Monday, May 02, 2005

Pink Floyd in Pompeii

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.


  1. Live at Pompeii is a phenomenal concert DVD. The performance of Careful With That Axe, Eugene is so much better than the album version and Echoes gives me chills every time I hear it.
    And Spinal Tap was a spoof on the pseudo-prog bands like Kansas, Styx and Genesis who reduced their stage-shows to a gimmick. Pink Floyd is wrongly labelled as a prog-rock band as is Radiohead these days. Both these bands are progressive in nature but don't confine themselves to merely one style of rock music and their stage-shows are simply an extension of their invigorating and incendiary performances.

    PS: yes I'm a music snob :p.

  2. Book coolie: why can't I take both Spinal Tap and Pompeii to the cell? Along with maybe a copy of Mariah Carey's greatest hits? :)

    P.S. I'm not a literary critic, I'm a wannabe literary critic. Important difference. And yes, I do think those lines (and a lot of even simpler lyrics by other bands) are evocative. Especially when heard along with the music, as they should be. (Always a bit of a mistake presenting rock lyrics independently of the context, treating them like poetry rather than as songs.)

    Clannzu: Waters' primal scream in the mid-section of "Careful with that Axe" ROCKS!

  3. Didn't Barrett release a new album recently - I mean new work not a compilation of greatest hits?

  4. very nice
    one of the few times, I enjoyed the detail and length...

  5. DD: I'd be very surprised if he did, given that for the last 10 or so years one has only heard about him in the context of occasional sightings in Cambridge laundromats, etc

  6. That is precisely why I remember it but I can't seem to nail it down.
    Like a lot of people with certain types of mental disorders he is also now in the "sweet spot" for remission having passed through the male equivalent of the menopause (vide Nash though Barrett had a different set of problems).

  7. You mentioned the Saucerful of Secrets portion of Live in Pompeii, and I was glad to read what you had to say bout it ... as it's my absolute favorite part of the video. I couldn't live without this, I always keep a copy of the audio in my car 'just in case' :)

    And as for the guy going on about Spinal Tap ... eh? To my understanding: (1) is that not a whole different era and genre of music (if you can call it that, LOL)? and (2) I'd hardly call Pink Floyd "pompous prog-rock." I'm not really sure how early Pink Floyd qualifies as more pompous than any other band may be.

    My feelings are a little hurt, but of course some things are all in jest? Perhaps :)


  8. Never seen the DVD. It's right at the top of the list, though! IM me at BCMummy on AIM, we'll talk floyd some time!

    P.S. Nahh, no Spinal Tap for me, thanks. And Mariah Carey? Double-You-Tee-Eff?!

  9. I exist and just wanted to say that I like PF. I am an old 40 yrs old man that took too much LSD...


  10. For me PF is related to drugs, because when I listen to their music, I am either on drugs on going to be...

    What about you?


  11. i think the DVD is priceless because its probably the only time i have seen them performing as 4 equal contributors..after the dark side complete control of the band went to waters and gilmour..and after waters left, mason and wright were nothing more than paid musicians.

  12. im doing a research project on a saucerful of secrets
    does anyone know why they filmed at pomeii...what resons behind it? puerly art
    and random stoned decision.

  13. You know, you said it best,

    After 1980, the direction of the band doesn't even seem worth complaining about. That captures it.

    We are so far away from the masterpieces they created from Meddle to the Wall, that it just doesn't matter anymore (With two exceptions - High Hopes, and Waters' Solo - Each Small Candle).

  14. Anybidy hear Gilmour's on an Island...the wailing he does is pretty cool...

    Going to Water's Concert where he plays the entire DSOTM in a month!!!


  15. I would also suggest listening to marching drumbeats on High Hopes if you like going on drugs and listening to them dudes!

  16. As a literary-minded individual I find PF's lyrics very evocative too. But tied in with the mood of the music. I'm currently obsessed with 'The Wall' and progressing to 'Wish You Were Here'. Although I still haven't heard every album! Thanks for your post - it makes me desperate to hear the early stuff, and get a copy of that DVD.

  17. Jabberwock

    you are cool! thats my favorite concert...EVER! Dont you think those statues are cool?


  18. Mark The reason it took place in pompeii is because when the director went to pompeii with his wife,he dropped his passport,(or some kind of paper I think it was his passport)he heard a deep silence,and thought that this would be a good place to have the concert at.

    p.s. Im 12. it rocks being 12

  19. Nice review, I agree with almost all of it, actually I don't know what I don't agree with. Pink Floyd are my most listened to band, I truly can't get enough. I ask you now to join me in playing DSOTM every Friday and celebrate "Happy DSOTM Day." See you on the dark side of the moon.