News of a new David Gilmour album titled Luck And Strange to be released in September has been met with a flurry of excitement and conjecture from Pink Floyd fans. Will there be a tour? If so, would it be the final one by Gilmour, who is now 78 years old? Where will he tour? How will this new album compare to his previous, Rattle That Lock (2015), which wasn’t great, or with On An Island (2006), which was a triumph? 

In a way, it’s remarkable that Pink Floyd sustain such devotion. Two founding members, Syd Barrett and Richard Wright, are long dead. Their last proper studio album was over 30 years ago. Their last truly great album was 45 years ago. Guitarist Gilmour is no raconteur or soul-bearer either in interviews or at his concerts, where he dispenses polite but distant acknowledgements. Roger Waters, who had become the main songwriter but left in 1985 and has had, at best, a patchy solo career, nowadays seems more interested in politics, or (perhaps more accurately) is more interested in making his political opinions known.

On the other hand, the product factory rolls on. Boxsets The Early Years (2016) and The Later Years (2019) offered alternate mixes, demos, live versions and all the ephemera the devoted fan could want. The inevitable Dark Side Of The Moon 50th anniversary boxset last year was another example, as was Waters’ redux version of the album without his bandmates’ contributions. We await a remastered version of 1982’s surrealist film The Wall and – perhaps the holiest of grails – a cleaned-up high-def version of The Wall live shows recorded in Earls Court in 1980 and 1981, now that Peter Jackson has shown what can be done with The Beatles’ Get Back. And then there’s live albums and endless anniversaries – plenty of stuff to keep the product mill churning and the money coming in.

But this is to reduce a band to its merchandising – to stuff. This misses the crux of the matter. Sixty years on from their founding, Pink Floyd are still such a successful and prominent band because of the irrefutable quality of their great albums and how strongly people connect with them. Pink Floyd, perhaps more than any other band of its era, wrote songs evoking the emotions that were once the preserve of religious experience, what the critic Ellen Willis wisely called “profound and unspeakable feelings of despair, disgust, isolation, confusion, guilt, longing, relief, peace, clarity, freedom, and love”. They consciously evoke the human condition, from first heartbeats to death and the glory of life. The great albums – Dark Side of The Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), Animals (1977) and The Wall (1979) came during an incredible six-year hot-streak that turned an essentially cult band into one of the most acclaimed and biggest-selling acts of all time, and still there seems little loss of appetite for all things Floydian amongst the gargantuan fan base.

How on earth did they do that? 

This is the question my new book, Everything Under The Sun: The Complete Guide To Pink Floyd, seeks to answer. As you might guess, I am a lifelong Pink Floyd fan. So much so that the lack of satisfying literature on the group genuinely upsets me. I have therefore taken the matter into my own hands and written what I hope to be a proper critical appraisal of their achievements, alongside a chronology, interviews, and what may be a first – a survey of their bootlegs, examining the best recording for every single available show.

So, why do they remain more relevant than ever? A crucial thing to understand about Pink Floyd that sets them apart from other rock bands is that they worked relentlessly on improving their music. They experimented fearlessly, they toured constantly and they took on challenges that would make less intrepid bands blanche with fear – whether recording two soundtrack albums, playing alongside a ballet troop in Paris in 1972, recording a side-long symphonic track without any of them being able to read music or kicking out their leader and main songwriter in 1968 when the band had hardly figured out what it was. 

Their early albums are patchy if boasting moments of great charm, but these explorations lead directly to later achievements, whether the animal noises on “If” and “Seamus” from Animals, the heartbeat in “Heart Beat, Pig Beat” (from the Zabriskie Point soundtrack album) later being used to bookend Dark Side, the absurd attempt to construct songs from household objects later being used in the majestic slow fade-in to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, the interest in musique concrete resulting in the brilliant soundloop at the start of “Money” or the exceptional cinematic sound effects of The Wall

But people’s tastes and how that translates into enduring success is more difficult to explain than that. A more mysterious appeal of Pink Floyd is the band’s ability to articulate what it is to be alive, investing their songs with all the emotion of great poets before them. “Time” takes one of the great conundrums of the human condition and gives it all the ache that could be generated by Larkin or Hardy. The saturnine “Dogs” takes on capitalism and alienation with the apocalyptic desolation of the Beats. “Comfortably Numb” is their ultimate poetic triptych, with its hallucinatory antiseptic verses, desperate nostalgic choruses, and the crushing horror of its concluding guitar solo. The agony of “Don’t Leave Me Now” conveys desperate anguish in a way that has rarely felt more convincing, its lyrics confronting what we now call toxic masculinity thirty years before that phrase was coined. The feeling of rising mania is captured with terrifying efficacy in “Waiting For The Worms”, while the dread and isolation in “Is There Anybody Out There?” has rarely been equalled in rock music. 

But that’s not all they can do. Their imagination is vast. “Echoes” is a great romantic epic of a song to rival anything by Shelley or Coleridge. Their first epic, “Interstellar Overdrive” is a space exploration, a brilliant synaesthetic evocation of the Big Bang cooling towards drifting nebulae and back again. The first post-Syd Barratt epic, “A Saucerful Of Secrets” is about a battle and its aftermath, and in its final movement (in the live version on Ummagumma) Gilmour sings a wordless lament of astonishing emotional impact. “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” is a song of intense yet effortless control, inching seamlessly from a febrile shadowy atmosphere to a raging maelstrom of murderous intent and then back again. The final song on Dark Side of the Moon, “Eclipse” is to my mind the greatest album closer of all time, coming after a group of songs that discuss the anxieties of the modern world (time, travel, consumerism, capitalism, death, madness) but then almost exploding in its desire for empathy and its pantheistic joy of life.

Pink Floyd’s popularity shows no signs of slowing. Approaching the band’s 60th anniversary, it felt appropriate that this body of work should be catalogued and a light shone on some of its under-appreciated corners. 

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