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Pink Floyd – Meddle – Classic Music Review

Yes, even the guys who designed the cover thought it was crap.

It’s supposed to be an ear underwater soaking up waves of sound. If I encountered such an ear during foreplay, you can bet your bottom dollar that my tongue would beat a hasty retreat. I have no evidence to back it up, but as I’m always in search of a silver lining, I can easily imagine that the electric ear-and-nose-hair trimmer was invented by a Pink Floyd fan who spent hours gazing at the cover of Meddle.

At least we were spared the original concept of a close-up of a baboon’s anus. Let’s have a show of hands—how many of you would want to spend more than five seconds looking at a baboon’s anus? Okay . . . give me a sec to finish the count. . . raise your hands high . . . and it’s . . . one. Sheesh. I guess there’s always one baboon proctologist in every crowd.

The team at Hipgnosis did own up to their questionable judgment. “I think Meddle is a much better album than its cover,” opined team member Storm Thorgerson. That hardly qualifies as a ringing endorsement, as Pink Floyd could have put out an album consisting of forty minutes of silence and it would have been better than the Meddle cover. For a more insightful evaluation of the album’s value, I’ll turn things over to Billy Corgan:

After Syd [Barrett] went wherever Syd went . . . they really sounded like a band unsure of where to go,” said Billy Corgan in his induction speech welcoming Pink Floyd into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “It wasn’t until . . .  Meddle that suddenly it had that sound . . . It’s really on that record that you hear a band fusing and synthesizing something that’s never been really recreated. (Wikipedia)

Nick Mason confirmed Corgan’s impression in his band bio, Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd:

Overall, the whole album was immensely satisfying to make. As Atom Heart Mother had been a bit of a sidetrack, and Ummagumma a live album combined with solo pieces, Meddle was the first album we had worked on together as a band in the studio since A Saucerful Of Secrets three years earlier. It is relaxed, and quite loose, and ‘Echoes’ has, I think, lasted well. Certainly, compared to its predecessor, Atom Heart Mother, Meddle seems refreshingly straightforward.

Mason, Nick; Mason, Nick. Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd (Reading Edition) (p. 189). Chronicle Books LLC. Kindle Edition.

Creating and maintaining a “relaxed and quite loose” vibe was no small feat, given that Pink Floyd entered the studio with no idea of what they wanted to record and faced a heavy concert schedule that frequently interrupted the recording process. My sense is that the positive vibes were the direct result of two contrary perceptions of Atom Heart Mother:

  • U.K. fans loved Atom Heart Mother and made it the first Pink Floyd album to top the charts; the album also sold well in Europe. The commercial success made the suits at EMI happy and more willing to give the band the time and resources needed for the next album. Engineer John Leckie recalled, “There was no record company contact whatsoever, except when their label manager would show up now and again with a couple of bottles of wine and a couple of joints.”
  • All the band members hated Atom Heart Mother. Roger Waters: “If somebody said to me now, ‘Right . . . here’s a million pounds, go out and play ‘Atom Heart Mother,’ I’d say: ‘You must be fucking joking . . . I’m not playing that rubbish.” David Gilmour also described it as rubbish, adding, “We were at a real down point. We didn’t know what on earth we were doing or trying to do at the time, none of us. We were really out there. I think we were scraping the barrel a bit at that period.”

Borrowing a line from Bob Dylan and applying it to a completely different context, “When you ain’t got nothin’ you got nothin’ to lose.” Finding themselves bereft of ideas was the best thing that could have happened to Pink Floyd at that point in time. They needed to hit the reset button, make a clean break from the Syd Barrett era and allow the full capabilities of the post-Syd configuration to emerge. Starting from scratch made it possible for David Gilmour to participate as an equal partner rather than the substitute they brought in to fill the Syd Barrett gap. Nick Mason revealed his understanding of the pre-Meddle imbalance in group dynamics when he remarked that “David certainly has a great deal of affection for this album, which for him contains a clear indication of a way forward.”

The shared frustration with Atom Heart Mother spawned an equally strong desire to create something better, so they resorted to a methodology that many artists have applied over the centuries when the desire to create is hampered by an imagination stuck in neutral.

The technical term for this modus operandi is “fucking around.”

With no new songs, we devised innumerable exercises to try and speed up the process of creating musical ideas. This included playing on separate tracks with no reference to what the rest of us were doing – we may have agreed a basic chord structure, but the tempo was random. We simply suggested moods such as ‘first two minutes romantic, next two up tempo’ . . . This experimentation could be seen as either a brave radicalism or an enormous waste of expensive studio time. Either way, it allowed us to teach ourselves techniques which might at first be clearly nonsensical but eventually lead to something usable.

Mason, Nick; Mason, Nick. Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd (Reading Edition) (p. 185, 186). Chronicle Books LLC. Kindle Edition.

I’m going with “brave radicalism.” The techniques used to spur creativity are interesting, but none of them would have worked had the band members not permitted themselves a healthy amount of playfulness in response to the cues. Playfulness is a necessary part of the creative process because it frees the artist from the fear of making “mistakes.” Musician and author Stephen Nachmanovitch wrote about the vital role of play in the act of creation in his book Free Play:

. . . all creative acts are forms of play, the starting place of creativity in the human growth cycle, and one of the great primal life functions. Without play, learning and evolution are impossible. Play is the taproot from which original art springs; it is the raw stuff that the artist channels and organizes with all his learning and technique. Technique itself springs from play, because we can acquire technique only by the practice of practice, by persistently experimenting and playing with our tools and testing their limits and resistances. Creative work is play; it is free speculation using the materials of one’s chosen form. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves. Artists play with color and space. Musicians play with sound and silence. Eros plays with lovers. Gods play with the universe. Children play with everything they can get their hands on.

Nachmanovitch, Stephen. Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1990. (p.42).

The relaxed and loose environment allowed Pink Floyd to embrace play, which in turn led to “a band fusing and synthesizing something that’s never been really recreated.” Because the band members kept an open mind to any and all possibilities, Meddle is loaded with “happy accidents,” where apparent fuck-ups turned out to be just what a certain piece needed. While there’s no doubt that Meddle established Pink Floyd’s signature sound and opened the door to a steady stream of highly regarded works, I like to think of Meddle as their most playful album.

*****

My analysis of “One of These Days” is likely skewed by personal experience. I spent most of the American phase of my life in the windy cities of San Francisco and Seattle, where I froze my ass off at Candlestick and lived in dread of trees falling on my house during Northwest windstorms. In college, I spent a fair amount of time in close contact with the Santa Ana winds that fuel wildfires in Southern California. I fucking hate wind.

So I was very surprised after reading various takes on “One of These Days” that only a few bothered to mention the howling winds that bracket the piece. It’s a nasty wind, fierce and filled with those strong, sudden gusts that make stomachs sink and hearts skip a beat. The sound triggers my latent ancraophobia, so I’m pretty much in a state of high tension before the legendary Gilmour-Waters bass duet enters the fray.

One of the sources that acknowledged the existence of wind is floydlyrics.blogspot.com, where I found this quote from Roger Waters: “The simplest things are often the best. For example, the sound of wind at the beginning of ‘One of These Days’ is bloody effective.” Amen to that, sayeth I, but he really could have applied the first sentence of the quote to the entire piece. “One of These Days” is a masterpiece of minimalism.

The baseline music consists of a grand total of two chords driven by a maddeningly repetitive bass pattern in stereo with metallic bass on the right and muted bass on the left; the notes in the riff are multiplied by a finicky little device called the Binson Echorec. After a bit of foreshadowing, the right-channel bass kicks things off at the 41-second mark, joined by the left-channel bass eight seconds later. Meanwhile, the wind continues to huff and puff, threatening to blow my house down. During this phase, Richard Wright enters with occasional stabs on the organ, a startling touch if there ever was one. A couple of chord changes provide no escape from the tension, but I do feel a teeny bit of relief when the wind dies out at about 1:55, leaving only the basses relentlessly chugging away.

Then . . . I start to hear little noises. Omigod! Is there something stirring outside? Wright tosses in another organ stab and oh fuck! Someone’s pounding at the door! They’re trying to get in! What’s that buzzing sound? It sounds . . . like a chainsaw! Someone wants to hack me up into little pieces! Unable and unwilling to pray, I launch into the chorus of “Dire Wolf.” “Don’t murder me, I beg of you, don’t murder me, please don’t murder me.” Wait! Is that a helicopter? I don’t hear the chainsaw . . . maybe the helicopter scared him away! The helicopter is here to rescue me! Fuck yeah! Oh no! They’re pounding on the door again! I hear a voice . . . a terrible, distorted, creepy voice . . . what did he say? “One of these days, I’m going to cut you into little pieces!” I knew it! Fuck! Where’s my baseball bat? Hold on . . . the voice said “One of these days.” Hey! That means “not now.” I’m alive! It’s a reprieve! Where the fuck is my vodka?

The passage that follows Nick Mason’s first appearance as lead vocalist serves as blessed relief in the form of driving, full-band, kick-ass rock. The basses continue their relentless charge in the background, Wright handles both piano and organ, Mason delivers a steady, solid beat and Gilmour cuts the treble to deliver a thrilling, soaring guitar solo that moves with surprising grace through the soundscape. The fucking wind comes back at the end, but it seems to be dying down, forming an appropriate segue to the next track.

It is said (though not confirmed) that Waters told John Peel that “One of These Days” is “a poignant appraisal of the contemporary social situation.” Other sources indicate the song is about cutting up the tapes of a particularly annoying BBC Radio DJ. Though my take is “great horror flick followed by triumphant determination,” instrumentals leave themselves open to a wide range of interpretations. Perhaps you hear the wind in a broader context, as in “an ill wind blowing,” with the relentless bass pattern signifying an unavoidable reality, like having to go to work the day after you erased the company’s database. In that scenario, it’s the boss man threatening to cut you into pieces and the second half represents either a reprieve or a glorious departure from an asshole you never wanted to work for anyway. Whatever your take here, the real triumph is the music itself, a compelling, unforgettable piece shaped by tight collaboration and flawless execution.

The howling winds give way to gentle breezes in the Gilmour-Waters composition, “A Pillow of Winds.” I had to laugh at the comment in the Classic Rock Review on this piece: “This second song could not be in more contrast to the first.” The only thing I would have added is “And I’m damn glad it is because I drank all my vodka!”

The centerpiece of the song is Gilmour’s acoustic guitar, set to open E tuning. Any form of open tuning presents the guitarist with a fresh landscape where chords that would be difficult to pull off in standard tuning become more accessible. Though it is possible to play “A Pillow of Winds” in standard tuning using standard chords (E/F#min7/Emaj7/B minor in the first and third verses and E minor with a few easy variations in the second verse), Gilmour’s arpeggios employ more complex chords like Em(add9) and E7sus2, resulting in a surrealistic soundscape enhanced by gentle sloops of slide guitar.

“Pillow of Winds” is definitely a love song, but much richer than the garden-variety love songs that fill the pop charts. The opening verse finds the lovers snuggling together in bed in fading candlelight:

A cloud of eiderdown draws around me
Softening the sound
Sleepy time when I lie with my love by my side
And she’s breathing low
And the candle dies

What struck me about the verse is the meaning in the music. The chord shifts to B minor on the second word of the third line, and given the song’s implied pattern, I fully expect Gilmour to return to the root chord (E major/E maj7) in the middle of the fourth line (“And she’s breathing low). He defies expectations by continuing in B minor through the entire line and the two following measures. What that tells me is he doesn’t want this precious moment to end. Even when he shifts to the resolution chord in the last line, he expresses some reluctance by using a higher voicing instead of returning to the more definite voicing of the unfretted open E chord.

His desire to extend the sweet moment is quashed when “the candle dies” and the sights and sound of night fill the room, accompanied by a change to the more melancholy key of E minor:

When night comes down, you lock the door
The book falls to the floor
As darkness falls and waves roll by
The seasons change, the wind is warm
Now wakes the owl, now sleeps the swan
Behold a dream, the dream is gone
Green fields, a cold rain is falling in a golden dawn

An extended and perfectly lovely instrumental passage follows, largely in E minor, reflecting the long night. A seamless change back to E major cues the final verse, capturing the demise of the night and the joy of waking up to live another day with his love by his side:

And deep beneath the ground
The early morning sounds and I go down
Sleepy time when I lie with my love by my side
And she’s breathing low
And I rise like a bird in the haze
When the first rays touch the sky
And the night wings die

I couldn’t care less that the title allegedly came from a possible hand in mah jongg. “Pillow of Winds” is one beautiful cliché-free love song.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of “Fearless,” let us consider la musique concrète with an assist from Wikipedia: “Near the beginning and at the end of the song, a field recording of fans in Liverpool’s Kop singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ is superimposed over the music. This Rodgers and Hammerstein song became the anthem of Liverpool F.C. after Gerry & the Pacemakers had a number-one hit with their recording.”

Nick Mason was puzzled by its inclusion: “The football theme was continued in the fade-out with Liverpool’s Kop choir singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ – it was odd that Roger was so keen to do this, considering that he was a committed Arsenal fan.” (Mason, p, 188)

I’m puzzled by Nick Mason’s puzzlement. On May 8, 1971, during the period of Meddle’s creation, Arsenal won the FA Cup final with a 2–1 win over . . . yes, you guessed it . . . Liverpool, at Wembley Stadium. Part of me wants to believe that Roger Waters was rubbing it in, but that’s because the Roger Waters of today is such an asshole. My sense is that the inclusion was partly a recognition of a worthy opponent coupled with his belief that the field recording was a perfect fit for a song dealing with individual challenges.

According to Mason, the title came from the use of the word “fearless” in soccer—the equivalent of today’s “awesome.” By contrast, the music hardly reflects the macho underpinnings of the title. After a quick reverse strum from Waters on acoustic guitar in open G tuning, Mason establishes an unassuming slow tempo while Waters shifts to a steady strum and Gilmour throws in a few warmup lines on electric guitar. At the end of the fourth measure, Gilmour inserts a triplet of transitional root notes before launching into the immensely satisfying main riff, a simple-is-always-best ascending pattern of B-C-D-E-F#-G-half-rest-POW! The riff is repeated frequently throughout the song and I never get tired of hearing it. I hereby make a solemn promise that when I never write the book The Altrockchick’s Guide to Great Riffs, the riff in “Fearless” will be chapter one.

After mixing it up with a C-Bb-G pattern, Gilmour enters to sing the first verse; in contrast to the testosterone-loaded meaning of FEARLESS, he sings the verse with offhand understatement. The lyrics contain one-half of a conversation between the narrator and an unknown companion. It could be a friend, a parent, or a boss, but whoever they are, they challenge the narrator to climb “a hill too steep to climb.” They may believe that the narrator is incapable of such a feat, or they may be using the dare as a motivational tool to inspire the narrator to reach his potential.

The narrator responds, “Yeah, whatever.”

You say the hill’s too steep to climb
Chiding
You say you’d like to see me try
Climbing
You pick the place and I’ll choose the time
And I’ll climb
The hill in my own way
Just wait a while, for the right day
And as I rise above the tree line and the clouds
I look down hearing the sound of the things you said today

I interpret that last line as a realization that the companion really doesn’t have the narrator’s best interests in mind.

The second verse feels like the guy in the projection room accidentally popped a reel from a different movie into the projector. Some have claimed this is the biblical scene where Pontius Pilate gets crowd input as to whether or not Jesus should be nailed to the cross; others attach an anti-authoritarian message to the verse. I don’t really see a difference in the two interpretations—after all, Jesus had challenged Roman authority. The only quibble I have with the Jesus angle is that Pontius Pilate always seemed like a wimp looking for a way out of a mess and not the “merciless” type described in the song.  YOU DECIDE!

Fearlessly the idiot faced the crowd
Smiling
Merciless, the magistrate turns ‘round
Frowning
And who’s the fool who wears the crown
Go down in your own way
And everyday is the right day
And as you rise above the fear lines in his brow
You look down
Hear the sound of the faces in the crowd

The last two minutes of the song combine an extended, somewhat more power-packed exploration of the main theme, accompanied by Liverpool fans cheering on their side courtesy of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The combination of the two disparate sound sources may seem a bit odd, but in the end, “Fearless” works like a charm.

I’m not going to get my knickers in a twist about the misspelling of “San Tropez,” as English-only speakers are rarely able to reproduce the French nasal sound (sɛ̃ tʁɔpe) and pronounce Saint-Tropez as San-troh-pay. My indifference is also influenced by the fact that I’ve never had the slightest desire to visit Saint-Tropez even though it’s only a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride away. Hanging out in a place filled with rich people and people who go gaga over rich people just isn’t my idea of a good time.

This is a Waters-only composition, one of the very, very few Roger Waters songs I would describe as playful (I’ll repress my urge to give him the sobriquet “Jolly Roger”). According to Mason, the song was inspired by “the Floyd expedition to the south of France the previous summer and the house we had rented there.” The song has a soft swaying tempo calling up images of warm sun and soft breezes, reinforced by the use of soft jazz chords (the feel is somewhat similar to the Kinks’ “End of the Season” after the intro, and the chords employed in the two songs have some similarities). Waters being Waters, he can’t escape his class consciousness, marveling at the change in fortune that allowed the band to make the trip (“Born in a home with no silver spoon/I’m drinking champagne like a good tycoon”). David Gilmour brightens the piece with slide guitar that mimics the Hawaiian Steel Guitar, and Richard Wright is rewarded with a long and tasty piano solo featuring beautiful touch and clean tones.

Okay, I’m warning you right now. Don’t fuck with me when it comes to “Seamus.” Got it?

Engineer John Leckie told Mojo Magazine (via Songfacts), “But I can’t understand why they put that on the record,” Leckie added. “No. I mean, what was the joke? I still haven’t got the joke, really.” Biographer Nicholas Schaffner called the song “dispensable.” Nick Mason wrote, “Finally there was ‘Seamus’. In a rather embarrassed way, I can only describe this as a novelty track.” (Mason, p. 189)

All three men are now and forever on my shit list.

David Gilmour was taking care of Steve Marriott’s dog Seamus, who had been trained by his master to “sing along” to music. He decided to bring Seamus into the studio one day and give him a shot at rock stardom, using a quickly-assembled slow blues number for the occasion.

Every description of the border collie’s performance is described as “howling.” Au contraire! His counterpoint vocal in the first verse perfectly complements Gilmour’s lead vocal with excellent tone, dynamics and timing. His lead vocal in the second passage combines Delta blues moans with mysterious chuckles that are a delight to the ear. Seamus reveals his professionalism by giving Richard Wright several measures to establish his piano solo before joining in with due restraint. He bends his notes beautifully on the closing moan, providing the piece with a perfect ending. Seamus is . . . er, was . . . the Sinatra of the dog kingdom and should be honored as such.

“Echoes” was the first piece recorded, a direct outcome of the exercises used by the band to kick-start the creative process. As Mason noted in his band bio, some of the experiments worked and some didn’t; the keepers were set aside and collected in a compilation referred to as “Nothing, Parts 1-24.” The initial recordings took place at Abbey Road, but when the band members became frustrated with that studio’s 8-track equipment, they moved operations to two studios with 16-track capability (George Martin’s AIR and Morgan Studios). In the end, the band members essentially cut and pasted the parts together to create the final product.

The result is a twenty-three-and-a-half minute composition that takes up all of side two. Given the studio changes and laborious method of assembly, one can rightly assume that “Echoes” passes the test in terms of compositional diversity, but what’s remarkable is the compositional unity, largely the result of the strong chord structure created by Richard Wright. Most of the piece is grounded in C# minor; the only key change occurs in the “chorus” where they shift to C# major. The transitions between the disparate parts provide greater chordal diversity; with the exception of the “funk section” where the band remains stuck in C# minor for what seems like forever, there are plenty of interesting moves to keep things interesting. While everyone raves about the submarine ping created by Wright running a piano through a Leslie speaker hooked up to a Binson Echorec, it’s really a minor contribution to the overall composition. The more interesting and relevant contribution appears in the extended instrumental passage in the middle of the song where David Gilmour connected a wah-wah pedal back-to-front, providing the piece with additional textural variation.

Roger Waters wrote the lyrics, explaining to Rolling Stone that the song dealt with “The potential that human beings have for recognizing each other’s humanity and responding to it, with empathy rather than antipathy.” Well . . . kinda sorta. That explanation really only applies to the second verse and chorus, where he rightly points out that our tendency to ignore strangers may keep us “safe,” but it’s also a lost opportunity to connect with someone:

Strangers passing in the street
By chance, two separate glances meet
And I am you and what I see is me
And do I take you by the hand
And lead you through the land
And help me understand the best I can?

And no one calls us to move on
And no one forces down our eyes
No one speaks and no one tries
No one flies around the sun

The first verse/chorus seems to deal with human evolution and the belief that our evolutionary progress was a combination of random natural selection and pure willpower:

And no one showed us to the land
And no one knows the where’s or why’s
But something stirs and something tries
And starts to climb toward the light

As for the third verse . . . you lost me there, Rog.

The band members differ in their evaluation of “Echoes.” Given his compositional contributions and excellent vocal harmonies with Gilmour, it should come as no surprise that Richard Wright considered the piece “one of the finest tracks the Floyd have ever done.” As noted above, Nick Mason thought it held up well but also felt it went on a bit too long. In Pink Floyd All the Songs – The Story Behind Every Track, Waters and Gilmour described the piece as a foretaste of things to come in The Dark Side of the Moon, a claim partially verified by comparing the alternating two-note melody of “Echoes” with the Richard Wright verses in the Dark Side track “Time.” I-dent-i-cal.

More importantly, “Echoes” and the collaborative spirit that runs through all of Meddle increased the band’s confidence and solidified a new and more substantive artistic direction. They began the Meddle sessions without a single tangible idea, uncertain about the present and the future. Through creative experimentation, collaboration, perseverance and plenty of play, they wound up creating their best album to date and a solid path forward.

But let us never forget that Meddle is a pretty damned good album all by its little ol’ lonesome.

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