The legendary Pink Floyd drummer reclaims his past on the road
There’s a famous t-shirt Johnny Rotten was photographed wearing back in 1976. It was a Pink Floyd shirt with an “I HATE” scrawled atop the band’s moniker. A perfect punk gesture – and I confess I took a few cues from smart-ass punks like Rotten – but this was upsetting to me. See, Pink Floyd was one of the few ‘70s (now classic) rock bands that had survived the punk purge in my world. The Who, The Kinks, Pink Floyd.
I stuck with the Floyd through punk’s first blush and my reward came the following year with the deeply cynical/realistic/nihilistic “Animals” album, which may have been prog in sound and vision, but punk in attitude. (Message: The powerful crush the weak. Always. No future for you.) The Pink Floyd catalog I owned remained on my playlist.
Like many kids of my generation, I bought Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, fell in love with its bleak beauty and cinematic scope, its envisioning of home comfort, the fears of never leaving your home town, its condemnation of greed and runaway capitalism and its evocation of madness. And the heartbeat. Thump-thump.
Like many new Floyd fans, Dark Side was my gateway drug and I worked backwards through Meddle, Atom Heart Mother, More, Obscured by Clouds, Relics and Ummagumma. And then those first two albums, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and A Saucerful of Secrets (repackaged in a cheapo double-pack for us newbies as “A Nice Pair”), where I learned about the legend and martyr, Syd Barrett, the tragically damaged one-time band-leader. (See my Syd story, posting soon on this site.)
As much as I saw and reviewed Pink Floyd in concert over the years, I never heard much of the early material. Sure, they’d often start with the throbbing, menacing “One of These Days,” but that was pretty much it. I got it. Those early years, before Roger Waters became the dominant visionary power, were primordial for them and, let’s face it, not the songs the Dark Side-and-beyond audience wanted to hear. (Same went for when Waters and guitarist Dave Gilmour did solo projects. Yes, play your solo songs, but do not forget what got you here.)
Which brings me to Floyd drummer Nick Mason and his Floyd-ian quintet, Saucerful of Secrets, which played Boston’s Orpheum Theater April 13. I first heard of them playing UK dates last year. I thought, “OK, is this something particularly English – where enough fans know the early stuff to make this viable? Or might this morph into a US tour? Be still, my heart.”
Now, in terms of credibility, “splinter bands” – or solo band members playing the much of the main band’s catalog with other musicians – usually sparks fan interest but also raises questions. You have to consider the how-valid-is-it? question. You look at the lineage and make up a cred chart, which usually runs: Main singer-songwriter (Yes!), Main singer (Yes). Guitarist (Probably). Keyboardist (Maybe), Bassist (Doubtful). Drummer (Sorry, no).
Not this time. Mason and his merry men – and I do mean merry, there was more joviality and cheer than you’d have ever found at a Floyd/Waters/Gilmour set – brought about an hour and 50-minutes of yesteryear bliss to a packed house of Floyd fans, not one of whom screamed for “Money” or “Wish You Were Here.”
Before playing “Lucifer Sam” – and telling us it he’d be firing up the old time machine – Mason jibed, “We are not the Australian Roger Waters” – referencing the tribute band the Australian Pink Floyd – “nor are we the Danish David Gilmour, nor, as someone rather cruelly put it, the celebrity antique road show.”
The hook: The material was all pre-“Dark Side, 1967-1972, and fans knew this going in. The music came from when the Floyd was in the throes of psychedelia, both heavy and light, and emerging from the prog-rock din to create some disruptive, disorienting masterpiece suites like “Atom Heart Mother” and “Echoes.”
VIDEO: Unboxing “Pink Floyd The Early Years: 1965–1972” box set
Oh, and there were Syd songs. Virtually, none of us ever saw Syd live. We only heard the music and the stories, apocryphal or not. We heard, for the first time, in any Syd/Floyd-related set, “Vegetable Man.” (It was not officially released by Floyd ‘til the boxed set, The Early Years: 1965-1972 in 2016.) Mason introduced it, by saying the song was never actually completed by Floyd back then, not sure if the situation was “whether we ran out of Syd or Syd ran out of us.” A funny line – and no doubt true – but Mason paid more straight-on tribute, too: “Without Syd, none of this would be possible.”
Mason, 74 and in fine shape, sat behind the drum kit through the night – no, he’s not a singer – a gong hanging to his left. (Just wait for “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.”) Upfront was bassist-singer-quipster Guy Pratt, who was a regular addition for latter-day Floyd gigs and solo Gilmour shows. He also backed Roxy Music, David Bowie and Iggy Pop, among others, and played with Icehouse), guitarist-singer Lee Harris, and effects-powered guitarist-singer Gary Kemp, he of Spandau Ballet fame, proving song after song that his New Romantic history had nothing to do with this music now, which he clearly loved. Stage left, behind them, keyboardist Dom Beken. This was no pickup band; this was no Pink Floyd tribute band; this was no quick cash grab.
These guys didn’t play Floyd note-for-note – and none of the singers tried particularly to ape Waters, Gilmour or Barrett tones – but they surely channeled the spirit of the old band. There were some appropriately used samples, though: The crowd cheer and football chant that courses through “Fearless” and the demonic laughter at the end of “Bike.”
An early revelation (re-revelation?) came with the opening 1-2 punch of the Syd-songs “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Astronomy Domine”: The Floyd of the late ‘60s was not at all tied to the lyric (although Syd was a clever lyricist). They played – created – early space-rock and this was careening, eerie, hard and heavy rock jams, rooted in the blues, but gone to outer dimensions. Simply put, shit flying every which way and big smiles on everyone’s face as it did.
Keep in mind, too, Syd had a wily sense of humor, and as such the Kemp-sung topsy-turvy, “Arnold Layne,” about the neighborhood perv, was a delightful trip back to when all pervs weren’t all seen a civilization-ending threats. All Arnold does, really, is snatch women’s knickers from laundry lines. I mean, really, kind of charming, innit? He’s not Chester the Molester or anything. He’s not somebody in a Slayer song. He’s Arnold Layne! Still, he pays for it: “Doors bang, chain gang/He hates it.”
“If,” the most beautiful, wrenching song of this-era Floyd came mid-set, broken into halves with a chunk of “Atom Heart Mother” in the middle. It begins gently, acoustically. Kemp sang the first verse, including the self-admonition, “And if I were a good man, I’d talk to you more often than I do.” Pratt picked up the second, with the key line: “If I go insane, please don’t put your wires in my brain.” (Written in 1970, just post-Syd, and a foreshadowing themes of madness Floyd would later explore and exploit.) Then, parts of the “Atom Heart Mother” suite, see-sawing from thrash-and-burn to delicate and back again before returning to the finale of “If.” Kemp: “If I were a good man, I’d understand the spaces between friends.” Pratt: “And if I go insane will you still let me join in the game?” Both closed, singing harmony: “If I were swan, I’d be gone/If I were a train, I’d be late again/If I were a good man, I’d talk with you more often than I do.”
What do you follow the most emotional song in the set with?
Pratt had an answer for that “Some proper dumb-ass rock ‘n’ roll.” That would be the screaming, rip-roaring “The Nile Song,” though I’d quarrel with the dumb-ass part a bit. The song plays out with this golden-haired angelic woman, flying high in the clouds, enchanting the singer, but ends with “She is calling from the deep/Summoning my soul to endless sleep/She is bound to drag me down, drag me down.” You know, she’s become a siren. Not a happy ending portended.
It features a classic Mason drum roll and was given a back-story by Pratt. It seems when he was in Gilmour’s backing band, Gilmour asked the band members for set list suggestions and Pratt chirped “The Nile Song.” Gilmour, said Pratt, “suggested I play for another band. And now, I do.” (Pratt, by the way, has been an actor and standup comic as well a sideman to the stars.)
“Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” was a hypnotic slow dazzler, a hinting sense of danger under that rhythmic pulse and accelerating guitar-and-keyboards build. Later, “One of These Days” brought that pulse into more ominous territory with the throbbing bass line, slashing guitar riffs and (sampled) distorted spoken word threat: “One of these days I’m going to cut you into little pieces.” (The only vocal.)
“See Emily Play” and “Bike” – two quasi-whimsical Barrett gems – followed “Control.” “Emily” is a gentle childhood romp; “Bike” a nursery-rhyme-ish, psychedelic song of fanciful gifting, absurdity and pet mouse-naming (“Gerald”), giving way to that maniacal laughter at the end.
Kemp noted at one point when he went to see Pink Floyd when he was young, he knew, as a guitarist, he should key on Gilmour but, he said wryly, Mason was the only Floyd who actually moved so he focused on him. (By “move,” of course, he meant arms and legs.) Later, meeting and becoming friends with Mason, he told us, “You couldn’t meet a nicer, less egotistical man than Nick Mason.” (I met Mason once, backstage at a football arena show with the other Floyds and, though our exchange was brief, I’d concur.)
The visuals were pretty low-tech and that was appropriate: The band’s logo/scrim behind them and sometimes some swirls projected on top of that, six spotlights from above the stage doing most of the illumination, no “star in the spotlight” turns for anybody really, very much including Mason who OF COURSE did NOT do a drum solo.
What did I miss most: “Fat Old Sun,” “Echoes” and “Free Four.” I can live with that. This night was a full-bore fantasy dream come true.
VIDEO: Nick Mason – Sauceful of Secrets (complete)