It’s no secret that I am a Pink Floyd fan. And though I never saw them live, I am very much aware that I have been terribly fortunate to have seen Roger Waters perform The Wall as well as see him perform some of his own works and lesser-played and Pink Floyd works just earlier this year. With the passing of Rick Wright a few years back and having seen the entire suite of Animals performed live by Waters, I concluded that therewith ended all chances to see Pink Floyd again live. Given what I have already been privileged to see, I was very much at peace with that.
Then out of nowhere, Nick Mason, Pink Floyd’s drummer and only constant member of the band, announced that he was forming a new band to tour some of Pink Floyd’s early works in small venues. Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, as the band was called, was playing the historic Olympia theater in Paris and I was ecstatic to go. Though I have been enjoying Pink Floyd’s entire catalogue since I was a kid, I was in fact clueless as to what was in store for me in Paris.
I’ll admit it. I was a fan of what could be considered “core” Pink Floyd albums such as Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall. These are (in my opinion) exquisite works that were painstakingly assembled in a studio. And though nothing compares to live performance, the craftsmanship and meticulous detail were still conveyed on the albums.
Therefore, though I loved some of the early works, with a particular soft spot for Meddle and Atom Heart Mother, a lot of the early singles and first two albums just didn’t capture my imagination as much. It’s as though I understood them academically, but they just didn’t seem alive to me as the others did. When Pink Floyd played Astronomy Domine as part of the Pulse live tour in 1994, I did get more of an idea of just how grand and genius these songs were. Still, it was only when I was swept off my feet by hearing the first chords of Interstellar Overdrive blast from the stage in the Olympia, that I truly understood this work. The energy, the emotion, the inspiration you could see the musicians take from each other, and the fun they were having was clear in the stage presence and of course in the music. These old songs finally came alive for me. And they just kept coming:
- Interstellar Overdrive
- Astronomy Domine
- Lucifer Sam
- Obscured by Clouds
- Arnold Layne
- Vegetable man
- Atom Heart Mother
- The Nile Song
- Green is the Colour
- Let There be More Light
- Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun
- See Emily Play
- One of These Days
- Saucerful of Secrets (encore)
- Point Me to the Sky (encore)
It was a dream come true. Leaving the theater in Paris, I looked over to my friend, Steve, and asked what he was doing in two weeks when they were playing in Zurich. It might have been the same set list as in Paris, but the Zurich venue was even better and the crowd was amazing. The finale of One of These Days had half the theatre on their feet at the base of the stage and the band was thrilled. When they came back out for the encore of Saucerful of Secrets (natch), the vocals from the crowd could easily be heard over the band. The music was amazing, but to see the entire crowed so lifted and inspired by it really demonstrated its power to enchant and captivate.
On the way home from Zurich, Steve and I mostly talked in superlatives about the experience, but Steve raised a very interesting point. We had just months earlier in the summer seen Roger Waters. And though that show was amazing as well, we agreed it somehow paled in comparison to Nick Mason. Why? Well, Waters is a master of large venue showmanship, while Mason chose to stay close to his underground club roots with the songs that propelled them to stardom, long before the band knew stadium crowds. The intimacy of the small theaters was fantastic, but there was something more. Steve very astutely pointed out the messaging and politics wrapped up in the Waters show. Art has always been political, and though the scathing commentary in the Waters show was fantastic, it stood in stark contrast to the escapist psychedelia of the Mason show. Set against the backdrop of the turbulent 1960s and the economic stagnation in the United Kingdom at the time, early Pink Floyd music was very much that of finding refuge in a world that was not living up to its promises. It was infused with pastoral imagery of youth. It was fun, experimental, and, yes, escapist.
Given our current geopolitical climate, I am inclined to agree that this was the perfect time to stage such a performance. The turnout at both shows was clear affirmation that there is demand for this music and the kind of mesmerizing refuge that it offers not only to the die-hard fans, but also to the many young people we witnessed being entranced by it. Perhaps Steve was right in positing that it is time for the emergence of similar music to help us take our escape from some of the horrors of modern political reality. However I tend to believe that there is room for both. Art can be beautiful for beauty’s sake, but art with no message is not only insipid, but a lost opportunity. If a new generation is to be enthralled by Pink Floyd as I was, there is definitely room for abscondment into psychedelia along with with withering political satire.
It was an unforgettable experience, and I am grateful to look back knowing that I had the opportunity to experience Pink Floyd music as it was in its nascent years and enjoy a glimpse of the energy, creativity, and audacity that made it so unique. I likely got as close as possible to actually being there in the UFO Club in London during the 1960s underground scene.
The only thing missing were the technicolor ascots and Syd Barret’s perm.