Sunday, 3 February 2013

Parallax - The Pink Floyd BBC Sessions

Photo: David Mainwood
With the surfeit of BBC sessions CDs around nowadays it seems strange that the Pink Floyd refuse to countenance a release of any of the 3 hours worth of material they recorded for the BBC in the late 1960s and very early 1970s. One wonders why. It certainly can’t be a lack of demand. Legal Problems? Band members not agreeing?  Quality control?  Does David Gilmour really regard them as being substandard?

How do the Pink Floyd sessions compare to the official recordings and are they deserving of release?

The sessions run from the Syd Barrett era in 1967 through to the release of Meddle in late 1971 when they were only a year or so away from massive international success with Dark Side of the Moon. Historically therefore, they are of quite some importance. They catalogue not only the Barrett period but also the transitional experimental years when they got lost in space and wrote slightly scary songs about axes and grooving with Picts. Sound quality varies from “listenable” on the early Barrett sessions (the BBC wiped them and what survives is thanks to fan recordings off the air) to excellent mono on the 1968 to 1970 sessions, and the last “In Concert” recording from 1971 is in stereo.

BBC2 Look of the Week. BBC Television Centre, London, 14 May 1967
Fascinating Syd era performance of part of Pow R. Toc H., Astronomy Domine and interview. Musician and writer Hans Keller asks Roger Waters and a well-spoken and articulate Syd Barrett "Why does it all have to be so loud?" and then declares their music to be somewhat infantile, “A little bit of a regression to childhood. But after all, why not?”

Studio Sessions 1967 - 1969
1) Recorded September 25, 1967 at BBC Playhouse Theater. Broadcast October 1, 1967 (on Top Gear). Flaming / Scarecrow / Matilda Mother / The Gnome / Set The Controls / Reaction in G   
2) Recorded December 20, 1967 at BBC Maida Vale Studios. Broadcast December 31, 1967 (on Top Gear). Pow R Toc H / Vegetable Man / Scream Thy Last Scream / Jugband Blues

3) Recorded June 25, 1968 at BBC 210 Piccadilly Studios. Broadcast August 11, 1968 (on Top Gear). Let There Be More Light / Murderistic Women (aka Careful with That Axe Eugene) / Julia Dream / The Massed Gadgets of Hercules (aka A Saucerful of Secrets)

4) Recorded December 2, 1968 at BBC Maida Vale Studios. Broadcast December 15, 1968 (on Top Gear). Point Me At the Sky / Embryo / Baby Blue Shuffle in D Major (aka The Narrow Way, Part 1) / Interstellar Overdrive

5) Recorded May 12, 1969 at BBC Paris Cinema. Broadcast May 14, 1969 (on Night Ride, then rebroadcast June 1, 1969 on Top Gear)
Daybreak (aka Grantchester Meadows) / Nightmare (aka Cymbaline) / The Beginning (aka Green is the Colour) / Beset By Creatures of the Deep (aka Careful With That Axe, Eugene) / The Narrow Way (Part Three)

"Lucifer Sam" Photo: David Mainwood
The first Barrett session at the BBC contains an early brisk version of Set The Controls and a snatch of the unreleased instrumental Reaction in G. The second session is perhaps the most interesting. Pow R Toc H has a slightly more jazz boogie inflected piano solo and demented Barrett guitar playing than the LP version. There are also the unreleased Vegetable Man and Scream Thy Last Scream (Old Woman with a Basket) which would have been singles had Syd stayed. However a month after this session was recorded the band “forgot” to pick him up on the way to a gig in Southampton. So Syd bows out here with a version of Jugband Blues where kazoos replace the brass band and Rick Wright provides a short eastern inflected psychedelic organ coda. After making it clear that he’s not here Syd asks, “And what exactly is a dream? And what exactly is a joke?” and then leaves us bereft to rue his madness.

Jugband Blues

Post Barrett the band was left without a major songwriter. However, it comes as no great surprise that they continued venturing into spacier and more pastoral areas as they’d already started to explore these themes in Interstellar Overdrive, Astronomy Domine, Pow R Toc H and Scarecrow.

So Julia Dream, on the first (June 1968) session without Barrett, leads us into languid idyllic summer dreamscapes of rivers, trees and meadows. I rather prefer the shorter (6:50) A Saucerful of Secrets (here called The Massed Gadgets of Hercules) as it cuts out some of the rather tedious arsing about on the LP version leaving the rather wistful finale more or less intact albeit with the voices somewhat buried in the mix.

Rick Wright has now become integral to the band’s sound. His ethereal layered keyboards lead us through a December 1968 session notable for a Barrettless Interstellar Overdrive with definite prog-rock tendencies, the flop single Point Me At the Sky and a very trippy Embryo.

On the May 1969 session the songs appear to be thematically connected and it is perhaps the most enjoyable set here. The band was developing an idea of turning some already existing songs into a piece called A Man and A Journey at this time. As Grantchester Meadows / Cymbaline / Green is the Colour / Careful With That Axe, Eugene / The Narrow Way (Part Three) segue musically and thematically into one another, this session seems to reveal the first signs of a desire to come up with a larger more integrated work. Again Wright dominates the sound as the band guide us through a layered audio mist to somewhere which, rather like on an old episode of Star Trek, seems to be another earth like planet but where all the people have mysteriously disappeared and you’re not quite sure what’s going to pop out from behind the bushes.

This last studio session seems to suggest that the band have surmounted Barrett’s loss and now have a few ideas of their own. It is also notable how much Rick Wright contributed to the band’s sound in these years. The sound of the Floyd in space owes an awful lot to his keyboard textures.

The 1968 - 1969 Sessions


In Concert 1970 and 1971
6) Recorded July 16, 1970 before a live audience at BBC Paris Cinema
The Embryo / Fat Old Sun / Green Is the Colour / Careful With That Axe, Eugene / If / Atom Heart Mother

7) Recorded September 30, 1971 before a live audience at BBC Paris Cinema
Fat Old Sun (long version) / One of These Days / The Embryo (later version) / Echoes / Blues Jam    

Photo: David Mainwood
The July 16th 1970 show, introduced by the great John Peel, was the first of two one hour long “In Concert”  live sessions to be recorded live at BBC Paris Cinema. Green Is the Colour is segued with Careful With That Axe, Eugene and Atom Heart Mother is performed in its entirety with choir and orchestra. To be honest I’ve never been impressed with AHM. It seems to spend its 25 odd minutes chasing its own tail and falling flat on its arse. Here is no exception.

The 1971 show is far superior and reveals a band now confident and mature. David Gilmour's guitar playing has become more prominent and tastefully compliments Wright's spacey textures. The extended version of Fat Old Sun is sublime even if it is a little restrained compared to later performances on the same tour. One of These Days really kicks into a groove and Echoes, although occasionally rather sluggish and not as polished as the studio version, is a far more successful creation than Atom Heart Mother. A much longer Embryo now comes with spooky sound effects and the band encore, as they usually did on the 1971 shows, with a straight 12 bar called Blues.

There are some gorgeous moments on this show (the extended guitar solo on Fat Old Sun especially) and it stands up well against the live half of Ummagumma. Along with the 1969 studio sessions it is some of the best music the band recorded in this rather underrated period between 1968 and 1971. These BBC sessions draw a superb outline of the band's work at a time when the Pink Floyd set off in search of deep space only to find themselves on the Dark Side of the Moon.

So yes, these BBC sessions definitely deserve a release, and as Hans Keller would have said, “But after all, why not?”

The September 30th 1971 show

Instrumental recorded for the BBC’s 'But what if it's made of green cheese'. Broadcast at 10pm on 20th July 1969 - the evening of the first moon landing.

More Floyd on stranger than known
Celestial Voices - The Pink Floyd live at the Paradiso, Amsterdam 1969

Golf, Fine Wines and Match of the Day - Jill Furmanovsky remembers Pink Floyd

My moon-landing jam session by David Gilmour

Keeping It Peel

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