40 Years Ago: Nick Mason’s Solo Debut ‘Fictitious Sports’ Takes a Surprising Turn
Nick Mason left The Wall behind before Pink Floyd even finished mixing the troubled project, determined to reengage with music again. He ended up in New York, working with the talented jazz pianist and bandleader Carla Bley.
It wasn't always as much of a left turn as it sounded, though Mason took pains back then to explain his rationale. "I don't feel that I'd like Pink Floyd to suddenly adopt a rather jazzy style," Mason told the Amazing Pudding, a Pink Floyd fanzine. "It's just something I'd like to investigate with some other musicians. What I obviously hope is that people who are interested in the Floyd might give it a listen, simply on the grounds that it's relevant to the band."
The resulting Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports arrived on May 3, 1981, with the awfully familiar-sounding "Hot River" and an expected car-themed song from Floyd's racing-nut drummer. James Guthrie, then at the beginning of a lengthy association with Mason's main band, was also behind the boards as a mixer.
"It's really a Pink Floyd pastiche as you might guess, if you listen closely," Mason said of "Hot River." "It has all my favorite cliches of the last 14 years, as far as the drum track's concerned; Chris [Spedding] doing a slightly Dave Gilmour-style guitar; and a vocal track lifted straight off Dark Side of the Moon – apart from where it disappears underwater."
There are certainly other times the album might have been more accurately called Carla Bley's Fictitious Sports. The songs actually emerged from rehearsals Bley led for a more rock-focused new band called Penny Cillin and the Burning Sensation, and they tapped directly into the late-'70s zeitgeist. "If there's such a thing as punk-jazz, this is it," The New York Times said of Fictitious Sports at the time.
Listen to Nick Mason's 'Hot River'
Still, the musically open Mason provided the perfect foil.
"Originally, I had arranged to go to America and make an album using all sorts of material, but then Carla sent me a cassette with some of her ideas," Mason told Amazing Pudding. "It was very different from what she had done before and absolutely in line with what I like. So I thought it would be much better to do that than to struggle desperately to find things that work together."
Bley also nudged Mason's reclusive friend Robert Wyatt out of an extended hiatus. It helped that the Soft Machine singer had worked with Bley on her husband Michael Mantler's 1976 album The Hapless Child. Mantler engineered and added trumpet to Fictitious Sports, while Wyatt handled lead vocals on all but the opening song.
“Carla Bley made me work when I wasn't working," Wyatt said in 2014's Different Every Time: The Authorized Biography of Robert Wyatt. "She said, 'Come on, who do you think you are? Some fucking pop star? You've never had a hit record; you're not good-looking enough. You're just a musician like the rest of us, so get on with it!' So she shamed me back into the studio – and I enjoyed it."
His presence was fortuitous, since the assiduously offbeat Wyatt might be the only singer who could have pulled off the name-dropping lyrics from "I'm a Mineralist," which include: "Erik Satie gets my rocks off / Cage is a dream / Philip Glass is mineralist to the extreme." Elsewhere, "I Was Wrong" finds a shocked UFO skeptic coming face-to-face with a flying saucer, while "Boo to You Too" seems to presuppose the entire enterprise's commercial failure. Mason would later describe "Siam" as "sort of a new wave King and I."
It must have all seemed deliriously weird, in particular to stodgy label executives. Session work was completed by October 1979, but Fictitious Sports sat on a shelf for almost two years – perhaps due to understandable confusion over its odd-duck combination of musical figures. The results, Mason would later admit, ended up "more as an exercise" than a new career direction.
Listen to Nick Mason's 'I'm a Mineralist'
"Hot River" was paired with "Can't Get My Motor to Start" for radio play but to no avail. By the summer of 1982, Mason was back in the studio for a final Roger Waters-helmed Pink Floyd project, The Final Cut.
Still, he looked back with fondness at the period, even if nothing much became of his first solo project: "These recordings hold a very special place for me in my musical life," Mason said in announcing Unattended Luggage, a 2018 career-retrospective box set.
He returned to solo work in the space between Pink Floyd's The Final Cut and 1987's Momentary Lapse of Reason, releasing Profiles in 1985 and White of the Eye in 1987 with former 10cc guitarist Rick Fenn. Neither of those projects was met with much fanfare either, despite Gilmour's presence in one song on Profiles.
By then, Bley had likewise moved far afield of the creative impulses that drove Mason's debut.
"Those songs on the Fictitious Sports album were heavily influenced by the whole punk-rock thing," Bley told The New York Times in 1981. "I was infatuated with it, and you know what people do under the influence of infatuation - crazy things. But I'm no longer infatuated with it; I'm bored to tears by the whole thing. My new songs aren't influenced at all by that scene."
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