Pink Floyd, in their great middle period, are one of my favourite bands. Like millions of people around the world I was first turned into a Floyd fan by hearing their huge selling Dark Side of the Moon in 1974 (it was released the year before). I was just a child when I first heard it and was amazed that such varied, exciting, beautiful and moving music existed. (It was also the first time I’d heard a really good sound system, for which DSOM was a perfect companion). I later discovered the preceding album, Meddle, which had the Dark Sidish “Echoes” but was otherwise not in the same class. Pink Floyd’s earlier, eccentric, acid rock was mostly not my cup of tea.
I came to love their following album, Wish You Were Here, even more than DSOM. WYWH has two of the most loved Floyd songs, the magnificently sad “Shine on you crazy diamond” and the acoustic guitar classic “Wish you were here”, which has been murdered by thousands of enthusiastic amateurs – including me at a completely forgotten concert in Sidney Sussex College bar.
There was then the less compelling, angry Animals with its famous cover photo of an inflatable pig floating by Battersea power station in London (they lost control of the pig and it drifted off over southern England causing chaos in the air traffic control system). And then The Wall, which I saw live at Earls Court, a thrilling, spectacular show, with amazingly clear sound and a heart rending guitar solo by David Gilmour on “Comfortably numb”.
After that, things fell apart. It was desperately unfashionable in the early 1980s to like Pink Floyd, though I was perfectly happy to have their albums sitting next to The Clash, Grand Master Flash, Echo and The Bunnymen, Joy Division and The Teardrop Explodes. But after Roger Waters split, acrimoniously, from the band, the music was never as good. Some very nice soundscapes, and David Gilmour’s guitar still sounded sweet, but the creative edge had gone.
Most of Pink Floyd’s members came from Cambridge. Not the university, which has produced many talented musicians but not in rock music. But from Cambridge the town, the rather neglected, unfashionable 1960s town then dominated by the university. There are glimpses of their Cambridge roots in the music. There is a charming, simple acoustic song called “Grantchester Meadows” on the otherwise best-left-alone album Ummagumma. (I have performed this song live rather poorly too). And one highlight of the mostly disappointingly bland post-Waters Pink Floyd period is “High Hopes” from The Division Bell, which is a poignant look back at the band’s early days in an uncomplicated Cambridge (“the grass was greener…” etc).
So Pink Floyd and I have Cambridge in common, not a very close relationship it must be admitted. But there is more. In the summer of 2005 my older daughter Nina was playing a princess in the end of year play in her final year at St. Paul’s primary school in Cambridge. I sat as close to the front as possible, to get a good view. An elderly but very well preserved lady sat down next to me, we got talking and after the show she was charming and very complementary about Nina’s acting. I realised that this was the legendary Mary Waters, mother of Roger Waters. One doesn’t often meet a rock star and even less often a rock star’s mother. Anyone who has listened to The Wall and particularly the song “Mother”, will understand my ambivalent feelings at that point. (Roger Waters has been the main creative force in some of the most powerful and memorable rock music of the twentieth century. But he seems to have had a rather difficult relationship with his mother). When I met her, Mary, at the age of 92, was still teaching part time at St. Paul’s and was absolutely sharp and alert. She died in 2009, aged 96. So that is the real connection between Pink Floyd, Cambridge and me.