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Flashback: Pink Floyd’s Journey to the Dark Side

David Gilmour and Roger Waters on why the the fragile collaboration behind the band’s masterpiece was doomed to fail.

David Gilmour and Roger Waters on why the the fragile collaboration behind the band's masterpiece was doomed to fail.

It could be a new Pink Floyd song, if only that band still existed as anything more than a memory, more than a barely cordial business partnership. David Gilmour is sitting atop an equipment rack in the control room of his opulent houseboat studio outside London, strumming a descending chord progression on an old 12-string Martin as he sings a wordless, wistful melody. “I’m making it up as I go along,” he says, playing on. In the window behind him, the Thames ripples under gray, prematurely autumnal skies.

“A few years ago,” Gilmour adds in his crisply posh British accent, with vast chronological understatement, “I was doing the same in Number Three control room at Abbey Road, and this came out.” He summons the hammered-on intro of 1975’s “Wish You Were Here.” “That was written and played on this guitar – so you’ve got to take notice if anything comes out.”

“Wish You Were Here” is a rare case in the Pink Floyd catalog: an indisputable, face-to-face songwriting collaboration between Gilmour and Roger Waters – Floyd’s bassist, lyricist and creative force during the band’s most successful period. “Roger said, ‘That’s got something, I’ve got an idea for that,'” says Gilmour, “and then we wrote the chorus and the verses together – he wrote the words.”

Though they also share credit on another Floyd classic, “Comfortably Numb,” among other tracks, Gilmour and Waters were never anything close to a consistent, Lennon-McCartney-style songwriting team. As Waters told Rolling Stone in 1987, shortly after his acrimonious exit from the band, “We never managed to come to a common view of the dynamic that existed within the band, of who did what and whether or not it was right.” After all these years, those questions remain surprisingly fraught, with precious little agreement.

But relations are sufficiently civil these days that Gilmour, Waters and the other surviving member, drummer Nick Mason, have agreed upon what could be their last effort together: an extensive reissue project for Floyd’s entire catalog. Every studio album has been remastered, and the three most popular – 1979’s The Wall, 1975’s Wish You Were Here and their masterpiece, 1973’s 40-million-selling The Dark Side of the Moon – are getting the deluxe-box-set treatment with long-lost outtakes, live recordings and video. “We’re getting away from that too-precious-for-our-own-good thing,” says Gilmour, “of never releasing anything considered as substandard. Everything there is is going to be out in one way or another.”

To commemorate the reissues, which kick off with the Dark Side box this month, Gilmour, Mason and Waters all agreed to speak to Rolling Stone, albeit separately. “It’s the closest thing to Live 8,” cracks Mason, referring to the 2005 benefit that was the last performance by the full lineup, including keyboardist Richard Wright, who died in 2008. Waters and Gilmour also played an acoustic set together for a Palestinian children’s charity last year, which led to Gilmour appearing at a London date of Waters’ Wall tour, with Mason tapping a tambourine. At both reunions, the band members even shared a hug.

Gilmour eases the guitar back onto a rack with a half-dozen others and eases his 65-year-old self off his perch, settling into an ergonomic chair by the studio’s control panel. He’s wearing his all-occasion uniform of black sports jacket and pricey-looking black T-shirt and black jeans, with a pair of suede shoes thrown in. He’s ready, if not eager, to spend some time talking about The Dark Side of the Moon and Pink Floyd. “It’s difficult to plunge yourself back into parallel lifetimes of a long time ago,” he says, “parts of which you don’t feel comfortable remembering.”

Waters sees “The Dark Side of the Moon” as “sort of flawless,” and he has a point: There were happy accidents in its making – the improvised virtuosity of session singer Clare Torry’s wailing on “The Great Gig in the Sky,” engineer Alan Parsons’ already-recorded tape of a store full of chiming clocks – but Dark Side has a jewel-like perfection that’s uncommon among rock albums. It may well be the ultimate artifact of the pre-shuffle era: an album that flows like a single song. “You can project a concept record on Sgt. Pepper or Pet Sounds that’s not really there,” says one fan, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan. “Dark Side is a concept record. It has a narrative theme – beginning, middle and end. It goes somewhere and actually makes fucking sense. There’s not a wasted ounce on the thing. You cannot create that kind of perfection – it’s a synchronicity issue.”The band expected you to listen to this music with close attention, perhaps ideally in the dark, in an altered state. “Attention spans have changed,” says Gilmour. “The idea of going around to somebody else’s flat or house and sitting around in a comfy room and having a really good hi-fi system and listening to a whole album all the way through, then chatting for a few minutes, then maybe putting another album on… does that happen today?”

Its seamlessness is more in line with the second side of Abbey Road than anything by Floyd’s prog contemporaries. “We felt the Beatles were too good to compete with, honestly,” says Waters. “Sgt. Pepper was another flawless album – maybe that was encouragement because they set the bar so high.” With Dark Side, the band recorded all 10 songs onto the same reel of 16-track master tape, a highly unusual approach. “The way one track flowed into another was an extremely important part of the overall feel,” says Parsons, who made his reputation on the album. “So we could work on the transitions as part of the recording process rather than just part of the mixing process.”

For all its craft and focus, Dark Side was the work of a group that had been adrift just four years earlier, after losing the linchpin of its sound. Frontman Syd Barrett had been everything to Pink Floyd: the pretty face, the songwriter, the singer, the lead guitarist. “He was the boy wonder,” says Gilmour. Under Barrett’s leadership, the band went from arty, Cambridge-bred middle-class students to the heroes of the London underground: In concert, the whimsical, very British pop songs that populate their 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, would explode into lysergic, interstellar improvisations.

Barrett’s near-daily use of LSD and a likely underlying mental illness left him all but incapacitated by the time Floyd were recording their second album: His songwriting output slowed; he went through at least one show without actually playing his guitar; he began to drift from reality. The band recruited another Cambridge boy, David Gilmour, a strong singer and a more conventionally bluesy guitar player, as a potential replacement – the two men coexisted in the band for about six weeks.

Inspired by what they heard of the Beach Boys’ situation, the Floyd briefly considered a sandbox-era Brian Wilson role for Barrett: Perhaps he could stay at home and write songs while the band took Gilmour on tour. “I thought it would be great to still have that talent around, if he ever comes back from wherever he is,” says Waters. It soon became clear Barrett couldn’t handle even that. “Syd never really knew how to work,” says Storm Thorg-erson, the band’s longtime art designer and Barrett’s close friend. “It all came very naturally to him. I don’t think that he ever had to think about a thing. And the problem was when that ran out he had nothing to replace it with. He burned out like a comet – he was a thing of beauty, but then he disappeared.”

Floyd’s then-managers were convinced that “Syd was the only thing of any value in the band,” says Waters. So they dropped Pink Floyd. “I think my feeling at the time would have been, ‘You might be right, only time will tell,'” Waters says. But in Barrett’s absence, the remaining members pulled together. “I think we were all pretty pragmatic after Syd left, in the years between 1968 and 1973,” adds Waters. “We were absolutely all determined to not have to go back to work. Not to have to get a proper job. And in order not to have to get a proper job, you have to work at it. You have to do whatever you need to do to keep it going.”

The post-Syd, pre-Dark Side albums are freewheeling to a fault, as Pink Floyd struggled to find a new voice. They allowed keyboardist Wright to take up 13 and a half minutes of 1969’s Ummagumma with a composition boasting the Spinal Tap-worthy title of “Sysyphus, Parts 1-4”; they attempted ambitious, if not entirely successful, pieces such as the choir-and-orchestra-assisted “Atom Heart Mother” and the outrageous “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” which combines pastoral instrumental with the actual sounds of a roadie preparing his morning repast; they indulged in pure throwaways such as “Seamus,” essentially a blues duet between Gilmour and a howling dog. (Musical evidence aside, the band members were not doing psychedelics at this point, and, in fact, were never major acidheads: “Syd did enough for all of us,” says Gilmour.)

“We were fairly brave, and would put anything on a record that amused us one way or another,” says Gilmour. “But in some of those moments we were floundering about, and didn’t have our forward momentum very clear, and inspiration might have been a bit thin on the ground at times. Moving on from our ‘Psychedelic Breakfast’ moments – which is great in its way, but I’d never want to listen to it really – to something more concrete like ‘Echoes’ was much more satisfying.” 1971’s “Echoes” was Floyd’s most successful long-form piece before Dark Side, a 23-minute tune that works from start to finish. Adds Waters, ” ‘Echoes’ was the closest precursor in terms of construction and the musicality of it. The other thing that I’d point to is ‘A Saucerful of Secrets,’ which in a musical sense was similar. It had a number of movements, it had a fast bit and a slow bit. But Dark Side was the first one that was genuinely thematic and genuinely about something.”

It gradually became clear that the tall, aggressive, sardonic Waters was the group’s new leader. “It’s not a matter of choice, it’s what happens,” he says. “If you’ve ever been in a band, somebody normally takes hold of the reins and just does it. It’s a question of doing the work. And also people have different personalities, of course, and sometimes somebody is the person who’s much more likely to say, Why don’t we…,’ followed by something that people think is a good idea and want to do and therefore follow. So, willy-nilly, you get leaders and followers.”

Everyone agrees that the concept for Dark Side developed at a meeting in Mason’s house in 1971, though some details get fuzzy. Waters recalled coming up with the idea of writing a cohesive set of songs about the pressures of life as the musicians knew it; Mason thinks the idea was developed collectively. In any case, Waters took notes as the band members developed lyrical topics for the album, centered around sources of stress. They assembled a compendium of bummers: mortality, travel, money, madness. It was Waters’ first album as sole lyricist, and the job was his from then on. “I never rated myself terribly highly in the lyrics department,” says Gilmour, “and Roger wanted to do it. I think it was a sense of relief that he was willing to do that. At the same time, him being the lyricist and more of the driving force didn’t ever mean that he ought to be in full charge of the direction of the musical side of things. So we’ve always had a little bit of tension in those sort of areas.”

In an odd, unsustainable dynamic that would spell trouble for the band, Gilmour’s role as primary vocalist and lead guitarist made him Dark Side’s dominant performer, even though his songwriting contributions to the album were relatively minimal. Instead, Wright stepped up, writing elegiac, harmonically rich music for “The Great Gig in the Sky” and “Us and Them” (a melody originally intended for the 1970 film Zabriskie Point). “It’s always been the fight between me and Roger,” says Gilmour. “So Rick gets forgotten about a little bit. He hasn’t got quite the credit he should have.”

Waters’ more idiosyncratic vocals came to dominate Floyd’s later albums, but on Dark Side, he sings on the final two songs only. “I remember being prodded to be uncomfortable,” Waters says with a laugh. “My memory is David and Rick were at great pains to point out how I couldn’t sing and how I was tone-deaf, and there’s this bollocks that Rick had to tune my bass.

“And you only have to look at the body of work to realise that this is not the case,” Waters continues. “Maybe their way of keeping me from being totally overwhelming was to point out that I might have vocal and instrumental inadequacies. And I’m not saying that I was ever a great singer with great pitch. I sort of made up for it by singing with a lot of feeling and character.”

They began performing early live versions of Dark Side in 1972, and they had much of it nailed from the start. The most radical difference was the absence of the electronic freakout “On the Run” – in its place was the jammy, guitar-driven “The Travel Sequence” (the studio version is included in the box set). But as soon as Gilmour and Waters got their hands on a then-new EMS SynthiA suitcase synth, they killed “Travel Sequence.” “There were endless, interesting possibilities for that little device,” says Gilmour. “We’d always considered ourselves as being a bit electronic. I always had an obsession with finding sounds that would turn something into 3D. When you have your stereo speakers and you have a loud band rocking away, it feels like it’s kind of in this plane here, and I’ve always wanted to be able to also have things that feel like they’re over there a hundred yards away, pinging away.”

Save for the genuine bite of “Money” and “Time,” Dark Side is among the least visceral and most cerebral of great rock albums, all floating textures and creeping tempos. “My doctor said never play above your pulse rate,” Mason says. But Gilmour’s incandescent lead guitar is a constant link back to hard rock. “Some punch, some rock guitar,” he says, nodding. “You know, once you’ve had that guitar up so loud on the stage, where you can lean back and volume will stop you from falling backward, that’s a hard drug to kick.”

Dark Side lacked an ending until Waters came in one day with “Eclipse,” a short but immensely powerful track that’s constructed as a prayerlike litany: The first two lines echo lyrics from “Breathe,” at the start of the album: “All that you touch/All that you see,” Waters sings, as the track gradually gains momentum. “I remember working hard on making it build and adding harmonies that join in as you go through the song,” says Gilmour. “Because there’s nothing to it – there’s no chorus, there’s no middle eight, there’s just a straight list. So, every four lines we’ll do something different.”

The last step was the album cover. Thorgerson prepared numerous sketches, including one that would have been a photographic treatment of Marvel Comics’ Silver Surfer at a beach. The whole band instantly selected the image of a prism emerging from a triangle (which symbolized “thought and ambition,” according to Thorgerson), partially a tribute to its light show. In a gesture of largesse that today’s recording budgets wouldn’t quite allow, Floyd then sent Thorgerson to Egypt to shoot pictures of the Pyramids for the album’s interior art.

‘Money, it’s a hit,” Gilmour sang, and so it was, along with just about everything the band would do for the next eight years. “Money” made the Top 20 in the U.S., Dark Side began what would be a 741-week run on the charts, and Pink Floyd were an arena-level act in the States. Waters, who had been a committed socialist, saw a certain cynicism creep in. In the Pink, a long-unreleased memoir by his friend Nick Sedgwick, has Waters saying things like, “Oh, I’ll just go write another song and make a few thousand quid. Here’s to the punters – let’s buy another motorboat.” “I don’t shine in a positively bright way in the book,” says Waters, who’s putting it out himself soon. “But I don’t give a fuck now. We all are who we are.” The book apparently also makes a strong case for Waters’ creative dominance, which he has said led the other members to reject its release.

The Floyd were already trying to work on songs for a follow-up to Dark Side by 1974, and they started having the worst arguments of their time together to date. “Looking back, we shouldn’t have gone back into the studio so soon after Dark Side,” says Mason. “We should have toured for [another] year.”

By 1979, Waters’ control of the band was all but complete. He forced out Wright, whose contributions had slipped in the wake of personal problems. 1979’s The Wall was Waters’ baby (though Gilmour is proud of his musical contributions), and 1983’s stark The Final Cut was a Waters solo album in all but name. “Maybe the band could have continued if everyone decided to do everything exactly how Roger wanted,” says Mason. “But it may just be that Roger had outgrown the band.” In 1985, Waters left Pink Floyd – and was stunned when Gilmour and Mason decided to carry on without him.

“Roger left in ’85,” says Gilmour. “I was in my late thirties and I’d joined Pink Floyd when I was 21. My entire adult life had been working on this artistic enterprise, this band, which was pretty much playing the sort of music that I loved. Why would I suddenly want to quit? I didn’t want to quit. Roger leaving, you know, one can discuss forever what we lost and how what came afterward in some way didn’t consistently match up to what may have been our best previous moments. I don’t know. Very tricky sort of area to discuss, but the fact is for me, we went on, we continued doing what we did, we were pretty damn successful at it, and had a fantastic great time.”

The Gilmour-led Pink Floyd recorded two studio albums, 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason and 1994s The Division Bell. They commercially trounced Waters’ solo work, with the bassist sometimes seeing half-sold arenas at his own shows while Floyd played stadiums nearby. “You know, he set up confrontational things,” says Gilmour. “The humiliation you talk about was designed by him as a head-to-head, and hopefully he learned. And he wanted to do his solo stuff and mix in Pink Floyd. There was a certain pride in that.”

The new Floyd finished their last tour in 1994, and without fanfare, Gilmour called it quits. “I was launched into being pretty much” the sole leader by Roger leaving,” he says. “And I was having to bear that hurdle, that burden, all by myself. It was difficult, it was a learning curve, that first album. But you know, Division Bell’s got a lot to be said for it. After that the weight of carrying that burden was getting a bit much. And I thought I might sort of retire or look into solo things.”

Gilmour released a solo album, On an Island, in 2006, and embarked on a well-reviewed theater tour with Wright onboard. “Doing it on a slightly smaller scale without the expectation of that Pink Floyd tag on it, doing whatever I wanted with whatever musicians I wanted was joyful,” Gilmour says. “Not many people want to change scale in that direction, to downsize. Most people want to get as big as they can be and cling up there to the last possible dying gasp. I’ve been there, and I’ve done it, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m satisfied with it, and I just do not want to play a stadium again.” But his retreat from the Floyd legacy left a hole that his former bandmate was all too happy to fill.

Two days after Gilmour’s houseboat interview, Waters sits in his own, more businesslike home base on the other side of the Atlantic – a production office on the 10th floor of a downtown Manhattan office building. At 68, Waters is wiry and fit, and he’s exuding some seriously feral energy today. It’s not just because it’s his first time back in the office after a summer off: His Wall tour was the second-highest-grossing in North America last year, and it’s only getting started. “In Europe, it seemed to be even better than over here, and it just gets better and better – we sold 86,000 tickets yesterday,” he says with a broad smile, referring to a run of shows in Buenos Aires. Then, as if to upstage the rerelease of his own band’s back catalog, he makes a point of announcing that his tour will return to the U.S. next year, based around baseball stadiums.

In other words, the album that decried the inhumanity of stadium shows will, for the first time, hit stadiums. The wall that goes up during the show, Waters says, will now have a square surface of 140 yards: “We’ve done light tests in Fenway Park and Wrigley Field and Yankee Stadium, and it’s fine. It works.” He’s also working on a filmed version of the tour, a long-planned Wall Broadway show and multiple upcoming productions of Qa Ira, his opera about the French Revolution.

Once the Wall tour is over, Waters may follow Gilmour’s lead and scale down. “I’m not sure I want to go out and do greatest hits again,” he says. “I think if I did any more in the future it might well be smaller.”

Waters was busy touring while the reissues came together, and waves off questions about the specifics. “Dave and Nick would know a lot more about what’s going on than I would,” he says. (“I sent him the box a year ago,” says Thorgerson.)

Sitting by an immaculate glass conference table in the wood-floored office – where it’s impossible not to notice a window opening onto a brick wall – Waters takes great pains to avoid debating his former bandmates. As he told me last year, “I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings ever again.” When I mention that Gilmour claims that Waters rarely wrote vocal melodies, he looks grim for a second and then embarks on an answer about how memory can be unreliable. He does make a point of noting the importance of the collaboration. “Something might have happened without Rick or without me or without Dave,” he says, perhaps accidentally leaving out Mason’s name, “but it wouldn’t have been what did happen.”

The truth is, Gilmour and Waters were never particularly close friends, and hardly knew each other until Gilmour joined the band – though Waters remembers being delighted when he first arrived. “He’s a wonderful singer and a great guitar player,” he says. “What more could you want? And he’s also a nice bloke. Good fun, likes a laugh and all that. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, he’s a great guitar player and a beautiful singer, but, he’s weird.'”

From the outside, it seems that relations between Gilmour and Waters are the strongest they’ve been since Waters left. “You would think so, yeah,” Gilmour says, pursing his lips and staying silent for a moment. “You could say that, but when I hesitate, it’s almost nonexistent. I played on Roger’s Wall show here one night a few months ago, and I haven’t seen or heard a word from him since.” In the intervening period, Gilmour’s son Charlie was sentenced to 16 months in prison for his participation in a violent protest against a U.K. university tuition hike – which might have been a good opportunity for Waters to get in touch. Months before that, Waters and Gilmour played “Wish You Were Here” and three other songs at their charity acoustic gig, and they had no communication in between, according to Gilmour. “It’s not unfriendly. But it’s not part of either of our day-to-day existence.”When Bob Geldof convinced Floyd to reunite for Live 8 in 2005, they began arguing again right away. “At the rehearsal, things were very tense,” says Gilmour. “Roger had written a set list of songs he wanted to do, which I found entirely inappropriate for a charity event. Singing ‘We don’t need no education’ just didn’t seem to be doing it for me. We did have to gently remind Roger that he was guesting in our band. Pink Floyd was an existing thing with Rick and Nick and myself, and Roger was back in as a guest, and I wrote up the set list, which is what we wound up doing.

“Roger spent a lot of time afterward saying how he would roll over gracefully for that one occasion but it wouldn’t happen again,” Gilmour continues. “Which strengthened my views: I understand how other people want that sort of [reunion] thing to happen, but I’m entirely selfish in thinking that I want to enjoy my declining years exactly the way that I want to do it. And that wouldn’t be part of it.”

Last year, Waters told me he could imagine another charity reunion, and Mason is still holding out for the chance. (“It would have to be for someone even more important than Bob Geldof, if that’s possible,” he says.) But Gilmour isn’t interested, even though he enjoyed his guest appearance on the Wall tour, singing “Comfortably Numb” again from on top of the wall – a performance he volunteered for in exchange for Waters’ joining him at the charity show. “I don’t want to comment really on [the Wall] show, but I went to that thing and went, ‘God, he should have had me there for a few rehearsals,'” Gilmour says with a slightly wicked grin. “It’d really make it much better. But he’s done brilliantly with it.” He adds that as he watched the Wall performance, he saw “little bits from my paint books splashed here, there and everywhere. I think, ‘God, I was fucking brilliant doing that. Roger was fucking brilliant doing that.’ There’s a lot of good stuff that we did together.

“And we had a great night at the charity gig,” Gilmour adds. “Roger banned all recording equipment, but I brought my own camera and told a guy, ‘Just press that button on at the beginning and off again at the end.’ Afterward, I told Roger I filmed it and he said, ‘Fantastic!’ And I didn’t say, ‘Well, you wouldn’t fucking allow me to have a halfway-decent camera up here.’ But, no, we had a great time. We got fairly pissed drunk afterward for a few hours. Then he goes his way and I go mine.”

The way Gilmour sees it, “The greatness that we did together is a collaborative achievement between four people who have ego problems, all of them. In every single one of us there’s a slight difference between the reality and our perceptions of ourselves.” But Waters doesn’t buy this description: “I don’t think there’s any more or less ego involved in the band than in most bands.”

Then, in a perhaps not entirely ego-free move, Waters recites the lyrics to “Flickering Flame,” a 2002 solo tune. “When my synapses pause in my quest for applause, when my ego lets go of my end of the bone/ To focus instead on the love that is precious to me/Then I shall be free.’ So maybe that’s the position I have come to recently.”

Maybe. Earlier, Waters discussed Gilmour’s prominent vocals on Dark Side and Wish You Were Here – and the fact that the latter album features a guest vocalist, Roy Harper, on “Have a Cigar.” “The only thing I really regret was letting Roy Harper sing that,” says Waters. “I was quite capable of singing it, and I allowed myself to be persuaded out of it – I know in my heart of hearts I probably felt a bit hurt but wasn’t prepared to take the risk of saying, ‘No, you can fuck off and I don’t care whether you think I can sing or not.’ So I regret that.” He smiles. “But I don’t regret much.”

Earlier this month Pink Floyd announced they’d be re-issuing their entire back-catalogue on vinyl. The remastered versions of their first four releases — The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (1967), A Saucerful of Secrets (1968), More (1969) and Ummagumma (1969) — are available now.

View a preview of the re-release campaign below:

This story is from issue #721 (December, 2011) of Rolling Stone Australia.