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Onyx reviews: Comfortably Numb1 by Mark Blake

The Inside Story of Pink Floyd

A few years ago, drummer Nick Mason penned Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd. While it drew from his recollections of his years with the band and his extensive scrapbook of never before seen photographs from the past forty years, Mason allowed himself to be edited by his fellow band members and glossed over the "sex and drugs" part of rock and roll. The book was narrated in a jovial, humorous voice, but ultimately lacked depth. During most of its existence, Pink Floyd was an enigma. Even some of their more ardent fans didn't know much about them, and solo efforts by some of the band members failed because they lacked name recognition outside of the band.

Journalist Mark Blake was under none of Mason's constraints, and has delivered the "bandography" of Pink Floyd against which all others will be measured. However, his research was hampered by several realities. The band members gave very few interviews over the years, so the written record to document thing as they happened is sparse. During their heyday, the band members consumed a lot of psychedelic and mind altering drugs, so their memories of the early years must be considered suspect. Even without the influence of drugs, forty years has adverse affects on the soundest of recollections. Finally, the various conflicts within the band and its substantial sphere of collaborators over the year means that certain memories may be crafted or altered to support their positions in the arguments.

Blake has done a yeoman's job of researching and documenting the band's history from its inception, through the creation of such classic albums as Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall, to the band's new direction after the departure of Roger Waters, to the modern era. In situations where there are conflicting accounts, he presents all viewpoints without apparent bias—although he is not hesitant to explain when he thinks bias might be the reason why certain events are presented as they are by the individuals involved, or when external evidence contradicts one of his interviewee's recollections.

He also does an admirable job of matching the chronologies of the various principles who depart from the band. Founding member Syd Barrett—the eponymous "crazy diamond"—was dropped by Floyd when he proved unreliable and erratic, but Blake keeps readers up to date with his activities as Floyd ebbs and wanes over the ensuing decades. He reports on his various musical efforts and personal issues even when they don't tie into the main thread of Floyd's trajectory. Similarly, when Roger Waters is forced out of the band after the release of The Final Cut, Blake handles the parallel storylines deftly and fairly.

Though Blake analyzes the music itself on occasion, offering his opinions on the sophistication (or lack thereof) and meaning of the various songs the band members write over the years, either for Floyd or for solo projects, this isn't the strength of this book. Of more interest is the creative process itself, and the way some of the band's classic songs were created—often in spite of the individual members' best or worst intentions. He chronicles the disdain Waters had for the creativity of his collaborators, and on his efforts to increase his own thematic vision, often at the expense of that of those around him. The band members themselves comment on the personal issues that sometimes caused them to be unproductive creatively during various recording sessions.

Blake has clearly read all the available material published over the years, as well as conducting new interviews with the principles and others who worked with the band in various guises, from producers to engineers, to guest musicians and other collaborators. He allows the band members' personalities to evolve over the course of the book. Roger Waters is the caustic and egotistical control freak who comes into conflict with just about everyone he works with. David Gilmour is the talented musician who is stubborn and taciturn about anything other than the music itself. Mason is the peacemaker, who is often happier playing with his cars than with the band. Wright is the oil to Waters, fired from the band during The Wall sessions although he continued to play with the group on the ensuing tour and continued to record with Mason and Gilmour when they carried on under the Floyd banner.

The level of detail in this book means that it will probably be of interest only to serious Pink Floyd fans, but they are legion and even the most diehard fan will learn many new things about one of the most enigmatic and influential rock groups of the 20th century.

1) Published in the UK as Pigs Might Fly


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