The Happiest Days of Our Lives
Is there a middle ground when it comes to liking the music of Pink Floyd? Can one be a “casual” Floyd fan? Personal experience would seem to dictate not, but perhaps times have changed. After all, we are talking about a “Best Of” collection here, something that usually doesn’t settle well with Floyd fans, or that does the original albums any justice whatsoever. Surely you haven’t forgotten the previous compilations, Works, or A Collection of Great Dance Songs, both of which attempted to boil dear Pink’s influence down to a single disc collection. There was even a pricey box set not too long ago that included a number of the band’s choice albums, along with a fancy book and all of the usual box set goodies.
Still, the fans have always bought it up, time and time again. As of November 14, 2001, Pink Floyd had six albums on Billboard‘s Pop Catalog Chart. Count it. That’s Dark Side of the Moon (1973) at #5, Wish You Were Here (1975) at #41, The Wall (1979) at #62, Animals (1977) at #88, Meddle (1971) at #118, and Atom Heart Mother (1970) at #164. Take a look at the years those were all released. That’s not shabby at all, considering today’s fly-by-night pop rock climate that dictates an album every three years and as many videos as one can squeeze from their current album. A second or third album? Do those even get written into initial contracts anymore?
Indeed, Pink Floyd has been a business for a great part of their career. Their albums have brought unmatchable sales to any label they have been associated with (Harvest/EMI, Columbia, and now Capitol), and many of their popular songs remain staples of AOR and classic rock radio stations. How does this happen? Well, ask any up and coming adolescent this question. Every generation has a million or so kids that eventually discover Dark Side of the Moon. For myself, it happened when I was 15 or so. I recall picking the damn thing up, looking at the prism on the sleeve and knowing that it was an important album, but not really knowing why. Prior to that, my older brother had foisted upon me his unwanted copy of Atom Heart Mother some years before. I hadn’t been that impressed.
But in my middle school years, I had “discovered” the Beatles, and well, once you get to that point, it seems like the Sixties and Seventies just open themselves up to you. So many great and classic bands to just dive right into. Zep, the Who, Pink Floyd. They’re all in there just waiting to be bought up by another kid. And what better time to experience any of those bands’ music then when you’re young and impressionable and have 50 zillion emotions all vying for your attention, usually within the same minute? Pink Floyd’s excursions into paranoia, loneliness, dementia, psychedelia, politics, and rock and roll itself were fascinating. Just as much as Led Zeppelin’s penchant for mystical drama, or the Who’s take on the importance of the Song, or even the Beatles’ own examples of how music could be so much more than just a disposable two minute pop song on an AM station.
So from Dark Side of The Moon it was a continuous journey, and one that seemed right on time, as A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Pink Floyd’s first “comeback” album since The Final Cut, the album that was the straw that broke the camel’s back between Roger Waters and the Rest of The Band, was just being released. It was an interesting trip to say the least. The first experience of Wish You Were Here was not as profound as that virgin excursion to the Dark Side of the Moon. Perhaps it couldn’t have been by default. The band sounded like two different acts when comparing the albums. But it became more appreciated over time, as did Atom Heart Mother. Other albums, like Animals and Meddle, found a personal appreciation right off the bat.
And that must be how it is for many a Pink Floyd fan, or so I would suppose. But one thing that most fans can probably agree on is how the hell do you create a good mix tape, CD, or “Best Of” of Pink Floyd? Given the fact that most of their albums were thematic, with songs that cross-faded into one another, it always seemed like an arduous task to fulfill. This was the same problem that Works and A Great Collection of Dance Songs faced. Sure, you could throw “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” in there, but producer Bob Ezrin had driven the band to really work on that song as a radio-friendly tune when they were recording The Wall. And sure enough, it does sound good on the radio. As do the chunks of Dark Side and Wish that they always play on the radio. But again, those are usually whole portions of an album, not just one song (unless you count the “other” radio-ready tune, “Money”). Splitting apart Floyd albums into little mixes just seemed like a bad idea for a long time.
That problem may be rectified, however, with the band’s new two disc compilation, Echoes. Apparently, Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour set aside their differences long enough to personally select the songs that would make up this set. Actually, the whole band got their hands into the pie on this one. Both discs are chock full of music, allowing the set to weigh in at a mighty two and a half hours in length. But then again, Pink Floyd was not often about a light touch. There are 13 tracks per disc, covering everything from Syd Barrett-era singles on up to The Division Bell, an album that had more going for it with its “Publius Enigma” stunts than with the music it actually contained.
The set is not chronological, however. Don’t come looking here for streamlined jaunts from Piper at the Gates of Dawn to A Saucerful of Secrets, or from Animals to The Wall. No, the band chose to mix it up for this collection. It’s quite effective, giving a fuller, more colorful exploration into the band’s catalogue. It’s even mixed seamlessly like a classic Floyd album, with little to no gap between songs. As such, it’s an entirely new Pink Floyd experience and/or album. Not a bad idea at all. Of course, the songs have been remastered once again (how many times does this make now) to provide the listener with the best possible sound quality from the compact disc format.
Not everything is covered here, though. Noticeably absent are any selections from Pink Floyd’s “in between” albums, More and Obscured By Clouds, two albums that served as the soundtracks to foreign films (the French La Vallee was the vehicle for Obscured). They weren’t spectacular albums by a long shot, but still, songs like “Gold It’s in the . . . “, “Wot’s . . . Uh the Deal”, and “Free Four” from Obscured By Clouds are every bit as wonderful and “classic” as anything from Dark Side. There are also no cuts from Atom Heart Mother. The band has always complained about that particular album, but tracks like Roger Waters’ “If” and Rick Wright’s “Summer ‘68” were especially moving. It’s a shame that one of those couldn’t have made it on here.
And instead of kicking off with the perhaps expected “Interstellar Overdrive”, we are instead treated to “Astronomy Domine” and the single “See Emily Play” from the group’s original incarnation with Syd Barrett before diving headlong into The Wall‘s “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” and “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)”. Such juxtaposition may seem odd, but it does work given the new continuous mix of the program. Hearing the band go straight from lithe, psychedelic dandies into weary, well-worn bona-fide rock stars with no middle to the story is also interesting. Had Syd not gone mad and continued along with the group, would they have even created The Wall? After all, it was his looming influence that fueled many of Roger Waters’ lyrics. You can hear it all the way back in Meddle‘s “Fearless” (“Fearlessly the idiot faced the crowd”), and certainly the madness conveyed throughout Dark Side owed a little to Barrett. And this was before “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” from Wish You Were Here that was a direct ode to Syd. It’s hard to say what “may have been”.
Also on the first disc is the “Echoes” (from Meddle) in its entirety. It was certainly the first successful side-long track the band had managed to create, and opened the floodgates for all that followed after Obscured By Clouds. After that, it’s back to The Wall for “Hey You”, which may not seem to have any connection at all, but after one notices the echoed piano note in “Hey You” that is similar to the one heard in “Echoes” . . . well, there’s all the proof anyone needs. Then it’s off for an instrumental two-fer with The Division Bell‘s short “Marooned” and Dark Side‘s “The Great Gig in the Sky” featuring Clare Torry’s passionate, wordless singing that is still one of the best and most beautiful examples of rock melodrama ever recorded.
Things then simmer down with Waters’ excellent “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”, from the band’s second LP, A Saucerful of Secrets. According to drummer Nick Mason on the Echoes website, “Set the Controls” was Waters trying to lyrically pick up where Barrett had left off (Barrett would become even more distant and leave the group during the recording of the album to be permanently replaced by Dave Gilmour), using the I Ching for inspiration. The song stands as one of the best numbers from the psychedelic-era Floyd, creating a sense of hushed spookiness that the group never bothered to explore ever again. Then it’s back to the ‘70s for a bit of “Money”, and then into the ‘90s with The Division Bell‘s “Keep Talking”. I can’t say I ever enjoyed The Division Bell, so the tracks offered from it do nothing for me. Disc One then closes with Animal‘s still-stunning “Sheep” that took both Orwell’s Animal Farm and The Lord’s Prayer to all new heights, and A Momentary Lapse of Reason‘s “Sorrow” that showed the band were probably better off with Waters, no matter what he or Gilmour may have been pissing over at the time.
The second disc opens with “Shine on You Cray Diamond”, here for the first time brought to the listener uninterrupted, in its full seven parts. To hear it in this format without “Welcome to the Machine”, “Have a Cigar” or “Wish You Were Here” splitting it up is striking, allowing us to hear the whole composition as it was written. Does it take away from the original format? Not at all.
From there, it’s a jump into Dark Side and The Wall once again, with a dash of The Final Cut thrown in, just so you won’t forget about it. The stretch of “Time”, “The Fletcher Memorial Home”, and “Comfortably Numb” is another batch of songs that on paper might not seem to make much sense, but again, hearing them in this lineup is all it takes. They might not paint the “original” stories we are all familiar with by now, but they do paint a new one that is just as commanding of one’s attention: the overall theme of “Time” stretching throughout the course of the tracks.
For the first time on a collection like this is The Wall‘s “When The Tigers Broke Free”, from the film version. Say what you want, but it is a song that many a fan has loved and to have it on an official disc for the very first time is certainly a treat for them. No more hassles recording it from the movie or scoring it on a bootleg.
Next up is the string of “One of These Days”, the pulsing, driving opening instrumental rocker from Meddle, “Us and Them”, and the “comeback hit” “Learning to Fly” from Momentary Lapse. Hearing that song anymore is less than spectacular. At the time of its initial release, it couldn’t have missed, as all the hype surrounding the band’s reunion of sorts guaranteed the success of the mostly-pale album and any of its singles. Personally, I always preferred “One Slip” from that LP. It always just sounded and felt a lot more dynamic than the glistening substance offered by “Learning to Fly”.
Finally, the second disc closes with a set of Syd Barrett-era or Syd-influenced pieces. These include the daft single “Arnold Layne”, “Wish You Were Here”, “Jugband Blues”, “High Hopes”, and “Bike”, the song that originally closed the band’s first album. It seems fitting to do it once again here, even though it had already been done once before on the Relicscompilation. Old habits die hard. Still, who’s complaining? Not this fan.
Echoes comes complete in a nice slipcover with a lyric booklet that features great graphical designs courtesy of Storm Thorgeson and Peter Curzon. Fans will undoubtedly have a good time gazing at the puzzle-like cover and spotting all the classic artifacts and characters from past albums. It may feel like 1975 all over again, as the design is every bit as good as one of the original albums that were often done up by the Hipgnosis design team.
Both the old fans and the new alike will undoubtedly embrace this collection. Hats off to Pink Floyd for taking the old and creating something that is very new in many ways. What’s more, Echoes does a great job of summarizing the band in a simple two disc collection that may very well not be achievable in a box set format. So it would seem that the “undoable” task of creating a successful Pink Floyd “best of” has finally been taken care of. So what could be next? Would this seem to signify a “final chapter” of sorts for the band? Who knows? Surely, Echoes will keep the group’s classic albums resting comfortably on a record chart somewhere thanks to a new breed of fans who may be discovering the band for the first time through this collection. Somehow, the Floyd have managed to keep their music going in that rare fashion that suggests they’ll never go out of style, without releasing “new” material on a regular basis. Echoes is ultimately a powerful testament to that fact.