Pink Floyd’s Electrically Charged Impact
Pink Floyd’s famed contribution to the arena of electronic music can be traced back one of their earliest concerts, 1967’s Games for May. Not only one of the first bands to experiment with lighting effects, Pink Floyd was also the first group to hold a rock concert with a quadraphonic sound system, more commonly known as surround sound. The rise in hallucinogenic drug use and the budding peace movement were mediums through which to promote their spacey sound; Pink Floyd used the multi-sensory, mixed media performance Games for May as a tool to reach a newly experimental fan base. The late 1960’s are dubbed as the beginning of the “hippie” era; 1967 is seen as the apex, with the formation of the “Council for the Summer of Love” in response to the youth movement to Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. However, this movement not only stretched across America, but well into Europe. Little is discussed in scholarly journals about the impact of the free love movement in Britain resulting from the well documented American counterculture, despite the tendency of American pop-culture to adopt some of its favorite music, fashion, and fads from its former mother nation; this shared culture consisted of upper-middle class whites, the hegemonic Caucasian, northern Europeans, the default. (Davis & Munoz 161) This calls into question the ability for the “Other” demographics to portray these same ideals held by hippies, since they were a counterculture of “default.” (Hall 243) In addition, the use of hallucinogenic drugs, mainly LSD, can also be seen as a privilege of those upper-middle class hippies who were able to not only monetarily afford it, but, given their higher social status, get away with it. This self-indulgent lifestyle is seen as a staple of the peace movement, while LSD’s perceptual manipulation, in turn, led to the rise in popularity of space (acid) rock, a newly emergent music genre that manifested the effects of hallucinogens through simultaneously simple and complex acoustics.
Pink Floyd’s 1967 concert, named Games for May, was a technological breakthrough, for it was the first rock concert to use surround sound speakers, an Azimuth Coordinator, and mixed media to enhance the audience’s overall perception of “liveness.” Pink Floyd stands as a pioneer of this acid music genre, as well as the resulting youth attitude towards drugs. Games for May became a foundation for which the increase of technology could be simultaneously traced with increased electronic influence in music; yet, it also served to catapult youth perceptions of sex, sexuality, and drugs into a then unheard of realm of acceptance. Due to this early stage in their popularity, Pink Floyd’s concert, while later regarded as highly influential, lacks many first-hand accounts of the actual show itself. This essay seeks to highlight the symbiotic relationship between the newly emergent youth counterculture in both America and Britain and the sociopolitical issues of the late 1960’s, mainly the decriminalizing of homosexuality in Britain and increased anti-war sentiments, while also providing commentary on the impact of Pink Floyd’s technological advancements on audience’s perceptions and expectations of liveness.
Pink Floyd’s arrival in the underground music scene in 1965 could not have been timed better; their then new sound, space (acid) rock, was a welcomed shift from the bubblegum pop of the late 1950’s- early 1960’s to the more experimental, sexual attitude of the late 1960’s. These sexually exploratory mind-sets were a result of communal a youth movement originating in the heart of San Francisco, California. Commune revival became the staple of the beginning hippiedom, promoting communal cohabitation and alternative lifestyles that attracted a large portion of rebellious, American adolescents in search of a passive outlet. (Miller 2) The “Council for the Summer of Love,” a committee in the Haight-Ashbury district, was set up in April 1967 in response to the tens of thousands of youths predicted to swarm the San Francisco area that summer. This highly anticipated flood of adolescents promoting the newly emerging hippie ideals of peace, love, and acceptance, was the beginning of what was dubbed as “The Summer of Love.” (Helms 1) This movement, although converging towards the singular point in California, was also spreading; the media coverage, along with shared beliefs of youth in the midst of war and civil rights activism, created a network of free love which reached across the US and into Europe.
A 1966 Time Magazine article, entitled “Great Britain: You Can Walk Across It On the Grass,” describes Swinging London, an Austin Powers-esque period in which “beautiful gals with long blonde hair and slimly handsome men [could] go gracefully through their explosive, hedonistic, totally individual dances, surrounded by mirrors so that they [could] see what a good time they [were] having.” (Time Magazine 7) Swinging London produced bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, who were extremely influential in American rock. This invasion of British pop culture served as an impetus for the free loving, individualistic attitude emerging in the US, for “London [had] shed much of its smugness, much of the arrogance that often went with the stamp of privilege, much of its false pride—the kind that long kept it shabby and shopworn in physical fact and spirit.” (Time Magazine 10) Characteristic of this time period, upper-middle class whites began to disown their privileged backgrounds, opting for a humbler lifestyle, free of class restrictions. However, the lack of limitation was a privilege in and of itself, given to those well off enough to have something to give up; I believe this to be one of the sole reasons for the almost completely white upper-middle class hippie scene, despite its promotion of love, equality, and acceptance, ideals that appeal to those fighting for civil liberties. London’s swinging lifestyle was a precursor, a set-up for the willingly adopted hippie counterculture, with 30% of London’s population in the 15-34 age range. (Time Magazine 4) The civil rights movement in Britain was in full swing at this point, and “hippiedom” gave this overwhelming number of adolescents the courage and avenue through which to stand up for civil liberties, including Greenpeace, black power, the second wave of the feminist movement, and anti-homophobia. (Coon 2)
1967 marked the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain with the passage of the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967 in July. The year started off violently in America, with a police raid of the Black Cat Tavern near Los Angeles, California. This spurred a spontaneous protest, with hundreds of people protesting police brutality and homophobic attitudes. In turn, this event was seen as the event that sparked the creation of the gay rights group in California. Again, we see the impact of an American revolution on European standards, for just as our revolution in 1776 influenced the French revolution, so did our societal revolutions alter the state of London from swinging to psychedelic. However, this transition wasn’t the smoothest; deliberations over the bill reflected a wide variety of liberal, conservative, and mixed opinions on the lawfulness of homosexuality. Yet, despite the debate over legality, Mr. Roy Jenkins, Home Secretary, reflected the lingering prejudice when he claimed that “those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of shame all their lives. The crucial question is whether, in addition to this, they should be made subject to the rigours of the criminal law.” (The Times 13) The decriminalization of homosexuality was a direct result of the civil rights movement, of shared morals of acceptance, of celebrating individuality, of exploring sexuality. Free love was a uniting factor between the “other” homosexual community and the “other” hippies. In this obvious connection we can see the joining together of two subcultures to gain equality as a result of lowered status by the working middle class and the feminist movement. (Smith 164) By lowering the statuses of these two groups in order to gain more power, the working class, the feminists, and politicians alike came to view this social movement as not really a movement at all, but rather ‘“an inherently unstable collection of attitudes, tendencies, postures, gestures, ‘lifestyles,’ visions, hedonistic pleasures, moralisms, negotiations, and affirmations.’” (Weiner 2) This negative outlook represents a fear of decreased social status, of the loss of position in the power hierarchy otherwise known as displaced abjection, “whereby ‘low’ social groups turn their figurative and actual power not against those in authority, but against those who are even ‘lower.’” (Stallybrass and White qtd. in Coates 60) Yet, what was desired was not power or status, but rather a new way of life that disregarded violence and prejudice, and promoted freedom of choice. Regardless, this “Othering” was seen as a threat to the seemingly cemented binary social order; hippies were written off as youth fad, while the media portrayed homosexuality to be a contagious result of drug use. (The Times 7)
Gandhi’s method of passive resistance became the preferred method of protest during the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations. However, much to the peace movement’s dismay, the media focused solely on the violent and negative aspects of the anti-war protests. (Newlands 5) In a manipulative linguistic ruse, the Times managed to lump all protestors into one generalized act of violence against the state; in fact, The Times even managed to portray a nonviolent protest as an aggressive gathering on the front page, describing how “6,000 Metropolitan policemen [were] busy controlling an estimated crowd of 100,000 anti-Vietnam war demonstrators on a peaceful march.” (Borrell and Cashinella 1) Ideals of freedom and individuality were running rampant throughout a repressed society, while fear was spreading amongst the repressors. Once again, we see the effects of displaced abjection within this passive counterculture. The media, along with its life partner, the government, was able suppress the public’s outcry for peace without bloodshed by mirroring violent opposition back onto the masses. This blatant exercise of manipulative power over society reflects what Stuart Hall refers to as the dominant representational paradigm, in which the truth is based off of majority belief. (Hall 83) By manipulating the masses through fear, the media and government abjectified the passive counterculture, referring to them as either “young people out for a laugh or hooligans out to cause trouble.” (Hallor, Elliot, and Murdock qtd. in Newlands 12)
Music became the avenue through which the peace movement could reach the masses unable to migrate towards the San Francisco area, yet not become as distorted by skewed media portrayal. Pink Floyd’s music, along with other pioneers, such as Jimi Hendrix and Cream, brought about an intricate, yet simultaneously complex sound characterized as the beginning of space (acid) rock. LSD, lysergic acid diethylamide, is a hallucinogenic drug that creates altered states of consciousness, auditory and visual hallucinations, and interest in the complexities of the surrounding world. This drug was a staple of the hippie movement, with Ken Kesey leading the drug revolution in 1964. He and his “Merry Pranksters” took it upon themselves to advocate psychotropic drug use, travelling across the country in a psychedelic school bus, doling out LSD to whoever would offer their tongue. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe, documented Kesey and the Prankster’s mobile commune, and inadvertently historicized LSD’s influence in the attitudes of the hippie era. (Miller 84-85)
Acid rock emerged right around the time of the mass distribution and increased popularity of the drug, and sought to adopt characteristics of its effects, such as “short attention span, emotional ambiguity and the lack of unequivocal attitudes, interest in novel sensations, egalitarian fascination with everything, and the creative desire to explore complex and subtle elaborations.” (Baumeister 1) By intricately weaving states of consciousness and acoustic manifestations, acid rockers were able to use their newly found sound to connect with an out of body audience. Members of this new youth movement were able to reproduce this unity back through increased interaction with the performance itself. Pink Floyd’s concert Games for May became the stepping stone for mixed media performances with increased audience interactions. Appealing to an already established psychedelic influence, Pink Floyd’s concert was promoted in the media by the Christopher Hunt Agency as the “space-age relaxation for the climax of Spring- Electronic compositions, color and image projections, girls and the Pink Floyd.” (Concert Poster) It’s interesting here to note that, although this was their concert, Pink Floyd’s name appears last on their promotional poster. This exemplifies the importance of the experience of the concert, of liveness, over the actual musicians themselves. Pink Floyd is attempting to convey the message that both they, and the audience, are part of something larger, that they are just bringing the music to this picnic; the audience is put first, as if their experience is what eventually leads to the music, to the Pink Floyd. Here, Hunt is appealing to a specific demographic of hippie LSD users, of those youths searching for “an era of peace, freedom, brotherhood, and love,” while Pink Floyd was reaching out to that same demographic through their music; in fact, they even titled their recorded performance Psychedelic Games for May. (Davis & Munoz 157)
A quadraphonic sound system and Azimuth Coordinator were used during Games for May, revolutionizing the concert experience. The quadraphonic system, basically primitive surround sound speakers, was used to create a blanket of sound, to engulf the audience in the safe embrace of the music that completely encircled them. In Geoffrey Winthrop-Young’s article “Implosion and Intoxication: Kittler, A German Classic, and Pink Floyd,” he describes the effect of the Azimuth Coordinator, how “sounds and voices coming from all angles surround and invade the listener.” (Winthrop-Young 10) This invasion of sound was comparable to the invasion of LSD and hippie culture into contemporary society; in fact, 1967 marked the end of the British invasion, in which American rock became equally influential to British rock music. (Encyclopedia Britannica) The combined power of the Azimuth and quadraphonic sound birthed a new wave of acoustic presentation, and so too did the expanding hippie ideals of San Francisco surround and invade the swinging British youth, creating a collective, musically connected movement.
In addition, members of Pink Floyd chopped wood on stage to create intriguing sound effects, a man dressed in an admiral’s suit handed out daffodils to the audience, and a bubble machine was used. (Wikipedia) Unfortunately, Pink Floyd was banned from ever playing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall again, since the bubbles stained the seats. This concert, reviewed by BBC radio, was considered “loud.” In fact, during an interview by Hans Keller with Pink Floyd on BBC’s “Look of the Week” program the day after Games for May, claims that he is “a little bit too much of a musician to appreciate them.” (Keller) However, this was the point of the space rock genre in itself; instead its complexities lying on the surface, one had to wrap themselves in the sound, to journey within themselves and the drug so as to understand the underlying density within the chords. (Baumeister 1) Just as civil rights were portrayed by the media and considered by upper-middle class whites as unimportant on the surface, deep down there were atrocities, prejudices, and violence towards the “others” that needed to bubble up. Not only did Pink Floyd attempt to surround their (mostly white, middle-upper class) audiences with these repressed issues with their use of the surround sound speaker system, their use of bubbles that stained represented the civil unrest that had finally risen and stained the surface, not to be washed away again. Finally, the admiral handing out daffodils represented the anti-war sentiment prevalent within the peace movement. Daffodils are the flowers of spring, with spring representing renewal. By having a militarily dressed man hand out the bounty of rebirth, Pink Floyd satirically used the name Games for May as an ultimatum for their audiences to playfully and passively promote peace through kindness, as well as music.
Reviews of the show were mixed; Pink Floyd’s new sound was appreciated by the underground scene, but ridiculed by the mass media outlets. IT, or International Times as it was called at the time, was an underground magazine started in 1966 in London. Interestingly enough, the launch of this magazine was at a Pink Floyd concert at the Roundhouse in London; it seems only fitting that those who helped create the underground help launch its literary outlet. After their Games for May concert in May of 1967, a review of Pink Floyd’s show appeared in IT. Duly noted in this review was the ironic nature of the concert. Pink Floyd’s new age, underground sound was introduced to the mainstream at a theater usually reserved for opera singers and classical compositions. (IT 14) Opera houses and live popular music were reserved for the bourgeoisie in the late 19th century; comparatively, pop and rock were seen as a white sound, while rhythm and blues were considered black sound in the 60’s. This use of venue, whether intentionally or coincidentally ironic, represents the withstanding notion of whiteness as favored within mainstream pop culture. Pink Floyd’s use of the Queen Elizabeth Hall was ironic in that they were the default race within the “Other” counterculture playing at a venue that was once reserved for default only. However, their use of this space also represented a shift in popular culture’s attitude towards withstanding racism and abjectification with the ongoing civil rights movements and spread of hippie culture. In fact, “it was good to see the strength of a hip show holding its own in such a museum like and square environment.” (IT 14) This magazine represented the voices of the underground, of the counterculture, voices which said that racism and abjectification were ancient, were no longer “hip.” In fact, during the BBC interview, Hans Keller specifically asks Pink Floyd why their music is so loud, claiming that he prefered softer music, having grown up with the string quartet. (Keller) Keller comes to represent the rejected, repressed ideals of the previous generation, while Pink Floyd represents the “loud,” contemporary youth culture who isn’t afraid to stand up and voice civil injustice. However, we once again find evidence of the media’s attempt at portraying peaceful opposition as aggressive when Keller asks Pink Floyd if they have encountered hostility towards their music, and then attempts to steer the questions in the direction of their hostility. Keller asked them if they feel aggressive towards their audiences, and, when answered with a “No, not at all,” continues to try and pry an imaginary anger out of them by asking “in spite of all the loudness?” and “there’s no shock treatment intended?” (Keller) Hans Keller is a puppet, while the media is the puppeteer, pulling his strings so as to get a rise out of his subjects and manipulate his audience’s perceptions. Keller ends the interview with a degrading remark, claiming that Pink Floyd’s sound, look, and overall presentation is “a little bit of a regression to childhood.” (Keller) If Pink Floyd is childish, it is only so as to prevent them, and their fans, from growing up as Hans Keller did, in a culture dominated by white oppression and materialistic mind-sets.
The voice of a new generation must be one that not only transcends, but destroys the boundaries of the current social order. Pink Floyd, in their introduction of space (acid) rock, along with their use of (then) revolutionary sound equipment and interactive performances, managed to gain a foothold in the hearts of unsatisfied upper-middle class white youths in 1967. In a 1987 interview by Chris Salewicz, Roger Waters describes the mixed media aspect of Games for May, explaining how he “was always interested in the possibilities of rock ‘n’ roll, how to fill the space between the audience and the idea with more than just guitars and vocals.” (Salewicz 1) Acoustic and visual experimentation, the core characteristic of Pink Floyd’s presentation, has evolved into what we call the rave, electronic music culture in contemporary society. Pink Floyd set the bar higher for the audience’s expectations of liveness with their use of the Azimuth Coordinator and quadraphonic sound. In fact, Syd Barrett, in an interview in Melody Maker, the United Kingdom’s oldest weekly music newspaper, commented on future expectations of liveness. He stated that, “in the future, groups are going to have to offer much more than just a pop show. They’ll have to offer a well-presented theatre show.” (Walsh 8) Audience’s expectations of liveness have evolved with technology, expecting more, better, and faster. However, underlying these expectations of electronic compositions are the same principles of peace and equality. Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco’s book, Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer, is integral in understandingthe parallels between the psychedelic hippie era and the emergence of New Age music.Electronic music has come a long way since the primitive lighting and sound equipment used in Games for May; yet, this music seeks to portray the same ideals of the 1960’s civil rights movement, while again reaching out to the counterculture of society. In fact, the term “rave” was coined in the 1960’s to describe communal “happenings.” (Trocco and Pinch 321) The connections between the popularity of new wave, electronic sounds and the civil unrest of both the 60’s and modern society cannot be ignored. Sheila Whitely describes the relationship between cross generational sounds, explaining how “the atmospheric textures and multi-layered spatial compositions of the 60’s psychedelic music produce a similar effect to the techniques for the manipulation of recorded music used in both House and Ambient music,” two of the popular subgenres of electronic music, “where, editing the start/end of the sample, repeating (looping), reverse and Low Frequency oscillation and velocity sensitivity are all integral parts of the mix.” Electronic music attempts to recreate the musical and social revolutions of the 60’s by evoking an emotional response to civil injustice in the presence of revolutionary technology. Involvement in Vietnam was opposed by adolescents (fearing the draft) of that time period, and so too are the wars in the Middle East opposed by youth today. In fact, the demand for democratic laws, for civil liberties throughout the Middle East, mirrors that of the civil rights movement; Trocco and Pinch argue that “where the similarity is the strongest, however, is the role of electronic sound and drugs acting together in a communal context to produce transcendental experience.” (Trocco and Pinch 322) There has been a surge in the popularity of psychedelic drug use since Nixon’s War on Drugs. This surge is accompanied by an increased interest in Woodstock-like music festivals; just as swinging London was a period of transition, dematerializing its youth for the incoming hippie movement, so too were multicultural festivals like Lollapalooza preparation for the resurgence of peace ideals, of communal living. Sheila Whitely goes on to explain this relationship:
There is a strong sense of shared identity between the 1960’s hippy philosophy and that of the 90’s alternative culture. Similarities are present in the music, the influence of drug experience (LSD/Ecstasy), an awareness of destruction and ruination of the earth and poisoning of the seas… collective experience, music, and drugs appear, once again, to provide the means whereby young people can explore the politics of consciousness, to set up an alternative lifestyle. (Whitely qtd. in Trocco and Pinch 322)
Music acts as a unifier, connecting those subject to fall in between the generational gaps. Pink Floyd’s use of multi-media performance set in motion a wave of auditory technology that filled in those gaps, as Roger Waters put it, “between the audience and the idea.” By using not only their sound, but their performance as a whole to represent a shift in the dominant representational paradigm of their time, Pink Floyd influenced a genre of music, one which feeds off of and evolves with increased audience expectation of liveness, as well as counterculture ideals of revolution.
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