This week marks the 20th anniversary of The Division Bell, the fourteenth and final studio album by Pink Floyd. Although it received lukewarm reviews upon its release, the album went on to be certified 3x platinum in the US and has since gathered a respectful cult following. Below, Art Director Cap Blackard and senior staff writer Justin Gerber disassemble the album’s mythos, its multiple complications, and the mysterious “publius enigma.”
Justin Gerber (JG): My relationship with The Division Bell is complicated. Well, not so much complicated as circumstantial. I fell in with the Floyd my sophomore year of high school, thanks in no small part to the now-famous Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz sync-up that was all the rage for a few months back in the late ‘90s. It forced the participants to really focus in on not only the lyrics, but the effects and the music, as well, to fully connect what was going on between the 1939 film and the 1974 album. Long story short, my next purchase was the live album P.U.L.S.E. I didn’t know who Roger Waters was. I didn’t know who was singing what. I didn’t know what songs came from what albums or what eras. The songs on the live album were one big entity to my inexperienced ears.
Because P.U.L.S.E. was recorded during the Division Bell tour, that album was heavily featured. I grew attached to songs from what will likely be the last Floyd album just as much as I would hold onto “Hey You” or “Astronomy Domine”. My next purchase would be The Division Bell, and the rest is my own personal history, which I guess I’m sharing with you today, Cap. At what point were you introduced to the album in your Floydian travels?
Cap Blackard (CB): My first memory of Division Bell is a massive poster hanging from a high wall in All Books and Records, a revered and now long-gone South Floridian landmark for collectors and enthusiasts of all kinds. At ten years old the image of those two stark, moai-like heads mystified me. In this poster, it wasn’t the chrome sculptures of the standard album cover, but rather the bleached stone variants — equally ominous to their metallic counterparts. The poster hung far out of clarity, above those musty, cluttered aisles and sat in the back of my mind like an unanswered question. Years later, in college, I’d buy the original blue vinyl pressing of Division Bell from them. The poster still hung in the same spot.
When I made the switch from oldies to classic rock radio in my early teens, I was quickly seduced by Floyd. They had everything a young artsy outcast needed, and they quickly became a serious contender for my favorite band of all-time. I picked up records randomly. At one of the first locations of the ill-fated Blockbuster Music chain, I bought my first Floyd CD. In an attempt to find the album with “Welcome to the Machine”, I got Momentary Lapse of Reason, which featured the track “New Machine”. It wasn’t what I was expecting (and “New Machine” was no substitute), but I grew to love the record — the first of the “Gilmour years” of which Division Bell is the second and last. From there it was one album after another. I had a focus on picking up the classics, to get the songs I heard on the radio, but I couldn’t resist the allure of that cover. Long before I’d heard of Storm Thorgerson or Hipgnosis; his vivid lens drew me in like the Pied Piper.
JG: It sounds like we had similar experiences. We discovered The Division Bell before diving into the Barrett- and Waters-driven records. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed “Take It Back” had I heard it well after embracing and memorizing every nuance of Dark Side or Animals. All I know is that I love when that backbeat kicks in shortly after Gilmour’s Edge-ian guitar. I can proudly air-guitar the opening and closing solos of “A Great Day for Freedom” at a moment’s notice.
The artwork is iconic, regardless of how one feels about the music inside the sleeve. The fact that Woody Harrelson’s character on True Detective wears a Division Bell tour shirt brought a huge grin to my face. Too bad the costume designers couldn’t find McConaughey a sweet Monster tour shirt to cement the fact the show took place in the mid-‘90s. Tour memorabilia aside, do these songs resonate as strongly as they did before you were exposed to earlier Floyd? Have they been tainted for you in any way over these many, many years?
CB: For me, it was really a matter of being exposed all at once you could say. I took Division Bell in at the same time as Dark Side, The Wall, and Wish You Were Here. It was all very different, and yet felt like part of a greater whole. While Division Bell as an album doesn’t weave any sort of intense cinematic concept, it exemplifies the mystery of Pink Floyd. Transcendental and eerie soundscapes have always been an element of the Pink Floyd sound and Division Bell is all about that — it luxuriates in Floydian mystery. For me, no amount of time or history has detracted from its magic.
The album is a dreamy world worth getting lost in — from the desolate pools of “Marooned” to the mythic landscapes painted by “High Hopes”. It’s not angry, it’s not narrative, but it’s not any less powerful. In fact, there was a long time where Division Bell was my favorite Pink Floyd album. And it might still be; it never really fell out of favor. I just love the whole body of work from Meddle onward so much that it seemed weird to settle on a favorite.
JG: Getting into Division Bell when I did caused me to view the band in a different way. My journey with the band became, “Wow, these earlier albums are even better…” as opposed to, “Wow, these latter albums are not nearly as good.” I suppose it’s all about where we start when it comes to anything in life (not to get too deep). To get back to what you were saying about the album’s transcendent tone, I would agree. When was the last time the band sounded like this, musically? I’d argue you’d have to go back to Wish You Were Here. Band members have stated on several occasions that that was the last “group” effort in the Waters era.
On The Division Bell, you had Richard Wright fully integrated back into the band. His piano opens the record; he takes lead vocals for the first time in decades on “Wearing the Inside Out”, and has more writing credits here than he had received on the last five albums combined. And Nick friggin’ Mason returns once more with his laidback drumming, becoming the only official member on every single Floyd studio album. He has always been the quiet one of the group, which I’m sure aided him during Waters/Gilmour fights.
I say all of this not because I feel The Division Bell is better than those last few Waters albums, because it is not. What the album sorely lacks are the powerful stories and lyrics Waters provided from Saucerful to The Final Cut. But this is definitely a return to the classic Floyd sound” that had long lain dormant. For some better, for some worse.
CB: Now might be a good time to directly address the criticism some place on Division Bell– because I feel like we’re both in a position of having to defend our love of this record. In my experience, the argument hinges around the semantics of what makes a “true” Pink Floyd album. For some, the David Gilmour-led era of Pink Floyd is a misnomer for “Gilmour’s re-branded solo career”. As if James Iha went on performing as Smashing Pumpkins sans Corgan, for example. Here’s the history:
The Roger Waters-led era was a mountain of increasingly complicated, increasingly personal work. His final album with the band, The Final Cut, was effectively a solo album performed with some of Pink Floyd. Waters moved to dissolve the band, calling Floyd “a spent force” but David Gilmour insisted they would carry on. During the development of what was intended to be Gilmour’s third solo record, forces within the record label put the pressure on to reform the now scattered band and make Gilmour’s demos sound more Floydian — this is how A Momentary Lapse of Reason was born and the Gilmour-led era began. While this is an ugly start (set against a backdrop of angry words between Waters and Gilmour), the album is good. Momentary is lighter fare than Floyd’s blockbusters, but distinctively different from past Gilmour solo records. If this was them faking Pink Floyd, they did a damn good job.
Fast forward to Division Bell and from the get-go all three remaining members were writing music. Though they also brought on a few collaborators here and there, I personally feel it’s a record that can’t be dismissed as “not-Floyd”. Waters is a genius, but he wasn’t what made Floyd great — he was a part of it. Here we have 3/4ths of the equation creating music that’s definitively sans-Waters, but still taps into the essence of what made Floyd so captivating to begin with.
JG: I agree with the sentiment that Floyd was at its best with the line-up of Waters/Gilmour/Mason/Wright. Syd Barrett fans may be upset with that assertion, but while I consider Piper at the Gates of Dawn to be one of the band’s masterworks, the lineup I just mentioned is the line-up. Where I differ with you is on Momentary, which Waters described as a “fair forgery,” but I feel he actually gives it too much credit, mocking or not. I actually find Gilmour’s eponymous debut and second album, About Face, to be superior to Momentary, which has a Side B so etched into 1987 that I’ve rarely gone back to it over the years.
But the timeless factor is where Division Bell succeeds for me. It doesn’t attach itself to any time period in particular. Gilmour clearly didn’t care what was going on around him, and set out to make an album on his own terms, without other members shoehorned in to make it “official”. The argument as to whether or not this is a “Pink Floyd” album is nearly indefensible. If you want to argue that it was made without its classic leader, then every album post-Piper is what Waters would call a “fair forgery.”
CB: Ha! So true. Same war fans have been waging over Gabriel-era vs. Collins-era Genesis. It’s all a tapestry. If all the pieces looked the same, it wouldn’t be interesting. I guess that’s why we’re here — you can take or leave Momentary, but Division Bell deserves its due.
That said, it can be a bumpy sell. I remember showing off Division Bell to some of my friends in high school — kind of like, “You like Pink Floyd? Well, have you heard this?” — and we’re doing something like playing Goldeneye or Magic: The Gathering all through “Cluster One”‘s moody instrumentation, and then “What Do You Want from Me?” comes on and their immediate dismissal. “The fuck is this porn music?” My thought was, obviously, they weren’t familiar with “Have a Cigar”, but in a way they were right. The track is pretty cheesy. Lyrically and musically speaking, it’s the weakest on the album and an awkward introduction to the rock and vocal component of the record. Halfway through, though, “What Do You Want” finds its footing and goes somewhere dark and familiar as Gilmour explores demonic temptations; leading to the hopeful chords of “Poles Apart”.
It’s with “Poles Apart” that the real heart of the album begins to beat. There’s so much layered in there — sunlight on fields, a fairground turned sinister, an escape through a rainstorm — that it’s easy to assign your own narrative to the lyrics and movements. In the Floyd chronology, there hadn’t been that much room to absorb and imagine since “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”. In that way Division Bell is unburdened- like Dark Side of the Moon the album is built up around a loose concept (in this case “communication”) and is free to work in broad, evocative strokes. Among all the tracks, “High Hopes” for me is the crown jewel. Its iconic bells, sweeping orchestration by Michael Kamen, and cryptic lyrics powerfully bookend not just the journey of the album, but the chronology of the band.
JG: It’s funny that no matter what people say about The Division Bell, we all seem to agree on “High Hopes” being the (ahem) high point. It’s epic. It’s got that bell ringing throughout. It’s got the most imaginative lyrics in the Post-Waters Dream. I’ve always admired the live performances of the track, whether it be during the Floyd run or Gilmour’s solo tours, because the percussionist has to maintain that steady bell ringing throughout the track while messing around on other parts of the drum kit. It’s a hell of a note for the band to go out on, assuming that truly was the end of the road. Maybe Waters/Gilmour/Mason will reunite for the Final Cut tour that never was.
The high points for me are the two instrumental tracks we’ve mentioned, “Cluster One” and “Marooned”, partly because of the washed-up-on-the-shore vibe I get from both, but mostly because I could listen to Gilmour play his Fender Stratocaster or Jedson lap steel from now until the end of time. Two tracks I haven’t mentioned are the acoustic-driven “Poles Apart”, which you touched on perfectly, and the kiss-off “Lost for Words”, which I like to pretend is an imagined exchange between Gilmour and Waters (“So I open my door to my enemies/ And I ask “Could we wipe the slate clean?”/ But they tell me to please go fuck myself/ You know you just can’t win”). These feature gorgeous guitar work courtesy of Gilmour, who remains my favorite guitarist.
While the live “Coming Back to Life” gets a muscular lift on P.U.L.S.E., it comes off weak on Division Bell, especially after that lovely guitar solo which opens the track. It’s just too light, and I’d say the same about a song your friends didn’t care for in the glory days of N64: “What Do You Want From Me” (the porn music comparison is quite apt). And finally, while I’m happy that Wright got a song of his own for the first time since Atom Heart Mother’s “Summer 68”, “Wearing the Inside Out” is not a very good song. I wish he and Anthony Moore, who gets credit for the lyrics, had written “Breakthrough” from Wright’s 1997 album Broken China in time for Floyd’s farewell. Would have been a great replacement.
My final thoughts on The Division Bell are these: I get it. I get why people embrace it as a true-blue band record not heard in decades. I get why people dismiss it as AOR, MOR, prog-wank that suffers from a lack of Waters. It’s a divisive album, but the Bell definitely rings on and on for me. And that’s that. For me, at least.
CB: But before we go I’ve got a parting gift. One that adds to the mystery of the record… The Publius Enigma.
Around the time of Division Bell and P.U.L.S.E. something strange was happening on the Usenet newsgroup, alt.music.pink-floyd. A poster named Publius announced an encoded scavenger hunt for a “unique prize” centered around the album and tour with clues hidden in album art, live visuals, and allegedly in the album’s lyrics. Whether working for Pink Floyd, the record label, or another force entirely – Publius had been sent to serve as a “guide” to point fans in the right direction. Speculation and skepticism ran rampant, but appearances of the words “Publius” and “Enigma” on stage and in print verified the contest to be the real deal.
Over the years, Pink Floyd have regarded the Enigma with vague or dismissive comments. In his biography, Nick Mason said it was the record company’s idea. According to Publius, the band was in on it: “Although all great music is subject to multiple interpretations, in this case there is a central purpose and a designed solution.” To this day, the riddle has never been confirmed solved and debate about its legitimacy continues. But, as I put forth on CoS last year – I have a theory. What if this “unique prize” was something everyone can share? I was fascinated by the Enigma in my formative, middle school years and though I had no luck directly solving any of the riddles, my preteen intuition may have inadvertently stumbled on the mother lode:
During the Division Bell Tour, the band performed the entirety of Dark Side of the Moon – and with it for the first time ever came images directly correlating to The Wizard of Oz – acknowledging the popular fan-synch of the album and the film. What if, amused by this remarkable coincidence, Floyd tailored Division Bell to synch with 1985′s Return to Oz? Sounds like nonsense, I know. But here’s the thing… it works. And I don’t mean works as good as the loose synch of “Dark Side of the Rainbow”, I mean Division Bell‘s synch with Return to Oz is shocking. Its cues and transitions are far more complex; to the point that I personally believe with a high certainty that it’s the real deal. Just start playing the album as soon as the stars fade in from the black, and if Dorothy’s last two blinks match the first strong guitar plucks of “Cluster One” at two minutes and 22 seconds, you’ve got it perfect. A very “unique prize” indeed.
It does seem crazy, but with the band looking back to Dark Side for inspiration and the renewed interest in the record based on the Oz synch: how strange is it really? Synching is a fascinating way to structure and build an already cinematic-sounding album and while the task of synching a record to a movie seems ludicrous to do in the early ’70s, in the early ’90s not so much. I imagine the conversation went something like this…
“Hey Dave, you know all that business about us synching up Dark Side to the Wizard of Oz?”
“Yeah, Nick screened it for me once. A bit silly, really.”
“What if we actually did it though?”
“Well, I think I’d remember us doing that-”
“No, I mean what if we made the new record synch up with a movie.”
“Heh, that would drive the kids mad, wouldn’t it? What film would we do though?”
“Have you seen that sequel, Return to Oz?”
“I did! That movie was terrifying. Bloody hell… Now there’s an idea…”
Take it or leave it. I know it’s bonkers, but it’s easily the best synch I’ve ever seen. And wouldn’t if be cool (and appropriate) if Floyd used Division Bell to have a dialogue with their fans? At the very least, it’s a cool parting gift.
JG: (Emoji Publius Enigma)