Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Pink Floyd All the Songs'

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'Pink Floyd All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track.'
'Pink Floyd All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Jean-Michel Guesdon and Philippe Margotin are rock encyclopedists. They're the authors of All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release, Bob Dylan All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track, and The Rolling Stones All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track. With their latest volume, they turn their sights to prog-rock legends Pink Floyd.

It makes sense. Unless you're a super-fan, you're going to need some help deciphering Pink Floyd's five-decade discography. They came out of London in the mid-1960s as a band led by Syd Barrett: a gifted singer-songwriter who was already in a drug-addled downward spiral that would begin to disqualify him for active music-making soon after Pink Floyd released their 1967 debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Barrett was replaced with David Gilmour, and the band's peak era saw a more-or-less amicable partnership between guitarist Gilmour and bassist Roger Waters. The influence of Waters grew, and after his landmark personal statement The Wall (1979), his music grew less and less collaborative. After 1983's The Final Cut — a de facto solo album — Waters left the band.

The core remaining trio of Gilmour, drummer Nick Mason, and keyboardist Rick Wright (who had left the band before Waters, only to return once the bassist was gone) carried on for a successful third act that commenced with 1987's Momentary Lapse of Reason and concluded with 2014's The Endless River, released after Wright's death.

Guesdon and Margotin take within their purview 17 studio albums and six significant standalone singles, for (by my count) a total of 176 tracks...and some of those are long. The resulting volume, at 591 pages, is the size of a phone book.

It also happens to be quite an attractive book, with the matte pages laid out in readable type, generously splashed with vintage photos. (Curiously, there's no album-cover art, an omission that's presumably due to rights issues but that's difficult to overlook in a book about a band so famously known for unmistakable album covers.)

You would have to be very, very familiar with the Floyd to enjoy reading this book from cover to cover, although the authors do provide a helpful capsule biography, and pull-out boxes for significant collaborators like Alan Parsons and Ron Geesin. There are also blurbs under topics like "For Pink Floyd Addicts," "Covers," and "In Your Headphones."

Maybe the best way to read the book is to use it as a track-by-track guide while listening to the music. You can start with your favorite album — say, Dark Side (1973) or Wish You Were Here (1975) — and then branch out to less familiar releases like Ummagumma (1969) or the Zabriskie Point soundtrack (1970).

What are some of the things you'll learn? Well, you'll learn that "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2" became the hit it was because co-producer Bob Ezrin prevailed upon the band to add a disco-flavored beat, arguing that the melody was catchy enough to climb the charts. You'll learn that the band spent a full day just perfecting the sound loop for "Money," with engineer Parsons using a ruler when editing tape to be sure that each of the elements stayed in time. You'll also learn that ratchet sound is a telephonic switching device called a uni-selector.

You can trace the lingering contributions of Barrett on 1968's A Saucerful of Secrets, and learn more about the lesser-known contributions of Mason and Wright throughout the band's oeuvre. You'll even learn more about the (unseen) album covers, including the names of the stuntmen shaking hands on the Warner Bros. studio lot for the Wish You Were Here cover — one of several collaborations with designer Storm Thorgerson. And this being a prog-rock band, the index features no fewer than five references to J.R.R. Tolkien.

There's also ample technical detail, including images of instruments and equipment used by the band in their studio sessions at Abbey Road and elsewhere. Like Led Zeppelin: All the Albums, All the Songs, this is a volume for fans who want to be spared as much as possible of the backstage drama...though given the band's dynamic working process and their changing membership, some of that is inevitable.

Most movingly, you'll learn how the loss of Barrett continued to haunt Pink Floyd — although he remained alive until 2006. The album Wish You Were Here, particularly Waters's epic song "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," was a poignant tribute to Barrett...who was in effect gone, even though he wasn't.

As Guesdon and Margotin recount, the Floyd co-founder actually showed up to the studio unannounced on the very day "Crazy Diamond" was being mixed. "An unrecognizable Syd Barrett, paunchy, bald, and with no eyebrows" appeared — his appearance so altered, the band initially didn't even realize who he was. When they recognized him, Waters and Gilmour both wept.

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