Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets Revisits Pink Floyd's Psychedelic Roots
by John Diliberto 4/20/2019
There are two kinds of Pink Floyd fans. There are those who jumped into the bands catalog with Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, and there are those that were there pretty much from the beginning when they released their first album in 1967, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. And the twain rarely meet. For late comers to the band, the early era sounds like a completely different band, full of punkish attitude, sonically experimental and besotted with whimsy, all elements that pretty much departed the band with DSOTM although it was a slow process sprawled out across five years, seven albums, multiple-tours, and one acid casualty, founder Syd Barrett, who wrote most of the songs on their debut album and drafted the early template.
Music from their first five albums haven’t been part of the Floyd live oeuvre since the Dark Side of the Moon tours in 1972 and 1973, so with a couple of exceptions, audiences have never heard this music performed live by the band. In fact, many songs from their early days have never been performed live at all.
Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets has remedied all that. The Pink Floyd drummer, and only member who has been on every Floyd album, has put together a group to perform Pink Floyd’s early music, stopping at the launch pad of DSOTM. There’s no “Money” “Wish You Were Here” or “Comfortably Numb” in these shows. It’s a flashback to the psychedelic era of the band that pretty much defined psychedelic.
At the recently renovated and stately, The Met in Philadelphia, Mason assayed some 20 Pink Floyd tracks from the classics like “See Emily Play” and “Arnold Layne” to justified obscurities like “Vegetable Man.” The Saucerful of Secrets band is a collection of journeymen musicians that included Gary Kemp from Spandau Ballet on co-lead guitar and co-lead vocals. Sharing lead duties on guitar was Lee Harris from The Blockheads, and reputedly, the instigator for the idea of Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets. Guy Pratt handled bass and shared lead vocals. He’s a veteran session musician who has played in the David Gilmour-led editions of Pink Floyd as well as playing with David Bowie, The Orb, Bryan Ferry and many others since the mid-1980s. Dom Bekem took the Rick Wright role on keyboards. He’s also played with The Orb and Bowie. I thought his place in the sound mix underplayed the most underrated member of Pink Floyd. Of course, Nick Mason played drums and gong.
The concert actually started before the audience was even aware of it. Bird sounds and babbling brooks competed with audience babble, leading into an avant-garde collage that included what sounded like NASA voice recordings and jet sounds and a girl telling a story. It wasn’t until the house lights went down that the audience realized the show had begun.
The band opened with the palette cleansing freakout, “Interstellar Overdrive.” This largely improvised track from Floyd’s debut, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, showed this wasn’t going to be a note-for-note, Australian Pink Floyd-style presentation. After the grinding metal rhythm hook, the band went free-style, playing mutilated guitar sounds and counter rhythms that echoed, but didn’t repeat the original. That segued neatly into “Astronomy Domine” the space opera opening track of Piper.
From there the band showed the diversity and breadth of Floyd’s early music. There were ballads like “Fearless” from Meddle and Rick Wright’s gorgeous “Remember A Day,” which they took at a more rocking pace with some beautiful glissando guitar by Lee Harris. They brought back the psychedelic pop of “Lucifer Sam” and “See Emily Play”. “Emily” is a song that Floyd never played live, even though it was their biggest hit up until Dark Side of the Moon. For founding member Syd Barrett, who wrote it, playing it live would’ve been too obvious a commercial concession. Once he left the group in 1968, after their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, they didn’t play his songs anymore. But at The Met, they gave it a rawer and less pastoral take although it still had the double speed piano break on tape. https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B004ZN9R6G/echoes0a0-20
Among the many highlights were an abbreviated rendition of Floyd’s 1970 side-long suite, Atom Heart Mother. They stripped it down to all the good and melodic parts from this 1970 opus. There were a couple of tracks from the oft overlooked Obscured by Clouds, a movie soundtrack album from 1972 that presaged the sound of Dark Side of the Moon the next year.
They also played two of Pink Floyd’s most rocking and little known songs. They dug into the heavy-metal drive of “The Nile Song” originally from their soundtrack to More although Guy Pratt didn’t quite conjure the rage that David Gilmour brought to the original vocal. They ended their main set with the driving 5th single by the band, “Point Me at the Sky.” Never released on a regular album, it alternates between quiet English reflection and roaring, metal angst.
There wasn’t any attempt to update the sound of these songs. The guitarists even used Fender Telecasters for the earlier tracks, which was Syd Barrett’s main instrument at the time. But there were a few new touches like Gary Kemps soaring EBow solo on “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” The EBow hadn’t been invented when these songs were made.
The main set climaxed with one of the latest Floyd tracks of the show, “One of These Days”, originally from Meddle. The two guitarists approached the insistent ostinato bass groove of the song like raging assassins.
Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets wasn’t an attempt to recreate the psychedelic maelstrom of the psychedelic 60s. Yes, there were signifiers like the projected video of a light show, but it wasn’t the immersive experience that the band purveyed in the sixties, bathed in the liquid lights. They also didn’t modernize the presentation with the state of the art lights you would’ve seen on Pink Floyd’s last tour. It wasn’t an immersive live experience in that regard, exhibiting neither the ritual mood of early Floyd shows nor the spectacle of their later performances.
Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets was about the music, and these musicians served it well from the avant-garde tonalities of the song, “A Saucerful of Secrets,” perhaps Floyd’s most avant-garde track, to the whimsy of Barrett’s “Bike”.
Whether this audience contained original psychedelic pioneers or post-Darkside acolytes, the love for Nick Mason and Pink Floyd was palpable as the drummer got a standing ovation before they’d played a note. And they wound up earning that ovation.