Interview: Pink Floyd's Nick Mason, Engineer John Leckie Discuss the Making of 'Meddle'
Nick Mason and engineer John Leckie discuss the making of Pink Floyd's 1971 album.
Although Pink Floyd had worked on long-form pieces before, “Echoes” was a bit of a departure for them. Songs like “Interstellar Overdrive” and “A Saucerful of Secrets” came from the Syd era, when the band was more improvisational, and they were essentially extended jams. “Echoes” was different, however: it incorporated several ideas, different passages and moods, but it was a structured and planned song.
Its creation involved trial and error. A lot was thrown out, but it was a song with a final, almost definitive form. The version Pink Floyd performed in the 1972 film Live at Pompeii and during their BBC sessions isn’t markedly different to the version on Meddle. By comparison, “Interstellar Overdrive” was never the same twice, particularly in the Syd era.
“ ‘Echoes,’ for me, is the quintessential, ultimate epic,” Steven Wilson says. “It just has a perfect shape. They hadn’t tried to cram too many ideas into it, so it still has a lot of room for building up and breaking down and improvisation, and it has that lovely song sequence that book-ends the piece.”
“I’m sure that one of the reasons that they did ‘Echoes’ was because of Roy Harper,” Leckie says. An influential British folk and rock guitarist, Harper had just released Stormcock, his groundbreaking 1971 that includes four epic acoustic songs, all between seven and 13 minutes long.
“They shared management with Roy, and he was a big mate of the band. He was always around and he was working on Stormcock. I’d worked with Roy and I think that played a big part in my being hired for Meddle.” Harper, of course, would later join the band on Wish You Were Here to sing “Have a Cigar.”
Regarding “Echoes,” Mason says, “I don’t think it was any kind of one-upmanship with Roy. Roy was extraordinary. I loved the fact that he could do a song differently every time. We quickly worked out that doing a song like ‘Echoes’ was comparatively easy because of the repetition. Listening to it now, it sounds a bit overlong—something could be chopped out of it, which would make a better piece.”
Meddle also includes three absolutely perfect short songs: “One of These Days,” “A Pillow of Winds” and “Fearless,” which includes the fans of the Liverpool Football Club singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” a Rodgers and Hammerstein tune that became the club’s anthem. “ ‘Fearless’ is still the one that everyone in Liverpool plays,” Leckie says. “Not just for the football chant but those churning acoustic guitars. That’s the one that the La’s and all those bands tell you is the classic Pink Floyd track.”
Waters played the acoustic guitar parts on the track, using an open tuning, which gives the song its ringing quality. It’s a sound that surfaced in the work of Eighties-era bands like Echo & the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes. It’s also a song that has been covered by a wide range of artists, from ex-Marillion frontman Fish to the Black Crowes by way of Midwestern indie slowcore band Low.
The track “A Pillow of Winds” is a fairly straight love song, a pastoral type of composition in a style that Pink Floyd had toyed with before in late-Sixties songs like “Julia Dream” and “Grantchester Meadows.” According to Mason, the title was inspired by a suit in the game mahjong, which he and Gilmour and their respective partners used to play while on holiday together.
Of the songs on Meddle, “San Tropez” is the only one that was not composed collaboratively; it was written by Waters, who brought it to the studio in a completed form. As for the bluesy “Seamus,” it was named for the dog whose howling is featured on it, a hound owned by former Small Faces singer/guitarist Steve Marriott, who at the time was a member of Humble Pie. According to Leckie, “Steve would always be around the studio. They noticed that the dog would start barking in tune with the music.”
With recording of Meddle completed in August, Pink Floyd turned their attention to their next project. Director Adrian Maben had an idea to film the group at an ancient amphitheater in Pompeii, Italy. The resulting film, Live at Pompeii, is a good snapshot of where the band was in 1971. “Steve O’Rourke [Floyd’s manager at the time] came to us and said, ‘There’s this France-based documentary maker wants to do a film,’ ” Mason says.
“The deal we did turned out to be very hard work, and we never saw any money from it for a long time. On the other hand, it turned out to be a very useful and, I think, a very good film. It was a controlled environment, as there was no audience, so we could cut, stop and reshoot. But the open air and the dust and everything else made it feel like a real live show. There was a bit of grit to it.”
For the film, Pink Floyd performed “One of These Days,” “Echoes” (presented in two parts) and a revised version of “Seamus” titled “Mademoiselle Nobs” after a female Russian wolfhound that stood in for the absent Seamus. Apparently some reels of film were lost, including those that featured Gilmour and Waters during the performance of “One of These Days.” “Which is why it’s mostly me,” says Mason.
Filming took place from October 4 to October 7. On October 30, Meddle was released in the U.S. (it was issued in the U.K. in November). The album was packaged in a sleeve designed by Hipgnosis, the British art group behind several other Pink Floyd album sleeves—though it has the unfortunate honor of being Hipgnosis partner Storm Thorgerson’s least favorite Floyd sleeve.
“I think Meddle is a much better album than its cover,” he says. Thorgerson’s original concept was a close-up of a baboon’s anus. The band vetoed it, proposing instead an image of an ear underwater—which certainly fit better with the mood of the album. The ripples in the water suggest the ear is collecting sounds.
Regardless of its packaging, in the U.K. Meddle reached Number Three on the album charts (Atom Heart Mother had been Number One), while in the U.S. it bombed upon its initial release. They were disappointing results for an album that finally showed Pink Floyd’s musical promise. “If in doubt, blame the label,” Mason says.
“We felt at the time that Capitol [EMI’s North American label] was really an old-fashioned company, it was the [former] label of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and the executives were all old. I don’t think they really approved of us. They didn’t understand it. Consequently, they never worked the records anyway.”
No matter the sales, Meddle captured Pink Floyd at an important juncture—not yet superstars, yet no longer a band fumbling in the dark for direction. “You feel that Floyd were still a band that were playing live, going out there and experimenting,” Steven Wilson says. “And I think by Dark Side of the Moon, that had gone. They’d become great sonic architects by that time, but a lot of the danger and a lot of the hangover from that period of experimentation had been gradually refined out of their sound.”
For Mason, working on Meddle, he says, gave him the confidence to start producing himself. Later that year he worked on The Asmoto Running Band, the second album by whimsy-prog oddballs Principal Edwards Magic Theatre. He later produced Robert Wyatt’s acclaimed classic Rock Bottom and the Damned’s second album Music for Pleasure (though apparently because they couldn’t get Syd Barrett). He also recorded the one-off solo album Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports in 1981, and over the years has worked with Rick Fenn as well as jazzer Mike Mantler, though his output has dwindled in recent years.
“Yes, I’ve been thinking about doing something for a while,” he muses, though he won’t be pushed on details. As for the much-hoped-for Pink Floyd reunion, Mason appeared onstage with Waters and Gilmour in May 2011, performing “Outside the Wall” at one of Waters’ massive O2 shows. He says that touring or playing with Gilmour or Waters is a possibility. “I’d love to do something like Live 8 again,” he says. “If it was to be arranged.”
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