Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Top 100 Albums - #31: Echoes - The Best of Pink Floyd (2001)

The Floyd make their third of eight chart entries with Echoes, a double-album compilation compiled by all four members.
Following the release of The Division Bell in March 1994, the three remaining members of Pink Floyd embarked on their largest ever tour. The tour, which took up the rest of the year, was captured on the live album Pulse (1995) and the film shot at Earls Court in October 1994. All three members agree in retrospect that the band were in their prime¹, but after the tour David Gilmour announced that he had no desire to continue and put the band on 'semi-permanent hiatus'.² The next five years were unmarked, save for Rick Wright's second solo album Broken China (1996) and the birth of Gilmour's four children with Polly Samson, whom he married during the tour. In 2000 fans were greeted with Is There Anybody Out There? The Wall Live 1980-1981, a live cut of their groundbreaking shows at Earls Court twenty years before. Though it met with lukewarm reception from the critics, it left the fans eagerly wanting more.

Predictably, we start at the beginning, with two tracks from the Syd Barrett era. The first, 'Astronomy Domine', is the opening track of The Piper At The Gates At Dawn (1967). With its distinctive opening, it is a fitting way to kick off, as we beat, bleep and jaggedly riff our way in. It is tempting in hindsight to tar all pyschedelic rock with the same scornful brush, but this still sounds fresh and left-field forty-one years on. Rick Wright's keyboard and organ chords swirl through the mix to perfectly compliment Barrett's aggressive guitar, and it is all underscored with great, sharp drumming from Nick Mason.

'See Emily Play', meanwhile, is a non-album single and no different in quality. The lyrics may be more accessible - not that that is saying a lot - but they remain quintessentially English, as does Barrett's delivery of them. With this you realise how much Wright is an essential part of the band throughout its lifespan. Here his cascading piano work lifts the chorus out of all accusations of tweeness, kicking the whole piece up its floury, Kenneth Grahame'd backside.

So far, so predictable. But now, the compilation takes an unusual twist. No sooner have we reached the closing Plaaay-aaay-aaay, than we notice the simple but broading bassline of a later work. A few second later, the whirr of a helicopter and the angry cry of a Glaswegian teacher fling us forward 12 years and into the paranoid darkness of The Wall (1979). 'The Happiest Days Of Our Lives' and 'Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)' together form a bitter, personal salvo against the repressive education system through which Roger Waters passed. The former track has a bass line which chisels its way into your skill, with Mason's hi-hat pulsating like an angry wasp. Waters darkly spits out the lyrics, moving from his throaty whisper to the fearsome higher registers with gusto and fright.

The latter is well known for being Pink Floyd's only hit single, becoming the UK Christmas No. 1 of 1979. It's widely seen as a classic, and it isn't hard to see why. From the end of the blood-curdling scream, the simple beat is stuck in your beat. Gilmour's guitar work is subtle and yet very clever, rearing its head at just the right moments in the verses and choruses. The lyrics are wisely shared, which is odd considering Waters' megalomaniacal control of the album (and the band). But the cleverest thing about this song is that it appears to be more complicated than it actually is. Taken outside of the Floyd's image as over-serious and conceptual, the individual parts are all quite straightforward, and the lyrics could almost be called conventional. But together, these simple parts create something which is holistically very intricate, absolutely meticulous - and thoroughly rewarding.

Having gone so well, we segue seamlessly into rather an odd choice. 'Echoes' is undoubtedly significant as a piece within the Floyd catalogue. Gilmour has often gone on record as saying that Meddle (1971), from which this is taken, was the album which focussed the Floyd and decided the direction of all their great work. Be that as it may, the quality never really comes. You get hints of future brilliance, but that's all they are, hints. For example, in the second verse, we get the first inclination of Waters' empathetic lyrics:

Strangers passing in the street
By chance two separate glances meet
And I am you, and what I see is me
And do I take you by the hand
And lead you through the land
And help you understand the best I can?

All the ingredients for classic Floyd are lurking somewhere in this primordial pea-souper, whether it be Gilmour's singing and guitar work, Wright's delicate keyboards or Mason's underated drumming. But all you ever get are frustrating flashes from the abyss, and you come away feeling that your 16-and-a-half minutes could have been better spent.

Listening to the next track, for instance. 'Hey You' is nowhere near as frustrating, confusing or drawn out. This track opens the second half of The Wall, and finds Pink feeling regret for shutting out the world, to protect himself and spite those who made his life a misery. Even in his most bitter and vitriolic compositions - which The Wall definitely is - Waters still expresses empathy, crying out in his lyrics for contact, for help, for something to save him. Gilmour's guitar solo halfway through ensures that this flows musically as well as lyrically, getting us back on track.

'Marooned' is the first track from The Division Bell, and has been abridged to 2:03 to allow enough space for the other tracks. But even if you only get a third of the song, it's worth it, because this is simply gorgeous. This composition, which won Pink Floyd their only Grammy (for
Best Rock Instrumental Performance, in 1994), is a beautifally laid-out guitar piece. The second the first long, yearning chord rings out of Gilmour's Stratocaster, you find yourself on a desert island, surrounded by clear blue water and completely alone. While Gilmour lets rip in the foreground, Wright grounds the piece in some simple but perfectly timed chords. Unlike the guitar instrumentals of say, Joe Satriani, this does not sound too clever for its own good, or like Gilmour is showing off. It's just... sublime.

Sooner or later, we have to come to The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973), so it's just as well we start with a good cut from it. 'The Great Gig In The Sky' is a trademark Rick Wright piece. He strokes the grand piano with such grace and sadness that you are ignorant of Gilmour's pedal steel and the voices echoing around - you just want to listen to him. That is, until Clare Torry comes in. Her famous vocal performance, completely improvised in one take, still sounds as original and as frightening as it did back in 1973. As you listen to it, you feel like you are being sucked down by an unseen current, drowning in a whirlpool of sound. No-one has ever emulated it, and no-one ever will.

Following all this talk of death (so to speak), we step back in time to 'Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun'. Taken from A Saucerful Of Secrets (1968), it's one of the first songs which features Waters on lead vocals. It's a shame, then, that you can't really hear what he's saying - the production places the lyrics right at the back of the mix, behind the drums, bass and hammond organ. It's not a complete disaster, though, because while such practice would be inexcusible among today's producers, here it gives the piece a mysterious texture. Waters has always been an intimidating figure, and this is the first glimpse we get of that.

The last four tracks of the first half are all thoroughbred Floyd magic. First, we have 'Money', undoubtedly one of the greatest songs of the 1970s. Written in 7/8 time, it begins with the famous cash register and tape loops, before giving way to the instantly recognisable bass line. Everything about this track is absolutely tone-perfect. The instruments gel together perfectly, each coming in at the right stage and having a bigger say when the time is right. The rhythm is catchy beyond the point of madness; nobody can resist the beat. The saxophone solo from Dick Parry is elegant, and the jump in time signature (from 7/8 to 4/4) is, quite simply, exceptional; it frees up Mason to go just that little bad more wild, as he wrestles with Gilmour's wailing Strat. Lyrically, it's a playful, ironic and tasteful one-in-the-eye for the fat cats of the day and materialism in general. It is a true work of genius.

'Keep Talking' is also genius, but in an entirely different way. This segues in from 'Money' with no sign of any join, so that we suddenly jump from 1970s materialism to 1990s isolation and sadness. The track gets going with the cameo of Stephen Hawking, culled from the series of adverts he did for BT in the mid-1980s. Backed by his bristling Fender, Gilmour launches into his vocals, in a delivery which crosses the sinister whisper of Waters with the sadness and sense of loss which he has personally mastered. The band feels incredibly tight, with Mason being allowed plenty to room to experiment without going mad. And all the time, Wright keeps things in check, being rewarded with a fleeting solo. The best thing about this track, though, is its sense of honesty. With earlier Floyd tracks - on the previous album, for instance - you could get away with criticising them for pandering to popular feeling and not being genuine. But not with this.

'Sheep' is the only track on here from Animals (1977), a concept album which draws inspiration from George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945). Wright's keyboard part in the opening minute is dark, forbidding and distant, like a singing child in a horror film. Soon he is joined by the menacing burble of Waters' bass, as it slowly scrapes its way into the darkest corners of your mind. The lyrics are Waters in his prime, a bizarre but compelling mix of empathy, vitriol and socialism. He paints the 'sheep', the ignorant masses who are blind to the dark fate which awaits them, as if he is one of them - I've looked over Jordan and I've seen/ Things are not what they seem. Aside from the excellent lyrics, this song is hugely energetic. For the first seven minutes, we get verses like carefully-timed machine-gun volleys. But then, at 8:07, it all kicks off, Mason goes mental and the whole band explode with an energy which had not been seen from since the days of 'Careful With That Axe Eugene'. It's absolutely stunning.

We end the first half with a fourth stonker, in the shape of 'Sorrow'. This is the first track from A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987, #62), and it's not hard to spot the difference in sound, let alone tempo. But the darkness, the sadness, the loss and the regret are still there. The guitar part, played on a Steinberger GL ('headless guitar'), cuts in over the fading rampage of 'Sheep', and is deeper, more metallic - more Tangerine Dream than English art rock. The lyrics borrow from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939); the yearning for a fairer world is still there, but here the pain and anguish is turned inward, so that you are looking at a personal devastation without the blinkers of class war. This is a great arena rock song - it's heavy, it's determined, and as with the best music the Floyd produced, it reflects both the situation of the band and of the world around them, without coming across as simpering or self-obsessed along the way.

The second half begins with the longest track on the compilation. 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' (Parts I-VII)' clocks in at an almighty 17:32, and for that we don't even get the whole suite. What do we do get is all three verses - split between songs on Wish You Were Here (1975) - and a choice pick of the stuff in between. Purists and sound geeks will scoff at the absence of certain little sections, but for the the rest of us it doesn't really matter. The mood is still one of absence, the subject matter - Syd - is still in the foreground, and it still sounds pretty damn good.

'Time' takes us back two years and plants us back into everyman territory. The opening, parodied in later Floyd records, remains familiar and captivating, with its superb combination of deep clicks, heady guitars and teasing drumming. Waters' lyrics flow perfectly between the chords, especially on the choruses: Wright sings Tired of lying in the sunshine/ Stay and home to watch for rain backed by a glorious foursome of female singers who glide up and down the scales. Despite its philosophical themes - the passage of time and the feeling of being lost in life - it retains an essential Englishness, captured astutely in the line Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.

Following these genteel musings, we flash forward ten years to more serious times. 'The Fletcher Memorial Home' is the only morsel on here from The Final Cut (1983, #49), and it comes across as a big jump. Where 'Time' was reassuring and titillating, this is direct, angry and despairing. It is a quietly savage attack on the failure of 'the post-war dream'. Waters snarls through the lyrics with this precise thing in mind: his critique is reigned in by the grief he feels for his lost father. It may not be all that easy on the ears, but after a few listens you become fully aware of its power.

'Comfortably Numb' is a classic, easily one of the best known and most-loved Pink Floyd songs. Taken from The Wall, it's also one of the few occassions where Waters and Gilmour collaborated on songwriting. Waters takes the verses, playing the doctor examining Pink and recommending a series of drugs to get the rock star back on his feet:

Just a little pin-prick
They're be no more AAAAAAAAAA-AAAA-AAAH!
But you may feel a little sick

Gilmour meanwhile takes the chorus, singing as a dreamy, lethargic Pink on the brink of turning into a fascist monster. The song is majestic, with its guitar solo that was recently voted the greatest ever - and it's not hard to see why.³ Gilmour soars throughout the song, making his Strat sing and whine and cry in distress like the soul of Pink himself. It is one of their great compositions, better than anything the band threw up in the 1980s, and an art rock anthem which stands the test of time better than anything else of its kind.

Sticking with The Wall, sort of, we now come to 'When The Tigers Broke Free', a track conceived purely for the film version and only released as a seperate entity on the 2004 remaster of The Final Cut. A misfit, lyrically it sticks to the themes of The Wall - in this case the loss of the main character's father in war - but they follow the more sprawling pattern of Waters' solo work. Which is appropriate, really, since this is him atoning for his father's death, in full voice, while swiping at the authorities with his usual vim and venom.

'One Of These Days', meanwhile, is proper old-school Floyd. The duelling basses power their way through the mix as Gilmour doubles up. Wright dashes back and forth, fading in and out organ chords which cut through like scimatars. When the guitars finally arrive, the song erupts, slowly at first, but then everything boils over. This track, from Meddle, is Mason's chance to shine, and he does, taking a simple, repetitive drum part and turning into a wondefully astute solo (N.B. For an even larrier version, see his performance in the film Live At Pompeii (1972)).

As with so many of the choices on this album, 'Us And Them' follows the tried-and-tested method of ordering songs: a loud one, followed by a quiet one. Like a lot of things on The Dark Side Of The Moon, this piano-led, jazzy piece fell into place simply as a result of chords tumbling out of fingers, in this case Wright's. His four chord verse - complete with that magic third chord - creates a lilting, rolling soundscape over which Waters can calmly decry the futility of war. With these two ingredients in place, you slip into a state of summery relaxation, interrupted only by the 'musings' of roadie Roger "The Hat" Manifold.

If, on the off-chance, this has sent you to sleep, then the next track will wake you up like nothing else. 'Learning To Fly' bursts forth, breaking free from its mountings and hurling you head first into the 1980s. Essentially a Floyd take on arena rock, the lyrics speak of starting anew with little certainty of what lies ahead - A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, indeed. Like the aeroplane in the lyrics, Gilmour soars in his delivery, gracing any difficult notes which he encounters with an air of expectant disaffection. Mason, meanwhile, creates another great drum beat to lock into Gilmour, with its quirky tambourine and off-set beats in the third quarter of the phrase. It's another Floyd classic, and one of the highlights of the later years.

'Arnold Layne', as good as it is, cannot compete with the likes of 'Learning To Fly'. The band's first single, sung of course by Syd, is still as quaint, as English and as psychedelic as the date it was conceived. But after such high-quality, spacious production and deep, serious and meaningful subject matter, somehow a playful song about a transvestite seems jarring. No matter, because 'Wish You Were Here' is here to rescue the mood. With its deliberately garbled and muffled opening, you could be forgiven for thinking we have a duffer on our hands. But once the acoustic comes through at 0:53, all your fears are allayed and you settle back into this graceful, earthy tribute to the band's lost singer. The lyrics, well-known and much-parodied, pay tribute without seeming trite, are conceptual without being ridiculous and flow beautifully.

Syd persists, however, as if these last songs were a battle, seeing him reassert his influence in the band's back catalogue. Indeed, the opening lines of 'Jugband Blues' add weight to that theory: It's awfully considerate of you to think of me here/ And I'm most obliged to you for making it clear/ That I'm not here! This was written as Syd was slipping deep into LSD abuse. As a result it's unhinged, honest and incredibly mad. It's a marmite song - if you love it, it's a bizarre gem written as the 1960s began to turn on its children; if you hate it, it's a case study of a druggie losing his mind and wasting our time (cf. Peter Green's The End Of The Game (1970)).

Soon the church bells begin to chime and we come to 'High Hopes', the final song on the Floyd's final album. Once again, Wright's piano creates a mood of melancholy, sadness and regret, while Gilmour's lyrics and delivery are absolutely magnificent. His voice is so perfectly suited to this song that it can barely be put into words. Even at the end of their career, there is no sense of decline or wear to tarnish the result. In many ways, this song is an allegory for the Floyd as they were then, looking back on a long and illustrious life of joys and regrets, before finally deciding that this is the time to retreat into the shadows. This is a fabulous eulogy to their fans and an extraordinary piece of music in its own right, which, like The Division Bell itself, deserves pride of place.

But that isn't the end of proceedings. The spirit of Syd is conjured up once more, in the form of 'Bike', as an impish reminder to later fans that without him, stuff like 'High Hopes' would never have happened. The song, lifted from The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, is a punchy 3-minute single. It plays with your senses, winding down on the chorus before clattering atonally into the next verse. It's a very strange choice for the closer, and the squawking birds at the end don't help.

Any attempt to make a definitive Pink Floyd compilation was always destined to come up short. Not only is the band's material best viewed in terms of albums rather than individual songs, but the task was made harder by getting all four members to agree on the songs and their order. If nothing else, we have here something which is a great deal more thought out, more comprehensive and more purposeful than previous compilations, like Relics (1971) and Works (1983). All the well-known stuff is here so that new and casual listeners can find their way into the band; and to satisfy established ears, we get the odd surprise inclusion and little-known classics. But this is still not a definitive collection - there is nothing from Ummagumma (1969) and Atom Heart Mother (1970), nor is there anything from the band's soundtrack work; while there are relatively esoteric and acquired tastes, without them it is not complete. And yet, Echoes is worthwhile because of the way it is produced. James Guthrie's segueing of the tracks into one another, coupled with their unconventional ordering, gives it a unique sound. As you drift back and forth in time, you chance upon each track in turn, like exploring the rooms of a huge old house, or having a very long, very strange dream. You will need patience (and an open mind) to get through Echoes in one sitting, but if you do you will be rewarded with glimpses of some of the greatest music ever written.

3.92 out of 5

¹ 'P*U*L*S*E Podcast - Part 1', Brain Damage Podcasts, available at http://www.brain-damage.co.uk/. Accessed on July 29 2008.
² Nick Mason, Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd, ed. Philip Dodd (London: Phoenix, 2005), p.333.
³ 'Pink Floyd guitar solo sits comfortably at first place', The Guardian, August 28 2006, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2006/aug/28/arts.artsnews. Accessed on August 15 2008.

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