Nick Mason's recent autobiography, Inside Out, recalls his unique experiences as the drummer for Pink Floyd during for over three decades — he is the only member to have remained with Pink Floyd throughout the complete duration of the group's career. The book contains a startling degree of detail. Where Mason's candescent memory falls short, he draws upon his former band mates and colleagues to fill in the blanks. Mason's book sheds some light on many of Pink Floyd's early recordings where little has been previously documented. The band's experiences in the late sixties at Abbey Road Studios were mostly overshadowed by The Beatles, who through their mutual label EMI, afforded Pink Floyd the financial and artistic freedom they needed to experiment and ultimately realize their potential in the studio.
Following the group's initial success with singles like "See Emily Play" and "Arnold Layne," following their Norman Smith-produced albums Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Saucerful of Secrets, Pink Floyd effectively began self-producing their own records until The Wall, over a decade later. The group managed its own destiny in the studio, and needless to say, vastly expanded its creative frontiers. It is clear that the group's collective imagination and experimentation was the driving force behind their success, rather than any special kind of recording technique. However, their unique method of composition and artistic expression provided unprecedented challenges for engineers to capture these recordings even at Abbey Road, one of the most advanced studios of its time. Mason also made his own forays into production, working with artists like Robert Wyatt, The Damned and Gong.
Despite Mason's immaculate rock pedigree and enormous success, he remains friendly and approachable. I spoke to him just as he began promoting Inside Out to Eastern European countries, a reminder that his many years of music with Pink Floyd has resonated and endured with fans on a truly global scale.
When you started writing Inside Out, did you realize how big of a job you were getting yourself into? How complex did the project turn out to be for you?
It was much bigger than I anticipated. If I had perhaps thought long and hard about it, I probably wouldn't have started it anyway. So, it's a good thing not to think too hard about what might be ahead. I certainly changed horses in midstream a bit from when I started, which was going to be the ultimate, official biography of the band with every detail in it, and perhaps long sections from every recording session and gig we'd ever done. As time went on, it just became more and more obvious that it was more interesting to simply do my version of events and let it sort of spin on a particular speed, than try to cover every different version of everyone else's version of what happened when.
Do you have any early memories of recording at Sound Techniques in 1967, before you went to Abbey Road? I'm thinking of the singles "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play." The drums and bass were so tight and there was such a great bottom end.
I think we recorded on 4-track. The drums and bass were laid down on two of the tracks, guitar on the third and then all bumped down to the remaining track to free up three tracks for overdubbing vocals and Farfisa keyboard. The Sound Techniques sessions were much more to do with John Wood and Joe Boyd producing and coming up with the sounds rather than us. During the Sound Techniques sessions, we didn't have the time that we later found at Abbey Road. We were actually in there to get the single made.
In your book, you cover a lot of the creative experimentation that went on in the late sixties. Take "Saucerful of Secrets," for example. Can you talk about how this piece evolved structurally and compositionally?
Well, as far as I remember, we didn't actually try to notate what we were going to do, but we did try and draw up some sort of chart of what was going to happen. So, there was some sort of graphic representation. I think it was based loosely on having a sort of classical piece in terms of having three different movements. Then the movements were worked on as individual pieces. The whole thing was assembled further down the line. I can't actually remember how we worked out the middle section, which is basically a drum pattern double tracked and then looped — why we chose that particular pattern or how we ended up with it. I think the three ideas were that there was this grand finale, the Hammond organ section. Once we played it live on the Albert Hall organ and it sounded fantastic.
There are a lot of interesting dynamics in that song, especially when it comes to the drums. You start with soft accent cymbals, then comes the hard crashing, including Roger [Waters] with the gong, then the repetitive pattern and then the mellow finale.
That was the thing that perhaps made it different and where we found a niche for ourselves, doing pieces that weren't actually full volume from beginning to end. That was the beginning of finding new sounds or new tones — particularly that business of taking the microphone to the very edge of the cymbal on that first section. It was very much something that we discovered in the process.
I know the Atom Heart Mother sessions were challenging for you because you had to play the entire track straight through with Roger without stopping because you couldn't splice?
Well, yes. EMI had a sort of house rule that because these 8-tracks were new and no one had worked with them, nobody could splice the tape. Frankly, everyone was scared of trying to splice it! Looking at it now, after the event, it was really daft. It would have made life a hell of a lot easier for everyone if we could have spliced it. It was a directive from Abbey Road that splicing 2" tape was not...