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Tom Maxwell | Longreads | September 2020 | 13 minutes (3,433 words)
Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon is one of the best-selling records of all time. Released in March 1973, the album didn’t leave the Billboard 200 chart for over 14 years. By 2006, EMI/Harvest claimed the album sold in excess of 40 million copies “and still,” according to a Billboard article from that year, “routinely moves 8,000-9,000 copies on a slow week.”
Listening to a renowned album as cohesive as The Dark Side of the Moon, you would never guess that the follow-up to that historic release was going to be made using everyday items. Household Objects, recorded during several desultory sessions over a two-year time frame, was constructed with rubber bands, wine glasses, spray cans, newspapers, brooms, and other such utilitarian gear. It was shelved.
When people talk about Household Objects — including the members of Pink Floyd themselves — it’s usually described as a wasteful and pointless distraction, a primary example of mid-70s rock star indulgence. This is not the case. Household Objects may not have turned into an album, but it was entirely consistent with the band’s previous use of found sound on The Dark Side of the Moon. What initially appears as a stylistic deviation from its powerhouse predecessor — or worse, full-blown self-sabotage — is, in fact, a return to form. Moreover, the mournful tone of one of its experimental tracks became the emotional center of Wish You Were Here, the highly successful follow-up to Dark Side. Most interesting of all, the work on Household Objects can be seen as the musicians’ affirmative attempt at reconnection to the “non-musical” world, to their past, and ultimately to each other.
It all began with Syd Barrett. Barrett, born in Cambridge, England in 1946, joined what would become The Pink Floyd in 1965, along with bassist Roger Waters, keyboardist Rick Wright, and drummer Nick Mason. The handsome young Barrett sang, played guitar, and was the principal composer. “You know, he was outgoing, charming, wonderful, friendly,” Wright remembered in a 2011 documentary. “You name it. I mean, a wonderful man.” The band quickly got signed, and released their seminal British psychedelic rock debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, in 1967. Barrett wrote most of the songs on the album.
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Soon, Barrett’s behavior began to change. He withdrew, physically and emotionally. Despite writing hit singles and fronting an up-and-coming pop band, Barrett lost interest in fame. He began to sabotage television appearances. “The first time [Pink Floyd appeared on Top of the Pops] Syd dressed up like a pop star,” the band’s then-manager, Peter Jenner, remembered in 1974. “The second time he came on in his straightforward, fairly scruffy clothes, looking rather unshaven. The third time he came to the studio in his pop star clothes and then changed into complete rags for the actual TV spot.”
“You could argue that Syd was burned by the music business, but actually he was more burned by us,” Nick Mason pointed out. “Syd had sort of gone off the idea of doing Top of the Pops and being commercial. I think it wasn’t the record company putting the pressure on; I think it was us putting the pressure on, because that’s the way we wanted to go.”
To make things worse, prolific use of LSD and probable schizophrenia soon took its toll. Barrett became increasingly unreliable, not turning up for gigs, playing one chord for an entire show, detuning his guitar mid-performance, or simply fixing friends and interviewers alike with a blank stare.
“My memory is that we were recording a Radio 1 show at the BBC and Syd didn’t turn up,” Wright remembered. ”I think it was a Friday, and no one could find him. So, we basically waited and waited, and we had to cancel the recording — or tried to do something without him, I’m not sure — and the managers went off to try and find him. And when they found him, on a Sunday or Monday, they told us, ‘Something’s happened to Syd.’ And something had happened. Total difference.”
Barrett was kept on as a non-performing composer, à la Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. “We staggered on, thinking to ourselves that we couldn’t carry on without Syd, so we put up with what can only be described as an unreliable maniac,” Nick Mason told Zigzag in 1973. “We didn’t choose to use those words, but I think he was.”
“We were unable to help Syd and probably — I won’t say deliberately — had our own interests at heart,” Mason remembered. “And so consequently we tried to hold on to him far longer than we should have.”
“It’s awfully considerate for you to think of me here,” Barrett sang on “Jugband Blues,” his only composition to appear on the second Pink Floyd album A Saucerful of Secrets, “and I’m most obliged to you for making it clear that I’m not here.”
And I never knew the moon could be so big
And I never knew the moon could be so blue
And I’m grateful you threw away my old shoes
And brought me here instead dressed in red
And I’m wondering who could be writing this song
All of Barrett’s Pink Floyd material was written in a six-month period.
Soon, the reformulated Pink Floyd began using found sound in their music. “Work,” a piece performed live beginning in 1969, involved “sawing wood and boiling kettles on stage.” 1970s Atom Heart Mother ended with a lengthy three-part instrumental called “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” which interweaves music with a recording of roadie Alan Styles talking about and making his morning meal. Organs and guitars accompany the sound of frying eggs and a dripping tap. “Fearless,” from 1971’s Meddle, ends by crossfading to an eerie, treated field recording of soccer fans singing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Most famous is the tape loop introduction of Dark Side’s “Money,” composed from the different sounds of cash registers.
The BBC called these types of recordings “actuality” sounds. This kind of documentarian approach didn’t exist in early radio. In 1932, a Radio Times critic wrote: “Real life is news, and the more people feel it is real, the better it is as news.”
That is why the arts have gone realistic. Tragedies are no longer written only about rich people, and the film cameras have come out of the studios and begun haunting the factories, the stokeholes and the docks. Yet there is the microphone tending more and more to stay at home in its snug unreal studio, or at least only going out to those people it knows. New techniques are needed that do not rely on commentators. Not to come between the real stuff and the listeners, but to help reality out.
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The first time a BBC radio program employed actuality sound was in the summer of 1934, on a program called ‘Opping ‘Oliday.
Fourteen years later, French composer Pierre Schaeffer helped develop musique concrète, a way of assembling montages of modified natural sound. Schaeffer and Pierre Henry’s Symphonie pour un homme seul premiered on March 18, 1950. Later described by Schaeffer as “an opera for blind people, a performance without argument, a poem made of noises, bursts of text, spoken or musical,” its 22 movements were performed on turntables.
“The lone man should find his symphony within himself,” Schaeffer wrote in his diary during the “gestation” period of the Symphonie, “not only in conceiving the music in abstract, but in being his own instrument. A lone man possesses considerably more than the twelve notes of the pitched voice. He cries, he whistles, he walks, he thumps his fist, he laughs, he groans. His heart beats, his breathing accelerates, he utters words, launches calls and other calls reply to him. Nothing echoes more a solitary cry than the clamour of crowds.”
By the time Pink Floyd were recording Meddle in 1971, they’d struck upon a new idea: making music from non-musical items. “We probably spent a week or so doing the Household Objects,” engineer John Leckie told Tape Op. “Popping bottles, thumping things, aerosol cans for high hats, and tearing bits of paper to create rhythms.”
“We spent a long time starting [Meddle],” Mason remembered. “We’d worked through the Sounds Of Household Objects project, which we never finished.” It was an idea the band would continue to revisit — at least after The Dark Side of the Moon and its palette of musique concrète and actuality sounds.
Ironically, it was success that almost destroyed the group. “In this post Dark Side of the Moon period, we were all having to assess what we were in this business for — why we were doing it, whether we were artists or business people,” Gilmour once said. “Having achieved the sort of success and money out of it all that could fulfill anyone’s wildest teenage dreams, why we would want to still continue to do it.”
“I think we were at a watershed then and we could have easily split up then and we didn’t, because we were frightened of the great ‘out there’ beyond the umbrella of this extraordinarily powerful and valuable trade name Pink Floyd,” Waters observed.
The band returned to the studio in fall, 1973. “Preliminary discussion threw up the idea of a record created entirely out of sounds that had not been produced by musical instruments,” Mason wrote in Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd.
This seemed suitably radical, and so we started out on a project we called Household Objects. The whole notion seems absurdly laboured now, when any sound can be sampled and then laid out across a keyboard, enabling a musician to play anything from barking dogs to nuclear explosions. In 1973 it took us two months to assemble — slowly and laboriously — what could now probably be achieved in an afternoon. However, the length of time involved was not a problem for us. In fact it was a blessing. We found the project was a brilliant device to postpone having to create anything concrete for the foreseeable future, since we could busy ourselves with the mechanics of the sounds rather than the creation of the music.
We explored the domestic sound world in a variety of ways: percussion was created by sawing wood, slamming down hammers of different sizes or thudding axes into tree trunks. For the bass notes we clamped and plucked rubber bands, and then slowed the resulting sounds to lower tape speeds.
Like some adult playgroup we set about breaking light bulbs and stroking wine glasses, and indulged in various forms of water play including stirring bowls of water before pouring them into buckets. We unrolled lengths of adhesive tape, sprayed aerosols, plucked egg slicers and tapped wine bottle tops. Chris Adamson remembers being sent out to local hardware shops to find brooms of various bristle strengths, and asked to track down a specific kind of elastic used to power the propeller of a model aeroplane. After a number of weeks, musical progress was negligible. We could sustain the pretense no longer, and the whole project was gently laid to rest.
Waters’ memory of Household Objects was equally ungenerous. “There was an abortive attempt to make an album not using any musical instruments,” he said in 1975. “It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it didn’t come together. Probably because we needed to stop for a bit… [We were] just tired and bored…I think it was that when Dark Side of the Moon was so successful, it was the end. It was the end of the road. We’d reached the point we’d all been aiming for ever since we were teenagers and there was really nothing more to do in terms of rock ‘n’ roll.”
But in the Zigzag interview in 1973, Waters was more enthusiastic about Household Objects. “Speaking for myself, I’ve always felt that the differentiation between a sound effect and music is all a load of shit,” he said. “Whether you make a sound on a guitar or a water tap is irrelevant, because it doesn’t make any difference. We started on a piece a while ago which was carrying this to its logical extreme, or one of its logical extremes, where we don’t use any recognisable musical instruments at all — bottles, knives, anything at all, felling axes and stuff like that — which we will complete at some juncture, and it’s turning into a really nice piece.”
The band had abandoned Household Objects by early 1975, but a new album still wasn’t coming. “When we got into the studio — January ’75 — we started recording and it got very laborious and tortured, and everybody seemed to be very bored by the whole thing,” Waters remembered. “We pressed on regardless of the general ennui for a few weeks and then things came to a bit of a head. I felt that the only way I could retain interest in the project was to try to make the album relate to what was going on there and then — i.e., the fact that no one was really looking each other in the eye, and that it was all very mechanical, most of what was going on.”
Once again, Barrett became an influence. His schizophrenia had informed Dark Side thematically. “There is a residue of Syd in all of this,” Waters told Rolling Stone about that album. “Syd had been the central creative force in the early days, and so his having succumbed to schizophrenia was an enormous blow. For me, it was very much ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ That was certainly expressed in ‘Brain Damage’.”
Now Barrett’s struggle proved inspiration for the Dark Side’s follow-up. “It was a long time before the Wish You Were Here recording sessions when Syd’s state could be seen as being symbolic of the general state of the group,” Waters said, “i.e., very fragmented.” Wish You Were Here became an album about absence and alienation.
Gilmour wrote an elegiac four-note riff on guitar, and a song began to be built around that. Ironically, a piece from the Household Objects project set the tone.
“At the time it was a case of ‘let’s see what works,’ engineer Brian Humphries said. “So then hence the ‘Wine Glasses’ tape came out. The wine glasses were recorded for an album they were going to make called Household Objects, which we had on a loop, and then Rick then built up sound with synthesizers and organ.”
“We obviously found a mood that we wanted to — not exactly jam to, but play around with,” Gilmour said about ‘Wine Glasses.’ “Find something within.”
This sound became the melancholic beginning, not only of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” — a song written specifically about Barrett — but of the entire album.
Well you wore out your welcome with random precision
Rode on the steel breeze
Come on you raver, you seer of visions
Come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine
On June 5, 1975, the band had a visitor while mixing “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” at EMI Studios in London. “My memory is that I came into the studio and there was this guy standing there in a gabardine raincoat — a large, large bloke — and I had no idea who it was,” Mason recalled.
“Surprisingly, no one was saying, ‘Who’s that person? What’s he doing wandering around all our gear in the studio?’ Gilmour said. “And then him coming into the control room, standing around, and how remarkable — how long it was before anyone actually woke up.”
“I walked into the studio at Abbey Road,” Wright told an interviewer. “Roger was sitting, mixing at the desk, and I saw this big bald guy sitting on the couch behind. About 16 stone. And I didn’t think anything of it. In those days it was quite normal for strangers to wander into our sessions. Then Roger said, ‘You don’t know who that guy is, do you? It’s Syd.’ He kept standing up and brushing his teeth, putting his toothbrush away and sitting down. Then at one point he stood up and said, ‘Right, when do I put the guitar on?’ And of course, he didn’t have a guitar with him. And we said, ‘Sorry Syd, the guitar’s all done.’”
“Roger was in tears,” Wright said later. “We were both in tears. It was very shocking. Seven years of no contact and then to walk in while we’re actually doing that particular track. I don’t know. Coincidence, karma, fate…who knows? But it was very, very, very powerful.”
Wish You Were Here was released in September 1975. It topped the Billboard album charts and has sold over 19 million copies.
Syd Barrett made two solo records and then withdrew from the public eye in the early 1970s. He died in 2006, aged 60. Rick Wright died two years later.
We’ll never know what Household Objects would have done, were it ever completed. What is clear is that Wish You Were Here couldn’t have happened without it.
When I first thought about it, it seemed like the Household Objects project fit into what is called the “incubation phase” of the creative process theory. When suffering an apparent creative block, Pink Floyd labored on something seemingly unrelated — in this case, a tedious process of analogue sound design — to take a break and recover from creative fatigue. I asked Doctor Liane Gabora, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, if she agreed. Her work centers on creativity and cultural evolution.
“You’re right,” Gabora wrote me in an email, “it’s intriguing that they worked so diligently to reproduce the sounds of traditional instruments, and it could indeed have been a period of incubation in which subsequent works were ‘brewing’ on the backburners of their minds. But I think there is also a little more going on.”
It could also have involved a desire to question the rigid way in which humanity has over time come to categorize some things as “instruments” and others as “not instruments.” In reality, everything is an instrument; everything either makes a sound or can be interacted with so as to create a sound. Our ancestors 20,000 years ago probably had a much richer sense of this than we do, for the distinction between instrument and not-instrument is not inherent in reality itself; it is a cultural abstraction that we have imposed on reality. And this is a loss because to make sound with something is to get to know it and understand it better and perhaps even feel a sense of oneness with it. I suspect that they enjoyed reawakening us to this fact that everything in the world is teeming with vibrations that are waiting to be explored.
I’m not sure there’s a better explanation or more revealing insight, than this: that by using actuality sounds and engaging in the Household Objects project, Pink Floyd was trying to create a sense of oneness — a reconnection — with the world outside their “snug unreal studio,” with their absent and fractured founder, and ultimately with each other.
Viewed through this lens, it makes sense that the group began boiling tea kettles and sawing wood on stage the year after Barrett departed. He was their voice, after all; he wrote and sang pop singles. The sense of loss — of Syd the leader and creative engine, as well as the friend — must have been acute. Incorporating the everyday in the band’s new expression must have felt grounding. Including the interview material in Atom Heart Mother and The Dark Side of the Moon literally added other voices to the group, increasing their range of emotional expression.
Similarly, by trying to reproduce basses with rubber bands and hi-hats with spray cans, Household Objects was a way of starting over together, free from the fragmenting pressure of fame and boredom. There were few machines bigger than the music industry at the height of its late 20th century power; hardly anything more alienating than the lonely role of rock star; and nothing so befuddling as fully realizing one’s ambition. How comforting, then, to rediscover that the world is teeming with vibrations waiting to be explored, and that everyone has a symphony within themselves.
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.
Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Steven Cohen