Pink Floyd and The Underground Movement: A tale of an uprising
Priyal Khattar · May 23, 2019 · 4 Minute Read
From the soothing sense of belongingness offered by “Comfortably Numb” to mystically psychedelic melodies of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, Pink Floyd was the brainchild of a group of college students. On the onset, vocalist/guitarist Syd Barrett, bassist Roger Waters, keyboard player Richard Wright, and drummer Nick Mason were known to be the founding members. The dawn of their music etched itself as a social revolution for a youth that had grown up in wartime London. Meanwhile, the post-war London was still retorting to its austere self until later in the 1950s.
In the fullness of time, the sixties saw a boom in the culture which was known as the phenomenon of ‘The Swinging City’ as coined by the Time magazine which ran with the cover story about the cultural shift in London that was full of self-indulgence, creativity, and excitement. Pink Floyd, who went by The Tea Set, was an embodiment of such a culture.
The band’s improvised solos which seemed a little away from the usual R&B music of the time were recognized for their freakier sounds when they started playing at Sunday gatherings in London’s Marquee club. The Sunday performances came to be known as the ‘spontaneous underground’.
The Underground became a place for the existence of subcultures that wanted to do away with the mainstream society. But unlike this, the underground came to the Pink Floyd who was seeking a big break in their small career as young musicians.
Due to the unconventional style of Syd’s guitar sequences and the iconoclastic nostalgia, Pink Floyd members became the poster boys for the underground London scenes. As products of the youth subculture, their colorful gigs attracted a diverse crowd of bohemians, students and acid heads. Although, ‘trippy’ was never the intention, but Barett’s spacey guitar rhythms and Waters’ hypnotic bass extended their music to a psychedelic dimension.
According to the biographical novel of the band, ‘Inside Out: A personal history of Pink Floyd’ by the band’s drummer Nick Mason, they went into the underground scene of London by chance when their then-managers Peter Jenner and Andrew King introduced them to this place due to the involvement of Peter Jenner in the London Free School set up by John Hopkins which served as an alternative educational establishment.
The main aim of the underground for artists was that no artist would use the large corporate interests for the popularity of their band. The emphasis was on selling records and recording with small labels. Even though in its true sense, the underground was really formed to resist the force of harsh regimes that came to be known as resistance movements during World War II, they were an outlet for the exploration of an alternate argument for the youngsters in the 1960s.
Furthermore, the underground also increased the use of drugs in this generation who found themselves liberated in the new post-war era. Band member Syd Barrett became one of the early casualties of drug abuse. He was later replaced by vocalist David Gilmour who remains the voice behind the band’s greatest hits. Nonetheless, for Pink Floyd of the early 60s, it meant the freedom of creative expression and a safe house for indulgence against all odds in a time when college student activists were fighting for basic constitutional rights. Their songs left a deep impact with their lyrics that often contained unmasked social and political commentary with undertones of rebellious ideas.
For instance, bored by everything he learned at school, young Syd fell in love with art through psychedelics which led him to a life that was far away from what was expected of him in a civilized society due to his overuse of drugs. Regarded as a standalone pioneer of psychedelic and experimental music, Syd’s song “See Emily Play” from Pink Floyd‘s first album The Piper At The Gates of Dawn stirred quite a debate about the uncertainties that came in with the ‘swinging’ sixties. A song about the coming of age and it’s hopelessness in such a time came from the influence of this underground hippie culture. The lyrics are as follows:
“Emily tries but misunderstands, ah ooh
She’s often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams till tomorrow
There is no other day
Let’s try it another way
You’ll lose your mind and play
Free games for May
See Emily play”
The misunderstanding Emily, a schoolgirl, seems to have is that there will be enough time in the future for doing other things. The underlying themes of the song “Another Brick in the wall” are also echoed in this song in a way when it talks of the manufactured ideas of a child’s dream. She has a borrowed dream or in this case, a dream that has been put inside her mind as she has no dreams of her own owing to the institutions’ capacity to shatter individuality. There is a sense of sadness which leads to a situation where you risk losing your own identity. It also has undertones of the post-war dream turning out to be nothing more than a sense of cultural trauma that was brought on by the ‘Swinging London.’
However, Pink Floyd set a benchmark for several as voices of rebellion against institutions of the industry as a whole. Their journey from the underground to using pigs as a symbol of bold rebellion has not been amiss in social movements throughout the world. Their songs have stark images from Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. Thus, they had a significant impact with their themes of discourse. The symbol of a floating pig became a sign of the protest among these young individuals as their songs like “Another brick in the wall,” “Pigs” and “Money“ mocked and to put it simply, screamed at this system of manufactured living promoted by institutions. Though the band had long drifted from the London Underground, the essence remained entrenched in their timeless music.