“I never want to say we’re done completely, but we may be,” says Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. “With the length of time since we’ve done something together, it just doesn’t feel like something I’ve missed very much. I don’t want to be touring anymore. I’m fifty-five; it’s a young man’s game.”
Gilmour’s revelation comes with the release of Echoes: The Best of Pink Floyd, a lavish and thoughtfully assembled double-CD retrospective tracing the band’s thirty-six-year career – from its apprenticeship in the mid-Sixties London club scene and its psychedelic explorations to its reincarnation as the high priests of Seventies concept albums and spare-no-expense arena-rock extravaganzas. After six years without a new album, Gilmour says the tank is empty. “We don’t have any project in mind,” he admits.
Few bands can match Pink Floyd’s success – and none would want to duplicate its unhappy and internecine history. Founded in 1965, the group at first relied heavily on guitarist Syd Barrett, who handled vocals and wrote their early offbeat hits. Barrett was also one of the psychedelic era’s most tragic acid casualties, and he was replaced in 1968 by Gilmour, with bassist Roger Waters emerging as the band’s primary lyricist and the force behind the band’s two biggest albums, The Dark Side of the Moon (1973) and The Wall (1979). The former spent close to twenty-five consecutive years on the Billboard album charts and sold approximately 29 million copies worldwide.
After bouncing keyboardist Richard Wright from the band, Waters himself quit in 1985 and then entered into a legal brawl with Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason over their right to re-team with Wright and tour and record as Pink Floyd. Although Waters lost the fight, he and his former band mates still aren’t on speaking terms sixteen years later – a situation that forced Pink Floyd producer and engineer James Guthrie to act as a go-between while putting together Echoes.
“All of this was done through James,” says Gilmour. “He was our communicator, passing my views to Roger and Roger’s views to me. That’s worked out fairly well, really.”
Instead of presenting songs in chronological order, Echoes moves back and forth between material from all phases of the group’s career, underscoring the sometimes unseen continuity between its different musical periods. Although the set gives Barrett the first and last word, beginning with his composition “Astronomy Domine” and ending with “Bike,” both from the group’s debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, each track fades into the next, regardless of when it was recorded. This was a strategy born of necessity, according to Gilmour.
“Some things just don’t have endings,” he says with a laugh. “‘Us and Them’ [from Dark Side], for example, was always cross-faded. We went back and listened to all the little snippets of mixed ends, and there just isn’t one. You have to just carry on into something, and it makes life a little difficult.”
Gilmour and Guthrie assembled numerous versions of Echoes until they found the sound that was right. “He’s in Lake Tahoe and I’m in London, so it’s an awkward procedure,” says Gilmour. “We kept chopping and changing until it all started sounding right. The difference in sound between the stuff with Syd on it – the really early stuff – and the following stuff, that was the hardest thing to integrate. Other than that, I think it all sounds like it’s the same slightly changing group of people working together.”
Conspicuously absent is anything from either the early double album Ummagumma (1969) or the orchestral Atom Heart Mother (1970), which, despite having reached Number One on the British album charts, was once termed “absolute crap” by Gilmour – a stance he has since softened, sort of. “I think Atom Heart Mother was a good thing to have attempted, but I don’t really think the attempt comes off that well,” he says now. “People accuse us of being pretentious, but if you don’t push the boundaries, if you don’t verge on the borders of being pretentious, I don’t think you advance an awful lot. You’ve got to have courage and not care what people think about you at that moment.”
Gilmour’s current plans don’t include Pink Floyd – he recently performed with Paul McCartney and has upcoming shows with a small gospel choir planned for Paris and London – and he gets mixed feelings about Pink Floyd’s influence in others.
“When people say they hear Pink Floyd in a group like Radiohead, I don’t really see it,” he says. “It must be a burden for those poor boys being referred to as the next Pink Floyd – they deserve to be their own Radiohead. I think we’ve always stood out in our own category. I wasn’t a big fan of most of what you’d call progressive rock. I’m like Groucho Marx: I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me for a member. We’ve always plowed our own lonely furrow. Well, not so lonely, really,” he admits with a laugh. “It’s been well worthwhile.”