Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey by Nicholas Schaffner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"They weren't players - they were kind of concept artists, really."
(Pete Brown, British poet and lyricist, on Pink Floyd).
Nicholas Schaffner's Saucerful of Secrets. The Pink Floyd Odyssey (1991) is a well-told and insightful story of the famous British band, one of the brightest stars in the rock-music pantheon. They began playing together in 1965 and were active in recording studios or on tours until 1994. The group temporarily reunited for the Live 8 ("Live Aid") benefit concert in 2005. Mr. Schaffner's book covers the history of the band only until the late 1980s, the period of the band's most important creative activity.
I am a Pink Floyd fan, albeit not an usual one. I only like their earlier music, music that still carries the influence of Syd Barrett. Not for me is The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), one of the best-selling albums in the history of music, an album that was on the bestseller charts for unprecedented 741 weeks (yes, 15 years) and which I find a good piece of elevator music. Thus, I am very happy that Mr. Schaffner does not allocate his attention proportionally to the commercial "value" of the group's works: a significant portion of the book is dedicated to Pink Floyd's early years.
The band's origins are tied to the Spontaneous Underground, a 1965 community action project, connected with the London Free School, and carried on by the Indica Bookshop. This was an anarchic, intellectual, avant-garde movement: in some sense an alternative to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones commercialism. Syd Barrett was the heart and the soul of the early Pink Floyd, and it was his musical and artistic genius that allowed the band to emerge as a unique phenomenon. The author mentions the seminal concert in October of 1966, where Pink Floyd played along Soft Machine, another "alternative band" of the late 1960s that also stayed active for great many years, however on the art side of music rather than, like Pink Floyd, on the business side (see my review of Soft Machine's story here ).
Pink Floyd's first album, the wonderful Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released almost exactly 50 years ago, in August 1967. I doubt if many Pink Floyd fans would recognize the band's early sound, totally devoid of the overblown bombast, techno-overload, and fake pathos of their most famous music, but full of psychedelic charm and whimsy instead. I don't think the fans of The Dark Side of the Moon would like the first album at all.
In 1967 Pink Floyd were all about art, about being avant-garde, about being "far out". Starting in 1968 - 1969 they began to care about business and making money. Gradual disappearance of Syd Barrett and his descent into mental illness paralleled that process. Three further albums, Saucerful of Secrets, Ummagumma, and Atom Heart Mother still have some connections with their psychedelic avant-garde roots. Beginning with Meddle and peaking with The Dark Side and, in particular, The Wall, Pink Floyd went full blast into huge-scale commercial show-making.
The saddest part of the book, other than the testimony to the commercialization of art, is the account of the acrimonious split between Roger Waters and David Gilmour who replaced the irreplaceable Syd Barrett in 1968. The author of the book died many years before the two feuding musicians decided to play along each other at the Live 8 concert in 2005. I wish he were at that concert.
Very well written, informative, balanced, and extremely readable chronicle of (d)evolution of a famous band.
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