Exploring Pink Floyd’s “Unclassic” Years With Music Journalist Bill Kopp

Any American fan of rock who came of age at any point from the late 1970s onward and subjected themselves to rock radio, particularly when classic-rock radio came into being, undoubtedly ingested a lot of Pink Floyd.

On any given day, if the young’un had his or her radio tuned in, it was a safe bet that, sooner than later, he or she would hear either something from 1973’s phenomenally successful Dark Side of the Moon or maybe one of the several gems from 1975’s Wish You Were Here, if not any one of a number of radio staples from 1979’s double-disc monster, The Wall. Yes, rock radio had done much to keep Pink Floyd’s legacy going strong.

However, it’s been a somewhat select legacy. For all US radio has done to maintain Pink Floyd’s popularity, the American listener taking in the band’s music could be forgiven for being under the impression the band arrived on the scene in the early ’70s and got off to a grand start, thanks to the virtually complete absence from radio of the group’s first batch of albums.

While in England, albums like 1969’s Ummagumma and 1970’s Atom Heart Mother charted at #5 and #1 respectively; rare is the American casual fan who could hum a note from either, whereas every American and their mother, even those who despise Floyd, has probably heard the bulk of Dark Side of the Moon, whether they planned to or not.

These albums, to a lot of American fans, were little more than those other Floyd albums we’d see in the bins while looking for Wish You Were Here. Only occasionally would someone pick up “the cow album,” most likely out of curiosity or to complete the collection but unlikely out of need to snag that “how do you feel” song heard on Classic 98. (Although, in fairness, Pink Floyd has to take some of the blame themselves for these albums falling out of the limelight, having almost completely ignored these works in their live shows.)

Well, just as the Beatles’ story doesn’t start with Sgt. Pepper and just as to ignore anything before it would not only be robbing your ears of fine music but also missing out on hearing the musical growth the band made from their earliest recordings that worked its way to their groundbreaking and most famous LP, the same applies for Pink Floyd.

Dark Side of the Moon didn’t come out of nowhere. It came from a band that started out as a bluesy and R&B-tinted pop combo not too many years earlier. With each successive release after their 1967 debut, they moved themselves forward (no small achievement from a band whose original leader and creative mastermind fell out of the picture rather early in the game) gradually and sensibly, to the point that a close chronological look at Pink Floyd’s music proves that the road from the 1967 debut Piper at the Gates of Dawn to their so-called breakthrough album Dark Side of the Moon didn’t exactly zigzag.

Longtime music journalist Bill Kopp, in his new book Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to the Dark Side of the Moon, takes that close chronological look and proves as much.

He examines each and every album of that period as well as all matter of stray singles tracks and unreleased studio and live recordings to paint the full picture of the band’s work, noting recurring themes and possible hints of what lay ahead along the way.

Using the band’s history as a backbone for his findings as a recording unit, Kopp shines the spotlight brightly on Pink Floyd’s “unclassic” years and gives the music of this time the attention it deserves but seldom gets.

Through his detailed analysis of the music and his thorough research on the development of the band as a unit, with recollections from a number of notables, some obvious some not as much, in the Floyd story such as Yes guitarist Steve Howe, Humble Pie’s Jerry Shirley (who wrote the book’s forward), Ron Geesin, Robyn Hitchcock, and onetime Floyd manager Peter Jenner, the lesser told chapters of Pink Floyd’s story have now been told, consequently giving the more familiar ones a little more context

REBEAT: For starters, could you give the REBEAT readers a little overview of your history as a music journalist?

BILL KOPP: When I was a little kid, I always knew this is what I wanted to do, but I didn’t actually start doing it until about 12 or 15 years ago. I did some work for Trouser Press when it became an online, and as it happened, the first piece I did for them was a career-spanning critical look at the catalogue of Pink Floyd. So that was totally coincidental but that was pretty much the first pro gig that I actually had as a music journalist. And I did a little bit of freelancing on the side.

Then for a few years, around 2006/2007, I was a writer and then a copy editor and then Editor-in Chief for a national music magazine. So I did that for a while until that magazine went out of business. When it went under, by that point I had established a whole lot of contacts among music journalists and fellow writers and publicists. I decided, “I’ll continue, but in the short term, I’ll start a blog, and I’ll just do things there.” So I did that for a number of years and it’s still running today.

A couple of years ago I made the transition into writing full time, and that’s all I do now: writing, interviewing, doing essays, that kind of thing. And I write for a bunch of music magazines, several in the UK and a number of them here in the States and a whole bunch of alt-weeklies around the country.

As you say in your book, Pink Floyd isn’t even your very favorite band.

You know, it kind of depends when I get up each morning, it’s either Pink Floyd or the Beatles, but those two are right at the top.

You got to talk with some good names for this book, didn’t you?

I did. One of the first people I spoke to was Ron Geesin, who, of course, was deeply involved in making the Atom Heart Mother sidelong piece. He’s a riot. There’s no other way to put it but he’s quite idiosyncratic, but also very articulate and highly entertaining, so we had a really interesting conversation, not only about the Atom Heart Mother era, but just in general about the band because he had been on concert bills with them going back a number of years.

I also got to speak with Jerry Shirley, the drummer for Humble Pie, who was a close friend of Syd Barrett and who played on both of his albums. And when I first got in touch with Jerry, there was some back and forth to convince him to be involved with the project because, in general, he’s a little reluctant to talk about Syd, mainly because in his experience most people just wanna focus on the mental illness and drug use and not on the music and the person.

Once he understood and appreciated that really wasn’t my approach at all, he was more than willing to talk, and said, “The only requirement I have is I also want you to speak with Willie Wilson,” and I said, “Well, I really wanted to speak with him anyway, so your insisting on that is great!” because they’re close friends, and he was able to put me in touch with Willie.

One of the biggest surprises that happened was once I had gotten past the midway point of the project, I was able to get hold of Peter Jenner, the original manager of the band, and he agreed to sit for a fairly extensive interview, and he filled in a whole lot of blanks. They were all fun an interesting interviews, and in every single case I think I learned something that I didn’t know. Obviously talking with Steve Howe and Davy O’List, they had a lot of interesting things to say, too.

Your book focuses on Floyd’s constant progression, and how the leap from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn to Dark Side of the Moon didn’t just happen. You point to cases of how, even in the early recordings when they’re doing basic rock ‘n’ roll, like “I’m a King Bee,” they add some touches of creativity.

I really thought it was interesting. I mean, I had sort of the general idea when I began the book, but the more that I kind of delved into the music, the more that I realized there really are all kinds of — maybe foreshadowing isn’t the right word — but there are all kinds of hints in their early work toward the direction that they would eventually go.

And that’s not for a moment to suggest that they knew or that they had a specific plan as far as where they were going. I don’t really think that they did. But with the benefit of hindsight, I think you can see that a number of things that they did even early on really were important steps on the path they would eventually follow.

Where does “classic-rock” Pink Floyd begin? On one hand it seems like Dark Side of the Moon but then again, at least by me, “One Of These Days” from Meddle, two albums earlier, has long been a staple of classic-rock stations. But in between there’s an album you never hear on Classic Rock radio (Obscured by Clouds), so it’s almost like there’s an overlap of when the more overlooked era of Floyd ends, and the classic period begins.

I would agree with that. Here’s what I think happened. This is one of these sort of things where unless you were somehow able to go back and look at radio playlists it would be tough to verify. I think it started with Dark Side of the Moon. Meddle didn’t sell remarkably well in the US initially.

It did okay, but after Dark Side it took off again and got a kind of second life which is something you see happen with a lot of artists if they break through midway into their career — people dig into the back catalog to a certain degree for whatever reason.

Maybe it just has to do with the way that records were stocked in the stores: If you bought Dark Side of the Moon, then you took it home, and you said, “Wow, this is great. I’m going back to the store and getting another record of theirs.” Well, the odds that they’re going to have any copies of More are pretty unlikely, but they probably would have had some copies of Meddle because it did sell reasonably well.

So, I think that’s part of why Meddle got picked up. Now, as to why Obscured By Clouds didn’t, that’s really hard to say, but my experience is the same as yours: You turn somebody onto a track like “Childhood’s End” and they’ll say (impressed), “I’ve never heard that!”

If you had to pick one song and one album from the era covered in the book, that you feel should be up there in classic status what would they be? Would it be Obscured By Clouds for the album?

For the album, I think it would probably be Obscured By Clouds. For the song, it would be the live version of “Cymbaline.” My very favorite of all the Pink Floyd stuff is the material they were doing live around 1970/1971, specifically “Fat Old Sun,” the long version of “Green is the Colour,” “Cymbaline,” and “Embryo.”

Those four pieces really, I think, point the way in a lot of ways, to where they would head, and they’re all really underappreciated. And “Echoes” as well, of course, which is just a tiny bit later. But they all point in the direction of where they were going and they all represent a kind of interesting, long-form approach to music.

The album versions, or the studio versions of those songs are generally fairly nondescript, kind of demo-ish, especially “Embryo” which was a demo. But even “Fat Old Sun,” it’s lovely on the album version, but when they open up and play it for ten or eleven minutes live, it’s just something else completely, and that’s what I really love. If I’m ever going to try to hip somebody to that transitional era of Pink Floyd, those are the first tunes I’m going to play for them.

Pink Floyd did a lot of music for movies in that time. Do you think they generally approached writing and recording for a movie with the same degree of effort as they would a regular album or do you think they did it more as an afterthought?

I wouldn’t compare the amount of effort they put in on film projects versus their own purpose album projects. I would say it was a different kind of effort.

When they were working for the films, they were creating things to order, so to speak. For example, Barbet Schroeder [author and director of More, 1969] would say, “I need something that sounds like a really hard-rock band,” and so, they’d bash out something fairly uncharacteristic like “The Nile Song” which is like proto-hard metal or something.

In the book, you compare “The Nile Song” to Blue Cheer, which I thought was a good comparison.

It’s almost a parody of Blue Cheer. I can imagine them sort of smirking at each other while they were playing it, maybe doing the devil’s horns and making the guitar face and all that, because it was the kind of thing like, “Well, this is what he needs for this.” I think had they not done film projects, we would have never gotten a song like “The Nile Song.”

They had two or three songs that ended up on the Zabriskie Point soundtrack after being contracted to create an entire film’s worth of music, and a lot of that showed up on The Early Years. And some of those are — maybe parody isn’t the right word, because parody implies mocking — but we’ll say pastiche.

There are Crosby, Stills & Nash pastiches in several of their film projects. On More there’s some, and on the Antonioni project there are some where they really sound like, “Oh, give us something that sounds like CSN.” We don’t know for a fact that that’s what happened, but that’s what it sounds like.

Let’s go back to early Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett. Of course, Pink Floyd was a different animal in 1967 than they were in the 1970s, but as you note, even then there was a difference between the Pink Floyd onstage and on records, and you say how The Piper at the Gates of Dawn really doesn’t offer much taste of what their live act was like, or at least it was condensed versions.

Right. I would say other than two or three songs on Piper that hint at what they were doing live: “Interstellar Overdrive,” “Astronomy Domine,” and “Pow. R. Toc. H.”

Those three in particular, they’re certainly not just like the live versions, but they hint at that, whereas some of the other more, for lack of a better word, twee songs that Syd did, “The Gnome” and “Scarecrow” and things like that — those had almost nothing to do with what the live Pink Floyd was about.

I think a lot of the things that they did live, as effective as they were live, simply wouldn’t have gone over on record. People were not ready for that in 1967/68.

Can you think of any times Pink Floyd made mistakes, got overambitious, or things didn’t work?

Well, the most famous one would be “Atom Heart Mother.” The whole thing is one beat off. When the band is playing along with the brass section, everything is off.

To our ears, at least to my ears, it sounds just fine. It really really, really bothered Ron Geesin for a long time. There was no way to fix it because of the way things were recorded. [But it bothered him] so much so that just a few years back, he staged a new performance of the “Atom Heart Mother” suite — he just calls it “Atom Heart Mother” — with brass, and he even got David Gilmour to take part, which is interesting, and he refers to it as the corrected version.

Which to the audience probably sounded a little strange.

Maybe, but when you’re talking about Ron Geesin, “strange” is par for the course. And I mean that in a good way, but yeah, definitely.

And speaking of Atom Heart Mother, that’s an album where I’ve heard people praise the songs and criticize the suites, and I’ve heard others do the exact opposite. How do you feel? Do you feel there’s room for both?

Yeah, there’s value in all of it. The suite is my favorite on the record, but even “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast” has value. It’s not something you’re gonna spin on a daily basis or anything, but I think its existence points out something interesting, and that’s Nick Mason’s role in the band as more than a drummer and as sort of the architect of their soundscapes a lot of times.

If you listen to the two sort of abstract tunes on Dark Side of the Moon, “Speak to Me” and “On the Run,” both of those are, to an unappreciated degree, the product of his creativity, and I think there are hints of that in “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast.”

Did any particular revelations come up while researching and writing the book?

Well, the big surprise was when I spoke to Steve Howe. I got in touch with him completely on the strength of the fact that I knew that during his years with the band Tomorrow and shared a bill with Pink Floyd, and so I thought it would be really, really interesting to speak with someone who had that kind of a connection to the band. He volunteered the fact that he had been asked to fill in for Syd one night when Syd had gone AWOL, and that was totally unknown to me.

I’ve since discovered that, apparently, he’s mentioned it here and there in conversation over the years to various people, but as best as I can tell he’s never told the story on the record and has never told it to a music journalist before, as far as I know.

As it happens, it didn’t actually happen, but it almost did. It was close enough to happening that he had a chance to think about, “Well, how’s this gonna go, and what am I gonna do, and how am I gonna do it?”

The other larger picture sort of revelation was, to me, that the success and the development that the band enjoyed from 1968 up through Dark Side of the Moon, was, I think, largely the product of their collaborative sort of team approach, as opposed to the approach they would employ post-Dark Side of the Moon, which was, as most people would say, Roger Waters being a sort of leading light and the others sort of following.

I always knew that my favorite period of Pink Floyd, and I love it all, just about, is 1968 to 1973, and I think in doing the research I got some clues as to why that is, and I think it’s because I appreciated the collaborative-team approach that they were using in those years.

To find out more about Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to the Dark Side of the Moon or to pre-order the book, head over to reinventingpinkfloyd.com.

About Michael Lynch 14 Articles
Michael Lynch of Long Island, New York first began writing about music when he was nine years old (for his self-produced music magazine written on pages of loose-leaf) and has never stopped. Along the way he has written about the music he loves (and sometimes about music he doesn't love) for a variety of magazines, books, blogs, podcasts and radio programs.