Monday, 19 January 2009

Pink Floyd "Atom Heart Mother" (1970) (News, Views and Music 18, Revised 2014)

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When that fat old sun in the sky is falling, summer evening birds are calling, summer Sundays lasts a year, the sound of music in my ears”

“Atom Heart Mother” (Pink Floyd, 1970)

Atom Heart Mother (Father's Shout/Breast Milky/Mother Fore/Funky Dung/Mind Your Throats Please/Remergence)//If/Summer '68/Fat Old Sun/Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast (Rise and Shine/Sunny Side Up/Morning Glory)

Lulubelle III looked on bemused. The farmer and his new friend the photographer had spent all morning pacing up and down the meadow, discussing idea after idea. She’d been positioned next to the fence, next to the stream that ran alongside the meadow, placed among the rest of the herd in her field and – briefly – sat in the farmer’s kitchen until someone had discovered that she had very harmlessly taken a nibble out of the farmer’s wife’s best hat. ‘So what is this new album about that you’re meant to be shooting pictures for in moi field then, eh?’ said the farmer, who’d held a local free festival in one of his fields the year before and liked to think he knew a thing or two about music. ‘Its some prog rock thing by that old group Pink Floyd – you remember the psychedelic weirdoes that used to sing about scarecrows, being lost in space and stealing people’s underwear back in the flower power days?’ said the other. ‘Oo-arr Pink Floyd, oi remember them now – I thought it was an LP of the Archers you were issuing’ said the farmer, adding ‘You ain’t making any of them fancy Sgt Peppers collages in my field let me tell you, the grass wouldn’t be up to it. Or big giant stone heads. I read somewhere bands like making album covers featuring big stone heads’. ‘No, no, that would be silly - we only want a picture of your cow’ said the man with the words ‘Hipgnosis – album covers a speciality’ on his jacket, ‘The only trouble is – we’re not quite sure what to do with her’.

‘Oh’ said the farmer confused. ‘Is it a rock opera about heffers oo be making then?!’ ‘Not exactly’ the other murmured, looking distinctly uncomfortable. ‘You see we wanted to use a cover that bears absolutely no resemblance to the content of the music, one that really puzzles the listener and encourages them to take an entirely different view on what exactly an album cover means to them and how it all relates in their minds to the music inside. We want our record cover to look humble, like album covers used to before those gatefold sleeves and fancy coloured booklets came along, as if the whole record cover idea has been built up as a red herring all these years, a self-made trap that limits the artists too much in their handling of the epic sounds within.’ The farmer shuffled from one foot to another. ‘Are you quite sure that it’s my cow you be wanting?’ he said, puzzled and scratching his brow.

Lulubelle sighed a long sigh and looked at the farmer mournfully. She knew exactly why this group with the lovely and rather exotic name of ‘Pink Floyd’ (perhaps it was a form of buttercup she didn’t know) wanted to use her picture on their cover. Just last night, when the farmer and his family were asleep, she’d crept into the farmhouse and quietly opened up their battered old 1960s record player, carefully placing the new package that had arrived that morning onto the turntable with her hoofs. She’d been rummaging through the farmer’s record collection for sometime and liked much of what she’d heard – Cow Stevens, the Moooooody Blues, the Hefferly Brothers  - but this new record was different. It had no sleeve, just a short note from a record company named Harvest (nice name that, she thought to herself) and instructions about when a nice man hired by the band might be round to take some pictures. To Lulubelle, the music of Pink Floyd always seemed to challenge the listener, twisting and turning so that the band never quite delivered what they expected to hear. The record seemed designed to appeal to more than just the usual cattle-fodder that seemed to buy most of the popular records of the day; this new release seemed to be knowingly inventive and original, as if giving a wink to the listener that this was exactly the sort of intellectual record that didn’t need some fake picture of the band on the front to sell units and was quite happy to settle for the picture of a cow. Lulubelle was proud to be on the cover and took the time to listen properly to the contents.

'Cow's got a point, said the editor of Alan's Album Archives, puffing on a 'Max The Singing Dog' cigar. 'Frankly, I wasn't expecting to have entrants from cattle when we opened Alan's Album Archives up to outside guest reviewers, but you have to moo with the times, as they say'.

'Yes, but surely we can't re-write this review to full length just using the ramblings of a cow!' said the sub-editor, Max The Singing Dog. 'I mean she's a bovine, not a canine - what does a cow know about record-making?! Now a dog that would be different...Why does she keep talking about herself in the third person? ('I'd never do that', said Max thoughtfully to himself, 'it would just makes me sound stupid!') And shouldn't she be dead by now? '

'She knows plenty' replied the editor. 'Even if she is milking the cow jokes a bit! And perhaps its the original's great-great-great grand-calf or something. You're just jealous because she looks better in the top hat than you do. Look here, she's even written this highly relevant passage about what the title 'Atom Heart Mother' means. I haven't the heart to tell her it was a phrase picked out of a newspaper article at random! It does run a bit short though compared to our usual multi-thousand word reviews. Perhaps you'd better say a few words in your normal voice before we revert to Lulubelle's comments on the songs - that way this week's issue will only make us seem like we're partway round the twist! I've just phoned her (she has surprisingly good reception, actually, for someone who lives in a field!) and far from being a 'mad cow' she says you can do what you like with it - she's udderly in your hands!'

Right then. 'Atom Heart Mother'. A record that's as baffling as its cover (sorry Lulubelle!) Pink Floyd are very much in 'post-Barrett syndrome' here, searching round a for a new sound without their former leader there with them. Curiously, both this album and 'Ummagumma' came after the Floyd had found their destiny (or so it seemed) with the Roger Waters-led 'More' (atmospheric lyrics, sturdy music, a few wacky ideas). However I much preferred this album to 'Ummagumma'; while all four members of the band get their 'own' song again (assuming sound effect loving Nick Mason had quite a big hand in 'Alan's Album Archives' Psychedelic Breakfast') this record seems much more focussed. The second side is particularly touching: Roger Waters never opened his heart up again quite as much as he does on 'If', David Gilmour will never be quite as beautiful as he is on 'Fat Old Sun' and Rick gets what will effectively be his last ever lyric with the band on the groupie-fest 'Summer '68'. All three songs are noticeably stronger than anything the band had done since the second album and all seem to be more focussed, less rambling and more hummable. What's more this side of the record manages to be quiet, humble and gentle (with Rick of all people the loudest of the three singing Floyds) and far from being boring or dull it's amazing how expressive the band can be when relying on their wits and voices rather than whizzing technology, concept albums and wacky audio verite. You never think about the Floyd as an 'emotional' band (at least not until 'The Wall') but side two of 'Atom Heart' really is the 'heart' of the Floyd back catalogue. Sometimes with the Floyd the fact that they sound loosely like everyone else around at the time is a bad thing ('Ummagumma' for instance) - but here the sheer normalness of the record is its greatest strength, giving 'Atom Heart' an emotional weight that 'More' and 'Ummagumma', however inventive, can't match.

Had the Floyd made a full record as strong as these three songs it would easily have been my favourite. However a whopping 34 minutes of this album is given over to two of the strangest Floyd songs of all. The first is simply awful: the side-long 24-minute 'Atom Heart Mother' is tedious, unmusical and plodding, the Floyd so desperate to 'design' a song that they forgot to make it musical (and I really do mean 'design'; graphic design students Waters and Mason wrote out the 'song' as a series of peaks and troughs and recorded their backing track alone for the whole piece, inevitably finding on playback that it wasn't even and sped up and slowed down in several places. Poor Ron Geesin, a friend of Waters, was given the half-finished product and told to finish it - in retrospect it's amazing his brass contributions manage to be as interesting as they are, although frankly he should have approached it more like the sound-effect filled soundtrack for 'The Body'). All in all it's one of the heaviest going pieces in the band's back catalogue (I'm surprised it didn't curdle Lulubelle's milk if I'm honest!) 'Alan's Psychedelia Breakfast' is much better - it's arguably the only outright joke in the Floyd's released catalogue, a 13-mionte spoof of their usual style made up of keyboard frills and sound effects as the band's audibly bemused roadie Alan Stiles enjoys a lengthy breakfast (All together now, 'Marmalade, I like marmalade!) It shouldn't take up 13 precious minutes and the joke only really works once, but it's a very clever depiction of what breakfasts really are like at Alan's Album Archives headquarters (we know it's about us really! Although it skips the moment when the toaster invariably sets the fire alarm off) and is a useful stepping stone towards the spoken-word and sound effects passages on 'Dark Side Of The Moon'. The real, problem, though is that this record doesn't hang together: part is trying to be serious, a another part frivolous, while the rest hasn't got a clue what it is (really, would it have hurt the bands that much to delay this record two months and record another side long amount of material?)

Lulubelle's beauty aside, what is the significance of the cow on the album sleeve? All sorts of ideas have been formulated, the most successful of them involving the 'milk' needed for Alan's psychedelic breakfast tray and a debate on the artificial constructs of human mortality (seriously: the newspaper headline the band took the line from was about the world's first artificial pacemaker, given to a housewife and mother which was 'atom-powered' whatever that means; mother cows of course have been artificially interfered with, their milk taken not for their off-spring but for humans - well some of them, the AAA office only drinks soya). Chances are, though, that after years of trying to conjure up exactly the right image by listening over and over to a Pink Floyd LP and trying to capture its 'essence', the Hipgnosis team simply tried the other tack and came up with an image that had no obvious visible links to the music. Even the fact that this is the Floyd's most city-centred record (all them fridges and groupies  - we'll ignore 'Fat Old Sun' for now) after a run of country ones seems to fly in the face of the image we see staring back at us. While lazier than other Hipgnosis covers ('Ummagumma' looks great, for instance, with its pictures-within-pictures set-up; it's just a shame about the music!) 'Atom Heart Mother' is the one a lot of casual fans remember best for a reason: it's very striking, very funny and very them (cows stay a strong Floyd symbol until they get replaced by 'pigs on the wing' in 1977). Another major development which many people miss nowadays is that the Floyd's name and the album title are both missing from the sleeve, making the picture the 'full' story of the album if you will; while other bands had played around with this technique before ('Beatles For Sale' from 1964 is generally agreed as the very first album that did this) 'Atom Heart' is particularly striking for not even featuring a picture of the band or a symbol formerly associated with them.

The theme, really, is one of vulnerability - a common subject matter for the band. 'If' is a song of guilty regret about not doing more for a friend - an early example of Roger beating himself up about what happened to Syd Barrett (who by the sound of it had a happier, if quieter, life away from the Floyd with his back royalties keeping him financially sound while he retreated back to first painting and then family). It's one of Waters' most personal, likeable songs for a reason - 'if' may be the most powerful word in the human language (even if it only scores you four points in Scrabble) and Roger knows it only too well. The whole of 'The Wall' is in many ways an extension of this song, with the character 'Pink' inhabiting his own gradually restricting world as his metaphorical wall closes in around him. Not that the song is merely interesting because of what comes later: this is also a satisfyingly rounded song without the big ideas, clever wordplay or sound effects the Floyd often used as a starting point. 'Summer '68' is Rick's tale of a night relishing his fame as he pulls a groupie - only for the song to get as messy as his love life as he realises 'I hardly even like you - I shouldn't care at all' and waking up with an audible musical hangover ('I've had enough for one day!') A turbulent, ever-moving sequence of chord changes makes the narrator sound less like a big rock star and more like a confused little boy. Finally 'Fat Old Sun' is Gilmour at his most folk-rockish, enjoying a peaceful day in the countryside not unlike Roger's earlier 'Grantchester Meadows' but less about memory and more about the now. Sitting under the summer sky in the long grass, 'the sound of music in my ears', holding hands with a loved one seems like heaven on Earth and the whole song is described as a sort of spiritual experience. One of the most healing, contented songs in my collection, its overpoweringly simple (the melody-line uses just a few notes, unusual for Gilmour who does like to over-busy himself sometimes) and again makes the narrator sound vulnerable - but in a spiritual rather than egotistical sense like the other two. This theory does fall down on 'Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast' of course (and nobody quite knew what was going on in 'Atom Heart Mother' itself) - perhaps the burning pan on the primus stove was about to topple over or perhaps a long-lost segment features Alan running out of milk (now that does sound vulnerable!)

Typically, the band looked back on this album later without fondness (they only ever seemed happy with whatever album they happened to be working on at the time until 'Dark Side' turned up). Despite this record's strong sales and generally positive (if confused!) press re-action, both Roger and David have since spoken about how embarrassed they are by this LP. Waters even commented not long after the album came out - before he was a multi-millionaire remember - that 'if a promoter handed me a million quid and told me play 'Atom Heart Mother' I'd tell him to get lost - 'we're not playing that rubbish!' Chances are the heavily flawed title track that fell so short of expectations has rather overshadowed the rest of the album for them: it would be a shame if the 'mother' was thrown out with the bathwater, as it were. Like the atom heart pacemaker the album was named after, this record is newsworthy not because of how successful or pretty it is but because it was the 'first' for so many things: an inventive cover, Roger opening up his heart in his songwriting for pretty much the first time and David finally moulding his beloved folk-rock sound to the Floyd's usual textures. The album is also a fond farewell though, to Rick Wright as an equal writing force (especially lyrically), to long rambling instrumentals (although there are still plenty of short rambling instrumentals to come!) and to the sheer playfulness of the early Floyd as they record tracks like 'Psychedelic Breakfast' that would never have occurred to more easily scared, less technology-minded bands. Things will start to get a lot more serious from now on (howling dogs and recordings made up of twanged elastic bands aside!) and while the Floyd brain will grow much bigger over the years, here is where the band reach their greatest balance between the mind and heart.

The result is one of the Floyd's odder, madder LPs, but one that's lasted the test of time better than 'Ummagumma's sonic madness and 'A Saucerful Of Secret's psychedelic frenzy. Three of the songs here are major developments for three major songwriting talents (this is only Gilmour's second ever solo song remember), arguably the biggest step forward for the band since 'Saucerful' proved the band could manage a whole album without Syd Barrett (give or take 'Jugband Blues'). The band clearly aren't quite there yet - this is no 'Meddle' never mind 'The Dark Side Of The Moon' - but there's a reason a lot of fans regard this album highly and why it became both the band's and EMI spin-off record label Harvest's first #1 record in the UK. IN retrospect, this must be one of the weirdest albums ever to go to #1 in the UK but then that was the whole point of the Floyd in the early 1970s: they were explorers first and foremost but also a safe pair of hands that wouldn't completely disappoint (although 'Ummagumma' had a good go!) 'Atom Heart Mother' tries hard to be the bonkers left-field Floyd LP fans were expecting - but underneath it all it shows just what great songwriters the band are turning into without the need for such gimmicks any longer. Of course, our site has no need for gimmicks in any shape or form: we just write good, solid, believable reviews that are as straight and accurate and unpretentious as they come. Speaking of which, it's back to the cow!

The Songs:

Lulubelle was especially impressed with the record’s second ‘pastoral’ side, which for the most part summed up lovely memories of lying about in her field in the hot summer sun with nothing to do but chew the cud. Yet it was the first side – the one with the label marked ‘title to be confirmed at the last minute’ – that caught her ears most. She heard, much later when the record came out, that the band had named their 23-minute side-long epic  [47] ‘Atom Heart Mother’ in honour of a newspaper article about a lady with one of the world’s breakthroughs in pacemaker technology. Somehow this image – chosen, like her picture, at random – summed up the record really well, with its touch on both the progressive (technology) and traditional (motherhood) images that human life seemed to share side by side in modern culture in these heady days of 1970. However, impressive as many of the instrumental passages were, there were several parts of the piece that never quite caught fire properly – the choir and orchestral passages were all wrong she felt, sounding at times as dissonant as if they were playing another piece entirely. Lulubelle chewed the inner record sleeve thoughtfully as she tried to read the record label going round and round on the turntable. ‘I wonder who that other writer, a Mr Geesin, could be’ she thought to herself. ‘Although I do seem to remember that name from a Roger waters solo album I ‘borrowed’ the other day. I didn’t like it much – all those strange improvised sound effects and titles like ‘bridge passage for three plastic teeth’ and ‘Mrs throat goes walking’ – but then it was all about the human body and that is such a strange and frequently hilarious design. At least parts of it at least made me smile. If only the two men had worked together more first then this ‘atom heart mother’ rubbish could have been a fine track – but alas it sounds a bit rushed, is a bit too boring in places and could have really benefited from some typically punchy Roger waters lyrics.’

Lulubelle much preferred the second side of the record, which she considered to be among the best things written by band members Roger Waters, Rick Wright and David Gilmour to date. She was especially moved by side opener [48] ‘If’, a breathy fragile and overwhelmingly mournful piece by Waters that featured the bassist at his absolute vocal best. The piece reminded her of the early Pink Floyd records she’d chewed her way through, right back during the summer of mud (or something like that) when the group were led by a fellow known as Syd Barrett. The poetry in the lyrics seemed dangerous and provocative and mystical, but had a bittersweet taste to them – as if the writer Waters had been trying to write the same sort of flights of fancy into hobgoblinland that his partner had, but had been more worried about getting lost there permanently than his old friend Barrett had. The discussions about madness and wishing that the narrator had done more to comfort an old friend seemed strangely moving to the cow, even though she didn’t know either of the men and she felt that this track and its subject matter would stand the band in good stead a couple of years and albums down the line. ‘Yes, that’s right’, she thought, ‘I can see it all now – a concept album about the pressures of modern life leading to insanity called dark side of the mooooon and perhaps they could do a concept album later about that wall at the end of my field that keeps blocking out the sunlight and preventing me from going where I want all the time’.

She was also pleased with [49] ‘Summer ‘68’, a rather eccentric pop song coined by the band’s keyboardist Richard Wright. She loved his high-pitched, gentle voice, which seemed especially effective when joined by Gilmour’s harmony – the two voices together were one of the band’s biggest strengths in this period, she felt. Like many of Rick’s tracks, though, this song was a peculiar mix of a confident and memorable melody-line scuppered by some rather hesitant and understated lyrics. Lulubelle didn’t know what a ‘groupie’ was, but she wasn’t very keen on them by the sound of this lyric – the way the singers kept asking her ‘how do you feel?’ in a way that suggested they weren’t quite sure themselves gave her cow-pimples and by the end she still didn’t know whether they were spending time together out of a genuine connection or simply out of habit (the formal greeting to the fun-loving party animal ‘perhaps you’d care to state exactly what you mean’ seemed especially to point at the characters’ differences). She really liked the brassy edge to the track, though and the instrumental lick in the middle that seemed to give the song a suitably grandeous and pompous feel – if only the first, similarly orchestral side of the record had been like that she sighed.

But to her delight she found a third stunning song on side three to listen to. The one credited on the sleeve as the guitarist – a Mr Gilmour – had forsaken his characteristic raucous electric playing for some truly sublime acoustic strumming. [50] ‘Fat Old Sun’ was one of her favourite tracks by this group, the cow thought to herself, with some exceptional lyrics setting out in just a few simple verses the pleasures of sitting in a field, lazing by a riverbank and enjoying the company of some close friends in a land where time has no value and there is nothing to do but swap stories and stare wistfully at the clouds above. A bit like I do in my field, thought Lulubelle to herself, reflecting again on how universal these record-things seemed to be, with their sounds and thoughts just as applicable to her and her simple, rustic way of life as they seemed to be to their authors’. Gilmour’s voice on this part of the record was lovely, soaring every bit as gracefully as the birds she could see out her window as she listened and so soothing was this gentle song that she longed to get back to her cozy field, desperate to enjoy the warm blissful feelings of slumber the song seemed to induce.

But there was one more track to go. [51]‘Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast’ seemed to be a bit of a joke track – one added to the album in order to give audio verite lover and drummer Nick Mason his share of input into the album she huffed. The song, if you could call it that, followed someone called Alan round his kitchen as he started his busy day – pouring cereal, making toast (he seemed to have a particular passion for marmalade) and frying up some eggs. ‘No wonder humans are so fat’, she thought to herself, ‘if they pack that lot away every morning’. However, she liked several of the little musical passages that ran throughout the track (she thought to herself again how pretty Rick Wright’s organ work was on so many of these period Floyd albums) and bits of it made her laugh out so loud she nearly woke the farmer – such as the section where the band mimicked Alan’s attempts to light his gas stove time and time over just so. She found out later, through her contacts with some crows that used to fly past Abbey Road Studios, that the song was named after and featured the band’s genuine roadie Alan Stiles – but she never found out if he had enjoyed his breakfast half as the much as the band seemed to enjoy re-creating it in music.

After a bit of a problem caused by the record refusing to finish (the sound of a dripping tap seemed to go on and on until she somehow managed to unhook the record from the stylus with her hoof) Lulubelle decided to lumber back to her field, ready to face the photographers the next day and give them exactly the sort of bemused but knowing stare she knew would help make this album become the band’s first ever #1 record in the United Kingdom. It wasn’t the best record the band would ever make she decided, hauling herself over the fence and back to her home at the end of the field, but it most certainly wasn’t the worst and it was all a step towards helping the band find their true style and originality. Full of a job well done, Lulubelle drifted off to sleep, wondering how long it would be before the Floyd would create their first truly inspired masterpiece and musing on how long it would take until the farmer had noticed she’d sat on his Perry Cowmo records. Contented, she fell to sleep. 

Other slightly less mad Pink Floyd reviews from this site you might be interested in reading:

A Now Complete List Of Pink Floyd and Related Articles To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

‘Wish You Were Here’ (1975)

‘Animals’ (1977)

'The Wall' (1980)

'The Final Cut' (1983)

'A Momentary Lapse Of Reason' (1987)

'Amused To Death' (Waters) (1992)

The Best Unreleased Pink Floyd Recordings

Surviving TV Clips 1965-2014

Non-Album Songs 1966-2000

Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part One 1965-1978

Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part Two 1980-1989

Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part Three 1990-2015

Landmark Concerts and Key Cover Versions

Essay: Why Absence Makes The Sales Grow Stronger

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