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Onyx reviews: Inside Out by Nick Mason

Beyond avid fans, most people probably associate the rock group Pink Floyd with Roger Waters and David Gilmour. However, from the time of its inception in the 1960s, Pink Floyd was a four-man band, including keyboard player Rick Wright and drummer Nick Mason. In the early years, Syd Barrett filled out the quartet; Gilmour came later, after Barrett’s drug-induced psychological meltdown.

Mason is the only band member continuously with the group from its formation to the present, so it makes sense that he would write the band’s memoir. He admits that he wasn’t present for every creative or decisive moment in the band’s history, that his recollections are probably colored by his personal feelings, and that he prefers recalling the good times instead of the bad. However, he likely has the fewest axes to grind. Waters and Gilmour were involved in acrimonious legal battles over ownership of the band’s name in the 1980s, and Waters fired Wright during production of The Wall.

The four young friends who formed The Pink Floyd Sound had little musical talent. None had any formal training and most chose their respective instruments randomly rather than because of any natural affinity. What they had were boundless enthusiasm, a knack for improvisation and an ahead-of-its-time light system that appealed to the acid culture that carried psychedelic music along as the next wave. Darlings of the London underground, they paid their dues when they played their first concerts in venues where they didn’t already have a core fan audience, crisscrossing England on a tour schedule that looked like it had been designed by throwing darts at a map of the country.

For the most part, the band members missed out on the drug culture because they were too busy trying to become successful. The exception was Syd Barrett, who reportedly dropped acid several times a day. Even the drinking water at his apartment was deemed unsafe to consume. When Barrett grew unreliable, the band ”forgot” to pick him up on the way to a gig and he was ousted from Pink Floyd almost by default.

Mason recounts the group’s history in a self-effacing manner, and with a dryly-British sense of humor. He concludes a description of early recordings by saying “Regrettably these tapes still exist.” He describes early tours in unroadworthy vehicles and their battles to get paid and avoid fights with unruly fans. He also details their thrill at discovering new recording techniques and emerging technology. Only an insider could explain how seminal moments in recording history were often spur-of-the-moment decisions or the results of serendipitous accidents.

The Dark Side of the Moon was a turning point, and in its wake the group’s dynamics changed. Members haggled over how much or how little each contributed. During production of the album and film versions of The Wall, Waters emerged as the leader of a group that had previously been a thoroughly democratic unit. After The Final Cut, he assumed that the band would dissolve, freeing him to pursue a solo career without it being regarded as a temporary hiatus from Pink Floyd. He didn’t believe the band could exist without him, but Gilmour reassembled the group and released two studio albums and several live recordings as Pink Floyd.

Mason is perhaps the most laid-back drummer in rock history. Several times he mentions his aversion to confrontation, and illustrates this assessment by pointing out how insensitively they made some decisions and glossing over all but the worst of the band’s internal struggles. He diplomatically hesitates to assign fault after success and fame caused friction. When he does, he divides the blame equally.

Though he describes the struggles of writing, producing, recording and promoting albums, and the drudgery of touring and the complexities of staging the lavish shows Pink Floyd became famous for, the book doesn’t bog down in boring detail. He—or his editor—arrived at a balance that gives readers a distinct flavor for what life must have been like for these young men, who were thrust into a much brighter spotlight than they could ever have anticipated.

Some readers may come away from the book disappointed that Mason doesn’t dish more dirt. Wright, Waters and Gilmour were all given a chance to read his manuscript and offer their versions of how they remember things playing out. While this may have diluted the book’s impact, Mason has delivered a fitting tribute to a somewhat anonymous band that has jealously guarded its saucerful of secrets over the years.

The oversized volume is profusely illustrated with photographs from the past forty years and is, in essence, Mason’s scrapbook. The distinctive cover is by Storm Thorgerson, who was responsible for many of Pink Floyd’s memorable album designs.

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