In 1967, soon after the release of its first album, an English rock group was getting decent press and having some success touring. The band even had a contract for another album with EMI, the same label as The Beatles. But the group’s charismatic lead guitarist and vocalist, who had provided the band’s drive and vision, was growing unstable under the influence of mental illness and psychedelic drugs. It soon became clear: If the group was to succeed, it would have to do so without the man who had so far written almost all of its songs.
The band was Pink Floyd; the leader Syd Barrett. And for Asheville-based writer (and Xpress contributor) Bill Kopp, the group’s nadir led to a mystery: After coming so close to the brink of failure, how did Pink Floyd recover? How was it that, six years later, the musicians could release The Dark Side of the Moon, one of the best-selling and most influential rock albums of all time? That’s a question Kopp tries to answer in his book Reinventing Pink Floyd, which he’ll launch Thursday, March 8, at Malaprop’s.
Kopp is a longtime writer on popular music, with dozens of articles to his name (and hundreds of entries on his website, blog.musoscribe.com). He may have been born to write this book. Asked in elementary school to draw himself as a grown-up, he says, he sketched a man with long hair, sunglasses and a beard. He gestures at himself. “I looked like this. And I was a rock critic.” He laughs. “That’s what I was going to do when I was a grown-up.”
Kopp read rock criticism from an early age. “It really colored my understanding and appreciation of music, as opposed to just listening to it,” he says. An admirer of Pink Floyd, he would listen to the group’s late ’70s albums repeatedly, picking out the keyboard parts on a synthesizer he bought with his own money and expanding his appreciation of what went into the production of an album. And, although he majored in marketing in college and worked corporate jobs for decades, he continued writing rock criticism on the side.
In 2015, Kopp turned to writing full time. One of the first projects he pitched was a survey of Pink Floyd’s complete works. A publisher expressed interest but asked for other angles. Kopp came back with the idea of tracing the band’s recovery after the loss of Barrett, expecting the publisher to take months considering. A week later, on vacation in California with his wife, he got an email. “It says, ‘Your proposal has been accepted, here’s your contract,’” Kopp recalls. “And I started crying.”
So how did Pink Floyd rebound? Reinventing explores several strands of the story, but asked to name one, Kopp describes the group’s experiments in assembling a sequence of songs in order to form an implicit narrative. By 1969, the musicians put together the stage show The Man and The Journey — two suites of songs with an intermission dividing them. “In a lot of ways,” Kopp says, “this was a template for what they would do in Dark Side of the Moon.”
Pink Floyd also grew through its live shows. Kopp uses The Beatles as a counterexample: “They and a lot of other bands wrote in the studio, did all their material in the studio, and then recorded.” By contrast, Pink Floyd would write for live performances and use that experience to prepare for its recordings. Many songs on Dark Side of the Moon, Kopp says, “weren’t written until they’d been doing Dark Side live for months.”
As it happened, live performance played a substantial role in Kopp’s research: He owns hundreds of bootleg recordings of Pink Floyd’s live shows from that time. He interviewed tribute bands, who make a living figuring out how to re-create Pink Floyd’s music. And, last summer, Kopp even participated as a keyboardist in a local tribute to Pink Floyd’s early work, a four-hour show organized by Ian Reardon of the local band Alarm Clock Conspiracy. “It was the closest thing I could have done to going back in time and being in the studio,” he says. “It added so much to my appreciation and understanding of the music.”
Kopp also drew on archives of contemporaneous criticism and conducted interviews with people involved with Pink Floyd’s early years, including Peter Jenner, the band’s original manager. He also spoke with alternative rocker Robyn Hitchcock, who has been heavily influenced by Syd Barrett’s work and prefers the Pink Floyd of that era.
Even if fans of the group’s later music don’t move all the way to Hitchcock’s position, Kopp hopes that readers will come to appreciate Pink Floyd’s early efforts and come away inspired by the creative journey that led to one of rock’s most important albums. “I’d like to think that when somebody reads this, they’re going to be inspired to go and listen,” he says, “and appreciate it for what it is.”
WHAT: Bill Kopp reads and signs Reinventing Pink Floyd
WHERE: Malaprop’s, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Thursday, March 8, 6 p.m.