The Pink Floyd Experience - Johannesburg 2005

"Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone!" is the command and "all in all you're just another brick in the wall" the explanation.

Small wonder that the South African government of the day "discouraged" young people from listening to Pink Floyd's music. (The album The Wall was released in 1979, the movie in 1982.) In those years the state-dominated media still regularly jumped on its high horse and "Another Brick in the Wall" was banned from the SABC.

By 1982, of course, Pink Floyd were already recognised "betogers" (protesters). Their first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, had been released in 1967 and contributed to the very rapid development of psychedelic music that is typical of the recorded music (but not the stage performances) of that era. In 1966 The Beach Boys released the Pet Sounds album that included "Good Vibrations", and a year later Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles appeared. Interesting that at that time Paul McCartney said that The Beatles would no longer tour as the Sergeant Pepper music could be performed only in the studio.

It is very difficult for most music fans to imagine a technological music world without computers, but bear in mind that the Moog Synthesiser - that electronic contraption that had to be programmed note by note - had only just become available and was being used only in the studio, and by musicians such as Mick Jagger and George Martin, who could afford it. By contrast - and this is one of the reasons for their breathtaking success - Pink Floyd performed their work on stage. In 1972 they started touring with one of the most famous music projects of the 20th century Dark Side of the Moon. The album is remembered in The Guinness Book of Records as the album that remained continuously on the charts for longer than any other one: more than eleven years.

It is a goose-bump thought to try and imagine what it must have been like to be at The Knebworth Festival in 1975: fireworks, spitfire aeroplanes, lights, unbelievable sound and sounds, and even an aeroplane crashing into the stage. Here in South Africa we heard only distant rumours about things like that, usually with a "look-at-what-those-junkies-are-getting-up-to-now" slant - while we watched owl-eyed Michael de Morgan reading the news on the test channel!

Like most other young people of that generation, I was more or less aware of the fact that Pink Floyd was basically anti-war with a little anti-establishment thrown in on the side. I didn't take much notice, because they were a British band and on the other side of The Pond, the "make love, not war" activities such as Woodstock and the hippy movement were hogging the limelight - acts like Janis Joplin, Simon and Garfunkel and CSN taking up most of my listening time.

What makes this, 2005 performance in the Civic Theatre by The Pink Floyd Experience spectacular is the emphasis they place on Pink Floyd's social commentary - so much so that I regret not having paid more attention to it at the time.

From the opening, which starts with Glen Ahearn on keyboards - mostly the Hammond organ sound used by many bands in the seventies - it is clear that the show will respect the very slow progression of songs, the way Pink Floyd performed. For four or five minutes it is only the sound of one instrument. The first song lasts a good twenty minutes and I start getting the feeling that I always get with Pink Floyd: does it have to take so long? Don't get me wrong. It's not that I prefer short songs - I don't! I listened to Iron Butterfly's In-a-gadda-da-vida endlessly when it first came out and I even liked the long version of "Smoke on the Water", but there was always something about Pink Floyd that made me feel as though I was listening to a Buthelezi speech: on and on, long after the point had been made. But the progression of keyboards, to guitar, drums, voices and eventually saxophone is musically excellent and therefore totally acceptable. There is a long, full-length version of Shine On after which there is a hint of the theatre that is to follow: one of the backing singers appears on stage with a 1960s vacuum cleaner - only a minute on stage but a reminder of the technology of the time.

And then there is the introduction of a simple element, a fascinating symbol of the music of The Wall: a low wall, no more than 200 mm high, is built from both sides of the stage with cardboard blocks - unobtrusive but in your face at the same time. What will happen to it? The Wall is the story of a rock musician who, because of the pressures of fame and circumstances, isolates himself by building a higher and higher wall around himself. In the case of Pink Floyd, there is also the damning social commentary that plays a role in the construction of "the wall".

It is this emotion that (especially in the second half) dominates the show. Although Darren Whittaker performs a classic lead break on the electric guitar, which I might remember as the best I've ever seen live (it carries on for a long time, so loud that a day later I still have a headache, and Darren, as the real axeman should be, is motionless, expressionless), the focus of the show is more and more on the wall that grows inexorably higher, and the work of lead singer Stan Gratkowski who, with passion and conviction, plays the role of the threatened artist.

Eventually Gratkowski is alone in front of the three metre high, dominant wall - isolated (as is the audience) from the rest of the artists and the stage.  And then the climax: Gratkowski appears as a goose-stepping, Hitler-type caricature with a loudhailer. Initially the distortion of the megaphone and the volume of the music make it difficult to hear what he is saying, but as the music becomes progressively louder and it becomes impossible to hear his voice he becomes totally frenetic even though nobody can hear him. Outstanding theatre.

Finally, there is only the three metre high wall. What becomes of it …?

Note: The Pink Floyd Experience are my kind of musos. After years of playing in pubs and half-baked music tours of New Zealand for six beers a day, Stan Gratkowski, Glen Ahearn and Darren Whittaker decided to do a once-off Pink Floyd tribute show. Of course (as all artists in all genres will affirm) the experts knew that it would fail. They persevered, however, and the rest, as they say, is a minute little piece of music history that today is a world tour. Their dedication and perseverance shows in their outstanding work. Good on you lads!

Vincent Pienaar - 28 July to 21 August 2005 (Johannesburg Civic Theatre, Braamfontein, Jhb)


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