More blinkin’ (word changed for mum’s sake) kingfishers, though there isn’t one here. But there IS a river of green, and it has been sliding unseen beneath the trees.
Those of you who have understood the transcendent aural majesty of Pink Floyd will know whereof I speak. I refer to Roger Waters’ gentle evocation of his childhood landscape, Grantchester Meadows, from the Ummagumma album.
Pink Floyd are rooted in Cambridge. Roger Waters (bass), David Gilmour (guitar) and Roger ‘Syd’ Barrett (guitar before Gilmour) all knew each other when they were growing up there.
I can’t remember if Nick Mason (drums) and Richard Wright (keys) also had Cambridge connections. I think they came later when the founding four (David Gilmour ‘replaced’ Syd when Syd succumbed to an excess of LSD) met up in London. They were studying to be architects. Syd was an art student, which is important because it was not possible to form a band in England in the 1960s unless at least one person was an art student. It had to be Syd, though.
If you want the full story of Pink Floyd, the only place to look is Nick Mason’s ‘Inside Out’ account of his time with the band. My brother Steve – hello Steve – did an amazing thing when he bought me a signed copy of the book. I still treasure it, as I do the remarkable book of blues photographs and interviews he also bought me.
The point of this story is, of course, my own experience of Pink Floyd. It’s me writing this, so there. Write your own blinkin’ blog.
I’ve never met or set eyes on any of them, which is typical – they are extremely self-effacing. The nearest I’ve come was to meet David Gilmour’s manager, Paul Loseby, who also manages Mick Ralphs. And Mick is close friends with David Gilmour, so that’s another connection. But that’s it.
So possibly the most significant band of my life – in that they woke me up (I’ll post that story someday) – have always been remote and unattainable. Even Led Zeppelin, who made a thing about being mysterious, have been more easily visible. I’ve seen all three surviving members, and Jason Bonham, in various different circumstances. The Floyd remain distant Gods.
And yet. Something about their music, and Syd’s solo stuff, was profoundly personal to me. I think that’s the thing for everyone who loves music, or any kind of art; the stuff that moves you is direct, not just an interest or a collective thing. Your experience of the moments created by these artists is truly part of who you are. Perhaps, it makes you more truly aware of you are.
I know lots of Pink Floyd fans, but they don’t seem to experience it the way I do. I know very few people who are Syd fans (only because I don’t happen to know any, there are loads out there). So, paradoxically, being a fan of one of the biggest bands in the history of rock’n’roll is actually a very lonely existence.
By the way, it’s not an elitist thing. I’m not saying that what I get is right, and others just couldn’t get it. I’m just saying it’s intensely personal to me, and I’m sure others would say the same: that I don’t get the Floyd the way they do.
Trying to describe this kind of thing is a mug’s game, so I’m not going to. It’s like when artists put those little explanations of their work next to a painting, or give names to abstracts. It’s morally wrong, like shorts on men, and should be legislated against.
But I can tell you what happened, and what the members of Pink Floyd themselves have said, and that might shed some light. It doesn’t matter either way anyway, really, I’m just doing it because Cambridge is flying around and I associate Cambridge with Pink Floyd and the Megatripolis album, which is very Floyd influenced anyway. And that’s only relevant because I discovered it in Cambridge: Megatripolis was a London thing.
So the point about Pink Floyd is that I started with Dark Side Of The Moon and immediately went haywire because I think the next album I bought was the Relics compilation, which was absolutely nothing like Dark Side Of The Moon. I suspect lots of people had the same experience, because Relics was cheap – ‘Nice Price’ or whatever it was.
I met Syd Barrett on Relics. Interstellar Overdrive and Bike were on there – can’t remember if other Syd ones were. When I say I can’t remember things, I also mean I can’t be bothered to Google them. I’m increasingly of the Sellar and Yeatman school of history, which is that history is what you can remember, not what happened. I think Google is teaching us to value spurious knowledge over mystery, which is incredibly dangerous. Mystery is far more useful to us as we navigate a constantly amazing world; knowledge is only valuable under very specific circumstances.
Let me know next time you’re in a specific circumstance.
So there I was – and loads of other people were – with two completely unrelated albums, it seemed to me. And then EMI released A Nice Pair, which was the first two Floyd albums packaged up. The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn – the first album and the only full album with Syd – and Saucerful Of Secrets, which introduced David Gilmour and just had one Syd song, the incredibly poignant Jugband Blues.
I once tried to seduce Debbie Harrison to the title track from Saucerful Of Secrets, which, had I had any useful friends, my best friends would have advised me against. It didn’t work, is the point. Years later, Fred became good friends with Debbie’s son (Lewis? Rachel says not…), who sustained quite a serious injury when closing my dad’s air rifle.
Saucerful Of Secrets definitely hinted at Dark Side Of The Moon, if only because the voices were the same now. Gone was Syd’s sharp Englishness. Instead, there were the softer harmonies of Gilmour and Wright together, with the occasional Syd-ish vocal from Roger Waters.
The thing about Dark Side Of The Moon (strictly, it might be THE Dark Side Of The Moon – Google it, if that sort of thing bothers you) is that at about the fifth listening it unlocked a great secret of music for me: that music is part of the fabric of the Universe. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I knew that listening to the guitar solo on Time took me to a place that was far beyond the walls of my bedroom.
And after you’ve experienced that, every track becomes significant at different times. You think that the opening sequence is the defining bit, with that lovely pedal steel guitar, and then you realise it’s Money, with that funky wah wah piano, and then it’s Any Colour You Like where finally it all makes sense. Except that it’s The Great Gig In The Sky that is REALLY the one, but you don’t find that out till you’re older and have suffered a bit. One eternal Truth that you learn from Dark Side Of The Moon is that, whichever track is the ultimate experience in all music, it certainly isn’t Us And Them, which is pretty annoying, even with the fab piano solo.
The next big thing that happened was that I bought another Pink Floyd album and this time it was right in the zone. It was Meddle, with the whole of side two devoted to Echoes. It’s still my favourite Pink Floyd thing, Echoes, and I do know lots of Floyd fans who feel the same way. As with all proper Floyd, there’s a weird bit, and the bit where the organ emerges after the weird bit is still very difficult for me to listen to. It’s just too evocative of too many things. I love it.
Around that time the follow up to Dark Side Of The Moon came out: Wish You Were Here. Nicky Horne played the whole damn thing on his ‘Your Mother Wouldn’t Like It’ radio show on Capital, and I listened on our big (non-stereo) radio.
Nicky Horne said they had matched Dark Side Of The Moon, but they hadn’t. It’s great, Wish You Were Here, but really? As good as Dark Side Of The Moon? Nah. Actually, it wasn’t even as good as the next album, Animals, so there. Again.
I read lots about Syd and Pink Floyd, and I remember Nick Mason saying somewhere, ‘the thing to do is to move people.’ That, it seems to me, is all that matters. If you are making art, and it doesn’t lift people’s consciousnesses, or souls, or whatever, or provoke them, then why the hell are you bothering?
The other thing they talked about a lot was sound. There’s a bit in the film, Pink Floyd Live At Pompeii, where David Gilmour is asked whether or not the band hides behind technology. The director, Adrian Maben, is referring to the tendency at the time (and since) for non-musical people to think that music technology obviates (thank you, Pat) the need for musical competence.
David Gilmour replies by saying that someone should give the technology to a non-musician and then see what they come up with. ‘I think we’d make a better job of it,’ he says, and he’s right. The thing with the Floyd, like a lot of the greatest bands, is that they are as much about sound as they are about music – if there is any difference, ultimately. That’s why Dark Side Of The Moon and Echoes sound so good. They treat sound like colour; they know how to vary tones subtly to achieve profound effects.
Then again, Sonny Boy Williamson II does the same with just a harmonica.
Anyway, eventually I bought Ummagumma, which is a double album with two live sides and then a second LP on which each member has half a side each. And Grantchester Meadows is the first part of Roger Waters’ bit.
It’s an example of what I mean about sound. You can be fairly sure that every sound on the track is there because it contributes something important to the experience of the whole piece. Like the squeak of Roger Water’s fingers on the guitar strings, and, of course, the goose. Now, as we navigate the landscape that surrounded Roger Waters as a boy, the song runs in my head because it IS the landscape. I have never seen so many kingfishers flashing to the water.