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Pink Floyd in the Empty Ruins of Pompeii – Rock’s Weirdest Live Gig

Eileen Farrelly
PInk Floyd image by Prism-rainbow.svg: Suidroot modifications: Sceptre CC BY-SA 3.0 / Pompeii photo by Mister No CC BY 3.0
PInk Floyd image by Prism-rainbow.svg: Suidroot modifications: Sceptre CC BY-SA 3.0 / Pompeii photo by Mister No CC BY 3.0

Pink Floyd and their legendary performance at Pompeii was one for the ages. Anyone going to a rock gig will agree that the venue can make a big difference to the atmosphere. Outdoor arenas are becoming more and more popular, but some bands have chosen to play in very unusual locations.

One of the strangest must be Pink Floyd’s live set in the amphitheater at the ancient site of Pompeii, which became the basis of the film, Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii. The irony of the title was not missed by director Adrian Maben who said in an interview with Storm Thorgerson on the website Braindead.com that one of the things that appealed to him about the project was the idea of the “pleasant contradiction to play live in a place that is dead.”

Pink Floyd Pompeii

Pink Floyd live at Pompeii

There were no tickets available for the gig as it was filmed as part of a rock documentary. The band played to a select audience consisting of the film crew, a few kids who had managed to sneak in and of course the former inhabitants of Pompeii, long since turned to stone by the volcanic ash – who were presumably into rock. The idea to film in the amphitheater came about by chance. Film director Adrian Maben had been visiting the ancient site on a trip to Italy in summer 1971.

Pompeii Amphitheater

Pompeii amphitheater. Photo by Immanuel Giel CC BY-SA 3.0

After a visit to Pompeii, he realized he had lost his passport. He returned later to the site hoping to find it there. Arriving at the ancient ruin of the amphitheatre, which at this time was deserted, it occurred to him that this would be a great place to film a rock band. Maben had been trying to persuade Pink Floyd’s manager Steve O’Rourke to let him make a film combining art and the band’s music, but so far, his ideas had been rejected.

This idea met with more success. Not only did Maben get O’Rourke to agree, but he also got assistance from an Italian professor. The professor, who happened to be a big Pink Floyd fan persuaded the authorities to close the site to allow filming to take place.

Pink Floyd live at Pompeii

Pink Floyd performing the second part of “Echoes” at Pompeii.

The performance was to be set up technically like a live gig, so the band brought all their usual touring gear along. This had to be loaded onto a truck and brought from London — a journey of three days. The crew were pleased to discover that the acoustics in the amphitheater were good and enhanced the sound. But this should not be surprising as the arena was built for thousands of spectators to watch unamplified performances.

There were, of course, a few technical problems to contend with. The power supply was not up to dealing with all the electronic equipment required for the recording. Fortunately, the local town hall allowed them to run a cable to the amphitheater to boost the supply.

Pink Floyd live at Pompeii

Pink Floyd performing live at Pompeii. Photo by Timothy Honiss59 CC BY-SA 4.0

Over four days from 4-7 October, the band performed a mixture of their better-known songs along with new material from their latest album “Meddle”.

Although it was not a public gig, a few of the local children managed to sneak in and get to hear an exclusive free performance from one of the biggest rock bands of the period. Footage from Pompeii was supplemented by extra material recorded in Paris. This was overlaid with images of Italian waterfalls and the mosaics at Pompeii. They also added an additional voice thanks to a circus dog called Nobs who provides some atmospheric howling on one of the tracks.

The premiere was screened at the Edinburgh film festival in 1972 and received mostly good reviews. The London premiere was less successful. This was planned to take place at the Rainbow Theater but was cancelled by the theatre owners Rank Standard as is was deemed to be in competition with other venues also owned by Rank. In addition to that, the film had not yet received certification from the Board of Censors. This left more than 3,000 fans disappointed.

The original version of the film lasted only an hour which made it too short for a stand-alone screening. Maben later hit on the idea of including additional footage of the band in their spare time eating and chatting in the studio cafeteria which he felt would give fans some of the essence of the band beyond their music.

Related Article: Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett, Loads of LSD, and the Founding of Pink Floyd

In 2003 the Director’s Cut was released. This version included more of the material filmed in Paris showing a much more candid side of the band as they relaxed, smoked and ate oysters at the Parisian Recording Studio. The financial success of the film is debatable. While Maben claims it was a financial success, others have disagreed. But the film itself is a remarkable piece of rock history and documentary which clearly still holds a fascination for fans today.