Pink Floyd - Echoes
I was eight was I first became aware of music's ability to make people feel uncomfortable and, despite being late 1979, it wasn't as a result of punk or new wave, both of which had been and gone by then but by a Pink Floyd single. Never what one would have expected from a bunch of old hippies.
As primary school wound down for the year the head teacher asked us what we thought would be the Christmas number one and by the second of third answer, Pink Floyd's Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2) had had its first mention. As the chorus of the song was sung to explain what this was, given that most of the class were more familiar with Abba and The Bee Gees than a resolutely albums band like Pink Floyd, it picked up more mentions than any other record. As it became the song to sing on the way out of school that last day, it was perfectly obvious that the teachers' annual opportunity to 'get down with the kids' had gone terribly, terribly wrong. And so it was that I first heard about Pink Floyd...
As Echoes shows, Pink Floyd have had a long and varied career. From the psychedelic whimsy of See Emily Play and Arnold Layne through the full-tilt space rock of Astronomy Domine, Echoes and Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun and finally to Roger Waters' songs about loss, loneliness and isolation, Pink Floyd have existed outside of prevailing trends. Even at the point when Roger Waters left the band after recording what was essentially a solo album, The Final Cut, David Gilmour completed the band's recording career to date with two studio and one live album that summarised the band's total recordings but never let Pink Floyd look as though they were about to join burnt-out crust of rock's hierarchy.
As rock threatened to become a respectable career choice, Pink Floyd, having made more of a career out of it than most, became ever more resentful of the whole business, using The Wall to exclude the audience from even the experience of playing live and building in physical form the barrier that always existed between rock group and fans. As spent forces like Eric Clapton settled into Armani suits and month-long residencies at the Royal Albert Hall, Pink Floyd's lyrics became ever more vitriolic and dismissive of the establishment. Even now, as John Lydon reforms The Sex Pistols for yet another tour of the canape and cabaret circuit in the US, the band he so hated that he wore a 'I Hate Pink Floyd' T-shirt have refused to get back together to turn a quick buck by playing Shine On You Crazy Diamond to arenas full of back-slapping CEO's, happy to have made fifty and under the illusion that they're still living to some hippy ideal.
This album, a best-of collection, looks like Pink Floyd's one nod in the direction of doing the record company's bidding but, as ever with this band, it's difficult to see it ever happening had Waters, Gilmour, Rick Wright and Nick Mason not agreed to do it. And whilst there's no doubt that a look back on Pink Floyd's career would have resulted in the tracks almost picking themselves, the band apparently communicated in sufficient amounts with one another to agree on the selection included here. Hence, there are a number of surprising entries and omissions with those tracks included not ordered chronologically but used to give the album structure across two discs.
Beginning with the radio chatter and noise that opens Astronomy Domine, also the opening track on their debut album, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Disc One moves from the optimism of the pair of opening tracks, which typify the band's first few years, to the cynicism and bitterness of the seventies as Waters took creative control. The best example of this is the sequencing of tracks two and three, as the bright pop of 1967's See Emily Play - complete with the shimmer of late summer evenings and girls running barefoot through parks - rubs up against the spiteful and sarcastically-titled The Happiest Days Of Our Lives from 1979, in which Waters rages about the henpecked school teachers who bully kids through their secondary school years.
Despite pausing for a sequence of slow songs, mixing instrumentals and space rock - Echoes, Marooned and Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun - Echoes is soon back with Money, which sees Waters writing of England's frittering away of its soul in return for cash. In between, there is one of Pink Floyd's great songs, The Great Gig In The Sky, which was written by Rick Wright and features both an amazing, wordless vocal by Clare Torry and a chilling taping of an unidentified man saying, "I am not frightened of dying, any time will do." The placing of this song is one of the reasons why, against it being thought of as just a best-of, Echoes actually works as an album. As track eight on Disc One, The Great Gig In The Sky flows out of Marooned and into Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun and links the two pieces. Even taken out of its spiritual home on Dark Side Of The Moon, the magic of The Great Gig In The Sky continues.
Disc Two opens with the full-length version of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, the best example of the years in which Waters, having tried to write like Barrett finally gave up and, instead, wrote about him. It's such a wonderful song and, like Echoes some years before it, uses the space it's given to build up to the moment when Waters sings, "Remember when you were young..." and goes on to cast his lost friend, Syd Barrett, as a great figure from years before but who was not without his flaws. Despite singing of Barrett being, "caught in the crossfire of childhood and stardom", Waters is also aware of Barrett's leaving of the band he helped to make a success with the words, "you wore out your welcome", fully aware of the difficulties Pink Floyd had trying to keep Barrett aboard. Despite being written of as one of rock's least pleasant men, Shine On You Crazy Diamond shows that Waters has a heart and, when given reason, he's unafraid to show that it beats still.
The second song on Disc Two is quintessential Waters-era Pink Floyd. Time, taken out of Dark Side Of The Moon, allows the band the chance to go back to one of their favourite subjects - the frailty of our lives and how close we all are from either madness or mortality catching up with us. In the case of Time, it's the latter and I'd argue for this being one of Pink Floyd's best ever songs. With its opening of chiming clocks and alarm bells, Time sees Pink Floyd singing of how the hours, days and years that make up one's life get frittered away before finding, as the lyrics state, "ten years have gone behind you." Time also sees the band's understanding of the English made clear, singing, "Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way" before wittily commenting on the waste of the moments in life that we've been given with, "the time is gone, the song is over, thought I'd something more to say."
Later on, there's another great song, this time from The Wall, Comfortably Numb, which sees Waters singing in the verse lit up by Gilmour's choruses and after the return to space rock with the inclusion of One Of These Days - featuring a moment out of time from the theme tune to Doctor Who and but the one line, "One of these days I'm going to cut you into little pieces" - the songs begin to fold not only the album back in on itself but also the band's career. Having begun with Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Disc Two moves to close with one of the band's early hits, Arnold Layne, written by Barrett, before sequencing that opening track's spiritual brother, Wish You Were Here. With Jugband Blues, the album includes one of the last songs Barrett wrote for the band, before High Hopes, which opens with the line, "Beyond the horizon of the place we lived when we were young" recalls Shine On You Crazy Diamond's, "Remember when you were young..." as being the first line on this disc.
Finally, as Echoes opens with the first track of Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, so it closes with the last. Bike is a wonderful track and having devoted so much time on Echoes to the band's loss of Barrett, this track offers a glimpse of his loose genius and how he should be remembered, singing, "I know a room full of musical tunes, some rhyme, some ching, most of them are clockwork." After never really getting over Barrett, Bike ends Echoes with the retelling of his story but this time, Barrett didn't actually lose his mind but just left to take these songs and to, "go into the other room and make them work."
It took me a long time to love Pink Floyd. They were always there but represented something of the bad old days that existed prior to my first love - new wave/post-punk. Since first hearing Dark Side Of The Moon and realising that it was a waste of my time holding out against them, I've discovered that Pink Floyd are far from the rock dinosaurs of legend but have had such a richly diverse career that to ignore them was folly.
Obviously, Echoes will not match owning every Pink Floyd album - and the band are to be applauded for not hanging a couple of unfinished demos on the end to entice those who do to buy Echoes - but for those who own nothing of Pink Floyd, it's a good place to start. Clearly, this isn't a greatest hits collection, as such a release from Pink Floyd would stretch as far as being a rather short EP, but it's an excellent way to see the best of Pink Floyd despite the absence of songs like Summer '68, Brain Damage, Eclipse and The Nile Song.
For me, I'll stick with the albums but, for once, a best of has done a lot more than just string a lot of unrelated songs together. Instead, Echoes offers a history of Pink Floyd from the psychedelic pop of See Emily Play to their eventual breakup. Along the way, Pink Floyd shows that even as one of the few bands who understand the place English reserve can have in rock, they were never afraid of confronting their own history, mortality and the occasional absurdity of their ideas.
As every one of their peers stopped mattering some time as the sixties turned to the seventies, it says something about this band that kids of eight and nine were using them to upset their teachers as the seventies turned to the eighties. As Echoes shows, they were equally capable of upsetting the establishment, their own fans and each other. Once again, it's worth saying that that's never what one would have expected from a bunch of old hippies.