Welcome to the Machines: LUSSO Interviews Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason
Money can’t bring you happiness – as the Pink Floyd song doesn’t go. A cliché spun by the poor to give succour to a life of Travelodges and Nando’s? Very probably.
Allegedly, psychologists have definitively worked out the time it takes for lottery winners to lose the glow of good fortune. It’s 12 months. That’s all you get before the new problems wealth can bring blot out the fabulous benefits and you begin to see your Croesus-like endowment as a Midas-like curse. At least that’s what the rest of us are hoping.
While money may be the root of all evil today, the truth is that enjoying wealth is a talent. As is generating that wealth while sitting on a round, leather stool, hitting wooden tubs and metal discs, and cultivating a detached, yet benevolent
Pink Floyd’s drummer, Nick Mason, ponders his good fortune as he schlumps back into the huge grey banquette that sits at one end of the massive warehouse space that serves as his personal office. Naturally, pinball machines, light aircraft and real Formula 1 cars stand in for cheese plants as workplace ornaments.
“All drummers have to be in a band. We don’t have the choice to go solo, so we have to develop a manner that makes us agreeable to others. In this way, we may give the appearance of being better adjusted than, say, certain bass players. There are happy-go-lucky guitarists too. Or so I understand.”
Drummers, I suggest, also have a much warmer relationship with their parents because a) mum and dad buy them the drums in the first place, and b) said parents show largesse by allowing their offspring to practice, risking their insanity in the process. Mason blinks. “Mmmmm… Yes, doctor. I’ll get back to you on that one.”
A contained, genteel and pragmatic man, Nicholas Berkely Mason has lived, by most people’s standards, a very good life. He escaped Birmingham as a baby, grew up on one of London’s most beautiful streets – in Hampstead – met Roger Waters at architecture school, joined Roger’s band and became very rich and a little famous, while managing to avoid most of the legendary arguments by not being particularly stroppy. In the process, he acquired some of the best cars in the world and that’s what I’m here to discuss. Specifically, the latest edition of Mason’s automobile-based coffee table book, called Passion for Speed.
A luxurious and thorough journey through one of the world’s great private collections (though he considers the term collection “sterile”), the book serves as a high-end audit and personal tribute to some of the remarkable cars that fill
Mason’s (large) garage. Spanning more than a century of precision engineering from the 1901 Panhard B1 to the rare as hen’s teeth 2003 Ferrari Enzo, the pages feature lovely photography, Mason’s characteristically droll musings on each of his babies and a write-up on the driving experience by test driver Mark Hales. Mason admits some of his cars he avoids driving due to their temperament. Hales is his 200mph guinea pig.
While other rock drummers imploded in various puddles of booze, drugs and bizarre gardening incidents – Google the great Jeff Porcaro if you think I’m joking – Mason fell pray to a more wily kind of pusher man: car dealers. Mason was introduced to motor racing as a boy by his documentary-making father, Bill.
After Pink Floyd sang about Money in 1973, they seemed to get rather a lot of it. Despite the luxurious life available to him, Mason still considers those heady days, when the circuits were old airfields, race control was a battered double-decker bus and hospitality a manky sausage roll, the perfect day out.
So he proved a soft target for anyone with an amazing classic car to offload. They did a fine job on him. His treasure trove – and the book doesn’t cover it all – includes the gorgeous 1927 Bugatti T35B, Le Mans-slaying Porsche 935 and, perhaps most famously, the motor that at one time incrementally increased his net worth: the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO.
“I’d seen one race when I was a young man and had a picture of it on my bedroom wall,” says the 67 year-old. “So beautiful. When this one came up I thought the price was steep. But I bought it without a fight.” The dealer thought he’d got one over on Mason, but had to watch as it ended up worth over £10m.
“Of course,” he sniffs stoically, “It ain’t worth that now.” Mason’s reputation as a canny investor took a battering when the classic car market went into reverse. “Turns out, it was the same one I’d had on my wall So, I’m happy.” Well, yes. He has admitted picking the kids up in it – it’s that practical. So is that his favourite car to drive in town?
“I hate to drive an exotic car around London,” he says. “I use bikes and an Audi RS6. It’s quick, but it’s soft, unlike the competition. A consistently comfortable ride is a gift of the modern era and that’s what most of us want in a day-to-day car. I can’t get my drums in a Ferrari 458, for example…” Where would you take that? “Oh, the Nurburgring – it’s just perfect and you can blast it in safety. Great fun.”
As I try to process the image of a premier league rock star in an Audi RS6, I muse on the fact that, like classic analogue-recorded albums of the 70s, much of the beauty and functionality of Mason’s car collection represents superior craftsmanship on the brink of extinction. “That’s true,” he agrees. “Marketing often wins out over brilliance. Economics can be cruel to the beautiful things we create.”
I observe that the book celebrates those cars as something visceral and sensual, yet utterly anachronistic. “Absolutely. It’s Jurassic Park to some extent. These days it’s more important to have a hands free phone, good sound and a smooth auto gearbox because, in the main, you’ll be sitting in traffic. Open road driving is rare.
“The thing that annoys me about modern cars is that they keep adding a bit of width every couple of years and now we can’t get two cars down a street. The old Golf was far narrower than today’s – partly for safety, obviously, partly because people are getting fatter.”
But surely, I suggest, the lure of these amazing objects isn’t just nostalgia?
“Someone once wrote that speed and petrol was the greatest drug addiction of the 20th Century and that’s true,” Mason muses. “Like all the best drugs it has a number of facets to it and not all of them capture everyone. A lot of car enthusiasts have different agendas and interests that may be rather at odds with each other.”
This reminds me of Charlie Watts, drummer with the Rolling Stones, who allegedly can’t drive, but still has a large car collection. Having picked a suit that matches the car’s interior, he just enjoys sitting in the back of them – parked in his driveway. Mason chuckles at the thought.
“Or Ralph Lauren – he has exquisite taste in cars but will never race them. Each enthusiast might love the coach work, or the precision of jewel-like engineering, or the technical brilliance. Or it might be the evocation or realisation of a childhood dream.
“Ever since the Model T we’ve had mass production, but I think we’re getting into more bespoke car building. The technology will allow quicker production of a tailored model that is unique to you. So we will, in a way, get back to something more crafted. Let’s hope the same thing happens in music.”
Talking of making albums, the book comes with Nick’s latest CD. Perhaps not for the Floyd completist, it solely comprises recordings of the beautiful grunts and screams of his metal harem in action.
“It’s recorded in stereo, so you do get the panning as the car moves around the track,” he says. “Some I could name just by listening – they’re so distinctive. But others could be any number of V12s. The driving experience and engineering is what gives them their character.”
The electric Tesla wouldn’t sound as great though, I joke. The musician’s creative cogs start turning. “I think it would be a fitting end to the album, this John Cage-like void.”
Can Mason imagine an alternative reality where he wasn’t in the Floyd and finds himself at a classic race meet, like us mere mortals, salivating like a kid in a candy-store? “I can paint a pretty accurate picture of what that would look like, actually,” he says. “I would be at Goodwood, gawping at the Ferraris, wondering who in the world owns that Ferarri 250 GTO.” He is clearly genuinely in awe of the thing.
“But I would still race one car, probably the Aston Ulster,” he adds, name checking the big, red 1935 British beast that features in the book. “I know loads of guys on the circuit who own one car – in some cases it’s a third generation heirloom – and they have just as much fun as I do. I have a broader range to choose from but these guys know their car inside out. Even if I had ended up as an architect, I’d still have that merry drummer’s attitude and would still be enjoying life, I think.”
If actually being in the hi-fidelity, first-class travelling set and needing a Learjet has made him miserable, he does a remarkable job of hiding it. Which leads to my last question. You can’t interview a rock star without channeling Spinal Tap.
“Would you say in between Roger’s fire and David’s ice, you were lukewarm water?” I ask. The smile indicates he’s wise to my impertinence.
“A band is greater than the sum of its parts. And all great bands need their George Harrisons, their Charlie Watts, their John Entwistles – to balance out the…er…more vocal members.”
Finally, I remind him that he once said his career was “like being locked in a room with three lunatics who never ever said thank you”.
“That,” ruminates Mason, pleased to have coined a corker, “is a classic drummer’s quote.” Classic, indeed.
Passion for Speed is published by Carlton Books and is available from Amazon.co.uk.