The Floyd's tour de force
Robin Denselow hops aboard the campaign bus as Pink Floyd take Europe by storm
It's a hot Saturday afternoon on the plains of northern Italy, and a tour bus is rolling down the autostrada to yet another stadium, yet another concert. This band don't take limousines. They listen to Miles Davis and early Bob Dylan, and have the usual super-star conversations.
How Dylan asked if they'd got any spare songs. How Michael Jackson must be miming through all those dance routines. And how they'd just bought a brace of very special Ferraris.
It's all very relaxed, cheerful and fun. Jump on the bus with Pink Floyd and it's hard to imagine that this genial bunch are the key element in the largest production ever taken on the road, the rock show that has out-sold even Springsteen and Jackson in the States, and that they've been on an extravagant world tour since September.
It's even harder to imagine that the band has just survived a bitter split, rows and legal wrangles that threatened its existence.
Nick Mason, drummer and fast car enthusiast, is the only member to have spent the full 23-year stint with the Floyd. After all, the band's main singer, song-writer and guitarist, David Gilmour, didn't join until 1968, and though keyboard player Rick Wright is back with them after being booted out eight years ago, he is not yet an "official" member, for legal reasons.
At Modena, where they were appearing in yet another packed-out sports stadium, the security staff were frightened that the very appearance of the three veteran Englishmen would provoke a riot, as they posed in view of the crowd for our photographer. "It's most peculiar", mused Mason, "Pink Floyd are like one of those candles that never go out. You blow it, turn away, and the damn thing is alight again".
The new Floyd may be the most spectacular, futuristic band on earth when it comes to their stage show, but they are also a band that has warped the normal pop concept of history. Out in the crowd was a banner "Syd - Roger - Wish You Were Here", a reference both to psychedelic hero Syd Barret, who left them 20 years ago, and (far less welcome) to Roger Waters, their former bass player, who played a dominant role in the years leading up their last live appearances, with The Wall tour in '81. "Someone should rip that bit off," suggested Gilmour.
The world tour has gone ahead despite the efforts of Roger Waters, who tried to stop Gilmour and Mason continuing to use the Pink Floyd name, and taunted them that they'd never be a success without him. According to Gilmour, there was one particularly vitriolic meeting at which Waters told his former colleagues: "Go on, go ahead, you'll never get it together, you wankers." Gilmour adds. "That's what he said. I was in the room."
The duo went ahead anyway, recorded a new LP, A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (which has now sold six million copies), and invested several million dollars of their own in the technology necessary for the current tour, just as Waters was trying to stop them.
They've always been famous for extravagant shows, but this one, which reaches Wembley Stadium at the beginning of August, really is extraordinary. The enormous stage they'd built at Modena is just one of the four they use as they journey across the stadiums of the world, and the sound and the spectacle dwarfs even the effects used during The Wall. Sitting in the sound and lighting rig in front of the stage, surrounded by banks of computers and thousands of exited fans, was like being given a ring-side seat for the apocalypse.
The best quadraphonic sound system I've heard rumbled and blasted from different parts of the stadium, and the lasers, film effects and lights on stage were subtle, amusing and awesome. Star Wars-like pods emerged from the stage to spot lights, black spacecraft-like objects cruised above the band with an armory of yet more lights, while a (new) giant radio-controlled pig floated above the audience.
At one point there's a film fantasy sequence where a patient in hospital imagines that his bed is beginning to move, trundling through the ward, gathering speed, then taking off, and this point a bed with a dummy on board flies out across the crowd to explode on the stage. All wonderful Boy's Own stuff, the likes of which punk was supposed to destroy.
Effects alone wouldn't have made the Floyd show a success. The band are playing remarkably well, and actually enjoying themselves. "It's more fun than any tour since the sixties," said Mason. He insisted that he wasn't bored performing the same show so often ("I've lost count how many we've done now, but it must be over 120 - it means that we're playing better than when we did short tours"), and that the technology and effects don't stop the band improvising.
On stage it's Gilmour whose role has been transformed the most, instead of hiding behind all the effects, he has emerged as an almost chatty front-man, singing well and playing some blistering guitar. His confidence has clearly been boosted in the years since Floyd last appeared, when he worked with the likes of Grace Jones, Pete Townsend and Bryan Ferry.
The Floyd show starts with Gilmour's songs from the latest LP, and steers away from the bleak, cynical realism of latter-day Waters epics to a style that's equally grand but more fantastic, with "a different sort of gloom - I like to think there's an air of optimism and uplift in the music, no matter what the words say."
After an interval, the show ends with a "greatest hits" sequence, with selections from Dark Side Of The Moon and The Wall, including favourites that Waters included in his successful, smaller-scale solo spectacular last year. On that occasion, some of the crowd were sporting T-shirts with the slogan "Which One's Pink?" a reference to a line from Wish You Were Here which seems particularly apt since the split.
The battle between Waters and his former colleagues seems to have been a hard-hitting affair, waged (for the most part) with the icy politeness of very English ex-hippies.
According to Gilmour, the trouble really started when the band commissioned Alan Parker to direct his successful feature film version of The Wall, and Parker allegedly threatened to walk off because of Waters' interference. "So I had to go to Roger and say to him `Give him what it says in his contract... I'm sorry, man, but otherwise we'll have to have a meeting of the shareholders and directors - which is me, Nick and Roger - and we'll out-vote you.' There was nothing he could do and he's never forgiven me for that."
There was more trouble when the band recorded their last LP with Waters, The Final Cut. "He was just obsessed with the idea that I was being destructive and I didn't believe absolutely and completely in everything he did and said. But I'd say `I'm sorry, man, I'm being constructive.'" Waters won that battle by easing Gilmour out as co-producer, but Gilmour refused to lose his production fee. "I said `you can take me off the credits, but I'm not going to pay you to produce it.' I thought he was wrong."
After that, says Gilmour, Waters consistently suggested that their band should split up and their worry was that "we'd jack it in, so he could go out and do it himself, with a huge show, as `Roger Waters of Pink Floyd.' But I said that I didn't want to pack it in, and if you go I will carry on."
In December 1985, says Gilmour, Waters wrote a letter to his record company saying he'd left Pink Floyd. The rest of the band kept going, and Waters was furious. The subsequent flurry of activity by lawyers from both sides has led to very hard feelings. "It's pretty unpleasant," said Gilmour.
With a band like Pink Floyd, all this has to be seen against the backdrop of the group's history. So how did this split compare with the famous crisis in the psychedelic sixties, when Syd Barret left? The band were divided. "This was much more painful," said Mason, "the split with Syd was simple, because the management wanted Syd, and the rest of us were cast out - but we were still the band." "No, this was less traumatic," said David Gilmour, "because we knew what we wanted to do, and the direction we wanted to carry on in. It took two or three albums after Syd left before we had a clue where we were going."
In the sixties and early seventies, before the Floyd became so successful, they were considered to be the ultimate in underground culture. Now, as they tour the stadiums of the world with a show that's far less bleak than Watersinspired epics, Mason can announce with a cheery grin: "We're moving towards family entertainment - The Sound of Music Part 5."
Even so, they still aspire to be different, and not just because of the music and effects. Although they are a stadium band, they try to find unusual venues, and one triumph of the tour was their appearance outside the Palace of Versailles. When they return to England next week, they'll be playing Wembley Stadium. "Like everybody else: it's a pity, but we did try very hard to find somewhere special and different."
According to Gilmour, they even considered putting on the show in Hyde Park, "but it would have been destroyed by people camping there." The band last played free in Hyde Park 20 years ago.
Pop music, and Pink Floyd, has changed dramatically since then. In those days, says Mason "we all thought that rock'n'roll was something to do with teenagers, but it's come along since then. There's a hell of a lot of rock'n'roll now, and it's a very broad spectrum. There's room for co-existence from teeny bop stuff to elderly rock legends such as myself."