SIDE ONE – NEEDLE DROP
It’s the first week of summer but you wouldn’t know it. Skies are sullen and there is a sneering, chilly breeze. More like late Autumn, really. I’m sitting in front of the stereo, having just dropped the stylus on the first side of the final Pink Floyd album. On the coffee table, next to a half-drunk cup, stands a teetering pile of CDs. A tower of history, musical and personal. Behind me on the table are strewn a further sixteen vinyl artefacts from this most British and most universal of bands.
‘Things we left unsaid’ eases out of the stereo, sounding so much like an outtake from Wish You Were Here that the band could go back in time and sue themselves. So familiar in texture, in construction, in overall feel that it simply could not be anyone else. The segue into ‘It’s what we do’ is imperceptible. It’s what they do.
I drift off down the endless river of remembrance, picturing a solo rower sculling down an English stream. The image is on a gigantic circular screen suspended over the stage at a Pink Floyd concert in Melbourne. The piece is ‘Signs of Life’ from A Momentary Lapse of Reason, the 1987 welcome back – or perhaps the out-of-retirement – album of Messrs Gilmour Mason and Wright. There is an ‘Ebb and flow’ in the history, the machinations, the music of a band who changed, and changed us, but also stayed the same. That’s the last piece on the short first side; over too soon.
But I’m not quite ready to flip the disc. That loose electric piano and acoustic guitar on ‘Ebb and flow’ put me in mind of Floyd’s soundtrack work. The early More album: diverse and lacking any real coherency but a curious ‘of its time’ disc. Then the more confident, sophisticated Obscured By Clouds, music written for Barbet Schroeder’s La Vallée (an exotically nihilistic journey into early seventies identity confusion that I rather enjoyed). There’s the shambolic version of ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ from Tonight Let’s All Make Love in London, the Floyd improvisations and re-workings for Zabriske Point (an even earlier 70s downer trip), not to mention my treasured vinyl bootleg of the music from the Floyd’s own film, Live at Pompeii. Visiting Pompeii is on my bucket list. For the history, of course, but if I chanced across the amphitheatre where they set up their gear, what a photo opportunity that would be. A ghost picture of long gone citizens in togas overlaid with flickering images of a young, intensely exploratory band.
SIDE TWO – ECHOES OF THE PAST
Elements of collage subtly introduce opening piece ‘Sum’. Richard Wright’s Farfisa organ is a sound beloved of Floyd fans, so it’s almost a shock when the electric guitar and patented chugging mid-tempo riff take over. I’m immediately taken to the Pink Floyd album I first fell in love with. Meddle. The side-long ‘Echoes’ became a soundtrack for my own stumbling journey of discovery, not through swinging London or New Guinea highlands but through the culturally desolate streets of suburban Melbourne. I should write about Meddle some day and tell you about the schematic I drew out to help navigate the ebbs and flows of ‘Echoes’.
‘Skins’ sounds very much like soundtrack music; something rousing and percussive for a chase scene. These tracks may be out-takes and sketches from the 1993 Division Bell sessions, but this one is straight outta La Vallée.
‘Unsung’ is a brief, keening piece. Almost a threnody. Oh, I wanted more of this. Because this album is the Floyd swansong; their long goodbye. A salute to a dead band-mate and an acknowledgment of the inevitable end that awaits us all. But no, a few seconds of pain is all that can be tolerated as we flow into ‘Anisina’, a song begging for a lyric but which instead offers a pleasant sax solo. Disappointingly predictable. The closing rumble of thunder could signal unshed tears.
We are always let down by the ones we love. And we do love our favourite bands. So we yearn to get closer to the music, to the musicians, to the heart of the experience that transports us. It’s a connection as intimate as the space-traversing arc of ‘Astronomy Domine’ (Ummagumma version) and as shockingly distant as Roger Waters spitting on a front-row fan during The Wall tour. ‘What do you want from me?’ sang David Gilmour on The Division Bell.
And we know we cannot have it.
Hence our adoration and our despair.
SIDE THREE – DOWN A LAZY RIVER
A quiet, pleasant melody, ‘The lost art of conversation’ introduces a series of seven short pieces whose brevity is the uniting factor.
Second up is ‘On noodle street’, surely a tongue-in-cheek reference to its loping, improvised groove. It evokes a Peter Green song called ‘Slabo Day’ – another brilliant British guitarist with a Syd Barrett story of mental demolition.
The sense of reverie continues in ‘Night light’.
This mood of pervading sadness, of loss, has a strong gravitational pull. It’s been slowly building – or perhaps falling – since Syd disappeared in April 1968. Roger Waters’ fascination with psycho-emotional disintegration elevated Dark Side of the Moon, made Wish you Were Here sublime, but dragged The Wall into it’s own pissing self-pity. Yet Roger’s words were integral to Pink Floyd and it is significant that there is only one song on The Endless River, right at the end. Side Three seems to be some sort of acknowledgment of the presence and absence of language on the album as a whole. Surely it is no accident that the opening piece is entitled ‘The lost art of conversation’ and the last features this spoken word contribution from physicist Stephen Hawking:
Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible.
Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future.
With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded.
All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.
‘Keep talking’ was, of course, a song on 1994’s The Division Bell whose sessions provided the raw material for the current album. And how wonderful to hear the vocal richness of Durga McBroom seeping into this track as a wonderfully human counterpoint to Professor Hawking’s mechanical utterance. It’s my favourite moment on the album and captures something of the invention and sly humour of the band. Critics often castigated Pink Floyd for being po-faced and self-important. Rubbish.
In between the conversational bookends we have the classic Floyd chug and churn of ‘Allons-y (1)’, bringing to mind Gilmour’s contributions to The Wall – that album’s undoubted highlights. (OK. No more slagging off what is some people’s favourite Floyd opus. Anyway, I said it all here).
The Richard Wright organ on ‘Autumn ‘68’ seems to be consciously referencing the keyboard player’s song ‘Summer ‘68’ from Atom Heart Mother. How lovely to have that often over-looked 1970 album pointed out, albeit very subtly. (More on AHM here). Then the ‘Allons-y’ theme makes a return appearance before we segue into ‘Talkin’ Hawkin’’ which ends with some gentle electronic keyboard that somehow combines technology with humanity. Which is what Pink Floyd was always about, really.
SIDE FOUR – PEARLS THAT WERE EYES
‘Calling’ is one of those atmospheric instrumentals that Floyd favoured as album introductions on the last two studio outings. It was co-written with keyboard player Anthony Moore and is one of only two pieces that does not have Richard Wright. It’s nice and evocative, with a hint of eastern tonality and an understated filmic grandeur. Perhaps music for the closing credits of a film that has ended with resigned sadness.
The flow into ‘Eyes for Pearls’ takes us to a brooding underwater place – remember ‘Echoes’? – where death is again evoked via the Bard of Avon:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
But we do not drown, as ‘Surfacing’ reassures us. It’s a lovely piece of Floyd that takes us back to the sunlit world.
Rob Jones (The Delete Bin) has written about ‘Louder Than Words’ – the final song on The Endless River – with his customary insight and skill. Worth a read.
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