15 August 2017
Greg Denieffe writes:
Have you ever heard of the prog-rock group the Anderson Council? Me neither, but if Syd Barrett had been otherwise inclined, Pink Floyd may have ended up having a name that sounded more like a local authority than a cool 1960s musical tour de force that would last nigh on half a century. The story goes that Barrett made up the name Pink Floyd on the spur of the moment when he discovered that another band was called the Tea Set, the name that “Pink Floyd” was using at the time. The name is derived from the first names of two blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council that Barrett had in his record collection.
Barrett was a founding member of the band in 1965 but ‘left’ in 1968 and was replaced by David Gilmour and Pink Floyd went on to become a huge international success based on their concept albums and concerts. It is Gilmour’s floating recording studio that Tim Koch photographed on his recent visit to Molesey Regatta and which he described as ‘A charming houseboat … moored off Garrick’s Lawn.’
Despite the band’s confession in the song “Time”(3) that they ‘Thought I’d something more to say’, I find Pink Floyd’s lyrics interesting and thought provoking, their music masterful and their videos amongst the finest ever produced.
I first became aware of the Astoria serendipitously in 2006 whilst watching the BBC programme Three Men in a Boat which featured an Irishman, an Englishman and a Welshman (Dara Ó Briain, Rory McGrath and Griff Rhys Jones) rowing a replica wooden skiff from Kingston-upon-Thames to Oxford. Many moons ago, I had the good fortune to attend a Dara Ó Briain show and the misfortune to be one of his chosen victims in his hilariously funny (when it happens to someone else) stand-up routine. McGrath imagines himself as a river-god strangely attractive to the opposite sex. Jones is the only one interested in boats per se and therefore sees himself as Captain of Boats much to the annoyance of the other two. Curiously, the combination worked and the BBC commissioned six further takes on the Jerome K. Jerome classic.
It is early in the very first episode that the three comedians and their dog Loli encounter the Astoria and her owner who shows the trio around his floating studio and discusses the boat’s history. For me, as a rowing-history-and-Pink-Floyd-loving-wooden-boat-enthusiast, it is the highlight of the complete 14 programmes that make up the seven variations of the show screened between 2006 and 2011.
“Three Men in a Boat”, Episode 1 – ‘hi-fidelity first class travelling set’(4)
Gilmour bought the boat in 1986 after seeing it advertised for sale in a copy of Country Life magazine in his dentist’s waiting room:
I just happened to find this beautiful boat that was built as a houseboat and was very cheap, so I bought it. And then only afterward did I think I could maybe use it to record. The control room is a 30-foot by 20-foot room. It’s a very comfortable working environment: three bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, a big lounge. It’s 90 feet long – Gilmour in 1992.
The houseboat’s early history is also interesting: construction of it began in 1911; its owner would be Fred Karno, an English theatre impresario, best remembered for a couple of sayings that still survive. The first been his golden rule of comedy, ‘When in doubt, fall on your arse’ and the second ‘Fred Karno’s Army/Circus’ referring to a chaotic situation. For those of us who love Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, both Karno comedians, these sayings need no explanation.
The Thameside Molesey [TM] website (also a book by Rowland G.M. Baker) records that the Astoria was not Karno’s first houseboat. That was the Highland Lassie, which he purchased in 1903. The website reveals that ‘from then on, Fred spent as much time as he could on his new purchase. He had always been regarded as something of a womaniser, and the houseboat developed into an ideally sequestered love-nest – an early version of what became known as the casting couch.’
By 1911, Karno was at the height of his fame and he wanted to own the best houseboat on the Thames, so he decided to build his own. TM again:
Once fixed on the idea he set to work with his usual enthusiasm and earnestness. The layout he devised himself, with the help and advice of anybody he could find, including Mr Henry Hewitt, who had built himself what was then thought of as the finest houseboat on the Thames – Satsuma – which was moored at Platts Ait just up the river. After spending much time discussing the plans, he had his chief stage carpenter make a wooden scale model, perfect in every detail, to see what in would look like and to reassure himself for he was going to expend a great deal of money. The hull was laid down at Brentford and, after launching, it was towed up to Tagg’s Island, ready to receive the superstructure and living quarters. Everything was absolutely de luxe, the most expensive, the most lavish. The spacious saloon and the cabins were all panelled in solid mahogany, the floors were thickly carpeted, the window frames were bronze, and the bathroom was walled and fitted with washbasins, all in finest marble. Electric light, water, and the telephone were installed and the rich furnishings were supplied by Maples of Tottenham Court Road. The sun deck, ninety feet long by eighteen feet wide, was surmounted by an elaborate wrought-iron framework, over which could he drawn a canvas awning, and on which hundreds of electric fairy lamps were suspended to flood it with light for evening dances, for these a full orchestra was often engaged. It was the nonpareil of houseboats, even larger and more luxurious than Satsuma; all others paled to mere floating camps beside it. This vast wonder, which was christened Astoria, cost a sum variously estimated up to £20,000, an enormous amount in 1913.
He followed his houseboat project by buying Tagg’s Island and redeveloping a hotel there which he called Karsino. It was the playground of Edwardian High Society but the war years that followed and the gradual decline of the Music Hall took their toll and in 1927 he was declared bankrupt.
Gilmour spared no expense on refurbishing it. A new wooden hull set inside a metal hull took care of the wet side. Inside he built a unique recording studio where parts of the band’s last three albums were recorded.
I have no doubt that working in such a beautiful studio, in such an inspiring place, has influenced Gilmour to become aware of the culture of both rowing and boating folk. It is no surprise that some of this culture has found its way into his work. In 1987, the year after he purchased the Astoria, Pink Floyd released their album, A Momentary Lapse of Reason and the opening track, “Signs of Life”, arguably the band’s first instrumental, begins to the sound of oars being pulled through the water. It is worth listening to this track before watching the video below to appreciate the beauty of the sound.
The video used to promote “Signs of Life”(6) features Langley Iddins, caretaker of the Astoria rowing on the River Cam through Grantchester Meadows near Cambridge.
Seven years after releasing A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Pink Floyd was back in the studio and they called the resultant album The Division Bell. A new logo was created for its release and the band’s promotional tour. The logo is called The Boatman and it may be interpreted as a ‘P’ and an upside-down ‘F’ but it also looks like a man on a paddle board. Turned on its head it could be ‘d’ and ‘G’ to represent David Gilmour.
|‘The Boatman’ – One of Pink Floyd’s many logos.|
Since the release of The Division Bell in 1994, three more albums with names connected with the river have come from the floating studio: David Gilmour’s 2006 solo album, On an Island; Pink Floyd’s final album, The Endless River (2014) and another solo album, Rattle That Lock [I’m stretching the river connection with that one!] (2015). Created as a swan song for the late Richard Wright, the band’s former keyboardist, and an overall farewell album for Pink Floyd, The Endless River is a mostly instrumental album, forged from the original recording sessions for The Division Bell in 1993 and it has a striking cover inspired by The Boatman logo.
The last track on the album, “Louder Than Words”, is the only one with lyrics; written by David Gilmour’s wife, Polly Samson, as were so many of his songs. We Floydians owe her much respect. For me, this song saves the album and its promotional video is a thing of beauty with so much meaning behind it that there could be no more fitting way for the band to sign-off. The video begins with a young man paddle-boarding a rowing skiff through a river of clouds before transitioning into studio clips and footage filmed in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan where most of the video was shot on what was once the Aral Sea. The ‘lake’ has shrunk to 10 percent of its original size, destroying the fishing industry and whole towns. Now that is Sad (an overused Trumpism). Please watch the video and listen to the words.
Official video for “Louder Than Words”(8) Turns out the band (what is left of it) had something to say, after all.
I know from past experienced that hyperlinks to YouTube videos can easily lead to nothing more than an official notice that the video has been removed and you should buzz off and get a life. This is especially so if you link to a Bob Dylan video. Thankfully, Pink Floyd (and Island Records, U2’s record company, to whom I will be forever grateful) have a more holistic view. However, here is a list of the Pink Floyd tracks linked in the article in case the links fail:
*1) Have a Cigar (1975) – contains the lyric “which one’s Pink?” From a rowing point of view the answer is easy; Oxbridge has its rowing Blues, UL its Purples and the University of Dublin [Trinity College] has its Pinks.
2) Wish You Were Here (1975).
3) Time (1973).
4) Money (1973).
5) Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun (1968).
6) Signs of Life (1987).
7) The Great Gig in the Sky (1973).
8) Louder Than Words (2014).