From their light and sound extravaganzas in Swinging London’s UFO and Roundhouse to their experimental use of electronics, and props that were often branded ‘gimmicky’, Pink Floyd seldom shied away from grand, outrageous performances that founder member Syd Barrett liked to compare to theatre shows. Keen to distance themselves from the performer oriented ‘pop shows’ of the day, Pink Floyd spent the late 60s subsuming their stage presence to the artistry of their psychedelic visuals offset by early-era electronic noodling. The band straddled several artistic movements in the years between 1967-1973, moving from freeform jazz-inspired psychedelia to space rock, and eventually, the tight, progressive sound of Dark Side of the Moon. What seemed to be a protracted fumble in the dark for a new artistic direction after Barrett’s departure in 1968 coalesced to the confident and selfsure sound that permeates the Live at Pompeii film.
For a band that had hitherto been, frankly, secretive about their individual personas, this was a leap in an entirely new direction. Adrian Maben’s concert-film-without-an-audience spliced footage of the band playing sets from Meddle and Ummagumma in Pompeii’s volcanic ruins with interviews from their Abbey Road recording sessions of Dark Side of the Moon, and presented for the first time, a human face of the somewhat faceless band (a concept that Roger Waters would subsequently use for The Wall.) In a way, Live at Pompeii became a conceptual launchpad for what would follow: the dizzying heights of fame the band would soon achieve: the strops, tantrums and ego clashes, alienation of their audience, and of course, the album which turned that bitter saga into one of the greatest rock operas ever conceived.
Pink Floyd’s trajectory from the late 60s through the end of the 70s seems to be intimately concerned with representation. Faceless at their conception in favour of liquid light shows and oil slides, the band saw an emerging individuality warring for recognition with increasingly elaborate theatrics (read: giant inflatables) in their glory years. And finally, there was the dénouement of The Wall with its incisive commentary on fame and its demons as a fitting end to this twisted saga. One of the artistic stops on this ride that warrants a closer look is 1975’s ‘comic book’ tour programme. A sixteen page booklet stuffed with all sorts of unexpected goodies, it provides a rare glimpse of the quirky, human side of the band through four separate comics, a quiz or two, and a centrepiece foldout illustrated by Gerald Scarfe. Given how notorious they would become for their artistic differences, rifts, and lawsuits, it’s kind of touching to see how the four Floyds are depicted in their individual comics. There’s a sense of playfulness here, of naiveté even – it helps to remember that most of them hadn’t hit 30 yet, and had just had their first taste of true stardom. United by their retro kitschiness, each of the comics casts a band member in their different alter egos. While ‘Rog of the Rovers’ sees Waters as a football hero bringing his team to victory after a nasty bit of foul play, Captain Mason R.N. deals the Nazis a swift blow in his characteristically relaxed manner.
Rich Right channels Jerry Cornelius and makes some bad puns, and David Gilmour as underdog Dave Derring finds an uplifting and loved up ending to his biking exploits. Despite the space constraints, the comics manage to expertly capture the personalities of their protagonists – self referentially kitschy and hilarious, with varying styles of artwork, they paint the picture of a band that’s not too serious about what they do, people who, at the end of the day, are the sort of folks you could have a pint and a smoke with. This is reinforced by the deliberately off-the-wall ‘Life Lines’ style questionnaire, and the ‘Big Brainstrainer Quiz Special Corner Page Corner’ – it seems that in November 1974, when the booklet was released, Pink Floyd was all for being approachable, even if it was from a distance. The world was still light hearted.
The next time Pink Floyd used sequential art, the context couldn’t be any more different. 1980’s live shows for The Wall showed the band deploying hand drawn art once more, for both their tour programmes and as animated sequences projected onto the wall constructed onstage. For the first time since their debut album, the band ditched their design company, Hipgnosis, in favour of Gerald Scarfe’s punishing linework. The Wall’s concept art is relentless in its cruelty and madness, a grim nightmare brought to life by monstrous caricatures, fascist imagery, and all too visceral flesh-and-blood tones. And somewhere within the madness, an umbilical cord connects it to the centrefold for the Wish You Were Here programme, the 2 page caricature of the band which would seem malicious if it were not for the tongue-in-cheek jokiness. And tracing the cord back once more, from the disturbing inflatables used in that very tour, right down to the concept art, visuals, and inflatable monsters in The Wall, the psychosis becomes evident.
The product of a rapidly alienated mind trying to come to grips with fame and its pitfalls, the journey from Wish You Were Here to The Wall is beset with an an imagery of growing horror. As Waters develops a fascination with fascism, the visuals translate his paranoia into images teeming with revulsion. Flowers copulating as genitals where one devours the other, the visual shock of the mother and schoolmaster figures, the marching hammers of fascism all contribute to a picture of unmitigated violence. Much like those hammers, The Wall falls as a series of unrelieved visual and auditory blows on the senses. In five years, it seems everything has changed – there’s nothing lighthearted at the end of the decade for Pink Floyd.
They were the pioneers of experimentation in their time: under Barrett’s frontmanship, Pink Floyd segued sight and sound inextricably. Later on, Waters compounded that marriage into a full blown theatrical experience, with all stops pulled out as the band faded in and out amidst pyrotechnics, inflatables and surround sound. It’s hardly surprising, then, that they would use every medium of art available to them, including sequential and comic strip art. What stands out is the transformation their use of the form underwent – from a self referential, easygoing approachability to experimentations in psychosis, from the buoyancy of the mid 70s to the socioeconomic depression the end of the decade would witness. ‘The Pink Floyd Super All-Action Official Music Programme for Boys and Girls’ remains an artefact of a golden era that the band would never again revisit. The path that led from there would be paved with creative and commercial successes, but the last of the happy 60s haze that had managed to linger on in the air would disappear forever after that.