‘Echoes’ is one of Pink Floyd’s best-loved tracks, and there is no doubt as to why. As soon as the song starts, you begin to be slowly entranced. Typical of Pink Floyd, the listener is guided through a realm that is almost not of the conscious. It is akin to being transported through time and space, with gravity sweeping and swelling around you.
The only sobering aspect is that ping of the piano, the motif that echoes and pierces through the mix, resembling a lost submarine submerged in the watery depths, or a pulsar echoing, rotating in perpetuity in the cold vacuum of space.
The psychedelic heroes formed in London in 1965 as students. After the release of the debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in 1967, they rapidly became known as one of Britain’s first and finest psychedelic rock bands. Upon the debut’s release, the band consisted of frontman and guitarist Syd Barrett, bassist and vocalist Roger Waters, keyboardist and vocalist Richard Wright, and drummer Nick Mason.
Subsequently, guitarist and vocalist David Gilmour would join the band in December 1967. However, the five-piece iteration of the band would not last long. In April 1968, after only five months, Barrett’s battle with personal demons and deteriorating mental health culminated in him leaving the band.
Naturally, Barrett’s departure caused a shift in the band’s tectonic plates. Waters assumed the role of head lyricist and started to formulate the themes of the albums that would make up their most critically and commercially successful period – beginning with The Dark Side of the Moon in 1973 and ending with 1979’s The Wall.
Just before the band would embark on a near decade long production of concept albums, they released the album Meddle in 1971. It was a project that cemented them as pioneers of experimentation and progressive rock, and taking up the whole of side B, is the 23-minute epic ‘Echoes’.
The band had no new songs when they started to record in early 1971. Regardless, they had access to Abbey Road, the recording studio that had been fabled two years prior by the Beatles, and didn’t mess about getting to work. After receiving word from the label that they were free to experiment, the band spent weeks improvising. Work on Meddle initially began with the use of non-musical instruments, using rubber bands, bottles, glasses and even bits of wood to produce sounds. However, this idea was quickly abandoned, and they concentrated on shaping the album using more traditional instruments.
This didn’t stop the sonic experimentation, though. One of the main experiments involved isolating each member from what the others were doing in a bid to recreate the zany, spontaneous creativity former leader Barrett oozed. Together, they compiled the resulting sounds as “Nothings 1-24”. Given that this was a new period for the band and the limitations presented by analogue recording, the majority of the sounds proved to be largely ineffectual, apart from one. A high B, played on a piano, modulated by a rotating Leslie speaker.
Drummer Nick Mason commented later: “We could never recreate the feeling of this note in the studio, especially the particular resonance between the piano and the Leslie.” Consequently, they opted to use the demo tape and write around that what would soon become the motif of the prog odyssey.
The song ended up comprising various ambient soundscapes, instrumental passages and musical improvisation. Together, these elements are indicative of the foundling direction that Pink Floyd would go on, and in the not too distant future, would be honed on their masterpiece: The Dark Side of the Moon.
Originally, the song was called ‘The Return of the Son of Nothing’ when first playing the unreleased track live. Somewhere along the way, though, before the Meddle‘s release, it was fittingly renamed ‘Echoes’. Each sequence of the song demonstrates just how godly and influential each member would become in their respective musical fields. Today, if you were to pick up any book listing legendary bands, guitarists, bassists, keyboardists and drummers, you would be sure to find a member of The Floyd.
The song also magnifies how trailblazing David Gilmour’s sonic textures were, taking off from where the likes of Barrett and Hendrix had left, propelling them on a stratospheric, sonic route. Encompassing effects such as delay, echo, and distortion, these aspects would become key signifiers of definitive future genres like shoegaze, dream pop, and even metal – with those dive bombs on his whammy bar heard searing deep within ‘Echoes’ mix. Even the song’s title invokes being stuck within Gilmour’s dense sonic canyon.
Interviewed in 2008, keyboardist Wright claimed: “The whole piano thing at the beginning and the chord structure is mine, so I had a large part in writing that. But it’s credited to other people of course. Roger obviously wrote the lyrics.” Wright carried on and explained that the wind section after the introduction was actually Waters using a slide on his bass. He also revealed that the classic seagull sound wailing from Gilmour’s guitar was actually a mistake. “One of the roadies had plugged his wah wah pedal in back to front, which created this huge wall of feedback,” he explained. “He played around with that and created this beautiful sound.”
Ironically, this is exactly the kind of result the band were looking for when improvising in isolation. Later, Mason added: “Sometimes great effects are the results of this kind of pure serendipity, and we were always prepared to see if something might work on a track.” Work it did. Unsurprisingly, the song is composed of a whole host of other sounds. This involves an archived tape recording of rooks calling, organ solos, and features numerous musical and rhythmic changes that really add to the song’s monumental status.
In the outro of the song, a “choral” sounding segment can be heard, again a result of sonic experimentation. This was achieved by placing two tape recorders in opposite corners of the room, then the tapes playing the main chords of the song were fed into the opposite recorder and played back at the same time as recording. The other recorder was then set to play what was being recorded, and this back and forth created a delay between the recordings, warping the structure of the chords, giving them that “echoey” feel. For the scientists out there, this effect is called a Shepard tone.
Intellectually and sonically, the extent of such experimentation is a lot to behold, but as the listener, we recognise Pink Floyd’s brilliance is rested on this, knowing no bounds and producing such awe-inspiring results.
‘Echoes’ also gained an epic status for other reasons. It was split into two halves to open and close 1972’s concert documentary, Live at Pompeii. Directed by Adrian Maben, the film helped cement the song’s titanic status, augmented by his montage of shots taken in the surrounding area. In the grandiose ancient Roman Amphitheatre, performing under the sweltering Italian sun backed by their stacked amplifiers, it is as if the band had chosen this setting specifically to converse with someone in outer space via the song’s other-worldly medium. Were they calling for humanity’s aid?
Considering the tumult of the time, this sentiment is supported by Waters, a huge football fan, proposing to name the song ‘We Won The Double’ as Arsenal had done in 1971.
In a 1992 interview, Waters claimed that Andrew Lloyd Webber had plagiarised ‘Echoes’ main refrain in The Phantom of the Opera: “The beginning of that bloody Phantom song is from Echoes. ‘DAAAA-da-da-da-da-da.’ I couldn’t believe it when I heard it. It’s the same time signature—it’s 12/8—and it’s the same structure, and it’s the same notes, and it’s the same everything. Bastard. It probably is actionable. It really is! But I think that life’s too long to bother with suing Andrew fucking Lloyd Webber.”
Even though Pink Floyd have long been broken up, its surviving members are still asked to play ‘Echoes’ at their solo concerts. Returning to Pompeii in 2016 for a show, Gilmour admitted he couldn’t play the song without Wright, who passed away in 2008: “There’s something that’s specifically so individual about the way that Rick and I play in that, that you can’t get someone to learn it and do it just like that.”
For a good many reasons, ‘Echoes’ is undoubtedly a masterpiece. Already a favourite of Pink Floyd fans, its backstory only adds to the vast mythos of the gargantuan Pink Floyd.