Pink Floyd’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here is filled with sounds easily missed by even the most dedicated listener.
There’s jazz virtuoso Stéphane Grappelli playing faint violin on the title track, and the refrain from Floyd’s 1967 hit See Emily Play on Shine On You Crazy Diamond Part IX. The first sound heard on the album is an eerie drone created by fingers running around the rims of wine glasses, each filled with varying amounts of liquid to create different notes.
For more than 30 years the ‘tuned’ wine glasses were all that remained from Household Objects, the working title for a Floyd album started in 1970 and abandoned for good in ’74. In 1973 The Dark Side Of The Moon’s deft mix of hi-fi-friendly sound effects and FM rock turned Pink Floyd into a top-five band in Britain, Europe and, crucially, America. Before that, though, they were a very different proposition.
The Household Objects idea began in 1969, when Floyd began performing a new composition, Work, that involved sawing wood and boiling kettles on stage. A year later they released Atom Heart Mother, an album that included the track Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast, featuring the sound of roadie Alan Styles frying eggs and bacon before ending with the hypnotic sound of a dripping tap. Atom Heart Mother was a UK No.1 hit. But, as drummer Nick Mason admitted, “We were still looking for a coherent direction.”
When Pink Floyd reconvened at Abbey Road Studios in January 1971 they were still looking for that direction. Their immediate solution was to dispense with conventional instruments and bring ‘found’ sounds of the kind they used on Work and Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast to the fore.
John Leckie would go on to produce Muse’s Showbiz and Origin Of Symmetry. In 1971 he was a 22-year-old Abbey Road tape operator assigned to record Floyd’s new music.
“They spent days working on what people now call Household Objects,” Leckie told this writer in 2006. “They were making chords up from the tapping of beer bottles, tearing newspapers to get a rhythm, and letting off aerosol cans to get a hi-hat sound.”
The ideas were catalogued, before the group decamped to George Martin’s Air Studios. They then had a change of heart and returned to conventional instruments for what became their next album, Meddle. Although Meddle utilised some sound effects, the torn newspapers and tapped bottles remained unused.
It would be more than two years before Pink Floyd went back to the Household Objects idea. By then The Dark Side Of The Moon had topped the UK and US charts. But when Floyd reassembled to start work on a follow-up in late 1973 they were in trouble. “We didn’t have an idea between us,” said Nick Mason.
After making the most accessible album of their career, the band’s contrary solution to their writer’s block was to reprise Household Objects. Weeks were spent with engineer Alan Parsons at Abbey Road, creating a percussive rhythm by scraping a witch’s broomstick on the floor or hitting a piece of wood with an axe, and twanging elastic bands stretched between matchsticks. “I’ve always felt that the differentiation between a sound effect and music is all a load of shit,” bassist/songwriter Roger Waters told Zigzag magazine at the time. “Whether you make a sound on a guitar or a water tap is irrelevant.” Waters insisted that Floyd’s new music, using “bottles, knives and felling axes is turning into a really nice piece”.
By the end of the year, though, he’d changed his mind. Nick Mason has since suggested that Household Objects was a “delaying tactic” in the absence of any new songs. Certainly once Waters had conceived the idea of making an album about absence – the absence of troubled founder member Syd Barrett; the absence of Waters’s soon-to-be ex-wife; and what he regarded as the absence of commitment from his bandmates – the Wish You Were Here album fell into place and Household Objects was forgotten. Although not everyone was happy with this decision. “I was rather disappointed it never came to anything,” said Alan Parsons.
In 2011, Pink Floyd released extended versions of Dark Side and Wish You Were Here. The latter now included the original tuned wine glasses track, and the new Dark Side contained another extract from Household Objects: The Hard Way, 3:10 minutes of what may or may not have been torn newspapers in place of drums and what sounds like plucked elastic bands in place of a bass. But the melodic refrain that cuts through several seconds in is pure melancholy Floyd. Fans had waited decades to hear this stuff. The band themselves quickly pointed out that nowadays you could make these sounds in an afternoon on a synthesiser or programmer.
You can understand the band’s reluctance to attach much importance to Household Objects now. After all, The Dark Side Of The Moon turned 20-something ennui and navel-gazing into big business, and Pink Floyd rightly never looked back again. But the sounds of these plucked elastic bands and scraping broomsticks are the last hurrah for the old Pink Floyd; the one that was young, silly and experimental. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” said Roger Waters. It was, and it still is.