Pink Floyd really have six albums of note, although they have made many more than that: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967), Meddle (1971), The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), Animals (1977) and The Wall (1979). The first of those, which is their debut, incidentally, is a landmark psychedelic album released during the Summer of Love. A guitarist named Syd Barrett led the band back then, penning and singing most of the songs. But Barrett left Pink Floyd due to drug use and unpredictable/unreliable behavior, and he was replaced by David Gilmour. Barrett still contributed a song called “Jugband Blues” to Pink Floyd’s second album A Saucerful of Secrets (1968), which isn’t supposed to be that great of an album but is notable for being the only album to feature all five members. Barrett embarked on a short-lived solo career, releasing two albums in 1970 called Madcap Laughs and Barrett. After that, he disappeared.
And then he really disappeared, living out his last few decades in his mother’s house in Cambridge as a real recluse until his death. But he did surface in 1975, unexpectedly showing up — with a shaved head and eyebrows and some extra pounds in his belly — at Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here sessions at Abbey Road Studios in London. His former bandmates didn’t even recognize him at first, and were reduced to tears when they discovered his deteriorated mental state. When they presented him “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a song written about Barrett and his diminished condition, he was unable to recognize that it was about him. After Barrett left Pink Floyd in 1968, the band struggled, releasing just one notable album (Meddle) over the next five years.
But in 1973, they released The Dark Side of the Moon, one of the best and most successful albums ever. It went on to sell a staggering 15 million copies in the United States and an estimated 50 million copies worldwide. Pink Floyd’s 1979 double album The Wall actually outsold it in the U.S., with 23 million copies sold (though really it’s half that — it’s actually a measure of how many discs are sold), and an estimated total of 30 million copies sold worldwide, which seems a tad low to me. It’s not surprising, then, that these two mega-selling records have come to define Pink Floyd, more or less. As far as my Pink Floyd fandom goes, I’m a huge fan of two of their albums, but The Wall has never really been one of them, though I do like it enough to give it an honorable mention.
Bassist Roger Waters emerged as the dominant songwriter beginning with the severely overlooked Animals album (another honorable mention), and his increasingly totalitarian control on The Wall and 1983’s The Final Cut — on which he wrote every song — led to him leaving the band in 1985. The split was notoriously acrimonious, and they didn’t reunite until the Live 8 event in 2005, which turned out to be their only reunion. (Unfortunately, Richard Wright died in 2008.) As for Syd Barrett, he died in 2006, and while his great work is The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, almost nobody’s heard that album. (I haven’t heard it, though I plan to get to it eventually.) Barrett is far more famous for being the subject of Wish You Were Here, which is a tribute of sorts, though the album covers other themes, as well.
The success they found with The Dark Side of the Moon is certainly reflected in the cynicism-laden “Welcome to the Machine” and “Have a Cigar.” And then there’s the joyous title track, which couldn’t be more perfect, in composition and sound. It’s easy to forget in today’s day and age that the studio didn’t used to be thought of as instrument at all. Music production used to be more about writing great songs and then capturing them more holistically. Pink Floyd were definitely always at the forefront when it came to pushing how to use the studio to shape the songs themselves, and while Wish You Were Here may be a bit synthesizer-heavy, I actually consider it to be their most interesting album. (Thankfully, whatever synths Pink Floyd used in 1975 sound a lot better today than the ones everyone used in the ’80s.)