Friday, 4 July 2008
Pink Floyd "Meddle" (1971) ('Core' Review #50, Revised Edition 2014)
Track Listing: One Of These Days/ A Pillow Of Winds/ Fearless/ San Tropez/ Seamus// Echoes (
UK and tracklisting) US
All these years of playing 'Meddle' inside and out, upside down, backwards (no special messages this time I'm afraid!) and on a variety of different formats later and it's an album I still can't really figure out. As it's placing on our original 'core' lists of 101 classic AAA albums suggests, part of is wonderful - the high water mark of Pink Floyd's experimental years when all those weird ideas and unusual approaches have fully paid off with a sound and style no other band can match. 'Echoes' - a 23 minute epic which takes up the entire second side - is the band's crowning glory not-withstanding a back catalogue that includes 'Dark Side Of The Moon' and 'The Wall'. The first side also contains two of the band's stronger 1970s songs that couldn't be more different: the fierce full-on adrenalin rush of 'One Of These Days' (full name as used in concert '...I'm Going To Cut You Into Little Pieces', just to give you an example of where the song is going) and the beautiful pastoral gossamer light lilt of 'A Pillow Of Winds', under-rated gems both. Pink Floyd are about two-thirds of the way to creating a masterpiece. But just as on the last two albums now the rest of the album is a real 'pig's ear' (as the cover jokingly seems to suggest): a mis-mash of cod holiday songs, football crowd chants disrupting normal service and a dog howling his head off on a cod blues songs. These aren't 'experiments' in the way that 'Echoes' is - a bold step into something new - they're weird filler that the Floyd should have grown out of by now. While clearly more consistent than 'Ummagumma' (two thirds of which was like this) and 'Atom Heart Mother' (which had the 'opposite' problem to 'Meddle' - a sublime side of 'songs' and a ridiculous overblown side-long suite) in many ways this is worse because the Floyd were so close to reaching nirvana for the first time since Syd Barrett was in the band and they blew it.
And yet...'Meddle' is still a strong candidate for 'best ever Floyd LP', mistakes and all. No other band was positioned in 1971 or indeed ever to offer everything this album can barely hold: Pink Floyd out-rock the heaviest heavy metallers, out-bliss the most serene prog rock bands and 'Echoes' is so much more than a mere 'song' - it's an extravaganza, an epic, an extended moment of inspired genius, the moment where more than ever you feel the band have 'cracked' what they were put on this earth to do (yep, even three minutes of crow cawing makes sense in context!) No other band (except perhaps Jethro Tull, who would have turned it into a self-deprecating comedy) would have been brave enough to attempt anything quite this big, this bold, this revolutionary. There’s a peculiar atmosphere about this record, a feeling of things slowly coming together, as if the band had been branching out in lots of weird and wonderful directions before finally cobbling down to work and making their prototype for how to take over the music business with un-beatable ideas. While the Floyd had tried side-long epics before these are unanimously considered to be hopeless, near-instrumentals extended way past their natural length (although some fans still enjoy 'A Saucerful Of Secrets', for reasons probably best known to their drug dealer). 'Echoes' though is the moment it all gels and in popular music terms cannot be over-estimated: it's the equivalent of the first full length musical, the first full scale opera, the first time anyone strung two similar songs together to make a 'medley'. Pink Floyd as a band made the best use of wide open spaces of any rock group and 'Echoes' is where this idea works best, with every weapon in their arsenal held back and gradually tried out so that when the band finally hit the climax they've been building to for some 18 minutes, pulling this way and that and slowly circling it in every direction they can, the release that the song finally gets when that itch we've been dying to scratch for a length of time that's longer than some careers is mesmerising, as powerful as music can be (which is pretty powerful, as all you AAA readers surely know by now). 'Echoes' still sounds revolutionary today, in a world where everything grew bite-size again pretty soon after the prog rock epoch, not least in the way that every single section ties in together, all of it tied together with a 'proper' beginning middle and end (the main thing that had been lacking in the Floyd's earlier attempts, along with a nice tune and a good idea). 'Echoes' alone makes 'Meddle' one of the most important AAA albums of them all, whose importance cannot be overestimated (even though it's ;length sadly means it isn't played today or heralded anywhere near as often as it should be).
The highpoint of the Floyd’s proggy phase, Meddle is also the group’s last gasp as a ‘cult’ rather than a ‘mainstream’ band. It's the last time you can hear the Floyd caring not one jot about their audience, with in-jokes about holidays, barking dogs and football crowds. As we've seen, a lot of this stuff is hard to listen to and it's inevitable that they would fade from the act sometime, but at the same time it's something of a shame: Pink Floyd stop being quite so fun after this and start becoming ever more gloomy with each LP that has Roger Waters a part of the band. In a way, too, 'Meddle' is the Floyd's last reach back to the Syd Barrett era, the last mention of childhood as an actual place for playing in (the two exceptions, Waters' 'Another Brick In The Wall' and Gilmour's 'High Hopes' are more extract political and personal respectively compared to Barrett-land full of hobgoblins and weirdness). After a half-side full of comedy songs, cartoon violence and 'San Tropez' (a child's view of what it is to be an adult), 'Echoes' sounds like the 'coming of age' story, the child throwing his curtains wide and reaching out for the 'sun', for the 'new', for 'others' to come into his life (a sound that's been beating within him since the womb given the sonar 'pings' of the song's opening moments). In a way it's a shame that such a legacy came to an end; getting through the following was once the Pink Floyd equivalent of a rite of passage: a symphony with dripping taps and a roadie cooking breakfast (Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast no less – how did the Floyd know my early mornings always sound like this?!?), a brass section overdubbed horribly badly onto a flimsy rhythm section backing (Atom Heart Mother -does anybody know what on earth this track, left untitled till the last minute, was all about?), 12 minute drum solos and 10 minute avant garde piano pieces (see Ummagumma - if you can bear to), a whole side of unfocussed instrumentals ('More'). You name it, the Floyd put us through it. I’d gladly accept it all though – and even two hours of Roger Waters screaming through his early solo records – just to get this album’s masterpiece Echoes.
For a band who thrived on faceless mystery and an aloofness from their public to the point where even their biggest fans would have problems working out which member of the band was which, Meddle is a very heartfelt and warm record. Many fans - me included - have come to the Floyd 'backwards', working towards the beginning of their career from near the end or at any rate the middle. Posterity has recorded the Floyd as a 'cold' and clinical band - those blood-curdling screams, those art rock instrumentals, their love of technology, their high-falluting concept albums about madness and absence. But underneath those masks (literally in the case of 'The Wall') beats some very warm human emotion. Echoes alone goes through so many permutations that you feel as if you really are getting to the middle of some complex, emotional heart beating at the centre of this record, while even seemingly inoffensive and filler tracks like A Pillow Of Winds and Fearless seem to dig a little deeper lyrically when you study them closely, with both of these songs studying the human condition being, respectively, in balance and out of it. All of these songs are about human emotion somewhere ('One of These Days' fright, 'A Pillow Of Winds' awe, 'Fearless' confusion, 'San Tropez' a kind of drunken joy, 'Echoes' curiosity and experience), except for 'Seamus' which is a mock-blues song so not about the human condition they even give it to a dog to sing (no wonder our AAA mascot Max The Singing Dog likes this record, although he does insist on re-naming 'San Tropez' 'New York New York'!) The Floyd haveb't always been cold of course - there's a real feeling of emotion in Syd's work and in the pastoral sides to 'Atom Heart Mother' 'Saucerful' and - if you look very clearly - 'Ummagumma'. To be honest, though, the closest work to 'Meddle' in the Floyd canon is 'More' and that was a film score about some boring drug users dropping out of society and eventually losing their way'; it wasn't a first hand emotion. By now though the Floyd have learnt that what works best on their albums is a kind of synergy between the audience and themselves: not true autobiography (not until 'The Wall' anyway), but songs about human experiences rather than imaginary worlds and the stars or places and things that only the band would know (like 'Grantchester Meadows'). This record isn't just a fine record in its own right (give or take a couple of songs), but an important stepping stone to the sheer humanity of 'Dark Side Of The Moon's tale of human weaknesses.
One other important development on this album is how much better everything sounds. The first album to be fully produced by the band, it's at least as clear and well mixed as the much more heralded 'Dark Side' (for which engineer Alan Parsons - who didn't work on this record - tends to get all the credit; the engineers are Peter Bown and Rob Black). The ghostly winds that whip up the studio at the start of 'One Of These Days' are breath-taking, matched straight away by the fierce battle between two similar basses (Roger in the left channel, Dave in the right) recorded so clearly that they seem to be physically cutting lumps out of the song (although you have to ask why they're here and not on the actual track that's flipping named 'A Pillow Of Winds'!) Throughout the album Rick's keyboard shines like never before, suddenly dancing from one speaker to the other, finally back where it should be as the 'colour' of the band's sound rather than the supports for it. Gilmour's golden guitar solos find him at the peak of his playing and he's now central stage for much of the time instead of playing in the wings, hiding the fact that he isn't Syd Barrett. Roger's bass and Nick Mason's drums have never sounded tougher, not just on 'One Of These Days' (the single heaviest song in the Floyd canon, leaving the other two people always mention, 'The Nile Song' and 'Young Lust', for dust) but on the curious riff that runs through the heart of 'Fearless' and the majestic instrumental of 'Echoes'. As ever on this album (and in this review) all roads lead back to the side-long suite: originally recorded as a sketchy sequence of instrumentals and half-baked ideas titled 'Nothing' 'Son Of Nothing' 'Return Of The Son Of Nothing' etc, this could all so easily have gone horribly wrong, like it did on 'Atom Heart Mother'. Instead the joins are invisible, the slot A into slot B construction scheme faultless and every single factor perfectly captured, from Rick's opening slight pings to the cawing crows to one of the loudest instrumental passages you'll ever hear.
Why are there crows in the middle passage of 'Echoes' by the way? Well if you believe poet Ted Hughes (and if you believe his rotten one-dimensional work you'll believe anyone), the crow is a sign of death. In this case it seems to signify not an actual death (although you could make a strong case for the finale taking place in an afterlife) but atrophying. One of the most famous stories behind 'Dark Side' was that Roger (aged 29) wrote it when he realised that the life he's been raised to plan and prepare for (from school onwards) was no longer a mystifying construct that would come along later: he was living it now and was in danger of missing out if he carried on regarding it as something that 'came along later'. The narrator of 'Echoes' has been sleeping his way through life but the moment when he opens the 'windows wide' and greets the outside world is a symbolic gesture on a par with anything from 'Dark Side'. The crows are what the narrator is (possibly) escaping from, a journey made especially hazardous given the ten minutes of 'will they won't they?' cat and mouse being played with our ears. That theme of atrophying and of suddenly snapping is one that crops up several times across this album (well, I say several times - this being the Pink Floyd there are only six songs on this album it can crop up in). 'One Of These Days' appears to be a warning, but one that comes too late: like 'careful With That Axe Eugene' this is a murder carried about by someone pushed too far. 'A Pillow Of Winds' is atrophy all over - enjoyable sure, full of warm content and night-time cuddles, but watch out for that sneaky Roger Waters line; when the narrator is busy watching his beloved one asleep 'the candle dies' and this is followed by 'the seasons change', a book falling to the floor' and 'a dream that's gone'. 'Fearless' features one of Roger's most puzzling lyrics but this too seems to deal with life's difficulties and how to overcome them: 'You say the hill's too steep to climb' is the opening phrase, before the more hopeful sudden realisation that it doesn't matter how you climb the hill as long as you climb it - all it takes is finding 'the right way on the right way'. Like many fans I've often wondered what that football crowd was all about, especially as Roger famously supported Arsenal rather than the featured team of supporters for Liverpool: is this a sneaky joke about one of Arsenal's biggest rivals having a difficult season (and thus a 'hill to climb') in the following year? (the year 1970/1971 - ie the current one while this album was being made before a release in November that year, saw the Floyd's beloved Arsenal come top with 65 points and Liverpool 5th with 51). Tropez' is a song all about taking the time to smell the roses, although you could also argue that this narrator hasn't been 'blessed' by the realisation of life passing him by yet, hence the amount of time he wastes (although as John Lennon once said, 'time you enjoyed wasting wasn't wasted').
The fact that we're talking about a 'concept' -still a couple of years before the Floyd are thought to have one - either shows that your reviewer has been at the wine gums again or how much Roger Waters is taking charge. While 'Ummagumma' was a belated attempt at band unity by, err, splitting the band up and 'Atom Heart' was largely wasted on a title track that nobody - the band included - finds listenable, 'Meddle' is the first time apart from 'More' that Roger gets to write every single lyric (although, technically, no one has owned up yet to writing the words for 'Seamus', credited to the whole band) and while that album obviously had to fit together somehow (if only to match the film) this is the first opportunity he gets to start looking at 'concepts'. From here-on in until as late as the 1980s Roger will be on an unstoppable creative roll - perhaps because of the reasons outlined above, that he felt life was passing him by - and 'Meddle' is the first step of a whole string of Roger Waters albums set to melodies first by the rest of Pink Floyd and later by Roger alone. However for now there's no question of the splits to come, the silent sulking or the firing of band members: Pink Floyd are very much a 'team' , with the vocals shared out fairly evenly between Roger, Dave and Rick (who doesn't get any to himself this time but whose sublime second-lead to Gilmour's on 'Echoes' technically gives him more air time than Roger). Even Nick gets a rare cameo as the distortion-flattened spoken words voice on 'One Of These Days'. More importantly, the band's musicianship is superlative across this record - yep, even 'Seamus' -showing off a loose-but-not-too-loose sound that often find all four men taking off into-goodness-knows-where only to find by some form of telepathy that they are all somehow flying in formation. Anyone who doubted whether Pink Floyd could really play without all that studio trickery need only listen to the extreme peaks and troughs in 'One Of These Days' or the delicate playing in 'A Pillow Of Winds' or pluck the needle randomly into any part of 'Echoes' (except the crow noises bit, obviously). The band were never tighter, nor ever felt like as much of a 'band' as this again. Along with the forthcoming 'Live At Pompeii' gig (recorded in 1972 inside an empty Roman amphitheatre), it's the Floyd at their finest, a well drilled improvisatory band who are so in tune with each other they know exactly where each other is going to go.
Sadly it's for pretty much the last time (barring a quick fortnight spent recording 'Obscured By Clouds'). From here onwards the Floyd will be too 'big' to get away with improvising every night in stage, their ever-growing fans too eager to see the Floyd set in stone. 'Meddle' might not be as 'good' as the million-selling albums to come, in the sense that some of these songs are amateurish and a lot of the ideas too 'strange' for ordinary consumption (although it's worth pointing out that Meddle, like all of the Floyd's non-soundtrack LPs since 'Ummagumma' hit #1 in the UK, something 'Dark Side' never did). But it's the very greatest of their 'playful' albums, revealing the band when they were at that wonderful halfway house between being the confidence in their work to be absolutely in-tune with each other and had the freedom to take that creative confidence anywhere they chose. On paper choosing this album as one of our 'core' 101 albums looks like a spot of 'meddling'; there are only six tracks on this entire record and – at a push – only three of these songs are of the highest order. Yet somehow quality counts over quantity and the high moments are so high (in both meanings of the word) that you still end up more than satisfied with this album as a whole. Even this album’s lesser, throwaway moments – and there are quite a few moments on this record, thankfully short it has to be said – have a sort of laidback cheeky charm about them, something that intended grandiose masterpieces like Atom Heart Mother and A Saucerful Of Secrets would give their left cow’s hoof or their right tea-cup to enjoy. In all, then, it sounds like a cop-out saying that Meddle has some indefinable magic about it that makes it somehow greater than its parts (the masterpiece Echoes aside), but if there were a candidate for ‘best magicians’ on this list then who would make a better candidate than Pink Floyd? 'Meddle' may be a patchy record with a weird cover (Hipgnosis' worst, a picture of a pig's ear underwater - an early showing for the animal to be associated with them more than other) , but its 'our' patchy album with a weird cover, full of character, wit and charm that the general record public will never get and which still seems outrageous, outlandish and outstanding today.
Understandably, the 23-minute Echoes dominates the album and everything on side one has been dismissed over the years as ‘filler’ or ‘weak’ material. Well, as discussed, one listen to the likes of Seamus and the critics no doubt have a point, but opener  One Of These Days is another example of classic Floyd, leading on from the suppressed horror lurking beneath old Floyd favourites Careful With That Axe, Eugene and Julia Dream. The theme of paranoia runs through much of Waters’ 70s work and by the late 70s/early 80s Floyd albums Roger is a lyrical master at putting his characters’ unspoken fears into penetrating character-building words. In this period of the Floyd’s history, however, Waters is still letting the music speak for his narrator’s subconscious, relying on his band-mates to pull the punches on this largely instrumental rocker. Indeed, this song has only one line to build its atmosphere around (‘one of these days I’m going to cut you into little pieces’, spoken by drummer Nick Mason with the tape slowed to half-speed to make him sound as sinister as possible) on a theme that, on later albums, would take the Floyd hours (The Wall is essentially a 79-minute expansion of this one solitary frightening line). This is hardly the most polished or important track the Floyd ever recorded, but the tight drama of the song makes it a truly memorable piece, what with two very different-sounding basses played by Waters and Gilmour building up the tension of the song at twice the speed of normal and Gilmour’s muted but snarlingly angry guitar phrases bringing out much of the song’s undercurrent of nastiness. The only beauty on this track comes from Wright’s typically counter-pointed yet complementary swashes of colour, soaring out from the song like the polite, cold gentile killer who seems to be masking a thousand violent emotions just centimetres under the exterior of this song. Listen out too for a quick snatch of the contemporary Jon Pertwee-era arrangement of the Dr Who theme tune, played by Gilmour during the song’s quietest section, as a bit of an in-joke after discovering that some of his improvised licks share the same chord progression and languid-but-bouncy tempo. The first of this album’s many examples of how to build up and gradually loosen tension in a song, One Of These Days somehow manages to sound fun as well as threatening and is closer to boogie-woogie rock than the boring flat out heavy metal attack a lesser band would bring to a track like this. Overall, a success that - in typical Floyd fashion - impresses without actually doing all that much to gain your admiration.
If One Of These Days is one of the highlights of the Floyd’s ‘rocky’ canon, then  A Pillow Of Winds is one of the best examples of the band’s ‘pastoral’ catalogue. Despite their later reputation of being dark, brooding and menacing, many of the Floyd’s earlier songs fall naturally into this ‘light and fluffy’ category, with Gilmour especially being a huge fan of laidback harmony groups such as The Beach Boys (the guitarist can be heard singing ‘surf’ covers on his earliest known recording, dating from around 1965) and Crosby, Stills and Nash (the first and third of which guested on Gilmour’s most recent record solo On An Island). A Pillow Of Winds is pretty much the band’s last example of the genre that they had been quietly following for much of the past three years and along with the songs Grantchester Meadows and If it is one of the most gorgeously beautiful pieces they ever made. Plucked guitars playing a variation on The Beatles’ Dear Prudence riff, while a soaring slide guitar part and a lovely vocal are perfectly positioned throughout the song (all three parts are played by Gilmour, indicating just how much effort the guitarist was putting into the song to earn his co-credit with Roger Waters). However, despite his own lack of songwriting accreditation, it’s Wright’s shimmering organ dubbed low in the mix that is once again the quiet star of the record, holding the song together delicately and gently stopping it from flying away. The name of the song is derived from a tile used in the Eastern game Mah Jong and – not coincidentally – the song’s few sparse lyrics from Waters deal with similarly Eastern themes of harmony and balance, many recalling the Syd Barrett-era I Ching song Chapter 24. The start of the song is also Floyd’s most romantic minute on their back catalogue, with Waters’ lyrics at their most poetic and Gilmour’s husky vocal at its most happy and carefree. The couple in this song are just about to turn the light off and go to sleep, with night falling all around them in a typically Pink Floyd way that seems to suggest some sort of re-birth (a theme common to many of the band’s songs in this period). Yet whereas this song’s close cousin Echoes depicts morning breaking and life beginning a new, this far more peaceful song finds the couple with all of their duties fulfilled for the day, looking forward to what the next morning might bring. Gilmour’s delicate guitar-work is in sharp contrast to the last song, all acoustic and delicate instead of shrilly piercing, and the backing of this song really is like the soft and gentle pillows the lovers are resting on in the song. A terribly un-Floyd piece of music, one dismissed by the band as well as many fans, Pillow is nevertheless a neglected masterpiece from a time when Pink Floyd were experimenting with more than just sound collages and guitar effects.
After that, the other songs on side one are a pretty peculiar bunch.  Fearless mixes a typically jagged and cyclical Floyd guitar riff and some largely impenetrable lyrics about the challenges the narrator meets in life (‘The hill’s too steep to climb’). In many ways this song is the flipside of the last track; whereas the narrator in A Pillow Of Winds was content to count his few blessings, this narrator is full of restless nervous energy and anxiety and he’s not quite sure why because on the surface he seems to have everything going for him. Lyrically, you might even call him angry, in his own words ‘looking down’ at the people challenging him and tut-tutting his way through a song about how ’idiots facing the crowd’ , unable to see from the high intelligent vantage-point of the narrator. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this was an early song about Roger Waters’ impatience with mere earthlings who can’t comprehend his more complex solo albums—but we haven’t actually got to that stage in Pink Floyd history yet. Perhaps, instead, this is yet another song about Floyd founder Syd Barrett’s mental instability and the failure of mere mortals like the other Floyds to comprehend what he has to tell us (’who’s the fool who wears the crown?’). However, you’d be hard pressed to notice either of these themes on first hearing, partly because Gilmour’s laidback vocal is as far away from high emotion as you can get and partly because the vocals are mixed so low, far lower than even the tambourine and sound effects on this song, never mind the noisy riff. The backing track for this song is undeniably edgy, however, switching gears frequently between an urgently repetitive verse and a melancholy chorus. Thankfully, the performance of this uncomfortable song shows much of the classic four-way telepathy of the Floyd at this period, with guitar, bass, drums and keyboard all bouncing off each other and cooking up a storm by the time we get to the third straight verse-chorus structure repeat. The ending, however, is a let down as – like the narrator – it doesn’t find the answers its looking for and the whole thing simply winds itself up as tight as it will go before gradually slowing down as the groove slowly falls apart. In one of the weirdest passages of music on any Floyd track, psychedelic breakfasts and Ron Geesin sound effects included, suddenly in comes a group of Liverpool supporters chanting their theme song You’ll Never Walk Alone for no apparent reason, singing over the top of the Floyd and all but drowning them out. This is especially strange given how the two themes clash: the narrator has just made it perfect clear in this song that he’s solitary because he likes it that way and doesn’t want ‘inferior’ people to bother him; in other words he ‘walks alone’ all the time. Weird, but unlike the far-out sections of Echoes, not in a good way – the Floyd truly score an own-goal with this track, despite its hints of promise.
 San Tropez is equally peculiar but in a quite different sense, being a rather ordinary jazzy cocktail-lounge song that could have been recorded by any number of groups of the 1970s, lacking just about anything to link it to the Floyd (Waters sings only his 5th or 6th lead ever for the Floyd; Gilmour plays a nylon-string solo for the only time in his career; the walking pace tempo and jazzy style are pretty much one-offs). Heck, the track even features Roger Waters doing his best to sound happy (sorry guys, that’s just too unlikely an idea to ever succeed properly in a song), although Gilmour’s Hawaiian guitar solo is pleasant enough and Wright sounds genuinely pleased to be back working with his first love of jazz again after eight years’ worth of psychedelia. The best thing about this song is its lyrics, forces as they are in places. Perhaps deciding that he’d better try and sound intellectual after his claims in the last song, Waters strings together a whole series of alliterative verses here with lots of extra half-rhymes in there somewhere too (’As I reach or a peach, slide a line down behind a sofa…’), but unlike, say, CSN’s Helplessly Hoping (see album no 29 on the list) there’s no real story going on or indeed any point to this song other than letting Waters having a chuckle at spoofing the poets he used to study in school. I’d love to say this song lived up to its rather weird approach, but sadly it doesn’t, being a string of jazzy clichés that show none of the usual imagination or flair of Waters at his best. The Floyd never sound remotely like this again, ever, for which we should probably be thankful.
If you think those two songs are strange, I haven’t even come to  Seamus yet: a slow blues with the Small Faces’ singer/guitarist Steve Marriott’s dog on lead vocals, or on a lead at any rate—he’s certainly more charismatic than Gilmour’s lead vocal, who just sounds like a drunken bluesman busking outside the recording studio to be honest. If you’re wondering what the Floyd were doing with Steve Marriott’s pooch by the way, no they hadn’t kidnapped him - for some reason Gilmour had offered to look after Seamus for a few days when Marriott was out of the country for a few days. Just whose bright idea it was to get the dog on record went unrecorded—by my reckoning Seamus’ improvised licks should have earned him some royalties by now (At least when Keith Moon decided to feature the Who’s dogs on record—on a track called Dogs Part Two, released as the B-side of Pinball Wizard—he credited the dogs by name on the record and even gave two-thirds of his royalties away to Towser (John Entwistle’s canine) and Jason (Pete Townshend’s pooch); this album sold quite well so that’s one hell of a lot of bones his offspring are owed). Wright tinkles the ivories softly and Gilmour howls his vocals while the dog simply howls. And that’s it, for nearly three minutes. I’ve heard of Hound-dog but this is ridiculous – literally a dog of a song – although watching Rick Wright gamely trying to hold onto a second dog hired specially for a repeat performance of this song on the Pompeii DVD while Waters does his best to look moody and Gilmour does his best to sound authentically bluesy is worth a quick giggle.
However, all is not lost because it takes just a single sonic ‘ping’ to wake us up out of our misery. Ever since the likes of Emerson, Lake, Palmer and Rick Wakeman decided to make a career out of 30-minute jamming sessions, modern music fans have steered clear of tracks that last anything over, say, 8 minutes – especially the sort of long tracks like this one that are near-instrumentals and have some weird crow and seagull sound-effects going on in the middle (I kid you not). But as all good Floyd fans know, rules were meant for breaking and  Echoes transcends all of its trappings to become one of the Floyd’s most original, powerful and impressive pieces of work in their entire history. This 23 minute medley of sonic pings, atmospheric sound effects and gradually building killer rock riffs might not sound like much on paper but every single section is perfectly cast, showing the Floyd’s ‘telepathy jamming’ off like never before. Every part of this song, except the overdubbed lyrics and vocals, were improvised over several studio days spent jamming, with highlights from the tapes taken out and somehow re-arranged into a full song (Echoes even had the working title Nothing Parts 1-14, a good hint at what the band thought about this piece until they began to assemble it properly, with future session tapes dubbed Son Of Nothing and Return Of The Son Of Nothing in the style of a bad kung fu film series). This song makes a virtue of the Floyd’s usual dramatic tactic of building to a crescendo seemingly out of nowhere and features all the band at their best. Gilmour and Wright share the vocals, both singing at a pitch much higher than their usual range to emphasise the tracks’ other-worldly and half-asleep feel. These two very different vocal styles (Gilmour sounding lived in and growly, Wright pure and innocent) do clash on the handful of other occasions when the pairing is called on to sing together but here - with both men well out of their normal range - they fit together beautifully, with one of the best vocals any of the band ever put together. Rick Wright’s organ and keyboard work is also at its best on this track, holding the sound together without stopping it from flying away into the ether. Nick Mason’s drumming is at its most powerful, laying down a firm beat that’s complemented by some eccentric rolls around the kit onto just about every percussive extra known to man, beast or animal (that’s ‘animal’ as in the drummer from the muppets). Roger Waters’ bass lines simply surge through the song at key moments, bringing out much of the drama of the song. The star, though is David Gilmour, who gets his best excuse yet to push his distinctive guitar-playing to the limit and send the piece howling into space on yet another feedback-tinged improvisation. The musical build-up to the song’s final section is especially powerful, a full 3 or 4 minutes of unreleased tension that nags away at the song’s riff and simply tries again and again and again and again to gnaw away at the obstacles in its path until the Floyd eventually relent and change chords, finally giving the song what a bad American sitcom would call ‘closure’. The warm and cosy final verse is a reward for both the narrator and us, as whoever is talking to us in this song slinks back into the real world, with the dream-figure still before his eyes, encouraging him to get out of bed and find her to the accompaniment of some more gorgeous layered harmonies.
With such an experimental, piecemeal song, the lyrics and theme linking the many parts of Echoes have to be exceptional and thankfully they are. The whole of the first verse simply describes the sun pouring in through a window and waking the narrator up, but are filled with so many beautiful and rather un-Waters like images such as ‘bright ambassadors of morning’ that its clear the narrator is still in his half-dreaming state. As the song progresses, it quickly turns into a variation on the ‘meeting soulmates’ idea, when ‘by chance two separate glances meet’ and like many a Floyd song fate seems to have ensnared its victims, giving them no chance to escape what life has planned for them. Despite the very scary journey through the dark foreboding forest or perhaps the empty wilderness of a desert during the song’s middle section, however, the mood of this song is unusually upbeat and suggests that, however many tasks it takes to find our true soul-mates, the search is not in vein for there really are like-minded people out there somewhere with each person designed to have a ‘pair’ to go with them, like some sort of grand-scale ‘matching cards’ puzzle. Unusually for the post-Barrett Floyd, the song is full of some very hallucinogenic imagery, possibly left over from Echoes’ first draft about man’s loneliness in the vastness of space, with the narrator’s visions filled with ‘the sun’, ‘labyrinths’ and ‘coral caves’. Echoes might be cobbled together out of some half-baked ideas and some partly-sketched improvisations, but like Dark Side Of The Moon it has a key cohesive theme running throughout that somehow rings totally true, both to the music and to the rest of the Floyd’s works. From the opening sonic ping that gently nuzzles the narrator out of his slumber to the towering realisational climax of the last verse (a near-straight repeat of the first) that makes him ‘draw the windows wide and call to you across the skies’, Echoes is a staggering work and – unlike most other 20-plus minute works – one that you wish would go on forever.
In short, there is no doubting that Meddle is a brave and generally triumphant LP. In the context of what the Floyd go on to do – Dark Side Of The Moon, The Wall, world domination, you name it – Meddle is a very important step in uniting the band and showing them that it was possible to find the thin line between the mainstream and the bizarre. Even if Meddle is harder to listen to at times than most Floyd albums it is usually inventive, mostly tuneful and never boring. Let’s face it, we wouldn’t have this band any other way, faults and all—and Echoes alone would make this one of the greatest LPs of all time, even without the other distinguished songs on side one. Meddle with this album’s reputation at your peril.