Who would have guessed that Pink Floyd fans would have John Coltrane to thank for the band opening its storied vaults to the masses?
"We were always of the mind that whatever we put out in the day, on the original albums - well, that was it," Pink Floyd's drummer Nick Mason told me recently when we sat down together. "But I was in France and picked up that Coltrane box set that has every take [Heavyweight Champion]. Every take! Even the false starts and chatter between songs was captured. I loved it. And I realized, as a fan, I could see what Floyd fans had been asking for all these years - to hear the things we thought, at the time, weren't that good or quite right for whatever reason, what got us to the final result - well, they would probably enjoy that as much as I enjoyed listening to Coltrane going through the same process. I'm not one for listening to the original albums much; I just know them so well. I'm more into the pre- and post-versions." Mason also confided a thawing of the band's attitude towards releasing studio outtakes. "There was a time when we all thought that what we released was the best stuff and absolutely what we wanted to have out there," said Mason. "But things have changed and we can all see now that there are some truly interesting things we have that I think we'd all like to have out there."
And so, in late 2011, fans of Pink Floyd got their first glimpses into those vaults. A new, single-
disc "Best Of," plus individual remastered versions of Pink Floyd's 14 studio albums led the way. A complete studio album ("Discovery") box set collects the proper albums. But the expanded ("Experience") and deluxe ("Immersion") versions of (for now) The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall are where the vault's treasures appear.
These Experience and Immersion editions may be the real centerpiece of EMI/Capital's campaign, but for anyone just discovering Pink Floyd (is that possible?) the best of - A Foot In The Door - should convince them that this is a band worth checking out. If you're buying individual discs, the remasters of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Meddle, Animals and The Final Cut are revelatory. But for die-hards those "Immersion" sets are what every Floyd fan has desired for years. It's not just another thrown-together remastered series, rather the packaging is lovely and the sound is superlative. The remastering by James Guthrie and Joel Plante sounds as close to what the band must have heard during final playback as we've ever gotten. ("They did them all at David [Gilmour]'s studio [The Astoria, Tape Op #46]," Mason told me.)
The Immersion packages are nothing short of remarkable. The Blu-ray discs feature both modern surround and 1970's quad mixes, as well as hi-def stereo mixes and period films from the band's archives. I was transported as I listened in succession. The sound is better than ever. Full, rich and clear. In the meantime I poured over the packaging. Backstage passes, books of photographs and all sorts of Floyd collectables are included. They're not just throwaways; they somehow add to the listening experience.
"We worked very hard on these," Pink Floyd's long-time, in-house engineer Andy Jackson told me via phone from his London home recently. "There will be so many things even the most ardent fan has never heard. I'm sure you've heard the 1974 Wembley show, right? (Note: The BBC broadcast of the show contained a full performance of Dark Side..., as well as early versions of several Wish You Were Here and Animals tracks. It has been widely bootlegged.) We used a different source and it's never sounded this good before. We spent ages on it. I honestly don't believe that what I do is very important. When you have great songs and great arrangements to work with, about all you have to do is turn up the faders." Jackson's humility is, frankly, astonishing. After getting a taste of what was to come at a listening party at Electric Lady studios and being floored by the sonic beauty of not just the band's released material but also the outtakes, I couldn't wait to hear the rest of what Pink Floyd and EMI had in store.
"We felt as though this might be the last moment to do this on a grand scale." Mason said of the "Why Pink Floyd?" reissue campaign, alluding to the fact that the days of the CD are numbered. But while that may be the case, packages of this sort will hopefully enjoy a long shelf-life and should set the bar for future reissue projects, especially those by major bands of the heyday of rock 'n' roll.
In both the "Discovery" set and the "Immersion" packages, the straight remasters of the classic tracks from the albums we all have in our collections (done by another long-time Pink Floyd hand, James Guthrie) are improvements over the best (gold disc, SACD) versions currently available. They're full and rich, owing to the fact that many of us have only just found a way to get the most out of the CD format. But it was numerous bonus tracks included in the "Immersion" sets that had my attention from start to finish.
As a collector of Floyd's much-bootlegged live shows and outtakes, I was familiar with the majority of the tracks. But there are many that even the most fervent Pink Floyd fans will not have heard, or even knew existed. "I'm especially excited about the early version of "Wish You Were Here" that features Stéphane Grappelli," Mason told me. "Not only did we not know it existed but, until I heard it recently, I didn't even remember recording it. It's so amazing, I can't figure out why we didn't release it. I'm not sure if it was a mix we just did right then and there, or if the multitrack has been found, but it sounds stunning and it's just really exciting to listen to." Part of what makes it amazing is Jackson's restoration work. The Grappelli track sounds like you're in the room with Floyd. And the Wembley show from 1974 sounds astonishing.
"We were certainly students of learning to get the right sounds during our early days at Abbey Road," Mason said. "The sounds they put down were excellent," Jackson agreed. "And something that gets lost a bit, and that I hope things like the Wembley concert will show that to people," he continued, "is that Pink Floyd were a great [live] band."
The Immersion version of The Dark Side of the Moon includes three CDs, two DVDs and a Blu- ray disc. These include the infamous 1974 Wembley show, the quadraphonic and 5.1 mixes and an early working-mix of the album from 1972. The Wish You Were Here set includes two CDs, two DVDs and a Blu-ray, with live versions of in-progress mixes of the albums' classic songs, as well as an outtake from the "Household Objects" project with quad and 5.1 mixes. The Immersion version of The Wall (due early next year) will include six CDs, with audio from the legendary Earls Court shows and the complete demos for the album. It will also feature a DVD of some documentaries and other rarities, but it will not contain the complete Earls Court concert film. "Roger [Waters] has filmed his current tour (of The Wall), and the visuals are just so good, so there's no use competing with that," said Mason. "I know it's out there (in poor quality) and people want it. But that's just not included."
But apparently there are plenty more goodies for future releases: "I'm really interested in the video aspect. I have about 300 odds and ends, but the problem is that most of them don't have audio," Mason told me. "[The recent Led Zeppelin DVD set] really opened my eyes to what you can do, but it takes time." Mason is also advocating that the next Immersion release be A Saucerful of Secrets, Pink Floyd's first post-Syd Barrett release, though he didn't elaborate on what (beyond BBC appearances and alternate mixes) was in Capitol/EMI's vaults.
Pink Floyd fans have a lot to celebrate. The band is finally opening their vaults, and the new reissue series is about as good as it gets. "If things go wrong, you blame the record company," Mason said. "When things go right, it's of course your idea. But this was EMI's idea. Not the band of course - we weren't their idea. Just in case Roger's listening..." Mason joked. "A lot of people have worked very hard. None of them were myself." Mason was being modest. But EMI has ensured that Pink Floyd's legacy - and the work the band (and their fabulous studio collaborators like Norman Smith, Alan Parsons [Tape Op #42], John Leckie [#42], Brian Humphries, James Guthrie and Bob Ezrin [#76]) did all those years ago - will live on properly for a very long time. (pinkfloyd.com) -Jeff Slate (www.jeffslate.net)