Monday, 7 February 2011
Pink Floyd "Ummagumma!" (1969) (News, Views and Music 90, Revised 2014)
Pink Floyd “Ummagumma” (1969)
Studio: Sysyphus (Parts 1-4)/Grantchester Meadows/Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A cave And Grooving With A Pict/The Narrow Way (Parts 1-3)/The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party (Entrance/Entertainment/Exit)//Live: Astronomy Domine/Careful With That Axe Eugene/Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun/A Saucerful Of Secrets
(Editor's note: this article was originally part of a tribute to cover artist Storm Thorgersen who'd died the week before. You can read our 'top five' tribute to him from the same week later in this book on page **). I recently bought Storm Thorgeson’s excellent book of the artwork he and the Hipgnosis team have done for Pink Floyd over the years. All the usual suspects are there looking good: 'Dark Side' 'Wish You Were Here' 'Division Bell' 'Saucerful'...arresting images all, highly suited not only to the albums they represented but to the times they came in from the early psychedelia years to the very 1990s concept of two huge heads talking to each other in a field (about half the TV adverts across the decade looked like 'The Division Bell' heads, even the ones trying to sell cars and beer). For me, though, the cover photograph that still works best is 'Ummagumma'. (My other favourites of Storm's include the flying toasters on the front of Jefferson Airplane’s ’30 Seconds Over Winterland’ and the Hollies covers for Evolution and Romany, by the way, the latter of which is a Hipgnosis album cover too).
For those of you who don’t know it, the iconic cover is this: at first glance it's the four members of Pink Floyd all gathered in various poses - David Gilmour leans back in a chair, Roger Waters crouches, ready to pounce, Nick Mason checks out what's happening in Storm's garden and Rick Wright - for reasons best known to himself - is lying down on the grass in the far distance with this feet in the air. So what, you may be thinking to yourself, but how long does it take the average eagle-eyed purchaser to realise that the picture framed on the top left-hand corner of the wall isn't just a photograph of Pink Floyd, but this photograph of the band in various poses - and how long then does it take for the penny to drop that Pink Floyd have actually moved round one so that Roger is now nearest the frame. And inside that photo Nick is nearest. Then Rick. And presumably so on, although it's actually impossible to see any further, even with the blow-up poster that came with the CD release. This kind of prog rock re-working of Escher is very Storm, very Pink Floyd - and very 'Ummagumma'. This is a record of two halves - literally, being a double. On the one hand you have the Floyd splintered like never before, each given a song to themselves to express whatever they want to say (though typically Roger gets two!) and with ten minutes to fill the band resort to all sorts of wild innovations. The Floyd then reunite spectacularly on the other live record, pulling together those four-bands-in-one you've just heard and becoming once again the band we all know and love (well, all know - in truth the live album goes on a bit even for the Floyd!) The two ideas – the band separate and together – is perfectly captured in this photograph. I had this picture on my wall at university and while most of the people there had never even heard of Pink Floyd(and those that did wanted to know where the pigs were), most comments were ‘wow, what a cover’, followed by 'the album's called what?!' (and then followed, inevitably, by 'what are they wearing?!') I love the back‘cover’ of this record too, by the way : the band’s roadies and equipment, spreadeagled across the runway of Biggin Hill as if about to take off (to who knows where?...)
One friend even asked to hear the album - not wanting to disappoint them or put them off I actually played 'Meddle' instead because the sad truth is that 'Ummagumma' is a fantastic concept brilliantly packaged but which even the band's biggest fans struggle to sit through. Aside from the two songs I actually like and 'Several Species' (not to listen to: just to annoy the heck out of the wally in the university flat above mine who kept playing rap music every night at 6 am and setting off the fire alarm for eight days solid), I can't say I'd heard the rest of the studio album for years before reviewing this album. That, by the way, is unusual: there's a lot of hours of the day to get through and very few activities can't be enhanced by listening to AAA music while you're doing something so that means I go through an awful lot of LPs. Including a lot of awful LPs when I get desperate. 'Ummagumma' is, sadly, one of those 1970s LPs that sounds a lot more interesting in reviews than it does in real life. 'Yippee' I thought bringing this album home from the shops: 'ten minutes of Rick all to himself, Nick Mason getting the chance to do something other than play the drums and peak period Roger and Dave!' How wrong I was. Rick's contribution is ten minutes of atonal keyboard solos, randomly overdubbed, while Nick's section is just an elongated drum solo cheekily spliced in-between the exact same recording of his wife's flute playing. And these two aren’t even the weirdest tracks on the album by any means – one of Roger waters’ two contributions is the tape-loop filled ‘Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A cave and Grooving With A Pict’, which unbelievably is even weirder than its title suggests. If that floats your boat then, well, you have more patience for me - and I'm a Grateful Dead fan, I've learnt the art of patience down the years! Even the gorgeous Gilmour track 'The Narrow Way' doesn't get going till part three after some six minutes of musical scales and folk-rock instrumentals. Ah well, at least this title has a groovy 70s name! Except it doesn't: my respect for this album tumbled down another peg or two a decade or so ago when the Floyd revealed that the album name – which has had hundreds of connotations of life, the universe and everything thrown at it down the years – is merely a slang word for sex from the band’s teenage days in Cambridge. It's not even their slang word for sex, just an attempt to recycle the smutty humour of their youth. That heart-breaking revelation, which turned the exciting into the mundane at a stroke, was the biggest single blow for the AAA since reading that Jerry Garcia wasn’t born a hippy and once worked for the Royal Air Force and that John Lennon wasn’t really working class at all, shocking revelations for collectors both. So I’ve decided to start a campaign – I’ll keep using the ‘Ummagumma’ name at various points of these newsletters so in time it will go on to have a whole new meaning, one that us fans can think up for ourselves (hence the fact it’s been mentioned a few times in this newsletter already!)
‘Ummagumma’ has had a bumpy critical ride down the years even for the Floyd: respected and revered at the time but ridiculed now. At the time Pink Floyd were hip, what with Syd Barrett's still much-talked about breakdown (the fact that his first solo album 'The Madcap Laughs' - produced by Dave and Rick - was being prepared for release with much down-the-grapevine publicity helped this record a lot too) and the surprisingly strong selling soundtrack album 'More' for a hip French film that virtually no one from English speaking countries ever got to actually see. Of course Pink Floyd were going to record four separate suites, even though Gilmour and Mason had never actually written any solo work at all at this point in their careers: that's what Pink Floyd did and it had always worked before (sort of). We’ve been here before of course – quite recently too – what with The Who’s financial difficulties and publishing deal that saw all four members get some form of money (Note: The Who's second album 'A Quick One' had been reviewed a handful of issues before 'Ummagumma' with virtually the same idea, having none-writing members of the band write their first ever songs just as the band were becoming established as part of a publishing deal. What could possibly go wrong?!) But what’s strange about ‘Ummagumma’ is that there was no outside pressure to record the band individually – the band didn't need the money, there were no publishing shenanigans and none of the group had been demanding more time solo; while not the stars they would become with ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, album sales had been healthy and all four Floyd albums went top 10 in the UK. Harvest – the band’s record label at the time – didn’t suggest it either, it’s simply that Pink Floyd thought it would be a good idea. For once, for possibly the only time in their long 27-year career (we'll assume for the moment that 'A Momentary Lapse' was a, well, 'A Momentary Lapse'), they were wrong.
And yet we do learn more about the Floyd as individuals than we do on other Floyd albums, where Barrett or Waters tend to dominate. This isn’t your usual a diatribe about Roger’s dad’s death at the hands of the second world war or Syd trying to get across all the zillion things happening in his head on a particular day but an attempt to strip away the band’s overall sound down to reveal the many layers that made it up. You could look at the reasoning behind this in several ways. The Floyd had just begun going their own ways with solo albums - perhaps this was an attempt to release 'four' under the Floyd name? Perhaps after being holed up in some French hotel for a month making 'More' they simply needed a break from each other. Perhaps they were picking up on the 'mood' of 1968/69 (when The Beatles had been recording solo under the band name as part of 'The White Album' and The Monkees had tried until being persuaded not to making 'The Monkees Present', intended as a double album with a side per Monkee). Or perhaps this was a deliberate act intended to find out once and for all who Syd' heir really was, after a series of flop singles and two collective albums hadn't really proved it.
For the most part the Floyd play solo on their sections, with only the last and most Floydish part of ‘The Narrow Way’ breaking this trend. We were never going to learn that much from Nick Mason – no offence to the drummer, who is one of the most erudite and entertaining percussionists of the whole of the AAA club but Nick was never a natural composer and will only ever share band compositions again (aside from the ‘gift’ of the spoken word collage ‘Speak To Me’ on ‘Dark Side’). Rick’s contribution is more disappointing. His songs for ‘Saucerful’ and the forthcoming ‘Atom Heart Mother’ are excellent and revealing in a typically guarded Floydy type way, songs about childhood memories and adolescent difficulties that rank among the Floyd’s best. But the band’s plans to record solo means Rick really does go ‘solo’ here, giving us some fairly unlistenable faux-classical music; understandable given his Royal College of Music background (even if he never actually finished the course, something the rest of the band loved teasing him about) and his attempts to bring ‘highbrow’ music to the band again look fine on paper. In practise, however, we learn less from this instrumental than we do from Nick’s drum-solo-with-a-funky-name, with the 'Sisyphus' title figure (our old friend from the Greek myths doomed to forever roll a rock up a hill and back down again for eternity) not really relevant to a lot of barking harpsichords, clavinets and pianos. Remember, even the 1960s couldn't make Stockhausen hip with the hippie crowd, so poor Rick has no chance.
Roger Waters, always a complex individual, was strangely enough the driving force behind the ‘four solo works’ ideas – strange because his work will dominate the Floyd’s sound from here on in (perhaps he wanted to show up the others’ weaknesses and put forward his argument that he was the ‘real’ writer within the band; a kinder reading would be that he 'd had fun working on 'The Body' with Ron Geesin and thought it might help the band if everyone got to be self-indulgent like he'd been). Roger gives us two really contrasting songs here – the album’s maddest, most avant garde piece in ‘Several Species’, a song that out-0weirds even 'The Body' and like much of that album made with Ron Geesin's help, as well as the album’s most natural, pastoral and rounded song, the lilting ‘Grantchester Meadows’. The first of Roger's occasional paeans to his Cambridge childhood, surrounded by nature, it's a dreamy seven minutes that features some of his best examples of his singing, guitar playing and love of sound effects (the fly who buzzes round the song from the opening is finally chased from the left to the right speaker until finally being swatted at the very end!) However, if Waters had intended the project to show up how amazing his own ideas were compared to everyone else then he’d figured without David Gilmour’s first real solo contribution to the band ‘The Narrow Way’, whose strong reception boosted the Floyd's newest member considerably. The story has it that where the worried guitarist went to Waters for help with the lyrics he was told ‘no, you’ve got to figure it out for yourself’ - an action Roger probably regretted when he heard how cleverly Gilmour has latched onto his 'trademark' slightly scary, slightly ethereal sound. Gilmour’s suite, made up of some lovely acoustic guitar work and some deliberately nasty-sounding electric guitar work before finally turning into a proper song, actually surpasses Waters’ efforts and suggests that by 1969 it was actually he was who was the main power behind the band. No wonder Roger has dismissed this album in interviews ever since ‘Ummagumma’s release!
In theory – and according to some reviewers – the saving grace of the record should be the second disc, a live album recorded at a time when Floyd shows were beginning to take on a life of their own and the band were getting a reputation for strong concert performances that took audiences to places no other bands could go (again Storm's concepts for the band are perfect, with most of the company’s Floyd covers showing people ‘transported’ into a slightly different world thanks to the music). But even this concert disc is something of a disappointment – according to bootlegs and BBC sessions from the period the Floyd were at their live peak the following year, 1970, with free-form ‘suites’ dedicated to specific themes about the mundane life of ‘the man’ until his dreams at night explode in full colour or a ‘journey’ where man has to battle and overcome giant odds ('The Man' on one side and 'The Journey' on the other would have made one hell of an LP, even with a few bits of 'recycling' from past albums!) Even the shows from the same time featuring the band brewing tea on-stage and doing a bit of carpentry as they represent a day in the life of the working man (these two moments representing 'tea-break' and 'work) have something of an allure about them in n only-Pink-Floyd-would-do-that kind of a way. But this show – no. The band only fit in four songs, for starters - only one of them (Astronomy Domine') a true classic and that's a pale shadow of the original simply because Syd is no longer on stage (Gilmour, hired because he knew and vaguely played like Syd, creates an impressive facsimile as good as nay 'tribute' act can manage, but it's still not the same). The band also pass on all the songs from 'More', which is a shame as the tracks could have really been something without the need to fit them to on-screen antics and strict timings (in fact none of the songs from 'More' ever do make it to the band's stage show).
'Astronomy Domine' is still the best thing on the live record, even without Syd, stretched out to eight and a half minutes with longer everything: morse code opening, fiery drumming, mid-section instrumentals, the works. With all that, though, the song still sounds better as a four-minute album track twisting this way and that rather than a longish slug of attrition. B-side 'Careful With That Axe Eugene' is a lot less intense than other versions, with the nine-minute extended running time mainly taken up with a longer rambling introduction and a slightly longer 'shrieking' section from Roger, whose nicely bloodcurdling but sounds a little subdued compared to the original, as if he's a weedy 'Twilight' vampire rather than a proper 'Dracula'. 'Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun' is better, but this 'Saucerful' track is still boring for long periods with not a lot going for most of the nine minutes this version runs for (in truth there wasn't a lot going on in the five minute original but it just about got away with it!) A full 13 minutes of the 39 total running time – an entire third of the album – is taken up by the unlistenable suite ‘A Saucerful Of Secrets’, a ‘song’ that only really gets going in the last ‘aaahed’ section and sounds even worse here than it does on record. One of the band's longest running concert standards, to my ears this concept suite only really gets the performance it does when The Floyd are about to drop it from the act - namely the Pompeii concert in 1972 (when a clearly hot and weary band are pushed to their limits). By Floyd standards these performance seems safe: yes they're long, yes they're weird, yes it's music you wouldn't hear anywhere else, but if you know even a handful of live Floyd bootlegs from either side of the magic year of 1970 then you'll know that this is really the band half-asleep and on auto-pilot.
Not the Floyd’s best album by any means then, and most certainly not the place to start if your new to the band’s oeuvre and yet there are still two extremely important pieces of the Floyd jigsaw puzzle which every true fan ought to hear. ‘Grantchester Meadows’ has deservedly become something of a ‘hit’ from this album, a gentle pastoral waters epic that tells us more about the bassist and his childhood in seven minutes than we’d learned to date in total. Best of all is David Gilmour’s ‘breakthrough’ work ‘The Narrow Way, especially the last section where the song stops trying to impress us and becomes a hazy, scathing, scary attack on people holding you back that matches ‘The Wall’ for angry intensity – a song that’s hardly ever singled out by reviewers for some reason, even though it represents a great leap forward in Gilmour’s writing. And for all the criticism we’ve given them on this album, no band does what the Floyd does (even those bands like Genesis and ELP who think they’re copying what the Floyd are doing and badly miss the point) and even when putting up with the band’s lesser moments you know you’re hearing something that no other band would possibly think of giving you. ‘Ummagumma’ isn’t just a bit eccentric or slightly odd compared to the mainstream of the late 1960s, at times its the most downright bonkers thing it will ever be your privilege to hear. To be frank, the world – or at least the art world – in 2011 isn’t weird enough and doesn’t have the scope or the bravery to sum up any more than simple feelings. And we’re a complicated species us humans, especially during testing times under a Coalition Government we don’t want or need, so we need a bit of experimentalism in our lives. Whether that truly means a place on our shelves for 13 minutes of Rick Wright’s keyboard runs, a seven minute drum solo or several small species of goodness knows what being stamped on while Roger Waters puts on the world's worst Scottish accent is up to you.
 ‘Sysyphus’ is a figure from Ancient Greece whose popped up on this website before. Like Stephen Stills before him (see review no 65), Rick clearly identifies with the solitary figure doomed to roll a heavy stone up a mountain for eternity, repeating the same process over and over (to me, that sounds a bit like being on tour with the band cracking all those awful jokes they tell in the ‘Live At Pompeii’ DVD). After all, the poor man only tried to avoid his own demise and those of his loved ones by trapping the God of death Tharantos in a cave. I think I’d probably try that if I knew his address. But whereas Stills writes a proper song around the subject, all we get from Rick is a bit of avant garde piano-work, clearly influenced by the modernist view that in the 20th century everything is so mechanised then it must naturally show itself in our art forms. Part One is a simple overture played on mellotron with rolling kettle drums that might have worked well on stage as an intro but quickly loses interest. Part two is a jollier, almost Braoque-like bit of piano twinkling that allows Rick to show off his excellent playing ability but doesn’t add much to the piece as a whole (his equally solo ‘Love Scene Version Four’ from the deluxe edition of the ‘Zabriskie Point’ film soundtrack is vastly superior, with an actual tune and everything). Part three is the best of a bad lot, thanks to some very Floydian sounds effects that range from whistling high-pitched creatures to some comical drumming from a guesting Mason that makes the whole thing sound like a laurel and Hardy soundtrack recorded on acid. Most fans like ‘part four’ the best, the most ‘normal’ piece of the quartet with plenty of Rick’s pioneering keyboard phrases (unfairly dismissed by the band as his ‘Turkish Delight’ riff, due to similarities with a TV advert of the time), but even with added birdsong and a curious medieval coda Sysyphus seems to be going nowhere fast (or perhaps that’s the idea?). Barrett was clearly not the only ‘out there’ member of the group and yet ‘Sysyphus’ doesn’t have the same resonance or power as Syd’s weirder songs for the band because there’s nothing else here except a lot of funny noises. ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ sounds like a spaceship taking off and crashing, ‘Flaming’ works by way of contrasts and ‘Bike’ has its own weird internal logic. ‘Sysyphus’ just sounds like its filling in time before the next song, which is a bit of a shame given that it’s the lead track on the album.
With a segue of birdsong we enter one of the album highlights  ‘Grantchester Meadows’. A lovely song from Roger Waters, it’s one of his finest, at one with the band’s strong run of acoustic songs in this period such as ‘If’ and ‘Fat Old Sun’. Like that last song, this is Waters’ reminisces about his childhood, which like most childhood memories makes it sound far more tranquil than it probably was at the time. The Cambridge of Roger’s youth sounds a dreamy idyllic place, where the narrator really does feel at one with nature, with a hauntingly beautiful melody and some of Roger’s prettier, most descriptive lyrics. His double-tracked vocal is nicely humble too, detached but with a sense of awe and Roger’s twin acoustic guitar parts make for a lovely counterpart, the melody bouncing between the two in a carefree, casual manner that excellently sums up the lyrics about nature lazily drifting past the narrator. Alas, much of this fine work is underdone by a rather irritating bird song which runs over and over all the way through the song – as a segue it’s fine, but for seven minutes ad infinitum it gets even more wearing than ‘Sysyphus’. Still, full marks to Waters for risking such a bare bones song with a band that had a reputation even back then for huge spectacle and actually turning this nice idea into a proper song.
Talking of which, its hard to believe that  ‘Several Small Species’ (usually I write out the whole title out once more here, but I can’t go through that again life’s too short!) is by the same author, never mind the same band. When people say that Pink Floyd are a weird prog rock group they can’t identify with I never understand them – sure there’s some odd songs about psychedelic breakfasts and some out-there instrumentals that go on a bit, but for the most part albums like ‘Dark Side’ and Wish You Were Here’ are fairly compact and accessible works about subjects relevant to everyone. But for ‘Several Small Species’ I take it all back: the sound of a fly getting squashed with a newspaper, an echoey Roger waters talking backwards and ranting like a Scotsman, tape loops of speeded up grunts that sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks during a Rave and absolutely nothing in the way of instruments, this may well be the hardest going five minutes in the whole of the Floyd canon. (for the record, the phrases sung by Roger and twisted background here are ‘bring back my guitar’ and ‘that was pretty avent garde, wasn’t it?’) There really is no excuse for sticking this piece of gibberish on a mainstream album (and I say that as a fan of The Beatles’ ‘Revolution no 9’ as at least that piece had a beginning, middle and an end and made some sort of weird sense), although the closest to an excuse is that Roger had been hanging out with the experimentalist Ron Geesin and the pair’s equally bizarre ‘songs’ actually work quite well on their joint album ‘The Body’. Alas, without Geesin to guide him, Roger seems to have forgotten to write a song to go with the tape loops and the whole result ends up with you asking ‘why?’ as with a cheap tape recorder the listener themselves could come up with something as good if not better than this. I do love the understated ending though: after testing our limits with a mixture of grunts, squeals, shrieks and cod-Scottish poems (all good practice for ‘The Wall’ a decade later) Roger ends with the only comprehensible line of the whole piece ‘And the wind cried Mary!’ Now, who said the Floyd never had a sense of humour?!
Gilmour’s suite ‘The Narrow Way’ starts off in the same, barely comprehensible manner of his predecessors. Part One starts off with a jabbing piece of mellotron swirl before calmly giving way to jazzy acoustic folk, a strange sort of hybrid of Pentangle and the Grateful Dead. Part Two then adds some edgy feedback-drenched guitar joined by some really out of tune keyboard that tests the patience badly despite being quite short. Part Three however joins the whole piece up, with the only proper ‘band’ performance of the studio record . Legend has it that the arrangement of this song caused great difficulties and took so long to come together that it only made it onto the record by the skin of its teeth (hence the rest of the band helping out). If so, its a shame the rest fo this curious record wasn’t quite so troubled, as Gilmour’s song about going back to the past and looking at the divisions between people (cultural, societal and geographical) makes for not only a great song but one that fits the album’s themes of things being split into sections perfectly. This is Gilmour’s first lyric for the band and although not his best its far better than most sniggering critics give it credit for (the lyrics are missing from the lyric booklet in the CD re-issue for instance), very psychedelic but none the worse for that. Talk of ‘folly’ and heading to the ‘North’ (presumably of England) to find what the ‘real’ people feel (they’ve lost all hope, it seems) could have been very basic if told in real terms, but here – where the whole thing sounds like a James Joyce-like existential ‘journey’ even if the narrator has only travelled a few miles – the lyrics are a perfect fit for the hallucinogenic music. Gilmour’s eerie guitar parts when matched against some of Wright’s best ever haunting keyboard work is a treat for Floyd fans who like the band deranged and dangerous and Gilmour’s lead vocal too is one of his best, creepy and scathing without the listener ever quite being able to track down how. If this song has a fault, it’s that like every song on ‘Ummagumma’ it runs on for far too long, with one of the longest instrumental fade-outs in rock, without the extra verse or middle eight it needs. Still, ‘The Narrow Way’ – the perfect title for a song about being ‘divided’ even if it’s never used in the lyrics – is one of the most badly under-rated Floyd tracks of all and by far the highlight of the whole album.
Nick Mason’s  ‘The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party’ should sound Turkish and exotically Oriental, seeing as The Grand Vizier was in reality a senior official during the days of the Turkish Empire. But it doesn’t. The opening flute work (played by Nick’s then wife Lindy, making her only appearance on a Floyd album) sounds more English Folk than Turkish and the middle seven minutes of drum tuning plus wimpy mellotron is heavy going even for the fans who think the three-song 38 minute ‘Animals’ is too compact. And calling this section ‘entertainment’ when it’s one of the slowest, most heavy-going pieces in the Floyd canon is also pushing it a bit! Had Nick simply sat down and played the drums this could have been so much better – he gets forgotten in the Floyd universe with so many louder, brasher personalities hanging round the band but Nick’s virtuoso drumming on such things as the live versions of ‘A Saucerful Of Secrets’ (see below) can be brilliant. Here he’s not playing the drums as such, he’s playing with the drums, turning the song into a never-ending version of the computer game where the computer adds a phrase each time you try to play the ‘song’ back again (only, being played on percussion instruments, this is actually more boring because there is no real melody to follow). Even when Nick does start thrashing his kit near the end of the middle part, it’s hardly among the drummer’s best work, a noisy thrash that lacks the style or grace of the Floyd at their best. Recycling the opening theme for the closing theme, note for note, is also a poor show for fans who continue to fork out quite a bit of money for this double album (I got mine in a library sale, OK?!) Quite what the ‘Grand Vizier’ thinks of it all, I’d hate to imagine. ‘Off with their heads!’ I should think!
So much for the ‘dead’ side! The live version of [6b] ‘Astronomy Domine’ is something of a relief, if only to hear Pink Floyd sounding how they should sound (as a fully functioning telepathic experimental band) and is, on balance, the best of the paltry four live songs we get on this record. It’s nice to hear David Gilmour doing his Syd Barrett impression for the only official time on record (an old friend of Syd, Gilmour was brought into the group primarily because he knew Syd’s songs and could do a good impression of him vocally and on the guitar – it was later he became an integral ‘creative’ member of the band) and he does a good job instrumentally, even if Rick and Roger singing together for the vocals is one of the band’s more disastrous attempts at singing harmony. There’s an interesting middle section here not heard on the record, where instead of the song crashing to a halt and kicking in again the band seem to float in mid-air for a bit, as if modernising the compact Floyd of 1967 into the space adventurers with epic suites of the early 70s. By and large, though, something about this live performance doesn’t quite catch fire, which is a shame given the history of this song (the first track on the first Floyd album) and the opportunities here to re-launch the band (as the first track on the live album); annoyingly we seem to have caught the band on a rare off night from this period, where their hearts aren’t quite into the song and everything sounds chaotic and muffled, floundering about instead of swooping and pouncing as they do on the original. Go and listen to the original instead, if you can, a gorgeous piece of psychedelia which somehow manages to sound exciting and scary all at once.
The live version of [28b] ‘Careful With That Axe, Eugene’, conversely, sounds far too polished and smooth, without the ragged edges this truly terrifying near-instrumental needs to work. The B-side of the last Pink Floyd single for 11 years ‘Point Me At The Sky’, this song outlasted all the other A and B sides of the 1960s and with only the title half-spoken, half-screamed by waters, conjures up its menacing mood from a murky octave-leaping bass line, some out-of-control Gilmour guitar, thrashing Mason drums and a keyboard part from Wright that sounds like a church organ played by the Devil. Taunting, provocative and a classic cat-and-mouse routine between the quieter parts and Waters’ blood-curdling screams, ‘Eugene’ is the highlight of many a Floyd setlist from the days pre-Dark Side when the band didn’t have that many songs on rotation. Even the title is great – saying so much without actually saying anything at all, leaving the listener to come up with their own readings of the title (even using the full name ‘Eugene’ says much about parental difficulties and lack of connection between the lad with the axe and his elders, although it may be that hearing ‘The Grand Vizier’ so many ties in the past hour has warped my brain). Alas, this version, whilst very good, is nowhere near the best and doesn’t quite know what to do with itself once it has peaked with Waters’ screams. The best version available is almost the last performance of it, on the ‘Live In Pompeii’ DVD, which really is scary enough to see why this song has been used in so many horror movies down the years.
[20b] ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun’ is another song that sounds like an excellent prospect on paper – at its peak, in 1971 or thereabouts, this song brings the house down, switching from a fragile song about escape to a thick-skinned determined epic that won’t take no for an answer. It’s an intriguing, fascinating song this one, made up of five-line verses similar to the Haiku poems we were discussing in last week’s issue, which have only the most passable attempts at a rhyming scheme and yet, when hearing the record, the whole thing seems to flow magically and make a lot of sense despite the clipped, solemn way of speaking (which is how human beings start talking during a crisis, when words are kept to a minimum). This live version of ‘Controls’ isn’t bad so much as misguided – Nick Mason unusually starts off too heavily, leaving Roger little room for manoeuvre as he musically tries to break away from Earth’s orbit (or ties to break free literally in the song) and the mess at the end – where the band should soar and totally destroy all sense of time, melody and rhythm as they each push their instruments to the limit – is one of the worst minutes of this whole album, simply because when heard on a good night live versions of this song are about the best thing played by any band anywhere and it’s a crying shame this version is better known than any other. Even Roger’s solo versions of this song have more heart and soul, without the weird eccentric middle section that seems to involve Rick testing out every single note on his keyboard while David Gilmour’s guitar pretends to be a seagull. It’s a very strange moment on a very strange record, which is all the sadder given how many layers there are to this song, with the captain of a ship giving the suicidal order to steer straight into the star that gave us all life, as if ending the great humanistic journey out of choice sometime in the future. Waters, who had his songwriting ‘breakthrough’ with this song in 1968 after a year spent playing second fiddle to Syd Barratt, is at his lyrical best here, pondering several philosophical questions without ever giving us any concrete facts about why mankind is dying out, who exactly is giving the order and how far in our evolution this song is taking place.
Alas, if you thought that limp version of that excellent song was bad, you haven’t heard 13 minutes of [22b] ‘Saucerful Of Secrets’, a terrible song that stretches the listener’s patience to the extremes. To be fair, this live version is a lot better than the record and has much more of a sense of being an ‘epic’ with a properly thought out arrangement, rather than a load of little bits and pieces stuck together. Unlike most Floyd songs, where I can at least hazard a guess, I haven’t got a clue what’s going on here. The opening section, re-titled here as ‘Something Else’, sounds like friction, the second ‘Syncopated Pandemonium’ a battle, the third ‘Storm Signal’ renaissance and the fourth, ‘Celestial Voices’ a kind of afterlife realisation about why these events have just taken place, but like many things Floyd and Pink that’s not necessarily what’s happening here. The first part is pretty hard going, a chaotic sprawl that starts innocently enough but soon loses direction and the tune. The second is better, mainly thanks to a spectacular climax as Gilmour’s whistly wah-wah pedal drenched with feedback reaches for the skies, whilst Rick’s organ and Nick’s heavy drumming crash into each other head on. The third is a bit woolly, with lots of Rick’s organ work not really going anywhere, as if looking onto all the chaos that’s just been unleashed. The final part, however, is gorgeous, a typically Floydian cascade of Rick’s uplifting choral blocks, Gilmour’s breathy ‘aaaahs’ and more of Roger Waters’ bass leaping octaves, conjuring up a real excitement (although, ironically enough, it’s still the one part of the song that does sound better on the original). When the band finally soar all together like this, you realise that what you’ve just been sitting through is simply to get the contrast between the confusion of earlier pieces and this blissful release, but it’s probably fair to say that even for The Floyd putting up with 10 minutes of noise in order for three minutes of glory is not good odds. Another problem I’ve always had with this piece is the title – out of all the 20-minute largely instrumental suites the band came up with (the equally patchy ‘Atom Heart Mother’, the majestic ‘Echoes’, the unreleased and underrated spooky ‘Embryo’) ‘Saucerful’ is the one most rooted to the Earth, with less hymnal qualities and more earthly-sounding interruptions, such as the syncopated drums in the second section. So why give it such a flowery, ill-suiting title?
Ah well, a Floyd album wouldn’t be a Floyd album without a few mysteries. And boy are there some mysteries to ‘Ummagumma’. The first question that springs to mind, of course, is ‘Why?!?’, but then it was 1969 and it was another world in another place, a time when you trusted bands to know what they were doing and didn’t ask too many questions (perhaps it was that lack of freedom that led to The Spice Girls sticking so rigidly to that ghastly pop formula – although then again, perhaps it wasn’t). But there does seem to be a theme here, perhaps the ‘schism of life’, the divisions we feel between us all (and throughout the ages and across all countries if the references to Greek myths and Turkish Viziers are to be believed) which has ended up with the Floyd dividing themselves neatly into four and showing us what exactly makes up the band’s ‘sound’. Except that there isn’t much here that does have the Pink Floyd sound and that the sound you expect to hear only makes it’s presence felt on part three of the ‘Narrow Way’ and sections of the live recordings. Had ‘Ummagumma’ been used as a film soundtrack, like the Floyd’s other records such as the experimental side two of ‘More’ and parts of ‘Obscured By Clouds’ – well, we’d have still felt short-changed paying full album price for the thing, but at least we’d have understood it more. Still, if ‘Ummagumma’ sounds out of touch with the times now, it was very much the sort of forward-thinking album the public wanted to hear back in 1969 and became the band’s biggest seller out of their first four LPs. Perhaps that’s a good thing – I’d hate to review many more albums like ‘Ummagumma’ on the trot without questioning my sanity – but there’s a part of me that’s ashamed of all music from the past 40 years for not having the courage and daring to do what this album is trying to do. Even if it does so badly, as least ‘Ummagumma’ tries. Alas it only works in small parts, but to its credit this album does sound in places like a way forward – even though, who’d have guessed listening to this record in 1969 that the comparatively straightforward and relatable ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ was only four years away...