Atom Heart Mother
By ProgBlog, Oct 23 2016 05:48PM
Pink Floyd appear to be getting everywhere, setting themselves up as a cultural touchstone with a set of Royal Mail postage stamps commemorating their albums and live performances, and while there’s currently an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum You Say You Want A Revolution, Records and Rebels 1966 – 1970 which features the Floyd, there’s a dedicated Floyd exhibition at the museum planned for early next year. Despite their mass appeal and huge commercial success, Pink Floyd have been praised and derided in equal measure and though 2014’s The Endless River is likely to be their last release of ‘new’ material (the bulk of the record was from sessions with Rick Wright, who died in 2008) it’s only relatively recently that the surviving band members have shaken off their relative anonymity. Their sonic legacy stretches back an amazing 50 years so it’s neither unexpected nor unreasonable that their mark on the cultural landscape has acquired an establishment-like acceptance. The Guardian may not be the mouthpiece of the establishment but it’s as close to a voice of reason we’re going to get in the world of media and apart from the stories about the current and planned V&A exhibitions, it also put out a more politically relevant article about Gilmour, Waters and Mason at the beginning of the month. This explained their support for the Women’s Boat to Gaza, a group of women from all around the world who set off by sea from Barcelona to Gaza in October to highlight the virtual siege of Gaza, only to be intercepted by the Israeli navy resulting in the crew being arrested.
The Floyd machine ticks over nicely, revealing some astute business strategy planning. This has not only tied in with a fair number of the original generation of progressive rock fans of being of an age where they have a reasonable amount of disposable income with time to plug into the nostalgia business, but is also related to our appetite for youthful reflection with the upsurge in popularity of vinyl. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve succumbed to the lure of freshly-pressed 180g discs; I’m more ashamed of having sold off my original LPs in the first place when I thought that remastered and repackaged CDs were the future. I treated myself to a new copy of Dark Side of the Moon just after Christmas, an edition that included the stickers and posters which had adorned my bedroom walls since 1973, and Atom Heart Mother and Meddle only a couple of weeks ago. My early Pink Floyd albums were bought between 1973 and 1975 and, apart from Wish You Were Here which I had to replace a couple of times due to its popularity amongst friends at my university hall of residence, were in what second-hand record shops refer to as ‘very good condition’, having been kept in plastic sleeves for much of their life and always handled with loving care. I don’t regret the remarkable rise in resale price of quality vinyl over the following twenty years but it is true to say that at the time I offloaded a large chunk of my collection to Beanos the Floyd were hardly valued currency, yet now you might pay £15 for a Dark Side or Meddle in good condition.
The just aired BBC4 documentary Pink Floyd Beginnings 1967 – 1972 was timed to coincide with the imminent release of the 27 disc box set The Early Years 1965 – 1972 and utilised some previously unreleased material from that collection, recently unearthed and enhanced. I really enjoyed this hour long film, mainly because it included some surprising footage such as the improvised piece Show Roland Petit, recorded in 1970 and shown on French TV in 1971 that presaged the Roland Petit Pink Floyd Ballet. There were also clips from two different performances of Atom Heart Mother, one with choir and orchestra filmed in Germany, one a band-only performance in France, both of which I found fascinating. The selection of film used also included the Syd Barrett-era band miming Jugband Blues in 1967 for London Line, a series commissioned by the government to promote London as a place for overseas investment. Jugband Blues is one of the tracks I tend to skip if I’m listening to A Saucerful of Secrets but watching the clip triggered an odd association. There are a couple of bars at around 1’56 into the track where the improvised brass reminds me of opening section Father’s Shout from the Atom Heart Mother suite. Atom Heart was one of my early Pink Floyd album purchases and is still one of my favourite Floyd albums, whatever criticism it has attracted from those involved in its gestation or from fans.
The recent vinyl reissue coincided with a large piece in the last edition of Prog magazine (Prog 70) and this suggests to me that the piece is having something of a favourable critical reappraisal. I think that Atom Heart Mother sits very nicely on the progressive span of the Pink Floyd timeline, with elements clearly linked to what had come before (think The Man and The Journey performances from the previous year and Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast, and the structure of the title suite and Echoes. The track A Saucerful of Secrets demonstrates a sonic lineage from the spacey, psychedelic improvisations of the Barrett era and forward to the solo tracks, most obviously the multi-part Sysyphus on Ummagumma; This was exploratory stuff which in turn set the scene for the band to work with an orchestra. I’d come into prog accepting the fusion of rock and classical, having been exposed to The Nice in 1972, and I remain in favour of the symbiosis of group and orchestra, though the use of the choir on Atom Heart Mother may have been the first time I’d knowingly come across a wordless choral piece, giving the track a cinematic scope which conjures images of prehistoric peoples and landscapes, quite the opposite to the rather futuristic sounding title. Whereas my original LP excluded Ron Geesin from the credits for the track Atom Heart Mother, this was corrected by the time of my 1994 CD. Composer and musician Geesin seems to have been an inspired choice for a collaborator, known to Roger Waters through a shared love of golf and having worked together on the film soundtrack Music from The Body (1970), because his orchestration is sympathetic to the band’s ideas and creates a remarkably cohesive whole, from overture, through development to reprise and denouement. I have to admit that I’m not over enamoured by side two. Psychedelic Breakfast is mildly amusing; a very Floydian experiment in sound effects punctuated by some decent ensemble playing, but If, Summer ’68 and Fat Old Sun all fall into a category I’d class as straightforward rock, uninspired and unchallenging, joined by all of side one of Meddle bar One of These Days, and the La Vallée soundtrack Obscured by Clouds.
I think the qualitative difference between compositions on the two sides of both Atom Heart Mother and Meddle reflect the differences between individual song writing and group collaboration. I have recently reappraised Piper at the Gates of Dawn and as much as I love the whimsy and the psychedelic nature of the songs with Barrett’s unconventional guitar and Wright’s dreamy organ tones, these songs don’t pretend to want to change the world or set themselves up as genre defining. That’s not intended to be a wounding criticism because I do like the first Floyd album, but it is of a certain time and place. It seems to me that the immediate post-Barrett period was somewhat difficult for the group, with Rick Wright initially taking on song writing duties, followed by Roger Waters. The route to success appeared when the band began exploring different sounds and alternative studio techniques, something that was easier to do as a group rather than as individuals, collaborations resulting in the first side of Atom Heart, the second side of Meddle, Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. As ideas dried up, Waters shouldered responsibility for the bulk of writing but, though his ideas were undeniably grand, the lack of group input reflected on the quality of the output. The Atom Heart Mother suite was the first time the band collaborated on a side-long piece and it remains a classic 46 years later.
Atom Heart Mother was originally released in October 1970