Oh By The Way: Meddle

>> Thursday, April 03, 2008

Members of Pink Floyd have long tended to be a bit down on Atom Heart Mother and Ummagumma, which is understandable even if it's not wholly fair. "At the time we felt Atom Heart Mother, like Ummagumma, was step towards something or other. Now I think they were both just a blundering about in the dark," David Gilmour said.

But they were stepping forward into something, even if they were also a bit of blundering in the dark. Whether the band knew it or not, they were blundering forward into their first masterpiece, and on a threshold of the decade that would make them international superstars, producing what would be considered the classic Floyd canon, and, oh yes, that would wreck the band, destroying their working relationships, killing friendships and ultimately resulting in the loss (at different times) of two original band members.

But celebrate the good times while they last. And Meddle was good times. Meddle was a fucking brilliant piece of work.

In the wake of Atom Heart, the band was still stumbling around, but they were in a special kind of place. They were comfortable working around each other, everyone had established roles, and Ron Geesin had been a positive influence in the way he'd opened the Floyd up to creative possibility. The band started working on a number of instrumental pieces, a kind of presumptive follow-up to "Atom Heart Mother." The results were "Nothings 1-24" and "Sons Of Nothings" and "Return Of The Sons Of Nothings."

And that, frankly, wasn't a whole hell of a lot. Except, apparently, "Return Of The Sons Of Nothings" had this note, this kind of accidental thing (the kind of accident Ron Geesin had opened the Floyd to exploiting). It was this single piano note run through a Leslie speaker and heavy reverb and echoed through the studio, this pinging noise that sounded like sonar, like something deep blue and underwater and man, it was a neat sound. To call it a "neat sound" doesn't even do it justice; it was a dramatic sound, a noise that makes you sit up and wonder what's going to happen next.

It doesn't sound sufficiently dramatic to say that what happened next was that the band began to assemble bits and pieces, using a 16-track recorder at George Martin's AIR studios to lay on loops of sound, melodies and obscure lyrics about something surfacing from a long way (and a long time) down at the bottom of the ocean, but "Echoes" was an amazing song. Still is, this is a song that David Gilmour started playing again during his last solo (or should that be "solo") tour with Rick Wright and a slew of musicians who'd played on A Momentary Lapse Of Reason and/or The Division Bell and/or every tour since 1998--a band that was one Nick Mason short of an official Floyd reunion, in other words.

"Echoes" is a sprawling 23-minute epic that would end up taking up all of side two of Meddle. If there's a perfect Pink Floyd song, it's arguably "Echoes." The band members play off one another beautifully. Gilmour and Wright's harmonies are golden. The song is wild and controlled and contained and wide open.

One of my personal favorite moments in all the Floyd canon comes towards the end of the middle of "Echoes." The song dies down to near quiet; a sound is heard, a whale-like keening is heard across the void. Rick Wright's keyboards begin to pulse, a droning sound overlaid with a slow melody that's joined by Nick Mason's cymbals. Waters joins with a throbbing bassline, his pick clicking on the strings. The drums pick up, tension building, and suddenly, Gilmour's guitar comes in ringing like a church bell, an echoing, reverberating arpeggio. Listen to this in the dark, if you have a chance. It's breathtaking in a literal sense, in a sense of making it hard to breathe while this happens to your ears.

Side one begins with "One Of These Days," another staple of Floyd's live shows in later years. We open with the sound of a strong wind which is then joined by a thudding bass playing a single B over and over again, to be joined by another bass guitar playing the same note in the other speaker. It's an awesome intro, even if Guy Pratt looks kind of bored playing it on the Pulse DVD. It's a fun bit of work, with an amusing cameo by the Doctor Who theme at one point, and Nick Mason saying the line "One of these days, I'm going to cut you into little pieces," a threat allegedly aimed at a radio DJ who annoyed them.

"A Pillow Of Winds" is a gorgeous little ballad and "Fearless" is fun; "San Tropez," unlike much of Waters's later work, is charming. That sounds mean--much of what Waters would write throughout the '70s was brilliant, but not necessarily charming. "Tropez," despite a somewhat downing subtext (the lyrics suggest a waning romance) the music is upbeat and kind of saucy. And then there's "Seamus." The lead vocalist on Seamus was a dog owned by a friend of the band who--we're talking about the dog--was inclined to howl whenever he heard music. Combined with a lyric that's a deadpan parody of classic blues, the song is pretty funny. Not ha-ha funny, or funny the way a Weird Al song is funny, but funny in a sly made-you-smile kind of way.

I first met Meddle on CD. In my anarchic teenage years, "One Of These Days" was a perfect track to jump around to, to imagine playing in an explosive, punkish frenzy. And with youthful anger at the whole damn universe, the tongue-in-cheek irony of Mason's spoken phrase was of course completely lost on me. I was--and I guess still am--a pacifist, but there's still an inherent love of violence when you're a child that might be embodied in the phrase, "One of these days I will cut you into little pieces." That's a pregnant phrase, a momentously vague phrase if you take it more seriously than it deserves to be taken, and that's what teenagers do--take things more seriously than they deserve to be taken.

Older, and hopefully wiser, this whole album carries me away now. At their very, very best Pink Floyd was four guys working together to come up with this amazing music, this amazing collaborative thing. People think it was all about Waters's lyrics or Gilmour's guitar playing, but that was only a part of what made this band great. What made this band was the way they worked as a band, the harmonies, the call and response of instruments, the way they would work together to take some concept or idea and turn it into something you could actually hear. Meddle was and is a high point of that collaboration; a succulent fruit of their labor, if you'll forgive that expression.

And, happily, not the last.

Side One
  • One Of These Days
  • A Pillow Of Winds
  • Fearless
  • San Tropez
  • Seamus
Side Two
  • Echoes
All material composed and produced by Pink Floyd


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