“If we please some of the people some of the time, that’s all you can ask for. I don’t mind if someone says to me, ‘I really love the Syd Barrett era, but after that, you’ve lost me.’ That’s fine.”
Could it be any more fitting that Pink Floyd is the band to again raise the bar for box set presentation? The band’s massive The Early Years 1965–1972 collection, out now via Pink Floyd/Columbia does just that … with 27 discs. The Early Years features remastered and restored audio tracks and video elements on CD, DVD, and Blu-ray — with many of them presented in top-shelf 96-kHz/24-bit high-resolution form.
In addition to heretofore unreleased early Syd Barrett tracks like Vegetable Man and In the Beechwoods as well as frame upon frame of historical video footage, the holy audio grail here is the unreleased quad mix of Echoes, the groundbreaking 23-minute track from 1972’s Meddle, not to mention the quad mix of the entire Atom Heart Mother album. It was released in the 4.0 format on vinyl back in 1970, but has never really been heard properly by most listeners until now (your eagle-eared SoundBard included).
If anyone knows the importance of this initial and highly influential era of the band, it’s founding Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. “This catalog has been overlooked,” Mason told Digital Trends. “One of the reasons for doing this box set is there is a sense that, for a lot of people, Pink Floyd starts with [1973’s] The Dark Side of the Moon, because that was the big thing. And unless you are properly interested in music, you don’t necessarily think, ‘Well, I like this band, so let’s go backwards.’ You tend to go, ‘Ooh, what’s the next album going to be?’ So for all those people, maybe The Early Years can guide them to check out what’s been before.”
Digital Trends sat down with Mason in New York this past Wednesday to discuss the best of Barrett, the elements that make for a good quad mix, and what the band might do next. Shine on, you crazy diamonds.
Digital Trends: Do you have a personal favorite Syd Barrett-era performance, something you’d consider to be his pinnacle?
Nick Mason: I love Syd’s playing on Astronomy Domine [from Pink Floyd’s 1967 debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn]. It’s got great drum power, but it’s also got a great, minor bluesy feel. And the time signature is slightly unusual too. Syd would play it with real character. And there’s some great movie footage included of him wearing big sleeves, which is quite terrific.
How great is it to have that early footage, much of it having been lost for years or bootlegged in poor quality, now all in one place in a much better presentation?
That was one of the nice things to do. Lana Topham did all of the film archiving and restoring. She said to me, “Do you realize we’ve hand-worked on a million frames?”
That’s amazing. I have to say I was amused at the video clip with the critic who dismissed you on camera after you performed on the The Look of the Week in 1967 by essentially saying you were irrelevant.
Oh, Hans Keller. Have you seen Eight Days a Week, the new Beatles documentary? There was a really interesting thing toward the end where Paul McCartney is talking about having faith in the band. I absolutely recognized that and went, “Yes!” That faith is partly internal, and partly developed by things like that Keller experience, coming from the outside. It closes the ranks to where you go, “Well, fuck you, then!” — rather than thinking, “Well maybe he’s right.” (laughs)
“In 1967, it was still the music of rebellion.”
Doesn’t Roger [Waters, Pink Floyd’s bassist/vocalist] basically say that to Keller in one of his on-camera answers?
Yes. He says, “We like it.” We forget how disapproved rock music was at the time. In ’67, it was still the music of rebellion. You did something where your parents would go, “What is that?”
Did recording at Abbey Road Studios carry any special weight? You were right next door to The Beatles as they were working on Sgt. Pepper.
The great thing about Abbey Road is that they were a little like the BBC — they were enormously attentive to recording things properly. They were used to working with the big, classical orchestras.
And all of those early things we did there were pre-Dolby and pre-Aphex. Later on, we used both Aphex and Dolby, but I really couldn’t tell you the difference between those noise-reduction systems.
I also imagine having Norman Smith, who worked with The Beatles, as your producer gave you opportunities you may not have thought about on your own — like that quick, backwards sped-up tape sequence in your second single in 1967, See Emily Play.
Yeah. Norman was great. He had been engineering The Beatles, and he absolutely got the idea he was there to teach us as well as produce. In those days, bands were never allowed in the control room. That was the thing. When you finished your tracks, they’d say, “Thank you, boys,” and then you were sent off to the pub. But Norman was absolutely happy to let us handle the faders if we wanted to.
He would also help with arrangements. I’m not mad about them, but he helped arrange the backing vocals for [Piper’s] Corporal Clegg and also Remember a Day [from 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets] — and he actually plays drums on that one too. He could set his hand to almost anything, really. Later on, post-Saucer, he wasn’t the right guy for us anymore, but he was really influential and helpful in those early days.
“If you have the right elements for a quad mix, you can really move things around.”
To me, the quad mix of Echoes is an absolute revelation. It’s like a musical tornado. I felt like I had to hold onto the arms of my chair when David Gilmour’s slide-guitar work kicks in, or when you begin to pick up the pacing in response.
You have to find the right music pieces to make sure it isn’t a gimmick and to get the best out of it. A little too often, what happens is, you get a stereo mix with just some sound effects whizzing around the room. As you say, if you have the right elements in the mix to start, you can really move things around.
It’s still one of those pieces that I’m very fond of, even though it’s slightly flawed. It’s a little overlong [Echoes runs 23:51, taking up an entire side on the original vinyl release of Meddle], and we repeat things too often. But it works.
It’s probably my favorite mix in the entire box set, but I also don’t want to overlook the accomplishment of the title track of Atom Heart Mother either. To be able to finally hear how the orchestral movements unfold and also get the impact of the entire choir arrangement are great things.
Yeah, the choir is great. Some of the sections of Atom Heart Mother had a heavyweight brass section going on, but in order to record that, we actually had to play the backing track very loudly through the monitor speakers, and some of the sound quality was lost there with spill [i.e., bleedthrough].
I think I had mentioned the idea to [AHM composer/collaborator] Ron Geesin of re-recording the orchestra, but he was absolutely appalled at the idea, so I just went, “Oh well.” (both chuckle)
Because of the limitations of the recording equipment, you and Roger had to play the bass and drum backing track together for all 23:42 of the title track all the way through in one take. You didn’t have any other option.
No — and it was a mad thing, really, looking back on it, because EMI had decided after the delivery of the 16-track machines to Abbey Road that cutting two-inch tape was too risky. That was the order that came from on high.
Occasionally, you could really hear the tempo lurching. We did a number of takes, but we couldn’t stop and fix anything. We’d have to stop and start again, and we did that a few times. We probably did two or three takes all the way through before we worked out which take was the best.
Your personal tour de force on that album is Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast. It has a perfect sense of space, letting us literally hear the whole breakfast being put together.
And that probably came from The Man and The Journey [a pair of separate, album-length suites Pink Floyd performed during their 1969 tour]. I thought, “Well, let’s develop that.” That whole concept, really, is a sound-effects-based theme that absolutely came from the Games for May show.
But that was one track, and Echoes was something else. Sometimes, some of the things we do don’t necessarily knit together at all. They were two threads that ran parallel with each other. And then maybe somewhere further on, you’ll hear something in [1975’s] Wish You Were Here where you’ll go, “Ahh, there’s an element from this that went into that.”
I would say some of David’s chugging guitar lines about 15½ minutes into Echoes have a feel similar to his introductory and main guitar lines on The Wall’s Run Like Hell [released in 1979].
Oh really? That’s one of the things I’ve learned from the box set. You might hear something and maybe it lies dormant for three or four years, or even longer, before suddenly, you hear it developed.
For example, in Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun [from A Saucerful of Secrets], the drum part is absolutely down to Ginger Baker’s playing on Cream’s We’re Going Wrong [from 1967’s Disraeli Gears] and Chico Hamilton from Jazz on a Summer’s Day [a concert film of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival], which I must have seen in 1960, or soon thereafter. And that had lived with me for eight or so years before the opportunity came to use it and go, “Ahh, yeah — that.”
Here in the modern era, people are going to be streaming a lot of the music on The Early Years. We talked about this back in 2014, but what’s your current view on streaming?
You can’t prescribe how people listen to things. If they stream it, they stream it. We have to be comfortable with the fact we can’t hold back the sea, but the problems with streaming are in the quality, and in the monetizing.
“We have to be comfortable with the fact we can’t hold back the sea when it comes to streaming.”
What bothers me now is how difficult it is for any young band to make a living at music. Not to become rock stars and have Rolls-Royces, but just to make a living. We don’t seem to care enough about it, even though there are more kids playing instruments now than ever — and they play to a better level as well.
Everyone says we came up in The Golden Age of Music. It wasn’t necessarily The Golden Age at all. It’s just that it was a much easier environment for the good stuff to rise and be developed. What we need now are about 10 billion more people streaming, and then there’d be an actual enough amount of money being made to keep people going. I’d love to see that.
Is there a thought of what you’ll do next after the Pink Floyd exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London opens next May? The album that would seem to be rife to tackle next would be [1977’s] Animals, which has never really had a proper re-assessment.
Nothing’s decided yet, because everything goes on the back burner while we get the work for the V&A done. I haven’t talked about Animals with David or Roger in a long time, but I think maybe one or even both of them felt if ever there was an album that could benefit from a remix, it was that one, rather than just a remastering. Maybe we could revisit that, yeah.
So it looks like we have another job for [Pink Floyd’s go-to producer] James Guthrie! (mimes call) “James, what are you doing in 2025?” (both laugh)