Is Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” an alternate soundtrack for the climactic Stargate sequence in Kubrick’s science-fiction masterpiece?
By now, almost everyone has heard the urban legend that Pink Floyd’s 1972 progressive rock album DARK SIDE OF THE MOON is a sort of substitute soundtrack for MGM’s classic film THE WIZARD OF OZ. There’s even been talk that Floyd’s follow-up recording, WISH YOU WERE HERE, also synchs up with OZ in interesting ways. But did you know that there is supposedly yet a third unofficial soundtrack attributed to the group? That’s right: according to the Internet Movie Database, “Echoes,” the 23:31 track that takes up all of Side Two on the 1971 album MEDDLE, was intentionally composed and recorded to synchronize with the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.
There is one very obvious advantage to this last rumor, which makes it seem slightly more credible than the stories about DARK SIDE OF THE MOON and WISH YOU WERE HERE: Those albums run approximately forty minutes each, which means that the only way to provide background music for a feature length film is by putting your compact disc player on the “Repeat” setting and letting the music play through two or three times. Since compact discs didn’t even exist when the Floyd made those original recordings, one has to assume that the band were true music visionaries, who could see into a future time when their vinyl records would be transposed onto a new medium that would not only eliminate the need to flip the record from Side A to Side B, but would also allow the music to play continuously without the listener having to hit a “Start” button every forty minutes. The story regarding “Echoes,” on the other hand, suggests not that the whole of MEDDLE was designed as an alternate soundtrack to 2001, but that only this one long piece on Side Two was synchronized with one very specific sequence, which runs approximately the same length.
You’ll note the word “approximately” in that last sentence. Not to keep you in suspense, dear reader, I may as well state now that the music is not quite long enough to cover the entirety of the “Jupiter and Beyond” sequence. Whether you drop the needle before or after the Inter-title card that announces the beginning of the Ultimate Trip, the last notes echo and die before the final fade, even before the final shot of the Star Child if you start precisely at the beginning of the sequence. Of course, you can try to adjust for this by cueing up the music slightly later, but that throws off all those neat little moments of serendipitous synchronicity, when the transitions in the music seems to match the transitions on screen.
A SAUCERFUL OF SECRETS
But before getting into that, let’s take a look at the history of the band and the song itself, just enough to show that any synchronization is truly coincidental. In the mid-to-late-‘60s, Pink Floyd was an underground or cult band with a dedicated following and a reputation as psychedelic space rockers. This misleading reputation was based on a few song titles (such as “Astronomy Domine” and “Set Your Controls for the Heart of the Sun”) and on the erroneous belief that the group sought inspiration in LSD. Actually, the members’ vice of choice was alcohol; the only heavy drug user was founding singer-songwriter-guitarist Syd Barrett, who had left the group after its second album, when his mental stability deteriorated to the point where he could no longer function reliably.
Having lost their chief songwriter, remaining members Roger Waters, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright enlisted David Gilmour as a replacement guitarist, and the band began experimenting with different compositional strategies. One method that seemed to work was taking different bits and pieces, often improvised, and combining them into longer works. By the end of the ‘60s, the band had come up with several extended pieces in the ten-minute range, such as “Saucerful of Secrets.” Their evocative instrumental sound also led them to dabble in composing music for films (i.e., MORE and ZABRISKIE POINT). By the time of the 1970 album ATOM HEART MOTHER, the band was ambitious enough to turn the title track into a six-part suite, backed by a full orchestra, but the final result was considered less than satisfying.
MEDDLE was an attempt to improve upon the ideas used in ATOM HEAR MOTHER. The original album consisted of five short pieces on Side One and “Echoes” on Side Two. The story behind the creation of this lengthy effort is detailed in ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL: The Stories Behind Every Pink Floyd Song by Cliff Jones. The band gathered in the recording studio with the goal of creating a song that would fill an entire side of a record. Playing to a metronome, they recorded thirty-six discrete pieces of music. These thirty-six pieces were then edited together, re-recorded and re-edited and redubbed until eight major sections remained. At no point in Jones’ account is 2001 or Stanley Kubrick mentioned, and in fact the recording did not take its final shape until after the song had been played live on at least a few occasions, on the basis of which the group went back to further refine the album track. In other words, the final version was based on what worked best as a live concert performance, not on whether it synched up with a movie.
What emerged is a classic piece of psychedelic progressive rock, filled with hypnotic cadences, bluesy guitar lines, and moody lyrics. The verses were originally supposed to have a science fiction theme (which may explain why the music seems so appropriate for images of planets and ships drifting in space), but lyricist Roger Waters refashioned them before the final recording, evoking images of the deep blue sea rather than black interstellar space, as in the following passage:
Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air
And deep beneath the rolling waves in labyrinths of coral caves
The echo of a distant tide comes willowing across the sand
And everything is green and submarine.
With all of this being the case, why would anyone associate this music with the Kubrick film? There are a few possible reasons. First off, some echoes of science fiction do remain in the lyrics: lines like “no one flies around the sun” and “So I throw the windows wide and call to you across the skies.” More particularly, there is an intriguing moment when the singer intones “I am you and what I see is me”—a line that does seem evocative of Dave Bowman’s confused progression through time at the conclusion of the film, wherein he constantly sees older versions of himself, only to become that older version before finally transforming into the Star Child. Unfortunately, this verse comes about ten minutes too early to match up with the scene in the film.
I suspect another reason has to do with the popularity of Laserium shows at planetariums, such as the Griffith Park Observatory in the Hollywood Hills. Those old scientific light shows, explaining such facts as where to find Venus in the twilight sky, didn’t always draw large crowds of teenagers with disposable cash, but combining laser light effects with popular music was a rather commercial way of using the same facilities. The music of Pink Floyd was in many ways uniquely suited for this. The instrumental passages in their work often seemed like imaginary soundtrack material that invited the listener to close his eyes and picture movies inside his head. These passages could easily be combined with a variety of abstract images that seemed to fit perfectly. No doubt, the planetarium setting helped reinforce the old (and unwanted) reputation as space rockers.
SET YOUR CONTROLS FOR THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON
Who first got the idea to play “Echoes” while watching the ending of 2001 is unknown, but it’s easy to see why the result would be considered evidence of intentional design. The music is very nearly long enough to match the Stargate sequence, and in many instances it does “fit” the imagery on screen.
The track begins with the “Pink Floyd Sonar Ping” (a high note on Wright’s piano, amplified through a Leslie speaker and allowed to resonate throughout the recording studio). This empty, hollow sound seems to set the cold tone for the shots that follow, as the Monolith drifts among the moons of Jupiter. Then the music segues into a three-chord minor progression in a slow tempo that matches the pace of the camera’s panning among the celestial sights.
The first two verses come in at arbitrary points that require lots of vacuum deducting to find any serious intent, but the last line of verse two (“no one flies around the sun”) does hit just as the camera pans up from the aligned moons of Jupiter and the Stargate opens, beginning the trip through another dimension. The instrumental music the follows—guitar lines over a heavy-duty rock riff provided by bass, drums, and Hammond organ—evokes the feel of a Laserium show as the dazzling abstract lights flash past our eyes.
As the special effects shift to exploding galaxies, Gilmour’s guitar shifts to tremolo bar note bending, creating a screaming, abstract effect that comes in as if on cue. Shortly thereafter, the music shifts to a more ambient approach, including bird sound effects, just as we get our first glimpses of an alien landscape. (Of course, there are no birds in the scene, but the effect seems somehow appropriate.)
When astronaut Dave Bowman finds himself mysteriously inside what looks to be an elaborate hotel room, the apparent synchronization falls apart. The quiet series of slow shots that follow are backed up by music that is building back up from its ambient interlude before returning to a third verse. The intricate guitar arpeggios and final lyrics don’t match the scene very well (though I suppose “call to you across the skies” could be taken to refer to the Star Child communicating with Earth), and the music begins to fade just as Bowman makes his final transformation. The slow ebbing away may seem somewhat appropriate as his human life expires, and it does offer a nice spacey feel as the scene briefly returns to interstellar territory; however, the effect comes nowhere near matching the grandiosity of the “Dawn of Man” excerpt from Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra, which is what is really playing on the movie soundtrack at this time. And finally, as mentioned before, the last note dies out before the image fades away, leaving the final shot of the Star Child in silence instead of punctuating it in a manner that it deserves.
The only conclusions one can reasonably reach is that, in spite of some interesting moments of apparent synchronization, “Echoes” was not crafted as an alternate soundtrack to “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.” Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why some moments would lead people to believe that it was, and I recommend the experience for any Floyd and Kubrick fanatics. In a way, the musical juxtaposition is no more off the mark than many scores added to silent movies (a phenomenon that was popularized with films like METROPOLIS and NOSFERATU), and the result may help you to see a favorite movie with new eyes and hear a favorite album with new ears. Any excuse is a good excuse to revisit the classics, I say.
NOTE: This article was originally written in 2001. Since then, I have read that Stanley Kubrick had expressed an interest in having Pink Floyd score 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY; the band was disappointed that this did not come to be, so it is not totally out of the question that they may have had the film on their mind when composing “Echoes.” However, it is worth noting that ECHOES: The Best of Pink Floyd, a two-disc compilation of classic songs released in 2001, includes a shorter, edited version of “Echoes,” running approximately sixteen minutes. If the Floyd ever did intend for the song to synch up with the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence, they clearly abandoned the idea with this release.
MEDDLE, 1971 EMI/Harvest Records. Produced and performed by Pink Floyd. Album tracks: `One of These Days` (Waters, Wright, Mason, Gilmour), `A Pillow of Winds` (Waters, Gilmour), `Fearless` (Waters, Gilmour, interpolating `You’ll Never Walk Alone` by Rodgers & Hammerstein), `San Tropez` (Waters), `Seamus` (Waters, Wright, Mason, Gilmour), `Echoes` (Waters, Wright, Mason, Gilmour).