Pink Floyd’s “Meddle”: The classic pre-“Dark Side” album goes under review in this UK music documentary

By on September 13, 2016

Pink Floyd – Meddle: A Classic Album Under Review — now streaming on our Night Flight Plus channel — delves into the band’s pre-70s history leading up to the recording of the album in question, coming as it does at a significant turning point in their career in 1971.

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The hour-long documentary — released in 2007 as part of the Under Review musical documentary series and subtitled “An Independent Critical Analysis” — is another in the British-made series from Prism Films, distributed by our content partner, MVD.

It compiles Pink Floyd concert footage from the early 70s (some of it from the band’s memorable performance at Pompeii, Italy) along with vintage photographs and lots of interviews with revered experts and some of the band’s friends and colleagues, who all provide keen insight as to the importance of the band’s 1971 album, which guitarist David Gilmour considers “the start of the path forward.”

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Among those friends and colleagues offering up their opinions here are former Floyd producer Norman Smith, Pete Banks from the group Yes, Hugh Hopper from the Soft Machine, MOJO scribe and author Mark Blake (who penned the well-received The Inside Story of Pink Floyd), Wire magazine’s David Stubbs, Classic Rock magazine’s Malcolm Dome, ambient music expert Mark Prendergast, and Toby Manning, author of The Rough Guide to Pink Floyd, among others.

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The first half of the doc delves into the early history of the band which nearly everyone here refers to as “The Floyd,” from their early beginnings in Cambridge, through the early successes of the Syd Barrett era, and the tumultuous period that followed Barrett’s departure from the band, which we discussed at length in this post about Syd Barrett.

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Nearly all of those who were interviewed here generally agree that the band’s first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn was their first masterpiece, acknowledging that it is quite clearly Syd Barrett’s best work, but they all, to varying degrees, also believe that the band, who were forced to soldier on after Barrett was kicked out of the band, should be commended for their bold experimentation and constant evolution, even though the results of each album thereafter are decidedly mixed, as even their most ardent fans will tell you.

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When Meddle, Pink Floyd’s sixth studio album, arrived on Halloween day, October 31, 1971, to many it seemed to represent the band completing or at least attempting to complete their inevitable transition from their psychedelic sixties past into what they would sound like during the remainder of what would be a productive new decade, the 1970s, providing clues as to the first clear definition of where Pink Floyd would be heading with their next album, 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon.

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The album’s tracks were recorded whenever the band could find time to go into the studio — chiefly EMI’s Abbey Road, AIR (Associated Independent Recording) in London, and also Morgan Studios in West Hampstead — between their touring commitments, from January to August 1971 (during that period they were playing concerts in Europe, the Far East and Australia, returning for more shows across Europe and then the United States).

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The title itself — the verb “to meddle” means to “interfere” with something — represents, as it were, a man’s journey into uncharted territory, perhaps beyond what he is even able to understand and learn, meddling with universal schemes in a quest for knowledge that only peaceful solitude is able to give.

Two of the album’s standout tracks — “One of These Days” and the 23-minute epic “Echoes” — represent musical ideas the band had already previously explored on their earlier albums.

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The ominous “One of These Days” — a rollicking opening track which arises out of nearly a minute’s worth of blistering wind sound effects before launching into a cosmic space rock heaviosity, mixing David Gilmour’s double-tracked guitar and Rick Wright toying with the “Dr. Who” theme on sonarific keyboards — would prove to be one of Pink Floyd’s most satisfying instrumentals, balancing the band’s pop and rock side with their more eclectic, experimental side.

It also features Mason’s vocalizing lyrics which can be taken any way you want them to be taken — “One of these days I’m going to cut you into little pieces!” — as well as one of David Gilmour’s most powerful guitar solos up to that point.

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Originally titled “Return Of The Son Of Nothing,” the side-long centerpiece “Echoes” dominates the entire work, building to an orgasmic crescendo before climaxing, then veering off into unexpected new directions while maintaining its visceral momentum for the song’s entire length. Truly, it was one of their memorable magnum opus tracks, and hinted at where they were likely to go during the rest of the decade.

These two tracks were both standouts when the band were filmed performing in an empty, 2,000-year old ampitheatre in the fabled Roman city of Pompeii for what would become the band’s feature-length documentary Live at Pompeii, which was distributed by Night Flight’s Stuart Shapiro’s International Harmony film distribution company, becoming a successful midnight movie in the process.

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There are other moments worthy of at least a bit of mention, including”A Pillow of Winds” with its bucolic, pastoral atmospheric sounds (its title was inspired by the games of Mahjong that Waters, Mason, and their wives played while in the south of France) and “Seamus,” a throwaway track which features Steve Marriott’s dog (which Gilmour was looking after) howling over the guitarist’s rock blues, considered by many to be the worst song in the Floyd’s catalog, while possibly also anticipating their work encompassing animal sounds on their album Animals.

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Both tracks provide easy, charming attempts to pad out the album with aural sonicry, but the album’s two standout moments are far and away the best tracks on the album, as nearly all of the critics agree.

Also discussed here is the album’s cover art, designed by Hipgnosis, via Storm Thorgerson, which shows a close-up photograph of an ear as seen underwater, collecting waves of sound (represented as ripples).

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Thorgerson had originally suggested a close-up shot of a baboon’s anus for the album cover. He was overruled by the band, who informed him via an intercontinental telephone call while on tour in Japan that they would rather have “an ear underwater” (apparently the concept was tossed out off-the-cuff but Thorgerson apparently liked the idea, although he would later claim it was his worst Pink Floyd album design).

Meddle – released a few weeks after its American debut in the U.K. on November 13, 1971 — would end up charting at #3 on the British album charts, but according to the band, their U.S. label Capitol Records dropped the ball on its promotion and the album ended up topping out at #70 on the U.S. album charts, although in another twenty years it would be certified double platinum in sales and regularly praised as one of Pink Floyd’s best pre-Dark Side albums.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.