PINK FLOYD - No One Knew What They Looked Like

I wrote this piece for a Q magazine Pink Floyd special edition sometime in the 90s.

The box arrived in Melody Maker’s offices in December 1970, just in time for Christmas, addressed to Michael Watts. It was a sturdily constructed hardwood cube, painted dark red, about the size of half-a-dozen hardback books piled on top of each other. It was very heavy, and Watts approached it with caution, gingerly drawing back the catch that held down the lid. THWACK! It zapped open with the speed of light and a boxing glove on a powerful spring shot out.
         “It would have broken my jaw if I hadn’t jumped out of the way fast,” says Watts today. “It was a really powerfully built thing, very dangerous. It was a Christmas present from the Pink Floyd. They hadn’t liked my review of Atom Heart Mother.”
* * *

Of all the globally elite British groups of the Seventies, none were more shadowy than Pink Floyd. They didn't send out review tickets to music magazines if they could help it, they never invited the press along to anything and if EMI insisted on throwing a party to launch an album, as they did with Dark Side Of The Moon at the London Planetarium, then the Floyd famously sent along cardboard cut-outs of themselves, partly as a sort of a droll joke but mainly because they simply couldn’t be bothered to attend. They once boasted that after a gig at New York’s Madison Square Garden they actually mingled with the crowds who were leaving and weren’t recognised, and there was even a press ad that featured the backs of their heads.
         Notwithstanding the gift they sent to my colleague Watts, who also recalls receiving a package of putrefied offal from another (anonymous) dissatisfied customer, the individual members of Pink Floyd weren’t as aggressively anti-press as Led Zeppelin tended to be. Instead, they maintained a sort of aloof, couldn’t care less attitude, as if courting the press and giving interviews was somehow beneath them. While Zeppelin adopted their “We'll do it our way and show the fuckin’ press we don’t need them” stance, with the Floyd it was more of a disdainful “Press? Do we really have to bother with all that sort of thing?” attitude. This may have stemmed from the upper-class upbringing of Nick Mason and Rick Wright, posh folk being traditionally ambivalent towards the media, but it was also a symptom of the anonymity they sought – none of the increasingly successful albums that followed Ummagumma in 1969 featured photographs of the band on their sleeves and on stage the four musicians eschewed spotlights, obscuring themselves beneath a giant circular screen on which were projected light shows and eye-catching film footage, or giant mobiles that drew attention away from the boys in the band.
           At the Crystal Place Bowl show I attended in London in May 1971, a small lake intruded between them and their audience from which there emerged an inflatable monster which, of course, obscured the group. I first heard Dark Side Of The Moon at the Rainbow on February 17, 1972 (a full 12 months before it was released), and went back the next night because I enjoyed it so much but I managed this not through the good offices of the Floyd themselves but through the kindness of the manager of the theatre, John Morris, who had given me a magic pass that read: “Admit to all parts of the theatre at all times”.
         Thus it was that press contact with Pink Floyd was minimal. I actually recall bumping into the whole band in a doctor’s surgery on Harley Street – they were there to be inoculated against whatever it was that travellers might catch in the Far East – and again in the TWA departure lounge at JKF Airport in New York, but on neither occasion was I equipped to question them about their art, not that they’d have responded anyway.
         In the end I finally ambushed Pink Floyd in Edinburgh on November 4, 1974, during a break from my stint as Melody Maker’s New York correspondent. I simply found out which hotel they were staying at (by ringing around) and booked myself in. I gained admittance to their concert at the Usher Hall by buying a ticket from a tout, which was most unusual since virtually every other act on the planet laid out the red carpet for MM staff in those days. Afterwards, hanging around in the lobby, I was looked upon with deep suspicion but I knew the promoter Harvey Goldsmith and through him somehow managed to ingratiate myself into their large party and partake of a sumptuous post-gig supper with them and their entourage, about 20 of us around a huge table in a private room. At first I sat alongside their manager Steve O’Rourke who seemed an agreeable chap if you were prepared to talk about fast cars but before the food arrived I was asked to move by Storm Thorgerson from the Hipgnosis design team “because there was something important I need to discuss with Steve”. Over dinner I detected an atmosphere of civilised maturity; none of the japes, womanising and loutish behaviour brought on by a surfeit of alcohol or drugs that were the hallmark of post-concert parties thrown by so many other groups. The Pink Floyd, I realised, were adults, and they behaved like them too.
         None of the band really wanted to do an interview with me but I persisted and the following day found myself in the hotel lobby face to face over a tape recorder with Rick Wright who’d evidently drawn the shortest straw. I would have preferred to interview Roger Waters but he was unwilling as he wanted to play golf, there being many fine courses close to Edinburgh. I recall being astonished that Waters played golf as it seemed the unlikeliest of pastimes for a man whose lyrical preoccupations were space-flight, insanity and death.
         Unlike almost all of their contemporaries Pink Floyd in those days liked to perform new songs on stage before they had actually been recorded, a fairly brave move since this might enable bootleggers to record shows and release material before it came out through the official channels. At the Usher Hall the previous night they’d performed ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ which wouldn’t be made available until Wish You Here was released in September, 1975, and two other new pieces ‘Raving And Drooling’ and ‘Gotta Be Crazy’, both of which eventually surfaced on Animals no less than three years later, in 1977, retitled ‘Sheep’ and ‘Dogs’ respectively.
         “I can’t think of any other bands that work this way,” said Wright over a cup of tea in the hotel lobby. “Usually bands record songs and then play them but we feel that if you do a few tours with a number, then that number improves immensely. We will probably record them after the tour.”
         Wright turned out to be a loquacious interviewee, to some degree dispelling the aura of non-communication that surrounded the group. It seemed to me that once you’d penetrated the shell, it was plain sailing, and we talked at some length about the extraordinary success of Dark Side which seemed to have taken the group by surprise. “It’s changed me in many ways because it’s brought in a lot of money and one feels very secure when you can sell an album for two years. We knew it had a lot more melody than previous Floyd albums and there was a concept that ran all through it. The music was easier to absorb and having girls singing away added a commercial touch that none of our other records had.”
         We talked about the visuals that enhance their shows, how he and Gilmour were keener on touring than Mason and Waters, and how each member of the Floyd had plans for solo albums and wanted to spend six months of each year on this and six months with the group. In hindsight this seems like wishful thinking but at the time, before Waters’ domination threatened their future, made good sense.
         I couldn’t resist raising the issue of their anonymity. “We are not trying to sell ourselves, just the music,” Wright ventured after a moment’s pause. “Right from the start we adopted this policy. We have never had a publicity agent and we’ve never found it necessary to employ one. We don’t go to all the ‘in’ parties and we don’t go to all the ‘in’ clubs. People don’t recognise us on the streets and even if they did it wouldn’t be a problem. It’s changed since I moved out of London to Cambridge where people don’t know anything about the Floyd.
         “Sometimes I get people tramping through my garden and asking for my autograph because they’ve heard I’m in a pop group but they don’t know what the Floyd do. They probably think we’re like Gary Glitter.”
         Wright further admitted that he, and by extension probably his colleagues too, maintained a discreet distance from the entire music scene. “I ignore the way pop is going,” he said. “I have completely lost touch with the singles charts [this was 1974 remember, when the singles charts often threw up decent stuff – CC]. I don’t listen to what is being played on the radio. I don’t watch Top Of The Pops and I don’t watch The Old Grey Whistle Test. I don’t even know how the rock business is going, expect that I think the bubble will burst fairly soon.”
         Wright was astute enough to predict a long career for the group. “It could last forever,” he said. “We still have much to do together. We probably do things much better with each other than we could with anyone else. We’re not underground anymore, despite what people say. At the UFO it was underground but you can’t be underground when you sell out every concert hall and your album goes to number one. No, the Pink Floyd can’t claim to be underground any more.”
         The conversation over, Wright excused himself, and I caught a train back to London happy in the knowledge that I'd secured a small scoop for Melody Maker and found a way to penetrate this most impenetrable of groups. Unfortunately, whatever bridges I thought I might have built between Pink Floyd and the press were swiftly demolished. Punk rock was still at least three years away, but in some quarters the tide was already turning. Reviewing Pink Floyd's performance at Wembley Empire Pool less than a fortnight later, NME’s star writer Nick Kent laid into the band without mercy, describing their performance as "a pallid excuse for creating music". Even more controversially, he opened his review with a complaint about the state of David Gilmour's hair, describing it as "seemingly anchored down by a surfeit of scalp grease and tapering off below the shoulders with a spectacular festooning of split ends." It was to prove too much. A furious Gilmour demanded an audience with NME to address the review. There would be no more boxing gloves delivered to the office but Pink Floyd’s wall – not for the first time or last time – was back up again.


Richard Evans said...

Nice piece, Chris and just one typo . . . Hipgnosis!

Chris Charlesworth said...

Duly changed. Thanks Richard.

Anonymous said...

What happened to the boxing glove box?