It was a single note, flickering out like a beacon to lead a wayward ship through the night. Pink Floyd had no new songs prepared when they started recording in early 1971, but they did have access to the legendary Abbey Road Studios, and free rein from their label to mess around until they found their way. They spent weeks improvising with each member isolated from what the others were playing—a harebrained search for the sort of strange and spontaneous inspiration that their old leader, guitarist and songwriter Syd Barrett, conjured freely.
They called the results “Nothings 1-24”: Predictably, they were almost entirely unusable—except for this one note: a high B, played on a piano near the top of its range, warped by the undulations of a rotating Leslie speaker. It was piercing, but slightly obscured, as if it had traveled a great distance to reach your awareness. “We could never recreate the feeling of this note in the studio, especially the particular resonance between the piano and the Leslie,” drummer Nick Mason wrote later. So they used the demo tape, and began composing around it. “Echoes” grew from that note into something awesome: a 23-minute psych-prog voyage from tranquility to triumph to desolation and back, with a riff like a lightning bolt striking open sea, and a pillowy lead vocal keeping you cozy and safe below deck. It was the first song Pink Floyd completed for Meddle, their conflicted and brilliant sixth album.
After a period of flailing for direction, “Echoes” offered a path toward the populist art-rock epics that would make Pink Floyd one of the most successful bands in history. But it was also a kind of ending. During the late ’60s, under Barrett’s mad reign, Pink Floyd was turbulent and intuitive, balancing his fairytale songs with the sort of chaotic and noisy improvisations that presumably inspired Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon to name her dog after him. As their fame rose and bassist Roger Waters seized ever-tighter creative control across the ‘70s, the music increasingly favored solemnity over whimsy, formalism over exploration. “Echoes”—and Meddle as a whole—sit at the intersection of these two approaches, offering a hazy preview of Pink Floyd’s future as international stars without yet abandoning their past as visionary young ruffians.
From Pink Floyd’s founding in 1965 to Barrett’s ouster in 1968, they were the de facto house band of London’s nascent psychedelic scene. The members, a group of brainy misfits who’d assembled while attending university for art and architecture, mostly kept a professional distance from actual psychedelics—with the exception of Barrett, who indulged heartily. Soon after the release of Pink Floyd’s debut album, 1967’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, he became withdrawn and erratic: He refused to participate in performances, sat unresponsive as people tried to talk to him, sabotaged a TV appearance by standing still when he was supposed to mime along to a backing track. His bandmates grew frustrated by these impediments to their success. One day in February 1968, they decided they simply wouldn’t pick him up on the way to their show that night. That was the end of his time in Pink Floyd. Barrett recorded two solo albums, then withdrew from public life until his death in 2006. “I’m disappearing, avoiding most things” he told a Rolling Stone interviewer in 1971, the year Pink Floyd released Meddle without him. Two of the last songs he recorded with them were deemed too dark and unsettling for release until several decades later. “I’ve been looking all over the place for a place for me,” he speak-sings in one of them, his voice taking on a theatrical Mad Hatter edge. “But it ain’t anywhere.”
Syd Barrett’s story fits neatly within two late-’60s archetypes: the acid casualty and the doomed rock star. The reality is probably sadder, and more ordinary. With the rock star myth no longer as culturally potent as it once was, and more nuanced contemporary understanding of LSD’s relationship to disorders like schizophrenia—it can precipitate psychotic breaks in people who are already disposed toward them, but it doesn’t cause them by itself—he looks simply like a man with a serious mental illness, no desire for fame, and no one around who understood how to help him.
Nick Mason, in his memoir Inside Out, returns multiple times to the callousness with which he and his bandmates treated their frontman while he was unraveling, presenting their disregard for Barrett as a consequence of their fixation on making it as musicians. Beginning with 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon, their post-Barrett superstar years can be seen as a series of attempts to reckon with his absence and their guilt, even as they moved away from his vision of the band: Dark Side, a suite about how the pressures of modern life can drive a person to insanity, exploring mental anguish by the light of a lava lamp; Wish You Were Here, an elegiac and sometimes cynical album presented more or less explicitly as a tribute to Barrett; The Wall, a rock opera about a singer’s increasing alienation from society and his loved ones. These albums’ status as dorm-room classics can make their preoccupation with psychological instability seem like a bit of trippy kitsch, but it seems unlikely their creators see it that way.
There were six years and six albums between The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and The Dark Side of the Moon. During this limbo period, Pink Floyd seemed to be avoiding a confrontation about their identity, who they really were without their leader. 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets mostly follows in the style of Piper; it came as Barrett was on his way out of the band, and is the only Pink Floyd album where he and Gilmour, his friend since secondary school, both appear. After that, there was a film soundtrack, a double LP with a live recording and a series of pieces the members recorded individually, and a ponderous quasi-symphonic work assembled in large part by a guest arranger. “Meddle was the first album we had worked on together as a band in the studio since A Saucerful of Secrets,” Mason writes, positioning Pink Floyd’s sixth album as the true follow-up to their second, and their first proper collaborative statement without any involvement from Barrett.
Making Meddle took the better part of a year, thanks to the band’s touring schedule and their insistence on doing things in “the most complicated way possible,” as Mason puts it. The every-man-for-himself jams that produced the “Echoes” piano sound were only the beginning: There were fruitless attempts at recording vocals backwards, pedals wired up the wrong way, a dog trained to howl along to music brought in as a collaborator. At some point, they convinced EMI, their label, that Abbey Road lacked the technical sophistication for the music they were trying to make, and moved the operation to George Martin’s recently opened AIR Studio, which had the state-of-the-art 16-track tape machines Abbey Road lacked.
Soon, Pink Floyd would marshal the precision of new recording technologies toward albums that were carefully planned from the top down, with every moment derived from an overarching theme and tuned for maximum impact. On Meddle, they’d arrived nearly at the rich and enveloping sonics of Dark Side, but not yet at its elaborate compositional holism. No other Pink Floyd album sits in quite the same sweet spot: huge and ambitious but beholden to no extramusical narrative, pushing at rock’s limits without reaching beyond them for the virtues of cinema and theater. It needs no three-act storyline or operatic themes and reprisals to flatten you to your couch and scorch a hole in your brain; the thunder of the band is enough to do that on its own.
Progressive rock was on the rise in early-’70s UK, and punk wasn’t far behind it. Pink Floyd would eventually come to be associated with the indulgences of the former, but they were always an imperfect fit for prog—they were certainly indulgent, but they simply lacked the instrumental virtuosity of bands like Yes and King Crimson. Early on, they had as much to do with noise rock, though the term was still decades from being invented. Johnny Rotten famously wore an “I Hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt onstage with the Sex Pistols; not long after, his deconstructed jams with Public Image Ltd. weren’t so different from the freakouts of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” or “Interstellar Overdrive.” Meddle has both: the sweep of Floyd’s proggy later days and the scrappiness of their origins.
The mostly instrumental opener “One of These Days” sounds like a Camaro rocketing through the cosmos. It is a visceral thrill that exists only for its own sake, introducing Meddle with a bit of hard rock sci-fi that does nothing to prepare you for the narcotized drift of the rest of the first side. The album’s first lyrics (aside from a brief spoken interjection in “One of These Days”) do a better job of setting the languid prevailing tone: “A cloud of eiderdown draws around me, softening the sound/Sleepytime, and I lie with my love by my side, and she’s breathing low,” Gilmour sings to open “A Pillow of Winds.” Whether consciously or not, these lines contain strong echoes of Barrett, who sang of being “Alone in the clouds all blue/Lying on an eiderdown” on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
If the Pink Floyd of Dark Side and onward grappled with Barrett’s legacy in their subject matter while shaking off his direct musical influence, Meddle is indebted to him as a musician without yet directly acknowledging him as a man. Its only inessential song is “Seamus,” featuring the aforementioned canine, whose blend of blues pastiche and playful sound collage is the clearest attempt to replicate the madcap character of Floyd’s earlier era. But where Barrett might have located some essential strangeness at the meeting of slide guitar and singing dog, the rest of Pink Floyd seem to believe the juxtaposition itself is enough. The lyrics—“I was in the kitchen/Seamus, that’s the dog, was outside”—are almost perverse in their refusal to engage with anything substantial.
“Fearless” is another matter. It focuses on the quiet dignity of an “idiot” following his own path up a hill while a crowd jeers from below that he’ll never make the top. As with much of Meddle, the guitar seems to proceed in slow motion, matching his humble climb, a stately ascending riff with ringing open strings that Waters played using an alternate tuning Barrett taught him years earlier. Gilmour takes the lead vocal, and his sleepy delivery—which usually implies a state of stoned beatitude—instead conveys sadness and futility beneath the determination. “Fearless” is among Pink Floyd’s greatest and most moving songs, heartbreaking even as the idiot seems to prevail over the voices that tell him he won’t.
If the band felt the story held any resonance with their own personal trials, they didn’t show it overtly. “Fearless” ends with a recording of a football crowd bellowing out the anthem of Liverpool F.C., framing its tale of perseverance with the simple good feeling of an underdog defeating a rival. Mason could never understand Waters’ insistence on this strange coda, especially given that the bassist was a devoted Arsenal supporter. Maybe his affinity was for the familial sentiment of the song itself, a Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune adopted by Liverpool fans after a local group turned it into a pop hit, rather than its sporting context. “Walk on with hope in your heart,” fans can be heard singing as “Fearless” fades out, “and you’ll never walk alone.”
But Meddle’s real reason for being is “Echoes,” which takes up the entirety of the album’s second side. Ambitious beyond anything Pink Floyd had attempted before, wild beyond anything they’d attempt after, it takes the origin of life itself as its subject, another humble ascent. In lilting harmony, Gilmour and Wright describe a scene deep below the sea: “No one knows the wheres or whys/But something stirs and something tries/And starts to climb towards the light.” As the song’s storm gathers force, its focus shifts to an ambiguous chance encounter between two people, descendents of those stirring amoebae. The drums grow more forceful; the guitars turn from vapor to liquid to solid to flame. In place of a climax, there is disintegration. The rhythm halts, the bottom drops out, and for one last time, Pink Floyd sound more like avant-garde improvisers than stadium rock musicians: groaning, twisting, screeching, expressing the complicated freedom of coming untethered from any plan.
Eventually, the beacon of that high B on the piano returns. The band reassembles and finishes the song. Later, they release one of rock’s greatest albums with Dark Side of the Moon, and solidify their status as icons forever. As if in a dream, Barrett makes a final visit to the studio as they record Wish You Were Here, its followup. He wanders into Abbey Road as an uninvited guest, bald and barely recognizable, seeming confused and disengaged when they play him samples of an album they wrote partly about him. Pink Floyd find their way through the storm of his absence, and eventually steer into another one: ego, money, fame, their corrosive effects on brotherhood. But for now, they are at the center of the turbulence, making noise, lingering in darkness and uncertainty until it’s time to climb out.