Waiting for Someone or Something to Show You the Way
How a quinseptuagenuple-platinum art-rock band helped turn me on to the funk
It would be so easy to lie about it: being born in the late ’70s and exposed at a young age to the wide array of ideas that sprung from punk’s year zero, hip hop’s rapid emergence and R&B’s wild-and-loose post-disco rebirth, I could probably convince anybody that my whole life changed when I was seven and I heard “Burning Down the House” or “The Message” or “Little Red Corvette” for the first time. But the truth’s a bit duller, a bit safer and a bit sorrier: when I was seven, there was little else in the world of music that fascinated me as much as Pink Floyd.
It was what my dad typically played during the weekends I saw him, riding along the Mississippi from Minneapolis up to the suburbs along a beat-up industrial stretch of road with Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here pulsing through the high-end speakers of his Cavalier. I was captivated by the music’s uneasy blend of grandiose beauty and populist defeatism; the first thing I learned about the British people that wasn’t gleaned from DangerMouse was that they hung on in quiet desperation and were remarkably cynical about duplicitous A&R men. Eventually my interest in the band grew to the extent that I was led down a path of classic rock radio consumption, giving in to the nostalgia trudge of music minted ten years before my birth and ten years past its welcome, just so I could get the chance to tape “Comfortably Numb” off the radio.
Pink Floyd recorded only four studio albums in my lifetime, most of them when the band was well past their peak — the teen-angst conduit The Wall (which I adored in high school and quickly abandoned the moment I said goodbye to the rest of the Class of ’95), the anemic The Final Cut (a bit of a flop, but prominent enough that the local classic rock station felt it was worth it to play “Not Now John,” replete with its dozen-or-so usages of the word ’fuck’), and post-Roger Waters mishaps A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell (the latter being the only one they released during my teen years; I actually bought it on vinyl). But they had their hooks in me bad: of the small handful of legitimate, commercially-released, non-homemade cassette tapes I owned, the three I wore out the most during my sophomore year were Sonic Youth’s Dirty, De La Soul is Dead, and Dark Side of the Moon, and for a good deal of senior year I wore a baseball cap with a Wall-era Pink Floyd logo emblazoned across the front. I was the very picture of anachronistic burnoutitude, replete with goatee and ponytail, and I didn’t even have sense enough to complete the picture by actually getting high once in a while.
I guess it could’ve been worse; it could’ve been the Doors. (Well, okay, so it was the Doors for a while, thank you very much Oliver Stone.) But past your high school years, Pink Floyd is largely seen as a band you either sit around listening to in a dorm while high as fuck, feigning profundity and dredging up stupid ideas (like the Wizard of Oz syncing trick), or a band you overcome once you discover punk rock and tear down your Dark Side poster in a fervid, triumphant coup d’etat a la 24 Hour Party People. But it didn’t entirely work that way for me: at the risk of making the ten-thousandth “LOL weed” joke about ’em, Pink Floyd were kind of a gateway drug. Their musical leanings were so wide and populist that they prepped me for the benefits of dozens of other, hipper bands to whom they ran stylistically parallel — and, by some odd twist of fate, most of those acts were funk. A lot of this I had to learn by chance; most rock critics I read were more interested in comparing Pink Floyd to Yes and ELP and other prog behemoths that were significantly more pompous. Robert Christgau nailed it when he called Floyd “sophisticated but hardly complex,” like a lot of good groove bands. From the first four Floyd albums I obsessed over — Meddle, Dark Side, Wish You Were Here and The Wall — I wound up inadvertently readying myself for a headfirst dive into funk, hidden as it might have been in a good amount of AOR theatrics, low-concept/high-execution lyrics and the occasional acoustic guitar number.
A few specific examples that, while debatable and possibly tenuous, feel to me like direct (if occasionally dotted) lines:
There’s only four songs on Hot Buttered Soul (1969), three of which are over nine minutes long, and one of which — the sprawling slow-build cover of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” — runs almost nineteen. It’s one of the lushest soul LPs of its time, an exercise in long-form orchestration and psychedelic opulence. Two years later, as Hayes was raking in all kinds of Shaft loot, Pink Floyd released Meddle, the entire B-side of which was taken up by the 24-minute-plus “Echoes” — which, substituting electronic effects for strings and abstract pastoral imagery for Bacharach lyrics, played out like Hayes’ “Walk on By” set to the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a lineage that becomes explicit once you get to the Floyd track’s 5:24 mark, when David Gilmour’s guitar wails like Michael Toles’ with a hyperdrive, and Richard Wright bangs away at the piano like he’s playing the Pompeii Tahoe. (That’s not even bringing up the straight-up funk breakdown that shows up around the 7-minute mark.) I heard Hot Buttered Soul a couple years after I got Meddle, which meant that not only did I wind up with a new favorite R&B album, but I had a hard time hearing “Echoes” as anything other than psychedelic soul for a while.
Booker T. & the M.G.’s
David Gilmour admitted in subsequent post-Dark Side interviews that “Money” was an attempt to approximate the style of Stax’s venerable house band, and though they slipped a bit (drummer Nick Mason and bassist Roger Waters didn’t exactly have the same spot-on sense of timekeeping that Al Jackson and Donald “Duck” Dunn had), it isn’t hard to imagine the song as the mutated offspring of “Green Onions,” replete with Gilmour’s extrapolated guitar-hero Steve Cropper-isms. Rick Wright, meanwhile, spends a few moments on Dark Side trying his hand at assorted Booker-style Southern soul gospel chords, especially in the epic coda “Eclipse.” After listening to it, the calm and the tension in M.G.s albums like Melting Pot really stand out.
Maybe this is the most assumptive and ridiculous of my Floyd/funk connections, but listening to the two-part “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” seems in retrospect like a pastiche of P-Funk moments. Where Eddie Hazel soloed on “Maggot Brain,” as George Clinton suggested, like his mother just died, Gilmour’s similarly-styled solo in the first half of “Diamond” is played out like the man he replaced — Pink Floyd founding member and genius/acid casualty Syd Barrett — had been haunting him for the last seven years. Wright, meanwhile, makes like Bernie Worrell on the second half, laying out some Minimoog riffs that would sound right at home on Mothership Connection, especially in the “Part VIII” section where the whole band vamps like a strange precursor to the “swing down sweet chariot” finale of the Parliament record’s title track. Throw in “Have a Cigar,” which sounds like the recessive-gene offspring of Funkadelic’s “I’ll Stay” and Parliament’s “Testify,” and it’s no wonder I started snapping up P-Funk records in my late teens.
Chic (and disco in general)
When a band sells as many copies of a song as Chic did with “Le Freak,” odds are they’re going to get subsumed into a whole ton of other bands’ stylistic reference points. And while it would be stretching to an absurd point to compare “Run Like Hell” and “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” to the best productions of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, those two particular cuts from The Wall did wind up serving as a set of disco training wheels. Back in my longhair phase, I had the vague notion that disco was supposed to suck, but I didn’t really have any specific idea or evidence as to why aside from a distaste for the Village People’s witless attempt at camp and the disconcerting glower of John Travolta. From where I stood, the churning guitars and throbbing 4/4 beats made these two Floyd tracks exciting and intense (this was years before I knew about the fascist undertones in “Run Like Hell,” which out-of-context just sounded like “let’s all be badass like The Warriors”). Eventually I’d start gravitating towards disco with a similarly guitar-heavy sound, which meant “1, 2, awwww ... ” — and from there, I learned to stop worrying and love disco, from Double Exposure to Loose Joints to Dinosaur. So it was that a stoner band I never even got high to indirectly led my hetero self to enjoy a genre with a significant link to gay culture. (There’s a lesson there somewhere, but damned if I know what it is.)
None of these groups were the natural end result of a specific cause-and-effect listening to Pink Floyd; I didn’t just lift the needle off the fade-out of “Echoes,” immediately run right out and buy a Stax best-of. Some of this music I learned about by reverse-engineering rap samples, catching them by chance on college radio or picking up on a more direct pop music lineage (if Pink Floyd nudged me towards P-Funk, Hendrix flung me right at ’em). But first impressions tend to stick with you, and if I wind up hearing something familiar in an unfamiliar song, something I can trace back to those strange early moments of my youth when I first heard all those bizarre sounds that would eventually register as rock and then as something else entirely, I know who to (indirectly) thank.
Now if only everything that I picked up because it kind of sounded like Pink Floyd actually wound up sticking with me. Maybe I should go back and see if OK Computer’s worth listening to again.