Thursday, May 10, 2007

701 words about Pink Floyd's "Echoes" at Pompeii, 1971

This is the beginning segment of one of my favorite rock movies. I first stumbled upon the At Pompeii film on VHS at a movie rental store in my high school homestead of Bridgewater, NJ. back in 1994. (I'm sure the rental place is long gone now, unable to compete with Netflix and big video chains.) A fellow marching band member, Billy Poorten had suggested I check it out. And despite the store's limited collection, they actually had a copy.

I first remember watching it alone, late at night, with snow on the ground outside.

At 11min27sec, this is the longest clip I've posted so far. But a long clips befits the epic nature of this spacey Floyd piece recorded in Oct 1971 just before they transitioned to the tighter more conceptual, multi-platinum structures of DSOTM.

On the surface, Pink Floyd at Pompeii screams 70s rock self-induldgence: "Let's set up our equipment in the ruins of Pompeii and play songs with long instrumental passages for NO ONE and film the whole thing for release as a movie.....Oh and let's tae our shirts off for a bunch of it!" (As I noted in my previous post about New Order, playing shirtless is never a good idea in my book.)

But the think is, it somehow works brilliantly! The desolate location, and the exposed nature of the band's set up--- beneath the unrelenting sun, and the evidence all around of an ancient catastrophic event (with liquid hot Mag-ma) creates an atmosphere that adds to the music's feeling of doom and isolation.

There are some great camera angles. And the angles shift a lot between the 4 members of the band, so it creates a feeling of true ensemble play and musical conversation and not guitar solo whammy bar wankery (though later in feature-length At Pompeii movie, Rick Wright "plays" a dog for the "song" "Mademoiselle Knobs." I guess you can call it "experimental rock" but it seems more like Spinal Tap...and perhaps PETA might have some issues with the songs instrumentation.)

I recommend watching the Echoes clip in full-screen mode, [though of course you then can't follow along with my (possibly) insightful commentary unless you print out this text]

The very slow pan-in that opens the movie is one of my favorite (extended) moments in rock cinema. And the larger your screen, the better the effect works. It firmly establishes the desolation of the locale and accentuates the slow wandering nature of the keyboard and guitar intro.

At 2:05 Nick Mason's drums enter fully into the mix in a wonderfully jarring way, bringing a devastatingly heavy rhythm to the piece. The drums are remarkably high in the mix, especially the crash cymbals--often creating a shimmering drone with their continual shakes throughout the song. The smoothness of the other instruments and the vocals seems a bit too perfect for a "live" setting, especially in the hot breezy outdoors. It makes me wonder how much studio overdubs come into play in the sound mix. The drums, though, always sound live, raw, and uncompressed. The cymbals are given room to ooze on top of the other sounds like they were never allowed to in the studio.

When David Gilmour's guitar solo close-up tiles the screen around 6:00, if you try to take it in as a whole, without focusing in on any particular tile, you'll experience a pleasant 3D effect that compliments the psychedelia.

At 6:25, Nick does a cool little flip with his right drum stick that's so quick and subtle you'll barely notice it, but it quietly screams coolness and percussive mastery, as if he were saying, deadpan , "yes, I am the greatest drummer in the world. I am aware of that." From 6:25 to 7:36, the dialogue nature of the Mason/Gilmour exchange is highlighted by the quick cuts and split screens between the guitar and drums.

When 70s Floyd is discussed, you always hear Gilmour or Water's mentioned. Very little is ever said about Nick Mason's drumming. But gets an awful lot of (deserved) close-up time in this clip

At 7:37, there's an awkward jump in the sound that suggests a splice in the audio. An accompanying jump in the camera angle to the huge mass of the band's gear suggests that this second part of the tune is from a different performance. Certainly, there were multiple takes of the extended tunes during the week of filming that took place at Pompeil

This second part of segment, starting at 7:37 belongs to Roger Waters. His bass suddenly becomes very prominent in the mix at this point. Gilmour begins to wail on his guitar, on top of everything. But his playing is more of a garnish. The important dialogue is now between Waters and Mason.

Waters gets his first close-up of the movie at 7:49, but its just of his bass and his right hand. Over the next few minutes, the camera cuts a number of times between Gilmour's guitar and Water's hand/bass strings but it's not until 10:22 until we see Water's whole upper body. And even then, he's cut off from the chin up.

We never get to the face of the co-founder of the Floyd for the entirety of this opening segment of the film.

He was so tall, dark, and mysterious. Or maybe he was just self-conscious of his very prominent nose...

It's not until the self-indulgent restaurant scene that follows "Echoes" in the movie that we get to see his mug.

Rick Wright gets the least screen time in the clip. He's barely seen after his vocal duet with Waters near the piece's beginning. But after Mason's drum entrance destroys the fragility of Wright's water-droplet keyboard intro, Rick's contributions to the momentum of the piece are minimal.

His shirtless ivory-tickling certainly doesn't detract from "Echoes" but if one member had to be axed because of budget cuts on this song, Eugene's arm would certainly fall down on Mr. Wright. He never does anything essential during the song's instrumental jam-out. so close-ups would be out of place.

For those of you interested in seeking out the whole movie: A few years ago Pink Floyd at Pompeii was released on DVD being touted as "the Director's Cut." But this is misleading. The new version IS longer, but it's lengthened by CGI animation and video clips that are incongruously modern in their origin (1990s? 2000s?) Director Adrian Maben obviously went back and added new stuff instead of weaving in old bits from the vault. This new stuff seriously detracts from the impact and atmosphere of the movie. It has the same effect as the CGI additions in the re-release of the original Star Wars Trilogy (ie episodes IV-VI)


The At Pompeii director's cut is about 30 minutes longer, so I think there might actually be additional vintage performance footage included, but I strongly recommended seeing the original cut first (thankfully included on the DVD) and then just skipping around the "Director's Cut" to see what additional vintage bits have been pulled from the vault.