“Why Does it All Have to be so Terribly Loud?”

TJ Worthington on The Pink Floyd’s appearance on The Look of the Week

First published February 2007

“That sight, those sounds were made by The Pink Floyd, a pop group who took over the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Friday for the entertainment they called ‘Games for May’”.

That sentence, those words were uttered by Robert Robinson, a presenter who oversaw the BBC2 arts programme The Look of the Week, in the instalment it featured a remarkable appearance by an up-and-coming band who had only recently released their first single. Much repeated in recent years, the Pink Floyd performance and interview are usually passed off as nothing more significant than a rare piece of archive rock footage and an unintentionally comic example of the stuck-up arty “squares” not getting what those crazy psychedelic hipsters were trying to say (man), respectively. Nothing is ever really revealed about the nature of the programme, the background of the interviewer, or even the circumstances under which the band’s appearance came about in the first place. And needless to say, the reality is far more fascinating than a casual viewing might understandably suggest.

The Look of the Week was, in effect, a direct spin-off from BBC2′s daily arts show Late Night Line-Up; one of a surprisingly diverse range of associated programmes that would appear during its existence. Broadcast late on Sunday nights, The Look of the Week took a more academic and analytical view on major artistic events of the previous seven days, which – if surviving editions are anything to go by – could range from Fonteyn and Nureyev rehearsing for the premiere of a ballet based on Paradise Lost and the restoration of flood-damaged artwork in Florence, to Danny La Rue preparing for a new stage show.

Like its parent programme, The Look of the Week was made by the BBC’s Presentation Department, who regularly used their budgetary surplus to make cheap yet highbrow or off-the-wall programming in their tiny studio, their most notable offerings over the years including the rock music showcase The Old Grey Whistle Test and Eric Idle’s highly-regarded comedy sketch show Rutland Weekend Television.

Late Night Line-Up had always been supportive of the more avant-garde and critically favoured side of popular music, and among the many artists who made their earliest (and in some cases only) appearances on British television as part of the show were Bob Dylan, Tim Buckley and Frank Zappa, the latter of whom went as far as to preface his performance by thanking the BBC “for giving us the chance to do some of the things on television here that they would never let us do in the United States”. Over time such appearances would be developed into a regular live strand known as Colour Me Pop, which quickly graduated into a programme in its own right, and eventually evolved into the music magazine show Disco 2 and, later still, The Old Grey Whistle Test.

The Look of the Week was less inclined to stray into such areas, but occasionally a live show or album release or, in the case of The Rolling Stones, a brush with the law would prove too significant for them to ignore, and one particular concert of the week ending 14 May 1967 was deemed of sufficient importance for a whole third of the show’s running time to be given over to it.

The Pink Floyd, as they were still calling themselves at that stage, had come to prominence during 1966, attracting attention for their unusual repertoire, which consisted of “psychedelic” pop songs punctuated by long improvised instrumental passages, and bolstered by an hallucinogenic light show and primitive electronic effects. Impressing the crowds at hip venues, and playing under a hail of coins and beer mugs in other slightly less progressive dance halls, their status quickly rose to the point where, despite their lack of obvious mainstream commercial appeal, they were able to secure a recording contract with EMI. Their first single, Arnold Layne had been released in March 1967 and had just nudged into the top 20.

Despite these apparent inroads into the mainstream, the band were understandably keen to leave the often hostile and unreceptive live circuit behind them, and were looking towards experimenting with larger and more appreciative venues. On 12 May 1967, having spent the morning in Abbey Road studios with producer Norman Smith mixing tracks intended for their debut album, The Pink Floyd took to the stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the “Games for May” show.

This was something of an early attempt at a “mixed media” event, with their usual live performance complemented by choreographed bubble machines, daffodils strategically placed among the audience, and a number of taped sound collages prepared by the band for the event, reportedly with the assistance of Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – “Tape Dawn” (built up from varispeeded birdsong), “Tape Bubbles” (electronic sounds designed to enhance the effects of the bubble machine) and the more mysterious “Tape Ending”, which is said to have in some way involved “sawing” effects. Also composed especially for this occasion was a new song written by vocalist and guitarist Syd Barrett, Games for May. Within weeks they had been ushered into the studio to commit this catchy number to tape, and with a slight change of title, See Emily Play gave The Pink Floyd their first top 10 hit in July 1967.

While music fans and press reviewers were impressed by the effort that had gone into the presentation, the management of the Queen Elizabeth Hall were rather less pleased. After the show it was found the bubbles and daffodils had caused stain damage to the carpets, and they were to refuse permission for any rock band to play at the venue for many years thereafter.

With barely any time to reflect on the success of the event, on Saturday 13 it was straight back to the club circuit for The Pink Floyd with a gig at St George’s Ballroom, Leicester. On Sunday, they arrived at television centre to take part in The Look of the Week, sharing programme space with features on novelist Christopher Isherwood, who had recently published A Meeting By The River, and a retrospective exhibition of the work of artist Dame Laura Knight.

The Look of the Week represented the first substantial media exposure for band, whom to that date had only previously appeared almost literally in the background of two documentaries, plugging (but not performing) Arnold Layne on a Granada pop programme, and playing two numbers live on a BBC Light Programme radio show. Ironically, given its subsequent reputation, it was also their most comfortable by far – within a couple of months, a band row had put paid to a projected appearance on the Light Programme’s prestigious Saturday Club, three appearances on Top of the Pops had led to further tensions over their dalliance with the mainstream, and a string of high-profile appearances on American television had been hampered by Barrett’s increasingly erratic behaviour. Small wonder that by the middle of 1968, they had decided to let large-scale concerts and abstract album covers do the talking for them.

The Look of the Week began with a brief glimpse of The Pink Floyd performing a highly truncated version of Pow.R Toc.H, a wild instrumental with “jungle” sound effects that would appear in full on their debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn the following month. The programme then went into its Isherwood feature before returning to the band for a live performance of Astronomy Domine, another track soon to feature on their debut album, which was prefaced with a curious introduction from the programme’s resident music critic, Dr Hans Keller:

“The Pink Floyd – you’re going to hear them in a minute and I do not want to prejudice you. Hear them and see them first and we’ll talk about them afterwards but four quick points I want to make before you hear them. The first is that what you heard at the beginning, that short bit, those few seconds, are really all I can hear in them, which is to say to my mind, there is continuous repetition and proportionally they are a bit boring. My second point is that they are terribly loud. You couldn’t quite hear because, of course, it isn’t as loud from your sets as it is here in the studio or as it was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Friday. I will ask them about that when we come to talk. My third point is that perhaps I am a little bit too much of a musician to appreciate them. And the reason why that – why I say that – is that four, they have an audience, and people who have an audience ought to be heard. Perhaps it is my fault that I don’t appreciate them”.

After performing the song with their famous light show casting eerie psychedelic shadows across the sober BBC studio, Syd Barrett and bass guitarist Roger Waters politely set down their instruments and walk across the set to join Keller in the interview area; something that by modern presentational standards looks positively archaic. He opens the interview, as he had suggested that he might do, by challenging them about the loudness of their performance, pointing out that as someone who had “grown up with the string quartet” he found the volume made their work somewhat difficult to appreciate. An amused and bemused Waters calmly replies that there was no real need for the music to be that loud except that they like it to be, and that the difference in their musical roots was possibly a key factor; an argument Keller dismisses as “not altogether convincing, but I accept that you like it”.

This opening exchange is indeed unintentionally hilarious, but is also much misunderstood. When considered in the context of the little-seen remainder of the interview, and of the renowned and in some circles notorious approach of the interviewer, the remarks about volume have an altogether different significance.

Born in Vienna in 1919 and relocating to London in 1938, Hans Keller genuinely did “grow up with the string quartet”, displaying a prodigious talent for playing the violin as a youngster. As an adult, his strong interest in philosophy and psychoanalysis allowed him to progress beyond performing to become a noted and outspoken music critic, and eventually a prominent and pioneering theorist. One of his most significant legacies in this respect was the formulation of “Wordless Functional Analysis” (routinely referred to by Keller as “FA”, in recognition of his equally strong passion for football), a system that allowed music to be analysed and deconstructed by sound alone, without any recourse to verbal description or written words.

Much admired and respected within the field of contemporary classical music – indeed, some composers including Benjamin Britten named works in his honour – Keller’s deep love of the subject and willingness to espouse unpopular and controversial views led to him becoming a prominent broadcaster on both radio and television. A 1962 demonstration of Wordless Functional Analysis for the BBC is still held in high regard, and he could often be heard chairing or contributing to the popular “interval talks” during Radio 3′s classical concerts, and at one point had his own series of analytical lectures on the station. However, he was also frequently invited to contribute to programmes on entirely different subjects, and once wrote and presented a documentary about footballer Jimmy Greaves. Meanwhile, a more anarchic streak notoriously manifested itself in a spoof documentary about a fictitious composer for BBC Radio 3, which succeeded in fooling the entire classical music establishment.

During the interview that follows, Keller uses his starting point to divert into follow-on questions about whether the need for increased volume to serve large audiences or dancers might end up dictating the kind of music that can be created, whether or not such music and quieter performances will become mutually exclusive, and whether the emergence of events like Games for May might enable popular music to find a way out of this apparent bind. He also enquires with evident sincerity about the relationship between performer and audience, and whether The Pink Floyd have encountered any hostility towards their music.

Barrett and Waters reply that they find quiet music as interesting as loud music – something that would be evidenced with the release of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn – but found excessive volume was necessary for creating certain textures appropriate to particular musical passages, agree with Keller’s assessment of the limitations of the live music circuit, and claim that with larger venues they were hoping to create an atmosphere where the audience’s first reaction would be to listen rather than dance to the music.

This has all the makings of a fascinating discussion, but unfortunately never really takes off as it should, hampered by Keller’s abrasive style and Waters and Barrett’s inexperience as interviewees.

Keller concludes the interview by remarking that, to him, in summary The Pink Floyd’s music represents “a little bit of a regression to childhood”. Again this is a remark that is routinely held up to much ridicule but is in fact much misunderstood. At this stage in their career, their music was dominated by the musical and lyrical influence of nursery rhymes and children’s literature by the likes of Kenneth Grahame and Hilaire Belloc, and many other more sympathetic critics have made practically identical remarks about the band’s early output without having the same accusations of snobbery levelled at them.

The noted radio presenter John Peel, himself an early and prominent supporter of the band, remarked on many occasions that it was the emergence of acts like Pink Floyd that divided popular music into straightforward pop and more serious rock, and began to attract the attention of more highbrow critics who would previously have ignored the entire genre. While it can be argued that this all effectively began with The Times’ landmark – and, at the time, highly controversial – nomination of John Lennon and Paul McCartney as Composers of the Year in 1964, appearances like this one capture a key moment of change in artistic attitudes, with musicians making tentative inroads into more rarefied cultural areas and vice versa. It is also worth bearing in mind that Keller applies the same robust and fiercely passionate mode of analysis to their music as he would to any classical composer, highlighting the initial uneasiness of this unlikely critical accord. In time, other critics would find more constructive and sympathetic methods with which to study popular music.

By happy accident rather than by design, this edition of The Look of the Week was one of several that managed to survive the routine “junkings” carried out by the BBC Archives in the 1960s and 1970s. The fact that it still exists is fortunate for a number of reasons; as well as the already discussed minor cultural significance of this and other similar shows, it also preserves what is probably the truest indication of how The Pink Floyd would have sounded live at the time, not to mention the only known substantial record of their somewhat more ephemeral light show.

Although an extract reportedly found its way into a televised tribute to Hans Keller in the mid-1980s, its existence was largely unknown until it was unearthed by researchers for Channel 4′s lengthy clip show The A-Z of Television in 1989, followed by a more substantial extract (although still not the full interview) appearing in BBC2′s Sounds of The Sixties and Dancing in the Street – and countless documentaries about Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd – while the performance of Astronomy Domine has even shown up as part of Top of the Pops 2.

The number of complaints that have been received on these occasions over how “terribly loud” the footage was has, sadly, never been disclosed.