Descending On A Point Of Flame: Ten Underrated Pink Floyd Songs

For all the praise endlessly heaped upon ‘Dark Side of The Moon’, ‘Wish You Were Here’ and ‘The Wall’, there are bits of the Pink Floyd back catalogue that never seem to get the attention they deserve. The release of the massive ‘Early Years’ box set in 2016 allowed for a much deeper exploration of the band’s pre-’Dark Side’ output via several discs’ worth of rare and unreleased gems, and yet it still feels as if there are things nestled within the band’s rich catalogue that never seem to get their full due.

Here are a few thoughts on some vastly underrated Pink Floyd recordings. Other fans can argue – and likely will – but these ten tunes often feel as if they deserve far more love.

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A PILLOW OF WINDS (Meddle, 1971)

Situated between two cast iron classics (‘One of These Days’ and ‘Fearless’) on side one of the ‘Meddle’ album, ‘A Pillow of Winds’ almost seems as if it is hidden in plain sight. The tune itself may seem slight, but there’s a lot about its swooning quiet atmosphere that is perfect for a lyric about drifting in and out of sleep with your significant other close by. What it lacks in directness is made up for with an easy cool underscored by a subtle electric lead.

SUMMER ’68 (Atom Heart Mother, 1970)

Rick Wright’s songs often seem to play second fiddle within the Floyd canon. They’re never as savage as a full flight Roger Waters and there’s never a guarantee of a soaring solo or two that a Gilmour composition can bring. Wright’s best songs make up for that with an aching quality; a sense of emotional disquiet that always seems to compliment his strident piano work. The main piano refrain here is so simple and yet it says so much while the verse lyric bounces between sadness and disappointment. Moving into the chorus, the piece shifts into a rather pointed 60s overspill where echoing vocals and brass sound more like The Moody Blues, before a second verse brings the disparate elements together in a fine pop-rock sound heralding a new decade.

HEART BEAT, PIG MEAT (Zabriskie Point soundtrack, 1970)

Okay, so this one is a definite outlier. It’s not really underrated, since most people don’t rate it at all. There are still a few fans out there who’ve never heard it, and it was glaringly absent from the ‘1970: DEVI/ATION’ volume of the ‘Early Years’ set, so presumably the band consider it of no real consequence. In some ways, they’re right, but there’s something endlessly fascinating about this mad sound collage. A heartbeat is manipulated to give an almost tribal stance while Wright noodles various minor key sketches that sound as if they’re introducing a horror film. Samples of classical music weave in, almost uninvited and undisclosed voices are heard in fragments, further adding to a fairly frightening hotch-potch. In some ways, it’s the sound of a band floundering; maybe pondering their next move. In other ways, its almost open plan approach is a perfect snapshot of the era and the freedom to experiment that afforded so many musicians. Clearly, the general oddness that filled most of ‘Ummagumma’s studio LP wasn’t out of The Floyd’s system just yet.

LET THERE BE MORE LIGHT (Saucerful of Secrets, 1968)

By scaling back the free form approach of ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ but retaining its sense of aggression for a melodic core, Pink Floyd created one of the all-time great intros for this number. With Roger’s death rattle of a bassline going head to head with extreme percussive noise for the first minute, you’d wonder how such a fantastic first impression will follow through. The remainder of the track – although not at all related to the original melody or rhythm – brings a different kind of greatness when a vocal meter channelling the ghost of the recently AWOL Syd collides with a chugging, ominous riff that rarely shifts from its original doomy groove. One of the darkest and most unsettling pieces found in the early part of the back catalogue, it’s anything but subtle.

CYMBALINE (More soundtrack, 1969)

The ‘More’ soundtrack offers lots of overlooked bits and bobs, but ‘Cymbaline’ stands head and shoulders above everything with a haunting melody that sounds like a scaled down Procol Harum and Gilmour in great vocal shape. Of particular note here is Wrights electric piano, which always compliments the melody and never dominates. Nick Mason’s cymbal free drumming adds an extra dimension by proving less is more. Eventually fading into a swirl of organ melodies from Wright, this is a mini cinematic treat.

POLES APART (The Division Bell, 1993)

There’s so much about this track that ought to single it out as classic Floyd. It features one of Gilmour’s most melodic vocals; the circular, ringing guitar riff has a lovely simplicity and there’s a general warmth to the recording that Floyd had previously lost somewhere during the indulgence of the late 70s. More important than all of that is a deeply sad lyric concerning fractured relationships and the wondering of what could have been. If one of early lyrical hook discussing how things had gone “so right” for Gilmour and wrong for the figure left in the past more than suggests this is partly about Syd Barrett, then the pay off of “you were the golden boy then…did you ever think you’d lose the light in your eyes” confirms it. A second verse about a man with a steel like stare shifts the focus onto the rift with Roger Waters, but still, there’s something within the core melody that never allows this to be bitter or sniping in any way. It couldn’t ever match the best bits of ‘Wish You Were Here’ when dealing with a massive loss, but its poignancy is everything.

STAY (Obscured By Clouds, 1972)

Almost the flip side of ‘Summer ’68’, Wright deals with the closing moments of a relationship once more, but where the ‘Atom Heart Mother’ cut shifted between a questioning and almost self-loathing, this seems far gentler. A masterpiece in terms of arrangement, the piano is joined by a warm bass and various very quiet bluesy guitar stings, all working around a chorus where a growing unease never quite boils over. Instead, any simmering discontent slunks into a new verse where Wright’s saddened voice compliments the quasi-romantic music perfectly. With Gilmour adding a subtle blues solo en route, this is the sound of four musicians working in perfect harmony.

UNKNOWN SONG (Zabriskie Point out-take, 1970)

Although it circulated on bootlegs, this recording didn’t surface officially until the 90s. Regardless of its lack of title, it’s a mystery why it didn’t find a place in the final film. There’s little here you could pinpoint to Floyd in any of their guises. In fact, so much of this laid back instrumental piece sounds like a Grateful Dead jam. Maybe Jerry Garcia’s influence seeped in, given that he was one of the soundtrack’s other main contributors? Whatever inspired this unusual move is unimportant; these eight minutes of Floyd wavering between blues and a woozy Americana is definitely something to lose yourself in.

GRANTCHESTER MEADOWS (Ummagumma, 1969)

A real highlight of the part studio/part live set ‘Ummagumma’, ‘Grantchester Meadows’ sounds more like a hybrid of John Renbourn and Nick Drake than Pink Floyd. Conjuring imagery of a summer day, Waters seems uncharacteristically at ease. There’s no underlying subtext, no bitter sniping and – most importantly – no sign of that huge vocal whine he would adopt at some point in the mid 70s. Again, less is more here, and this really could be Rog’s finest five minutes. Tackling melodies that rise and fall against a fingerpicked acoustic guitar, he never sounded so…content.

CANDY & A CURRANT BUN (single b-side, 1967)

During his all too brief time with Pink Floyd, Syd put his name to some great psych-pop tunes. This non album track – rarely heard until its first CD reissue in the 90s – captures everything that was great about the era in under three minutes. Guitar stabs join a hefty rhythmic beat creating a core melody that channels the American garage rock movement, while Barrett’s natural vocal concerns itself with the sun, girls and a natural desire for a new relationship. Until you scratch beneath the veneer: why exactly is the protagonist occasionally talking as if he’s about to die? Why are their disjointed words surrounding a cat? Was this really an appropriate time for a stray, somewhat unexpected f-bomb? As always with a Syd Barrett song, you’ll find more questions than answers, but at least at this point his world still retained some joy.

March 2021

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