Nick Mason and early Floyd
By ProgBlog, May 13 2019 10:31PM
I have a soft spot for the Barrett-era Floyd, where the psychedelic whimsy found on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is tinged with a darker edge, and for those of us who weren’t able to see this version of the band play live, there are recorded hints of Pink Floyd as sonic pioneers in Astronomy Domine and Interstellar Overdrive – the vanguard of space rock. Having bought Relics around the same time as acquiring Dark Side of the Moon, my next Floyd purchase, within a week of its release, was A Nice Pair. I may have heard bootlegs of Atom Heart, Meddle and Dark Side but at that time I was more familiar with their earlier oeuvre and as much entranced by the gatefold sleeve of A Nice Pair and Nick Mason’s architectural sketch for the cover of Relics as I was of Dark Side’s prisms.
By the time I first got to see the Floyd play live they’d dropped almost all intimation of their progressive rock sound even though the scope and realisation of The Wall shows was totally incredible. The 1988 Momentary Lapse of Reason show I saw at Wembley Stadium concentrated on Dark Side, Wish You Were Here, The Wall and their current release and while 1994’s Division Bell tour included dates where they played One of These Days or Astronomy Domine, it was only the former that featured on the leg of the tour when I got to see them on October 14th, the earliest piece of music that I’d seen them play.
I went to see early-Floyd tribute act Ummagummaa who played at Croydon’s Ashcroft Theatre in May 2004 because, being a proponent of music in local venues, I thought it would have been churlish to miss it. Ultimately, I came away disappointed and vowed never to watch a tribute band ever again. This was a bit unfair on the group, who weren’t bad musicians and rather than play the material note-perfect, which is possibly what I was expecting having never attended a gig like that before, they improvised around the song themes which was entirely in keeping with live early Pink Floyd; I wasn’t too sure about the vocals which didn’t sound like any of the original members but it may have been the inclusion of songs like If and San Tropez in the set that most concerned me, straying from my personal viewpoint as to what conformed to ‘early’ Floyd, despite playing undisputed classics like Astronomy Domine, Careful with that Axe Eugene, A Saucerful of Secrets, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, One of These Days, Echoes and finishing with Arnold Layne and See Emily Play. They even had an appropriate ‘liquid light show’ to provide an accurate reminder of the period.
I stupidly turned down the opportunity to see Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets on their opening tour, unwilling to join the on-line ticket queue and pay what I thought was rather a lot of money to stand and watch a band that included an ex-member of Spandau Ballet. I reconsidered for the current leg of the tour, reasoning that £50 for a seat at the Roundhouse wasn’t too bad and the chance to see one original band member performing this material was actually too good to miss. I must have become aware of the Chalk Farm Roundhouse from browsing music weeklies in the mid 70s but it’s unlikely I made the connection to the Pink Floyd story until sometime later, including its significance to the beginnings of UK counterculture; the first cultural use of the Roundhouse was as the venue for the launch party of the International Times (IT) in October 1966, a multi-media all-night rave and happening billed as a ‘pop-op-costume-masque-drag ball’, featuring performances from Pink Floyd and Soft Machine plus screenings of films and poetry readings; the Roundhouse and early Floyd are intrinsically connected.
Built between 1846-7 for the London and North Western Railway by Branson & Gwyther as a building for turning round railway engines, the Roundhouse has been recognised as a notable example of mid-19th century railway architecture and was listed in 1954, amended to Grade II* in January 1999, then declared a National Heritage Site in 2010. 24 cast-iron Doric columns arranged around the original locomotive spaces support a conical slate roof and the columns are braced with a framework of curved ribs, imbuing the internal space with a distinctive industrial Victoriana. The recent refurbishment respects the structure while making it fit for purpose as an events venue – it was my ‘venue of the year’ in the 2018 Prog magazine readers’ poll.
I have mixed feelings about the gig. On the one hand I was pleased to be there to see Nick Mason’s ensemble in that particular setting because of its historical rock and sociological relevance; on the other I was seated in a better position than for the Portico Quartet performance last year but I thought the sound was not nearly as good, and it didn’t appear to have been too good on the main floor either, demonstrated by loud crowd murmurings when Mason was making an inaudible announcement between songs; at times it was difficult to hear Dom Beken’s keyboards, an essential part of the early Floyd sound. I also thought they weren’t very tight as a unit even though Mason’s drumming sounded as good as I’d ever heard it. I was possibly expecting a tone of naivety in the vocals, but neither guitarist Gary Kemp or Lee Harris, nor bassist Guy Pratt did wonderment and this detracted from the earliest songs. That’s not to say I disapproved of the treatment of See Emily Play or Lucifer Sam and I fully appreciated their version of Vegetable Man, written by Barrett in 1967 and originally scheduled as a B side to putative single Scream Thy Last Scream which was never released; it was finally officially put out on The Early Years (1965-1972) in 2016. It may actually have been the brevity of the majority of pieces they played that I found too strange to handle, along with the interpretation of ‘early’ Pink Floyd. My favourites from the evening tended to be longer material; opener Interstellar Overdrive, Astronomy Domine, One of These Days, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, A Saucerful of Secrets, the excerpt from Atom Heart Mother; what I wasn’t too keen on, and I have to stress this is personal opinion, was the inclusion of If from Atom Heart Mother which bookended the title track, Fearless from Meddle and the Obscured by Clouds songs, all of which are low down in my listening priority and, as the writing partnership between Gilmour and Wright evolved and Waters was developing a distinct style, don’t conform to what I would describe as early-sounding.
Apart from providing Floyd enthusiasts with material that’s unlikely to be played by any current or former member of Pink Floyd ever again, Mason is currently presenting a nine-part series for BBC radio: A History of Music and Technology, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w27vq4h7 Produced in association with the Open University, it’s something on which his role in Pink Floyd has bestowed the appropriate qualifications. He also has an excellent voice for radio and the programme, which charts a history of the innovations which have shaped popular music, should be compulsory listening for anyone into prog. Episode 1: The Story of Sound Recording related the attempts to capture sound, from an oral tradition to Edison’s phonograph and it’s replacement by the gramophone, from vinyl to magnetic tape and eventually the CD, driven by cost and convenience rather than the quality of the technology. Episode 2: Electronic Music Pioneers may have covered some of the material from Robert Berry’s The Music of the Future (Repeater Books, 2016), a quest to find today’s musical futurists, but I found it totally fascinating; Thaddeus Cahill’s Telharmonium from 1896 which is not only believed to be the first electromechanical musical instrument but it could also be considered to be the precursor of streaming, sending a signal through wires which were translated into music through large paper cones acting as a form of primitive loudspeaker. There was some good coverage of the Theremin, an instrument that may have defined science fiction soundtracks but still features in the current prog scene. The ondes Martenot (1928) came about when Maurice Martenot exploited the overlap in tones generated by military oscillators, producing a cello-like sound. The instrument he devised was touted around European conservatoires and features in over 100 classical music compositions; George Jenny’s ondioline was a cheaper version of the ondes Martenot which began production in Paris around 1940 and became destined for a more commercial market thanks to the talents of former medical student Jean Jacques Perrey who released the seminal Prelude au Sommeil in 1958, allegedly as a form of sonic tranquilizer for patients in mental hospitals; the hymnal music incorporated minimalist motifs that were later developed by Philip Glass and Terry Riley and could be considered the first ambient music.
Touching on musique concrète and tape manipulation, on Raymond Scott’s automatic music machines which played sequences of differently arranged patterns, the programme reminded us that though we might think electronic music is relatively recent, it’s now well over 100 years since the first electronic instruments appeared. The next episodes cover the electric guitar and the Hammond organ. Well worth a listen.