I got a name, I got a name

They called it “The Name Game,” a silly, fun participation song that was all the rage in 1965, when R&B singer Shirley Ellis made it a #3 hit on the US charts.

You simply take anybody’s name, slip it into the basic format, and off you go.  Party on, Garth!  “Garth, Garth, bo-Barth, banana-fana-fo-Farth, fee-fi-mo-Marth, GARTH!”

So, as Shakespeare once asked, “What’s in a name?”  In the world of popular music, there are dozens of examples of performing artists who conjured up new names for themselves.  They did this on their own, if their ego was big enough…or an agent or record company insisted on a catchier stage name than the clunky or boring given name they’d been carrying around.

Some of the examples I’m offering up to you will be well known.  Others, you might be surprised about.  In either case, I’m here to expose these stars’ real names as part of my own Name Game.

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Farrokh Bulsara

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Farrokh was born in 1946 to parents from the Gujarat region of British-owned India.  He was born in the African country of Zanzibar, then a British colony, and attended a boarding school in Bombay, India, where he learned piano and focused more on music than academics.  After returning to Zanzibar at age 17, he and his family had to flee the 1964 revolution there, settling in Middlesex, England.  He earned a degree in art and graphic design, but music was his passion, and he became a member of several bands between 1968 and 1970.  Then he met guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor from the band Smile.  In time, they changed their name to Queen, and Farrokh Bulsara became Freddie Mercury, whose astonishing four-octave vocal range and flamboyant stage presence were key to Queen’s international success.

Marvin Aday

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Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, by a schoolteacher and policeman, Marvin showed an early interest in music and theater arts, appearing in several high school musicals.  He was very close to his mother (who sang in a gospel quartet) and, following her death, he dropped out of North Texas State College and relocated to Los Angeles in 1969 to pursue a career in the arts, as was his mother’s wish.  When Marvin formed a band (that had some notoriety warming up for the likes of Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and the Who), he named it after his mother’s favorite Saturday night dish, Meat Loaf Soul.  Tipping the scales at nearly 300 pounds, Marvin soon took on that name for himself, appearing in films and on stage as Meat Loaf.  By 1977, his “Bat Out of Hell” LP made him an international star.

Ellen Cohen

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Ellen was born during WWII in Baltimore to Jewish parents who were children of Russian immigrants, and the family struggled there and in Alexandria, Virginia.  Blessed with a versatile voice and a knack for stage performance, Ellen appeared in several musicals in New York before becoming part of a successful singing trio called The Big 3, appearing on “Ed Sullivan” and elsewhere.  They became The Mugwumps, and eventually she lobbied hard to join a group she admired called The New Journeymen, featuring John Phillips, Michele Phillips and Denny Doherty.  By then, Ellen had begun referring to herself as Cass (short for “Cassandra”), and her incredible pipes ended up winning her a spot in the group despite Phillips’ misgiving about her obesity.  The public didn’t care about that when The Mamas and The Papas exploded on the scene with huge hits like “California Dreamin’” and “Monday Monday,” among others, carried by Mama Cass Elliott‘s soaring alto.

Richard Starkey

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Little Ritchie had a rough childhood, spending most of his time in bed in hospitals.  He took to picking up pencils, pens, whatever was handy, and banging out rhythms on any horizontal surface he could find.  Eventually, his parents bought him a set of drums, and he became very proficient, at least in the circle of bands and clubs in and around Liverpool, England.  He took to wearing rings — many rings, big showy rings — on his fingers, and soon found himself with a nickname:  Ringo.  His last name could be shortened by a syllable, and Ringo would then be a Star…or, more precisely, Starr.  In any event, after a stint with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, he was tapped by the younger lads who made up another local group, The Beatles, to replace their mate Pete Best on drums, and well, there you have it.  What a great gig for Ringo Starr.

Paul Hewson

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Paul was born and raised in a north suburb of Dublin, Ireland, and was a rather rebellious kid in school, becoming more so after his mother’s death when he was 14.  He didn’t get along with his father and instead hung out with his surrealist street gang, Lypton Village.  As is the case with many gangs, everyone was given nicknames, and Paul went through several:  First came the unwieldy Steinhegvanhuysenolegbangbangbang, which was shortened to Huyseman, then Houseman.  Next he was Bon Murray, then “Bonavox of O’Connell Street,” named for a neighborhood hearing-aid shop.  That was abbreviated to “Bono Vox,” which happened to be Latin for “good voice,” which Paul liked, so it stuck…after it was shortened to just Bono.  Within a couple years, he and his mates David Evans (“The Edge”), Adam Clayton and Larry Mullens Jr. formed a band called Feedback…then The Hype…and finally, U2, who became one of the most popular bands on the planet.

Stevland Judkins

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Born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1950 and raised in Detroit, Stevland suffered from premature retinopathy, which causes the retinas to detach from the corneal wall, resulting in blindness.  He made up for this deficiency by pouring himself into all the music he heard and felt all around him — gospel, rhythm and blues, country, rock ‘n roll.  He mastered harmonica, piano and drums by age 10, and was signed to a recording contract as a child prodigy.  Stevland made his debut on the Top Ten at age 12, and maintained an enviable chart track record throughout the 1960s with a dozen Top Ten hits, more than a dozen albums and many TV appearances.  By the 1970s, his talents mushroomed, and Stevie Wonder became producer, songwriter, instrumentalist and singer, and one of the leading musical artists of all time, winning multiple Grammys and multiple Number One albums and singles.

Reginald Dwight

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Raised by a free-spirited, music-loving mother, Reggie proved to be something of a child prodigy on piano, playing difficult classical pieces after hearing them only once.  Although his classical training continued, he was also drawn to the rock and roll of Jerry Lee Lewis, and soon landed a weekend gig as pianist in a neighborhood pub.  Reggie also played in a band called Bluesology, who opened for American soul bands like the Isley Brothers, and became the support group for Long John Baldry, one of the pioneers of the British blues movement.  Reg began writing songs for a music publisher, who teamed him up with a lyric writer named Bernie Taupin.  Around that time, he decided he needed a better stage name, so he combined the names of two musicians he admired — Bluesology sax player Elton Dean, and Long John Baldry — to create a new moniker: Elton John.  You may have heard of him.

Henry Deutschendorf

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Henry was the son of a decorated military man, John Deutschendorf, Sr., who earned a spot in the Air Force Hall of Fame, but the father had little time for his son.  It was his mother’s mother who instilled in him the love of music and bought him his first guitar.  He lived in Roswell, NM, and Montgomery, AL, and Tucson, AZ, and Fort Worth TX, never fitting in anywhere.  Henry’s uncle, Dave Deutschendorf, was a member of the New Christy Minstrels, who encourage him to write songs and work on his guitar techniques.  New Christy member Randy Sparks told Henry to lose his last name, so Henry (whose middle name was John), adopted the capital of his favorite state, Colorado.  By the time he was 22, Henry was John Denver, replacing Chad Mitchell in The Mitchell Trio, writing his own songs and dreaming of a solo career.  His song, “Babe I Hate to Go,” was picked up by Peter Paul and Mary, retitled “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and became the #1 song in the country in late 1969, the first step in a hugely successful solo career.

Declan McManus

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Declan’s father, Ross MacManus, was a London-based jazz trumpeter and singer with The Joe Loss Orchestra, a popular British Big Band act from the 1940s through the ’60s.  He instilled a love of all types of music in his son, even after a divorce which sent Declan and his mother to live in Liverpool.  Declan formed a folk duo there when he was just 16, then returned to London in the mid-’70s and fronted a pub rock band called Flip City.  His father had performed under the name Day Costello and, in tribute to him, he adopted the name D.P. Costello around that time.  He continued writing songs and pursuing a solo recording career, and was eventually signed to the new upstart independent label, Stiff Records, who focused on punk and New Wave acts.  His manager, Jake Riviera, suggested Declan make the bold move of adopting Elvis Presley’s sacred first name, and Elvis Costello went on to become one of the most celebrated and respected musicians to emerge from the British New Wave movement.

Vincent Furnier

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Vincent was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, the Motown City, but the R&B bug didn’t really bite, and at age 14, Vincent and his family moved to Phoenix, Arizona.  He and his fellow cross-country teammates won the school talent contest miming Beatles songs, which inspired them to buy and learn how to play guitar, bass, drums and so on.  Vincent liked being the lead singer, but he recognized he and the band needed to find a way to stand out from all the other bands out there.  Hey, how about controversial, shocking, perverse?  It’ll attract lots of press coverage, even though it was just an act.  OK, cool, but what shall we call ourselves?  Something completely opposite of the outrageous image they envisioned…  Hmmm…  How about we pick a character from the wholesome family sitcom “Mayberry RFD,” a neighborly woman named Alice Cooper?  Perfect.  The band, formerly The Spiders, became Alice Cooper, and Vincent himself pretty much became the perverse persona soon known worldwide as Alice Cooper, with snakes, bats, guillotines and other gruesome props as part of his shtick.  In fact, once the band broke up in 1974, Furnier successfully sued to adopt the Alice Cooper name as his own.  Not sure what his IRS tax returns say…

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There’s a rather long list of name-changing recording artists who make my “honorable mention” list, and some of their stories are interesting enough to inspire me to do another blog post someday.

Steven Georgiou evolved into Cat Stevens (and then Yusaf Islam);  Walden Cassotto was renamed Bobby “Mack the Knife” Darin;  The Police and solo star Sting was born Gordon Sumner;  Malcolm Rebbenack became known as Dr. John the Night Tripper;  Ernest Evans morphed into Chubby Checker;  country star Crystal Gayle started out as Brenda Webb;  even as a teenager, McKinley Morganfield was known as Muddy Waters;  a youngster named Perry Miller ended up better known as Jesse Colin Young;  we know a girl named Judith Cohen as Juice Newton;  British boy Paul Gadd was eventually Gary Glitter; and Ray Sawyer was “on the cover of Rolling Stone” as Dr. Hook.

Some stars changed only their last names:  Francis Castellucio (Frankie Valli);  Edward Mahoney (Eddie Money);  Dominic Ierace (Donnie Iris);  Carol Klein (Carole King);  LaDonna Gaines (Donna Summer);  Cherilyn Sarkisian (Cher);  Georgios Panayiotou (George Michael);  John Ramistella (Johnny Rivers);  Hugh Cregg III (Huey Lewis);  Richard Penniman (Little Richard);  Peter Blankfield (Peter Wolf);  David Jones (David Bowie);  Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan);  Ray Robinson (Ray Charles);  Patricia Holt (Patti LaBelle);  Martyn Buchwald (Marty Balin);  Patricia Andrzejewski (Pat Benatar);  Priscilla White (Cilla Black).

And this tradition goes on well past the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  Just about every hip-hop artist of the last 30 years has a made-up name…  And we really need look no further than Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, the young lady born in 1986 in New York’s Upper East Side.  In 2006, when the aspiring singer arrived at the studio, her first producer used to greet her with a few lines from his favorite Queen song “Radio Ga Ga.”  In a text message he sent to her one day, “radio” auto-corrected to “lady,” and Lady Gaga was born.

Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink?

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary body of work and a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I take a closer look at one of the pioneers of progressive rock who went on to become one of rock music’s most popular yet fractious bands ever:  Pink Floyd.

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June 1975.  The four members of Pink Floyd were hard at work in the Abbey Road studio putting finishing touches on the recording of “Wish You Were Here,” their eagerly awaited follow-up LP to “The Dark Side of the Moon,” which had made the band worldwide superstars.

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Syd Barrett, 1975

The centerpiece of the new album was “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a 22-minute track broken into two 11-minute sections to open and close the album.  It was conceived as a tribute to Syd Barrett, their long-lost leader, their founder, their songwriter, their inspiration, who had fallen deep into “LSD-based mental disarray” shortly after the release of the group’s 1967 debut LP, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” and was dismissed from the band shortly thereafter.

As they worked that June night, Pink Floyd failed to notice when a strange-looking obese man wearing a white trenchcoat and shoes, clutching a white bag, wandered into the studio room.  His bald, eyebrow-less face looked ghostlike, and as he puttered around the band’s equipment, guitarist David Gilmour looked up and thought, “Who the hell is that, and why is he here?”

Roger Waters, the band’s bassist and chief songwriter, saw the interloper and stopped dead in his tracks.  He turned to keyboard player Rick Wright and drummer Nick Mason and asked, “Do you know who that is?” Wright studied him for a moment, and then said, “Oh my God.  That’s Syd.”

It was an eerie coincidence, or creepy karma, that Barrett would suddenly appear after a five-year absence.  He stayed less than an hour, quietly listening and observing, and Waters said later he broke down in tears at the pitiful sight of his friend, not yet 30 but looking twice that old.  When Barrett left, they never saw him again.  (He had released two largely forgettable solo albums in 1970, and lived a strictly private life in Cambridge, dying of cancer in 2006.)

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Wright, Gilmour, Mason and Waters in 1970

Pink Floyd, born from the ashes of a group called The Tea Set in 1966, has had one of the most tumultuous yet successful careers in rock history.  Their story is fraught with epic internal tension, international #1 albums, clinical madness, floating pigs, bitter rifts between founding members, huge concert tours, and worldwide sales among the highest in the business.

Not bad for a bunch of wayward art students from Cambridge.

Let’s start with a caveat:  Despite the massive sales numbers, Pink Floyd’s oeuvre is certainly not for everyone.  There are broad swaths of music lovers who regard the band with disdain, sniffing, “It’s just boring stoner music.  Give me something I can dance to, dammit!”

Indeed, even Pink Floyd was smart enough to recognize this.  In 1981, they jokingly titled their compilation album “A Collection of Great Dance Songs.”

Floyd fans never got up and danced to their music.  That was most definitely not the point.  This was music that commanded you to sit down and listen.

Pink Floyd’s stock in trade began as experimental psychedelic rock that soon evolved into what came to be known as progressive rock, which uses rich musical textures and enigmatic lyrics to challenge the limits of rock and roll.  At its best, Pink Floyd’s music was almost overwhelming in its complexity and nuance, its mesmerizing grace and sublime brilliance, its experimentalism and radical departure.

Pink Floyd in concert, 1977

The fact that they ended up as commercially successful as they have been is, in many ways, puzzling.  Let’s examine the stats:  According to Business Insider, Pink Floyd ranks ninth in all-time sales in the US, with 75 million units sold (and worldwide sales of 250 million).  The group’s signature LP, “Dark Side of the Moon,” spent an absurd 741 weeks (that’s more than 14 years!) on the US Billboard Top 200 album chart, an achievement unlikely to be surpassed (in second place is Bob Marley’s “Legends” collection, at 386).  “Dark Side” has sold 40 million copies worldwide, and still sells about 200,000 a year.  It has been estimated that one in every six households in the US has a copy of the album, and that someone, somewhere, is playing it right this minute.

Pink Floyd’s story is much like a three-act play.  Act I covers its inception to the departure of Barrett.  Act II would be the period from roughly 1968 through their heyday to the point where Waters acrimoniously splits.  Act III takes us from 1984 to present day.

Act I:

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Syd Barrett, 1967

Syd Barrett had been a childhood friend of Roger Waters when they were growing up in Cambridge, and was asked to join the group Waters had started with Nick Mason and Richard Wright, who he had met in architecture school in London.  Barrett quickly emerged as the main songwriter, singer, guitarist and front man, and nearly every song they recorded was composed by Barrett.

Named after two obscure blues guitarists — Pink Anderson and Floyd Council — they were a huge success in England from the start, first in the clubs of the London Underground with their trippy performances, and then on the charts.  Two hit singles (“Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play”) and the astonishing “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” LP were all Top Five on the charts there.  Musical peers like Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson has said, “Pink Floyd was colorful, creative and meaningful.  Syd Barrett’s songs were strange and funny, and they stretched my boundaries.  It’s as if they presented paintings as words and sounds.”

“The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” 1967
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But Barrett was quickly unraveling from his unfortunate penchant for taking LSD on nearly a daily basis in the summer and fall of 1967.  It made him unproductive, disruptive and maddeningly frustrating to deal with, both on stage and in the studio. Within months, it became abundantly clear that he had gone beyond the pale.  The rest of the group, desperate to keep their momentum, recruited Barrett’s old school chum David Gilmour, at first just to fill in Barrett’s guitar parts in concert, but ultimately, to take his place in the band’s permanent lineup.  It was a momentous change.

Waters in particular found it painful to cut Barrett loose, but he knew it was absolutely necessary.  “Pink Floyd couldn’t have happened without (Syd),” Waters said, “but on the other hand, it couldn’t have gone on with him.”

Act II:

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One of Pink Floyd’s most memorable album covers: “Ummagumma,” 1969

The new lineup forged ahead, with Waters taking over most of the songwriting, although several tracks on the next few albums were credited to all four members.  The material they recorded on “A Saucerful of Secrets,” “Ummagumma” and “Atom Heart Mother” continued to explore new and strange sounds in the same spacey, psychedelic vein they had introduced, and the British audiences and record buyers continued to lap it up.

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But all of these early records made barely a dent in the US, except among devotees listening to underground FM radio.  It wasn’t until 1971’s “Meddle,” which included the hypnotic, relentless, otherworldly “One Of These Days” and the 23-minute opus “Echoes” that American listeners started paying closer attention.  Still, the album stalled at #70, and its followup, “Obscured By Clouds,” a soundtrack to the French film “La Vallee,” managed only #46 here.

That all changed in March 1973 when “Dark Side of the Moon” was released. Now we were hearing heartbeats, ticking clocks, a cash register, a helicopter, maniacal laughter, mesmerizing synthesizer riffs, amazing guitar passages… and the voices.  Waters taped technicians, friends, even the studio door security guy, saying various things, scripted and unscripted, and dropped them strategically into the mix.

“There is no dark side of the moon…Matter of fact, it’s all dark…”

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The band in the studio, 1974

Most important, the music and lyrics had been carefully crafted over many months in the studio to be less eccentric and more appealing to a broader audience.  It hit a nerve among high school and college kids, who were spending untold hours in their bedrooms and dorm rooms under the headphones, spellbound by the lushly produced, technically proficient recordings.  Waters was now clearly in charge of the songwriting, and he was obsessed with the subject of madness and the things that make people insane — money, time, modern life.  Motivated partly by the sad fate of his old friend and partly by his own caustic view of societal injustices, Waters and the boys found a way, as Rolling Stone‘s Mikal Gilmore put it, “to make a thoughtful and imaginative statement about grim modern realities that somehow managed to soothe you with its nightmares.”

It should be mentioned that each Pink Floyd album cover broke new ground in artistic audacity.  Hipgnosis, a London-based outfit, collaborated with the band to devise extraordinarily astounding images that contributed mightily to the excitement of every new Floyd release. The artwork for “Dark Side” is one of the most recognizable covers in rock music history.

The band spent more than a year on the road worldwide doing sold-out shows in promotion of “Dark Side,” with increasingly arresting visuals augmenting the mind-bending music.  But as often happens to bands who achieve such widespread success seemingly overnight, they struggled mightily about what to do next.  Waters and Gilmour were already at odds about the direction they should take, and Waters’ uncomfortable moodiness made life difficult in the creative laboratory of the recording studio.  But Gilmour had come up with a mesmerizing four-note riff that Waters thought was a perfect foundation for a long piece he wanted to write about both the loneliness and brotherhood he felt for Barrett and his dissolution.

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From the “Wish You Were Here” album cover photo shoot

“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” — and the acoustic guitar-based “Wish You Were Here” — were the Barrett tributes that became the centerpieces for the “Wish You Were Here” LP, widely regarded as a thoroughly worthy follow-up to “Dark Side.”  Just as important were the tracks that decried the submission of the human race (“Welcome to the Machine”) and the way the band was now treated by the profit-motivated record label (“Have a Cigar”).  The group felt no need to sit for interviews, and in fact, they cherished their individual privacy, something most bands were happily willing to sacrifice in the name of fame.  No matter:  The album went straight to #1 in multiple countries.

As Wright put it, “I particularly like that record, the atmospherics.  I think the best material from the Floyd was when two or three of us co-wrote something together.  Afterwards, we lost that.  There was no longer that interplay of ideas.”

Indeed, Waters took control almost completely for “Animals” (1977) and the sprawling “The Wall” (1979), Pink Floyd’s next two LPs.  He insisted on handling virtually all the music and lyrics, and even stage design, props (a gigantic inflatable pig?) and laser-show lighting.  Their lyrics — particularly for the bloated double album “The Wall” —  continued Waters’ increasingly bleak worldview and his obsession with gloom, mental breakdowns and alienation, which, in turn, alienated the rest of the band.  “Do we have to revisit all this yet again?” questioned Wright, who Waters fired during the album’s recording, yet rehired “as a sideman” for the subsequent tour.

Both albums reinforced the band’s reign as the world’s top concert draw at the time.  “The Wall” gave them their improbable #1 hit single, “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II).”  But the internal dissension was growing exponentially — “None of us has ever been the best of friends,” noted Gilmour — and communication was nearly nonexistent, much like the relationship between the band and its audience once Waters executed his desire to build an actual wall of imitation concrete blocks on stage, taking the message of isolation to its extreme.

Somehow, the band managed to stay together until, in 1982, Waters presented the group with another concept and a batch of mostly-completed songs.  This time Gilmour balked, saying he thought the material wasn’t up to snuff — and indeed, most of the tracks were rejects from “The Wall” sessions.  Nevertheless, they recorded the underwhelming “The Final Cut,” which turned out to be the final Pink Floyd album in which Waters participated.

It reached #6 and sold two million copies in the US, but you rarely hear any cuts from it, on classic radio or anywhere else.  It was a deflating end to a marvelous reign.

Act III:

“A Momentary Lapse of Reason,” 1987

In 1984-85, court battles over the rights to use the Pink Floyd name (the “brand”) pitted Waters against his former mates in one of the deepest, ugliest splits in rock history, more public even than The Beatles’ infamous breakup.  Waters lost, and Gilmour, Mason and Wright kept the Pink Floyd name in the news with 1987’s “A Momentary Lapse of Reason,” a solid album and tour that maintained the band’s momentum for the rest of the ’80s. Gilmour’s immediately recognizable guitar and vocals carried the day (much to Waters’ consternation) on tracks like “Learning to Fly” and “On the Turning Away.”

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David Gilmour on stage, 2004

The threesome topped the charts yet again in 1994 with “The Division Bell,” not their best LP by a long shot but ravenously embraced by a fan base that only seemed to grow since the ’70s. One last Floyd LP, entitled “The Endless River,” was released in 2014, truly a “scraping the bottom of the barrel” collection of discarded snippets from previous sessions, barely worth mentioning.

Gilmour had been occasionally releasing solo albums since as far back as 1978, and his strong 2006 LP, “On an Island,” reached #6 in the US, a welcome rush of Floydian music for the band’s starved fans.  A tour at that time, and another in support of 2015’s “Rattle That Lock,” met with praise and enthusiastic crowds.

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Roger Waters performing, 2007

Waters, in the meantime, produced a series of far less successful solo albums — “The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking” (1982), “Radio K.A.O.S.” (1987) and “Amused to Death” (1992) — and a couple of well-received tours (including a star-studded tour promoting “The Wall”) featured new songs interspersed with the best of the Pink Floyd repertoire.  He’s still at it today, participating in the landmark Desert Tour shows on the Coachella grounds in 2016 (some say he was the highlight} and perhaps his best solo LP, “Is This the Life We Really Want?” in 2017.

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As is often the case when bands split up, the various entities did reasonably well, but certainly not as successful as they would have been together.  An uneasy truce was reached for a couple of one-off appearances in 2005-2007, and the band members no longer publicly badmouth each other.  But it’s clear they’ll never record together again, and the band’s catalog will not see any further entries (outside of endless re-packages).

But Pink Floyd’s legacy as one of rock’s true giants remains intact, and one of the music business’s most interesting tales, with a recorded output that rivals damn near any band in history.

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