When it comes to recordings, I have long had a peculiar habit of often finding the album a band made before its breakthrough hit to be my favorite. Three examples: Steely Dan's Royal Scam, which preceded Aja; the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed, which preceded Sticky Fingers, and Miles Davis's Filles de Kilimanjaro, which preceded In a Silent Way.
And so it is with Pink Floyd.
While Dark Side of the Moon, which remained on the charts for an extraordinary 741 weeks (14 years) after its 1973 release is probably the best concept album this side of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, it is Meddle, the band's previously released album, that I have reached for most often over the years. That may have something to do with the fact that the first time I heard Pink Floyd live they played Meddle in its entirety. Or I think they did.
Depending on how you count, Meddle was Pink Floyd's fifth or sixth album (and while Obscured by Clouds was released in between Meddle and Dark Side, I'm not counting it for the purposes of this essay because it was composed as the soundtrack for the French movie La Vallée and not purpose built from scratch. (It's my blog, okay? Which also is why I can get away with reviewing a 38-year-old album, okay?)
Meddle, released in 1971, is made up of five then new songs on the A-Side and one long song on the B-Side that Pink Floyd had been performing in concert under the title of "The Return of the Son of Nothing."
Meddle is special because it was a departure from Space Rock for a band that had come to loath that label, finally had some real cohesion after the slow-motion exit of lead singer, lead composer and lead maniac Syd Barrett, was not yet engaged in the full-blown warfare that would characterize band members' relations with each other, and was ready for new horizons beyond relentless noodling for its own sake.
Those conquered horizons would mark Pink Floyd as progressive rock avatars who would go on to sell an extraordinary 200 million albums worldwide.
* * * * * Although I came to love each and every one of Meddle's A-Side compositions, they vary wildly in quality and mood.
First off is the largely instrumental "One of these Days," which is followed by "A Pillow of Winds," one of the very few acoustic love songs in the band's catalog. The two are connected by windy sound effects that anticipate "Wish You Were Here" on the 1975 album of the same name.
Next up is "Fearless," which is overdubbed and ends with a field recording of the Liverpool Football Club choir singing that soccer team's theme song, "You'll Never Walk Alone," then "San Tropez," a jazz-inflected piece of pop with a shuffle beat that recalls a band vacation at the French resort on the Mediterranean. The side ends with "Seamus," a whimsical ditty that includes the yowls of the collie of0 Humble Pie frontman Steve Marriott, whom Pink Floyd guitarist and lead singer David Gilmour was looking after while that band was on tour.
"Seamus" is forgettable and indeed was quickly forgotten when a listener would get up in the old days, trundle over to their stereo and turn over a vinyl recording of Meddle, an inconvenience negated with the advent of audio cassettes and later compact discs.
Quickly forgotten indeed with the pinging, wind-like sound and then the insistent opening bass and organ lines of "Echoes," a 23 minute-plus aural masterpiece alternately described as scary and uplifting by people with whom I have listened to it over the years. I come down somewhere in between, but the song is riveting to the very end -- an unforgettable sine-wave glissando.
Listening to "Echoes" today, I am struck by how structured it is compared to Pink Floyd's previous extended compositions. Where "Astronomy Domine" and "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun," to name two jam pieces on the Ummagumma album, remain eminently listenable, they are less the sum of their parts. "Echoes" is much more than the sum of its parts and the whale song-like screams and other bits are purposeful, not helter skelter.
"Echoes" is credited to the entire band: bass player Rogers Waters, Gilmour, drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist Richard Wright. Gilmour was the chief composer of the music, but the haunting lyrics are Waters', who told Pink Floyd biographer Mark Blake that they came from a sense of disconnection he experienced following Barrett's turbulent departure from the band:
"Waters and his future wife Judy Trim had moved to a flat in Shepherds Bush, West London. One window of the apartment afforded a clear view of the busy Goldhawk Road, down which the couple would observe an ant-like procession of commuters heading off for a day's toil in the morning and returning in the evening. The lyrics referring to strangers passing in the street were, he explained, 'all about making connections with other people. About the potential that human beings have for recognizing each other's humanity.' Perversely, despite the icy distance that would develop between some of those writing and performing the music, the theme of communication, of reaching out, would be one the band would return to obsessively."
The only thing not to like about Meddle is its abstract cover, a close-up of a human ear under water, and easily the least attractive of Pink Floyd's album sleeves. Otherwise, it is an aural delight. If your Pink Floyd repertoire tends toward chart busters like Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall, then you owe it to yourself to dive into what came before and made what came after possible. That would be Meddle.
* * * * * If you wanted to read about Pink Floyd in addition to listening to them, there are two biographies of note: Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd (2008) by the aforementioned Mark Blake, and Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey (1991) by Nicholas Schafner.
PHOTOS (from top): Gilmour, Mason, Waters, Wright, Barrett.