There was exciting talk in 2013 of celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of the building of Lucca’s famous walls with a concert by the Pink Floyd featuring their perennial album ‘The Wall’. The project came to nothing and the nearest Lucca has got to a band performing with the background of its walls is this year’s Stones’ concert due on 23rd September.
To celebrate the conclusion of exams and the university’s end of academic year most Cambridge University colleges put on lively and often lavish entertainments during ‘May week’ which begins on the second Thursday of June. (They were originally held in May)
These ‘May Balls’ have a history dating back to the 1830s. By the nineteen sixties the occasion had become very formal and stuffy. In the flower power year of 1967, however, something changed. The former BBC light -programme-type dance bands were being replaced by some colleges by something more reflective of the considerable social change that was influencing Britain’s youth. Selwyn College, at that time generally regarded as conservative and imbued with Anglicanism, even invited ‘The Who’ to play.
The following year my college, King’s, had an awesome line-up including Roy Harper, the Soft Machine and the Pink Floyd. This array, which few Colleges would now be able to afford, was largely due to the efforts of a music student and friend Andy Powell. Fresh from Stockhausen’s Darmstadt summer school and impatient with the traditionalist music teaching then prevailing at Cambridge, Andy, through his contacts, invited two of the country’s most avant-garde groups: South London’s Soft Machine and Cambridge’s Pink Floyd. (Incidentally, Andy went on to a brilliant career as music producer – Kate Bush etc., composer, soloist, conductor and festival organiser).
King’s college staff was rather taken aback by the fact that Pink Floyd consumed most of the food and drink supposedly laid out for all performers. A strange herbal smoke permeated the Old Master’s Lodge and psychedelic shirts, and kaftans made a striking contrast with conventional penguin suits. Similarly, long flowing hair and skirts contrasted with the more formal evening dresses. There was a highly visible contrast between the student ‘greys’ in their tweeds and short hair, and the long-haired student ‘hippies’, in the city’s streets. Times were changing fast – too fast for some, to slow for others and the length of one’s hair and one’s clothes really counted for something.
They say that if one remembers the nineteen-sixties then one wasn’t there. Memory takes many forms. It can be almost sequentially film-like or it can resemble a collage of images. That amazing night and dawn at King’s I still remember vividly, however. Who could forget the setting, the pastoral backs (the green lawns behind the colleges bounded by the punt-populated river) and the perpendicular pageant of the chapel?
Could I unthink the girl I was madly infatuated with? Could I forget how friend John Forrester (subsequently a supreme authority on Freud and now over the rainbow) managed to get a very drunken Roy Harper on stage to perform? Above all could I forget the Pink Floyd just in front of me in a marquee pitched before Gibb’s building, as the dawn rose over a youthful paradise, playing what must have been one of the first performances of ‘A Saucerful of Secrets’. Secrets the band was certainly unleashing upon an audience who were enjoying music from a pop group that was relishing the concept album and the use of new electronic techniques
The final section of the four-part composition, ‘celestial voices’, an extended chorale of almost Bachian grandeur, permeated through the aureate sunrise with wondrous sensation. The voices were truly celestial and we felt transported onto a different planet.
I never heard the Pink Floyd live again but in 2005, during my first year with my new life in Italy, I attended the opening of the refurbished main square at Crasciana where I heard a highly convincing Pink Floyd cover band.
You can also read more about that occasion at
It was, therefore, a real nostalgia trip when on a recent trip to London I visited the lugubriously named ‘Their mortal remains’ Pink Floyd exhibition which opened last month at the V and A.
People joke that after the age 45 every new person one meets reminds you of someone you know. More tragic is when a piece of vinyl one remembers buying and listening to for the first time so recently is now safely locked in a museum display case!
The V and A is making a speciality of retrospective pop music exhibitions. Examples include the one dedicated to David Bowie and the one titled ‘You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970’ which we visited earlier this year.
The exhibitions appear to have a three-fold purpose:
- To support the otherwise free museum by charging for special exhibitions, For the Pink Floyd we purchase a timed ticket on-line.
- To introduce a retrospective introduction to the history of pop music to new generations.
- To induce a sense of sweet melancholy in those of us who have lived through an age of wondrous development of pop, an epoch which truly defined our generation, our aspirations our loves and our hopes.
Here are some photos from that Pink Floyd exhibition which will run until the end of September this year. How it made me feel young and old at the same time!
(PS Recognize Lucca’s piazza dell’anfiteatro? It wasn’t even labelled at the exhibition.)
PPS Those fanous lyrics from ‘The Wall’ seem still so apt today when radicalisation is causing such dangerous consequences to our society:
We don’t need no ‘education’
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
That part of the album as sung by pupils of Islington Green comprehensive school (Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency) in 1979: