How a magnum opus took shape

 

Box sets of material remastered by the three surviving members of Pink Floyd, 38 years after they recorded ‘The Dark Side
of the Moon’,might signal a reunion, the band’s drummer, Nick Mason, tells BRIAN BOYD

ON A SLOW week, The Dark Side of the Moonstill sells 10,000 copies. And if a band sells 10,000 copies of anything a week these days, you reach for the champagne and unfurl the bunting. But Pink Floyd’s magnum opus is a once-in-a-generation affair. Not even reaching 43 minutes in length and with the band having to beg for studio time to finish it off, it was not expected to amount to much on its release in March 1973. A few years earlier the band had lost their main hit writer, Syd Barrett, to mental illness; their last few albums were proggy-noodly affairs that saw them treading water and the bitter divisions that would soon rend the band asunder were beginning to appear.

Nick Mason, the band’s only permanent member since their inception, in 1965, and keeper of all their secrets, is in reminiscence mode as he welcomes and waves me into the studio where The Dark Side Of The Moonwas recorded: the famed Abbey Road. “This is Studio 3; we couldn’t record it downstairs in Studio 2 (where The Beatles recorded their albums) because Paul McCartney was in there recording Band on the Runat the time,” he says.

“It’s funny being back here again because so many things keep coming back to me. I remember a time we actually recorded Paul and Linda speaking so we could use their voices on Dark Side; but for some reason we never used their contribution.”

As he stands in the middle of a studio that is no bigger than a one-bedroom apartment, he seems lost in thought. “That’s where I used to sit during recording,” he says, pointing to a corner.

Gesturing towards the control room of the studio, he says, “That’s where we all were when Syd wandered into Abbey Road one day. It was while we were making the Wish You Were Herealbum. We were all peering out from behind the glass to see who it was. I thought he was a technician come to fix something. We didn’t recognise him because he had bloated up to a huge weight and had shaved his hair off. I remember when it gradually dawned on us that it was in fact Syd, Roger just broke down in tears. We played him some of the Wish You Were Heremixes and he just said, ‘It goes on a bit, doesn’t it?’”

Now 67, and looking more like a kindly uncle than the percussive powerhouse of one of the most successful rock bands, Mason has become very wealthy thanks to royalties from Dark Sidebut he says they never made as much from the album as they should have because of their habit of “faffing around” in the studio.

“We weren’t some huge big band before The Dark Side of The Moon,” he says. “In many ways we were still finding our feet after Syd. EMI actually own the recording studios here at Abbey Road, and because we knew Dark Sidewas never the sort of album you would get recorded in a month” – it was closer to a year – “we renegotiated our contract with the label so that we would get more studio time but at the cost of a lower royalty rate on the album’s sales.”

Mason believes a band today wouldn’t be allowed to release an album that sounds like Dark Side. “It was so different, so strange-sounding,” he says. “Pink Floyd were always the outsiders, we were never a Beatles/Stones-type band because we were viewed as being a psychedelic band. And no band today would be allowed to more or less live in a studio for a year just for one album.”

Mason is back in Studio 3 putting the finishing touches to a reissue of The Dark Side of The Moonlater this month. The “Immersion” edition of the album will have six CDs and will include the new remastered edition of the original album as well as other mixes, out-takes, rarities – including demos of the songs – and the original version by Alan Parsons, the engineer on the album. There are also DVDs featuring live performances, documentaries, footage from European and US tours of the album and many other things.

“It’s all going out under the title Why Pink Floyd?,” says Mason. “It starts with Dark Side, and then all the other albums get the same treatment over the following months. It’s a massive project, and the reason myself, Dave and Roger got together to do this was because we really think this will be the last throw of the CD dice.

“By putting every single thing of Pink Floyd’s on CD we’re just getting it out as perhaps the last great act of the physical disc age. . . What surprises us is that there is more interest now in these albums than there ever was first time around.

“When we went back to the original tapes of all the recordings, we found some incredible stuff – things we had forgotten about completely, or else just presumed that the tape had been lost,” says Mason.

“For example, we found a Wish You Were Heretrack with Stéphane Grappelli playing violin on it. He had been here in Abbey Road recording with Yehudi Menuhin, and we asked them both to be on the album, but only Grappelli did it.

“We found stuff from the very back of the cupboard for these releases – there’s early demo stuff from 1966 which sounds extraordinary, stuff with Syd in the very early days, and he sounds amazing – a real crystal-clear voice. Hearing it all again brought back loads of memories from that first year of Pink Floyd.”

Listening to all these demos, alternate versions and radically different remixes, you get a strong sense of the many creative rows that erupted during the recording sessions. Whereas on one version a vocal or guitar line is high up in the mix, on other versions it’s low down or is missing altogether. And the videos of those days show four identikit long-haired musicians hunched over their instruments in intense concentration as they went off on psychedelic flights of fancy. “We always were the most anonymous-looking of bands,” says Mason.

THE PRECIPITOUS SUCCESS of The Dark Side of The Moonleft them all dazed and confused. “An album like this was the reason we had formed the band, back in 1965, and it really was difficult to even begin to think in terms of a follow-up to it because it sold in such huge amounts,” says Mason. “We did start a follow-up, and the idea was to make an album not using any musical instruments at all – just to use household objects. It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Two years later, though, they released Wish You Were Here, which some feel is superior to The Dark Side of The Moon.

Having had the most spectacular of fallings-out when Roger Waters left the band in 1985, the band have, of late, been giving signs of late that the impossible is possible and the three surviving members might record and tour again.

“It’s certainly not as painful now for us to be together in the same room,” Mason says carefully. “In the past we tended to be very critical of each other, but we’re more forgiving now. What happened was just a case of good old-fashioned artistic differences between Roger and David.

“There were bad things that people had done . . . We felt that there was no benefit to be gained from working with each other again. It was the same as The Beatles, really – people just went, ‘I want to do my own thing’. We have, though, managed to establish a relationship again – I had dinner with Roger a while back, but we didn’t talk about Pink Floyd. And we were all together for the Live 8 performance , which for me was a huge professional highlight, and the other week the three of us were on the same stage in London when Roger was doing his The Wallshow. Dave was right up on top of the wall, playing guitar and singing Comfortably Numb– he told me before he went on that he was really, really nervous – and then I came on at the end and banged a tambourine.

As for a full Pink Floyd reunion? “I’m ready. It’s up to the other two now.”

The Immersion and Experience box sets of The Dark Side of the Moonwill be released on Monday; the Wish You Were Hereand The Wallbox sets will be out in November and February. pinkfloyd.com


1 The Irish voice you hear during the track The Great Gig in the Skyis that of then Abbey Road doorman, Gerry O’Driscoll. He also contributes the famous closing line: “There is no dark side of the moon, really. As a matter of fact it’s all dark.”

2 The only thing that would drag the band out of Studio 3 when they were recording was when Monty Python’s Flying Circuswas on TV. Profits from The Dark Side of the Moonhelped to get Monty Python’s Holy Grailfilm made.

3 The manic laughter you hear during Brain Damageand Speak To Mecomes from the band’s long-standing roadie, Peter Watts, father of the actor Naomi Watts.

4 On its release, Rolling Stone magazine reviewed it as “a fine album with a textural and conceptual richness that not only invites, but demands involvement”. The reviewer was future TV presenter and celebrity chef Loyd Grossman.

5 At the very end of the album if you listen really carefully you’ll hear snatches of an orchestral version of The Beatles’ Ticket to Ride. It is thought the song was playing in Abbey Road reception and leaked into Studio 3 during recording.