Nearly 40 years after their main songwriter Roger Waters left the band and nearly 30 after their final real album (1994’s ‘The Division Bell’) Pink Floyd remain one of the most popular rock bands of all time. As their masterpiece – or one of their masterpieces – ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ turns 50, we’re counting down their greatest songs, from their early Syd Barrett era to their post-Waters days.
We are combining titles here: “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse,” for example, are hard to separate. “Pigs On The Wing (Part One)” and “Pigs On The Wing (Part Two)” kind of go together, as does the whole “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” suite, and we wish they’d put out a track that includes all of the segments of the song together. Anyway, check out our list of our favorite Floyd jams.
Like much of ‘The Final Cut,’ it’s effectively a Roger Waters solo piece: Roger sings, plays acoustic guitar and bass on this song, and is accompanied by Michael Kamen on piano and “orchestrations.” Waters was obsessed with the human cost of war on this album (and many that preceded it, and on his subsequent solo albums). His lyrics here are heartbreaking: “She stands upon Southampton dock /With her handkerchief /And her summer frock clings /To her wet body in the rain /In quiet desperation knuckles /White upon the slippery reins /She bravely waves the boys ‘goodbye’ again.”
Pink Floyd’s greatest song from their post-Waters era. Like most of the songs of that period, David Gilmour worked with outside writers (in this case, Anthony Moore) and lots of outside musicians, including keyboardist Jon Carin, bassist Tony Levin and drummer Jim Keltner. Ex-Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright, who soon rejoined the band, played on this song and most of the album.
The finale of ‘The Wall.’ It starts with an explosion (the destruction of the wall), and then goes into a short but moving meditation about “the ones that really love you” being there for you. Of course, sometimes you (like the titular Pink character in ‘The Wall’ story) tire them out. “When they've given you their all/Some stagger and fall; after all, it's not easy/Banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall.”
You can almost imagine the disappointment from the record label when Pink Floyd submitted ‘Animals,’ following the massively successful ‘Wish You Were Here’ (1975) and ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ (1973). “It’s five songs: three are more than ten minutes and the other two are less than a minute a half, each. And they’re all named after animals.” ‘Animals’ was never going to be a radio behemoth, but it’s still a classic. The music was incredible, and the lyrics featured some of Waters’ sharpest social commentary. Here, Waters compares humans who choose to ignore the world around them to sheep on a farm.
Co-written by Waters with Michael Kamen, who conducted the orchestra on the track, it’s not just a “rock opera” - it sounds like an actual opera piece. The epic composition concludes Pink’s story in ‘The Wall.” At the trial, Waters plays five different roles: the prosecutor, the schoolmaster, Pink’s wife, Pink’s mother, and the judge (who was comically grotesque - if you’ve seen the film, you know what we mean).
From the band’s debut album, it was written by their original leader, Syd Barrett. Who is “Lucifer Sam?” Barrett’s cat! The song starts with the singer introducing him: “Lucifer Sam, siam cat.” While Floyd’s later era is their most popular one, the Barrett era is beloved by many as well: the Black Crowes, the Flaming Lips and Bauhaus covered this song. And these days, you can see Floyd drummer Nick Mason’s band Saucerful of Secrets playing it live.
One of the last songs on ‘The Wall,’ it sees Pink, the rock star hallucinating about becoming a fascist leader and turning the audience at his concert into an angry mob. The segment in the film is incredibly disturbing. Musically, the song, like “Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2” is influenced by some of the contemporary disco of the era.
The band’s first single, it was written by Syd Barrett. It was about a transvestite who enjoyed stealing women’s clothing - specifically, lingerie. Waters has said that it was based on a real person.
A simple and devastating song. It starts out with Waters pleading, “Is there anybody out there?” over a synthesizer drone and sound effects. The second half of the song is a plaintive classical guitar piece backed by an orchestra. Five words, less than three minutes and it somehow perfectly describes loneliness.
Written and sung by Waters, it sees him exploring isolation and loneliness nearly a decade before ‘The Wall.’ Back then, he was introspective. “If I were a good man, I’d talk to you more often than I do,” is a hell of a line. So is “If I were a good man, I’d understand the spaces between friends.” He might have been thinking of Barrett here (the memory of Barrett haunted ‘Wish You Were Here’ as well). “If I go insane, please don’t put your wires in my brain” is haunting, in retrospect. As is “If I go insane, will you still let me join in with the game?” Waters was allegedly the guy who decided to push Barrett out of the band a few years earlier.
A quick song that encapsulates the horrors and effects of war, even for those too young to remember it. Gilmour sings, “Did you see the frightened ones? Did you hear the falling bombs? The flames are all long gone/But the pain lingers on.” It’s something that Waters addressed often on ‘The Wall.’ Waters’ father died in World War II when Roger was just a few months old; you can see this influence throughout the storyline of ‘The Wall.’ David Gilmour plays acoustic guitar, bass and sings over Waters and Richard Wright’s synths to haunting and mournful effect.
A 17-minute epic that likens the behavior of modern business to the way that wild dogs act. Gilmour sings the first half of the song, detailing an existence that is all about winning and devoid of any sense of honor: “After a while, you can work on points for style/Like the club tie, and the firm handshake/A certain look in the eye and an easy smile/You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to/So that when they turn their backs on you,/You'll get the chance to put the knife in.” Of course, eventually “You gotta keep one eye looking over your shoulder.” That’s because “It's going to get harder, and harder, and harder as you get older.” Finally, “you'll pack up and fly down south/Hide your head in the sand/Just another sad old man/All alone and dying of cancer.” In the second half of the song, Waters takes the mic and the narrator seems to timeshift back to when he was in the thick of the business world (“I gotta admit that I'm a little bit confused/Sometimes it seems to me as if I'm just being used.”) He concludes with an origin story of sorts: describing the type of person who would end up being drawn into such a cut-throat world: “Who was told what to do by the man/Who was broken by trained personnel/Who was fitted with collar and chain/Who was given a pat on the back/Who was breaking away from the pack/Who was only a stranger at home.” In a catalog of dark songs, this is surely one of the darkest.
There are a lot of rock songs about the loneliness of a rock star, but “Empty Spaces” really nails it in just over two minutes and in less than thirty words. Even if you’re not rich and famous, this is a devastating line: “What shall we use to fill the empty spaces where we used to talk?” The song then goes into “Young Lust,” the closest Pink Floyd ever got to AC/DC territory. The narrator is looking for a female companion for the night. But there’s a cost: at the end of the night, the narrator Pink (“Mr. Floyd”) calls his wife and she doesn’t take the call.
Co-written by Roger Waters, Richard Wright, David Gilmour and Nick Mason, it was originally released as the b-side to “Point Me At The Sky” and later included on the ‘Relics’ collection. But this live version, which adds three minutes of jamming, is more fearsome.
Co-written by Waters and Gilmour, the latter played guitar and the fretless bass on the song, as well as singing most of it. Like much of ‘The Wall,’ the song plays into the album and subsequent film’s narrative but also stands on its own. Here, Pink has shut himself off from most of the world and is craving connection again, but can’t seem to get it. It’s sadly relatable even if you’re not a big rock star.
Part 1 opens ‘Animals,’ and Part 2 closes it. Each version features just Roger Waters singing and playing acoustic guitar. Part 1 asks what would happen “If you didn’t care what happened to me, and I didn’t care for you.” Thankfully, Part 2 ends the very dark album on an optimistic note: “You know that I care what happens to you/and I know that you care for me too,” which is about as romantic as Waters ever gets. And he realizes that even in a heartless world, if you have someone to love, you “don’t feel alone.” Because “any fool knows a dog needs a home… a shelter from pigs on the wing.”
Another rare Waters/Gilmour/Wright/Mason co-composition, it’s mostly instrumental… other than Mason’s only vocal for Floyd. He yells, “One of these days, I’m going to cut you into little pieces!” through some wild tape effects. Waters and Gilmour both play bass guitars, giving a creepy effect, and Gilmour also adds slide guitars.
‘The Wall’ opens with “In The Flesh,” but that song takes place later in the storyline. The story really begins with track two, “The Thin Ice.” The song starts with Gilmour’s warm detailing of a baby being born into a loving home. But enter Waters, who warns, “Don't be surprised when a crack in the ice appears under your feet/You slip out of your depth and out of your mind with your fear flowing out behind you/As you claw the thin ice.”
Here’s one you probably haven’t heard on the radio: “Echoes” is twenty-three and a half minutes and took up all of side 2 of ‘Meddle.” While most jams that go that long feel a bit over-indulgent, “Echoes” is a trip that you’ll want to take over and over, depending on your mood.
Much of ‘The Final Cut’ felt like a Waters solo album (it was the first and only album where Waters wrote everything by himself). “Not Now John” was an exception - possibly because it was also the only song on the album that featured David Gillmour’s lead vocals. It’s much catchier than the rest of the album. But the prolific use of the f-bomb prevented it from being a bigger hit.
‘Dark Side of the Moon’ is an album with great flow: many of the songs just bleed into the next one. “Us And Them” and “Any Colour You Like” is a good example of that. “Us And Them” starts out with an anti-war message, decrying that the people making the decisions aren’t usually the ones who suffer from them: “‘Forward,’ he cried from the rear/And the front rank died/The general sat and the lines on the map/Moved from side to side.” The song then seems to visit a civil rights protest (“‘Haven't you heard it's a battle of words?’ the poster bearer cried”). By the end of the song, the narrator seems to be too busy to help a homeless man in his time of need: “Out of the way it's a busy day/I've got things on my mind/For want of the price of tea and a slice/The old man died.” “Any Colour You Like” is an instrumental jam, composed by Gilmour, Wright and Mason. It gives you time to digest what you’ve just heard, as you’re transported by Wright and Gilmour’s solos.
Co-written by Syd Barrett, Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason, it’s a mind-blowing jam, and it was surely even more mind-blowing in 1967. Call it what you want: psychedelic rock, experimental rock, progressive rock, it’s an amazing song and a great reminder that not all of Floyd’s classics came after David Gilmour joined the band (and he’d be the first to co-sign that statement).
Composed by Rick Wright, the instrumental featured wordless vocals from Clare Torry, who – decades later – got a songwriting credit, thanks to her improvisded vocals. Her instructions were that there were no lyrics, but the song was about death, and her vocals needed to convey that. In two takes, she nailed it.
Written by Syd Barrett, it sees him sharing vocals with Richard Wright. The haunted jam saw Barrett looking to the stars, and figuring that other planets would be just as scary as this one: “Jupiter and Saturn, Oberon, Miranda and Titania, Neptune, Titan, stars can frighten.”
The opening track from ‘The Wall’ really sets the scene: Pink is a major rock star, he’s performing for a huge crowd… but he’s not really “there.” “Pink isn’t well, he stayed back at the hotel/they sent us along as a surrogate band: we’re gonna find out where you fans really stand!” Part of Roger Waters’ inspiration for the album was how distant he felt from audiences on Pink Floyd’s ‘Animals’ tour. He tells the audience that if they want to find out “what’s behind these cold eyes, you’ll just have to claw your way through this disguise.” And then the story really begins. Later in the album, there’s a different version of the song that comes as Pink is hallucinating and sees himself as a fascist dictator. It’s even more chilling today to hear him barking racist epithets and announcing, “If I had my way, I’d have all of you shot!”
A slice of classic psychedelic pop written by Syd Barrett. It’s Floyd’s second single. David Gilmour, who was not yet a member of the group, visited the studio while they were working on the song, and was reportedly stunned by how much his boyhood pal had changed. Barrett would, sadly, change even more drastically in the months and years to come. He’d no longer be part of the band, but he’d inspire some of their greatest songs in his absence.
One of the earliest Floyd songs that was entirely written and sung by Roger Waters; it’s also the only song that features all five members: Waters, Richard Wright, Nick Mason, Syd Barrett and David Gilmour.
The opening tracks on ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’: “Speak To Me” is a sound collage that prepares you for the audio experience of the album. “Breathe (In The Air)” is a chill song… but it lays out a lot of the dark themes that Roger Waters would address on not just ‘Dark Side,’ but also the next few Pink Floyd albums. At the beginning, he says “don’t be afraid to care.” But he also warns of the consequences of caring: “smiles you’ll give and tears you’ll cry.” He also warns of the never-ending rat race: “Dig that hole, forget the sun/When, at last, the work is done/Don’t sit down, it’s time to dig another one.” And even if you’re successful (“balanced on the biggest wave”) you’ll “race towards an early grave.”
The last song written for ‘The Wall,’ you could almost imagine a down-on-their-luck over-the-hill lounge singer crooning it. The singer has seen and done lots of great things, but he still can’t connect with the person who he loves. “Ooh, babe when I pick up the phone there's still nobody home.”
Featuring guest vocals by British folk-rock singer Roy Harper, it’s kind of a sequel to “Money.” It’s an obvious critique of the greed in the music industry in the ‘70s: in Pink Floyd’s case, their record company was trying to “ride the gravy train” that started with the huge success of ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon.’ The line “The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think/Oh, by the way, which one's Pink?” referred to the fact that record label staffers had nary a clue about who was in the band. Year later, Waters quit the band and toured as a solo act, and played much smaller venues, he sold a t-shirt that read, “Which one’s Pink?”
In Roger Waters’ ‘Animals,’ pigs represent the top of the social ladder: the businessmen (or women) with wealth and power. He laughs at them – “Ha, ha: charade you are!” – but he can’t deny that they run things. This song inspired one of Floyd’s most well-known stage effects: their giant inflatable pig that they’d fly over the audience. They even used it the late ‘80s and ‘90s after Waters was no longer in the band and they stopped playing songs from ‘Animals.’ ‘
“Mother” is an essential part of the narrative of ‘The Wall,’ but like many of the songs on the album, it stands on its own. It tells Pink’s story about being overprotected by his single mother who lost her husband in the war (which mirrors Waters’ own story). Gilmour sings the part of the mother, while Waters sings Pink.
Put together, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is 26 minutes long, although parts 1-5 open the album and parts 6-9 close it. The song is a tribute to – and almost a memorial to – Syd Barrett, who had been pushed out of the band years earlier, due to his failing mental health (which was not helped by his drug use).
The closing piece to ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon,’ it almost acted as a preview to ‘Wish You Were Here’: Waters was thinking about Syd Barrett’s mental instability on lines like “...and if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes.”
Part 1 is when the story’s protagonist, Pink, starts building the wall around himself. “The Happiest Days Of Our Lives” is a short piece that details the traumas that Pink (and Roger Waters) experienced in school. In the film, the teacher confiscates Pink’s poetry, dismissively reading a poem… which happens to be the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s “Money.” Part 2, reflecting a clear disco influence, was a protest against a rigid education system and strict boarding schools. With an catchy chorus that any kid could learn – “We don’t need no education” – the song became Pink Floyd’s only U.S. #1 hit single.
It’s the last time that Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason co-wrote a Floyd song. Waters and Wright split the lead vocals, the last time Wright would sing lead for twenty years (until “Wearing The Inside Out” from ‘The Division Bell’). The song is haunted by the passage of time and the idea that you’re not accomplishing enough. At a certain age the lyrics are scarier than anything you’ll hear in a punk or metal song: “You are young and life is long, and there is time to kill today/And then one day you find ten years have got behind you/No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.”
A condemnation of the music industry (like “Have A Cigar”) but it could apply to the business of the arts in general. “You brought a guitar to punish your ma/And you didn't like school/And you know you're nobody's fool” surely describes a lot of kids who are smart, but didn’t fit in to a rigid school system (a theme Waters revisited in ‘The Wall’). But even when you “make it,” the realization that “we told you what to dream” rings as sad and true.
Probably David Gilmour’s finest moment. He composed the music while working on his debut solo album. He couldn’t figure out what to do with it on his own. Waters wrote lyrics inspired by an experience he had on the band’s most recent tour, where he needed tranquilizers to deal with stomach cramps.
For all of Roger Waters’ condemnations of big business, on this song about wealth, you’ll note that he doesn’t criticize anything. Instead, he’s merely observing the way people act when they have money. “Money/ It's a hit/Don't give me that do goody good bulls—/I'm in the high-fidelity first-class traveling set/And I think I need a Lear jet,” could apply to Waters or Gilmour today. As Gilmour sings “Money/So they say/Is the root of all evil today,” but you don’t feel like he’s convinced that it’s true.
Waters has said that the song isn’t specifically about Syd Barrett. David Gilmour says he can’t sing the song without singing about Barrett. But whatever the song means to them, what matters is what it means to you. It’s probably Pink Floyd’s most relatable song: no matter who you are, there’s always someone that you miss. Even if most of the lyrics are just impressionistic and may not have any deep meaning to you, the line “How I wish, wish you were here” resonates with nearly everyone.