Uncut Magazine May 2007.
(Transcript thanks to Natalie Lyons)
Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Floyd
I can’t remember who in obvious jest first referred to it as the Welsh Fillmore and the comparison nearly 40 years on seems even more outlandish now than it did then. The Kee Club in Bridgend, a small town half way to Cardiff from where we lived in Port Talbot, was nevertheless as near as we would ever come to the fabled West Coast venue, with the passing exception of the Ritz in Skewen, which similarly hosted what was then called “Underground” music.
I’m pretty sure that if you were signed to the Harvest label, for instance, it was part of your contract that at some point or other you would fetch up in Bridgend, playing the Kee, which was probably not much bigger than your front room. I remember seeing an incredibly stoned Roy Harper, Pete Brown’s Battered Ornaments, with Chris Spedding on amazing lead guitar, and The Edgar Broughton Band, whose colossal hairiness was impressive even by the standards of that time.
Pink Floyd – our cover stars this month – came to the Kee Club on March 15, 1969, a miraculous visitation. I’d seen them once before, supporting Hendrix in Cardiff in November ’67. Syd Barrett was long gone by now, replaced by Dave Gilmour. There was a feeling, I recall, that their moment had passed, that without Syd they might be a bit of a lost cause.
I have to say, however, that they were astonishing. I stood directly in front of Roger Waters, who seemed to tower above me, head brushing the low ceiling. He remains possibly the most intimidating presence I’ve ever seen on stage, full of gaunt intensity. What they played that night was basically the live set that appears on Ummagumma and I knew that during Careful With That Axe Eugene Waters would start screaming, as per the original recording, the B-side of Point Me At The Sky. But when the shrieking starts I am still frightened out of my wits.
A couple of nights later, at Swansea University, he does it again, head thrown back, sounding like something at the world’s end, giving a voice to a nightmarish terror that chills me still.
Do you think Floyd fans resented you for “splitting” the group and overlooked how much you contributed to the music?
There’s no question that when we got back together and did Live8, things took on a slightly different perspective. A huge number of people saw us on TV and I think it gave them an opportunity to say “Aha, that’s the guy who wrote the songs” and to make that connection. I think through the years after I left the band in ’85 and when they toured in ’87 and in ’94, I was perceived as the grumpy guy who left in a huff. After Live8 I think they went “Well, maybe he’s not so grumpy after all”. I thoroughly enjoyed Live8. I came to it with a very open mind and a very open heart and decided to just get on with it and do it. So maybe that changed people’s perceptions, to some extent.
It looked like you choked up during “Wish You Were Here”
That’s pitching it too strong. But I love singing that song. I only sang the second verse of it. But I always loved singing it when we were on the road. I still like the song very much. I wrote it whenever it was, 1975 or something, and it still means a lot to me.
Is it harder to sing since Syd Barrett died?
I do “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” in my show as well – and I have to say it was slightly unnerving playing it for a few performances immediately after Syd died. I still feel a deep connection with Syd whenever I play those songs. “Shine on” is specifically about him, but Wish You Were Here is a far more general piece.
Were drugs the main cause of Syd’s decline?
Oh, yes. I’m sure acid exacerbated symptoms I think were going to manifest anyway. But I’m not a neurologist so I’m not really the person to ask. At the top of the pops sessions we did for See Emily Play he was already getting a bit odd. He was saying things like “John Lennon doesn’t have to do this. Why should I?” He was starting to disconnect. It was pretty fast downhill from then on. By the end of ’68 he wasn’t operating at all.
Then he didn’t show up for a show and he was out. Is that what happened?
To be brutally honest about it, he wasn’t picked up for a gig. One day we were going to collect him and we went “Nah”. We just went and did the gig.
He appeared when you were recording “Shine on you crazy diamond”, and sat outside the studio didn’t he?
Yes. It was at Abbey Road. He wasn’t sitting outside. He came into the control room.
Was that a complete accident?
Oh, no. He knew exactly what he was doing and he knew that we were there. Syd would occasionally turn up for gigs, expecting to play, I think. I’m not sure what he was expecting that say. It was a bizarre coincidence that we were working on “Shine on you crazy diamond” when he turned up. I didn’t recognise him. I thought he was someone’s friend, this fat, bald bloke, eating sweets at the back of the studio. It was maybe Dave who eventually said; “You haven’t caught it yet, have you?” I suddenly said “It’s Syd!” It was strange.
Did you ever share Syd’s appetite for drugs?
I had lots of chances to take acid – in fact anything I wanted, really. I took acid twice. Once, I’m not sure what year it was but it was on the island of Patmos in the Greek Archipelago…this wasn’t what you get on bits of blotting paper or sugar cubes. This was off a dropper out of a bottle and it was pure lysergic. It was an extraordinary experience and it lasted about 48 hours. I took some more a couple of years later in New York. I remember getting stuck in the middle of the night on 8th avenue trying to get something to eat and peering at the traffic lights. I thought, “No, I don’t want to ever do this again. No, enough, enough” If you want to know the entire history of my drug taking, I smoked dope for a few years because I was pretending I was overcoming my nicotine addiction. I stopped smoking cigarettes, but I’d roll a joint every morning. I was out of my brain for a couple of years pretending not to smoke cigarettes. As soon as I finally kicked the nicotine habit, the dope went with it, as it’s a very pernicious drug. It slows you down and stops you doing anything productive. It has a very negative influence on people’s lives.
On the Live8 DVD, things look a bit tense between the band in the rehearsal footage. Was that the case?
A little bit. It was bound to be, after all the history. But I went into the whole process determined to roll over if there was an argument. I know how to work his. If there’s conflict, I immediately play dead. Then everything will be fine. And I did and it seemed to work rather well, I have to say.
But you could never roll over and play dead for a whole tour?
No. Rolling over and playing dead isn’t my natural style. I have far too much life and exuberance and attachment to the work, and far too many ideas. My natural state is to constantly express my ideas and feelings, sometimes at full volume. To not be engaged is a very alien condition for me.
Did it feel like Dave Gilmour was in charge and you were just doing what he told you?
No, of course not. I was sort of controlling the whole thing without doing anything. It was a bit like walking on rice paper. I think it was a bit of a worry to him. I might be wrong, but he came up with some strange comments after Live 8, one of which was “I don’t know what the big fuss is about. It would have been just the same whether Roger was there of not”. That illustrated for me that maybe he doesn’t quite get how important the symbiosis between the four of us was during “the golden years” of the band. We were great together. We all made a contribution, but it was the combination of the four separate talents. It was a very, very special thing.
What would it take to get you together for a tour – money, a good cause?
This is why Dave is very reluctant to ever do anything again: for 20 years it’s been his baby. He doesn’t want to give up that position and what should he? Listen. If somehow, working through all our egos, all the history and whatever, we could come together for a reason – I don’t care what – and maybe do a few gigs in London, a few in New York and a few in LA, Palestine, wherever. I’d be up for it. It wouldn’t be a one-off gig, because to do all that work just for one night wouldn’t be worth it. But a number of events that would draw a line nicely under the work the four of us did together would be very satisfying for me. I’d be prepared to give 6 months or so in terms of preparation for something like that. I’m sure Nick would as well, but I don’t think Dave wants to. That his prerogative and I have no down on him. If you’re talking about building a whole new show, that whets my appetite, not withstanding what I said in the late ‘70s about stadiums and how bad they were, all of which I believed at the time. But a Pink Floyd thing, that would need a lot of serious thinking about. Of course, when I was in the band, I did all the thinking. I wrote most of the songs and I made all of the shows, so that might be difficult.
Nick Mason has claimed there was greater collaboration in Pink Floyd than you care to admit.
Nick and I have become very close friends again, so I don’t want to ruffle his feathers. Actually, I’m not sure I could because we joke about this all the time. Most people who see this interview will be aware of his book, Inside Out. He showed me the original draft – a lot of which he’d written during the bad years, when I was the big ogre – and to give him his due he said, “could I have your comments?” I went through it and almost the entire thing was blue pencil. He did change odd little bits, but you should read it. He writes the most marvellous fiction. But I have to say this, just because I think some of it may be bad doesn’t mean it necessarily is – we know the human memory is an extraordinary idiosyncratic and fallible device. People unwittingly construct memories that are convenient and favourable to the ego. It may well be that I can, for instance, remember sitting in the shed at the bottom of my garden in London and putting together the quarter-inch tape with all of the cash register sounds for the beginning of “Money” on my own. He remembers us doing it together. Actually maybe he was there. It’s possible. Who knows?
For years, people have concentrated on your conflicts with Dave, but are there good memories of working with him as well?
Dave is a great singer. He was a very acute and sensitive ear for harmony. A lot of those double tracks and the harmonies where he sings through Dark Side… or on lots of the records – I sat back while he did that and he’d follow his instincts and produce these great harmonies. I was always somewhat in awe of that. It takes great talent to be able to do that, and it’s something that I really appreciate.
One of the big rifts, of course, was over “Comfortably Numb”
There was an argument. We cut the track, sent it to Michael Kamen in New York, who wrote and recorded the string charts. They sounded fantastic, almost the best thing that Michael ever did. I love it. Dave said he thought the track was sloppy, or something, and he wanted to recut the drums, the bass, this, that and the other. As this time I was working in Jacques Loussier’s studio doing vocals because we realised that we had to split the work up. Dave was still in Bear Studios, doing keyboard. He recut the basic rhythm of the piece and stuck it together and went “There you go”. I listened to it and I hated it. It had suddenly become, for me, very wooden; just not moving at all. And that was the big argument. I went: “No, the way it was, was great. This is bad”. He was: “No, the way it was, was terrible. This is great”. So the song ended up with 4 bars of his and 4 bars of mine… the whole track is like that. It was a weird sort of bargaining thing between he and I.
So it was a battle.
Yes, it became a battle. The final track is a compromise between two different views. Who’s to say whether – if we went back and listened to the two different versions – we could tell any difference. The final compromise is so good, I suspect both versions were great.
You said after your first solo tour that your show was a Pink Floyd show except that it had a different drummer, guitar and keyboard player.
Did I say that? How very provocative of me.
Do you think this holds true for this tour?
Absolutely not. I’m mostly playing my own songs. Some of them are co-written obviously… some of the Dark Side stuff is. And I’m also treating Dark Side as one might treat a classical piece of music. So we’re reproducing some of Dave’s solos. I’d have to say Carol Kenyon, who’s in my band does a great job on Great Gig In The Sky. She’s fairly faithful to Claire Torry’s original performance on the record. Audiences go apeshit because they recognise it, but they see that she reinterprets it without straying too far from the original notes. That’s not easy. I’ve seen other people trying to replicate Great Gig, not least on some of the shows that Dave, Rick and Nick did together. The girls they had didn’t even come close to the original.
Why do you think Dark Side… is still so popular?
The record is musically sophisticated and yet simple. The song structures are very simple. Lyrically, it speaks to successive generations who have continued to have the same concerns over and over and over again. Sadly, a song like “Us and Them” seems just as apposite politically in 2006 as it did in 1979. Also a song like Time expresses feelings lots of young people have when they reach a certain age and they’re looking for meaning. I hate to be the one to have to tell you this, all you young people out there, but it goes on. We keep re-examining out lives and our relationships with our friends, our family, and other human beings.
There’s no doubt there’s an enormous attachment to the work that runs through umpteen generations of people which is very moving when you’re playing it live. In the show, I go out to the edges of the stage and get close to people. I get empathy from all kinds of different people, particularly out in the wings where the seats are a bit cheaper. They’re all ages, from 10- to 80 year olds, and it’s great.
When was the last time you toured on the scale of this show?
The last big tour I did was in ’87 – the Radio KAOS tour. Then I did The Wall in Berlin in 1990. What happened then? I got divorced and moved around for a bit. I did one gig in 1992 for Don Henley, of his Walden Woods project in the Universal Amphitheatre in LA. He asked me if I’d sing a few songs. It was Don, me, John Fogerty and Neil Young. A great night. There was an enormous feeling of warmth coming off the audience, I thought “Wow, this isn’t too bad. Maybe I should do some of this again” that was in the back of my mind through the ‘90s, then, finally in ’99, I thought I’d dip my toe in the water and see what happened. And it went well. So I went back out in ’01. Now here I am touring with Dark Side… and it’s all good.
Pink Floyd were always regarded as musical pioneers. Do you still think of yourself as an innovator? What are you currently working on that you think is cutting-edge?
I find myself walking backwards to a simpler musical expression. There’s a part of me that desperately wants to be Neil Young, John Prine or Bob Dylan. When I sit alone at home now with a guitar, I’m often searching for the motherlode of that very simpley structured melody sequence. We’re always looking for “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” or “Heart of Gold”. There are those nuggets still there, in the 12 notes, available to us. Having said that, I’ve been telling people that I’m going to make a new LP for 13 or 14 years now. I’ve written a ton of songs and they’re all sitting there waiting. The motivation to finish something or go back into the studio will be political. I have a strong sense the driving force will be my political passion.
One of the new songs you’re doing in these shows is “Leaving Beirut”, which you originally wrote as a short story 25 years ago. It makes explicit you opposition to the war in Iraq.
It’s the story of me leaving Beirut when I was 19 years old. I was travelling in the Middle East with some friends and the car broke down. I had to hitchhike home. It was an extraordinary experience and a great adventure. Anyway, the first night of that journey I was taken in by a Lebanese/Arab family. They went and slept on the floor behind the curtain insisting I slept in the only bed in the place. It was deeply moving, so when Bush and Blair invaded Iraq in ’03, I was so sad, sick and incensed by that weird, obvious, extraordinary, stupid, inhuman mistake that I was moved to write some verses expressing my disapproval. I recorded the short story and fitted the verses into it. Then I put it out on the web with another song I wrote at the same time “To kill the child”. It’s about the invasion of Iraq – about which I’m still confused. We know I was nothing to do with WMD or 9/11. We know it was nothing to do with terrorism. Was it just a business move? Was it to create a US military base in that part of the Middle East? I still have no idea.
There has been a mixed reaction to the song on the tour, hasn’t there? Were you surprised by that?
Of course. There was nothing negative about the response to the song in England, because even when we invaded Iraq in 2003, 75% of the British population was against the invasion. Two million people demonstrated on the streets of London. How Blair is still in power, I’ll never know.
The first gig I did in the States was in Holmdel, New Jersey and there were a few boos when we got to the end of it. Somebody late told me that there are several US army bases close to Holmdel and maybe there were some military in the audience. A lot of people have made the mistake of thinking that song attacks the US servicemen. Nothing could be further from the truth. My heart goes out to those guys, who are out there doing their duty as best they can under very difficult circumstances. And my heart goes out to their families. The fact I think it’s a useless, senseless war is neither here nor there. I wouldn’t dream of criticising the foreign police of the Administration.
Other people in the audiences in the US have written to me. There was one fabulous couple who came to the show in the Hollywood Bowl and wrote saying “We paid 600 bucks for our tickets. My wife has been a huge fan of both of you work and of Pink Floyd. How could you ruin our evening by turning it into a political rally?” They went on, “How dare you citicise our president. You’re not even an American citizen.” Give me a break. I can’t criticise Bush because I’m not a US citizen? Does this mean you have to be German to criticise Hitler, or Iraqi to criticise Saddam Hussein or Chinese to citicise the genocidal policies of Mao Tse-Tung? The idea is ludicrous. They’ve attacked Neil Young on the same grounds. He’s a Canadian. Clearly, it’s nonsense.
How would you like to be remembered?
I’d like to be remembered as somebody who spoke his truth and stood by it through thick and thin and wasn’t to be diverted by the vagaries of fashion or popularity or anything else. I paint what I see.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in your career?
Oh, my god! I think it was the aftermath of the schism, when I left Pink Floyd in 1985, by allowing myself to be drawn into the public debate and saying unpleasant things about the other guys. If I’d been wise I’d have kept my mouth shut. It was kind of ugly and I regret that.
Have you written your masterpiece yet?
Masterpiece is a very big word. I think I’ve been involved in making some records that are pretty good. Dark Side of The Moon, The Wall and Amused to Death, I would name probably as the three works I’m most proud of.
Are you currently re-writing The Wall?
I’m engaged in rewriting it as a piece for musical theatre. Hopefully it’ll appear on Broadway in the next couple of years. I’m working with an English writer called Lee Hall. We’re having a lot of fun. My motivation for revisiting the piece was that both the original record and the movie and kind of dour and bleak. I’m not dour and bleak! Humour’s always been a very important part of my life. I laugh a lot with my family and friends. So I’m writing a bunch of laughs into The Wall.
You’ve also written an opera, Ca Ira, the first recording of which you released in 2005. What’s it been like moving from rock to classical music?
It’s a technical thing. Music is music whatever the genre. Whether I’m arranging a rock’n’roll song or writing for and arranging an orchestra, in inherent problems are the same. It’s just painting with a different palette. You’re trying to move people. Music is very, very simple. You’re just organising sounds to try to elicit an emotional response from the listener or viewer.
The opera’s about the French revolution. What drew you to the subject?
The original libretto was written by friends of mine, a French couple called Etienne and Nadine Roda Gil. Although it’s a specific history of the early years of the French Revolution, it’s also about tyranny and how we respond to it. It’s about egalitarianism…freedom, learning reason. How we can allow our knowledge of history, and the empirical data we have at our fingertips, to find out way through modern life and come out the other end with more people happier more of the time.
Is there one song you’ve written that sums up all you ever wanted to say through music?
Two songs sprang immediately to mind: “Us and Them” and “Wish You Were Here”.
What are you planning after this tour finishes?
It’s a lot of work putting this show together. I like what we’ve done. I’m still working on it and will continue to. But when we get to the end of this next leg on July 14, that’ll be it for a while. I have so many other things I’ve wanted to do. I won’t be going on the road in 2008. I know I won’t. I won’t carry on.
Next issue, reply from Tim Renwick:
ROCKING WITH ROG: Hi Allan – I thought I’d contact you after reading your editorial column in the May edition. I, too, have been frightened by a screaming Roger Waters at close quarters – I toured with his band on The Pros And Cons Of Hitchhiking tour (playing guitar and bass) and went on to augment his former band for 17 years.
I also remember playing at Skewen Rugby Club many years before – can’t remember whether it was with Junior’s Eyes or Quiver, though! I seem to recall the van breaking down almost every time we visited your homeland of Wales, a high price to pay for a chance to show off – the night spent in an uncomfortable Ford Transit, on the hard shoulder…