Nick Mason "I remember"

Simon Button

Nick Mason (76) is a British drummer and co-founder of the legendary rock band Pink Floyd. He talks about keeping the band’s legacy alive as the frontman for Saucerful of Secrets

…Summer holidays in Cornwall. We’re talking the late 1940s and early 1950s so it was the classic thing of beaches and buckets and spades. We’d venture as a family there from Hampstead in London, which is where we moved to from Birmingham when I was about two years old. My father was a documentary filmmaker who ended up working for Shell’s film unit, and that was based in London.

 

…The festival of Britain. It was held in 1951 and I recall visiting the South Bank to see the science-themed Dome Of Discovery and the huge Skylon tower, which were really impressive for a seven-year-old to encounter. I had such a happy childhood, living in a house that backed onto Hampstead Heath in a world when kids could still go off and play without their parents worrying about them.

 

...Dad loved cars. He was what is now called a petrol head, having an old car and racing it, and I was taken to Silverstone as a very small boy. I eventually got into motor racing and collecting classic cars, so it’s stayed with me all my life. If I had to pick one word to describe Mum it would be “patient”. A lot of dad’s work was in the summer so she was in charge of myself and my three younger sisters, with Dad being in and out whenever he could.

 

…We had an African drum in the house. A musician friend of my parents gave me a pair of wire brushes and that’s where my love of drumming began. I’d played a tea chest bass but the drums were a lot more fun. Then someone invented rock ‘n’ roll and the rest is history.

 

…Meeting Roger Walters at Regent Street polytechnic was slightly scary. It was the first day of term, when we were both studying to be architects. I suspect he was somewhere at the back being rather aloof or trying to blag a cigarette off Rick Wright.

 

…Someone at poly had written some songs and needed to play them for a publisher. He asked if anyone could play an instrument and Roger said he played a bit of guitar, I said I played a bit of drums and Rick played keyboards. So we learned the songs and the publisher said they were quite good but the band was truly dreadful. That set something alight in us, a sense of That’s what you think! and that led to the formation of a band that had various names—like Sigma 6, the Spectrum 5 and the Tea Set—and line-up changes before we finally became Pink Floyd.

 

…We were playing a gig in Northolt when the promoter asked us the name of the band. We said the Tea Set and he answered, “Sorry, you can’t be the Tea Set cos they’re on now so we need something else.” Syd Barrett had an RnB album featuring musicians called Pink Henderson and Floyd Council so he went “We’ll be the Pink Floyd Sound”.

 

…Our most memorable early gigs were at UFO. It was an underground club in Tottenham Court Road that was unique to London because all the other venues around the country were regular clubs and top rank ballrooms. We played there, Soft Machine played there, The Beatles would come down to see what was going on—it was completely unique.

 

…When our first single "Arnold Layne" was banned from the radio we were outraged. If you listen to the words now [which reference cross-dressing] it’s hardly likely to have a bad influence on the morals of young people, and what’s bizarre is that later “Walk On The Wild Side”—Lou Reed’s song that was definitely dodgy—was played on the radio. There was no logic to it.

 

…Jimi Hendrix was lovely man. We supported him on tour in the late Sixties and he was charming, softly-spoken and absolutely not the wild man. And through him I became friends with his drummer, Mitch Mitchell, who was a big influence on my playing.

 

…We were thrilled when Dave Gilmour joined the band in 1968. I knew him anyway because he was a friend of Syd and Roger’s, a great guitar player and a great singer. Syd was beginning to crumble [from drugs and mental health issues] so Dave was sort of the salvation of the group. The remarkable thing is that Syd had been front man and the main writer but within three months we simply didn’t miss him.

 

…Juggling work and family was something I did rather badly, at least at first. I don’t want to go into detail, but my first marriage broke up and it was entirely my fault. It’s difficult to live that sort of life, travelling a lot and working odd hours; life is much simpler when you have some structure to it.

 

…We knew Dark Side of The Moon was the best thing we'd ever done. But no one ever knows, however good the work, if the public will have the same opinion. It just seems that a number of things worked with that album. The timing was right, people were interested in more complex rock music, Roger’s lyrics were written by a 23-year-old but still relevant to a 60-year-old, and the technology at Abbey Road was sensational at the time.

 

…Playing stadiums for the Animals tour wasn't that big a jolt. You go from clubs to theatres to arenas and finally into stadiums. You’re always looking to move on because the bigger the venue the more you can mess around with the staging—with giant inflatables, pyramids or whatever—although in stadiums you run the risk of losing 20 per cent of the audience because they’re playing frisbee at the back or doing drugs.

 

…Success isn't always fun. You’d have to be a very peculiar chap not to go through 50-odd years without sometimes thinking, What are we really doing here? Some of it is hard work.

[Being a rock star is] still probably the best job in the world but there are difficult times when you’re travelling and get stuck somewhere, or you spend a month in the recording studio, listen to it back and think, We can’t actually use this, it’s not good enough.

 

…Motor racing was a dream that came true. With the help of an expert I started racing historic cars, loved it, carried on, then when we were recording The Wall outside England I got asked to join a team and run at Le Mans. I’d never raced modern cars before but it was absolutely brilliant so I went back the next year and ended up doing five or six years of modern racing—although that had to be parked when we went back on the road and I went back to historics instead. My kids race and my wife races, my son-in-law is a professional, so it runs in the family, although I’ve sort of said I’m stopping myself.

 

…I learned to fly because I was frightened of flying. I was talking to a friend of mine who runs a flying circus and is also a pilot and I said, “The only trouble with touring is having to fly”. His reply, which turned out to be the most expensive therapy on the planet, was “You need to learn to fly yourself”. My first lesson was a trip to Paris and I ended up doing five or six years flying fixed-wings before Dave Gilmour and myself shared various interesting old aeroplanes. Then he took my wife for a flight in a helicopter, she loved it and we both learned how to fly them ourselves. She does it for fun and I do it for therapy!

 

…Getting Pink Floyd back together was Live 8 was terrific. I never thought it would happen but Bob Geldof is incredibly persuasive and the timing was perfect. I was so pleased we did it because it was a great moment for a band that’s famous for not getting on to be able to work together for a good cause rather than mega-money.

 

…Doing tracks from the early years as Nick Mason's Saucerful Of Secrets has been brilliant. We started out doing three nights in a pub, then Dingwalls in Camden and people really liked it so I thought Right, we’ll carry on with this. I assumed there’d be an audience for the old stuff but I underestimated the fan base for it.

Read more: Sir Ian McKellen Interview

Read more: Literary lesbian heroes: Natalie Barney


Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter