In January this year whilst visiting London, I found myself inside the Westfield shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush on a Saturday lunchtime. It’s one of those flagship biggest-shopping-centre-in-the-UK developments, a 1.6 billion-pound retail cathedral stuffed full of gleaming glass and just about every chain store that has ever existed. It’s so big that they have computerised touch screen information points, mounted in futuristic white pods, which you can use to search for the shop you want and get directions to help you find it.
My reaction to the place was an odd mixture of awe, excitement and dismay that I often feel when experiencing the excesses of capitalism. I have to admit that the awe and excitement outweighed the dismay on this occasion: despite the ludicrous, hyperbolic architecture, the comic timing (it opened in late 2008 at the height of the credit crunch) and the fact that I couldn’t find a pair of jeans that would fit me, I was overwhlemed by the light, the scale, the space and the massive wall of tesselated angled mirrors outside the toilets.
As I was taking in the scene in the main atrium (pictured above, photo by WiNG), I noticed that the PA system was piping in a Pink Floyd song, Wish You Were Here. It’s a rather maudlin song about longing and loss, with references to Syd Barrett, who had previously left the band in tragic circumstances. As far as I could tell, no-one but me was paying any attention to this unexpected soundtrack. I had a digital recorder with me, so I quickly got it out and managed to catch the end of the song, which then segued into a much more upbeat piece of bland pop music. It was as if DJ Westfield had accidentally tuned into a prog rock station, then realised his mistake and switched swiftly back to Shopaholic FM. I have no idea what the legal implications are of uploading a recording of a soundscape in which copyrighted music can be heard. Anyway, here it is:
I have very ambivalent feelings about Pink Floyd. I confess that I was a fan in my teenage years, whereas nowdays I find most of their music overblown and difficult to listen to. But as a group they hold a certain fascination for me. They seem to represent the epitome of the dysfunctional stadium rock band, and a model of music making that may be dying out, if it isn’t dead already. As far as I can make out, a combination of personal emotional troubles and massive commercial success seems to have led the band’s members into a catalogue of bitter acrimonies, drug and mental health problems, broken relationships and legal battles. The band’s Wikipedia page makes for grim reading at points. If any further proof were needed that money and celebrity don’t necessarily lead to happiness, then Pink Floyd’s story surely supplies it in bucketloads. Thankfully, the surviving members seem to have finally made peace with one another, but only after decades of conflict.
What I find even more compelling is that they seem to have had sufficient awareness of what was happening to them to sing about it in their music, but not to actually do anything about it. In terms of their public trajectory at least, that’s how it appears. The most obvious example is Money, a song about the hypocrisy and vacuity of wealth. That song appears on Dark Side of the Moon, an album whose sales brought to the band exactly the kind of immense riches that the song ridicules. The last lines point out that, whilst people may agree that money is the root of all evil, ‘if you ask for any rise, it’s no surprise that they’re giving none away’. Roll on to 1987, and in an interview with Roger Waters, when asked about what problems were brought on by that album’s overwhelming success, he replied: ‘Mainly the one of what to do with all the money! You think of all the good you could do with it by giving it away. But in the end you decide to keep it!’ The lyrics also sneer at people who buy new cars; yet the drummer Nick Mason subsequently started collecting racing cars, and now has so many that they have to be kept in hangars.
Against that background, hearing Pink Floyd’s music in Westfield felt both incongruous and strangely fitting. There was something quite resonant about standing in a shrine to capitalism, surrounded by bustling shoppers, dazzled by plate glass and consumer outlets, listening to a millionaire singing about his sense of alienation from the world. Perhaps the last laugh goes to the band, who will, I imagine, have received a royalty payment for the public airing of their work.