What do May Balls (Cambridge University end of academic year balls) and Lucca’s Walls have in common? Run through the options: punting – a bit difficult on the Serchio, strawberries and cream – maybe, pink champagne – certainly (at the café delle Mura), Pink Floyd definitely.
At my college, King’s in the summer of 1968 a young very musical lad named Andy Powell who was in the know about these things booked two bands for the May Ball event. One was the Soft Machine; the other was the Pink Floyd. (Also booked was Roy Harper).
The senior dons complained about the amount of food and drink the Cambridge-founded group had consumed and the strange oriental smoke they left in the combination room but the gig this mythical group played was greeted ecstatically by a new generation of undergraduates coming from a wider range of backgrounds than ever before, thanks to the college’s imaginative admissions policy. By 4 am, in the marquee in front of the neo-classical Gibb’s building in the first quadrangle of this most beautiful of Cambridge colleges, the Floyd were well into a number we’d never heard before but which was included in their second album: “ a Saucerful of Secrets”. The choralic final section of that piece, described by the Italian music critic Piero Scaruffi as “one of the greatest masterpieces of psychedelic rock”, ushered in the most beautiful of summer dawns.
Bliss was it truly that dawn to be alive – especially before cellphones and tablets came onto the scene.
The line-up at Cambridge was David Gilmour (guitar) Richard Wright (keyboard) Roger Waters (bass guitar) and Nick Mason (percussion) The founder of the Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett was already suffering from psychological problems brought on by an excessive use of acid and wasn’t’ present that night.
I’d heard the Pink Floyd (named after two blues musicians Pink Anderson and Floyd “Dipper boy” Council) before in Covent Garden’s “Middle Earth” club. I heard them again, at one remove, when a brilliant cover band played at Crasciana at the inauguration of the newly paved piazza at the entrance to this stratospheric village in Val di Lima, comune di Bagni di Lucca. I can’t remember what the name of the band was – one of several brilliant Pink Floyd covers in Italy – was it “Seven bricks in the wall?”
David Gilmour played at the fabulous Lucca summer festival of 2006, (Why wasn’t I there?!) By that time there was no way the Pink Floyd could be re-formed and Gilmour denied any possibility of a get-together. Richard Wright died in 2008 after a brave battle with cancer which finally put an end to any speculation that the foursome could play again together.
There was report that David Gilmour could appear again in this five hundredth anniversary of Lucca’s walls. He was impressed by the sight of the walled city eight years ago and negotiations were progressing but by May of last year had regrettably been abandoned because of logistics and financial problems. Clearly, in the continuing economic dark days that have been afflicting this country for over five years the money would be better spent on other more pressing items (such as health and education and decent road surfaces).
It would, however, have been fantastic to have David Gilmour and the Wall at Lucca – especially since it’s not only the five hundredth anniversary of the city’s tree-girdled bastion bur also the hundredth anniversary of the Great War. Roger Waters declared that “a Saucerful of secrets” is a song about a gigantic battle and its aftermath. Of the four sections of this track “Something Else” and “Syncopated Pandemonium” represent the beginning of hostilities, and the battle itself. “Storm Signal” is the sight of the dead after the battle is over, and “Celestial Voices” expresses grief for the fallen.
Let us hope that Lucca’s walls will be fully celebrated as a symbol that walls can not only represent isolation and repression but also camaraderie and sociability. Walls have been thrown down, as at Paris, Vienna and Florence after 1870 and at Berlin after 1989. But Lucca’s wall is different; it was Napoleon’s sister Elisa Baiocchi who decided that it had served its defensive purpose and should now be turned into a tree-lined circular boulevard where Lucca’s citizens could meet to walk, jog, exercise the dog, cycle, drink coffee and meditate on a city which, in the words of Henry James, is “overflowing with everything that makes for ease, for plenty, for beauty”.