With the release of a new box set chronicling Pink Floyd’s early years, Getintothis’ Gary Aster takes a look at the band’s forgotten years, after Syd but before Dark Side of the Moon.
In January 1967, having previously established themselves as one of the leading lights of the UK’s psychedelic underground with their attention-grabbing performances at Middle Earth and the UFO club, Pink Floyd were signed to EMI records. They swiftly recorded their first single, Arnold Layne, and within a few weeks began working on debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in Abbey Road studios, where The Beatles were also in residence recording Sgt. Pepper.
In early March, Arnold Layne was released and eventually climbed into the top 10, as did its follow up See Emily Play, which reached number six in June. The omens for the new album were good, and praise was lavished on it by The Beatles, The Who’s Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton amongst others, yet all was not well within the group. The band’s lead singer, guitarist and chief song-writer Syd Barrett was already beginning to show signs of the mental health problems from which, sadly, he never fully recovered, and that ultimately led to his departure from a band he had named and co-founded. That story has been told many times before and we don’t intend to repeat it here, so if you’re one of the few who hasn’t heard this tale, do a quick Google or something.
The prospect of Pink Floyd continuing minus Syd so concerned their management that they parted company with the group, fearing that without their front man and creative driving-force, the band’s days were numbered. Defying all expectations however, the remaining members pressed on, having recruited singer and guitarist David Gilmour. Of course, five years later they recorded one of the biggest-selling classic albums of all time.
But between Syd’s departure and the release of Dark Side of The Moon, Pink Floyd were in the midst of their most prolific and experimental phase. This often overlooked era in the band’s development saw some notable successes and a few heroic failures, but above all is characterised by an admirable ‘anything-goes’ attitude and willingness to try new things. It’s the era when the band was at its most avant-garde and produced its most challenging, user-unfriendly material; when they gave up making singles, abandoned any pretence of aiming for mainstream success and strived instead to make music unlike anything else ever heard before. With the recent release of a new and comprehensive 28 disc box set focusing largely on these years, here then is a top 10 of Pink Floyd – ‘The Wilderness Years’ (i.e. post- Syd; pre-Dark Side of the Moon).
10. A Saucerful of Secrets from A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
The title track from Pink Floyd’s second and transitional album is a curious beast; a lengthy and partly improvised instrumental group composition, identified by drummer Nick Mason as the moment when they began to find a possible way forward post-Syd. It was loathed by record producer Norman Smith who only begrudgingly agreed to record it having previously insisted that “You can’t do 20 minutes of this ridiculous noise”.
Perhaps mindful of Smith’s concerns, the studio version of the piece (and it is a piece – it passes through several distinct movements) runs to only about 10 minutes. On stage however (as multiple versions of the track included in the new box set demonstrate) it was prone to stretch out for twice this length or even longer and remained a staple of their live sets throughout this period. Not for the faint-hearted, but essential for those keen to travel far-out.
9. Granchester Meadows from Ummagumma (1969)
A beautiful, pastoral composition by Roger Waters giving a nod towards the folk-inspired music enjoying something of a revival when this was first recorded. The studio version found on Ummagumma is the work of Waters alone, with his vocal and acoustic guitar subtly enhanced by the use of field recordings of flowing rivers and birdsong. However, the group versions of this track found in the new box set sound even better with Gilmour adding a slightly altered and improved vocal melody and harmony, and keyboardist Rick Wright providing subtle keyboard parts, both to great effect.
8. Fat Old Sun from Atom Heart Mother (1970)
A David Gilmour song conceived as a sequel to Waters’ Granchester Meadows and drawing from the same well of pastoral nostalgia for the surrounding countryside where he spent his formative years. Beginning and ending with the sound of church bells (which were revisited many years later on 1994’s The Divison Bell) in between is a song sung by Gilmour in a manner reminiscent of Ray Davies, but ending with another superlative Gilmour guitar solo.
A firm live favourite for the band at the time, and another song stretched out on occasion to epic lengths of occasionally aimless but often thrilling improvisation, several takes of which can be found in the new box set. Gilmour continues to perform the song live to this day.
7. Childhood’s End from Obscured By Cloud (1972)
A David Gilmour song from Obscured by Clouds which takes its title from the Arthur C. Clarke novel of the same name, and a song long overdue a reappraisal. The track pre-empts the sounds of several better-known Pink Floyd songs – notably the metronome-like tapping of Mason’s electronic toms which re-appeared soon on the Dark Side of the Moon track Time, but also the stomping, almost-funk of Wish you Were Here‘s Have a Cigar and Pigs from 1977’s Animals – all of these elements can be heard in prototype form on this track.
6. Atom Heart Mother from Atom Heart Mother (1970)
A group instrumental composition in collaboration with experimental composer Ron Geesin, who composed and arranged various brass and choral parts to accompany the band. Running to around 25 minutes, the piece took up the whole of the first side of the 1970 album to which it gave its name. Though not fondly recalled by some (including members of the band) it is an essential listen for those interested in the development of the band’s conceptual thinking. It’s also a barkingly bonkers prog-rock wig-out that’s full of surprises on a first listen.
5. Green is the Colour from More (1969)
Less experimental and much more of a traditional song with a proper verse / chorus structure, melody and everything! Composed by Roger Waters and beautifully arranged and performed by David Gilmour on lead vocals and guitar, it also provides a vehicle for one of Gilmour’s earliest trademark spine-tingling guitar solos. It highlights the diversity of Pink Floyd’s recorded work during this period of the band’s development, and is a testament to what Waters and Gilmour could both achieve in collaboration. “The sum is greater than the parts” as Nick Mason put it.
4. Careful With That Axe Eugene, B-side of Point Me at the Sky (1968)
Another instrumental group composition, originally only intended as a B-side, but a track that once more came into its own in live performances where it allowed ample space for the group to explore the possibilities of their equipment. Pink Floyd were always early-adopters of newly emerging technology, here used to great effect to produce a menacing and atmospheric slow build towards a dramatic climax making good use of dynamic range.
It’s the type of thing that bands like Mogwai excel at today. It’s also the thing which first caught the attention of several avant-garde film directors who recognised its potential as a possible soundtrack piece and led directly to the Floyd being commissioned to provide soundtracks for Zabriskie Point and More.
3. One of These Days from Meddle (1971)
An instrumental group composition and the opening track on 1971’s Meddle album, this track became another firm live favourite. Formed around Roger Waters’ single note pulsing bass line, it gradually builds towards a crashing finale via an effects laden work-out as backwards cymbals, manipulated voices, sound effects and other headphone treats whizz by in the distorted trails of Wright and Gilmour at a hectic, thrilling pace. All the trappings of heavy rock are here but rendered unfamiliar by the band’s extensive studio mucking-aboutery.
2. Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun from A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
Also something of a transitional track and only the second song credited solely to bass player Roger Waters, it contains many of the elements later to be associated with the Pink Floyd sound. It has stood the test of time well, and even today Waters continues to play it live.
It’s also the only studio recording to feature all five members of the band with (heavily effected) guitar parts from both Syd Barrett and David Gilmour. With its sci-fi title it harks back to earlier Barrett compositions like Interstellar Overdrive and Astronomy Domine, but also paves the way for a sound that later came to be described as space rock.
1. Echoes from Meddle (1971)
A largely instrumental group composition bookended by a few verses in which Waters’ lyrics introduce certain themes he would later repeatedly revisit, but the real stars here are Gilmour and Wright, who between them conjure up abstract, atmospheric and ethereal soundscapes. The track runs to around the 25 minute mark and was assembled from various, initially unrelated experimental improvisations. Keys were changed, tempos altered and segues were found that somehow brought these different musical strands together into a thrilling whole.
It stems from two initial strokes of luck when Wright hit upon a single piano note that produced unlooked-for resonances and harmonics if channelled inappropriately through a Leslie speaker, and Gilmour then accidentally plugged one of his effects pedals in back to front. The novel sounds made from these two moments of musical serendipity eventually led to the finished piece. It’s a difficult track for me to write about it with any objectivity because I hold it in such high regard. This writer doesn’t merely believe it to be the best thing Pink Floyd ever recorded; no, no – it might just be the very pinnacle of mankind’s achievements.