Omnireviewer (Pink Floyd stamps edition)

Next month, the UK’s Royal Mail is releasing 10 commemorative Pink Floyd stamps, in honour of the band’s 50th anniversary. Because I don’t feel like I’ve been emphasizing the “omni” part of Omnireviewer lately, I am going to review them.

First off, I’ll say that insofar as postage is still a necessary thing, a set of Pink Floyd stamps is a good idea. It’s a good idea for a couple of reasons: firstly because Pink Floyd looms gigantic in British (and global) culture,  but also because they have a more memorable canon of iconography than maybe any other band. In fact, this set of stamps serves equally to commemorate the work of Storm Thorgerson, the late master of album design, as it does to commemorate the band. You know an image is indelible when you can literally fit it onto a postage stamp and it retains its impact.

But, two steps back, Royal Mail hasn’t just chosen to feature Pink Floyd’s recorded legacy; they’ve also devoted four of the ten stamps to their live shows. Another good decision: Pink Floyd’s knack for live spectacle was a crucial part of their aesthetic. So, the broad strokes are solid, and I’ll just say outright that I am essentially favourably disposed to these postage stamps.

But, as per Omnireviewer tradition, we must take them one by one. Here goes.

Studio album stamps

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn — This is a good stamp. Pink Floyd’s debut is a slightly dated record, and not really one of the ones that their contemporary legacy rests on. (I personally prefer the follow-up, A Saucerful of Secrets, but I confess that’s the kind of wilful perversity that leads people to use Linux or vacation in Reno.) But really, we ought to take this more as a commemoration of the band’s beginnings than of the music itself. Piper is the only album the band made under the leadership of the late Syd Barrett. Barrett’s legacy doesn’t stop at this album — it also encompasses two of the best psychedelic rock singles of the period (“Arnold Layne” and especially “See Emily Play”), two excellent solo albums, a significant contribution to A Saucerful of Secrets, and a plethora of outtakes and B-sides that are never less than interesting. Considering that Barrett succumbed to mental illness only a couple of years into his musical career, he remains a staggeringly important cult figure. As for the image itself, this is the only Pink Floyd album cover that pre-dates the band’s relationship with Storm Thorgerson and the Hipgnosis design studio. So, it’s understandably a less memorable image than later album covers. But there’s a good story behind it: the picture was taken with a prism lens, thus its kaleidoscopic look. The photographer was a fellow called Vic Singh, and he got the lens as a gift from George Harrison. Incidentally, the Beatles had been recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the adjacent studio to Pink Floyd when they were recording this debut. Piper is mighty historical, and thus mighty stamp-worthy. Grade: A-

Atom Heart Mother — This is an okay stamp. I’m on the record for my opinion that Atom Heart Mother is a lousy rock album. That doesn’t necessarily preclude it from postage stamp greatness, though. On the one hand, if Royal Mail wanted to feature another pre-fame, pre-Dark Side of the Moon album, the clear choice would be Meddle: an album that critics, fans and the band members themselves all revere. Atom Heart Mother, by contrast, is bloated and meandering and has only one song, “Fat Old Sun,” that would find its way into future live setlists. On the other hand, this album cover (Storm Thorgerson, this time) is a classic. Thorgerson himself claims to have loved the image because “it was just so cow.” I can’t argue with that. Also, it’s far better than the Meddle cover, which I didn’t realize was a close-up of a human ear until years after I first heard the record. So, let’s split the difference between an unworthy album and a fabulous image. Grade: B

The Dark Side of the Moon — This is a great stamp. My earlier remark about an image retaining its impact when it’s shrunk down to the size of a postage stamp really mostly just applies to this. There’s a reason that Dark Side‘s album cover is one of the most memorable in history, and it’s a reason that would be familiar to anybody who knows the principles of flag design. (Thank you, Roman Mars.) Like a great flag, the image on the cover of Dark Side is so simple that its details can be ascertained from a distance or in miniature. It is design perfection — so much so that all attempts to vary it, even Thorgerson’s own, are inevitably tepid. And the record itself, of course, is the stuff of legends. It is rock at its most mimetic. It was practically a postage stamp already. Grade: A+

Wish You Were Here — This is an alright stamp. Wish You Were Here is one of the really great Pink Floyd albums, and its cover is recognizable enough that you can fill in the details in your head. But it doesn’t have the exquisite simplicity of the Dark Side of the Moon cover, so if you don’t know what you’re looking at — and presumably some people won’t — you might not be able to quite make it out. But I do like the way that the Queen’s silhouette and the price fit into the cover’s white border. And again, it’s a really great album well worth celebrating. Grade: B+

Animals — This isn’t a very good stamp. Before anybody starts yelling, let me assure you that I agree Animals is a masterpiece. It’s probably my favourite Pink Floyd album. But what do you see when you look at that stamp? You see a power plant. What you don’t see, because it is far too small, is the tiny pig flying between the smokestacks. Thorgerson’s Animals cover is one of the great rock and roll sight gags, but it depends on scale: the smallness of the pig, relative to the hugeness of the power plant, is part of what makes it funny. It’s a tiny little out-of-place thing in an otherwise ordinary image. Even the CD copies of Animals are less visually effective than the original vinyl (he grumbles, like a man twice his age). Royal Mail could easily have chosen The Wall as their pick from this period of the band’s discography. It’s a more familiar album, a simpler image (it doesn’t get much simpler than white bricks) and that ink-splattery lettering is just awesome. To be fair, Animals is a classic that has never quite gotten its due. But this is not the right context to try and fix that. Grade: C-

The Endless RiverThis is a bad stamp. 2014’s The Endless River is not only a bad album, though it is that, it is also more an afterword than a proper final chapter. It is a collection of doctored outtakes from 1994’s The Division Bell, which was assumed to be the final Pink Floyd album for more than twenty years. So, The Endless River is a proper Pink Floyd album only in the sense that Opel is a proper Syd Barrett album, or You And I is a proper Jeff Buckley album — which is to say that it isn’t. It’s worth a listen as a curio, but it’s certainly not something that deserves to be commemorated in this way. On the other hand, The Endless River was made as a tribute to the band’s late keyboardist Richard Wright, so the stamp could be taken as a similar tribute to the most quietly important member of Pink Floyd. But, a far better tribute, and a more worthwhile nod to the band’s lengthy denouement, would have been to simply re-issue the Division Bell stamp that Royal Mail put out in 2009. It’s a great album, an openly valedictory one, and it had actual hands-on involvement from both Richard Wright and Storm Thorgerson, who both passed away prior to The Endless River. This is the most substantial misstep in an otherwise impressive body of philatelic work. Grade: D-

Live show stamps

UFO Club, 1966 — This is a lovely stamp. The Pink Floyd’s early shows (they wouldn’t drop the definite article until a year later) feature one of the defining pieces of Swinging London imagery: the swirling oil patterns of Mark Boyle’s psychedelic light show. Boyle’s approach was simple: he just put various oils and alcohols between two clear slides and let a projector lamp warm them up until they spread, changed colour and were cast across the band as pastel light. It doesn’t get much more 1966 than this. Grade: A

The Dark Side of the Moon Tour, 1973 — This is a lacklustre stamp. No doubt this tour was a major turning point in the band’s history, but this isn’t a particularly interesting photograph, is it? The biggest missed opportunity in the live show stamps is the lack of one of the greatest bits of Pink Floyd iconography: a giant inflatable pig. Instead of this rather dull shot of the band themselves (and indeed, in lieu of the Animals stamp), Royal Mail should have put out a stamp from the Animals tour, featuring a close-up of the pig they used to fly over the audience. This is the most superfluous of all ten stamps. Grade: B-

The Wall Tour, 1981 — This is an excellent stamp. For one thing, it’s a nod to the second-most influential visual artist to work with Pink Floyd, the cartoonist Gerald Scarfe. He drew the magnificent, disquieting gatefold for The Wall album, and also headed up the animation team for the film adaptation and the live show. This specific image of marching hammers, projected onto the massive wall that made up the live show’s set is maybe the single most iconic image associated with Pink Floyd that isn’t on an album cover. The tiny, black trenchcoated Roger Waters at the foot of the wall offers a sense of scale. It’s a fitting tribute to the show that set a new standard for rock spectacle. Grade: A+

The Division Bell Tour, 1994 — This is a fine stamp. The Division Bell tour was as excellent a farewell as fans could have asked for. The PULSE concert film captured the show at Earl’s Court, so we can all see that it was one of the greatest rock spectacles ever, in terms of scale. It can’t compete with The Wall for ingenuity, but the massiveness of the show, combined with the excellence of the performances (by the band members themselves and the additional personnel they toted along) made it great. The image projected on the circular screen in this shot is from the “High Hopes” video, directed by Storm Thorgerson, in some of the last work that he did with the band. A nice final salvo. Grade: A-

Conclusions

Again, insofar as stamps are still a thing, this is a lovely tribute. I would personally sub out The Wall for AnimalsThe Division Bell for The Endless River, the Animals tour for the Dark Side tour, and I’d accept Atom Heart Mother and Wish You Were Here with reservations. But it’s a lovely set, altogether. Average grade: B+ (Technically, it was a B, but general goodwill incited me to bump it up.)

Oh my god I just reviewed postage stamps. Somebody save me from myself.

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