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Comfortably Numb

I have fond memories of Pink Floyd, though i can’t remember exactly where I put them. No rock band scattered more brains in the interstellar wind than the Floyd, whose psychotropic 1973 album “Dark Side of the Moon” is still the best-selling album by a British band, ever, after spending decades on the Billboard charts.

I did my time in thrall to Pink Floyd, and had the laser-beam tan to prove it.

Some might have found it hard to connect those cosmic anarchists with the nice old English gentlemen who took the stage at Live 8 this month, reunited for the first time in 24 years. Then again, Roger Waters--the prodigal lyricist/bassist--always sounded ancient, as if he predated the Norman Conquest. Like Churchill and Tolkien, he has an ear for dire words rooted in the Old English tongue: “Far away across the field/the tolling of the iron bell/ calls the faithful to their knees/ to hear the softly spoken magic spells.”

Waters and the boys pioneered the kind of musico-pharmacology we think of today as trance and ambient and chill, long and unhurried ambles through cerebral space and time. And yet Pink Floyd was never merely a soundtrack for hallucinogens. If the music was mood altering it was primarily because it was moody, and if it was transporting it was because, unlike a lot of the noodling synthesizer music of, say, Vangelis, Pink Floyd’s actually went somewhere.

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And if they were to try it all again today, Pink Floyd couldn’t get out of a London garage.

It was the long-playing album format that made Pink Floyd possible, and the album--as an expressive whole, a collection of tracks threaded together by theme, image or story--is pretty much dead, killed by music downloading technology that fractures recordings into pay-per-song bits to be stuffed into joggers’ iPods.

No one did the thematic album better or more often than Pink Floyd. “Wish You Were Here,” “Dark Side of the Moon,” “Animals” and, of course, “The Wall” are hall-of-mirror narratives that gather momentum and meaning as they progress through the carefully ordered tracks, most of which are tied together with ethereal bricolage--half-heard conversations, radios being tuned, clocks and footsteps. “Dark Side of the Moon” is essentially one long song. This was the Pink Floyd experience: Drop the needle on the first track and set controls for the heart of the sun.

My vinyl copies of Pink Floyd albums, dusty with contraband, are long gone to who knows where. So I did what I imagine tens of thousands of others did the weekend of Live 8: I opened Apple iTunes to download a fresh copy of my favorite Pink Floyd album, “Wish You Were Here.” Released in 1975 and dedicated to fallen band mate Syd Barrett, “Wish You Were Here” is in the truest sense an album, cast in recurring imagery and propelled by scalding cynicism about the music business, the “machine": “The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think/Oh by the way, which one’s Pink?”

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Looking through the queue of iTunes’ Floyd offerings, I found the album, or at least its shadow: “WYWH” is hacked down to two songs. The iTunes store has made the rather amazing musical choice not to include “Shine on You Crazy Diamond"--one of the Floyd’s greatest songs--in their offerings off the album. What 20-year-old decided that? You can find the song, but it’s in a compilation called “A Collection of Great Dance Songs.” If Pink Floyd made dance music, it’s news to me.

Next I downloaded “Dark Side of the Moon,” then burned it onto a CD for listening in the car. The track-by-track segmentation of the album punches huge, silent holes in the flowing interstitial passages. This is not the Floyd revelry I remember, or rather, don’t remember.

Napster, the 1990s music file-sharing technology that emerged as the first of its kind, undermined the album by allowing listeners to grab just a song or two off a recording and ignore the rest. For the vast majority of pop music recordings, this was no great loss, since there might only be one or two good songs on the album. Motley Crue, are you listening?

But for others, the exaltation of the song over the album has meant a shrunken canvas. CD album sales are in freefall. It’s rare today that recording artists create a kind of narrative dependency among songs, though albums such as Neil Young’s “Greendale,” Radiohead’s “OK Computer” and Green Day’s “American Idiot” all qualify. And you have to wonder how many podheads got past “Vertigo” to listen to the rest of U2’s latest album.

Whatever the excesses that came with thematic albums--insert your favorite Rush album here--the format gave bands with big ideas room to move and groove. The rise of iTunes-style downloading throws us back to an age of narrow A- and B-side singledom, in which song length, not breadth, is the measure of marketability.

Welcome back to the machine.


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