Monday, 7 February 2011

News, Views and Music Issue 90 (Intro)

February 7:

Ummagumma! Hello and welcome to another ‘news, views and music’. Sorry this issue is so hard on the heels of the last one, but next week looks like a busy one for us so we’ve had to alter our dates a bit. Seeing as there’s no real news for you so soon after last time (we’re on 4390-odd hits now, with an accumulative 160-odd for our YouTube videos and our Beatles Sims are still struggling to pay for their new mansion), we thought we’d celebrate the recent and poorly publicised ‘troll a Tory day’ by delivering our own message to David Cameron. For those who don’t know, this is a day of protest where everyone sick of the stupidities of the UK’s coalition Government and their bizarrely twisted priorities harangues a chosen Conservative Mp for the whole day until they either agree to change policies or our arms get tired. And boy is there enough to complain about.

So here’s our AAA message: I’m so pleased for you, DC, on being so privileged all your life. The fact that you went to the best schools, was given every help in your career path without actually having to make any real decisions as a politician and had every whim of your early life catered for. Because that means you’re so thankful for your good start in life, of course you’ll do everything in your power to give everybody else a happy, privileged life like yours. It also means that you won’t be tired fighting on our behalf, having been handed everything on a plate, in the role where you represent the people – not like the rest of us, beneath you, who have had to fight for everything your Government has decided to cut. And well done helping out the rich by giving them tax breaks because that, surely, means they will feel even more generous and will want to help out their slightly less wealthy brethren in return for getting off with their recent mistakes scot free. I also have to thank you, DC, if your plans for banning industrial strikes comes to fruition because it will stop us from thinking about all the horrible things your Government is doing to us, even though its been the only way the average man in the street has been able to make his views heard in this country for the past few centuries. But of course, all that heritage means nothing in the face of a tiny deficit in a country that’s been in debt for 80 years now and counting. I have to think like this because the alternative – that we’ve got a corrupt politician in charge that never actually technically won the election, who will be in power for another three years and is clearly in politics only to help himself and his rich chums – is surely impossible in our modern democratic age. Isn’t it? So let’s look forward to a coming year when all our worst fears are unrealised – or else. Look at the riots in Egypt and France for a warning – you wouldn’t want that to happen would you? I mean, it’s not as if our benefit-slashed, VAT-taxed, recently made redundant population had anything to riot about is it? So take this as a warning. Being privileged by birth does not make you popular with everybody. And serving as your country’s representative could easily be seen as a privilege too far. But you won’t let us down will you DC Ummagumma? Not after the trust we’ve placed in you?...

Oh and I had to laugh at the political debate the other day: ‘Mr Cameron, you keep pretending you’re being Father Christmas by making everybody a part of your ‘big society’, but really you’re being Scrooge...’


Beatles News: Hundreds of letters made by John Lennon to various friends and colleagues have been sold to publisher Orion Books, causing a feast of speculation among Beatleologists that a book might be in the works (perhaps in 2012 according to the latest news bulletin). The letters were owned by Beatles biographer Hunter Davies (author of the first full book about the band in 1968), although technically Yoko owns the rights to any of Lennons writings, however small and it is she who has just given permission for them to be used. The vast majority of the letters have never been seen before and many contain typical Lennon doodles, such as the ones published in Johns three books of prose. More news if and when we hear it... 

ANNIVERSARIES: Happy birthday to everybody, everywhere celebrating this week (February 2nd-8th) and that includes AAA members Skip Battin (bassist with The Byrds 1970-72) who would have been 77 on February 2nd, Graham Nash (guitarist with The Hollies 1963-68 and Crosby, Stills and Nash various dates since 1969) who turns 69 on February 2nd, Eric Haydock (bassist with The Hollies 1963-65) who would have been 68 on February 3rd and Dave Davies (guitarist with The Kinks 1963-93) who turns 64 on February 3rd. Anniversaries of events include: The beginning of the end for The Beatles, when three of them officially hire Allen Klien as their manager against the wishes of Paul McCartney (February 3rd 1969); The Who headlines their first concert, surprisingly late in their career, at London’s Finsbury Park (February 4th 1966); The Rolling Stones releaser ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’ (February 4th 1966); John and Yoko begin what the American courts call their ‘trial separation’, beginning an 18-month ‘lost weekend’ (February 4th 1974); Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner offers up his prize guitar as one of the lots in a San Francisco musical auction to help Save The Whales – the first real music charity auction of its kind (February 4th 1979); Paul Simon released his first single without Art Garfunkel, ‘Mother And Child Reunion’ (February 5th 1972); The Rolling Stones switch labels to join The Beatles at EMI (February 5th 1977); Three Beatles enter a recording studio for the first time in seven years, when Paul and Ringo guest on George’s tribute to John ‘All Those Years Ago’, eight weeks after his death (February 6th 1981); The Beatles arrive in America for the first time, to be greeted by hoards of fans at JFK airport (February 7th 1964); The Kinks make their first TV appearance, miming to ‘Long Tall Sally’ on ‘Ready Steady Go!’ (February 7th 1964); Ringo has his tonsils removed, interrupting a Beatles tour of Australia (February 7th 1965); Stephen Stills becomes the first musician to ever make a digital recording, although alas the results still aren’t released even now (February 7th 1979); Pink Floyd play the first of just four ‘Wall’ shows (February 7th 1980) and finally, two years on from The Beatles’ demise when it seems clear they aren’t getting back together, their fan club officially closes its books, having hit a peak of membership in 1965 that’s never been equalled since (February 8th 1972). 

News, Views and Music Issue 90 (Top Twenty-Eight!): AAA bands covering each other's songs!

Forgive us if you’ve heard this one before, but the recent planned CSN cover versions CD is no more. Ummagumma! (OK, I will stop using that album title as a swear word now!) In honour of what we’ve missed (CSN getting their tonsils round the Beatles, Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones among others) here is our extended top five: every single instance we can think of featuring one AAA band covering a song written and made famous by another. Now we’ve had to miss certain instances off this list, such as various ex-Beatles covering songs by the band proper during their later solo tours and CSN covering various songs written by members in their ‘first’ bands (ie The Byrds’ ‘8 Miles High’, Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’ and The Hollies’ King Midas In Reverse’ as written by C,S and N respectively) and we’re also not counting here songs covered independently by two bands (eg Hollies/Otis Redding/Rolling Stones doing ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’, The Hollies/Rolling Stones/The Who doing ‘Fortune Teller’, The Beach Boys/The Who doing ‘Barbara Ann’ and Beatles/Kinks doing ‘Long Tall Sally’) But otherwise, we think this alphabetical Beatle-dominated list is complete – please email in if you can think of anything we’ve forgotten...

1)    Beach Boys/Beatles “I Should Have Known Better” (from ‘Beach Boys Party!’ 1966 and Beatles’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ 1964, respectively): A truly curious choice which is the first of three truly questionable choices from the Boys’ ‘Party’ record, ad libbed in the studio to buy Brian Wilson time to finish off ‘Pet Sounds’. Carl Wilson was the big fan of the band – much to dad Murray Wilson’s horror who saw the fab four as ‘the enemy’ – and he seems to be the only one talking this cover seriously, what with the band cracking jokes over the top and forgetting the words halfway through. Both bands have a similarly impressive youthful energy, however, on what was always one of the Beatles’ breeziest and most carefree of songs.

2)    Beach Boys/Beatles “Tell Me Why” (exactly the same as above): Ditto this cover version, which breaks down before it properly gets going. Again its a moody lennon lyrics masquerading as a couldn’t-care-less melody that suits both bands’ energetic readings, but it’s a shame the Beach Boys couldn’t take it more seriously!

3)    Beach Boys/Beatles “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” (from ‘Beach Boys Party!’ 1966 and The Beatles ‘Help!’ 1965 albums respectively): Not so this moody Beatles track, always one of Lennon’s most under-rated efforts, covered nicely here by Dennis Wilson, who clearly identifies with the ‘love lost’ scenario. Shame the rest of the band can’t keep quiet behind him, though, ruining their song with their manic ‘hey!’ s, but its a good try. Somewhere in the archives the backing tapes without the manic choruses exist and it’s a great shame that hasn’t come out yet (the recording of The Everly’s ‘Devoted To You’ without the jokes appeared on the outtakes CD ‘Hawthorne, CA’ and sounds so much better).

4)    Beach Boys/Beatles “With A Little Help From My Friends” (from Beach Boys’ ‘Rarities’ recorded 1969 and released 1983 and Beatles ‘Sgt Peppers’ 1967 respectively): Next on our list is a recording that was never intended for release and seems to have been done merely to test the new Beach Boys studio, built in Brian Wilson’s kitchen, is working. It is – but the Beach Boys plainly aren’t and are just goofing around again, as shown by this curious, slowed-down reading on what was always one of the lesser Beatle songs, with Bruce Johnstone on unusually breathy lead vocals. It was revealed, long after the song came out on an itself-now-a-rarity rarities album,that the band wanted to hear how the song sounded sped-up. ‘Mad’ or ‘drunk’ seems to be the answer, if you’ve ever played the intended-speed version on YouTube... 

5)    Beach Boys/Beatles “Back In The USSR” (from Beach Boys’ ‘Rarities’ album, recorded 1969 and released 1983 and Beatles’ White Album, 1968): Our final fab four/fab five crossover makes much more sense. After all the song was started by Paul McCartney at the Maharishi’s retreat in Rishikesh when Beach Boy Mike Love was along for the ride and is based, with tongue firmly in cheek, on The Beach Boys’ ‘California Girls’. The song was written by Macca to give hope to Russian fans behind the Iron Curtain and has become even more loved since the fall of communism there in 1989 allowed it to be widely heard than it was at the time. You somehow get the sense that The Beach Boys didn’t quite get the depth of the song, as they treat it as just another surf singalong, quite unlike Macca’s deliciously ironic reading of his words on The Beatles’ original, but it’s good fun nevertheless and fascinating to hear a Beach Boys style Beatles song done by the group themselves. 

6)    Beatles/Belle and Sebastian “Here Comes The Sun” (from Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’ 1969 and Belle and Sebastian’s 2CD version of ‘The BBC Sessions’ 2008 respectively): This cover version too is played utterly straight and does, in truth, sound just like another pop song rather than a gloriously uplifting hymn to nature and optimism as it does on the original (its one of the few Beatles tracks that sounds even better on the remix album ‘Love’). Belle and Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson has always cited The Beatles as his biggest influence – in fact, according to one interview I heard he, like me, was beaten up in school playgrounds for years for claiming no one in the then-top 40 could hold a candle to even the worst Beatles song and his friends were all mad to listen to anything made after 1970 – so its surprising there haven’t been more Beatles or AAA covers on B+S albums down the years. A shame the rest of the band either don’t know the song or can’t match Stevie’s enthusiasm in this live reading, though, which is a tad anonymous.

7)    Beatles/Crosby, Stills and Nash “Blackbird” (from the Beatles’ ‘White Album’ 1968 again, plus the self-titled CSN box-set from 1991): This song was an early live favourite and came in handy when the trio went into the Apple offices to try to get a deal with the Beatles’ label. It ever so nearly made the singers’ debut album, too, although fans had to wait until 1991 to hear the now 22-year-old studio version. This cover of ‘Blackbird’ has divided fans then and now, especially from fans who question why three such great writers needed cover songs at all, but I really like CSN’s reading, with some typically glorious harmonies and its uplifting social protest (Macca really did write it about a ‘black bird’ protesting against conditions for African-Americans in 1960s USA) is a perfect fit for the world’s most socially aware singers. 

8)    Beatles/Crosby, Stills and Nash “In My Life” (from The Beatles’ ‘Rubber Soul’ 1965 and CSN’s ‘After The Storm’ 1994): This cover doesn’t work quite as well, being a bit too mawkish and slow compared to the Beatles’ spot-on pop-rock reading of one of Lennon’s better lyrics and one of McCartney’s better melody lines. It’s still a lovely version, though, well worth seeking out if just to hear what this song sounds like with pristine three-part harmonies, although it doesn’t add much you won’t have learnt from the pristine original.

9)    Beatles/Grateful Dead – Brief note: Even I can’t afford the 200-odd official concerts recorded by the band during their 30 years on the road but not released till Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. That’s a shame because, while there are several Beatles covers around on these CDs, I can’t tell you which albums they’re on, but do have a look out for covers of ‘Day Tripper’ ‘Dear Prudence’ and even, would you believe, ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road’?

10) Beatles/Hollies “If I Needed Someone” (a track from The Beatles’ ‘Rubber Soul’ album 1965 and a single by The Hollies 1965): This Hollies single is still a big bone of intention among fans. George Harrison, long a distant admirer of The Hollies, was fed up only getting two songs per Beatle record and promised this one to the Hollies – not that unusual in the 1960s as Lennon and McCartney gave their unused songs away all the time. The problem came when George went back on his promise and recorded it with the Beatles after all, with the two versions being released almost instantaneously. Just to rub salt in the wounds, Lennon murdered the Hollies’ version in print, dismissing them as ‘studio musician hacks’ or something like that. All these years later he’s wrong – I much prefer The Hollies version as the harmonies are tighter, the track is more urgent and the guitar-work is better (so are the drums, but that generally goes without saying comparing Beatles to Hollies tracks – sorry Ringo!) Only Allan Clarke’s vocals sounds like his heart isn’t in the song but then, having heard what the band have to say about this cover all these years on, that’s because his heart wasn’t in it at all. In contrast, like many an early Harrison Beatles track, the others don’t sound all that fussed on the Beatles original and George is left to carry the song more or less on his own – perhaps he should have fronted a Hollies cover instead?

11) Beatles/Nils Lofgren “Anytime At All” (from The Beatles’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ 1964 and Nils’ ‘Time Fades Away’ 1981): This cover was one of many Lennon tributes released the year after the great man died (a subject we’ve already covered on ‘news and views’ 77) and is the sound of the Beatles Nils remembers from his youth – snappy, energetic and full of hope and optimism. The 1980s production values rather ruins this new version, but Nils’ Lennon pastiche – complete with falsetto call-and-answers-like the record – is still a sweet cover with its heart in the right place, although it probably won’t win over too many admirers from the Beatles camp.

12) Beatles/Oasis “I Am The Walrus” (from The Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ 1967 and Oasis’ B-side compilation ‘The Masterplan’ 1998): Oasis made so many lyrical and musical references to the fab four that an actual cover on the back of one of their records seems somewhat inevitable. Liam Gallagher tries gamely with Lennon’s most off the wall lyric with a ferocity only bettered by the original, but this elongated attempt to recreate psychedelia, with guitars left humming next to their speakers, doesn’t have the conciseness or poetry of the original. It’s also deeply weird hearing this song in a bunch of Mancunian accents rather than scouse ones!

13) Beatles/Oasis “Helter Skelter” (from The Beatles’ ‘White Album’ 1968 yet again and Oasis’ live record ‘Familiar To Millions’ 2001): Not so the other Beatles cover, which is handled by Noel Gallagher and substitutes the original’s crazy carelessness with something much taughter and spooky, with an underlying threat the original only had on the outtakes. One of the highlights of the Oasis’ only official live record (to date anyway, though with their demise I bet there’s more in the works), it’s a shame the quintet didn’t tackle any other minor Beatles classics, although I still miss Ringo’s cries over blistered fingers!

14) Beatles/Otis Redding “Day Tripper” (The Beatles’ version was a 1965 single available on ‘Past Masters Volume Two’ and Otis’ version is from his 1966 ‘Dictionary Of Soul’ album): To follow up his trick of making ‘Satisfaction’ his own (see below), Otis injects some ‘soul’ into one of The Beatles’ poppier singles. The result isn’t quite as successful as before, but there’s a great driving beat underneath this cover and the tension going into the chorus still makes for a pretty memorable cover. A shame Otis didn’t choose one of the more soully Beatles songs though: I’d have loved to have heard him tackle ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ or ‘The Word’, for instance! (‘yes you gotta go gotta go get my my my the word is good y’all, my my my...’)

15) Beatles/Rolling Stones “I Wanna Be Your Man” (The Beatles’ version is from ‘With The Beatles’ 1963; The Stones’ version of this forgotten song was released as their second single barely weeks before The Beatles’ version): Back when Jagger and Richards were the singer and guitarist in the Stones rather than the creative driving force, the band were desperate for material. By chance they happened to bump into Lennon and McCartney, already superstars in the UK if not yet the world, in a club, asked them for a song or two and gaped in awe as the two Beatles came up with the song in the space of about 10 minutes. The song was a real R and B number, straight up their alley during the Stones’ early years, but I actually prefer the Beatles’ version of this which has less swing but more out and our rock and roll power. Ringo excels himself on the lead vocal, which is one of his loosest and best and much easier to love than Jagger’s affected American drawl on his version.  Oh and contrary to popular thought, the two bands were great friends for most of the 60s, Brian Jones especially.

16) Beatles/10cc “Paperback Writer” (The Beatles’ version is a 1966 single available on ‘Past Masters Volume 2’, while 10cc’s live reading appears on ‘In Concert’ 1993): The 10cc version of The Beatles’ midway-point single was part of a Lennon trilogy tribute the band were playing – and yes, before you point out, it is predominantly a McCartney song! This band never do the expected thing! 10cc slow the song down and add a reggae vibe onto the verses, which works well until we hit the chorus and the song goes back into rock and roll again, an awkward mix that doesn’t quite gel. Ultimately, not as good an idea as it looks on paper – although in retrospect McCartney’s lyrics are very 10cc-ish, tongue-in-cheek yet making a serious point about wannabe authors writing about situations they’re too young to have experienced, which might explain why Macca goes on to work with 10cc’s Eric Stewart in the 1980s.

17) Beatles/10cc “Across The Universe” (from The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ album 1970 and 10cc’s ‘In Concert’ 1993): 10cc’s other Lennon ‘tribute’ was a tad more obvious, alas, and despite its fondness among most Beatles fans I’ve always hated this Lennon composition (along with ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ and their cover of ‘Mr Moonlight’, its the only truly pointless song in their whole back catalogue). This version fares little better, with this version amazingly even slower than the original – surprisingly it’s the third ‘tribute’song, a cover of Larry Williams’ ‘Slow Down’, also made famous by The Beatles despite only appearing on an EP, that works best.

18)  Hollies/Nils Lofgren “Shine Silently” (The Hollies’ version was a single-only track from 1988 that is available on some compilations, while Nils’ original is from his self-titled ‘Nils Lofgren’ album – but the 1979 one not his 1971 debut also titled ‘Nils Lofgren’, blimey being a collector is confusing sometimes!): This marvellous little song is still Lofgren’s best known track by far, despite him never actually having a hit with it. The Hollies’ version, released at the tail end of Allan Clarke’s recordings with the group, isn’t that well known either but it’s well regarded by both Lofgren and Hollies fans and perhaps the last great Hollies recording of all. While Lofgren’s original is a pleasing, sweet little uplifting song with a terrific vocal, The Hollies’ version is a tour de force with a re-arrangement that pads the song out by several minutes (especially on the 12” mix), an ear-catching a capella opening and among the best use of 1980s synthesisers by any band on this list. ‘Silently’ also sounds very Hollies, catchy but deep and with an eye on the charts and an eye on originality, adding a new weight to Nils’ already pretty special song of devotion to unsung heroes everywhere. Just to add to the AAA links, Nils performed this song live during two tours with Ringo Starr’s ‘All Starr’ bands in the early 1990s.

19) Hollies/Searchers “Have You Ever Loved Somebody?” (from The Hollies’ ‘Evolution’ LP of 1967 and a single-only from The Searchers 1967, available on all good Searchers compilations): The Hollies – or three of them anyway – were the writers this time around, with Searcher drummer Chris Curtis hearing this commercial album-only track and thinking it would be a big hit if done the right away. Alas, Curtis was ousted from the group not long after suggesting it, allegedly ‘going mad’ during a gruelling Searchers tour down under, and the other Searchers clearly don’t have the same love or respect for this song, with the drumming particularly bad. It’s a wonder they agreed to go through with recording it at all, in fact, given that their own writing skills were then at their peak. A Shame, because the Hollies’ version is a career highlight and I’ve always been surprised the band never released it as a single in its own right, as its one of the catchiest songs I’ve ever heard.

20) Hollies/Simon and Garfunkel “I Am A Rock” (from The Hollies’ album ‘The Hollies’ – the 1965 one not the 1974 one (help!) as well as Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sounds Of Silence’ album 1965): This song, though, is a Paul Simon original and in fact my very first introduction to the duo – now wonder I love both bands so. Each version of this song is excellent but very very different, with Paul and Arty going for a severe, sombre monochrome arrangement that places the emphasis on alienation. The Hollies are, by contrast, flowering in full colour, with a beaty optimistic vibe that should be at odds with the lyrics but somehow isn’t – the band sound strangely joyous and triumphant here, as if they’re ecstatic they’ve suddenly agreed to cut women out of their lives for good!

21) John Lennon/Moody Blues “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” (a single only for Lennon, available on every Lennon comp, and on The Moody Blues’ festive ‘Winter’ album 2004): Lennon’s original will probably never be toppled, despite the many cover versions of it down the years, most of them hideous quite frankly (The Spice Girls surely have a version it the works, its exactly the kind of message they’d mangle). The Moodies’ version of this song is the best of a poor selection of covers from their worryingly meagre Christmas album that can’t live up to their own work, but it’s still not that impressive, with the band a bit too reverential for their own good, as if afraid of treading on Lennon’s toes.

22) Oasis/Rolling Stones “Street Fighting Man” (Oasis’ cover is a B-side to ‘All Around The World’ 1997 and the Stones’ appears on ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ 1968): This classic song of Stones protest is not what it seems as we’ve analysed elsewhere (see review no 26) – it seems to be inciting riots but actually claims that there’s no way a ‘sleepy London town’ is ever going to do anything. I wondered for years what a ‘straight’ version of this song would sound like without the irony in Mick Jagger’s voice – and now I know, thanks to Oasis’ ferocious version which has Liam Gallagher spitting out venom with every line. Unlike most Stones fans, though, who treated this version as sacrilege, I like this cover – the band mean every word they say and the arrangement does a good job of copying the original without sticking to it rigidly.

23) Oasis/The Who “My Generation” (I’m a bit lost which single Oasis’ version was from but its one of the ones from 2005’s ‘Don’t Believe The Truth’, whereas The Who’s comes from debut LP ‘My Generation’ 1965): This Oasis cover isn’t quite as good, mainly because The Who already gave such a definitive performance and there’s no other angle they can take from what remains one of Pete Townshend’s most straightforward lyrics. It also sounds odd to hear a band referencing ‘their’ generation by using a song that at the time was 40 years old! The song does fit Liam’s angry vocal style well, however, so it’s a shame they recorded this song in 2005, when the band were comparatively old and tired, rather than in their fiery youth.

24) Oasis/Neil Young “Hey Hey My My (Into The Black)” (from Oasis’ ‘Familiar To Millions’ live album 2001 and Neil’s ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ album 1979): Perhaps the best  Oasis cover of all is this Young song, however, which Noel Gallagher transforms into a hybrid of Neil’s fragile acoustic and barnstorming electrified versions. Noel announces this song to stunned silence from the audience and adds ‘yeah I don’t know, I wasn’t born then either’ – perhaps forgetting that he was nine years old when it came out and is Neil’s response to the punk and new wave movements. This cover might not touch the original – either version, as Neil did two on the same LP– but hearing the lines ‘rock and roll will never die’ from perhaps the world’s last definitive rock band still brings a tear to my eye.

25) Otis Redding/Rolling Stones “Satisfaction” (Otis’ version is from ‘Otis Blue’ 1966 – the Stones’ original was a single only in the UK and found on every good Stones comp since): So hot on the heels of the original was this cover and so much did Otis make ‘Satisfaction’ his own that a rumour went round that Otis had written it and sold it to Jagger/Richards for a pittance when he needed the money in a hurry. Complete rubbish of course, as Redding himself said at the time, but somehow the story stuck. Jagger/Richards hadn’t written many tracks before this and it’s clear that they too were thinking of soul when they wrote it (before developing the song into pure rock in the studio), which might be why it works so well. Otis is on top form here, with the song a close cousin of his own ‘Respect’, decrying the lack of opportunities in the world and all but turning ‘Satisfaction’ into an African-American protest song. Legend has it Otis only recorded this song when his planned choice – Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Mr Soul – fell through at the last minute.

26) Rolling Stones/Searchers “Take It Or Leave It” (from The Stones’ Aftermath’ album 1966 and a single-only for The Searchers in 1967, available on most good Searchers comps): Another early Stones song, so early casual fans would be hard pressed to guess who was writing and performing it even on The Stones’ version. The words do fit ‘Aftermath’s rather nasty anti-females vibe rather well, though, which makes it doubly odd why The Searchers should want to cover it (and if they wanted to shock then what about shocking us with a really good song, like ‘Under My Thumb’ ‘Stupid Girl’ or ‘Mother’s Little Helper’?) The Searchers certainly don’t sound all that enthusiastic on what is, to be frank, probably their worst A-side up to the end of their time with record label Pye – and the Stones’ original doesn’t sound all that hot either.

27) Rolling Stones/The Who “Under My Thumb” (from The Stones’ ‘Aftermath’ album 1966 and a single-only for The Who, later released on ‘Odds and Sods’ CD version 1996): A strange curio to end on – both sides of The Who’s 1967 tribute to The Stones, released when the band were facing drugs charges and it looked like the band would go to prison. The Who were furious on their behalf and pledged to release a ‘Who’ cover for every month they were inside, in order to keep their name alive. Alas, this hurried single sounds like it –John Entwistle, away on his honeymoon, isn’t available to play the bass part so Pete Townshend plays it, badly, while the rest of the band are still in their fixation-with-falsetto-harmonies phase which takes all the sneer and anger out of the song.

28) Rolling Stones/The Who “The Last Time” (a single only for The Stones in 1965 and The Who in 1966, again released on the CD version of ‘Odds and Sods’ 1996): The B-side fares slightly better, mainly because the song is a poppier, simpler one much easier to learn at speed. However, valiant as the idea is, you have to be grateful that Jagger and Richards were released after just one night inside and that the Who could go back to making ‘proper’ singles. 

And that’s that. Did we miss anything out? Drop us a link on our forum and let us know! In the meantime, till another issue in another time, goodbye!

Pink Floyd "Ummagumma!" (1969) (News, Views and Music 90, Revised 2014)

You can now buy 'Remember A Day - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Pink Floyd' in e-book form by clicking here!

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.  

The Songs:

[41] ‘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 [42] ‘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 [43] ‘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 [44]‘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 [45] ‘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...

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