Surely Pink Floyd is the strangest mega-successful group in rock history.
Beginning in the mid-’60s as a R&B-based hard rock band like the Who or Pretty Things, the band – Syd Barrett on guitar and vocals, Roger Waters on bass and vocals, Richard Wright on keyboards, and Nick Mason on drums – mutated quickly into an odd combination of twee pop-British psychedelia (“See Emily Play,” “Arnold Layne,” “The Gnome,” “Bike”) and long-form instrumental space rock (“Astonomy Domine,” “Interstellar Overdrive,” “Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun,” “A Saucerful of Secrets”), guided by Barrett’s beguiling lysergic explorations – a Cambridge English garden transported to Mars.
But even Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary and Jerry Garcia will tell you (well, they would if they were alive) daily dosing isn’t conducive to functioning in the real world and by 1967 Barrett had officially freaked out on acid.
Guitarist David Gilmour, also from Cambridge, joined the group as insurance against Barrett’s volatility in ’68, but when Barrett was forced from the group for unreliability, the band’s management – in one of the most monumental selections of the wrong horse in music history – dumped Floyd in favor of Barrett solo, and what might have been the end was instead a new beginning for the resilient combo (named after Piedmont blues figures Pink Anderson and Floyd Council). What had been largely Syd’s backup band became a democratic foursome sharing writing, singing and leadership duties.
The band headed more deeply into experimental symphonic explorations into the depersonalized sonic chill of space, about as far removed from rock ‘n’ roll’s origins in amped-up American teenage hormones as possible; and implausibly, the farther out they went, the more popular they became.
Which brings us to Live At Pompeii, The Director’s Cut, a bizarre amalgam of 1971 concert performance shot in the eerily empty ancient Roman amphitheater at Pompeii, interview footage with the band and director Adrien Maben while the film was being assembled in Paris, footage of the band recording the epochal Dark Side of the Moon in ’72, all interspliced with trippy 2001-type space shots, computer generated graphics, and freaky volcanic nature footage from nearby Mt. Vesuvius.
With your DVD system’s surround sound, this film is a sensory banquet of overwhelming Floyd, relaxed but with something to prove at the edge of superstardom – still very much musicians rather than jaded rockstars – young, thin and hungry.
Though armed with a huge arsenal of effects, amplification, and sundry equipment, the volume and variety of sound that just four musicians made with no digital enhancement or electronic backing is stunning. Gilmour’s guitar ranges between his unique inverted chordal strumming, and astonishing effects, especially with a slide in the upper reaches. NO ONE sounds like David Gilmour. Waters is a fine, lyric bassist; Mason is the perfect drummer for the group, building percussive castles through unerring repetition and fugal development. Wright is the secret weapon, filling in the holes, laying an oceanic foundation, and supporting Gilmour’s and Waters’ vocals with harmonies.
The music is a healthy dose of their latest album at the time, the classic Meddle (“Echoes Pt. 1” opens the film, “Echoes Pt 2” closes it; the charging, menacing “One of These Days” is the centerpiece), choice noise symphonies “Careful With That Axe Eugene” (with frightening, preternatural screams from Waters), “A Saucerful of Secrets” and “Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun,” in addition to works in progress “Us and Them” and “Brain Damage” from Dark Side of the Moon.
We just sort of sat there for 90 minutes staring and drooling as the images and audio transfixed and transported us. Also on the DVD is the original 60-minute concert film, an interview with director Adrien Maben, Pompeii map and history, lyrics, a photo gallery, and an “odds ‘n’ sods” section with posters and album art.