Monday, October 10, 2011


Continuing on with the massive reissue program of each Pink Floyd studio album, we now come to the most maligned, least understood period of the group's existence.  Not that I'm going to challenge that.  That these albums (aside from Meddle) got released at all, let alone became hits in various countries, speaks volumes of the initial interest in the group from the Syd Barrett days.  Even the band members can't stand them now, both Gilmour and Waters routinely savaging Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother when asked to comment.

Barrett was supposedly the drug casualty, but it's hard not to wonder about the rest of them.  It wasn't so much weirdness at work, which has its own merits, as it was obstinate oddness.  Faced with daunting prospect of writing and signing songs, after their leader proved too unstable, the rest of them all had a try, democratically sharing the blame in most cases.  Required to "write", the members would come up with various bits, and try to string them together.  At one point, in desperation, they tried an experiment where they recorded their parts without hearing what the others were playing, whether it was tempo or key, and attempting to piece them together later.  Those remain unreleased, but when you hear what was allowed out, it's hard to imagine why.

More was a soundtrack for the French director Barbet Schroeder, and was no doubt a welcome artistic move for a group still looking for leadership.  Roger Waters came up with most of the lyrics, but was still uncomfortable singing, so David Gilmour was the lead vocalist.  The vocal pieces are mostly folkie little numbers, with just horrid poesy, some river-daughter thing, with a willow weeping in the river, which somehow zips on up to Cirrus Minor.  There is a nice number called Cymbaline, but the best thing about this disc is that it isn't completely confusing.

Nor is Ummagumma.  That's because the whole first two sides of this double is live, where we are treated to highlights from the band's early days, including the still-rockin' Astronomy Domine.  For the next two sides, each group member was assigned roughly 10 minutes to fill, and that's when it did get confusing.  Richard Wright's attempts at a mini-symphony, Sysyphus, is a mess.  Waters is up next, with a not-bad piece from his pastoral phase, and then the hilarious"Several Species of Small Fury Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict".  It is genuinely batty and wonderful, a sound effects piece much better than anything John and Yoko were doing.  Methinks this went a long way to improving the group's cool factor with college kids, and coming from the glummest man in rock come The Wall, it's still unexpected.  Oh that the others could be this playful.  The rest is just dumb and dumber.

The best thing about Atom Heart Mother is the cow on the cover.

What happened in 1971 was an even bigger surprise.  They got good all of a sudden.  Mostly, they got their instrumental power back, coming up with themes that were memorable and powerful.  Lyrically, Meddle doesn't get much better, but it's sounds impressive, which is half the battle.  Also, Waters finds that whispered singing style what would serve him so well, a world-weary quality which added to the mystery.  Add some synth and Gilmour's guitar work, and this was the sound of the future.  If this had been the only album that preceeded Dark Side Of The Moon, it's success, both in quality and with the public, would not have been so shocking.  But there were so many examples of their failed experiments on the other discs, this still seems like they just got luck.

One more soundtrack for Schroeder was next, 1972's Obscured By Clouds album, for the movie La Vallee.  It was, like More, more bland than anything else, and a disappointing successor to Meddle.  However, they were already hard at work on the true follow-up, and playing songs from Dark Side Of the Moon in concert. This very strange band was about to become one of the biggest groups in the world.

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