Pink Floyd are still recognized as one of the most iconic bands in the history of modern rock music. They came to prominence in the generation preceding my own. I was a young child when I first heard them, through the influence of my eldest brother listening to The Wall and The Dark Side of the Moon, albums comprising innovative, eclectic and atmospheric medleys.
Having been offered a free ticket to see David Gilmour, I make my way to Kensington for a salutary visit to Brompton Oratory. I then walk up Exhibition Road past the V&A and the Science Museum to The Royal Albert Hall opposite Hyde Park to join my companions. After entering and making our way to our seats I hear the recorded song of a blackbird singing somewhere in the rafters, a fluting as tranquil as any native bird, including the nightingale whose song is beloved of poets.
It is quite something merely to witness from up in the gods a couple of thousand people gathered in the giant royal-red bowl of the Albert Hall. I can just make out the silhouette of a lighting engineer hanging like a spider high above the stage in a web of wires. When the concert kicks off with “5am” from Gilmour’s new album Rattle That Lock it is evident how much the performance is a marriage of light and sound, accompanied by projections onto a large circular canvas of optical patterns throughout of pulsing arteries, eyes and ectoplasms; an imagery of illustrated narratives; footage of communal campfires; a lone child wandering through fields of mist and vapour into woodland.
When Wish You Were Here comes on one feels that the song not only commemorates Syd Barrett but the childhood friends who originally comprised Pink Floyd.
Though the now 70-year-old Gilmour sings songs from his solo catalogue, the crowd are most responsive to the renditions of Pink Floyd, because fans who have been fans for decades are consolidated by what is most familiar and what unites them in time. Music is always bound up with memories, turning like a skeleton key in the lock of memory to remind you of who you were when you first heard it, and the songs we are nostalgic for are often songs we heard when the future lay open like a bright highway before us.
Over half of the set-list is made of Floyd songs, including ‘Run Like Hell’, ‘Great Gig in the Sky’, ‘Money’, and ‘Us and Them’. The songs are instrumental no less than lyrical, with soaring electric riffs, lonely notes suspended and lingering. The lyrics themselves uncannily evoking one’s own memories, when they might not even be the memories of their author, being necessarily contrived and twisted into the shape of song. The memorable and bleak lyrics of the iconic albums The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall were penned not by Gilmour, but by Roger Waters. They are redolent of war, paranoia, isolation, lunacy and death. Gilmour, composing the accompanying music, came to view the treatment of these pervading themes as pessimistic and self-indulgent, yet still incorporates the more powerful songs into his own sets. One of which is ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, a tribute to Pink Floyd’s original singer Syd Barrett, opening with gradual chord changes, slow dislocated guitar plucking which seems to call forth someone, or something, into the auditorium.
Barrett would appear before his former band mates as a bald bloated ghost of himself during the studio recording of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ unannounced, unrecognised, a shade summoned out of bedlam, to stand speechless before the musicians as they recorded the song which commemorated him. It was seven years since they had seen him, and it took them several minutes to recognize who they took to be a stranger. “You reached for the secret too soon” so a line in the song goes, alluding to his psychological breakdown.
The original line-up of the band was made up of childhood friends, and it was Gilmour who eventually replaced Barrett, because the young Barrett- handsome and charming, seeking the Holy Grail through lysergic acid, took too much and, as is often said, went barking mad, quite literally, though one suspects an intrinsic propensity towards schizophrenia. I remember a close friend at school taping me some of Barret’s solo songs but I never really warmed to them: they are wilfully psychedelic, childish in their clowning and chicanery. It was after his abandonment that the band achieved its signature style, like that of light shot through a prism, with the haunting lyrics of Roger Waters and the emotive melodies of Dave Gilmour.
Many of the songs are redolent of grief but pierced by an electricity of icy sounds. The echoing of church bells, so suggestive of English villages, announces ‘Fat Old Sun’, a song which was originally recorded in 1970 for Atom Heart Mother as an idyllic folk song to pastoral England. This has now been perfected and modified to include flowing free-form instrumentation.
The music of Pink Floyd is both of its time and enduring. It still shines on not only in the animated instrumentation of its surviving members but in the hearts and vocal chords of their enthusiasts. This becomes increasingly apparent to me as I speak to Germans, Spanish and Italians who have flown to England especially for the performance because, as one Italian tells me, even though he has heard the music hundreds of times at home, there is nothing else to surpass it. I witness national and generational boundaries melt away, for around me are parties of friends, fathers with their daughters, lovers young an old.
When I later speak for an hour with a charming Swedish girl who had paid more than £300 for her ticket, she asked me what my favourite part of the night was. I replied that it would have to be the ecstatic finale of the encore when the musicians returned to the stage to play the songs ‘Time’ and ‘Comfortably Numb’, accompanied by Stills and Nash*, the latter song surely containing some of the most poignant sentiments expressed in rock music, even isolated as naked lines:
“When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now;
The child is grown,
The dream is gone.
I have become
*Disclaimer: We would like to note that Stills and Nash did not perform during this set. Perhaps the alcohol had won against the writer at this point.