Some things to consider if you’re coming to this new:
Touring. In the early 1970s, the best way to get people to buy your records was to go out and play dozens of gigs. The UK touring scene had developed directly from the variety act tours of the 1950s and early sixties, a time when the Beatles might appear fourth on the bill behind Helen Shapiro, a ventriloquist and a comedian. These shows toured the cinemas and music halls of Britain, and so – for the most part – did the rock bands which followed. Pink Floyd, of course, toured ‘Atom Heart Mother’ with an orchestra in tow, which made for a logistical nightmare, and – as every band who has ever tried it will tell you – running at a loss for the whole tour.
Floyd also toured extensively in Europe and increasingly successfully in the US – they played Fillmore East in New York to somewhere around 3,000 people in 1970, a gig which brought home to them that they seemed to have a bigger audience than record sales would suggest, and that perhaps they should find a record company who were willing to do some promotion for them.
So the gap between records this time was filled with touring, and as a result, ‘Meddle’ was put together entirely in the studio. For a while, it appeared likely that it would be called ‘Return of the Son of Nothings’, such was the lack of progress.
One of the side-effects of doing so much touring was that the band had acquired a full-time road crew, managed by Peter Watts. This, of course, meant more expenses, but it did mean that they could get round pretty much everyone who wanted to see them live in some semblance of order. One of the bonuses of having this much organisation was that the whole company – band, wives, children, and crew with their assorted families, could occasionally take a holiday. In Saint-Tropez, for instance…
One of the people on that holiday in Saint-Tropez, and therefore in some minimal way part of the inspiration for the song, was Peter Watts’ infant daughter, Naomi. You’ve probably heard of her…
In a relatively unusual move, Floyd went to Australia in the middle of 1971, and met a film maker called George Greenough. They allowed him to use ‘Echoes’ in his film called ‘Crystal Voyager’, and in return received a piece of film taken from a body cam (an unthinkably novel way of doing things in 1971) of a surfer riding a wave. It went in the live show, and has stayed there ever since.
Meanwhile, to keep the money coming in, EMI released a ‘offcuts and rarities’ album called ‘Relics’. The only piece of music on it which no-one had heard before was called ‘Biding my Time’, and features Rick Wright on trombone:
It’s possible it might have appeared on ‘Meddle’ but for the record company looking for something new to persuade people to buy ‘Relics’. It’s, shall we say, different.
At the same time as all this was going on, Roger Waters and Ron Geesin had been asked to score a documentary called ‘The Body’ – how the hell they found time to do that as well is beyond me. ‘Music from The Body’ is notable for a couple of things: there’s a track called ‘Breathe’, which begins “Breathe, breathe in the air”, but otherwise bears no relation to the slightly better known Pink Floyd track of the same name, and there’s one track, ‘Give Birth to a Smile’, which features the whole band.
The whole thing is here:
and ‘Give Birth to a Smile’ is here:
One more person of note before we move on – the dog on ‘Seamus’ belonged to the late great Steve Marriott. This isn’t the place to point you at the Small Faces or Humble Pie, but do yourself a favour when you have a minute.
So, is it any good?
I’m tempted to say “of course,” but I don’t think there’s any ‘of course’ about it – the formula so far had been to do one band track, then make everyone come up with something on their own; ‘Meddle’ marks the first time they hit upon the idea of everyone mucking in together to make it all work. Roger writes the lyrics, and while they don’t quite reach the heights of the next few albums, they are generally better executed than a lot of what has gone before. The sound effects are toned down and don’t intrude on the music; they segue from one track to the next, but there’s ‘Seamus’.
It works because they’re closing in on the ‘Pink Floyd’ formula; it has its odd moments which don’t work because they don’t have an overarching purpose to it beyond ‘we need to get 40 minutes of music on tape, then get back on the road’, but I think it gives them a clear path toward success – Gilmour and Waters share vocal duties according to the needs of the song, rather than who wrote it; Gilmour and Wright add colour to Waters’ basic structures, and the egos seem, for the most part, to have been left at the door – this is exceedingly rare on any album featuring Roger Waters, and we should celebrate it.
And, in the end, it works because of ‘Echoes’ – in the pantheon of 20 minute prog rock epics, it’s right up there with the best (I was going to ramble on about ‘Close to the Edge’, ‘Supper’s Ready’, ‘2112’ and ‘Karn Evil 9’, but this is long enough already); from the opening sonar ping (it’s actually a piano note played through a Leslie speaker), to the closing fade into white noise, it really doesn’t put a foot wrong.
OK, I know some people don’t like the meandering about in the middle; for those people, there’s an edited version on the 1990s compilation called ‘Echoes’ which you might like. Mind you, if you’re like me, you’ll come away from it thinking that there’s something missing.
It’s the first in a run of genuinely classic albums from one of the greatest albums bands of all time.