Relax, this is an opinion-piece. (I would love some reactions to this blog post, though... hello? Anyone?...)

In my view, there are three editions of Pink Floyd:

Version 1: The Syd Barrett-led quarter from the mid-60’s that made its mark in the British psychedelic music counter-culture with the brilliant singles “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play”, along with their debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967).

Version 2: The classic quartet of Roger Waters, Richard Wright, David Gilmour and Nick Mason. This was a slow boil of success that emerged after Barrett’s breakdown and ultimate expulsion from the band. Pink Floyd had to find its own sound and song writing abilities - collectively and separately - and it took a number of steps forward and backward to achieve the conceptual brilliance for which they’re most known.

Version 3: The Roger Waters-controlled entity that first became apparent with the Animals album (1977), reached its zenith with The Wall (1979) - by which time time keyboardist Rick Wright was no longer officially in the band, but completed the work as a session player - and signed off with the self-absorbed The Final Cut (for which drummer Nick Mason is even replaced for one cut).

(The topic of the fourth version - the reunited Floyd without Waters - is better suited for another time and place, so I won’t go there right now.)

Pink Floyd is sometimes thought of as a psychedelic group that become a prog-rock band along the way, but I’ve never thought of Floyd as “prog”. Aside from a few longer pieces like “Atom Heart Mother”, “Echoes” and “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond”, they didn’t usually go for long, epic tracks. More importantly, the band didn’t offer up a bunch of virtuosity among its players. Of the group members, only guitarist David Gilmour can be rightfully considered an elite player. Roger Waters was a solid bass guitarist and acoustic guitarist. Rick Wright was not known to add a slew of interesting jazz or classical runs up and down the keyboard. If anything, he laid a solid background of sustained chords that gave the group a spacial essence that was critical to their identity. Nick Mason, although wildly fun on some of the early recordings (most notably on the challenging double set Ummagumma from 1969), was a modest and conservative presence on the drum kit, typically playing more of a “pulse” than any type of obvious rock drum technique. Gilmour - wisely - constrained his approach to serve the material and the greater good of the band, rather than outshine his other players. Yet, the relatively intermediate skills of the ensemble served Pink Floyd well. They couldn’t afford prog rock’s excesses, because they weren’t capable of executing at that level of skill.

This, to me, is one of the secrets to the lasting appeal of Pink Floyd. Their technical limitations made them think about the structure of their pieces and play with a restraint that places a premium on melody, thoughtful lyrics that typically address the human condition, and wraps them in a warm, unobtrusive rhythmic blanket.

So, to the point of this piece: What is the best piece of work ever issued by Pink Floyd? Chances are, the majority of you will automatically answer The Dark Side of the Moon (aka DSOTM) (1973), with a certain percentage preferring Wish You Were Here (WYWH) (1975) and others claiming The Wall (1979) for the top spot.

These are all fine albums, and of them it’s hard to argue against DSOTM. It’s consistently ranked among the finest albums of the rock era, it’s brilliant produced, and the engineering work of the legendary Alan Parsons makes the record sound great any time and in any place. Roger Waters, in the first move toward his ultimate dominance of Pink Floyd, writes all the lyrics for the first time, and produces a unified theme of the hectic demands of life and the madness it can conjure forth. Even the cover art helps: It’s classic, simple and clean with iconic prism imagery.

But to this writer, DSOTM comes in second place. What’s first? Any of the others listed above? No. Is it the aforementioned Animals? No (although I think this album is highly overlooked and underrated). It’s certainly not Atom Heart Mother (1970), which is “interesting”, but clouded with too much filler and slight songs to make it a contender. Nor is it 1971’s Meddle, although like Animals this one deserves an honorable mention for some individual tracks that hint at excellence.

My first place choice for the greatest-ever Pink Floyd album is 1972’s Obscured by Clouds. Now you’re saying, “Obscured by WHAT?... “Huh?”. 

Obscured by Clouds (aka OBC) is the soundtrack for the film La Vallée (directed by Barbet Schroeder). The album was commissioned by Schroeder on the basis of Floyd’s prior soundtrack work on his 1969 film More.

 Obscured By CloudsThe making of OBC was very hurried. Pink Floyd had already begun some work on DSOTM when the La Vallée commission was offered up. The group had little time to write material for the soundtrack, and it was recorded during two studio sessions. Although the original plan was for Floyd to simply compose incidental music to match the timing of certain scenes from the film, they got on a bit of a tear and ended up writing an entire album’s worth of songs - as it turns out very engaging songs - that would make for an outstanding addition to their discography.

 

What separates OBC from other Pink Floyd albums is its immediacy, economy and looseness. Under extreme time pressures, the band had to tune up, fire the tunes off and allow what they had to be “good enough”. It was more than “good enough”. The Pink Floyd of OBC is a “tight but loose” rock band, with a sense of fun, spontaneity and informality that’s rewarding with every spin. The group sounds unified and very down-to-earth. You can practically imagine the sweat from Gilmour’s fingers as he plays his guitars throughout, and there’s an absolute buoyancy among Mason, Wright and Waters that was never again sonically achieved in their subsequent records. Within the Pink Floyd oeuvre, we hear them as a ROCK band, and an excellent one at that. It practically flies of the turntable on the uptempo numbers.

OBC kicks off with the title instrumental, a pulsing but direct piece of riffing that sets a fine mood and showcases what makes Pink Floyd a great band across many of their records: self-editing, purposeful repetition, and just enough pulse combined with sonic textures to make it effective. The brief “When You’re In” follows, a slighter piece of riffing and very much intended as incidental music for La Vallée, but still quite effective.

The record starts to find its real strength with the haunting, mid-tempo “Burning Bridges”, whereupon Gilmour and Wright trade lead vocals (and harmonize), and Gilmour shines with tasteful slide guitar. Wright’s Hammond organ comping is perfectly suited for this piece.

The magnificent “The Gold, It’s in the Hills” follows, and this is one of the hardest-rockers in Floyd’s catalogue. This is just down and dirty jamming, although in an economical way. So what if Mason’s fills are a little sluggish and sloppy? This is the Pink Floyd version of garage rock, with a seriousness level of zero.

Next up is “Wot’s...Uh The Deal?” An outright ballad with a spectacular Gilmour lead vocal (supported by his delicate acoustic guitar finger work), spot-on harmonies and - for Mason - a delightful swinging drum arrangement, this is a five-star song. Even Wright lets loose with some piano flourishes that are rarely heard from his hands, with Gilmour chasing him with few measures of slide soloing.

The side one (in vinyl album terms) closing number is “Mudmen”, another piece of soundtrack music, although completely realized in terms of arrangement and performance. It encapsulates the perfect marriage for the aural canvas reliably stretched by Waters, Wright and Mason, over which master class guitarist Gilmour lets loose with sustained-note guitar runs. This track would just as easily fit on DSOTM in terms of vibe.

The remainder of the album is strong, with special kudos going to three tracks: “Childhood’s End” (a Gilmour penned tour-de-force that’s both hard driving and melancholy, “Free Four” (a jaunty look at the typical human lifespan by Waters) and the pensive and gorgeous “Stay” (written and sung beautifully by Wright).

“Absolutely Curtains”, the album closer, harkens back a bit to the more experimental/experiential elements of early Pink Floyd, but this is not inappropriate considering the premise of the La Vallée film. The closing segment sounds to be a field recording of tribal chanting, possibly captured on location in New Guinea (the location of the movie).

As DSOTM was released not long after OBC, OBC is overlooked and often forgotten. Yet, for this listener, it’s the last time Pink Floyd sounded like a downright band: Not too scattered, not too polished. While not detracting from the glories to follow, Obscured By Clouds will always be my favorite Pink Floyd LP.

 

If I’ve maintained your interest in early (but post-Syd Barrett) Pink Floyd, here are some great tracks from other pre-DSOTM albums worth investigating (with album name in parenthesis):

 

Remember a Day (A Saucerful of Secrets)

See Saw (A Saucerful of Secrets)

The Nile Song (More)

Cymbaline (More)

Summer ’68 (Atom Heart Mother)

A Pillow of Winds (Meddle)

Fearless (Meddle)

Echoes (Meddle)

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