March 22, 2009
The dark side of Pink Floyd
It’s rock music’s most complicated saga, involving ego wars, madness and death. Robert Sandall explains why nothing — not even $250m — can put the pieces of Pink Floyd together again
Pink Floyd fans are an optimistic lot. A year ago the band’s blogging followers were talking up a putative tour in 2009 that would reunite the so-called “classic” 1970s line-up — the one responsible for their 40m-selling magnum opus The Dark Side of the Moon — for their first proper concert since 1980.
To a large extent, this represented the triumph of hope over experience. Of the many attempts to get the four members of Pink Floyd back on stage together, only Bob Geldof’s had come off. After the fractious foursome re-convened for an historic 18-minute slot at Live 8 in 2005, the world’s largest concert promoters, Live Nation, offered them a record $250m — pure profit, net of all production expenses, which the promoters would cover separately — to tour North America. This figure valued Pink Floyd as a bigger live draw than the Rolling Stones, and was more than twice what Live Nation shelled out to sign Madonna to an inclusive concert-and-albums deal in 2007.
True to form, the Floyd declined, mainly at the behest of David Gilmour. The band’s guitarist, who compared their Live 8 performance to “sleeping with your ex-wife”, was planning his most ambitious solo tour yet, to run from 2006 until the end of 2008. Prominent in Gilmour’s band was the Floyd’s keyboard player, Rick Wright, whose ejection from the group in 1979 led to years of discord in which the three remaining squabbled over who owned the band’s name.
It was Wright’s rehabilitation as Gilmour’s new buddy —coupled with the conciliatory noises emanating from drummer, Nick Mason, and the previously hostile bassist, Roger Waters — that helped to raise hopes of a 2009 Floyd tour. Once Gilmour’s solo tour had wrapped at Gdansk in November 2008, the feeling among the Floyd faithful was that the long-awaited reunion might be back on the cards.
Sadly, it wasn’t. Rick Wright died of cancer last September, a tragic loss which, like the death of Pink Floyd’s prime mover, Syd Barrett, in 2006, inspired an avalanche of obituaries unusual for the passing of a pop musician. It also brought to light aspects of the shifting alliances that have characterised the career of Pink Floyd, one of rock’s most complicated soaps.
Tellingly, none of his bandmates seemed to have known how ill Wright was, a fact that confirms how the members of Pink Floyd have long kept each other at a distance socially. Waters, who now lives mainly in the Hamptons, New York, hadn’t spoken to Wright all year. A fortnight before Wright’s death, Gilmour received a message that his keyboard player would not be able to take part in an upcoming TV broadcast for Jools Holland’s Later. When I spoke to Mason in Islington, the day before Wright died, he had no inkling of what was unfolding in the organist’s Kensington home. Mason was talking about “the faint possibility” of a Floyd reunion. “My bags are packed,” he said.
The public tributes the other three paid to Wright after his death revealed as much about their view of the group as they did about him. Waters, the former self-appointed leader who kicked Wright out of the band in 1979, said his “thoughts were with his family”. Conventional enough, but the family Waters named was the one Wright broke up when he divorced his first wife in 1982, shortly before Waters himself left the group. The subtext made it clear that Waters was hankering for the Floyd’s heyday in the 1970s and early ’80s. This was the period when he effectively ran the group — a situation flagged on the last record he made with them, The Final Cut, subtitle A Requiem for the Post War Dream, by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd. Twenty-five years on, and following a so-so solo career during which he often resorted to billing himself as “the creative genius behind Pink Floyd”, Waters clearly wanted his old band back. After expressing gratitude “for the opportunity that Live 8 afforded me to engage with him [Wright] and David and Nick that one last time”, Waters’ farewell to Wright ended: “I wish there had been more.”
Mason’s tribute told another story. He praised Wright as “the underrated one”, adding that his swirling, layered keyboards were the band’s true hallmark sound, which “tended to get forgotten among the welter of guitar solos”. This less-than-flattering reference to the Floyd’s guitarist was in keeping with Mason’s recent memoir, Inside Out, a book whose jaunty and disrespectful tone greatly annoyed the serious-minded Gilmour and disrupted an alliance dating back to 1985, when Mason and Gilmour fought Waters for the right to carry on as a duo after he walked out and tried to prevent them from using the name Pink Floyd.
At that point they could have reinstated Rick Wright, but chose not to. Although they recalled him to play in their squad of backing musicians and to co-write some songs — “because I thought it would make us stronger legally and musically”, Gilmour once said — Wright’s days as a full band member were over. To the end he remained, in effect, a paid employee of Pink Floyd. Notwithstanding Wright’s technical status, nobody could doubt the sincerity of the tribute Gilmour posted on his website. Of the three, it was the most personal and heartfelt. “No-one can rep
lace Richard Wright. He was my musical partner and my friend. He was such a lovely, gentle, genuine man.” This was followed with a belated apology for having deprived this lovely character of his membership of the band he loyally served for over 40 years: “In the welter of arguments about who or what was Pink Floyd, Rick’s enormous input was frequently forgotten.”
Like most issues relating to the band, the “forgetting” of Rick Wright’s contribution boils down to a personality clash. Sensitive, fragile and, according to the Floyd’s first manager, Peter Jenner, “dithery”, Wright was ill-equipped for the ego wars that came to dominate Pink Floyd after the departure of Syd Barrett in 1968. A self-taught multi-instrumentalist who grew up in thrall to classical music and modern jazz — “I never liked R&B very much,” he said — Wright was the one most in tune with Barrett’s maverick, improvising talent.
Believing Barrett and Wright to be the more musically gifted half of a disintegrating group, Pink Floyd’s management contemplated forming a breakaway band to rescue Barrett from his demons. But it never happened. Wright, who said he “would have left with him like a shot if I had thought Syd could do it”, stayed on with Pink Floyd where, like new recruit Gilmour, he came under fire from the band’s emerging bossy-boots ideologue, Roger Waters.
Jenner ascribes this to simple jealousy: “Rick was Roger’s real rival. He was better looking and he had a better voice.” Having lost his musical foil, and his friend, Wright became progressively isolated. He made a decisive contribution to the 1973 breakthrough album, The Dark Side of the Moon, whose subtle balancing of soft and loud passages owed much, Wright believed, to his “being brought up on classical music, in which the symphonies have huge dynamics”. But he argued with Waters over the subject of their next album, 1975’s extended elegy for Syd Barrett, Wish You Were Here, taking issue with Waters’ preoccupation with madness “something I didn’t feel so strongly about”. He was spooked by an incident at the end of the Abbey Road recording sessions when Barrett turned up, unrecognisably overweight, brandishing a toothbrush and demanding to play guitar on the track Shine On You Crazy Diamond.
Wright’s natural diffidence made the acclaim that accompanied the Floyd’s meteoric ascent after Dark Side — soon to become the biggest-selling album of the 1970s — difficult for him to deal with. His bandmates didn’t help. Persistently ragged for his alleged stinginess — “Rick wasn’t really a skinflint,” Mason admitted later, “we just decided to turn him into the Jack Benny of the group” — Wright found touring an increasingly lonely experience. To counter the stress, he took up ocean sailing, a hobby that put even more distance between him and his fellow Floyders.
By the late 1970s Wright was in trouble. His marriage was on the rocks, and, having written classics such as The Great Gig in the Sky, he now had writer’s block. Word within the Floyd camp had it that Wright’s failure to come up with any new material was not helped by his increasing consumption of cocaine — a habit frowned upon by a group that, unlike the rest of planet rock at the time, steered clear of all drugs.
Things came to a head in 1979 while recording The Wall at the Super Bear studio in the south of France. The band’s recent loss of £2m with the investment company Norton Warburg had left them heavily in debt and forced them into tax exile. It also put pressure on their next recording sessions, a tense situation made worse by a growing feud between Waters — who had devised the album’s storyline and written most of the songs — and Gilmour, who complained that Waters’ music was “incredibly naff”. Wright sided with Gilmour, who asked him to help improve it. Wright, however, failed to deliver. “We’d all go home at night,” Gilmour recalled, “and we’d say to Rick, ‘Do what you like, here are these tracks, write something, play a solo, put something down. You’ve got all evening, every evening, to do it.’ But he wasn’t capable of playing anything.”
Wright blamed the overbearing personality of Waters: “He was making it impossible for me to do anything.” Others blamed the drugs. With a deadline looming, Waters summoned Wright to LA where the band had relocated, to finish his keyboard parts. When Wright refused to interrupt his sailing holiday around the Greek islands, Waters called a band meeting at which he demanded his dismissal. At first Wright refused to leave, but after Waters threatened to walk out, binning the unfinished album, he panicked. “That meant there would be no money to pay off our huge debts. I was terrified. I had two kids to support. So I agreed to go.”
Wright later regretted the decision. “It was Roger’s bluff. But I really didn’t want to work with this guy any more.”
Wright’s dismissal marked the end of Pink Floyd as a mutual creative force — for the next five years they were the Roger Waters band — and the beginning of a struggle for control of the brand. As the individual members have long since discovered in their less successful solo careers, there is a commercial magic in the name Pink Floyd that transcends the performers it describes. This is partly down to the faceless nature of their son et lumière presentation. The vast light show, the visual stunts such as the inflatable pig, and the sound effects — clanking cash registers and all — tend to take precedence over the musicians on stage. As Mason puts it, “We’re lucky in that we don’t have to promote a Bono or a Mick Jagger.”
But names can be tricky to manage too. In his typically self-deprecating fashion, Mason said recently of the sacking of their organist: “Dave and I decided to gang up with the school bully rather than fight for truth and justice.” But slack as they might have been in resisting the expulsion of Wright, when in 1985 Mason and Gilmour fought Waters in the High Court for the right to call themselves Pink Floyd, record an album and set out on a four-year tour (the longest of their career to date), they won. And so it came to pass that the only people currently entitled to use the name Pink Floyd are David Gilmour and Nick Mason, when both are together on stage or in the studio. Aside from Live 8, the last time that happened was in 1995, on the tour for what is, and may well remain, the final Pink Floyd album, The Division Bell. When Gilmour toured his recent solo album, On an Island, it was noted that he didn’t invite Mason to play drums. The simmering row over the drummer’s memoir wasn’t the half of it. With Mason present, Gilmour would have reconstituted the legal entity known as Pink Floyd.
The tenacity with which the members of Pink Floyd have remained at loggerheads is remarkable. At its heart lies the fraught relationship between Waters and Gilmour, two men who are often called “arrogant” and “obstinate”. Creatively, this conflict has been summarised by Mason as “a tension between Roger’s wanting to make a show, and Dave’s desire to make music” — a reference to the fact that Waters is stronger on album “concepts” while Gilmour is the more talented singer and technician.
Its roots, however, go back to their shared upbringing in Cambridge. As teenagers, Gilmour and Waters were on nodding terms, but their connection was forged after both, separately, became friends of a magnetic boho character, Roger “Syd” Barrett. Gilmour and Barrett spent a summer busking in France. Waters, two years older, attended the same grammar school as Barrett and sought him out after they both moved to London to study. It was apparent in the first incarnation of Pink Floyd that Waters hero-worshipped Barrett, the band’s leader and main songwriter. According to Peter Jenner, “Syd was the only person Roger Waters has ever really liked and looked up to.” At a Barrett tribute concert held after his death at the Barbican in 2006,
Waters made the surprise announcement: “Without Syd I’d probably have been a property developer or something.”
Though Gilmour’s Cambridge background made him the obvious choice to replace Barrett — and he soon became a key player in repositioning Pink Floyd as a mainstream, rather than an “underground” act — Waters often treated him like a junior. “It’s that old playground thing,” Gilmour once said. “If you’re a couple of years younger, that’s the way you stay.” Others have speculated that Gilmour’s teenage friendship with Barrett and his family made Waters jealous. Surveying 40 years of internecine wrangling, the juvenile nature of much of it is what strikes Mason: “If any of our children behaved in the way we have to each other, we would be very cross with them.”
As things stand, their lives barely cross, personally or professionally. Mason recently got back on speaking terms with his old pal from Regent Street Poly, Roger Waters, for whom he has occasionally played drums on his solo shows. But none of them needs to set foot on a stage again. The most recent Sunday Times Rich List estimates that Waters, Gilmour and Mason have fortunes of £95m, £85m and £55m respectively. Former band member Wright didn’t feature on the list, but with houses in Kensington and the south of France and a large yacht in the Bahamas, he was clearly surviving comfortably on the royalty cheques from Pink Floyd’s glory years in the 1970s.
In fact, money is about the only thing this contentious combo haven’t argued about. Waters never went to war over it during his legal moves to stymie Mason and Gilmour. Whatever arrangement they came to with Wright, he never uttered a word of complaint about his treatment financially. In a gesture that helped to earn him a CBE in 2003, Gilmour donated the £3.6m he got from the sale of his London home in Little Venice — which was bought by Earl Spencer — to a charity for the homeless. “I don’t need that money, I have more than enough,” he commented, grandly.
Their lifestyles are — by the standards of most 60-something squillionaire rock stars — impeccably haut bourgeois. They each own tasteful country piles. Mason’s Wiltshire pad previously belonged to Camilla Parker Bowles. Gilmour’s farm in West Sussex is one of the most substantial spreads in what is informally known as “the rockbroker belt” — near Keith Richards’s infamous old haunt of Redlands. Waters’ main residence is in one of America’s toniest addresses, the Hamptons on Long Island.
The yachtsman Rick Wright wasn’t the only Floyder to favour posh pastimes. Mason loves collecting and racing vintage sports cars — his Ferrari GTO is his pride and joy — and most days he runs a company, Ten Tenths, that rents them out to film-makers. Waters spends much of his spare time over here shooting pheasant in the Welsh borders and deerstalking in Scotland. Gilmour is often seen out and about at London book launches with his wife, the former Sunday Times journalist Polly Samson.
The chances that these wealthy musicians of leisure will join forces again under the Pink Floyd banner seem remote for three reasons. First they are, as Mason says, demonstrably unbribable. “Bob Geldof and a good cause could make it happen whereas $250m couldn’t.” Then there are the musical differences, which were glimpsed in the rehearsals for Live 8. “At this point, to get Roger and David to play each other’s songs,” says Mason, “is unspeakably difficult.”
Finally, and decisively, there is the implacable hostility of David Gilmour to a plan that now enjoys the full support of Roger Waters. Having spent years denigrating the contributions of his old bandmates, Waters is now a born-again team player. “David doesn’t get how important the symbiosis between us was,” he commented recently.
A close associate of Gilmour’s takes a different view. “David has spent half his life fighting over Pink Floyd. Nothing will ever make him go back there.”