Pink Floyd Pilgrimage #6: Meddle (1971)
Prior to 2019 my only familiarity with English group – Pink Floyd – could be found in the songs Wish You Were Here, Comfortably Numb, Another Brick in the Wall Part 2 and Money. I loved all four songs and have for many years but for some reason I never went further into Floyd’s back catalogue or even the group themselves. I had never listened to an album, never bothered to delve into their history. I had heard the name, Syd Barrett, but knew nothing else of their story.
If you search for Pink Floyd on YouTube you’ll find their songs, albums, documentaries and hundreds of reaction videos. A new generation of music lovers are discovering their music and having their minds blown by what they hear. Thanks to them I have decided to begin my own journey – a Pink Floyd pilgrimage, you could say – to find out more.
What drew me towards Pink Floyd was the countless comments I had seen from other Floyd enthusiasts, the same messages and appreciation for the group. They insisted that nothing else sounds like Pink Floyd, that listening to an album in its entirety was essential, that their music could help you drift into an alternate plain and that you must, simply MUST, have headphones on when you do listen to the Floyd. It sounded cathartic and I wanted to try for myself as a form of meditation, something I’ve never been good at. I did see plenty of comments suggesting listening to Floyd while high is the way to go, well, I won’t be doing that, dear reader, you will be relieved to hear though I am sure it’s an interesting experience.
My Pink Floyd pilgrimage began earlier this year by reading two books – Mark Blake’s Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd and Martin Popoff’s Pink Floyd: Album by Album. This gave me an insight into the group’s often turbulent history as well as their extensive discography. I have also watched a few documentaries on YouTube so gained a further insight into their work. There is, however, one thing left for me to do.
Each month I will be listening to a Pink Floyd album in full and writing a reaction on this blog. I will listen multiple times – all the way through – and with headphones on. I will NOT be pausing during a David Gilmour solo and I’ll see if I can figure out which one is Pink! I will begin with The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) and conclude with The Endless River (2014). In all, there are 15 studio albums to get through. By November 2020 I will have been through the early days of the band with Syd Barrett as the leader, the middle years where a close-knit quartet gradually fell apart as Roger Waters seized control, and the later years when a more democratic David Gilmour led the group in its twilight years.
One final thing, dear reader. As far as Pink Floyd are concerned, I am a novice, a mere apprentice and know very little so what I offer here are just my opinions of their music as I take it on board. I will attempt, and likely fail, to rank the albums in order of preference and try – big emphasis on try – to select the best song from each record even though I know they are to be treated as one long piece of music. If you have insights of your own to help me, or just want to share your own love and appreciation of these music legends then please throw a comment my way.
Time to grab the headphones and go on a journey…
Pink Floyd Pilgrimage #6: Meddle (1971)
We enter 1971 for the next phase of our Pink Floyd pilgrimage. The previous year had resulted in Atom Heart Mother which became the Floyd’s first UK no.1 album despite their later aversion to it. With five albums behind them, the group now returned to the studio to begin work on their sixth project. Meddle is seen as a key turning point for the group and even hailed by some Floyd fans as their best album. Let’s find out more.
After completing Atom Heart Mother, Pink Floyd were back on the road touring but as they moved into 1971 thoughts began to turn to the next album. As with the previous record, the Floyd were bereft of ideas when they came back to the studio. The group began working on a long piece of music, just as they had done with the Atom Heart Mother Suite. With all the experimentation they had done with their previous album, Pink Floyd found that Abbey Road studio was not sufficient to meet all of their recording needs so Meddle was worked on across multiple studios instead. A pattern emerged where the group would work in the studio for a time then be back out on tour, culminating in their sixth album taking many months to complete. Creatively stagnant, the group tried various methods to gather inspiration but the whole thing was a slog once more for them.
Meddle ended up being similar in structure to Atom Heart Mother. The long instrumental they worked on eventually became Echoes which was 23 minutes long and took up the entirety of Side Two of the album, just as the Atom Heart Mother Suite had been the only track on Side One of that particular record. Side One of Meddle now needed to be filled and Pink Floyd came up with five tracks between them. There was no divvying up of songs this time for individuals to work on. All four members worked together this time. Meddle marked a major change for the group with the psychedelic rock, pioneered by Syd Barrett, making way for a more progressive rock approach.
Meddle was released in October 1971 but what would the critics and the fans think of Pink Floyd changing direction yet again?
One of These Days
The first track on the album and the opener to Side One is One of These Days written by all four members of Pink Floyd. The track is largely an instrumental, save for one line which is spoken by drummer, Nick Mason. Mason states, “One of these days, I’m going to cut you into little pieces.” This was allegedly addressed to radio DJ, Jimmy Young, that the group apparently disliked. A great deal by the sound of things though I’m not sure why this was. Sorry Jimmy. Mason’s voice is slowed down and given quite a sinister feel here.
As an instrumental, we’re only here for the music and what a piece it is. The song begins with the sound of a breeze before we hear a bass guitar. Roger Waters and David Gilmour both contributed bass guitar work on One of These Days, double tracking the music for better effect and this forms the focal point of the piece. Richard Wright soon joins in on the organ, creating effects reminiscent of the wind that began the whole song. Soon Gilmour’s guitar and Mason’s drumming enter the fray and the tempo increases, becoming more urgent. The music then slows down around three minutes in, allowing Mason to deliver his unnerving line, before the song gathers pace once more. It is dominated by that bass line racing throughout with the rest of the music slotting in around it. When the music does fade we are left with the breeze from the opening to play us out and enter into the next track. For an instrumental, One of These Days is a stunning opener to Meddle.
A Pillow of Winds
The second track on the album is A Pillow of Winds which was written by Roger Waters and David Gilmour. The title was apparently taken from Mahjong that the group took to playing while on tour. Unusually for Pink Floyd, this begins as a love song of sorts, describing lying next to a loved one and being at peace knowing they are there. The song then takes a darker turn, describing the unease to be found in dark and vivid dreams. The safety and calm of the song’s opening is lost for a time but as with all dreams this one does come to an end, and the narrator is able to awake the next day to the sun’s morning rays and the night shadows are gratefully behind them.
The breeze that closed One of These Days flows seamlessly into A Pillow of Winds before Gilmour’s acoustic guitar comes in followed by the rest of the band. The song sounds befitting of its subject matter, having a sleepy, dream-like feel to it. It makes me long for bed hearing Gilmour singing about “sleepy time”, but the transition in music jolts you back and the ambiguity of the imagery has a sombreness to it. I wasn’t sure if the song was hinting at the passing of the narrator’s lover, but I think the darkness and uncertainty that creeps in is the stuff of dreams which we are thankful to wake from. This one is quite a departure from the typical Pink Floyd we have enjoyed up to now and a welcome one at that. Two tracks in and Meddle is already a varied album.
The third track on the album is Fearless which was written by Roger Waters and David Gilmour. The song is also credited to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, but we’ll get to that later. Fearless lives up to its title with two sections focusing on the idea of having no fear. The first part sees the narrator being challenged and mocked about climbing an obstacle. This could be a literal climb up a mountain perhaps or figurative one about the uphill obstacles of life, but despite the narrator’s ability to overcome the challenge being questioned, they are adamant they can overcome the test. The second segment looks at a fool facing a crowd and a magistrate. The magistrate is firm in their convictions, confident of their authority and superiority, but the fool smiles in response and faces the crowd without fear even though the odds and justice look to be against them. The song is said to be a tribute of sorts to DJ John Peel who was supportive of Floyd’s music in their early days when they were struggling in the aftermath of Syd Barrett’s departure.
Fearless sounds different to the opening two tracks on the album but, once again, has David Gilmour on lead vocals. He sings the first section of the song before a musical interlude and then the second segment is explored. As with A Pillow of Winds, Gilmour’s vocals are double-tracked, while the rest of the band support him throughout. When the song approaches the five minutes mark, the music begins to recede from Pink Floyd, and is overwhelmed by the sound of Liverpool FC fans in the Kop End of Anfield singing their signature song, You’ll Never Walk Alone, which is why Rodgers and Hammerstein II get a credit in this song. Given that we’ve had a song about being resolute in the face of fear, it’s an interesting transition to You’ll Never Walk Alone and a completely apt one as well.
The fourth track on the album is San Tropez which was written by Roger Waters. This is the only song on Meddle where Waters takes the lead vocal with Gilmour having sung on A Pillow of Winds and Fearless. San Tropez is inspired by Saint-Tropez, situated in the south of France and somewhere members of the band once holidayed. Floyd fans online have read deeply into the song and suggested that Waters is offering imagery of World War Two if you delve far enough beneath the surface. If you stay above water, what we have is a pleasant little number, as the narrator takes in the sights and sounds of Saint-Tropez and contemplates meeting a woman by the end.
San Tropez sounds completely different to the other tracks on Meddle, almost having a jazz sort of feel to it. It’s upbeat and pleasant throughout, not remotely moody. The rest of the band merge well with Waters to create a scenic piece that will make you feel like you are sitting by the coast, the sunshine on your back and an ice cold drink of your choice in one hand (I’m not judging, whatever you decide, we’re all friends here). After Waters has finished singing, we get a sumptuous piano solo from Richard Wright to see out the closing minute or so. As with most other Floyd songs, Nick Mason is always there on the drums, more subtle than overpowering, but still a valuable presence.
The fifth track on the album and the last on Side One is Seamus, which was written by all members of Pink Floyd. At the time of the recording, David Gilmour was looking after a dog named Seamus that belonged to Steve Marriott, the lead singer of the band, Humble Pie, and the Floyd decided that the dog might make a useful addition for a song. The lyrics are said to be from Roger Waters with Gilmour taking the vocals. In the song, the narrator sings of being in the kitchen at home while their dog, Seamus, is outside. We hear that the sun sets and that the dog simply cries. That’s it for lyrical input.
Seamus was put together by all four members of Pink Floyd but we have no drums here from Nick Mason. Gilmour is on guitar and harmonica, as well as those vocals, while Waters is on the bass and Richard Wright on piano. We also have a recording credit to Seamus as well who howls throughout the two minute song. The Floyd are dabbling in a spot of country blues here, a bit of a joke song really, not to be taken too seriously. Unfortunately, the reaction to the song was generally quite negative with some Floyd fans listing Seamus as the worst song the group ever recorded. I don’t subscribe to that accolade but in terms of Meddle it is both amusing but also the weakest track on Side One, which has been of a high standard and also welcomingly varied.
The sixth track on Meddle and the only song on Side Two is Echoes which was written by all members of Pink Floyd. The reputation of this 23-minute epic certainly preceded it with a great deal of talk online from Floyd fans that this is one of the group’s unquestionable masterpieces. Naturally, I was wary that such plaudits might well hinder this song when I came to listen to it, that it may not live up to the hype. The song itself is said to have been partly inspired by The Beatles’ Across the Universe and interpretations of what it is all about are wide and varied.
As with Atom Heart Mother Suite, I have broken the song down a little to truly convey my thoughts as all 23 minutes came rushing through my headphones.
As soon as you hear the opening notes to Echoes you know you are in for something pretty special. Richard Wright begins the song with striking sounds from a piano whose sound was manipulated with a speaker. It has an oceanic feel to it for some reason, as if we’re descending beneath the waves and becoming lost in the depths. It’s a pleasant feeling though, nothing sinister here so we can enjoy the ride. Gradually, David Gilmour’s guitar comes into the fray soon followed by Roger Waters on bass and Nick Mason on drums. This opening piece takes up around the first three minutes of the song before we transition into the song’s first vocals.
Verses & Choruses 1 & 2
The vocals on Echoes are shared by David Gilmour and Richard Wright who sing all the lines together rather than alternating. Their voices merge into each other beautifully and we are given some truly striking imagery, courtesy of Roger Waters’ superb lyrics. During this phase of the song we are given only the first two verses of the song along with the two individual accompanying choruses. Gilmour and Wright begin by describing their surroundings with an albatross in the sky above, while in the caves beneath the ocean a sound echoes throughout the world. The chorus suggests that all around are questions and mysteries to be solved, before something emerges to reach towards a distant light. Moving into verse 2 we have description of two individuals meeting and seemingly forming some kind of connection. It sounds like both are searching for something, some kind of meaning within the universe and contemplate aiding one another in this pursuit. Once the second chorus has been completed we enter a long musical interlude.
Around seven minutes into the song, we transition once again. Waters’ bass is pronounced in the background, while Gilmour fires off some memorable, distorted solos which I had heard about long before listening to this song so was really looking forward to those. I’m pleased to say they did not disappoint. Wright and Nick Mason are also there in this section and we are once again privileged to hear what wonderful music the Floyd conjured up as a four-piece, each individual bringing their own piece of beauty to the composition. This instrumental sections allows us to build very carefully towards the halfway point in Echoes.
What is going on?
Approaching the eleven minutes mark, the music begins to fade and in its place we hear an eerie sound like wind in a cave, swirling along and echoing in the chamber. Perhaps this is the sound that Gilmour and Wright sung about beneath the waves at the outset of Echoes? Then we are left with sounds reminiscent of whales calling out on the ocean but it is all effects in the studio, stumbled upon by accident, if you can believe. The story goes that Gilmour plugged a wah-wah pedal in back to front and inadvertently found it could create some rather striking noise. Grateful for the error, Gilmour used the peculiar output to great effect here, coming up with sounds akin to a whale. These sounds continue to reverberate throughout the piece while that breeze sweeps along in the background. This particular sound was put together by Waters using his bass and feeding the sound through an echo machine. I’d have just sat outside and recorded the breeze but this is why I’m sitting here writing about Pink Floyd rather than having been in a band such as they. Anyway, this portion of the song really adds to the marine feel of the piece, as if we’re way out there at sea and far from land. This section feels atmospherically uncertain, as if there may be a threat way out here.
As we come to the fifteen minutes mark, Echoes changes once again. We hear that stunning piano key of Wright’s from the very start of the song. It feels like we have come full circle in proceedings but there is still a ways to go yet. Pink Floyd slow it down, they take their time as they guide us through this next segment. As Wright continues to work the piano, music in the background begins to build ever so gently and it’s different to what we had at the very beginning of the song. We haven’t completed the cycle just yet. Gilmour’s guitar, Waters’ bass and Wright’s organ all creep in ever so carefully, while Mason’s percussion work begins to stand out the strongest. At the eighteen minutes mark the music becomes more intense as we transition and build towards the final vocals from Gilmour and Wright which come in just a minute later.
Verse and chorus 3
The final verse is even more ambiguous than the previous lyrics. Here Gilmour and Wright sing of the cosmos, being transfixed potentially by the sunlight and then seeming to make reference to the stars themselves, longing to rise to be amongst them. The third and final chorus seems to have the narrator in the midst of a sleepless night and unable to find any respite they call out to the night sky, for what is unclear, and no further words are offered to enlighten us.
This third and final verse and chorus segment leads into the instrumental outro which is reminiscent of the music we had in the aftermath of Chorus 2. As we enter the final two minutes of the song, there is a rushing sound like coastal wind again before Wright’s piano work leads Gilmour’s poignant guitar towards the denouement. Waters and Mason are still there but not as pronounced as their bandmates. Suddenly, the music is dominated by a high-pitched wind sound as if passing through a narrow tunnel, the music fades and we are left with this piercing sound which itself then begins to recede and with it we reach the end of Echoes.
To say Echoes clocks in at a whopping 23 minutes, you do not feel like that amount of time has passed at all. The numerous transitions are seamless and effortless throughout. Pink Floyd’s studio experiments are here for all to listen to and savour. This is the culmination of their experimentation, good and bad, on the previous albums. Roger Waters, still the master of ambiguous lyrics, nevertheless gives us some stunning imagery. As for David Gilmour and Richard Wright, I honestly feel that this song would only be half as good if you took one of their vocals away. It works perfectly with their respective voices singing in unison. A wonderful blend of harmony. It’s not hard to see why Echoes is considered one of Pink Floyd’s greatest achievements. I listened to this with the highest of expectations and it did not disappoint, in fact, it far exceeded everything I thought it could be. Words simply fail me. Absolutely stunning.
Meddle is often spoken and written about positively by Floyd fans from what I have seen and it’s not hard to see why. The group themselves seem to speak more fondly of the Meddle album than they did of Atom Heart Mother. Considering this was put together in between touring and spread across multiple studios, the quality is stunning. It’s hard to believe that the album began with Pink Floyd struggling for ideas. It’s a much more confident record than their previous two efforts, a strong indication of a group that have finally reconciled their experiments into a focused path. There is still avant garde approaches here, no question, but shifting away from the psychedelia of their previous work is not just a band moving with the times but maturing their sound.
Structurally similar to Atom Heart Mother, Pink Floyd seem much more at ease on Meddle. Saving the long track of Echoes until Side Two works better than the other way round for me. We have five different tracks on Side One yet they all fit nicely together with One of These Days being a superb instrumental opener to set the scene. You just feel like this is going to be a great album from that opening track alone. Seamus closes Side One and isn’t as bad, for me, as some Floyd fans would have you believe but it is the weakest track on Meddle without reservation. Those five tracks build up to and prepare us for the majesty that is Echoes. It’s stunning beyond words, a truly wonderful group effort and undoubtedly the album’s high point. I have enjoyed the psychedelia of Pink Floyd’s earlier work but Meddle is, for me, their best work so far on this pilgrimage. Before, it felt like the group were still in the shadow of the genius that was Syd Barrett but here we have a Floyd that have finally emerged from his shadow and started their own journey.
Side One has some good tracks with One of These Days being the highlight for me. Pillow of Winds and Fearless are also notable but choosing the best track on Meddle is easy. You can not look beyond the brilliant Echoes. 23 minutes of stunning music, beautiful vocals shared between David Gilmour and Richard Wright and some experimental sound and studio effects thrown in. It takes a special talent to convince you that the song you’ve listened to is longer than some episodes of US comedy shows. It certainly does not feel like 20+ minutes. Perfection from Pink Floyd.
Meddle was generally well received by the critics. It did not top the UK charts but had to settle for no.3 instead. Despite that, the press was better this time around and only meagre publicity in the US prevented the album from doing better Stateside. Structurally and soundwise, this is streets ahead of the previous two albums and eclipses the group’s work with Syd Barrett and their soundtrack for the film, More, also. It’s not a perfect album but it is the best that Pink Floyd had recorded up to this point, in my opinion.
Meddle demonstrates Pink Floyd taking the positives from the experimentation of Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother to create a more coherent piece. They achieved all this despite once again struggling for inspiration. Only through many hours of struggle and trying different things did the group ultimately find the way to a new album. Meddle also showed what happened when all four members worked together and soldiered through writer’s block as a team. As the group continued to tour in 1971, they were on the brink of a major breakthrough that would change their lives. However, before that, they would once again revisit what they had done with More and work on another soundtrack.
Pink Floyd Roll of Honour
1) Meddle (1971)
2) The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
3) A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
4) Atom Heart Mother (1970)
5) More (1969)
6) Ummagumma (1969)