Friday, April 06, 2012

Open Culture - Rock Among the Ruins: Pink Floyd Live in Pompeii (1972)

For Pink Floyd fans, this 90-minute documentary of their live recording at Pompeii in 1972 is a true treat. This is the most recent director's cut of the film, so there is added material not previously included in the several prior versions. Thanks to Open Culture for finding this gem.

Rock Among the Ruins: Pink Floyd Live in Pompeii (1972)

Tourism and historical research aside, most ruins aren’t particularly useful, least of all for their original purposes. Yet Pink Floyd fans know of one instance when a ruin made a comeback, if a brief and specialized one, that could make you forget all about the ash and pumice that buried it nearly 2000 years before. In October 1971, the band set up their gear in the middle of the Ampitheatre of Pompeii and blasted three songs out into the antiquity surrounding them: “Echoes,” “A Saucerful of Secrets,” and “One of These Days.” They played not to a live audience, but to an array of studio-quality recording equipment designed to faithfully capture every layer of their sound for theatrical reproduction. You can see and hear all the then-highest-of-the-high-tech musical equipment used to produce then-thoroughly modern rock music in this nearly alien-looking geometric setting of time-worn stone and encroaching grass in Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii, now free to watch on YouTube.

Pink Floyd’s chosen venue, the oldest standing Roman ampitheatre of them all, suits their project sonically as well as aesthetically. Had the band invited an audience, the old place probably could, with a touch of restoration, have handled it with aplomb. An article from CSO Security and Risk cites its bathroom design and placement, its queue separation, its anxiety-reducing openness, its simple stairway scheme, its lack of corners and bottleneck points, and the wide road leading to it as qualities from which today’s stadium designers can still learn. Just last May, the surviving members of Pink Floyd happened to get back together on stage; should they launch a reunion tour, they might consider starting at the ampitheatre they introduced to so many young fans before history teachers could.

You’ll find embedded above the 2003 director’s cut of Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii, the latest of several versions of the film. It includes not just the band’s Pompeii performance, but additional songs shot in Paris, recording and interviewing sessions at Abbey Road, and a number of clips of exploding volcanoes and Earth from space. The non-concert material further explores themes naturally raised by placing music from 1971 into a venue from 70 BC.  Considering any creation’s place in history and the danger of fetishizing the man-made, the band members talk about how to avoid becoming “slaves to all our equipment,” how not to one day find themselves “a relic of the past,” and whether or not rock would survive a vast societal collapse. Some of this feels like a more intelligent version of the rock-documentary sensibility that This is Spinal Tap would so thoroughly lambast almost a decade later. We all had a good laugh when that film’s hapless fictional rock group ordered up an all-too-miniature replica of Stonehenge for their live show. You may also chuckle at the grandness of Pink Floyd’s use of the Ampitheatre of Pompeii, but it also presents you with questions worth thinking about.

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.
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