Two months after opening it, I've almost worked my way through The Early Years 1965-1972, Pink Floyd's massive vault-clearing box. Though not without its flaws, this 28-disc set (11 CDs, 9 DVDs and 8 Blu-rays, the content on the DVDs and Blu-rays being identical) is a treasure trove of material from the Floyd's most restless, innovative period. What follows is my highly subjective review, with an emphasis on the audio portion because that's what interests me most. (A more exhaustive review that includes the video material can be found on the excellent fan site Brain Damage.) First, overall impressions:
- Nearly all existent archival material from the period is here, much previously unreleased, most in excellent quality.
- The video footage, much of it extremely rare, has been impeccably restored.
- Bonus volume (1 CD, 2 DVDs/Blu-rays), ten large memorabilia pieces and five replica 7" singles are all exclusive to the box.
- Sturdy, attractive packaging.
- The memorabilia in the individual volumes is a nice touch.
- Careful with that price, Eugene. The box sells for $640; the six individual volumes, due to be released in late March, are going for $63 each. I wanted it all and am glad I splurged for the box, but I'm a bit peeved that the exclusive material wound up costing an extra $262.
- Is the size of a small microwave. I had to clear an entire bookshelf to find a spot for it.
- Some tracks suffer from inexcusable lapses in quality (inferior sources, songs at incorrect speeds, questionable mastering—see below for specifics).
- For this price, a hardcover booklet should have been included. Liner notes are there, but sparse.
Now on to the individual volumes (again, I'm focusing on the audio):
1965-1967 Cambridge St/ation
For many Floyd freaks, myself included, this is the heart of the matter: the Syd Barrett era. Disc 1 kicks off with the band's 1965 demos. Syd does his best Mick Jagger on these R&B-flavoured cuts, which is jarring for those used to the English-accented vocal delivery he favoured throughout his brief career. Remasters of the 1967 singles follow, then a couple of remixes. Next up is a trio of long-hoped-for outtakes, the holy grail of Syd's tenure: "In the Beechwoods," "Vegetable Man" and "Scream Thy Last Scream," all essential additions to the Barrett canon. The second disc features a scorching September concert, the only surviving live document of Barrett-era Floyd. Unfortunately, the vocals are very low in the mix. This and the clattering "John Latham" session that follows proves once and for all that The Pink Floyd of '67, despite their flower-power reputation, were in essence a proto-punk band—and not for the faint of heart. Glaring omission (there's room for it on Disc 1): the 1966 demo of "Interstellar Overdrive." (This can be, and was, remedied in homebrew fashion. See below.)
What's here is, with one exception, great stuff: quality remasters of the two 1968 singles, two BBC sessions, and a pair of unreleased songs from an August session in LA that no one even knew existed till now. The exception: an inferior-quality version of "Interstellar Overdrive" that also runs a full tone too slow. Another complaint: there's room on the disc for audio versions of the February Bouton Rouge performances that appear on the DVD/Blu-ray. These feature new guitarist/vocalist David Gilmour taking the lead on the Barrett-era songs "Flaming" and "Astronomy Domine." Fascinating material: why not include it?
Another two-disc volume, and I must confess one that didn't impress, perhaps because too many songs were repeated. The BBC sessions are okay but hardly revelatory, the Paradiso concert again suffers from vocal mic failure and the More outtakes don't live up to their promise. The track labelled "Seabirds" is actually an alternate version of the "Quicksilver" instrumental, not "Seabirds" as heard in the film. Presumably that version is lost. It's wonderful to have "The Man" and "The Journey" in fine quality on Disc 2, but a pity that this show (Amsterdam, September '69) found Gilmour's vocal cords in such rough shape. "The Narrow Way, Part 3" is an especially painful listen.
Goldmine! Disc 1 is book-ended by two versions of "Atom Heart Mother": a sizzling band-only romp and a brass/choir take recorded for the BBC that arguably outshines the studio recording. In between are fine BBC renderings of "Embryo," "Green Is the Colour" and the rarely played "If." The second disc features outtakes from the Zabriskie Point sessions, a varied and intriguing lot on the whole. The song often bootlegged as "Fingal's Cave" is here titled "Aeroplane" and not only runs longer but rocks harder, with more clarity and definition than heard previously.
There's some meaty material packed onto this year's sole disc. "Nothing Part 14," a work-in-progress snippet of "Echoes," is eerily riveting, prefiguring Brian Eno's ambient work. This is followed by another terrific BBC session, the highlight of which is an extended (and dramatically different) take on "Fat Old Sun." I had an inferior version of this on cassette at one time; it's great to finally have it in pristine quality. I'd like to have seen a second disc devoted to the remaining parts of "Nothing" (rumour has it there were 24 in all). Perhaps the rest is lost?
Two discs here, though apparently that wasn't the original intent: the booklet only has room for one (the audio version of Live at Pompeii), while the second disc, a 2016 remix of Obscured by Clouds, comes in a paper slipcase with the curious note that it's a replacement disc for Live at Pompeii, which was "supplied in error." Further, rumblings abound in online forums that both discs suffer from shoddy mastering, in particular a far-too-crisp high end. They don't sound that bad to me, but perhaps I lack the audiophile equipment (or audiophile ears) to discern the problem. In any event, it's good to finally have Live at Pompeii in standalone audio. The Obscured by Clouds remix, on the other hand, strikes me as redundant. Again, giving us audio versions of the live material featured on the DVD/Blu-ray might have been a better choice.
Bonus: 1967-72 Continu/ation
The bonus volume, exclusive to the box, is a frustrating mixed bag. The track list is one to make Syd-era fans drool: two complete BBC sessions from 1967, one from September, the second from December, mere weeks before Barrett's ignominious exit. After that, stray BBC tracks from 1968 and 1971, all that's salvageable from The Committee soundtrack, "Moonhead" (an instrumental recorded to accompany footage of the moon landing) and a live "Echoes" from 1974 (?) round out the disc. On the plus side, all this is killer material; however, the sources chosen are by and large abominable, especially considering that better sources circulate on bootlegs. The "Reaction in G" and "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" from the September 1967 session are, frankly, unlistenable—and I say this as someone with a high tolerance for bootleg-quality audio. But! All is not lost, because after some diligent poking around the Internet I was able to procure better versions of all the questionable material. So, I proudly present my unofficial, homebrew 29th disc ...
Ultra Bonus: 1965-1972 Augment/ation
I can't take credit for either the name or the idea—other Floydians have taken it upon themselves to create a self-styled addendum of missing/upgraded material, too. Anyway, here's my tracklist, all 78 minutes' worth:
- Interstellar Overdrive [Thomson Private Recording Studio, 10/31/66]
- The Scarecrow [mono single mix, 6/67]
- Reaction in G [live Copenhagen, 9/13/67]
- The Scarecrow [BBC 9/25/67, upgrade]
- Reaction in G [BBC 9/25/67, upgrade]
- Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun [BBC 9/25/67, upgrade]
- Reaction in G [live Rotterdam, 11/13/67]
- Apples and Oranges [stereo mix, 11/67]
- Scream Thy Last Scream [BBC 12/20/67, upgrade]
- Vegetable Man [BBC 12/20/67, upgrade]
- Pow R. Toc H. [BBC 12/20/67, upgrade, full length]
- Jugband Blues [BBC 12/20/67, upgrade]
- Baby Blue Shuffle in D Major [BBC 12/2/68, pitch-corrected]
- Interstellar Overdrive [BBC 12/2/68, upgrade, pitch-corrected]
- Biding My Time [outtake, 7/69]
- Oenone [Zabriskie Point outtake, 11/69]
- Give Birth to a Smile [Roger Waters & PF, Music from the Body, 1970]
Of these, eight tracks are upgrades to the BBC sessions on Continu/ation; one is an upgrade to the bum cut on Germin/ation; and the other eight are stray tracks that really should have been part of the box but were inexplicably left off. I won't review my self-curated disc other than to say it renders the lapses on Continu/ation and elsewhere far more palatable and for me, literally completes the box set. Now, where might you find said upgrades, were you to go searching for them? Well, here's a hint. Thank me later. You will, however, have to do some serious audio editing.
All told, in spite of the set's flaws and the steep price, I'm most grateful to have it, hence the sincere title of my post. Pink Floyd have historically been rather stingy when it comes to opening the vaults, so this was a most surprising gesture. Surviving band members had little involvement, apparently, other than green-lighting the project. We can, however, thank band conceptualist Roger Waters for the "/ation" titles, though reportedly he's not responsible for "Continu/ation," which he finds "so lame." (Wait till you hear it, Roger.)
Oh, and speaking of appreciation: I've recently scored a copy of the deluxe edition of Fairport Convention's 1969 classic, Liege & Lief, for $9.75. And I just bought two bare-bones box sets containing Fairport's first ten albums, plus the four-disc Live at the BBC, for a grand total of $75. Kind of makes up for my hole-in-wallet experience with the Floyd box.