History is bunk, so Henry Ford said. History is the propaganda of the victors, as Louis de Bernières pointed out, but I guess that doesn’t really matter if it’s bunk anyway. When I was young, Donovan sang that history was of ages past, unenlightened, shadows cast. But he was a fucking hippie bastard, so what did he know?
But when I was young, above all else, history was boring. It was all about who kinged and queened what and when, and various prime ministers and repealing the Corn Laws and shit. Hot summer afternoons in stuffy classrooms perfecting the lost art of dozing off whilst appearing to look alert and attentive. To me, history only gets interesting when it covers the fate of the common man, or when it covers the emergence of popular culture. Cultural history, these days Cowelled into submission by commercial interests, was once something that belonged to the young, which was great, because it coincided with the fact that I was young too. Popular culture was ignored by the mainstream media then. It was ours; we shaped it even as it was emerging, which probably explains why in hindsight it tends to resemble a bunch of warped pottery with holes in. Or maybe that was because of the drugs.
Unimpressed by schoolwork, I fetched up driving a taxi in Cambridge. I started doing this in 1982 for a bit of undeclared earnings to augment a lifestyle not wholly supported by benefits, and wound up doing it for ten years, working around the clock, nights mostly, cold end-of-days scenarios parked by tattered billboards in windswept housing estates light years away from Cambridge’s dreaming spires where the scientists and spies were mapping out our future. Cambridge was shaping history too – Crick and Watson rushed into the Eagle pub and told everyone within hearing range they had discovered the secret of life. That same pub bears the names of World War 2 American airmen, written on the ceiling in candle-smoke. Back in the fifties and sixties, Burgess and Philby and MacLean were recruiting the Cambridge Five, and the cast of Monty Python were inventing parrot sketches in cloistered rooms.
Which brings me closer to Cambridge’s contribution to popular culture. Comedy mostly, and literature and music. I went to school at Hills Road Sixth Form Centre. Back then it was called the Cambridgeshire High School for Boys, and they caned you and hit you with slippers and rulers, and if you forgot your games kit Taff Thomas made you do PE in your pants. It was 1966 when I started there. I was a fat ginger bastard, and the first time Taff Thomas looked at me he told me I’d make a great prop forward. I didn’t know what a prop forward was, but it sounded unpleasant and it was raining outside, so I kind of sidled away from him with the sort of walk you’d reserve for getting out of Jimmy Savile’s reach and wondered to myself, even as an eleven-year-old, why it was that they put you in houses and then asked you where your house spirit was as if you’d had any kind of choice in the matter. The only respite I got from the relentless public-school-aspirational ghastliness of it all was in the art room. It was well-equipped and quiet. It was upstairs and I could look out of the window at fractal trees blowing against steely grey rainblown skies and watch other unfortunates dragging their weary bodies over to the games field to get covered in mud in the name of a stupid game played by men with odd-shaped balls. The art room had framed paintings by pupils and alumni on the walls. The best pictures were transferred to the walls of the main corridor from the headmasters office (The Octagon it was called, it was all rather painfully Hogwarts). There were a good half dozen pictures by one former pupil who had left a couple of years before I started there. Roger Barrett, his name was, and he’d drawn some lovely still lifes with fruit in and they’d been put up on the wall after he’d left to go to the nearby technical college to do an art course. He never finished the course. Instead, he changed his name to Syd and began fronting a popular beat combo called the Screaming Abdabs, which later changed its name to Pink Floyd. He and his friend Roger Waters, who also went to my old school, formed the basis of the band’s front line and went on to get quite famous. By the end of the sixties, Barrett’s name began to be associated with debauchery and drugs, and his paintings magically disappeared from the school’s walls. I wonder where they are now, and more importantly how much they’re worth.
As for me, I went through the same routine as many other boys in the sixties – in one end of the mincer and out the other at eighteen with no fixed idea of what to do with myself. Obviously, I was going to be the biggest rock star the world had ever known, but I needed to do something mundane first in order to keep myself fed. My father, with all the sympathy of a dedicated Daily Telegraph reading 1960s dad, came into my bedroom the day after I left school, pulled the blankets from my bed, kicked me out of it and told me to go and get a job and not come home till I’d got one. So I did. Filing in the Civil Service, selling office products, doing bar work and generally dossing about until I took my taxi license in 1981 and went off to drive drunk people home a the end of the night for fun and profit.
One of the people I met doing this was a man called Pip Carter. The first time I met him he was unintelligible and couldn’t remember where he lived. He was blundering around in a pub opposite the taxi office hitting people with a blind man’s cane he’d found. I drove him randomly about Cambridge for a while before he managed to make it understood that he had no money, whereupon I flung him out quite close to where I’d picked him up so that he could perhaps either get his bearings or find a park bench. The next time I saw him he had drunk a bottle of cough mixture and one of sherry because he’d run out of heroin, and he told me his name was Pip and he’d been in Pink Floyd once.
Now, when you drive a taxi in Cambridge at dead of night you hear many things and most of them are bollocks. I expect the same is true for most cities. Pip would tell a lot of people he’d been in Pink Floyd once. Nobody believed him. The drugs were gradually claiming him, as they’d claimed Syd Barrett before him, turning him transparent, turning him into a weak need-machine with nothing to live for but prescription methadone, alcohol and whatever hits of bad 1980s speed he could pick up. He still had his blind man’s cane, and he’d use it to clear a path to the bar. Sometimes when he hit somebody they’d hit him back. He told me he’d come up with the name Ummagumma, the name of the Floyd’s late sixties double album. He’d said it once accidentally, he told me, when he’d been so off his face he couldn’t speak coherently. I found this to be a little too reminiscent of the way Iron Butterfly’s Inna Gadda Da Vida was named, and shrugged it off.
One day Pip Carter hit someone once too often. He died outside a pub in 1988, the victim of some tragic deal-gone-wrong cliché of a murder. A few days later the regulars were sitting in the Cambridge pub where he drank when the door opened and David Gilmour walked in asking where Pip’s funeral was to be held.
By that time, Pink Floyd had turned into a stadium band – safe and mostly melodic, with flying pigs. But in the late sixties they were noise merchants, kings of avant garde psychedelia. Cutting edge, they were. I still listen to the live part of Ummagumma. For me, they peaked around then. It turns out that Pip ran the light shows in those very early days, the days of all-night happenings and incipient pyrotechnics that paved the way for modern light shows. One day Pip ruined one of the hand-built structures they used to create the bubbles they’d project onto a white sheet hanging in the background. Having broken the band’s cutting edge technology, he was sacked a few days later, pretty much at the same time as Syd Barrett was failing to show at gigs or playing the same chord for seven hours when he did turn up.
See what I mean about history? It’s much more interesting from a gutter perspective. Of course, popular technology moved from the gutter to the stars and took Pink Floyd with it, but the rubble left in its wake still contains the odd nugget. And the four-channel black and white Dynatron telly my parents had in 1966 has been replaced by my own 46 inch flatscreen interactive HD/3D monster with 986 channels, which is how I was able a few weeks ago to turn on Sky Arts and watch Remember That Night, David Gilmour at the Royal Albert Hall, and do you know what? The remnants of Pink Floyd are still a good band. OK, their audience seemed to consist exclusively of ciabatta-waving Guardianistas from the chattering classes who were filming the event on their iPhones, but that’s what happens when people like…well, like me, I guess… grow up. Richard Wright looked like Ken Barlow off of Coronation Street and Gilmour himself looked a bit like me only with better guitars.
On the downside, they’ve always been a bit sterile, a bit emotionless. I went to see them once about twenty years ago. Wembley Stadium it was, and the people in front of me opened a nice little wicker basket and began eating chicken drumsticks and washing them down with a nice bottle of white wine, so I guess Pink Floyd stopped being cutting edge a while back. But Shine on You Crazy Diamond is undeniably lovely, and Comfortably Numb still has an edgy tone to it. And when it comes down to it, there’s something essentially English about Pink Floyd. Emotions reined in like a child trying to escape a gym teacher; middle-class rural values exemplified in Grantchester Meadows and Fat Old Sun, all rugby and cricket and lazy Cambridge days when it’s too hot to punt and too humid to even move properly. British references of The Division Bell and The Wall, which was essentially a Roger Waters solo album with the Floyd as a backing band – a paean to Waters’ dead father and a poem to post-war Britain, and for me a moment of happiness when I realised that Another Brick in the Wall was about exactly the same cane-wielding bastards who had taught me back in the day.
Pink Floyd so nearly imploded back in the eighties. David Gilmour kept the band going through a series of court cases brought by Waters. Richard Wright was fired from the band then re-employed as a session musician, pocketing a generous salary while the rest of the band went into debt as the touring costs mounted. But the Floyd survived because of David Gilmour’s tenacity and vision, and also no doubt due to his foresight. Bands became huge earners, stadium rock predominated, and the old rockers became stalwarts of the mainstream. David Gilmour is now a very rich man indeed.
And why shouldn’t he be? He’s been a professional musician for nearly fifty years now, a good technician and an extremely talented and versatile guitarist. But can he still make my hair stand on end like he did when I was young? I was fourteen. It was 1969. I borrowed Ummagumma from a friend and listened to the fifteen minutes of Saucerful of Secrets in slack-jawed amazement. Gilmour wrung strange sounds from his guitar by rolling marbles down the strings and putting the resulting wailing screeches through a battery of effects until they sounded like nothing on earth. It was a wall of noise, which I played at threshold of pain volume. Then from it a tune emerged, building and building until the repetition turned almost trancelike before ending in a crashing crescendo. My father walked into the room to tell me to turn off that bloody noise. He must have seen my expression because he stayed, listening. When the song finished, he said he’d go halves with me if I wanted my own copy. He was a good dad most of the time. Like half the original Floyd, he’s dead now. So it goes. Poor old Syd is probably out in Diamond-land, shining on. And Richard Wright is dead too. His estate was valued at over £27 million. Not bad for playing keyboards for a psychedelic beat combo; I bet he never imagined that when he was setting the controls for the heart of the sun. And my old school’s website now proudly lists Barrett and Waters as two of its most famous alumni, along with Martin Amis and two of the headmasters who repeatedly caned me.
So anyway, I sat and watched the programme, and wondered how it was that we all got so old. And yes, it was safe, middle of the road, sterile, note perfect. Yes, they were a bunch of old farts goofing around with music. And I was an old fart listening to it. And wonder of wonders, they crossed my old boundaries too. There I was, remembering the separation between my American tastes and my British ones, when Gilmour brought on David Crosby and Graham Nash to sing harmonies. And what’s left of my hair finally began to stand up again like it used to. Shine on you Crazy Diamond, Crosby, Nash and Floyd, followed by CSNY’s Find the Cost of Freedom, bridging tastes and generations.
And then a version of Comfortably Numb, with green lasers and everything, back to Britain, back to a time of Douglas Adams and those new-fangled CD things that would probably never catch on. And then it was finished, and I was just a fifty-eight-year-old doofus sitting in a room watching an advert for Kate Price’s new reality show.
So, call me what you want, I like Pink Floyd. I still like Ummagumma, I still play it and I sometimes think of Pip. I still listen. And history marches on in great mainstream swathes. People drive planes into buildings and Mercedeses into Paris underpasses. They invade other countries and then go home again. We thought we’d change the world in the 1960s. I guess we did too, with our iPod Nanos and our Ben & Jerrys and Burger Kings, but then it was hardly going to just sit there and stay the same, was it?