctly out of yesterday top (or nearly top) today’s album charts with such meandering, brooding, and above all, instrumental music?
There’s an obvious and easy answer: by being Pink Floyd.
Fine. But if we accept this answer, we have to ask another series of questions: What does that even mean? What made Pink Floyd so iconic in the first place?
Many people have sought over the years to answer that question—for as Pink Floyd inspired some, they’ve infuriated countless others.
Indeed, each listener probably has their individual reasons for liking, hating, or otherwise defining Pink Floyd. To my ears, what made Floyd unique was their specific take on the blues: even within the most longwinded passages of a song like “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” or “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V)”, the feeling of a minor blues remained intact. Even their most ambient passages of 70s keyboard work were forged in the moodier, quieter side of blues music.
If there are two essential ingredients to Pink Floyd, I’d reckon they’d be 1) the aforementioned minor blues, and 2) Englishman telling you, over and over and over again, that you are going to die.
A brief list of examples:
“Shorter of breath, and one day closer to death” (“Time”); “hide your head in the sand—just another sad old man, all alone and dying of cancer” (“Dogs”); “mother do you think they’ll drop the bomb?” (“Mother”); “it can’t be much fun for them, beneath the rising sun, with all their kids committing suicide” (“The Post War Dream”); “one of these days, I’m going to cut you into little pieces” (“One Of These Days”—the song’s only lyric).
But even these suppositions on death have a faint, blues-like quality to them; one could say that Pink Floyd took the blues and mired it in the fog of England’s bone-chilling winters.
This is my take. Yours might differ. But if Fredric Dannen—author of the excellent book Hit Men—is correct, one matter is irrefutable: Pink Floyd’s success always came out of left field, at least in the music industry’s eyes.
As Dannen wrote, they became superstars not through top forty radio, which “mostly ignored the band” but through “a vast following on album oriented radio, stations that played album cuts instead of 45s.”
Indeed, many a rock critic scratched their head when The Wall dominated the Billboard Charts for five months, as Dannen observed:
“‘This is very tough stuff, and hardly the hallmark of a hit album,’ wrote one rock critic. Yet The Wall was more than a hit; in record industry lingo, it was a ‘monster.’”
In a way, the success of their newest record echoes the success of Floyd in their heyday: their ascension into the mainstream has always sported the appearance of winning the good fight against an established order. Even in their prime, one could argue their music shouldn’t have been as popular as it was by all conceivable, prevailing logic.
So to answer “how did they successfully compete with today’s pop music?” with “by being Pink Floyd” is both an incomplete answer and a facile one, as the band faced (and embraced) the same off-kilter aesthetic in their peak as they do now: a mainstream musical context largely different from their own.
Also, one cannot credit a phenomenon to nostalgia alone without first acknowledging the void that said nostalgia is trying to fill; you cannot miss something without feeling its loss in present day life—that’s what “missing” means: to look at the current situation and find it specifically lacking in at least one respect.
Therefore, I would ascribe the success of The Endless River not as much to the staying power of Pink Floyd, but to a pop-culture recognizing the deficits of its own sound, now looking backward for a way forward:
We live in an on-demand era of short attention span theater, of quick hooks, of hits literally built off the backs of other hits (in sampling or in just plain rip off), of expensive sounds further and further removed from their acoustic sources.
At this moment, Pink Floyd provides a sound palpably different from their charting peers. Lorde accomplished a similar feat last year with her debut smash, Pure Heroine (the sparser drums, the plaintive melodies, the sorrowful chord progressions, the pads of gorgeous synths—one could argue her sound is informed by Floyd’s aesthetic, though perhaps through many generations of influence).
The artist Hozier is making a similar mark right now. His largely organic, hard-to-classify sound can be found in “Take Me To Church,” currently number six this week on the Billboard Hot 100.
I would say that Pink Floyd is succeeding now for the same reason Lorde broke out a year ago and Hozier is having his moment too: simply put, we need them more than they need us—and we know it.