Nick Mason’s ‘Inside Out’
As a teenager, I was very much into Pink Floyd. There were a number of reasons. First that they had, pretty much, ended their careers by the time I discovered them and so had the exotic feel of a band from more interesting times. Band leader and bassist Roger Waters’ particular brand of alienation – ‘we don’t need no education’ – appealed to my anarchist tendencies. Dave Gilmour seemed like a magical guitarist. At a certain point that changed, partly from overlistening, partly because I outgrew them. Nowadays I can only really listen to their earlier albums – Meddle most of all – before they get too ponderous, and some might say pretentious.
Luckily, Mason’s memoir isn’t ponderous at all, and he has that breezy type of wry English humour one associates with someone like Michael Palin. Mason seems like a nice chap, the kind you might have been friends with had you known him. Like a good middle class boy, he’s a pretty good writer too. The writing is lively and full of illuminating detail. The history of the band, like the music itself, tends to become less interesting as time passes. Really, it’s the early years, when they are at the head of a particular zeitgeist that is most interesting. Still, rather than any of Mason’s observations, it was my own reflections that tended to dominate the experience of reading the book, and I may as well record those here.
To begin with, I was struck by just how young they were when they made it ‘big’. Their first album, ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn,’ was mostly composed by their first lead man – Syd Barrett – who was probably their only true genius, at the age of of 20-21. Youth is par for the course for popular music, but that’s still young to produce something so unique. Had Barrett not suffered a breakdown under the influence of industry pressure and drugs, and subsequently been ejected from the band, one can only imagine the work they might have produced a decade later. On the subject of youth, the band were all about 28-29 when they recorded their next big hit, Dark Side of the Moon. That’s about right for bands, but there are plenty of people who at 28 still don’t know what they want to do with their life, let alone go about producing one of the greatest albums of all time.
This had me reflecting on the vicissitudes of fate. Being in the right place at the right time — this seems to be a crucial factor in any success. Release an album (or book) too early or too late and it may sink. Collaborate with the right person, and they might drag you – as in this case – into the big-time. In this sense, Mason seems to have led a charmed life. Neither he nor Waters were really very good musicians, though Waters did later become an excellent songwriter. They just happened to have been lucky enough to be friends with Barrett. Barrett essentially gifted the other three (and then four when Dave Gilmour replaced him) a career. As Mason and Waters have said themselves, there would have been no Pink floyd without Barrett.
But once they had their start – and this was another of my ruminations – they gripped on for dear life. They toured incessantly, recorded a lot. Waters taught himself to become a great songwriter almost by force of will, but more importantly, the band seemed to bring out the best in each other. Each member had their own particular skills that they brought. The whole was more than the sum of the parts. I would have liked more of Mason’s reflections on the musical side of things, but as he was mostly an ‘active passenger’ in this, maybe he isn’t the right person for this.
You don’t get much reflection really on any of these larger questions – fame, genius, luck – from Mason in the book, which has more of an everyday approach to it. But you do get a sense of the dynamics of the band, their demanding schedule, the later acrimonious split, and their final reunion for Live 8. Mason is a genial guide to all of the events, and that makes it one of the better rock memoirs.