Pink Floyd‘s journey to prog-rock masterpiece Dark Side of the Moon was long and varied, and it’s one of the most fascinating stories in rock, with stops in blues jamming, otherworldly psychedelia and trippy folk music. It’s documented exhaustively in the recently released box set, The Early Years: 1965 – 1972, but the band’s drummer, Nick Mason, remembers their origins as being even humbler than the early recordings in the box let on.
“From ’65 to the beginning of ’67, we were a really amateur band,” the dapper, soft-spoken drummer says, reclining in a velvet couch in a tucked-away corner of a SoHo hotel. “It’s funny because if I could add up the hours of actual drum playing I did between birth and 1966, it’d be, I don’t know, 100, 150 hours. I didn’t practice. I didn’t study. I just had a drum kit and played with my friends for fun. A year later, I’d probably put in 700 hours.”
Thinking back on it makes him laugh, and he leans forward. “By then we’d done 200 gigs and been in the studio for hours,” he continues. “It was a very rapid sea change from amateur drummer to making a living. It’s a curious one.”
The box set, modeled visually after the band’s early-period van, contains 27 discs, spanning CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray, containing around seven hours of previously unreleased audio and more than seven hours of never-before-seen footage. It begins with the group’s first-ever sessions, a Stones-y jaunt from 1965, then it traverses Syd Barrett’s psychedelia, their soundtrack improvisations, festival space-outs, ballet dalliances, ambitious orchestral suites and their avant-garde Pompeii film. In the space of seven years, they lived several lifetimes.
When Mason reflects on the group’s origins, he speaks carefully and measuredly, while sipping a cappuccino, often making dry jokes that he caps with a chuckle. What’s most evident during his in-depth interview about The Early Years with Rolling Stone is the deference he has for his former bandmates now and the pride and amazement he has about the work the band put into their career on the way to “The Great Gig in the Sky.”
One of the box set’s major standouts is your first recording session from 1965. What do you remember about it?
Nearly anyone in music will always remember their first recording session in a proper studio. It was a bit nerve-racking going into the control room, and hearing my drums and the bass and the rest of it coming through monitors at whatever decibels, but it’s fantastic. I remember thinking, “That’s me.”
What struck me was how you can use the recording studio to turn that raw material into something that sounds like a record. I remember that from those sessions, but also “Arnold Layne,” same thing. We went and played it, but by the time Joe Boyd finished mixing and fixing and added that repeat echo on the hi-hat, you go, “Oh, that’s clever.” You’re blown away by it.
What stands out to you now about the band’s first gig, in February 1965?
The word “concert” may be over-egging the plate. It was a cellar somewhere in south Kensington, and I remember it quite well because we had a residency there. It was really the only paid gig we’d ever done, probably for almost nothing. We did three or four shows there, and then they had a noise injunction served on them. We were so desperate for the money; we did an unplugged thing for a couple of weeks. But I do remember it quite well because it was just the very beginning of realizing we had a small audience, but an audience. It was probably our first real gig that wasn’t someone else’s birthday party.
The box set’s packaging is stylized after the band’s first Bedford van. How long did you have that original vehicle?
Oh, about a year. It was terrible. It was really cheap, only $30. I remember it well because we spent a lot of time trying to get it to go. But it was an absolute necessity. There was no other way of moving your kit around, even though we were only playing around London. We had to have this thing.
The band sounds almost like the Rolling Stones on those ’65 sessions. But by the time you put out the first album, you sounded completely different. Why is that?
By the time we did Piper, we were covering two or three different things. Because there was the whole Syd writing thing of “Scarecrow,” “The Gnome,” “Bike” – it’s like English pastoral, whimsical music, I suppose. But at the same time, Syd was also leading on things like “Interstellar Overdrive” or “Astronomy Domine,” which were quite heavyweight, sort of heavy-metal thrash with a little bit of avant-garde thrown in. I think Syd was enormously creative because both of those aspects came from him. It wasn’t like we did anything uptempo and Syd wrote the charming songs; he covered quite a lot of ground, really.
How would Syd present a song like “Astronomy Domine” to the band?
I suspect he’d just strum it out. I don’t remember exactly but what I do remember from most of Pink Floyd is no one really ever suggested how anyone else should play their parts. We all played it as we saw fit, until Bob Ezrin came in for The Wall. It’s sort of interesting, looking back.
Another one of the interesting things in the box set is a British newsreel showing the band playing “Interstellar Overdrive,” and there’s this very proper reporter talking about the psychedelic experience. What did you make of that kind of attention at the time?
I think we felt mixed, because we were riding on a bandwagon to some extent. I certainly had never done an acid trip at that time. But we recognized it was to our advantage to be seen as the house band of the psychedelic revolution. Syd was possibly more involved with the scene, and there were elements that we bonded with.
I think there was an intellectual level to it. There was a love of poetry. There was a connection to the Beat poets from the early Fifties, the Kerouac thing that was going on because a lot of people who were involved in setting up UFO, the club, were attached to that. And early on, we were suddenly becoming the commercial arm of it. We weren’t going to poetry readings, because we were touring or in Abbey Road recording our first album, but we were in a curious part of that particular movement.
What do you make of Syd when you think back on him now?
My view is rather different now than when I talked about over the last 40 years. I remember Roger saying to me he’d talk to Ronnie Laing, who was the great psychiatrist of the period, and Roger said, “Syd’s going mad.” And apparently, Laing said to Roger, “Are you sure it’s Syd who’s going mad?”
Looking back on it, there’s no doubt that LSD exacerbated the state, but I think perhaps what was happening was Syd had realized he didn’t want to be in a rock band at all. He’d done that, decided it wasn’t really what he wanted to do and probably wanted to go back to art school, but he couldn’t find a way of getting out of it. Certainly, we couldn’t believe that anyone didn’t want to be in a rock band. So I think when he was messing around with the songs, like [Saucerful of Secrets’] “Jugband Blues,” I think he almost did it as a whim, thinking it would be another really peculiar thing, whereas actually I think the song has an extraordinary edge. I think what was going on was Syd really was trying to leave.
There are stories that at your last few concerts, he was basically playing nothing.
Like he’s not there. There’s a clip from the Dick Clark show, where someone said to me it’s so obvious he isn’t there. He’s there in the physical sense, but not.
You filmed that American Bandstand clip a few days into your first-ever U.S. tour. How did that go?
It was chaotic. We were late because we had a huge trouble getting the visas. We were at least a day late for Winterland, where we opened. We were on the bill with H.P. Lovecraft and Big Brother and the Holding Company, and because we couldn’t make that first show, Bill Graham brought in Richie Havens and then let him on. So we did shows with four bands the next two nights. Meeting Janis [Joplin] was a real treat in itself.
What was Janis like?
She was so great at playing Janis. I know it eventually transpired that she wasn’t really a happy person, but at the time, she was the Southern Comfort–swilling babe. Roger offered her a swig of a bottle of Southern Comfort he was carrying and she took a hell of a lot more than a swig [laughs].
What struck you about the States?
We had no idea what to expect. The little we knew about what was going on here was because of English radio. But apart from pirate stations, the BBC played British versions of everything. So we had heard of these [American] bands, so as far as we were concerned, we expected them to be psychedelic or avant-garde. And then you’d find that Country Joe and the Fish were a country band. And Janis was R&B more or less. And the 1910 Fruitgum Company were a boy band. We had no idea what to expect and the scale of the whole thing was monumental.
How did Syd take to America?
Rather badly. Syd was losing interest in the whole thing and we were carrying him around. It was pretty painful. The mad thing is instead of really addressing it, we said, “What we ought to do is give Syd two days off.” We flew back to Europe, gave him two days off and went off to a festival in Holland. It was not the right way of doing things.
Well, there’s the famous story that you were all in the bus and Roger asked if the band should pick him up and the consensus was to keep driving.
Yeah. We did four or five shows as a five-piece. The interesting thing is I still remember exactly how relieved we were when we didn’t pick him up. And it’s interesting because he was the main songwriter. He was the frontman. And yet we seemed to feel comfortable without him. I look back and I think, “How does that work?” But that’s how it was.
Could you see the confidence building in Roger as a songwriter?
He wrote “Doctor, Doctor” [“Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk”] on Piper, and I thought it was a really average song. And then, yes, suddenly it clicked in. Rick was writing, but he’d been responsible for a couple of failed singles; there was nothing wrong with the songs but they’d been very Norman Smith–treated with harmony and backing vocals on them. They certainly weren’t the direction we felt comfortable going in. And so I think Roger seized the bit and got on with it. He knocked out “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” which, for me, 50-odd years later, is still one of my favorite Pink Floyd songs. It’s still a great song to play.
In the five years after you parted ways with Syd, you began playing in many different styles before arriving at Dark Side of the Moon and your Seventies sound. Why do you think that was?
There was always an insatiable appetite for new material. Through all of ’69, what we were trying to do was build a repertoire that didn’t include Syd’s stuff, so we weren’t reliant on it. What’s interesting is how much work we managed to get through in that period, because both Barbet Schroeder film soundtracks [More and Obscured by Clouds] were albums in their own right. And one of them [Obscured] was done more or less at the same time as Dark Side. So you look back at it and think, “Not only did we put out all this work, but we were also touring.” I think we had a real appetite for getting on with things.
The box set chronicles many of your big ideas: your presentations of The Man and The Journey, the ballet collaboration, the “Atom Heart Mother” suite. Why were you attracted to such grand, sweeping ideas then?
I think we just wanted to have a go at different things. I think the orchestral “Atom Heart Mother” stuff was ambitious in a way, but it was Ron Geesin who handled most of that. And the ballet, it didn’t feel ambitious. It felt like an interesting thing to do.
There was no new material for the ballet, but it had to be played in a particular way. The tempo needed to be kept under control, which is not something we’re always good at. When you’ve got dancers, the song needs to end where it has to end. It’s no good dribbling on for 16 bars too long, leaving someone on their toes.
After Syd’s departure, when do you feel the band found its footing?
Funnily enough, quite quickly. After Saucerful had come out, we dribbled on a little bit with singles, but the first tour without Syd, when we played the Scene in New York, I think we realized then and feel we had found our own audience for this particular band.
It’s interesting going through the box set and listening to the many ways you workshopped the Meddle track “Echoes.” There’s “Embryo,” which has some of Rick Wright’s keys later used in “Echoes,” and then the instrumental “Nothing Part 14.” How did you work it out?
Playing live and improvising was one of the great ways of getting where you wanted to go. I look back on the Grateful Dead and think they absolutely got it right when they stopped worrying about bootlegging and just said, “Everyone can bootleg.” It took the value out of any one person’s bootleg. But we became so paranoid, as did everyone about bootlegging, that we wouldn’t play anything live we hadn’t released. It’s a real shame because it’s such a great way of honing it. You develop it on the road.
I really like “Echoes.” That was the continuation of developing long pieces of music. Looking back, it’s a little overlong. We repeat ourselves in it because we knew that’s how classical music worked. Overtures reprise themes.
What classical music did you all like?
Berlioz was a big favorite for a while. But there was so much music around at the time. We listened to a little bit of classical music, but the main diet was all the things that were going on, particularly when we were touring and had access to American music.
“Echoes” was the main piece in your Live at Pompeii film, which was remastered in 5.1 sound in the box set. What do you think about when you look back on that experience?
It felt like a live show because of the venue itself, and the wind and the heat and the rest of it, so it was a bit gritty. It made us all perform. The fact that there was no audience worked because it allowed us to shoot it properly, and we could shoot in daylight. I think there’s a real problem with rock & roll shows where they nearly all look the same once you’ve got some stage light going.
Another standout from that film is Meddle’s “One of These Days.” How did you come to voice the song’s one lyric: “One of these days I’m going to cut you into little pieces”?
We’d decided that it would be the intro into the drum intro of the next section. I suspect Roger had come up with it. We possibly tried a few voices and thought we wanted something a bit more weird, so I did this thing of speaking very high and fast and then we slowed it down, and it worked. That was exactly the sort of thing we’d spend some time in the studio doing, because we had unlimited studio time.
What other experiments do you look back on fondly?
We took mallets to a cymbal and dipped the cymbal into water. David messed around with guitar sounds; one time he got one by plugging a wah-wah pedal back to front. We spent quite a bit of time messing around with Leslie speakers and messing around with mic placements. And we spent lots of time fiddling with the echo chamber. Abbey Road has its own actual echo chamber. It’s not plate or a reverb; it’s a real tiled room.
Speaking of guitar, there’s great footage of you guys with Frank Zappa doing “Interstellar Overdrive” in Belgium in 1969. How did that come about?
I’m really pleased we finally got our hands on that. It had been floating around for years. The guy who’d got it had been treated pretty badly by everyone because no one would give him permission to use it. The interesting thing is that none of can remember why we were at Amougies [in Belgium for a festival]? Why was he at Amougies? The Mothers weren’t playing, but I think he was somehow involved as the curator. Roger knew him probably better than any of the rest of us, but we’d hung out with him on our first and second tours. No one can remember who said, “Do you want to jam?”
The interesting thing with Frank was that he’s one of the very few rock & roll intellectuals. I would put Frank Zappa, Roger and Pete Townshend together – people who are a bit more thoughtful. Frank obviously had an extraordinary ability as a musician and composer. He could knock out Joe’s Garage or produce the G.T.O.’s. He had a very broad vision of rock music.
Since you say that Zappa clip was hard to get, what are you excited about in the box set?
A few things have fascinated me because they’re a bit cringe-worthy, like the Dick Clark show, pictures of us miming in Belgium promoting a single. There’s a whole series of improvised pieces that were done with John Latham [in 1967]. I have no memory at all of when we did them or how we did them or who John Latham was. I just haven’t got a clue.
Another random thing is you did music for the moon landing when it was broadcast on the BBC.
That, sadly, is another one I can’t remember. I don’t think we played to the actual landing. I don’t think we had a screen set up. I think some bright spark at the BBC thought, “I know, let’s get the band in to improvise something as an accompaniment to the moon landing.” I was saying earlier today, it wasn’t the case of being able to say, “That was lovely, Neil, darling. Just one more step.”
The last Pink Floyd tour was more than 20 years ago. Do you miss it?
A bit. I always liked playing. Maybe next year I would look to do a bit more. I absolutely love us playing things properly. It’s not that I have a desperate need to get out in front of any old audience playing any old thing. But I also think it’s almost impossible because if we’re going to do anything, one would want to do it properly. It’s great maybe to do one thing for Live 8, but running a full-on Pink Floyd production, everyone would need to have a real enthusiasm for it. I cannot imagine dragging Roger and David around doing it unless they underwent some extraordinary change.
I imagine it’s hard being friends with both of them.
It’s not that it’s hard, really; it’s just sometimes it’s a shame. There’s a friendship element to the whole thing, and it’s great when Roger and I had a rapprochement after not speaking for about seven years. It means a lot to me actually, that particular friendship. I met Roger long before the band, so I’ve known him for well over 50 years and it’s a shame in a way. It’s not even that I need to get together and go back on the road. It’s just unnecessary sometimes to think that they can still irritate each other.
Sure. Moreover, David has been pretty adamant that the band is done and over.
Yeah, I understand. I remember talking to Peter Gabriel 10, 15 years ago. I asked him whether he was likely going to do something with Genesis, and he said, “The trouble is, I’ve spent 25 years trying to shed the ‘Genesis’ thing and be Peter Gabriel. It takes only one event before everyone goes, ‘That was brilliant. Why don’t you just all get back together?'” I think David is very happy doing the very restricted touring he’s done.
The funny thing is he always starts on one level and then ends up adding more lights or more film or whatever. He worked really hard the years we did without Roger, the really big tours. And he carried that on his shoulders. It was a hell of a lot easier for me than him. He was in front of it all. But I really respect what he did. I think he really just doesn’t want to go back there. I respect that.
Did you see his recent tour?
No, I was away actually. I would have loved to. It’s very nice because Roger’s out and doing great, and David’s out doing beautifully. So as long as they’re still ahead of the Australian Pink Floyd, that’s good. The worrying thing is when someone went, “Oh, yeah, I saw the Australian Pink Floyd – or the Brit Floyd – they’re so much better than you guys.” [Laughs]
What is your musical life like now?
I don’t play a lot, but a bit. I’ve worked on two albums this year with other people. I enjoy a little bit of production. I worked a little bit with really young artists, through the Roundhouse, which is a local operation with a great venue. The guy who owns it puts it into a charitable foundation. Underneath it is little studios and rehearsal rooms and any local kids can come in and borrow instruments and get some tutoring.
Actually, most of my time between now and the next six months will be the V&A [exhibition], because there’s so much to do. I’m going home tonight and have a meeting tomorrow morning.
How is the Victoria and Albert exhibition coming together?
Great. They’re such good people. Not only have they done Bowie and Alexander McQueen, they’ve been putting on exhibitions for a hundred years. And we’re working with Stufish Entertainment, which is Mark Fisher’s production office, who did most of our stage stuff. And we’ve got Patrick Woodroffe, the lighting designer, involved. Then we’ve got Po from Hipgnosis. When they’re working together, it’s great. When they’re not, it’s just like being in the band again [laughs].
What are you excited to display in the V&A?
The most exciting things are the hands-on things. If you’ve been to the Rolling Stones’ exhibition, it seems like what everyone comes back with is the mixing desk where you can fiddle about and actually mix songs. I think if we can do some more of that to show how things work, that’s the best of it.
The other thing about the Stones exhibit is how they recreated their dingy 1962 apartment.
Well [claps], I lived in one of those. It was very much like that [laughs]. We might borrow it from them.
Do you have any more archival musical releases planned, such an expanded version of Animals?
No, we’ve talked about it. I think what we’ll do is get the V&A done and have a look at what’s there.
I ask because you’ve made them for some of the other albums, and this box set does a great job of setting everything up, the way the band would change musically into the Seventies and on through the Nineties.
The funny thing is it changes with the same personnel. It’s easy to understand why Fleetwood Mac might start as a full-on blues band and then change enormously when Lindsey and the girls join. But in our case, it was more like, “Let’s try this. Let’s do something else.”
Pink Floyd will continue their ongoing vinyl reissue campaign with ‘Atom Heart Mother’ and ‘Meddle’ among others. Watch here.