Yesterday’s successful landing of NASA’s robotic explorer Perseverance on Mars once again reminds us of humankind’s fascination with distant planets and what’s out there beyond our galaxy. Not surprisingly, many music artists have embraced the theme of space in their songs. The first who always comes to my mind in this context is David Bowie, who repeatedly wrote about the topic in tunes like Space Oddity, Starman, Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. There are plenty of additional examples. This playlist features some of these songs, ordered according to their release date.
The Byrds/Mr. Spaceman
While birds cannot fly in space, this didn’t prevent The Byrds from recording this happy-sounding tale about a kid who wakes up from the light of a flying saucer and cheerfully asks the ETs for a space ride. Mr. Spaceman, written by Roger McGuinn, appeared on the band’s third studio album Fifth Dimension from June 1966.
This Syd Barrett tune, an early example of space rock, was the opener of Pink Floyd’s debut studio album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Released in August 1967, this early phase Floyd gem also featured another track in the same genre: Interstellar Overdrive. I decided to go with the shorter tune! 🙂
The Rolling Stones/2000 Light Years From Home
2000 Light Years from Home is a song from Their Satanic Majesties Request, a lovely psychedelic album by The Rolling Stones, which appeared only a few months after Floyd’s debut in December 1967. Co-written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the tune also became the B-side to the American single She’s a Rainbow that was released in November of the same year. Charmingly weird! 🙂
Steve Miller Band/Space Cowboy
Listening to Space Cowboy by Steve Miller Band was the tune that inspired this post, not the Mars rover, though I guess the timing worked out nicely. Co-written by Steve Miller and the band’s keyboarder at the time Ben Sidrin, the song was included on their third studio album Brave New World that came out in June 1969. The vibe of the main riff is a bit reminiscent of Peter Gunn, the theme music for the American detective TV show of the same name, composed by Henry Mancini in 1958. In 1979, Emerson, Lake & Palmer popularized that theme on their live album Emerson, Lake and Palmer in Concert.
Deep Purple/Space Truckin’
Time to go for some Space Truckin’ with Deep Purple. This track is the closer of the band’s sixth studio album Machine Head from March 1972, which to me remains their Mount Rushmore to this day. Like all remaining tracks on the record, Space Truckin’ was credited to all members of the band: Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Ian Gillan (vocals, harmonica), Jon Lord (keyboards), Roger Glover (bass) and Ian Paice (drums, percussion).
Elton John/Rocket Man
One of my all-time favorites by Elton John happens to be related to space as well: Rocket Man, from his fifth studio album Honky Château that came out in May 1972. As usual, Sir Elton composed the music while Bernie Taupin provided the lyrics. Honky Château became John’s first no. 1 record in the U.S. He was literally flying on top of the word – six additional no. 1 albums in America would follow in a row!
I guess 1972 was a year, during which space themes were particularly popular in rock and pop music. In June 1972, only one and three months after Honky Château and Machine Head, respectively, David Bowie released his fifth studio album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. I have to say I tend to like him best during his glam rock period, and Ziggy Stardust is my favorite Bowie album. Like all except for one tune, Starman was written by Bowie.
Even soul great Stevie Wonder got into the “space business.” Saturn, co-written by Michael Sembello and Wonder, became a bonus track to Songs in the Key of Life, his magnum opus from September 1976.
The Police/Walking on the Moon
The year was 1979 when The Police released their sophomore album Reggatta de Blanc in October. Walking on the Moon, written by Sting, is the first track on the B-side. Yes, this was still pre-CDs, not to mention music streaming! I’ve always liked the reggae vibe of this tune.
R.E.M./Man on the Moon
Let’s wrap up this collection of space-themed songs with Man on the Moon by R.E.M. The tune, a tribute to American comedian and performer Andy Kaufman, was credited to the entire band: Michael Stipe (lead vocals), Peter Buck (guitar, mandolin, bass), Mike Mills (bass, keyboards, accordion, backing vocals) and Bill Berry (drums, percussion, keyboards, melodica, bass, backing vocals). It was recorded for R.E.M.’s eighth studio album Automatic for the People from October 1992. The album became their second major international success after Out of Time that had been released in March 1991.
Time again for a dose of music history, which has recurred irregularly since June 2016 and is my longest running feature on the blog. For any new visitors, in a nutshell, the idea is to look at events that happened on a certain date throughout rock and pop history. As always, the selections reflect my music taste and do not aim to present a full account. With that, let’s embark on some music time travel!
1958: An obscure band called The Quarrymen hit the Cavern Club in London for their first live performance. They were billed as The Quarry Men Skiffle Group. “They’d only been playing for a short while so you wouldn’t expect them to be any good…,” recalled Cavern owner Alan Sytner. “At the time, they couldn’t play to save their lives and all I can remember is their cheek and their chat.” While it hasn’t been definitively documented, The Quarrymen are believed to have performed at the Cavern Club on several other occasions. Four years later, the group would change the music world forever with a different line-up. Their name? The Beatles. Here’s In Spite of All the Danger, one of the first songs recorded by The Quarrymen. Co-written by Paul McCartney and George Harrison, the tune is thought to have been recorded sometime between May and July 1958. It was shortly after Harrison (guitar, vocals) had joined the band, which at the time apart from McCartney (vocals, guitar) also featured John Lennon (vocals, guitar), John Lowe (piano) and Colin Hunton (drums).
1958: While The Quarrymen were getting their feet wet the Cavern Club, a music phenomenon from the U.S. stood at no. 1 of the UK singles chart: Elvis Presley. Jailhouse Rock became the first-ever single to enter the chart at no. 1 and was the second no. 1 for Elvis in the UK after All Shook Up. Co-written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Jailhouse Rock was the title track of the picture of the same name that had hit the widescreen in September 1957. It also topped the charts in the U.S. and Canada and reached the top 10 in several other countries.
1967:Pink Floyd were at Sound Techniques Studios in Chelsea, London, to work on their debut single Arnold Layne, backed by Candy and a Currant Bun. Both tracks were written by the band’s initial leader Syd Barrett. When the band performed the latter tune live in 1967, it was titled Let’s Roll Another One and included the line I’m high – Don’t try to spoil my fun. Columbia (EMI) didn’t like the obvious references to drugs and forced Barrett to change the title and rewrite the corresponding line. Songfacts notes the outcome was still strange since the lyrics included the word “f–k,” making it one of the first songs to use the expletive.
1970:Dr. Robert Moog unveiled the Minimoog at a price of $2,000, an analogue synthesizer designed as a portable, simplified instrument that combined the most useful components of the Moog synthesizer in a single device. It became the first synthesizer sold in retail stores and quickly gained popularity among progressive rock and jazz musicians. It also ended up being widely used in disco, pop, rock and electronic music. Not everybody was enthusiastic. According to Songfacts Music History Calendar, The American Federation of Musicians feared the Minimoog’s realistic sounds would put horn and string sections out of business. Yes keyboarder Rick Wakeman, an early adopter of the Minimoog, said the synthesizer “absolutely changed the face of music.”
1975:Elton John, who was flying high, topped the Billboard 200 with his first compilation album Greatest Hits, bringing to a close an impressive 9-week run in the no. 1 spot. It became the most sold album of 1975 in the U.S. and remains his best-selling t0 date. The compilation, which featured 10 of John’s biggest singles, also topped the charts in Australia, Canada and the UK. Here’s one of my all-time favorites, Rocket Man(I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time). Composed by John with lyrics by his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, the tune was first released as a single in March 1972 and included on John’s fifth studio album Honky Château that came out in May of the same year.
Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; This Day in Music; Songfacts; Songfacts Music History Calendar; Billboard.com; YouTube
I just came across the above clip of See Emily Play performed by Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets. It’s from an upcoming album titled Live at the Roundhouse, which is scheduled for September 18 and will be available as a double-CD/DVD package, double-vinyl and on Blu-ray. The material was taken from concerts the band played at the famous London venue in May 2019.
Nick Mason, of course, is the former co-founder and drummer of Pink Floyd and the band’s only member who played on all of their studio albums. In 2018, he formed Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets together with guitarist Lee Harris. Other members of the band, which takes their name from Floyd’s 1968 sophomore album, include Gary Kemp (guitar, vocals), formerly with Spandau Ballet; Guy Pratt (bass, vocals) and Dom Beken (keyboards).
The idea behind Saucerful is to perform Pink Floyd’s early music prior to the TheDark Side of the Moon album. “We’re not a tribute band,” Mason toldUncut in May 2018. “It’s not important to play the songs exactly as they were, but to capture the spirit.”
Whatever you want to call them, I think it’s great fans of Floyd’s early years including the Syd Barrett era have an opportunity to hear tracks that haven’t been played live for decades like Interstellar Overdrive, Astronomy Domine, If, The Nile Song and, of course, See Emily Play. Written by Barrett, the tune appeared on Floyd’s debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
Now that I’ve watched the clip and other footage that’s on YouTube, I’m starting to regret I didn’t catch the band in April 2019 when they played the Beacon Theatre in New York City. A few weeks earlier, I had seen outstanding tribute band Brit Floyd, so I didn’t feel like going to another show of Pink Floyd music. Due to COVID-19, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets had to reschedule many gigs in England and elsewhere in Europe until next year. Their currently planned schedule is here.
Sources: Wikipedia; Uncut; Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secretswebsite; YouTube
Frequent visitors of the blog and others who have a good idea about my music taste know I really dig vocals, especially multi-part harmony singing. In fact, when it comes to artists like The Temptations, I could even do without any backing music. That’s why felt like shaking things up a little and putting together this collection of tracks that shockingly don’t have any vocals. Once I started to reflect, it was surprisingly easy to find instrumentals I really like – yes, they do exist and, no, I don’t miss the vocals!
Since I still play guitar occasionally (only to realize how rusty I’ve become!), I decided to focus on primarily guitar-driven tracks. While I’m sure you could point me to jazz instrumentals I also find attractive, the reality is I’m much more familiar with other genres, especially in the rock and blues arena. Most of the tracks in this post came to my mind pretty quickly. The John Mayall and the Blues Breakers and Steve Vai tunes were the only ones I picked from a listGuitar World put together.
I’ve always thought Hank Marvin had a really cool sound. Here’s Apache, which was written by English composer Jerry Lordan and first recorded by Bert Weedon in 1960, but it was the version by The Shadows released in July of the same year, which became a major hit that topped the UK Singles Chart for five weeks.
John Mayall and the Blues Breakers/Steppin’ Out
Steppin’ Out is a great cover of a Memphis Slim tune from the debut studio album by John Mayall and the Blues Breakers from July 1966. It was titled Blues Breakers with Clapton featuring, you guessed it, Eric Clapton, who had become the band’s lead guitarist following the release of their first live album John Mayall Plays John Mayall that appeared in March 1965.
Pink Floyd/Interstellar Overdrive
My Pink Floyd journey began with their ’70s classics Wish You Were Here and The Dark Side of the Moon. Much of their early phase with Syd Barrett was an acquired taste, especially experimental tunes like Interstellar Overdrive from Floyd’s debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn released in August 1967. It’s one of only two tracks on the album credited to all members of the band at the time: Barrett, Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason.
Deep Purple/Wring That Neck
Wring That Neck is a kick-ass tune from Deep Purple’s sophomore album The Book of Taliesyn that appeared in October 1968. As was quite common for the band, Jon Lord’s mighty Hammond organ pretty much had equal weight to Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar. That’s always something I’ve loved about Deep Purple, as much as I dig guitar-driven rock. Wring That Neck was co-written Blackmore, Lord, bassist Nick Semper and drummer Ian Paice.
Yes, I know, I featured this gem only recently on July 25 when Peter Green sadly passed away at the age of 73. I’m also still planning to do a follow-up on this extraordinary guitarist. But I just couldn’t skip Albatross in this collection, which Green wrote and recorded with Fleetwood Mac in October 1968. The track was released as a non-album single the following month. It’s a perfect example of Green’s style that emphasized feeling over showing off complexity, speed and other guitar skills. With it’s exceptionally beautiful tone, I would rate Albatross as one of the best instrumentals, perhaps even my all-time favorite, together with another track that’s still coming up.
The Allman Brothers Band/Jessica
Jessica first appeared on The Allman Brothers Band’s fourth studio album Brothers and Sisters from August 1973. It also became the record’s second single in December that year. Written by lead guitarist Dickey Betts, the tune was a tribute to jazz guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt. Betts named the tune after his daughter Jessica Betts who was an infant at the time. When you have such beautiful instrumental harmonies, who needs harmony vocals? Yes, I just wrote that! 🙂
Santana/Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile)
Santana’sEuropa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile) is the other above noted tune, which together with Albatross I would perhaps call my all-time favorite guitar-driven instrumental. In particular, it’s the electric guitar tone that stands out to me in both of these tracks. Co-written by Carlos Santana and his longtime backing musician Tom Coster who provided keyboards, Europa was first recorded for Santana’s seventh studio album Amigos from March 1976. It also appeared separately as a single and was also one of the live tracks on the Moonflower album released in October 1977.
Steve Vai/The Attitude Song
When it comes to guitarists and their playing, I’m generally in the less-is-more camp. That’s why I really must further explore Peter Green whose style should be up right up my alley. Sometimes though shredding is okay. I was going to include Eddie Van Halen’sEruption, but it’s really more an over-the-top guitar solo than an instrumental. So I went with Steve Vai and The Attitude Song, a track from his solo debut album Flex-Able from January 1984. I definitely couldn’t take this kind of music at all times. In fact, as I’m listening to the tune while writing this, it’s actually making me somewhat anxious. While the harmony guitar and bass action sound cool, like most things, I feel it should be enjoyed in moderation! 🙂
Stevie Ray Vaughan/Scuttle Buttin
Scuttle Buttin’ by Stevie Ray Vaughan isn’t exactly restrained guitar playing either. But while like The Attitude Song it’s a shredder, the tune has never made me anxious. I think that’s largely because I really dig Vaughan’s sound. Yes, he’s playing very fast and many notes, yet to me, it comes across as less aggressive than Vai who uses more distortion. Written by Vaughan, Scuttle Buttin’ appeared on his excellent second studio album Couldn’t Stand the Weather released in May 1984.
Jeff Beck/A Day in the Life
The last artist I’d like to feature in this collection is another extraordinary guitarist with an amazing tone: Jeff Beck. His unique technique that relies on using his thumb to pick the guitar strings, the ring finger to control the volume knob and his pinkie to work the vibrato bar of his Fender Stratocaster creates a unique sound no other guitar player I’ve heard has. Here’s Beck’s beautiful rendition of The Beatles tune A Day in the Life. It was included on In My Life, an album of Fab Four covers compiled and produced by George Martin, which appeared in October 1998.
I could have titled this post “What I’ve Been Listening to For the Past 40-Plus Years.” Wish You Were Here not only marked the start of my long Pink Floyd journey but also was an essential part of my early discovery of music. This album was one of various gems my sister had on vinyl as a 16-year-old or so. I was ten years old at the time and essentially didn’t understand a word of English. It didn’t matter. The music bug had infected me forever. It’s the most beautiful infection I can think of!
Of course, I also explored the other 14 studio albums Pink Floyd released between 1967 and 2014. That was many moons ago as well. And I realized records like The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Meddle or The Dark Side of the Moon match or even exceed the mighty of Wish You Were Here. Still, Floyd’s masterpiece from September 1975 will forever keep a special place in my heart. Always.
I know it may seem to be weird to tout what I believe is perfect music as a natural sleeping aid. Wish You Were Here is great for that! In fact, I started using the record for that purpose when I had my first stereo and first set of headphones. I still love listening to the album at night in bed, nowadays using my smartphone and earbuds, which I have to admit is a less than perfect way to enjoy music. I’m happy to report I also keep listening to Pink Floyd during the daytime while I’m wide awake! 🙂
Recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London between January and July 1975, Wish You Were Here is Floyd’s ninth studio album. It’s the band’s second record after The Dark Side of the Moon, which was based on a conceptual theme that was entirely written by Roger Waters. In this case, the topics include biting criticism of the music business and alienation. And, of course not to forget, a tribute to founding member Syd Barrett who had been instrumental to the band’s early phase until his ouster in April 1968 due to mental illness and the use of psychedelic drugs.
In fact, on June 5, 1975, the day when Pink Floyd were completing the mix of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Syd Barrett showed up at the studio out of the blue. Being overweight with shaven head and eyebrows, he barely resembled the 22-year-old man back in 1968. Waters and Nick Mason didn’t recognize him, while David Gilmour first thought he was an EMI staff member. Richard Wright first realized it was Barrett who reportedly said he was happy to help with the recording. But according to Mason’s Pink Floyd memoir Inside Out, Barrett “sat round and talked for a bit but he wasn’t really there.”
Apparently, Barrett also joined a wedding reception in the canteen at EMI for David Gilmour who a month later got married to his first wife, American artist, sculptor, author and former model Ginger Gilmour. He left the festivities quietly without saying goodbye to anybody. It was the last time the band members had seen Barrett who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2006 – what an incredibly sad story!
Wikipedia includes this quote from Roger Waters, taken from Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett and the Dawn of Pink Floyd, a 2001 Barrett biography written by Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson: I’m very sad about Syd. Of course he was important and the band would never have fucking started without him because he was writing all the material. It couldn’t have happened without him but on the other hand it couldn’t have gone on with him. “Shine On” is not really about Syd—he’s just a symbol for all the extremes of absence some people have to indulge in because it’s the only way they can cope with how fucking sad it is, modern life, to withdraw completely. I found that terribly sad.
Interestingly, Alan Parsons, who still was a staff engineer at EMI and had played a key role in shaping the sound of Pink Floyd’s previous album The Dark Side of the Moon, declined to continue working with the band. While I couldn’t find any specific explanatory accounts, Wikipedia’s entry for Dark Side notes the members of the band had some disagreements over the style of the mix. Ultimately, they decided to bring in producer Chris Thomas to provide “a fresh pair of ears.” Perhaps that didn’t sit well with Parsons. Instead of him, Brian Humphries served as recording engineer for Wish You Were Here. The band had previously worked with him on the More soundtrack album from June 1969 and again in 1974. Time for some music.
While it’s a long track (not a rarity when it comes to Pink Floyd!), I just couldn’t skip the magnificent opener Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V). Of course, this is the tune that even if it’s not an outright tribute to Syd Barrett as the above quote by Waters seems to suggest, at a bare minimum is inspired by him. Especially, the instrumental intro makes me feel like floating in space – which is why the tune is perfect to relax and fall asleep! 🙂 The music is credited to Gilmour, Wright and Waters.
Next up: Have a Cigar, which on the vinyl edition is the first track of the B-side. An excerpt from the lyrics leaves on doubt what Waters was writing about. I just wonder how the executives at the record company felt when they heard the tune for the first time. I guess somebody there was smart enough to realize that while the words weren’t exactly flattering, they had a masterpiece on their hands that would sell many copies. They call it riding the gravy train!
Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar, You’re gonna go far, You’re gonna fly high, You’re never gonna die, You’re gonna make it if you try, They’re gonna love you. I’ve always had a deep respect and I mean that most sincere; The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think, Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink?
Both the tune’s lyrics and music were credited to Waters. English folk singer Roy Harper sang on the tune, making Have a Cigar only one of two Floyd songs that featured a guest singer on lead vocals. The other one was The Great Gig in the Sky from Dark Side with the amazing Clare Torry.
The last tune I’d like to highlight is the album’s title track – undoubtedly one of Pink Floyd’s best-known songs. Interestingly, Wish You Were Here wasn’t released as a single at the time, though the tune quickly became a staple on the radio in Germany and elsewhere. Eventually, a live version of the song from the band’s third live album Pulse appeared as a single in September 1994. Gilmour and Waters co-wrote the music. Together with Welcome to the Machine, it is one of two tunes on the album featuring Gilmour on lead vocals.
According to Wikipedia, the song’s distinct intro was recorded from Gilmour’s car radio. His guitar intro, played on a 12-string, was processed to sound as if it was playing through an AM radio, and then overdubbed a fuller-sounding acoustic guitar solo. This passage was mixed to sound as though a guitarist were listening to the radio and playing along. As the acoustic part becomes more complex, the ‘radio broadcast’ fades away and Gilmour’s voice enters, while the rest of the band joins in. What a brilliant concept!
Upon its release, Wish You Were Here received a mixed reception from music critics. For example, Rolling Stone cleverly noted the band’s”lackadaisical demeanor”, leaving the subject of Barrett “unrealised; they give such a matter-of-fact reading of the goddamn thing that they might as well be singing about Roger Waters’s brother-in-law getting a parking ticket.” The Village Voice’sRobert Christgau, on the other hand, was shockingly positive: “The music is not only simple and attractive, with the synthesizer used mostly for texture and the guitar breaks for comment, but it actually achieves some of the symphonic dignity (and cross-referencing) that The Dark Side of the Moon simulated so ponderously.”
Of course, Wish You Were Here has since been frequently regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time. In fact, it is ranked at no. 211 in Rolling Stone’s 2012 list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time – way too low, in my humble and completely unbiased opinion! In the magazine’s 50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums of All Time from June 2015, it came in at no. 4. This sounds more acceptable to me!
No matter how you feel about Wish You Were Here, one thing is undisputed: The album became one of Pink Floyd’s most successful records topping the charts in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and various European countries including the UK, France, The Netherlands and Switzerland. It has sold an estimated 13 million copies, compared to more than 45 million for Dark Side, Floyd’s best-seller. Gilmour and Wright have called Wish You Were Here their favorite Pink Floyd album.
For those of you who celebrate, Happy Easter, and I hope everybody is doing well! I decided to do another installment of my long-running music history feature, which hit 50 with the previous post. It turns out April 12 was a pretty eventful date, so let’s get to it.
1968: Pink Floyd released their fourth single in the UK, It Would Be So Nice. The tune, which was written by keyboarder Richard Wright, had a rather uplifting, almost pop-like sound unlike many other Floyd songs at the time. It was the band’s first release after the exit of Syd Barrett. Idiotically, the BBC is said to have banned the initial version of the song due to a passing reference of the London newspaper The Evening Standard, which violated their strict no-advertising policy. Apparently, this prompted the band to record an alternate, BBC friendly version. It didn’t help from a popularity perspective, and the song failed to chart in the UK or elsewhere. Apparently, Roger Waters and Nick Mason didn’t like the tune either. Waters called it a “lousy record.” Mason was even more outspoken: “Fucking awful, that record, wasn’t it? At that period we had no direction. We were being hustled about to make hit singles.” Ouch!
1973: The American children’s TV series Sesame Street has seen many celebrities over its 50-plus-year history. One of the coolest and funkiest guests ever must have been Stevie Wonder who appeared on the program 47 years ago. Then 23 years old, Wonder performed Superstition, the lead single from his latest album at the time Talking Book. I always loved that funky tune. Check out the apparent joy Wonder got out of this and his kickass backing band – priceless!
1976: Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band released the excellent live album Live Bullet. The material came from a 1975 gig at Cobo Hall in Detroit. Interestingly, Seger was still a largely regional act at the time. This would change with the band’s next studio album Night Moves that came out in October of the same year and finally put them on the map nationally. Over the years, tracks from Live Bullet became staples on rock radio. Undoubtedly, the best known is the road tale Turn the Page, which was written by Seger. Check out the official video I came across on YouTube. Love that tune!
1976: That evening, Paul McCartney with his wife Linda visited John Lennon at his apartment in the Dakota. Lennon was watching the late-night NBC comedy show Saturday Night, the predecessor to Saturday Night Live. During this particular episode, co-creator and producer Lorne Michaels invited The Beatles to reunite on the show for the deliberately measly offer of $3,000 (approximately the equivalent of $13,900 today). Michaels had no idea Lennon and McCartney were watching the whole thing – and actually considered showing up at the show’s studio that night just for fun. The Beatles Bible quotes Lennon from his final major interview he gave to book author David Sheff in 1980: “Paul and I were together watching that show. He was visiting us at our place in the Dakota. We were watching it and almost went down to the studio, just as a gag. We nearly got into a cab, but we were actually too tired.” Now, that would have been something!
1983: R.E.M. released their debut album Murmur. Shockingly, the music critics got it right for once and gave it a warm reception. It also peaked at no. 36 on the Billboard 200, not shabby for a debut. A re-recorded version of Radio Free Europe appeared separately as a single and reached no. 78 on the Billboard Hot 100. In spite of the critical acclaim, Murmur only sold approximately 200,000 copies by the end of the year, which back then wasn’t considered special – wow, how the times have changed! Eventually, the album reached Gold certification (500,000 units sold) in 1991. Peter Buck’s jangly Rickenbacker guitar sound, Mike Mills’ melodic basslines and Michael Stipes’ vocals are right up my alley. Here’s Radio Free Europe. Like all other songs except for one, the tune was credited to all four members of the band, which in addition to Buck, Mills and Stipes also included drummer Bill Berry.
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfact Music History Calendar; Ultimate Classic Rock; The Beatles Bible; YouTube
While it’s quite possible that more than three weeks of social distancing are starting to have an impact, I can say without hesitation that my interest in psychedelic music predates COVID-19 – I would say by at least three decades. But it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.
I guess a good way to start would be to define what I’m writing about. According to Wikipedia, psychedelic music (sometimes called psychedelia) is a wide range of popular music styles and genres influenced by 1960s psychedelia, a subculture of people who used psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline and DMT to experience visual and auditory hallucinations, synesthesia and altered states of consciousness. Psychedelic music may also aim to enhance the experience of using these drugs.
To be clear, I don’t want to judge people using drugs but personally don’t take any and never had any particular interest to explore stuff. With the exception of alcohol, which I occasionally like to enjoy, I guess the furthest I ever took it was to try cigarettes during my early teenage years. Around the same time, I also smoked a cigar, cleverly thinking that just like with a cigarette, you’re supposed to inhale. As you can see, I was definitely young and stupid. And, yes, I did feel a bit funny afterwards! 🙂
Psychedelic music has some characteristic features. Again, Wikipedia does a nice job explaining them: Exotic instrumentation, with a particular fondness for the sitar and tabla are common. Songs often have more disjunctive song structures, key and time signature changes, modal melodies and drones than contemporary pop music. Surreal, whimsical, esoterically or literary-inspired, lyrics are often used. There is often a strong emphasis on extended instrumental segments or jams. There is a strong keyboard presence, in the 1960s especially, using electronic organs, harpsichords, or the Mellotron, an early tape-driven ‘sampler’ keyboard.
Elaborate studio effects are often used, such as backwards tapes, panning the music from one side to another of the stereo track, using the “swooshing” sound of electronic phasing, long delay loops and extreme reverb. In the 1960s there was a use of electronic instruments such as early synthesizers and the theremin. Later forms of electronic psychedelia also employed repetitive computer-generated beats.
Before getting to some examples, I should add that psychedelic music developed in the mid-’60s among folk and rock bands in the U.S. and the U.K. It included various subgenres, such as psychedelic folk, psychedelic rock, acid rock and psychedelic pop. The original psychedelic era, which is the focus of this post, ended in the late ’60s, though there have been successors like progressive rock and heavy metal and revivals, e.g., psychedelic funk, psychedelic hip hop and electronic music genres like acid house and trance music.
Apparently, the first use of the term psychedelic rock can be attributed to The 13th Floor Elevators, an American rock band formed in Austin, Texas in December 1965. Here’s their debut single You’re Gonna Miss Me. Written by guitarist and founding member Roky Erickson, the tune reached no. 55 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became their only charting song.
Eight Miles High by The Byrds is one of my favorite tunes from the psychedelic era. Written by co-founding members Roger McGuinn (lead guitar, vocals), Gene Clark (tambourine, vocals) and David Crosby (rhythm guitar, vocals), the song first appeared as a single in March 1966 and was also included on the band’s third studio album Fifth Dimension released in July of the same year. That jingle-jangle guitar sound and the brilliant harmony singing simply do it for me every time!
In May 1966, The Rolling Stones released Paint It Black. Credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the song was also included on the U.S. edition of Aftermath, the band’s fourth British and sixth U.S. studio album. Not only did Paint It Black top the charts in the UK, U.S., The Netherlands, Australia and Canada, but it also had the distinction to become the first no. 1 hit to feature a sitar.
One of the hotspots for psychedelic music in the U.S. during the second half of the ’60s was San Francisco. Among the key bands based in the city by the bay were Jefferson Airplane. Here’s White Rabbit, a tune written by lead vocalist Grace Slick. Initially, it was recorded for the band’s sophomore album Surrealistic Pillow from February 1967. It also came out separately as a single in June that year.
After ten paragraphs into the post, it’s about time I get to the band that probably is one of the first that comes to mind when thinking about psychedelic rock: Pink Floyd, especially during their early phase with Syd Barrett. Here’s a tune I’ve always dug: Arnold Layne, their debut single from March 1967, written by Barrett. According to the credits, this video was directed by Derek Nice and filmed on the beach in East Wittering, West Sussex, England in late February 1967.
March 1967 also saw the release of Purple Haze, the second single by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and one of my favorite Jimi Hendrix tunes. The track features blues and Eastern modalities, along with novel recording techniques and sound effects like the Octavia pedal that doubled the frequency of the sound it was fed. The song also marked the first time Hendrix worked with sound engineer Eddie Kramer who would play a key role in his future recordings. Purple Haze climbed all the way to no. 3 in the UK; in the U.S., it only reached no. 65 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Two months later, in May 1967, The Beatles released their eighth studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It included the psychedelic gem Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds, the tune that inspired the headline of the post:
Picture yourself in a boat on a river With tangerine trees and marmalade skies Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly A girl with kaleidoscope eyes
While credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney as usual, the song was primarily written by Lennon.
After the break-up of The Animals, lead vocalist Eric Burdon formed Eric Burdon & The Animals in December 1966. The band subsequently relocated to San Francisco. In May 1968, they released their second album The Twain Shall Meet. Among the record’s tunes is the anti-war song Sky Pilot. Credited to Burdon and each of the other members of the band Vic Briggs (guitar), John Weider (guitar, violin), Barry Jenkins (drums) and Danny McCulloch (bass), the tune also appeared separately as a single. Due to its length, the track had to be split across the A and B sides. Remarkably, Sky Pilot reached no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, and no. 7 in Canada and Australia. Chart success in the UK was more moderate, where it peaked at no. 40.
In June 1968, Iron Butterfly released their sophomore album In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. The 17-minute title track, which occupied all of the record’s B-side, was written by the band’s keyboarder and vocalist Doug Ingle. Separately, a shortened version appeared as a single and became the band’s biggest hit reaching no. 30 in the U.S. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida not only is psychedelic rock, but is also considered to be an early example of heavy metal. Here’s the single edit.
The last tune I’d like to highlight is Shotgun by Vanilla Fudge. It was included on their fourth studio album Near the Beginning from February 1969. “Near the End” perhaps would have been a more appropriate title, since by that time, the original psychedelic era was entering the twilight zone. Written by Autry DeWalt, the tune was first recorded by Junior Walker & the All Stars in 1965.
A long overdue tribute to one of my longtime favorite bands
Pink Floyd is one of my earliest music experiences dating back to the mid ’70s when I was nine or 10 years old and still living in Germany. It all started with Wish You Here, another record my sister had on vinyl – and yet another example where she introduced me, probably largely unconsciously, to music I still dig to this day. I’ve said it before and like to say it again: Thanks, sis, love you!
While I’ve mentioned Pink Floyd numerous times since I’ve started this blog more than two years ago, and I’ve written about Govt’ Mule’s great Dark Side of the Muleshow and a fantastic Floyd tribute band called Echoes, I haven’t dedicated a post to the actual band – well, I suppose better late than never! Before getting to the music, I’d be amiss not to provide some background on the British rock band. Obviously, Pink Floyd’s history has been told many times, so if you know it already, just skip it and go right to the clips, and maybe grab some headphones – there’s plenty of great music here!
Pink Floyd emerged from a band called The Tea Set in London in 1965. After noticing there was another music outfit with the same name, guitarist and lead vocalist Syd Barrett came up with the idea to combine the first names of two blues musicians who were part of his record collection: Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Sounds pretty arbitrary to me, but the result sure as keck was a cool-sounding band name! Initially, they performed as The Pink Floyd Sound and also included Richard (Rick) Wright (keyboards), Roger Waters (bass, vocals) and Nick Mason (drums).
By 1966, the band was starting to get paid gigs, mainly playing R&B standards. They dropped “Sound” from their name at the recommendation of Peter Jenner who together with his friend Andrew King had taken over the band’s management earlier that year. Gradually, The Pink Floyd’s set featured more original compositions by Syd Barrett, the band’s first artistic leader. In early 1967, The Pink Floyd signed with EMI and recorded their debut single Arnold Layne.
By the time Floyd released their first studio album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn in August 1967, they had dropped “The” from their name to become Pink Floyd. Barrett had developed a serious LSD habit and, according to Mason, “became completely distanced from everything going on.” Barrett’s behavior on stage became increasingly erratic, forcing a premature end of Pink Floyd’s U.S. tour in November 1967. The following month, guitarist David Gilmour became the band’s fifth member. Essentially, the idea was that he would play the guitar parts of Barrett who would continue to write music for the band.
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out and Barrett left in March 1968. The line-up that eventually would transform Pink Floyd to international super-stardom was in place! Waters effectively took over the band’s artistic direction for the next 15-plus years. During that period, they recorded ten additional albums, including two of the best-selling records of all time: The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973) and The Wall (1979). By the time of the latter, Pink Floyd essentially had become a Roger Waters project. This created tension among the members and led to departures.
The first to leave was Rick Wright in the wake of the 1980-1981 tour that supported The Wall. Eventually, Waters called it quits himself in 1985 and declared Pink Floyd was “a spent force creatively.” He then engaged in a legal battle with Gilmour and Mason over the next few years, trying to prevent them from continuing to use the Pink Floyd name. While things were settled long before then, it took Waters until 2013 to publicly admit he had been wrong about the lawsuit and to regret his ill-guided actions.
Wright returned as a session musician for A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987), Pink Floyd’s first album in the post-Waters era. The band continued to tour and recorded one additional album during Wright’s lifetime, The Division Bell (1994). On July 2, 2005, Gilmour, Mason and Wright reunited one last time with Waters and performed as Pink Floyd at the Live 8 benefit concert in London.
On July 6, 2007, Syd Barrett died at the age of 60 after he had largely lived in seclusion for more than 35 years. Rick Wright passed away from cancer on September 15, 2008. He was 65 years old. In 2012, Gilmour and Mason decided to create one final Pink Floyd album, based on music that had been recorded with Wright during studio sessions for The Division Bell. Called The Endless River, the mostly instrumental record was released in November 2014. Now let’s get to some music!
I’d like to kick things off with the above mentioned Arnold Layne, one of my favorite early songs The Pink Floyd released as their debut single in March 1967. Like pretty much all of the band’s original music during the Syd Barrett phase, the tune was written by the guitarist and lead vocalist.
Bike from The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, released in August 1967, is another Barrett composition. It’s both a bit weird and catchy at the same time. Two of the cool features I like are the sound collage toward the end, which resembles the turning gears of a bike, as well as the duck or geese-like sounding screams thereafter. According to Wikipedia, they were created with a tape loop of the band members laughing, played backwards and at double speed. Obviously, The Beatles weren’t the only band that effectively had started leveraging studio technology to their advantage during the second half of the ’60s.
In June 1968, Pink Floyd released their sophomore album A Saucerful Of Secrets. The early recording sessions still included Syd Barrett whose behavior and ability to perform had increasingly become less predictable. One of the tracks, for which he provided slide and acoustics guitars and background vocals is Remember A Day, a great composition by Rick Wright who also sang lead vocals, a rarity.
Next up is what over the years has become my favorite Pink Floyd track: The mighty Echoes from the band’s sixth studio album Meddle that appeared in October 1971. Credited to all four members of the band and clocking in at more than 23 minutes, the epic tune comprises the entire second side of the vinyl LP. I realize only a hard core fan may listen to the entire clip, but that’s fine with me. I simply couldn’t leave out this one!
In March 1973, Pink Floyd released The Dark Side Of The Moon. With estimated worldwide sales of more than 45 million units, Floyd’s eighth studio album became their most commercially successful record. Here is The Great Gig In The Sky featuring the amazing vocals of Clare Torry, who is co-credited for the tune together with Rick Wright. This track still gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it. BTW, as I wrote this, it happened to be on the radio as part of Q104.3’s countdown of the 1,043 Greatest Rock Songs Of All Time. While one can argue endlessly why certain songs make the list and their ranking positions, it’s a fun listening experience. I’ve written about the radio station’s annual tradition for the Thanksgiving holiday before, most recently here. BTW, The Great Gig In The Sky came in at no. 829 – way, way, way too low!😀
Have A Cigar was Roger Waters’ biting critique of hypocrisy and greed in the music industry. It appeared on Pink Floyd’s ninth studio album, the above mentioned Wish You Were Here from September 1975. Here’s an excerpt from the lyrics: I’ve always had a deep respect and I mean that most sincere/The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think/Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink? The lead vocals were provided by English folk rock singer Roy Harper, making it the only Floyd tune besides The Great Gig In The Sky that wasn’t sung by one of their members.
In January 1977, Pink Floyd’s tenth studio album Animals appeared. Loosely based on George Orwell’sAnimal Farm, the concept album criticizes the social and political conditions in the U.K. at the time – two years before the leader of the Conservative Party Margaret Thatcher would become Prime Minister and a favorite target of Roger Waters. Here’s one of my favorite tracks from that album, Sheep, which like most tunes was solely written by Waters.
Perhaps the Pink Floyd song with the most epic guitar solo is Comfortably Numb, which was co-written by David Gilmour and Roger Waters. It appeared on the band’s 11th studio album The Wall, which came out in November 1979.
In September 1987, Pink Floyd released A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, their first record of the post-Waters area. Initially, David Gilmour set out to make it his third solo album, but things changed along the way. The record featured Nick Mason and Rick Wright, who was among the many guest musicians. Wright would later return to the band as a full member. Here’s the album’s closer Sorrow, which was written by Gilmour.
The last song I’d like to highlight is called High Hopes from Pink Floyd’s 14th studio album The Division Bell. Released in March 1994, it was the band’s final record issued during the lifetime of Rick Wright. He had an active role in writing much of the music with David Gilmour, while Gilmor’s fiancée and novellist Polly Samson co-wrote many of the lyrics. High Hopes was credited to Gilmour and Samson.
Pink Floyd were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. They also made the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005. As of 2013, they had sold more than 250 million records worldwide, not only making them one of the most influential but also one of the most commercially successful bands of all time. While I don’t believe we will see another reincarnation of Pink Floyd, I’ve not doubt I’ll continue to enjoy their music, hopefully for many more years to come.