Interview: Pink Floyd's Nick Mason, Engineer John Leckie Discuss the Making of 'Meddle'
In 1971, Pink Floyd were only five years into their professional career, but they had already been through several phases and permutations.
Their nascent period with founder Syd Barrett showed they were capable of experimenting with sound and lyrics and turning out pop hits, such as “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play.”
Following Barrett’s departure in 1968, they had tried their hand at film music composition with The Committee, Soundtrack from the Film More and Zabriskie Point, and begun to coalesce as a progressive-rock band with 1969’s Ummagumma and its follow-up, 1970’s Atom Heart Mother.
But they had yet to show signs of becoming a group capable of creating landmark works like The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. With Meddle, Pink Floyd—guitarist David Gilmour, bassist Roger Waters, keyboardist Richard Wright and drummer Nick Mason—did just that.
Meddle is the linchpin between the itinerant creativity of Pink Floyd’s early years and the sophisticated conceptual work for which they are hailed today. Fittingly, the 40-year-old album is getting a facelift as part of EMI’s campaign to reissue several of the band’s significant albums in editions that include studio outtakes, live recordings and rare tracks. The new Experience and Immersion editions of Meddle help shed light on this vital, defining disc in the Pink Floyd catalog.
Meddle is the first album on which the Floyd got everything just right. In it, you can almost hear The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and even Animals. You couldn’t necessarily say the same about Atom Heart Mother or Ummagumma.
Those albums, brilliant as they are in their own way, are the sound of the Floyd finding their way, trying to escape from the shadow of Barrett, their brilliant, erratic and insufferable former frontman, and the whimsy of the albums they’d made with him: Piper at the Gates of Dawn and its less satisfactory follow-up, A Saucerful of Secrets.
Meddle, on the other hand, shows a focus of artistic vision, if not in the whole of the album then certainly in the individual songs. The tracks seem to be driven along purposefully and with an urgency, as if the Floyd knew they had hit upon a vein rich with musical possibilities. Perhaps importantly, none of the divisive “creative differences” that eventually drove the band apart were present at this point in Floyd’s evolution. They were simply four musicians trying to come together in the absence of their leader, Barrett.
All of these things may be responsible for Meddle’s charismatic sonic qualities, and explain why it—more than Dark Side, Wish You Were Here and The Wall—finds a spot in the heart of true Pink Floyd fans, such as Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree, who has long championed Meddle as the great Floyd album.
“It’s got that 1971 sound,” he says. “It’s so warm and organic and so golden, and there’s something about that. Things were just coming out of psychedelic music and the influence was still there, not completely gone.”
The album contains just six tracks: five on the original release’s first side, and one—the 23-and-a-half-minute stunner “Echoes”—on side two. The fizzing energetic opener, “One of These Days,” demonstrates the group’s psychedelic jam tendencies, yet it remains infectiously tuneful as it boogies along like a stoner-rock version of ZZ Top’s “La Grange.” “Echoes,” on the other hand, combines moody, slow rock with atmospheric sounds, synthesizer weirdness and other sonic effects.
The “ping” that opens and closes the track was produced by keyboardist Richard Wright playing a single note on a concert grand piano and feeding the signal through a Leslie rotating speaker. “I remember, Dave Gilmour had just got the same wah-wah pedal that Jimi Hendrix used,” recalls engineer John Leckie, who started on Meddle as a tape operator but was eventually credited as engineer. “The ‘seagull’ sound you hear on ‘Echoes’ is that, the Cry Baby. Hendrix died in the middle of recording, which I think affected them a bit.”
But the group didn’t simply stumble onto this new musical path. According to drummer Nick Mason, he and his bandmates sized up the strengths and weaknesses of their previous experimental efforts—namely Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother—and discovered something instructive: both albums were divided between tracks written by the full band and by individual members—and the band-composed tunes were the best.
“We’d done the individual solo tracks and decided that we worked better together,” Mason says when we meet up with him in his North London offices. “There wasn’t any great plan when we did Meddle other than it would be a group effort. There was no concept. I don’t think we had anything already written when we went into studio. After Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother, we thought that we should make a group album, something that was maybe a reflection of where we were going live.”
Certainly, by the end of the Sixties, Pink Floyd had developed into a formidable live touring band. They remained as adventurous and experimental as they’d been in their Syd days, but they were also more structured and stable. Although Meddle reveled in its use of the recording studio, it was the first Pink Floyd album to capture some of the potency and excitement of their live shows.
According to Mason, the band’s label, EMI, had no grand ambitions for the album. “We weren’t under any pressure from EMI to release anything,” he says. EMI, for that matter, didn’t seem to have a clue about Pink Floyd, other than that they sold lots of records, and so the label left them to their own devices. “We had just signed a new contract that gave us a slightly reduced royalty in return for unlimited studio time,” Mason says. “I think only the Beatles had a similar deal at the time.”
“They were left alone,” confirms John Leckie. “Colin Miles, who was the only person at EMI who could ‘relate’ to Pink Floyd, used to turn up occasionally with a couple of bottles of wine. Maybe some spliff. They worked hard, though; it wasn’t a party.”
Work on the album began in January, when Pink Floyd returned from a tour of the U.S. In the early stage of making Meddle, the band recorded at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios, sometimes bringing in ideas that they had worked on at home. Leckie and Peter Bown, who had worked with them on Atom Heart Mother, recorded and engineered the Abbey Road sessions.
Leckie remembers that the atmosphere in the studio was good: “They weren’t really different from any other band,” he says. “It was quite energetic, everyone had a say. Nick came up with a lot of the crazier ideas. It’s his voice through a ring modulator that you hear on ‘One of These Days,’ saying, ‘One of these days I’m going to cut you into little pieces.’ Rick contributed a lot. Roger and Dave were running the show, but everybody was contributing.”
They continued to gig, setting up their gear in the studio then going off at night to play headline shows at colleges and universities. “We were trying out a lot of stuff live at that time,” Mason says. “Echoes” in its developmental stage was a series of unconnected parts, each of which was labeled, from “Nothing Part One” to “Nothing Part 36.”
It began to take shape when Floyd debuted it live at a gig in Norwich in April. It was still listed under its working title “Return of the Son of Nothing.”
But the band was now pushing the possibilities of the studio. Mason remembers, “Abbey Road had invested in an eight-track, but we were ready to go 16-track. So we went to AIR studios, which was great.” AIR—Associated Independent Recording—was established by Beatles producer George Martin in 1965 after he left Abbey Road and became an independent producer.
“A very different atmosphere to EMI,” Mason says. “EMI was very established, had the big canteen [cafeteria]…there was already a lot of change, though. The Beatles did that a few years before. But AIR was state-of-the-art.”
It was the possibilities offered by 16-track that changed everything. “Yes, by definition, though unfortunately it made the process of recording slower. There were almost too many options,” Mason says. “Mixing took a hell of a lot longer.” Leckie and Bown handled sessions at AIR, as they had at Abbey Road, but they relinquished their duties to Rob Black and Roger Quested when Pink Floyd moved their sessions to a third studio: Morgan, in Willesden.
“Morgan was one of the first British studios to go 24-track, though not at that time,” Leckie says. “Later, I recorded some of the first Stone Roses tracks there, when it was called Battery.”
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.”