Back to the hazy nostalgic vaults of ‘tunes remembered’ now. This is a track from the first CD I remember us having. My dad bought it around about Christmas 1995 (he’d just got a CD walkman from my mum! A big, square black brick of a thing). NUFC were the best football team in the land, all was well with the world, and I was beginning to realise the potential of music.
This song, musically speaking, is a pretty good one to attach that nostalgic ‘first musical awakening’ to; it has a certain amount of kudos to it (or does it?). The track itself – the last Pink Floyd song – is imbued with nostalgia all the way through it; from the shimmering rural soundscape – buzzing bees, birdsong and a plaintive church bell in the distance – to the series of remembrances in the lyrics. This song is deeply nostalgic. The lyric that always sticks out to me is the opening chorus line “the grass was greener, the light was brighter”. This is a working definition of nostalgia, isn’t it?
But there is an unmistakable melancholy running through this song; maybe a recognition of the dangers of always looking back towards the supposed ‘golden past’ – or perhaps, utilising my limited knowledge of Floyd, a comment on the perception of the fans of Floyd’s ‘Great Days’ that were so mired in strife, the insistence on repeating the old songs – the desire to always look back at the past.
OK, I’m going to be honest here. I am not a big Pink Floyd fan. I don’t own all their albums, I don’t even know what all their albums are! And this fact is probably borne out by the fact that this album – the Division Bell – is my favourite. Every Pink Floyd fan stumbling across this page has just closed it! For some reason, it has been derided by a lot of fans. But for me, this was my Pink Floyd. The first album of theirs I had heard, one released in my lifetime.
I seem favour neglected or criticised works from a few bands. ‘Machina…’ is my favourite Smashing Pumpkins album, for example. Many Pumpkins fans I have spoken to about it say it’s too long, and there is too much dross on it. But I say firstly; it was intended to be a double album, and secondly; listen to ‘Mellon Collie…’ again and, being entirely honest with yourself, tell me there aren’t at least five or six tunes that that album could do without…. “in the eyes of a jackal I say KABOOM!”.
I was also thinking the other day, and this probably lead me to writing about High Hopes, that possibly (and I mean possibly) ‘Be Here Now’ might be my favourite Oasis album. Just because I have fonder memories of that album; because I was conscious of it as it was released in a way that I wasn’t with ‘Definately Maybe’ and ‘What’s the Story’. Objectively, ‘Be Here Now’ is worse – of course it is – but I remember queuing at Woolworths in Consett to buy it, I remember playing ‘Magic Pie’ with friends in the first band I was ever in. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, with the ‘Easy to Play Oasis’ chord book resting on my lap, singing ‘All Around the World’ was the first time I ever sang in front of anyone (the other three members of that band), it was when I realised I enjoyed singing, realised I could sing (ish), and concluded that singing was going to become part of my life; I was a singer!
Anyway, well of the subject here of Pink Floyd.
To bring it back, I guess what has become a recurring theme in many of these Ten Time pieces is that often you don’t choose popular music, popular music chooses you! I had no idea who Pink Floyd were, how important their legacy was, when my dad brought this CD home and played this track for me and my brother.
Sitting in the bay window in a squat, deep green leather Chesterfield armchair. Queens Road. The way the piano part intertwines with the church bell! At eleven years old, that was mind blowing. At twenty-seven, it still is, actually. The way sound effect melds into music makes the song sound as if it comes from nature, is part of nature.
Then comes the ‘military’ bit, as I always thought of it. The classical guitar solo, the rolling snare drums, crescendo strings and horns; a majestic, pompous soundscape for a rock song! Then dropping back to that piano/bell riff. I remember being baffled and intrigued by the myriad instruments. I remember looking through the lyrics book, seeing the word ‘myriad’ and looking it up in the dictionary to find out what it meant.
The booklet was so thick, so full of words and images – a work of art in itself – so expensive looking. Everything about this CD felt expensive actually. The weight of the whole package. I have just found the CD (I have kept it all these years; not that unusually, I know – particularly for me, a compulsive hoarder), and the actual CD feels thicker and somehow more durable that ‘modern CDs’; it is almost like a hybrid between a record and a contemporary CD!
Actually, something else I have just remembered about this song. A couple of years later, when in Year 10 (I think, it must have been), our music teacher – the unforgettable Len Young – had, in one of those altruistic, hopeful, idealistic gestures, doomed to apathetic response and, ultimately, failure, that music teacher are so prone to making (I speak from (brief) personal experience) asked everybody in the class to bring in a piece of music that we loved, and to play it for the class, and describe what we liked about it.
Instantly, I thought of High Hopes. I thought of so much I could say about it. I thought Mr. Young would have been impressed by unassuming church bell; the reconfiguration and realignment wrought by the imposing piano. The sheer scope of the musical palette. I put the CD in my bag for the next music class the following week.
However, in the following few days, I began to consider the reaction of my peers to this grandiose piece of ‘dad rock’. Not very cool. “He’s actually taking music lessons seriously! He’s actually brought in a piece of music he likes!” So I spent the week in a quandary, weighing up the pros and cons. Sometimes I would think ‘it’s only music class, I’ll just play something I know some of the others will like’, and would take out the Pink Floyd CD from my bag and put in ‘Nimrod’ by Green Day or ‘Incesticide’ by Nirvana. Then other times, I would think ‘maybe Mr. Young will think it’s good, maybe the rest of the class will like it too’.
On the day of reckoning, I had both Nimrod and The Division Bell in my bag. I was called up to play ‘my song’. Division Bell burned fiercely in my bag. I picked up Nimrod. I played ‘Hitchin’ a Ride’. Hitchin’ a fucking Ride, in all its chugging inanity. “At least it has that vaguely interesting ‘gypsy’ violin intro” I consoled myself.
I should have played High Hopes.
So to the guitar solo mentioned in the piece on Shakespeare’s Sister. Beginning with a biblical, portentous lyric – “forever and ever” – the guitar wails into centre stage, notes sustaining for an inordinate amount of time – forever and ever, it seems! Of course Gilmour plays a slide guitar here, but I didn’t know that when I first listened to this tune. To me it sounded so ethereal, so majestic, so skilful. Favouring melody over posturing (as most of Glimour’s solos tend to), it soars and swoops, before entering into a call-and-response interplay with glissando strings for a four note call (around 6.26). That little four note melody has stuck with me throughout my life. It is never far from my mind when I am playing guitar. It is certainly one punctum within this piece of music for me.
I don’t think it would be correct to say that this guitar solo made me want to learn guitar – frankly it was incomprehensible to me then (it still is now) that I would ever be able to emulate anything near that sounds –that I could play something like that myself. I still can’t! But it certainly was one of the most striking early realisations of the emotional potential of music. When I listened to this song over and over, unlike the more ‘pop’ songs discussed below, it was not due some sort of compulsion – a mental itch that needed scratching – it was a serious endeavour. I was trying to understand something fundamental about music. When I pressed the button on our old hi-fi, plush foam-coated headphones on, to repeat the track, I did so deliberately and I tried to listen intently to what was happening. The result was that I found this piece of music profoundly moving.
To the video now, and what a video it is! My goodness. Continuing the theme of absolute extravagance, this video is really just a series of ostentatious (and, one would assume, obscenely expensive) stills. Many of them continue Floyds penchant for large, flamboyant, surreal images; businessmen on stilts, guitars floating down a canal, two men playing ping-pong in a field etc.
But once again, there is an ingrained feeling of nostalgia in many of the shots. Many are shot at sunset or sunrise, with that eerie-beautiful liminal light suggesting either a beginning or ending.
Most prominent are the shots of a man standing next to a Morris Minor Traveller looking pensively out across the English countryside. This image is the most memorable for me in this video of bizarre (memorable) images, for some reason. I always get a pang of nostalgic sadness whenever I see hedgerows or places like the wild undergrowth on train track embankments! Anyway, I get the same feeling seeing this image.
Aside from that, surprisingly, there is very little to say about the video, it’s just a bit too much really. It really feels a bit anachronistic in an age when the conventions of the music video had been pretty firmly established; this is all momentous still images, rather that quick-paced, band-orientated movement. I’m not saying it is a bad video, it’s just not really a music video. I’m sure there is a glut of ‘symbolism’ behind each of the individual set-pieces, which someone with a better knowledge of the intricate wrangling of Pink Floyd’s expansive career could better elucidate, but I don’t really get it.
Another little diversionary treat here; the one that actually brought me back to this song. A live version – just Dave Gilmour – at the Albert Hall.
Again though, the prevailing atmosphere is one of extreme opulence. I am usually not a fan of live performances that attempt to emulate the album verbatim, and this performance certainly tries to do that. Even the solos (particularly the classical guitar solo) are almost identical to the album; as for the rest of the track, Gilmour may as well be playing to a backing track. I just don’t really see the point in it usually. The live performance has to have some element of danger in it to make it exciting; the potential for collapse, for not working.
When I was at university in Liverpool, I saw a local band called ‘Brute Forsythe’ a few times. Aside from having one of the best names ever, they were really pretty crappy. But what made them exciting to watch is that they turned the potential for disaster into an art form. They played with the tacit power and ‘responsibility’ of ‘being on stage’, making the audience question this assumed power dynamic, puncturing the bubble of the ‘immaculate performance delivered with consummate ease’. I remember someone else, when I was doing my teacher training in fact, saying, with sagely wisdom (have I written this somewhere else, I can’t remember) “an amateur musician practices until they get it right; a professional practices until they can’t get it wrong”. That philosophy is totally anathema to me. Firstly, because I don’t think, being honest, I have the capacity to ever practice any music until I can’t get it ‘wrong’ – I don’t have the time, skill or patience! But secondly, it assumed that there is a ‘right’ way to play a piece of music, and that, once discovered, it should be crystallised, and repeated forever after.
Anyway, Gilmour is just finishing his third solo on his third different guitar, let’s continue into listen eight.
Same live recording.
So live music should have something living within it; it should not be exclusively predetermined. That’s not to say that I enjoy or favour the ‘free improv.’ route. I don’t. Actually, I find the free improve. that I have heard to be in some senses more constrictive and predetermined and more likely to sound the same. If you disallow any kind of melodic or thematic repetition, you exclude the audience from the process of second-guessing the unfurling structure of the music, which can be half the fun of listening to and engaging with music.
So some sort of half-way house between these two, i guess, is the fairly radical conclusion. I think I’ll save further rumination on ‘what makes a good live performance’ for a further song I want to listen to ten times…. keep guessing!
Anyway, back to Gilmour’s fret-wankage. Having said I don’t usually enjoy these verbatim live performances, I actually really love this one. It just works so well. Maybe because Dave Gilmour looks and acts so un-rock star like. He’s just a pretty fat, old bloke who happens to be amazing on the guitar. He stands stock-still throughout. He looks a bit like a Vogon from The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!
But the slide guitar solo – elongated and modified from the recording, though dropping back into the familiar furrow for the highlight four-note phrase – is incredible, as it the acoustic guitar addition at the end.
In the Shakespears Sister piece I said that I’m not really a fan of the guitar solo, which is true in most contexts. But I have to say that certain examples such as these, where a really melodic solo is played over four repeated chords, hold a soft spot for me. Other examples would be Knopfler’s solos in ‘Tunnel of Love’ and ‘Sultans of Swing’.
Good old listen nine! All the way through. No Pauses, no breaks.
So here we are, listen ten – far from being tired of this song (I wonder how many listens it would actually take to be completely sick of a song?).
Conclusions? Well, above I said that I intently listened to this song when it first became a ‘repeater’; that the listening process was different from the ‘pop’ songs that I have written about so far. That doesn’t have anything to do with the (false) dichotomy between ‘serious’ rock music and ‘jokey’ pop music. I don’t consider this song to be more worthy of repeated listening than Jojo or Gwen Stefani because it’s by ‘real musicians’.
I suppose what I want to point out in this ‘ten time’ listen is that not all addictive songs get stuck in your head for the same reason. Some get lodged until you can uncover something about them; others get stuck until you uncover something about yourself. High Hopes helped me discover something about my love for music at a young age, and now it remains a masterwork in nostalgia. But it is no ‘better’ than a pop song… but let’s leave this tired old high/low art argument for another day, and let Dave Gilmour slide us out….. BONG, BONG, BONG, BONG
 That’s the chiming of the church bell, by the way, not a drug reference!