One would be hard-pressed to find two bands that were so different yet so similar to each other as The Beatles and Pink Floyd were. Two monumental acts in British music; both changed the face of rock n’ roll as we know it today. The paths they took, however, diverged in significant ways passing by different sonic landmarks and landing at different points on the musical spectrum.
The Beatles, whose music began appearing on radio stations as early as 1962, began as a skiffle band, while Pink Floyd’s early days led by art-student Syd Barrett wouldn’t appear until later in the decade. Even then, The Beatles’ influence was felt in an impactful way. When The Beatles broke America and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, every musician who watched their performance on the program were affected so deeply that it set into motion many careers.
While the two bands are considerably different; as was the case with many bands at the time, as rock n’ roll was young, the members of both bands started with similar roots. Roger Waters spoke on The Beatles’ influence on Floyd, largely citing the same inspirations as the Fab Four: “I feel as if I learned my lessons from early blues legends Huddie Ledbetter and Bessie Smith and I listened to a lot of jazz and Woody Guthrie. I learned a lot from all of that protest music, when I was a very young teenager.”
The same is true for John Lennon and Paul McCartney; their brand of early rock ‘n’ roll (pre-Sgt. Pepper) was highly informed by the blues greats and rooted in rock’s past. However, what The Beatles did differently and how they influenced their peers and successors was their unabashed way of singing about anything they wanted, using that confidence to approach music with a far more experimental nuance. Roger Waters continues: “But I learned from John Lennon and Paul McCartney and George Harrison that it was OK for us to write about our lives, and what we felt — and to express ourselves. […] That we could be free artists and that there was a value in that freedom. And there was.”
The chance meeting between the two bands happened on 21st of March in 1967 — coincidentally, the two bands were both working on their respective albums in Abbey Roads Studios in London; Pink Floyd was working on their debut, Piper at The Gates of Dawn, while The Beatles were recording what many consider one of the best albums ever made, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They happened to be recording in rooms adjacent to one another — The Beatles were in Studio 2 while Pink Floyd was in Studio 3. Floyd were scheduled to record from 2:30pm until 7:30pm — as it were, The Beatles were due at the studio just as Pink Floyd finished their first shift.
Norman Smith happened to have been producing Pink Floyd’s debut effort, and therein lies the connection. Smith worked as a studio engineer for The Beatles right up until 1965. Since the boys in Pink Floyd knew about this connection, they had virtually begged their producer to ask George Martin if they could pop into Studio Two to watch the Fab Four work.
Writer Hunter Davies, who was there, recalls the situation: “A man in a purple shirt called Norman arrived. He used to be one of their recording engineers and now had a group of his own, The Pink Floyd. Very politely he asked George Martin if his boys could possibly pop in to see the Beatles at work. George smiled, unhelpfully. Norman said perhaps he should ask John personally, as a favour. George Martin said no, that wouldn’t work. But if by chance he and his boys popped in about eleven o’clock, he might just be able to see what he could do.”
Acceding Smith’s request, George Martin allowed Syd Barrett and his gang of creative artists to hang out and observe in the control room. Pink Floyd’s drummer, Nick Mason, recalls the momentous occasion: “We were ushered into Studio Two where the Fab Four were busy recording ‘Lovely Rita.’ The music sounded wonderful, and incredibly professional. We sat humbly and humbled, at the back of the control room while they worked on the mix, and after a suitable period of time had elapsed, we were ushered out again… They were God-like figures to us.”
It is clear that Pink Floyd had then and still do have an enormous amount of respect for the Fab Four. Most importantly, they would agree with the sentiment that Sgt. Pepper’s was one of the greatest albums ever made; Nick Mason added: “They all seemed extremely nice, but they were in a strata so far beyond us that they were out of our league.” It seemed that Pink Floyd understood the importance of Sgt. Peppers as an era-defining record for the ‘Summer of Love’. Roger Waters shares his sentiments on the record: “I remember when Sgt. Pepper came out, pulling the car over into a lay by, and we sat there and listened to it. Somebody played the whole thing on the radio. And I can remember sitting in this old, beat up Zephyr Four, like that.” In the interview, he recounts the way he looked when he sat still, imitating his agape look.
While the two bands, especially in regards to their sound, are very different from one another; it is a strange coincidence and a sure sign of the zeitgeist, that while one band was recording their debut and the other was recording their eighth and most significant record, both records are considered psychedelic records. This occasion will forever hold a special place in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.