An astoundingly large portion of Pink Floyd’s back catalogue was unceremoniously released into the world in 2016. When I say ‘unceremoniously’, I mean a lavish multi-disc, Blu-ray and DVD boxset which extensively covered their first seven years of life; but when you consider this music one of life’s finer pleasures and these rarities as basically a wellspring of lost gold, the boxset feels a lot less than they deserved. In fact, the not-insignificant price tag of The Early Years would have undoubtedly turned some fans off from digging into material that should be in everyone’s collection.
I mean, just try some out for size – like the brilliantly loopy lost Syd Barrett cuts “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream”. The former features some of the band’s all-time catchiest melodies against a disturbingly self-reflective lyric from Syd, reportedly blocked from A Saucerful of Secrets for being “too dark”, while the latter boasts Nick Mason belting out a rare lead vocal of surreal rhymes over chipmunk backing vocals ripped straight from your nightmares. Or maybe the half-hour long “John Latham” jam, an extended improvisational soundtrack to an early piece of British surrealism that makes “Interstellar Overdrive” sound pretty tame. Or, moving past the Syd years, you have The Man and the Journey, a legendary live show that combined musique concrete, pastoral folk and explosive psychedelia as the band tried to re-jig songs from their first four albums into an impressionistic concept piece involving pink jungles and temples of light. There are diamonds on every disc of The Early Years, just as there are, admittedly, a lot of duds. But the song I most want to talk about isn’t a near-mythical lost Syd tune or a Meddle outtake; in fact, it’s a b-side from Floyd’s most rightfully maligned album.
More is somewhere in the grey zone between a soundtrack and a full album, and neither half really feels finished. One thing everyone can agree on is that it’s almost certainly the only record in existence to feature long stretches of bird-soundtracked ambience, Pink Floyd doing heavy metal, a bongo solo track, and David Gilmour pretending to be a Spanish alcoholic: your mileage may vary on whether or not any of that is a good thing. The Early Years doesn’t devote major runtime to More, understandably, but it does feature five cuts that didn’t make the original record. Three are basically alternate takes of album tracks, and one is “Embryo”, the creepy being-born saga which is significant as “Echoes” in its, uh, embryonic state. The fifth of those tracks is a little ditty named “Seabirds”, a mere footnote from the soundtrack half of those sessions which, I will argue, represents the key to the entire early history of Pink Floyd.
A fair question at this point is, what do we even need a key for? Psychedelic stoners write songs about cats, lose a lead singer, mess around for a bit and eventually make Dark Side of the Moon – isn’t it simple? When you put it like that, sure, but the fumbling, contradictory nature of those middle years holds something truly wonderful which the Dark Side-and-after eras arguably lack. Pink Floyd didn’t become a functioning unit again until Meddle, so those interim albums have four phenomenally talented musicians essentially – or in the case of Ummagumma, literally – stumbling around on their own trying to understand what their music is or could be. This goes a long way to explaining why A Saucerful of Secrets and Atom Heart Mother are utterly glorious messes, and why there’s no real core sound that can fully tie the music of this period together.
That’s what I thought until I heard “Seabirds”, anyway, which in some ways really does represent the true centre of pre-Meddle Pink Floyd. You have your extended intro of slowly mounting tension, Richard Wright’s droning keyboard as the main player, calling back to some of their first post-Syd successes in “A Saucerful of Secrets” or “Careful with That Axe, Eugene”. But the tone here is less oppressive, even over Nick Mason’s militant rolling drums; a peaceful organ melody ensures that emotionally, the song connects to the place of peace the band briefly found in 1969, calling to the quiet nature walks of “Grantchester Meadows” or “Fat Old Sun”. Hell, even the song title works to signify the song as a lynchpin – you have a decent chance of hearing birds warbling over the quieter moments in any song from this period, including “Cirrus Minor”, “Grantchester Meadows”, and all throughout The Man and the Journey. It could be, like “Embryo”, that this excellent song was put aside due to its similarity to later works; aspects of it evolved into the much more meandering and frustrating “Quicksilver” on More, and I’m fairly certain you can hear a very vague outline of the famous “Echoes” seagull whine as the song rumbles towards its close. Whatever the logic, “Seabirds” is an essential cut for anyone, as the only true microcosm of everything the collapsing neutron star of early Floyd dabbled in.
Well, alright, it doesn’t have the heavy metal. But that might have been asking too much.