If I were allowed to take just 5 of my DVDs to an 8ft x 8ft prison cell, Pink Floyd at Pompeii would almost certainly make it to the list. This is a stunning concert film, made at a very interesting stage in The Floyd’s evolution: they’d moved beyond the geeky-youngsters-performing-psychedelic-shows-in-London-nightbars phase and they hadn’t yet started producing the Big Albums, the ones most casual fans associate them with today. Syd Barrett, their charismatic first frontman, had been phased out of the band a couple of years earlier; The Dark Side of the Moon was yet a couple of years away. Floyd were on the cusp when they performed amid Pompeii’s eerie ancient ruins back in 1971.
I tend to regard this as the point where they reached their creative apotheosis as a rock band, with the albums Meddle and Atom Heart Mother. Many of my friends disagree. (My own 20-year-old self is firmly on their side, chastising me from the distant past; back then, I went through extended periods when I was convinced that, first The Wall, then Animals and then Wish You Were Here, were the best things to have happened to rock music.)
Floyd has gone through several face-lifts, as you’d expect from most rock bands that lasted more than 30 years. (Have they even officially disbanded yet? Or do they still exist in some vague, orchestra-dominated avatar, with Dave Gilmour’s grandchildren performing on trumpets in the chorus?) It’s almost impossible to relate the nerdy young architecture students of 1965 with the silver-haired multimillionaires who performed with hordes of back-up artistes in the 1990s. But lately I’ve felt a proclivity for their early work; it feels so much purer than anything they subsequently did.
The Pompeii concert is bookended by the first and second halves of the 23-minutes "Echoes", a song that provided me with one of my earliest memories of how evocative rock lyrics could be:
“Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air
And deep beneath the rolling waves
In labyrinths of coral caves
The echo of a distant tide
Comes willowing across the sand
And everything is green and submarine
And no one showed us to the land
And no one knows the wheres or whys
But something stirs and something tries
And starts to climb toward the light.”
This section – with the gentle voices of Gilmour and Richard Wright intercut with visuals of fading statues that recall Shelley’s "Ozymandias" - is probably my joint favourite, along with the breathtaking, adrenaline-pumping filmisation of that great number "One of these Days" built around Nick Mason’s frenetic drumming.
Pompeii shows a vibrant, youthful side to Pink Floyd that few of us would have seen, what with the limited (and impersonal) concert footage generally available. It shows a group of four young musicians who weren’t afraid to risk looking silly in pursuit of their – what’s that word? – art. (And they do look very silly at times: don’t miss the hopeless attempts at improvisation on the "Saucerful of Secrets" track – Waters banging away at a large gong, like an LSD-addled version of the Rank Films mascot; Gilmour determinedly running a thimble up and down his guitar chords; and most embarrassing, the usually dignified Wright trying to create free-flowing sound by crawling about his piano keys. But I still prefer all this to the soulless flamboyance of their later concerts, filled with spectacular light displays and flying-pig gimmickry.)
This is not to suggest that Pompeii is an out-and-out exercise in minimalism or spontaneity. It isn’t; it’s a carefully planned, filmed and edited concert, and some of the stuff on the remastered version – the "special visual effects" including an animation of a volcanic eruption - is positively garish. But it’s still closer to honest, direct rock ’n roll than almost anything the Floyd later did.
P.S. It would have been interesting to see how the Pompeii concert might have turned out if Syd Barrett had still been fronting Pink Floyd at the time. While Barrett’s reputation as a mad genius is probably overstated, he was undoubtedly one of the most interesting figures in rock music; whatever heights Floyd subsequently achieved, they certainly never again had as dynamic a personality in their ranks (with respect to the considerable achievements of Waters and Gilmour). The Barrett hypothesis remains one of the biggest what ifs in rock history: what direction would Floyd have taken if he had stayed…well, not sane exactly, but just sane enough to have led the band for another six to eight years even? The demands we alternate historians make!
At any rate, Barrett’s ghost continued to loom behind whatever Floyd did over the next decade or so. Waters became the band’s central figure, but he never quite seemed to come to terms with the guilt over "leaving old Syd behind". Consider those chillingly prescient, schizophrenic lines: "And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes/ I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon. The words were written by Waters but they can be read as a warning by Barrett to Waters: what happened to me could happen to you too. And it did. Waters left in 1982 following differences over the direction the band was moving in, and despite my admiration for Gilmour’s voice and his guitar-playing I’ve never been able to work up much interest in the later albums. Oh, I’m sure Momentary Lapse of Reason, Delicate Sound of Thunder etc are very good in their own right, but I can only shake my head sadly at friends who call them Pink Floyd albums. By the late 1980s "Floyd" had moved so far away from what it had once been, it didn’t even seem worth complaining about.
The Pompeii concert is a valuable glimpse at what might have been. Most important, it’s a rocking good DVD, so stop reading this and go out and buy it now.