A Guy Called Pink

In the mid-70s, Pink Floyd released Have A Cigar, a song criticizing the music industry and its scummy managers. Today, some of those historic fronts have dissolved while others have shifted significantly. And some heroes from back then aren’t what they used to be.

“Oh, by the way, which one (of you) is Pink?” We’re in the 70s, Have A Cigar by Pink Floyd is playing as usual. And like every time this song gets played, you are captivated by the heavy, almost metallic-sounding groove that the band is unleashing here within the context of a state-of-the-art studio production, as well as by the rather aloof-sounding vocals. But when the singer mentions a part of the band’s name yet again, you start to wonder. Asking about someone called Pink in a song by the British art rock band Pink Floyd of all things? That’s weird. At some point you also start to analyze the lyrics. And you realize that it is precisely this question about the band member called Pink which proves that the song’s narrator is a hypocritical ignoramus – and which reveals the lyrics’ unusual narrative situation.

Have A Cigar was released in 1975 on the LP Wish You Were Here and has the characteristics of a dramatic monologue. This lyrical form of presentation differs from the classic monologue in that the narrator is speaking within a very specific communicative or dialogic situation. Although the other person is not quoted at all, their presence can be felt: Because they are being addressed directly or because one of their comments is being responded to. The lyrics thus don’t mirror a soliloquy, but rather the monologue of a central character which has been detached from a stage drama. The great dramatic monologues of literary history are often gripping because the narrator is in a unique, emotionally charged situation and is allowing the audience to participate in an evolutionary or decision-making process. This can also lead to surprising revelations, or even self-revelations. Of course, the lyrics of Have A Cigar are far too short and compact to cover such an exceptional range of content – and yet Pink Floyd’s lyrics and vocal act in the mid-70s go significantly beyond what garrulous songwriters usually produce in pop songs.

The narrator of the piece is clearly a music manager who – in an arrogantly avuncular manner and with suggestive rhetoric – is trying to persuade a talented young musician and his band to make a deal. First he entices and impresses the artist with cigars, a symbol of success-oriented machismo and big-wiggery, then he promises him the moon. He says the “boy” – and with him his bandmates – are destined for success: “Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar. / You’re gonna go far / You’re gonna fly high, / You’re never gonna die, / You’re gonna make it, if you try. / They’re gonna love you.” However, as the lyrics progress it becomes increasingly clear that the manager is not seriously interested in either the musician or his music: “Well, I’ve always had a deep respect, / And I mean that most sincere”, he flatters and emphasizes how wonderful he thinks the group he wants to sign is: “The band is just fantastic, / That is really what I think.” It’s all so over the top that it’s hard to believe. And then the manager asks the cringey question that finally outs him as an unempathetic wheeler-dealer: “Oh, by the way, which one is Pink?” Of course, we can assume that the “authors” of the song are also addressing themselves here. And anyone who is even slightly interested in Pink Floyd will definitely know that there is no band member with the first name Pink – that the band name is in fact made up of the first names of the blues musicians Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. So our brash manager put his foot in his mouth – without even realizing it.

Worse still, in the chorus that follows he cheerfully admits that he and the company he works for are just playing a game centered around money: “And did we tell you the name of the game, boy? / We call it riding the gravy train.” By now the narrator has revealed himself to be a representative of an ice-cold, profit-hungry music business that only assesses people and artistic achievements according to their market value and is exactly the opposite of “sincere”, namely insincere and dishonest. Against this backdrop, the machine-like groove and the “windy”, slightly drugged-up vocals make even more sense – cue the cliché of fat decision-makers in the music industry who are busy doing coke and think they are star-creators, or to put it more mundanely: the greatest, i.e. gods. What is fascinating in this context is that the manager’s speech also sheds light on the construct of the rock brand “Pink Floyd”: It is not only able to stand for many other bands, it can also easily take on the role of an extra in its own song.

Have A Cigar is one of two songs on Wish You Were Here that explicitly criticize the music industry, the other is called Welcome to the Machine. And if you take this criticism as the central theme of the album, then the accompanying cover- and postcard designs, which at the time we fans simply found spectacularly surreal and somehow cool, also send clear messages: There is the man in a suit in flames, to whom another man in a suit is holding out his hand – as if he is literally being burned by closing a deal. There is the person whose bare legs are sticking straight out of the water of an almost mirror-smooth lake – a deceptively beautiful image for gleaming illusions in which the human being seems to be just an appendage, or also for the insignificance of human activity, because the person in the picture is not making any waves. There are the two machine hands that, once again, come together for a contractual handshake. And there is the faceless man with a bowler hat and briefcase, reminiscent of figures by René Magritte, who is trying to sell records to fans somewhere in the desert. All iconic images of rock culture. And maybe the casting of the vocal part of Have A Cigar was also a tiny sign of rebellion: Because the wonderfully crazy voice of the song’s sly narrator is not supplied by a Pink Floyd member, but by folk singer Roy Harper. During the production of Wish You Were Here he happened to be recording in a neighboring studio and ended up stepping in, either because the band vocalists who were supposed to do it couldn’t do it properly, or because they simply didn’t want to. In any case, this was also not quite what the record bosses were expecting from their “cash cow” Pink Floyd.

In fact, the gentlemen at the head of the record company were less than enthusiastic about the cover designs and song messages on the Wish You Were Here album. The latter have long been seen as the band’s reaction to the pressure created by the worldwide success of the previous Pink Floyd album The Dark Side of the Moon (1973). “We need a follow-up album that is at least as successful as this one”, is what the record company’s expectation is said to have been. And Pink Floyd didn’t want that. It is almost ironic that they ultimately fulfilled this expectation and that Wish You Were Here is now a frontrunner in various lists of the best albums of all time. Just like the fact that the band did end up introducing a guy called Pink into their universe just a few years after Wish You Were Here and Have A Cigar. We are, of course, talking about the fictional protagonist of the 1979 concept album The Wall: This Pink is definitely not a grinning hero, but a musician plagued by psychosis – but that is almost obvious.

Songs like Have A Cigar harken back to a time when the boisterous rock-n-roll of the 1950s and 60s had gradually come of age. Rock music had matured and become a profitable global business which produced saturated superstars – so much so that it was in danger of betraying its old ideals. It was a time when large record companies dominated the rules of the game and charismatic managers such as Brian Epstein (The Beatles) or Thomas Andrew “Colonel Tom” Parker (Elvis Presley) controlled the fortunes of “their” artists. Even the counter-movements of punk and new wave produced similarly enigmatic figures, who are also referred to as “Svengalis” after a sinister behind-the-scenes protagonist from George du Maurier’s horror story Trilby (1894) – think Malcolm McLaren (The Sex Pistols) and Bill Drummond (Echo & The Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes). No question: In the 1970s and 80s, being a serious fan meant cultivating a healthy mistrust of the mainstream and the major labels, combined with a passion for the underground bands and independent labels that were springing up like mushrooms. Of course, there was nothing wrong with still listening to idiosyncratic rock dinosaurs like Pink Floyd in the privacy of your own room – after all, nobody needed to know.

Big record companies and management gurus on the one side, brave indie creators on the other – this juxtaposition seemed to be set in stone and to offer a sense of direction designed to last forever. But then came digitalization, the internet and social media – and suddenly nothing was the way it used to be. Historic fronts dissolved and unprecedented opportunities arose for today’s musical artists. At the same time, new images of ‘the enemy’ emerged. Today, we look back at bands like the Arctic Monkeys and stars like Billie Eilish who became famous not with the help of a major record company, but rather through the internet, and who have long since successfully enjoyed a lot of artistic freedom. We celebrate independent starlets and stars, but also superstars like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé – the latter runs a kind of family music empire with her husband Jay-Z.

And we lionize phenomena like Taylor Swift, a megastar personality whose success across all analogue and digital platforms has almost managed to create a significant industry of her very own. Once dependent on labels that marketed her first albums without her, Swift regained control by simply covering her own early albums, i.e. by re-recording them with slight changes and then marketing them herself. Today, she is dictating terms to providers such as Apple Music and breaking all attendance records with her tours. Which leads us to a flipside of today’s music industry, the streaming services. Because they pay artists showcasing their work on these platforms negligible royalties, which means that only the industry’s top stars can actually earn any kind of money there. And that, in turn, pits the smaller artists against the top earners. Yes, the times they are a’ changing – and so are the historic fronts. So much so that the chasm between successful and unsuccessful, between rich and poor, is almost greater today than it was in the 70s, that era of industry-criticizing titans such as Pink Floyd and their ilk.

So what has become of the “good old” cigar-smoking record bosses and the egocentric Svengalis of yesteryear? They have simply disappeared. Or, except in the case of casted test-tube acts, they have become almost irrelevant. It’s true that there are still things that artists have professionals manage for them – from bookings to studio rentals, from accounting and legal advice to video shootings. But in stark contrast to 30 or 40 years ago the stars of today, including a pleasantly large number of women, very often have a high degree of control over their work and actions. Nobody would write a song like Have A Cigar these days. And to be honest, by and large some artists from back then aren’t what they used to be. In fact, the members of Pink Floyd have been at odds for years. And Roger Waters, something of a band leader and globally feted social critic in the 70s, is facing headline-grabbing police investigations and attempts to ban him from performing in 2023 because of weird pro-Putin statements and the irritating integration of anti-Semitic symbols into his stage performances.

This article first appeared in the „LyrikLINES“ series on the ‘Faust-Kultur’ portal

English translation: Ursula Schoenberg