One of our favourite tropes is the closing track which isn’t an afterthought that happens to fill the last few centimetres of cylindrical wax before the run-out grooves begin.
No, we much prefer ones like ‘Ohm Sweet Ohm’ by Kraftwerk, which we covered earlier in the week, in which the exit from the record is the pathway to the next part of the artist’s career. Today’s song marks such a pivotal moment for one of the biggest bands in the annals of rock history. Imagining the progressive rock landscape without Pink Floyd's massive presence is hard, and it would be harder still if that presence weren’t squarely built on the foundations of 1971’s ‘Echoes’.
Released as the concluding part of their sixth studio album, Meddle, ‘Echoes’ is a 23-minute epic that catapulted the band into the next stage of their musical journey, setting the foundation for their future work. In that sense, it is 23 minutes that map out the next 23 years of the band’s career.
Before the conception of ‘Echoes’, Pink Floyd had been going through a transitional phase following the departure of Syd Barrett in 1968. The band searched for a new identity, experimented with various styles, and struggled to find their unique sound. It was during this period that ‘Echoes’ began to take shape. On 1969’s Ummagumma, the band recorded separate solo songs and included them on the double album's second LP like it was almost a compilation album. This is because a lack of a unified vision makes the album feel more like a collection of individual projects than a cohesive Pink Floyd album. For ‘Echoes’, they took a different approach. Initially titled ‘Nothing Parts 1-24’, the band members David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Richard Wright, and Nick Mason each found personal inspiration in the song's development, eventually leading to its final form. They had also laid down a marker with the title track to 1970’s Atom Heart Mother, which takes up a whole side of vinyl due to its length of over twenty-three minutes.
The song's genesis began with a simple piano chord progression by Richard Wright, which was later complemented by the other members' contributions. Roger Waters penned the evocative lyrics, while David Gilmour's guitar work wove a sonic tapestry that complemented the song's atmospheric quality. The band's innovative use of the "Azimuth Coordinator" – a custom-made quadraphonic sound system – and the creative employment of tape loops, sound effects, and unconventional recording methods culminated in a mesmerising audio experience.
‘Echoes’ begins with a "ping" sound created by amplifying a grand piano played by Richard Wright and sending the signal through a Leslie speakerand a Binson Echorec unit. This sound can be heard in development in the early demo ‘Nothing Part 14.’
After several "pings," a slide guitar played by David Gilmour gradually joins in. The verses are sung harmoniously by Gilmour and Wright, followed by a riff played by Gilmour and bassist Roger Waters in unison. Unlike earlier works that looked up to the sun and stars for inspiration, like ‘Set The Controls For The Heart of The Sun’ or ‘Astronomy Domine’, the lyrics of ‘Echoes’ have us looking to the depths of the ocean.
You could argue that turning your gaze as a lyricist from the cosmos to more terrestrial, or submarine even, matters is a narrowing of scope. Waters hasn’t, though, because he widens the song’s vision by encompassing all three billion years plus of life on Earth to comment on the nature of man.
According to Waters in an interview with Rolling Stone, ‘Echoes’ was about;
The potential that human beings have for recognising each other's humanity and responding to it, with empathy rather than antipathy.
The song's instrumental section can be divided into four acts;
There is a false ending when the lyrics fade, and then you have a couple of minutes as an outro, including a chromatic walk down from just inside the four-minute mark that sinks us further down. You could be forgiven for thinking the song is almost over around the seven-minute mark. It isn’t; we start to descend into the murky brine as we hit the second section, a funky R&B-inspired section with a lot of upbeat improvisation, each band member concentrating on playing as a unit as they attempt to recreate the cohesion of their live shows.
The funky section continues for another four minutes before the submarine takes us deeper. We move on to an experimental, ambient soundscape that brings us the noises that sound like they could feature on the BBC sci-fi show Doctor Who. Whirling wind, birds cawing and the squealing sound of whale song. Waters employs a slide and a Binson Echorec, while Gilmour generates a high-pitched screeching noise by connecting a wah-wah pedal in reverse. Drummer Nick Mason later revealed in his 2004 in There Is No Dark Side. Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd, that this was an unintentional occurrence, but their collaborations with composer Ron Geesin had taught them to embrace experimentation and incorporate anything that might enhance a song.
As the whale song starts to fade, there is a point some fifteen minutes in where the music again sounds like it will give up the ghost and fade away through lack of momentum before the fourth section starts.
The opening ‘ping’ returns. Given Gilmour's role in propelling Kate Bush to stardom a few years later, I am not sure how much that influences my association between that returning, resurgent ping and The Ninth Wave suite on Hounds of Love as the protagonist of that piece is rescued at sea.
As we start to hit the eighteenth and nineteenth minute of the song, we are now on the ascent back up to the light and the warmth; as the song builds back again, the complexity increases - mirroring the evolution of life referenced in the lyrics as it moved out of the water on to the land. This rising effect is enhanced by a choral-sounding segment playing a Shepard tone, created by placing two tape recorders in opposite corners of a room and using a delay between both recordings. - this gives an ascending feel that is as effective as the chromatic step down was for submerging us.
‘Echoes’ was a turning point for Pink Floyd, and the song took the disparate work they attempted as four individuals after Syd Barrett had left the band and joined it together. The song isn’t just a fully formed piece of music that emerged one day; it was born out of the less successful ambient sections of music they worked on before 1971, and like the evolution that brought us out of the oceans, they landed on something that worked. An immersive, atmospheric soundscape that would become a hallmark of their future work. This newfound confidence and maturity paved the way for their subsequent key albums - The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), and The Wall (1979), each of which owes a debt to the ambitious, experimental spirit that ‘Echoes’ embodied.
Even away from Pink Floyd, the song has had an impact. The song has a notable instrumental riff that resembles the central theme of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1986 musical, The Phantom of the Opera. Waters contemplated pursuing legal action against Lloyd Webber for plagiarism but ultimately decided against it. Instead, he disapproved of Lloyd Webber in the song "It's a Miracle," featured on his 1992 solo album, Amused to Death.
To this day, ‘Echoes’ remains a fan favourite and features in some of Pink Floyd’s most famous live shows, such as this one in Pompeii.
The band again fixed their gazes on the heavens within a year of this show. Though this time, they didn’t forget the lyricsabout human complexity and interaction explored on ‘Echoes’ as they looked across the sky to the moon.
Inspired by the Muhammad Iqbal poem, ‘Two Planets.’
I can find a confirmation of this, so I’ll keep it in the footnotes, but given Meddle was recorded at Abbey Road, this could be the same Leslie speaker that The Beatles used on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ to produce a similar effect.
The Delia Derbyshire and Ron Grainer theme to the show is sampled elsewhere on Meddle, on ‘One of These Days’.
“Echoes” is one of my faaaavorite songs of all time (though I prefer the 16-minute version). The lyrics are brilliantly written and perhaps the most beautiful I’ve ever read. I used to sing them to my children as lullabies.
The ascent of what sounds like paired guitars always make me think they are quite literally pipers at the gates of dawn.
My introduction to Pink Floyd was the Echoes compilation from 2001, the edited version of this song being one of the key tracks where i finally "got" the bands music.