❉ Careful with that credit card, Eugene! We review Pink Floyd’s wallet-troubling collection of antiques and curios.
In a turbulent year distinguished by scarily unpredictable global politics and devastating losses in music and the arts, there are still some certainties in life. Eggs is eggs, Summer lasts roughly a fortnight, and on no account will Pink Floyd ever allow you to purchase their 1967 single Apples and Oranges without buying a very expensive box set. The very existence of the box set itself represents a major sea change. From the mid-1980s onward, ageing artists began to fling open their vaults for the collectors market, and all manner of box sets and bonus tracks appeared to cater for an affluent audience that were willing to pay.
Pink Floyd didn’t join the party, preferring their albums to stay sacrosanct. They allowed two collections of singles and B-sides from their early years to slip out in the 1970s, but then doubled down and left the bootleggers to it. Even previously released material was treated as just that – previously released. You want a copy? Go spend out on a 7” or arcane Harvest sampler then, and stop bothering us. And no, we aren’t giving you any unreleased stuff, especially not any Syd Barrett material.
So it came as a surprise this year when ‘The Early Years: 1965-72’ was announced. The band that never released anything were suddenly giving you pretty much everything. Even the deluxe versions of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, ‘Wish You Were Here’ et al featuring live material from a few years ago were something of a surprise, after decades of obstinately refusing to let anything come out.
Here then is the Floyd’s retirement plan, an exhaustive collection of rare material presented in a lavish box, warts and all, stuffed with promo clips, BBC sessions and film clips of live performances. All of the Syd-era material is rounded up in one place, but the lion’s share is devoted to the questing period that followed his exit, when Pink Floyd, with new guitarist David Gilmour tried to figure out just what kind of band they were. By 1971, after several years of dabbling with psychedelic pop whimsy (uncomfortably), protracted instrumental jamming, various degrees of hippy-dippy film soundtracking, and attempts at ‘conceptual’ live shows, they had a pretty good idea. What’s most interesting is listening to them get there.
Of most interest to fans and collectors is the first two discs focusing on the Barrett years. Familiar from scratchy bootlegs, the opening six tracks show the original band’s endearingly flimsy first incarnation as the most middle-class sounding R&B band ever to haunt a deb ball. Barrett’s surreal humour begins to peek through on Walk With Me Sydney, a quite ordinary sounding bit of mid-60s pop R&B that breaks down into him singing about his “Flat feet, fallen arches, baggy knees and a broken frame.”
The familiar territory of Floyd’s glorious initial salvo of acid-wonderpop singles follows, with b-sides and other curios filling it out. And there, at last, in pin-sharp quality, are Barrett’s fabled rejected singles Scream Thy Last Scream and Vegetable Man, recorded in his last months with the band. He may have been well on his way to LSD and downers-aided psychosis at this point, but both are remarkably coherent performances, especially compared to the shaky, fall-off-stool ‘Madcap Laughs’ songs.
Scream Thy Last Scream in particular is quite chilling, Barrett’s childlike whimsy turned sour, with added munchkin vocals and Nick Mason’s moustache-twirling lead vocal. They’re joined here by an instrumental backing track for In The Beechwoods, which sounds oddly like the lost theme to a groovy current affairs programme.
In addition to all this fan-bait, there’s a thrillingly loud live set from Stockholm. The vocals are barely audible, but it’s a great showcase for the band’s anarchic improv, as they roar through Reaction in G, and brutally deconstruct their studio material. To cap this off, nine previously unbootlegged bits of improv recorded for filmmaker John Latham are featured. It’s uneasy, discordant listening – the instrumental passages of Interstellar Overdrive taken to a logical conclusion, but it’s a valuable document of why the Floyd, even this early on, were considered an ‘art-house’ band.
With Syd gone, a painful period of reconstruction begins. You learn a lot about the Floyd from this era, as they try and find a style. Initially, keyboardist Richard Wright looked the best bet as lead songwriter, as his mournful, evergreen b-side Paintbox showed great promise. His trite psych-pop single It Would Be So Nice proved otherwise, and Roger Waters took the reins from here on, with Gilmour becoming de facto frontman. Gilmour’s cool head and versatility as a guitarist bought the band some stability, but it was hard-won. Studio sessions from later in the year reveal a band possibly trying to get into horror movie soundtracks with Roger’s Boogie. The first of many versions of Careful With That Axe, Eugene featured here shows a band caught halfway between wild rock theatre and BBC arts shows as they lurch between styles, looking for a way forward as an ‘album’ band. A wealth of film clips from European TV shows captures this awkward transition, as they glumly mime to old songs, and perform new material whilst attempting to come to terms with Barrett’s absence.
A 1968 live performance of Flaming from French TV illustrates this well, with new boy Gilmour left in the unenviable position of filling his old friend Barrett’s shoes. The others look bored stiff as they indelicately thud through the song, and Gilmour manfully tries to sing all of Barrett’s vocal parts at once. Nobody helps him out, or even looks up. In another clip and on more comfortable territory with Let There Be More Light, only the gamely-thrashing Waters seems to be enjoying himself much, as they perform, sans lights, on a low stage, surrounded by chic, shape-throwing hipsters in what looks like a youth club.
The sessions for the ‘More’ soundtrack show the Floyd’s songwriting starting to come into focus, perhaps borrowing a little of the melancholic slouch of the Moody Blues, they develop a new strain of mellow joss-stick ballad with Cymbaline and Green is the Colour, in-between ferocious rock-outs led by Gilmour’s screaming guitar.
They also start to incorporate taped effects into their live shows under the banner of ‘The Man and The Journey’. There’s some false starts and arsing around to be found on ‘Ummagumma’ and ‘Atom Heart Mother’, but ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ is within reach. The gorgeous, ambient Nothing Part 14 shows the band just before the lightbulb moment when Echoes coalesced, and ‘Meddle’ finally cements their sound and approach as the Moon moves into orbit.
The box closes with a remix of ‘Obscured By Clouds’, one of their most solid sets, and the final appearance of the ‘old’ Floyd, before the world-beating bombast took over. It’s just ten good tunes. It’s the end of an era. The first stirrings of Roger Waters’ preoccupation with war, the human condition, and his dead father run powerfully through Free Four, but otherwise, it’s one of Floyd’s lighter offerings. Soon, Waters’s heavier concepts would take over altogether, and he would feel unable to make or tour an album without a concept, or gig without pigs or a wall, but that’s another story.
‘The Early Years’ is exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting in its scope. There’s an awful lot of duplication, but it tells a compelling story of Pink Floyd’s growing pains. It’s the story of their metamorphosis, and all the different bands they were, before they became just the one. They may have become big and worthy, but this is the story of when they were more interesting, and dare I say it, fun.
❉ ‘Pink Floyd – The Early Years 1965-1972’ was released by on 11 November 2016 by Legacy Recordings, RRP £399.99.