Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Pink Floyd -- "Us and Them" (1973)

Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard "Rick" Wright passed away from cancer yesterday at the age of 65 years old. This seemed like a good time to honor him by discussing my favorite song from the band (which he co-wrote), of course from the always selling classic album Dark Side Of The Moon.

Until the band began splintering apart with a tug of war between bassist Roger Waters and guitarist David Gilmour around the time of The Wall, there were no "lead personalities." Four pretty anonymous English guys experimenting with psychedelia and spaced-out jams ("One Of These Days") until Dark Side of The Moon kicked them all royally into the spotlight, and it became one of the most beloved, influential and best-selling albums of all time.

There was nobody in Pink Floyd with lightening fast licks or crazy solos. Guitarist David Gilmour's sparse blues and jazz solos on his Strat were about the only things that stood out with an individual's personality. Nobody was going to cite drummer Nick Mason or Wright or Waters as outstanding musicians who could be spotted in an instant.

Pink Floyd was a triumph of tone and concept. The music was mostly at the same slow tempo, generally simple chord structures, surrounded by lots of plate reverb. Dark, rudimentary death and insanity-obsessed lyrics, sometimes involving twisted imagery, often misanthropic. Haunting vocals, sometimes bubbling with rage, and a periodic sound effect from a cold sterile world.

"Us and Them" was a perfect example of everything that Pink Floyd could do right. Four remarkably beautiful and strange chords that sound right and yet "off" - D, D6, Ddim7 and G (with a D root bass) -- stretched out in a long flowing intro and the verses to follow. Wright was not Keith Emerson, whipping off rapid fire runs around modular synthesizer keyboards, or was he Elton John, with classical arpeggios or stomping down hard on chord riffs. Wright frequently played extended chords, in this case a swirling rotary-driven Hammond organ, keeping his hands mostly stationary on the keys, slowly moving them in time to change the chords.

How amazing is it that one of classic rock's greatest songs doesn't have mind-boggling drumming, or keyboards or even a roaring Gilmour guitar solo? What it does have is Dick Parry's deep baritone saxophone nudging around the corners until it takes a rampaging solo in the song's middle. In the mid-70's, saxophones were used to play unison riffs in R&B songs, or you could count on David Sanborn to blow a short little number for Linda Ronstadt or James Taylor. On "Us and Them," it became a mysterious space rock instrument, one that hummed like the "2001: A Space Odyssey" monolith.

Waters sure did love his military themes, and "Us and Them" took it to its hilt. Gilmour practically breathed the brief song lines, surrounded by perfectly synchronized echoed delays, about old generals going to war, the ensuing madness ("The lines on the map moved from side to side"), and utter confusion.

Us and Them
And after all we're only ordinary men.
Me, and you
God only knows it's not what we would choose to do.

Forward he cried from the rear
and the front rank died.
And the General sat, as the lines on the map
moved from side to side.

Black and Blue
And who knows which is which and who is who.
Up and Down
And in the end it's only round and round and round.

Haven't you heard it's a battle of words
the poster bearer cried.
Listen son, said the man with the gun
There's room for you inside

Down and Out
It can't be helped but there's a lot of it about.
With, without
And who'll deny that's what the fightings all about.

Get out of the way, it's a busy day
And I've got things on my mind
For want of the price of tea and a slice
The old man died.

For some reason, that last line also reminds me of 2001.

Some marvelous material I've found for this post. Here's Pink Floyd performing "Us and Them" in 1994, sans Roger Waters, with that bizarro Hipgnosis video projected above them. And if you want to get a good look at that video, it's right below it. Then a couple of recent interviews with members of the band discussing the making of Dark Side of the Moon.

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