Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-72 review – 27 discs of dogged creativity

This exhaustive document of Pink Floyd’s sonic explorations contains some tantalising glimpses of the different paths they could have taken – as well as 15 versions of Careful With That Axe, Eugene

On the second DVD in this mammoth 27-disc set, there is some extremely telling footage of the Pink Floyd, as they were still known, on continental television in 1968. It is a few months after Syd Barrett had finally been ousted from the band; in TV studios across Europe, his replacement, David Gilmour, is obliged to mime Barrett’s parts, mouthing along to records he never appeared on. Things only seem to get worse when they play the material they have managed to come up with since their frontman and chief songwriter departed. Both Gilmour and Roger Waters look authentically mortified while performing It Would Be So Nice, keyboardist Rick Wright’s hopeless attempt at mimicking Barrett’s brand of psychedelic whimsy. The rest of the time the band wear the sombre expressions of people who know in their hearts that their 15 minutes of fame are over.

At least Waters, Wright and drummer Nick Mason had already travelled an astonishing distance, as documented on the first CD here. In barely two years, they went from a tough R&B quintet with an incongruously well-spoken, very English-sounding vocalist (you might describe the style of their 1965 demos as garage rock, but they sound as if the garage might be at the end of a very long gravel drive), to the imperious heroes of the London underground, blessed by Barrett’s ability to condense the psychedelic experience into alternately creepy and commercial bursts of pop music; and then to the band who made Scream Thy Last Scream and Vegetable Man, Barrett’s last, deranged attempts to write a single – music unlike anything else in rock or pop at that point, judged too nerve-jangling and, in the parlance of the day, too far-out for public consumption (and assiduously suppressed by Pink Floyd until now, though long known to hardcore fans). But watching them dolefully going through the motions on French and Belgian TV a few months on, the sense of people who realise the game is up is hard to avoid. At one point, an interviewer bluntly tells Waters that no one buys their records any more and asks if they plan to do anything about it. “No,” comes the doleful response.

Watch the promo for Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-72

It’s easy to laugh, nearly half a century on, when Pink Floyd are among the most successful artists in rock history, a band so big that there is a market for a 27-disc box set of their outtakes, live performances, B-sides and sundry ephemera, which retails for around £400. But once the Barrett era is covered, The Early Years depicts Pink Floyd in a fascinating state of flux: a band who don’t seem entirely sure what they’re doing or who they want to be. They made some incredible music in the process, but not even the most boggle-eyed of their fans would have bet on them ever selling 48m copies of anything on the basis of what’s here.

Live, they clung fast to the one thing they must have known they could do better without Barrett in the band: the lengthy improvisations that their erstwhile leader had once driven with his wildly inventive guitar playing, but had latterly taken to ruining by detuning his guitar until the strings hung off, or declining to play at all. Just how central Careful With That Axe, Eugene and A Saucerful of Secrets et al were to Pink Floyd is underlined by the sheer frequency with which they appear over the course of The Early Years. There are 15 different versions of Careful With That Axe, Eugene here, and there comes a point where you suspect that even the most ardent fan of Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun – perhaps someone who has noted that a lot of nascent krautrock musicians were clearly paying close attention to its cyclical, hypnotic repetitions and weird, very un-rock-like atmosphere – will heave a fairly weary sigh as its three-note bassline starts up for the umpteenth time.

You get the feeling Pink Floyd might have felt the same way. This kind of thing did good business among concertgoers as the 60s rolled into the 70s – and watching the footage of a wild-looking Waters screaming and smashing cymbals on stage at the snappily named Music Power and European Music Revolution Festival Actuel, you can see why – but it also perpetuated Pink Floyd’s reputation as psychedelic explorers of inner space. This was a pretty grim irony for a band who had had the downside of psychedelic inner space exploration brought home to them in no uncertain terms, around the time Barrett appeared on stage wearing a pot of Brylcreem with barbiturates in it on his head. Certainly, in the studio, they were clearly searching for something different. They tried pretty much everything: country rock, languid jazzy blues, choir and orchestra-assisted pomp and circumstance. Some of it is pretty awful – when inspiration faltered, they had a tendency to knock out a 12-bar blues jam, apparently to prove that Pink Floyd were a band uniquely ill-suited to playing 12-bar blues jams – but some of it is fantastic; not least Nothing Part One, a beautiful, ambient early version of 1971’s Echoes that could have been recorded last week, rather than 45 years ago.

Watch the video for Pink Floyd’s Granchester Meadows

And occasionally, they hit on a notion that really stuck. Tucked away on the 1969 soundtrack to More was Roger Waters’ Cymbaline, which quietly minted a style that would subsequently define Pink Floyd, that they would return to again and again. There it is on Us and Them, Shine on You Crazy Diamond, Comfortably Numb and others: an understated, melancholy verse, anthemic chorus, lyrics that alternately fretted about the pressures of modern life (“apprehension creeping like a tube train up your spine”) and whinged about the music industry, and, in its live incarnation, the kind of extended guitar solo that you would later call Gilmouresque (heavy on the yearning string-bends and sudden shifts from mournful introspection to soaring catharsis). Indeed, there’s a lot of fun to be hand listening to The Early Years and noting the ideas that, subconsciously or otherwise, they earmarked for future use. Concerts from 1969 grandly titled The Man/The Journey linked songs together with taped sound effects – among them ticking clocks and footsteps – and a degree of on-stage theatricality: the moment when languid opener Grantchester Meadows elides into a frenetic, percussive instrumental called Work sounds oddly like a dry run for the The Dark Side of the Moon’s famous segue between Breathe and On the Run. Equally, there are ideas here it seems a pity that Pink Floyd abandoned. They had a fantastic line in unhurried, bucolic wistfulness – Green Is the Colour and Fat Old Sun, Meddle’s A Pillow of Winds and Fearless. But it made its final appearance on Wot’s … Uh the Deal? and Stay, from the 1972 soundtrack to Obscured By Clouds, which, in remixed form, brings The Early Years to a close. After that, that sound vanished from the band’s palette, never to return: sighing and worrying their way through the rest of the 70s, Pink Floyd would or could never sound as relaxed again.

Perhaps they never really were that relaxed. Once it has shown you the state Pink Floyd were in after Barrett’s departure, what is striking about The Early Years is the sense of doggedness and determination that underlies the creativity. There’s something relentless and persevering about the way they kept throwing out ideas, until they eventually turned themselves into a different band – or maybe not that different. Anyone startled by what happened to Pink Floyd in the wake of Waters’ rancorous 80s departure, aghast at the sheer level of screw-you obduracy displayed by all parties, might consider the story The Early Years tells. As it turns out, they were always like that.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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