Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Pink Floyd Fills an Arena

I have two excuses for missing most of the first half of Pink Floyd's concert at Madison Square Garden Saturday night. One, it began on time, a shocking breach of supergroup etiquette. Two, in my value system one does not skip a pre-vacation dinner with one's family for a concert at the Garden--not unless the concert features certified titans on the order of the Stones or the Who. No matter how impressive their recent albums, no matter how legendary their 360-degree sound system, one does not expect miracles of Pink Floyd when Led Zeppelin themselves have so rarely managed to magnify their broad gestures into live music that is clear, coherent, and interesting. I mean, Led Zeppelin invented this shit.

When I arrived at around 8:45, the band was already finishing Animals, and the famous 40-foot pig balloon was on the launching pad. Although Columbia's press releases about the expense of this gimmick had offended me, I found that as rock props go, it was fun to look at; other inflatable sculptures earlier in the set, I was told, were even more appropriately kitsch-surreal. And while the music was almost entirely rote--not many groups have the chutzpah to divide a show into two note-for-note whole-album sets--its vividness was surprising. This was the way classical concert music was supposed to work, with the familiar melodies and textures quickened by the nuances and contingencies of a specific performance situation.

After a reasonable intermission, the six musicians--Pink Floyd, never noted for instrumental virtuosity, is touring with two sidemen--returned for Wish You Were Here. But where most rock arena spectaculars spotlight the strutting around ("theatrical" to one extent or another) of a bunch of self-important assholes who are all but invisible from the cheap seats, Pink Floyd's visual focus was the film on the screen behind them, a screen that cost them upward of 3000 seats. (The sound system massed amid the floor-level patrons took up several hundred more.) When someone played a solo or delivered one of the infrequent lyrics, he would get some unobtrusive white; the rest of the time the entire band was masked as much as illuminated by dim all-over hues. This was because we weren't supposed to be watching them. We were supposed to be listening to the music, which may be sophisticated but is hardly complex, and watching the movie.

Filmic diversions are fairly common at rock concerts, but they are rarely diverting. Pink Floyd's was engrossing. Prepared by a London illustrator named Gerald Scarfe, it offered not a single close-up of chest hair. Its only flaw was literalness. I admit that Pink Floyd is probably into a standard humanity-versus-techocracy analysis like the one Scarfe limned in his animations, but since I usually find such ideas simple-minded, I'm grateful that the records are open-ended enough to allow me to insert my own ironies. No such possibilities survived these horror/sci-fi transmogrifications, but after a while I stopped complaining and settled into being entranced. One sequence--in which a diamond dog circled around a camera to snatch a homunculus off a hook that hung right in front of our collective eye--gave me a start I could feel in my stomach an hour later. Pink Floyd used to be considered psychedelic; I wonder how many saw that image on acid.

But although the visuals were essential, the center was aural, and that center was unique. Not that there was anything unusual about its components--Pink Floyd's compositions are if anything more repetitive and more stately than I usually prefer. But its scale was amazing. Rock and roll that succeeds in an arena does so in spite of the format. The Stones or the Who manage to project music that was born in a club to 20,000 people without losing significant detail; bands like Led Zep strip down so that, while the music is "effective," detail is lost. But in Pink Floyd the scale provides the detail. Disastrous echo and feedback are incorporated into the music, controlled by the 360-degree sound system. The first time I heard one of those electronic thunderclaps zooming at me from the back of the hall I felt a start not unlike the one I got from that diamond dog.

And the music meshed. If you're obsessed by humanity-versus-technology, where better to play out your obsessions than in Madison Square Garden in the presence of tons of equipment and 14,500 individual mass men and women? Novelists and poets can mewl till they die of cancer about electronic culture, but they can't ever confront it. Occasionally, a rock group can. Pink Floyd did indeed seem to relish their roles as anonymous technocrats; their concert was frightening, simplistic, reduced to exhilarating--a lot more exhilarating than anything I've seen by certified titans like the Stones and the Who in the past five years. The sci-fi horror and the utopian control balanced into a vision of technocracy that had truth value for me.

And the audience--well, maybe they were sheep, as Animals suggests is a possibility. When they were asked to stop throwing firecrackers they actually did. But maybe that just means that Pink Floyd attracts people smart enough to understand their own best interests.

Village Voice, July 18, 1977