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If Orwell Had an Anthem, Pink Floyd Would Have Produced It

Like no other songwriters of their time, the British band encapsulated fears of tyranny and conformity, war and mass consumption.
2002 Glastonbury Music Festival - June 28-30, 2002

On February 22, 1980, at the age of 12, I went to see my oldest brother, then a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Two astounding things happened on that visit. First, the United States defeated the Soviets in hockey—the miracle on ice—a victory that was palpable across campus.

Second, I heard for the very first time the entirety of Pink Floyd’s double album, The Wall. In hindsight, the former seems nothing less than a divine sign that after a decade of self-inflicted defeat, the United States might begin, once again, to believe in itself. The latter, then and now, seems nothing less than a warning against the ease of conformity and the lures of mediocrity. Both events radically shaped my view of the world, energizing me with purpose while mitigating opportunism. At least, so I hope.

One of the bestselling and most popular rock groups of all time, Pink Floyd—in its various incarnations—released 15 studio albums between 1967 and 2014. Throughout it all, the band never stopped experimenting with sound, pioneers in psychedelic and progressive rock. Their eighth album, Dark Side of the Moon, sold over 45 million copies and remained consistently on the album charts for a decade and a half. Their eleventh album, The Wall, sold over 23 million copies in the United States alone and many, many more worldwide.

Over the last year, Pink Floyd’s stalwart guitarist, David Gilmour, has emerged as the grand and genteel statesman and gentleman of the rock world, donating his guitar collection to charity. Gilmour raised an astounding $21 million from that auction, including from the sale of his famous black Stratocaster used for “Comfortably Numb.”

Gilmour’s chosen charity? ClientEarth, a nonprofit that seeks to radically and fundamentally alter economic activity toward a more sustainable and “green” future. “The global climate crisis is the greatest challenge that humanity will ever face,” Gilmour tweeted, “and we are within a few years of the effects of global warming being irreversible.”

This is, by no means, the first time that Pink Floyd has been identified with radical and left-wing political causes. Indeed, much of the history of the band, especially from the mid-1970s on, has been intertwined with Labour politics in Britain. “Politically we came from fairly similar backgrounds,” drummer Nick Mason remembered in his memoirs, Inside Out:

Roger’s mother was an ex-Communist Party member and a staunch Labour supporter, as were my parents: my father had joined the Communist Party to oppose fascism, and then on the outbreak of war left the CP and became a shop steward in the ACT, the Association of Cinematographic Technicians. This kind of background was also shared by our respective girlfriends, and later wives, Lindy and Judy. Roger had been the chairman of the youth section of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Cambridge, and he and Judy took part in a number of CND marches from Aldermaston to London. Lindy and I did join at least one CND march on the outskirts of London on the last day, and she later was part of the Grosvenor Square demonstration which the police broke up with a rather heavy hand. I would now tend to say that probably reflects quite accurately my own general commitment to politics – slightly to the left of half-hearted with only the occasional outburst of good behaviour.

Not surprisingly, British rock has long been associated with left-wing causes, while North American rock—such as that by Rush and Van Halen—has maintained a more individualist, libertarian, and anti-political tone. 

Nowhere was the politics of Pink Floyd made clearer than on the band’s 1983 album The Final Cut. It’s essentially a Roger Waters’ solo album and screed against the Thatcher government (and the Japanese):

Tell me true

Tell me why was Jesus crucified?
Was it for this that Daddy died?
Was it you?
Was it me?
Did I watch too much TV?
Is that a hint of accusation in your eyes?

If it wasn’t for the nips
Being so good at building ships
The yards would still be open on the Clyde

And it can’t be much fun for them
Beneath the rising sun
With all their kids committing suicide

What have we done?
Maggie, what have we done?
What have we done to England?

Should we shout?
Should we scream?
What happened to the post war dream?
Oh, Maggie, Maggie, what have we done?

Yet whatever the band’s politics, there is an entire generation—maybe two—of North Americans who are not left-wing in the least yet who love Pink Floyd and have been fundamentally shaped by their artistry and lyrics.

Lesson One: Pink Floyd, especially on Wish You Were Here and The Wall, taught us to fear conformity of any kind as intellectually banal and subversive of free will:

So welcome to the machine
Welcome my son
Welcome to the machine
What did you dream?
It’s alright we told you what to dream
You dreamed of a big star
He played a mean guitar
He always ate in the Steak Bar
He loved to drive in his Jaguar
So welcome to the machine

Or, less artistically but more anthemically: “We don’t need no education/We don’t need no thought control/No dark sarcasm in the classroom/Teachers leave them kids alone. …All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.”

Lesson Two: with 1977’s Animals, Pink Floyd taught us to fear the tyranny of Orwellian dystopia:

Who was born in a house full of pain.
Who was trained not to spit in the fan.
Who was told what to do by the man.
Who was broken by trained personnel.
Who was fitted with collar and chain.
Who was given a pat on the back.
Who was breaking away from the pack.
Who was only a stranger at home.
Who was ground down in the end.
Who was found dead on the phone.
Who was dragged down by the stone.

Lesson Three: Pink Floyd taught us about the excesses of unnecessary war:

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 and 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 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

More recently, Roger Waters explained:

But that not what war is about. War is actually about keeping rich people rich and poor people poor. That’s the function of it. And not just because there’s just so much money in the economies of western countries. Well, the ones who make weapons, which is mainly the United States, the UK, Russia, Germany, France, Belgium—those are the main ones. So much is tied into the armament industries, in the great military industrial complexes Eisenhower warned us about. So that is the reason we’re in perpetual war.

Syd Barrett, the original lead singer of the band, was ousted from the group due to drug and mental health issues in 1969. Pink Floyd continued as a quartet—though always a tense one—throughout the 1970s. “It was a very exciting and creative time in Abbey Road, a very happy time, very harmonious,” Wright remembered of the Dark Side of the Moon sessions in 1972. “We were all into this project, and we worked extremely hard and quite fast. It was, quite honestly, the last time, the end of that era of the band working very closely and creatively together. Wish You Were Here was great, but the tensions were beginning to come between us.” 

The other three agree that Roger Waters was a perfectionist and difficult to work with. “Roger was never well-known for his reasonableness. I think, 30 years on, to be crabbing about who did what when everyone knows that Roger wrote the lyrics for the thing,” Mason admitted. “I’d have to say he’s one of the world’s most unreasonable and difficult men, but I’m very fond of him.”

During the making of 1982’s The Final Cut, however, Waters decided that “I knew I would never make another record with David Gilmour or Nick Mason.” Gilmour and Mason continued the band until recently. And prior to Wright’s death in 2008, Pink Floyd’s four members—Waters, Gilmour, Mason, and Wright—performed one last time, in July 2005.

Though the band hasn’t released any original material since 2014’s The Endless River—a brilliant reworking of unused material from 1994’s Division Bell sessions and a tribute to the departed and beloved keyboardist Rick Wright (1943-2008)—it did just release a massive box set, Pink Floyd’s The Later Years. Focusing on the post-Roger Water period, 1987-2014, The Later Years includes a reworking and remastering of 1987’s Learning to Fly, the band’s most straightforward rock album, along with 1994’s Division Bell and 2014’s Endless River. The new box set also includes material from several live concerts, including that used for the live releases, The Delicate Sound of Thunder (1988), and Pulse (1995).

In addition to reproduced memorabilia from touring and company PR, the new 18-disc box set also contains previously unreleased concert recordings from Venice and Knebworth, as well as new documentaries about the band. Overall, the set boasts 13 hours of previously unreleased material from the final phase of Pink Floyd’s history.

This period was less cynical than the Roger Waters era of Pink Floyd, ingeniously incorporating elements of hope and wonder into the band’s signature  innovation and experimentation.  If The Wall’s “Another Brick” spoke profoundly to my 12-year old self seeking intelligent rebellion, The Division Bell’s “High Hopes” speaks with equal profundity to my fifty-two year old self, seeking intelligent piety.

And while Roger Waters continues to mix it up politically, particularly on the Israel-Palestine issue, Gilmour has slid into his role as the elder statesman of the rock world. But the lessons they left from those earlier years—The Wall, Animals, and Dark Side—are still around today, in brilliant remastered glory, for a generation that faces its own Orwellian threats.

Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.