This vast collection, containing alternative studio and live takes and very early material, covers the pre-Dark Side Of The Moon-era Floyd, a time when they seemed to leap about all over the place, from toy-box psychedelic pop to free improvisation, from languid country rockers to arch conceptualists. Yet for all that, they did return over and over to familiar themes and motifs. Not only are there four versions of Careful With That Axe, Eugene in this box, but also alternative versions with working titles, as well as Explosion, an unreleased take from the Zabriskie Point recordings which is close enough to Careful to give Floyd reasonable grounds to sue themselves.
There’s infinite variety, however, in the sprawling free play, the first hint of which you get on a live version of Pow R Toc H from 1967 that sees Floyd as space-rock launchpad. The sheer synaesthetic frenzy of the playing, in which each member plays an equal role, would provide a template for a more expansive way of playing rock music which was particularly influential in West Germany and on its impending Krautrock movement.
One of the DVD discs features Floyd at the Essener Pop & Blues Festival in 1969, jamming with the similarly influential Frank Zappa on Interstellar Overdrive something of a Sex Pistols at the 100 Club moment for numerous young German rockers. The 1969 disc includes an alternative to the live section of Floyd’s Ummagumma album, which comprised early material recorded live at the Paradiso in Amsterdam and including a towering A Saucerful Of Secrets.
It’s always worth hearing the multiple, myriad ways in which Floyd collectively ascended these particular peaks, even if the sound quality is a touch grainy. More immediately arresting are the opening tracks on disc one, their earliest recordings from 1965 onwards, a revelation if you’ve never heard them on bootleg or limited release. On Lucy Leave Syd Barrett tries, unconvincingly, to match Mick Jagger for macho swagger over a callow, white bluesy back beat. But he shows a sense of humour and pastiche on Double O Bo, re-imagining Bo Diddley as a James Bond spy over the R&B star’s trademark riff. Remember Me is pleasantly colourised by Rick Wright’s keyboards, while on Butterfly Barrett is more true to his fragile character, chasing down the girls with a butterfly net.
There’s also Walk With Me Sydney, in which Roger Waters invites his bandmate to take a trip, which results in hilarious havoc, DTs and, sadly prophetically, a washed out brain. This and a cover of Slim Harpo’s I’m A King Bee show the very young Floyd playing with and on the point of discarding the blues/pop/rock conventions of the UK in the mid-60s, scratching around for the idiosyncrasy they alight on with Arnold Layne and See Emily Play.
This disc also shows how far Barrett-era Floyd came in a short time. Vegetable Man sees Barrett showing signs of struggle under the psychedelic yoke, sardonic about his Carnaby Street carapace of garb, while the rare single Point Me At The Sky (stopping briefly to parody The Beatles Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds) sees Gilmour and Waters preparing to steer Floyd in a softer, more limpid direction.
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The 1967 disc also includes nine takes of John Latham, which turns out to be a tentative effort to emulate the free improvisation being practised at that time by the formidable British collective AMM, whose work fascinated fashionable rockers including Paul McCartney and Barrett. These takes feel like a realisation on the part of the band that making this sort of music isn’t easy and that, despite its apparent chaos, it requires a high degree of training, which Floyd didn’t yet have, to carry off.
John Peel is often the compere on the radio sessions included here, introducing “The Pink Floyd” in slightly star-struck and rather more fey tones than we would later become accustomed to from him. He introduces sessions and live broadcasts, including a fully realised version of Atom Heart Mother. Live in Amsterdam the group grandiosely present material in progress under the banners The Man and The Journey, hinting at the self-important conceptualism which Waters would introduce when he gradually assumed control of the band.
The 1971 disc features intriguing and lengthy run-throughs of material that would eventually feature on Meddle, while the 1972 CD, disappointingly, is just a remix of the Obscured By Clouds album. Still, with all its ups, downs, missteps and inspired leaps, The Early Years feels like a huge, essential slice of rock history, showing a band with the world at their feet who could, and did, go anywhere they pleased.