Monday, 29 April 2013
“Burning bridges brightly, merging with the shadow, flickering between the lines, stolen moments floating softly on the air, borne on wings of fire and climbing higher” “Ancient bonds are breaking, leaving all and changing sides, dreaming of a new day, cast aside the other way, magic visions stirring, kindled by the burning flames that lie in her eyes” “The door that stands ajar, the walls that once were high, beyond the gilded cage, beyond the reach of time, the moment is at hand, she breaks the golden band” “Everybody’s searching for something they say, I’ll get my kicks on the way!” “I could sail forever to strange sounding names – faces of people and places don’t change” “Heaven sent the promised land., looks alright from where I stand, ‘cause I’m the man on the outside looking in” “Let me in from the cold, turn my lead into gold, ‘cause there’s a chill wind blowing in my soul, and I think I’m growing old” “Flash the readies, what’s the deal?, got to make it to the next meal, try to keep up with the turning of the wheel” “You set sail across the sea, of long past thoughts and memories, childhood’s end your fantasies merge with harsh realities” “Who are you and who am I to say we know the reason why some men are born, some men die, beneath one infinite sky, there’ll be war, there’ll be peace, but everything one day will cease, all the iron turned to rust, all the proud men turned to dust, so all things time will mend, and so this song will end” “The memories of a man in his old age are the deeds of a man in his prime, you shuffle in the gloom of a sick room and talk to yourself as you die” “Life is a short, warm moment – and death is a long cold rest, you get your chance to try in the twinkling of an eye, 80 years with luck or even less” “Morning dues, new born day, midnight blue turned to grey”
PINK FLOYD “OBSCURED BY CLOUDS” (1972)
Obscured By Clouds/When You’re In/Burning Bridges/The Gold It’s In The.../Wot’s...Uh, The Deal?/Mudmen//Childhood’s End/Free Four/Stay/Absolutely Curtains!
One thing that sometimes surprises me is how the AAA albums are viewed differently by collectors in different countries, something I’m taking more interest in now that I have a stat counter that tells me where in the world all you dear readers are and I know I’m not just talking to myself! (America and Europe, mostly, although India and Mexico are catching up fast!) Whilst everyone everywhere has heard of, say, ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, some countries see that album’s popularity matched by other Pink Floyd records (‘Wish You Were Here’ or ‘The Wall’, usually), others know the Floyd better as a singles band (especially the Syd Barrett years of ‘See Emily Play’ and ‘Arnold Layne’) and others know next to nothing about the band’s six-year struggle before ‘Dark Side’ and think that album came from nowhere. Film soundtrack album ‘Obscured By Clouds’ is a case in point: my fellow Brits would have to be pretty big Pink Floyd collectors to own this album, which didn’t sell that well and got rather buried by ‘Dark Side’ release a few months later; for my American cousins, however, this is probably the LP that first piqued their interest and got proper airplay on American radio (unless you were really ahead of the game, had foreign friends with interesting record collections and/or you were a European in exile); in ‘France’, meanwhile ‘Obscured By Clouds’ is just about the most famous thing Pink Floyd ever did, not withstanding ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, and one of those 1970s releases that’s as close to a ‘must’ for collections as any that decade. How can this be? Well, for a kick off this album is the second soundtrack to a Barbert Schroeder film the Floyd made and as it’s a French-language film it’s naturally better known in France (where due to a spectacular falling out between director and band it became known as ‘La Valee’ and was barely mentioned on the LP sleeve; in fact the rather ugly cover came about because the band refused to use the intended cover of a man sitting in a tree; at a loss for what to use instead the band simply got art directors Hipgnosis to shift the whole scene out of focus so no one could tell what it was). Add in the fact that ‘Obscured’ is a record made on the run, in a record two-week recording block, and is arguably less obtuse and more commercial-friendly than any previous record and you can see why the Americans liked it too. The only odd part is why the Brits should have ignored this album so, as it came in the footsteps of albums like ‘Atom Heart Mother’ and ‘Ummagumma’ that, for better or worse, made number one (something even ‘Dark Side’ with its slow-burning word-of-mouth sales never technically managed!)
So who is right? Is ‘Obscured’ the best thing Floyd ever did, does making it one of the simplest things they ever did mean it’s great or ghastly, or should this album be forever forgotten in the dusty corners of your record cabinet that never gets played? As ever, the answer is a little of all three. ‘Obscured’ is a very interesting and revealing album if you’re a fan, proving that the band can really play without all their characteristic studio trickery and – like their first Schroeder soundtrack album ‘More’ – this is an album high on atmosphere but also with Roger Waters in particular honing in on techniques that are going to prove invaluable on the band’s later, bigger sellers. There’s even some nice experiments going on, too – experiments that, unlike ‘More’, dabble in much more mainstream areas than wild and weird band jams and instrumentals. Unfortunately this means that ‘Obscured’ is possibly the most anonymous and un-Floyd like album at times, full of ballads, pop songs and heard, heavy rock instrumentals. The downside to all this too is that, with just two weeks to time songs with a stopwatch, knock some songs into shape and record them, ‘Obscured’ doesn’t have the size or spectacle of most Floyd albums. Hear this album back to back with the ones either side of it (‘Meddle’ and ‘Dark Side’) and it sounds like an early mix or an unfinished sketch rather than a whacking great painting. Our advice: dive in headfirst to the better known Floyd albums which we’ve more or less covered completely already on this site – and then come back to hear these sketches so you can enjoy and understand the work that went into making the others.
It helps, too, if you’ve seen the film. Technically I haven’t. Despite being a big seller in France I can’t find a copy of ‘La Valee’ for love, money or Pink Floyd t-shirt trade-ins and the DVD that got half-heartedly rush-released the other year disappeared quicker than you can say ‘tear down the wall!’ and now costs a fortune (frankly the soundtrack album isn’t that cheap either). However I have seen a good half of it now on Youtube and Pink Floyd documentaries down the years (not to mention a shortened ‘recreation’ made out of lego – don’t ask!) and the good news is that the film looks more or less like you’d expect (especially if you’ve seen ‘More’ as well): lots of long lingering shots of youngsters ‘finding themselves’ and staring into the distance in exotic landscapes that you can picture anyway without having to think too hard. The Floyd’s music doesn’t so much fit the film as create the film – even if it did come along afterwards - taking the small cues of the little conversation and ideas going on in the dialogue (Schroder tended to use ‘unknowns’ as his actors and gave them very little dialogue because he knew they’d struggle to learn it) and blowing them into ‘proper’ emotions. It’s a highly unusual way for a film and music to work (by and large the rule is that if you notice the music in the soundtrack to a film or television programme then the composer’s done something wrong), but treat this as a younger sister to ‘Tommy’ (reviewed on these pages the other week) and you’ll understand it more. The opening credits set the scene: five minutes of staring at trees getting closer and closer while Pink Floyd play the first two tracks of the album without a break. The CD re-issue of the album is less touchy about the fall-out between musicians and director and as well as stills from the film lists a brief plot. This brief plot is, as far as I’ve seen, the whole plot; French housewife Viviane feels modern life is missing something, meets an intrepid young explorer and the pair travel to see a ‘forgotten valley’ unmarked on all maps and ‘find themselves’. ‘Mudmen’ fits the film particularly well; ‘Free Four’ doesn’t even bother to try – every other track fits somewhere on the scale between these two extremes. As ever with these ‘travel’ themes ‘La Valee’ doesn’t really have an ending (the film simply stops once the valley is in sight, leaving more than one wag to claim that the movie budget must have suddenly run out that day) and isn’t really about the ‘natives’ they come across either (if anything, they’re the ‘normal’ characters the French couple have left behind; yes even when they’re wearing masks and feathers and are covered in mud – after all what’s more ‘earthy’ and least mystical than mud?!) The valley itself is unseen throughout the whole film for a reason – like many a 1960s and 70s cult movie it’s up to the audience to ‘fill in the holes’ and imagine their own Shangri-la, something which seems like a cheat to most modern viewers but was genuinely daring back then. To sum ‘La Valee’ up in one go – and to quote a phrase I coined for a creative writing class several years ago which I always hoped would come in handy one day – ‘it doesn’t matter who you are or where you want to be, the story’s in the journey and not what’s out at sea’.
The theme of missing out on something and finding that from mystical sources is a perfect one for the Floyd – much more so than the less straightforward plot of ‘More’ and ‘Obscured By Clouds’ is a close cousin to ‘Wish You Were Here’ with its themes of travel, alienation and despondency (and especially the album covers of ‘people who aren’t there’ – on this album it’s more than just the valley that’s obscured). Although none of the lyrics used in the Floyd’s songs seem to having to do literally with the film, they are more or less all linked to this theme in some way. For only the second time on a Floyd album Roger Waters writes most of them too – in fact all but Gilmour’s song. ‘Burning Bridges’ is an Echoes-like pop symphony in miniature (whose melody is re-used in ‘Mudmen’) full of haiku-like metaphors for someone breaking out of their earthly bonds. ‘The Gold It’s In The...’ does at least start out following the film (and the possibility of a sudden gold rush), but Waters is in too much of a hurry to spoil the non-ending of the film and gets in a lyric about the joy and excitement of travelling to new places. ‘Wots...Uh, The Deal’ is an unusually ungrammatical title for a very poetic and curious song, one that pits the earthly necessity of having to earn enough money to pay for the spiritual things you discover. ‘Childhood’s End’ is a more paranoid song about losing your way in life and getting turned into a different person as an adult than the one you hoped to be when you were young. ‘Free Four’ is arguably the first autobiographical Roger Waters song, with the first mention of the death of his father in World War II (a conscientious objector forced to fight against his wishes and killed at Anzio; see our review of ‘The Wall’ for more on that story) and gloomy references to the futile pointlessness of life when we’re all going to die some day anyway. Finally ‘Stay’ is an unusual story-song about the difference between a night before when the narrator falls in love with a groupie and she means everything to him and the morning after when he can’t even remember her name. Even this song is about identity, though, of ‘being there but not there’, of literally being ‘obscured by clouds’. Considering that the band only had two weeks to work on this project they nailed the key themes of the film pretty well and all the songs seem to fit together, somehow, much more so than on ‘More’ or even on a ‘proper’ non-soundtrack album like ‘Meddle’.
One other problem facing the Floyd was that they’d already started work on ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ when they agreed to do the film and had indeed been playing the suite on the road for several months. That album must have sapped their creative energy badly (Pink Floyd were never as prolific as, say, The Kinks or The Beach Boys) and it was still only half done; basic recordings had taken place but, for instance, the ‘interview cards’ hadn’t yet been taped, the soulful girl singers hadn’t yet been added and songs like ‘On The Run’ and ‘Any Colour You Like’ still sounded lumpy and odd, more like their live version counterparts. Having already covered life in all its gloriousness, madness and mundaneness can’t have left the band many places to go (indeed, the malaise that affected the band after ‘Dark Side’ must be down, at least in part, to having felt there was little left to say). The amazing thing is that ‘Obscured By Clouds’ manages to touch on almost all the themes of its better known twin (love, travel, money, religion, madness - of a sort) without stepping on the toes of any of the other songs. Indeed, it might be working on this album in such a sudden, uninhibited burst that helped shape Waters’ creative energy into what he really wanted to say. If there’s one song from the two albums that share their DNA, though, it’s ‘Time’ – the song full of ticking clocks reminding us to start living our lives instead of drifting through them because we only have a short time to be here (hence the French couple going out on their trek in the first place). One of the ‘Obscured’ songs – ‘Childhood’s End’ – even recycles the same clock-ticking drum pattern just to reiterate that point.
That’s at least three future Pink Floyd million-sellers we’ve referred to already then: ‘Dark Side’ ‘Wish You Were Here’ and ‘The Wall’ (and did I mention how similar parts of ‘Stay’ is to ‘Pigs On The Wing’ from ‘Animals’?!) Far from being a simple throwaway, put-as-little-effort-into-it-as-possible typical soundtrack album with more instrumentals than any other Floyd album barring ‘More’, ‘Obscured By Clouds’ seems to have been treated like a stepping stone; a chance to air certain ideas that the band have never had the chance to develop till now, safe in the knowledge that none of their usual audiences (except maybe France) would pay any real attention to what they said. The sheer timescale of the project also means that the Floyd pull together more here than on perhaps any other project (though ‘Dark Side’ comes close). Roger Waters gets eight writing credits and one vocal (on ‘Free Four’); David Gilmour gets seven writing credits and three lead vocals; Rick Wright gets five writing credits and three vocals – about as even as it gets with Pink Floyd in this era. Another notable feature is how much of this album is sung in ‘harmony’.
Traditionally it tends to be first Syd Barrett and then Gilmour solo that makes for the key feature of Pink Floyd’s records, but this one mainly features Dave and Rick singing together in quite blissful harmony (given the fact that the two only knew each other vaguely through mutual acquaintance Barrett till Gilmour joined the band four years earlier, the vocal blend is extraordinary and sadly isn’t really mined again after this point, with this album and ‘Echoes’ all that remains). Gilmour’s admitted in the years since the band fell apart that his real love wasn’t the often avent garde sound-effects-and-big-ideas sound of the Floyd but the harmony-drenched Californian sound pioneered by such AAA bands as The Byrds and CSN (Crosby and Nash even make a special guest appearance on his last tour at the time of writing), but that naturally he had to mould his musical ideas around what the band had already been a success doing for 18 months before he joined the group. Whilst Gilmour arguably has less of a role on this album than most 70s Floyd albums, the band are clearly shopping around for new ideas and forms and Gilmour’s love of harmony is finally beginning to pay off for him (had the Floyd gig not turned out well for him I could see Gilmour becoming a mighty fine pedal-steel guitarist in a Jerry Garcia/Manassas vein). That’s not to forget how integral Rick’s vocals are to this album, however, as he too nails the harmonies perfectly here as if he’s been singing them forever (which is quite impressive given that, as an improvising atonal jazz musician who fell into rock and roll, neat clean-cut harmonies should be anathema to him). People have forgotten in the years since Rick was booted out of the band he co-founded in 1981 what an integral part of it he was and in many ways this is his best album (along with ‘Dark Side’ again), with two lovely songs that are chiefly his and arguably there’s even more of his keyboard playing on this album than Gilmour’s guitar (he should have had a solo credit on the closing ‘Absolutely Curtains’ for instance). To be fair, though, ‘Obscured By Clouds’ is a great ‘band’ album with all four men (or certainly all three singer-composers) taking turns to shine in the spotlight, a mix that will work very well once the band depart back to London to pick up work on ‘Dark Side’.
‘Clouds’ is also an album born to be played on the radio, a point that often gets missed by Floyd commentators down the years. Songs like ‘Free Four’ and The Gold It’s In The...’ in particular are closer to the more mainstream rock charts than anything the Floyd had done before, which seems odd given that the band had just spent the past six years making a name for themselves as a multi-layered mystical group and will, indeed, go back to exactly that role on their next LP. The short recording time is usually the reason given for this sudden shift in sound, but that’s not necessarily true: the recording of ‘More’ was equally fraught and tight on deadlines and that’s one of the band’s most out-there albums, full of band jams and long instrumentals as well as mood pieces similar to ‘Clouds’. It seems strange too that the band seem to have spent so long learning to play like any good American rock band of the time when, presumably, Schroeder hired them because of their signature sound (and could indeed have bought in lots of other bands if he’s wanted the ‘rock’ sound). To boot, ‘Clouds’ is arguably an even trippier film than ‘More’ – which at least had a beginning, middle and end, even if it doesn’t have what most people would recognise as a proper ‘plot’. I would suggest that the Floyd were more hurt by the rejection of their soundtrack for ‘Zabriskie Point’ the previous year than they let on. Director Antonioni was a far harder taskmaster than Schroeder and wanted far more control, so he ended up pushing the band into directions they wouldn’t normally go in and rejecting their most typically-Floyd work. It may be, then, that the band approached ‘Obscured’ with the mindset that they couldn’t possibly do what they’d always done – and I’m not sure if that’s a shame or not. Long-term Floyd fans tend to ignore ‘Clouds’ for being a little anonymous but there’s a reason that American radio stations started playing this album and giving the Floyd their first real success over there – these songs are much simpler and easier to grasp than normal, but at the same time they’re still fascinatingly different from the norm (what other band would write a song with the poetic, surrealistic lyric for ‘Burning Bridges’? Start an album with two near-enough identical instrumentals? Or finished with four full minutes of singing by the tribes of New Guinea (taken directly from the film?)
Overall, then, ‘Obscured By Clouds’ is no masterpiece and even a novice could probably tell you that ‘Dark Side’ is the Pink Floyd album of 1972 where all the time and money got spent and that this film soundtrack was just an afterthought. All that said, though, this is a very good afterthought and it’s a shame both that this album became ‘obscured’ by the next release and that Pink Floyd never got to do another film soundtrack after this (among the most visual and atmospheric but least literal and ‘story’ based bands, the Floyd were born for work of this sort with a sensitive director telling a ‘meandering’ rather than a specific story). Personally I like this soundtrack album more than ‘More’, which tries a little too hard to be ‘wacky’ and outrageous, although I still reckon that the intended complete soundtrack to ‘Zabriskie Point’ the previous year (most of which was thrown out by director Antonioni and replaced with more mainstream bands) might just have the edge and – indeed – is one of the best things the band ever did (even if ‘Crumbling Land’ is the only substantial bit of Floyd music to actually make it into the film). Like many of the best Pink Floyd albums, much of this album is ‘all in your mind’, full of cryptic clues like some convoluted jigsaw puzzle you can immerse yourself into finishing, although its undeniably less concrete and ‘complete’ than the big hitters that came later, as you’d expect from a soundtrack album. To many fans worldwide, France’s claim that ‘Obscured By Clouds’ is one of the best Pink Floyd albums might seem to be over-selling it a bit, even though that’s a view shared by drummer Nick Mason (although it might be that he’s looking back fondly on the period rather than the LP – arguably Pink Floyd never got on or pulled together more than in 1972). Then again, the UK fans’ sheer ignorance of this record isn’t right either – there won’t be an all-out ‘bad’ Pink Floyd album till 1987 anyway, but even in between two of the band’s biggest sellers this album holds its own for the most part (although there are perhaps one or two too many instrumentals for this to be a truly must-have purchase). Perhaps the Americans have got it right: a fascinating stepping stone to greater things that helped break the band and make them stars but, ultimately, the true starshine is to come in the future...
The title track of ‘Obscured By Clouds’ is the most uncharacteristic song here – and more or less the least Floydian song of their whole catalogue (give or take the Gilbert and Sullivan-esque ‘The Trial’ from ‘The Wall’). It’s a moody and noisy rock instrumental that sounds closer to heavy metal and Metallica than anything the Floyd ever did, with only Rick’s swirling organ and Roger’s bleating angry synthesisers giving the band sound away. Gilmour fares particularly well here, his usually metallic-sound suiting the new setting and Waters’ first real use of a synth on this track is a clear precursor to the sound of ‘On The Run’ and ‘Welcome To The Machine’ especially. Someone seemed to like this track anyway – it was often heard in concerts of the time as a medley with next song ‘When You’re In’ and more than one Floyd biographer reckons that a 1980s Gilette commercial in the UK bears more than a little similarity to the organ-part on this song. You have to say, though, that even as a ‘filler’ mood piece for a film soundtrack album there’s far too little going on here and the decision to make this song not only the first track on the album but the first chief song heard in the film’s opening credits (when all the audience has to gaze at are zillions of trees and some production credits) is a poor one. If you’re one of the lucky few who owns a copy of the film try playing it with ‘Burning Bridges’ in this opening scene and you’ll find the effect works much better.
‘When You’re In’ is only a gnat’s crotchet away from ‘Obscured By Clouds’, slightly louder and rockier and less laid back. There are differences between the two tunes (the first sounds like it belongs in an action documentary, the second from an ice cream commercial), but not that many – indeed the Floyd could have made a great song if they’d treated the first track as the ‘verse’ and second as the ‘chorus’ and added some words to them both. The instrumentation is the same in both, although the organ is now much louder than the synthesiser, so quite why there should be such a change in the writing credits (‘Obscured’ is credited to Waters and Gilmour; ‘When You’re In’ to the full band) is a mystery to me. I must admit I don’t know where in the film this track comes, although I have read that it’s heard straight after the opening song and is accompanied by yet more trees, in which case this must surely be the least interesting opening to a film since ‘Mama Mia’. Thankfully the album gets better from hereon in...
In fact I would stake a claim that ‘Burning Bridges’ is – along with ‘Remember A Day’ and ‘Fat Old Sun’ – the most unfairly neglected Floyd song in the band’s whole catalogue. Rick Wright’s swirly organ tune is beautiful (and thankfully we hear it a second time unadorned of voices in the instrumental ‘Mudemen’ to come) and Roger Waters’ lyrics are some of the best he ever wrote, saying nothing yet saying everything in pure Floyd fashion. The theme of the song is of letting your past go and embracing an unknown future with both hands – something that’s loosely related to what’s going on in the film (as Vivienne leavesw home for adventure) but is so much more than this. The lyrics aren’t about concrete changes but shifts in attitude that suddenly allow a whole new level of meaning in life to unfold. Waters’ lyrics are better than any poetry I ever studied at school, with lovely lines such as ‘Bridges burning brightly, merging with the shadow, flickering between the lines’ that are the perfect accompaniment for Wright’s shimmering melody. The band performance is wonderful, too, with Wright and Gilmour’s voices merging beautifully (unusually, though, Rick takes the bottom and Dave the top line) and Gilmour’s hauntingly beautiful guitar solo is note-perfect, like the narrator’s soul wearily waking from a long slumber and tentatively stretching out towards a new unknown. Listen out, too, for the first appearance of several of Roger’s favourite themes to come on lines like ‘walls that once were high’ and ‘magic vision stirring, kindled by the burning flames’ (‘Flickering Flame’ is the name of the Roger Waters best-of out on the market). Waters and Wright were in many ways polar opposites as people, aggressive and passive respectively, and it’s obvious why their time as writing partners was shorter than between Gilmour and Waters and Gilmour and Wright. But just as with the equally unlikely writing partnership between Beach Boys and cousins Dennis Wilson and Mike Love the need to look for a common ground brings out the best in both men, as they try to sound more like each other. While not quite as deep or as moving as ‘Us and Them’, ‘Burning Bridges’ is a good example of just how moving their work together could be and how Waters’ mysticism and intellectual debates never sounded quite as moving as when they were being accompanied by Wright’s heart-tugging key changes and use of harmonics. A highly under-rated track and probably the best song on the album, one that tells us just enough story and realism to entice us but not enough to make this song sound ordinary or earthbound at all. Had the Floyd chosen this song as the template for the new sound they were looking for I wouldn’t have been disappointed at all.
‘The Gold It’s In The...’ sounds like it’s by a completely different band. Gilmour’s surprisingly loose double-tracking (one of the few parts of this album that sounds rushed – generally Gilmour is one of the most accurate double-trackers in the business) and multi-layered guitar dominates a song that’s as mainstream rock as the Floyd ever got. Waters relishes the chance to write some more earth-bound and harder-edged lyrics for once, too, while Nick Mason proves once again what a fine straightforward rock drummer he could have been with another band. However this early prototype for ‘Breathe’, which has the message to live our lives now instead of waiting for an opportunity to come along that never will, never quite comes off. Roger’s never been a writer who sounds too convincing when writing in the first person and this attempt to ‘get into the heads’ of the characters in the film off for excitement is the only proper ‘song’ here that sounds ‘forced’ and written to a formula in a hurry. The only real Floydian aspect, apart from the guitar, are the lines about ‘everybody searching for something’ (which could be a line from ‘Breathe’) and Roger’s idea of how to write basic rock lyric patter (‘See the sea gulls wheeling in their far distant skies’). The ending is peculiar too: ‘Count me in on the journey but don’t expect me to stay’ – as we’ve said before the whole crux of ‘La Valee’ is that the characters don’t have to travel to a place on a map to ‘find’ a new way of looking at the world (they find a new way of life on the journey instead). But surely this is giving the game away a little too easily? And why wouldn’t the narrator want to ‘stay’ in a place that’s taught him a new and better way of experiencing life? (That’s hardly the sort of line I’d expect from a pleasure-seeking, fun-loving person anyway, who even adds the very un-Floydian line ‘I’ll get my kicks on the way’ at the end of the second verse). I’d love to know what director Schroeder thought of this song – there he was probably hoping for another stream-of-conscious thought on the theme of finding civilisation in your heart and not on a map and instead he got Creedence Clearwater Revival!
‘Wot’s....Uh, The Deal?’ is another neglected song, which manages to be both earthbound and high-falluting, beautiful and atonal, yet mainstream and eccentric all at the same time. Waters’ lyric is similar to ‘Echoes’ in the sense that a ‘stranger’ ‘on the outside looking in’ is waiting for spiritual redemption, but the only way they can find it is by good old fashioned materialism. The narrator sounds quite at home asking for spiritual rebirth, for having ‘my lead turned into gold’ by some sudden flash of inspiration as to the deeper meaning of life, but deeply uncomfortable dealing with the realities of life, ‘tr5ying to make it to the next meal’ and ‘flashing the readies, wot’s...uh, the deal?’ Never has the real world sounded so strange, uncompromising or alien and it’s only finding love in the last verse that finally seems to quell the narrator’s desire for change and searching and lets him feel like a participator rather than observer of life (‘Now I’m on the inside looking out’). It’s quite a relief when we reach the end and some sort of resolution, even though that only seems to come through death (‘There’s no wind left in my soul and I’ve grown old!’) and you’d hardly describe this rather laidback song as tortured or out-of-control (it’s as serene-but-not as the similar juxtaposition between the harsh observations and beautiful laidback melody in ‘Us and Them’, although missing the harsher contrasting middle eight). A fascinating attempt at doing something different, I haven’t seen ‘Deal’ in the context of the film but I bet it works well – certainly it’s the one song here that suggests the band properly studied the work that had gone into the film and the concepts raised by it. The band performance is perhaps a shade too perfunctory to get the most out of the song and its sad to hear Gilmour singing with himself instead of with Rick (whose voice might have suited this song more). There’s also a curious fade-out where Rick suddenly starts playing a nifty little organ part on the fade, which begs the question, why bother to overdub something you can hardly hear, hasn’t been heard in the rest of the song and – with its twinkling brightness – seems totally at odds with all that has gone before it? Still, for all its faults and it’s rather ungrammatical title, there’s plenty to admire in ‘Wot’s...Uh, The Deal?’ (was this the Floyd’s response when the engineer asked them what the track was called perhaps and they had to think a bit? Gilmour sings this very phrase with a real chuckle in his voice as if its a bit of an in-joke) which is one of the better created Floyd songs if not quite given the full beauty treatment it deserved.
Side one ends with ‘Mudmen’, one of the best AAA instrumentals around. Instead of being simply a repeat of the tune from ‘Burning Bridges’ without the vocals the band re-record it in fine style, playing the phrase on several extra instruments (including a synthesiser and what sounds like a celeste) and really getting to grips with what must be one of the loveliest melodies Rick ever wrote. Gilmour is right on the money, too, adding some electric guitar that adds a real fire and flame to the song, just on the right side of descending into feedback. The sudden moment when the band stop drifting and suddenly surge into the song as one some 90 seconds in is one of the most exhilarating moments of the whole album and the resolution (which sounds like we’ve gone through a ‘mirror’ and everything is playing backwards’, with the celeste now playing the guitar parts and vice versa) is not only a clever trick to keep things interesting but the perfect accompaniment for the film (in one of the few bits I have seen this is where the natives, dressed up as ‘mudmen’ to appease their Gods, suddenly don’t seem so strange and it’s the white European customs like class and money that seem so strange and alien). The poor actors in mudmen costumes aren’t really built to perform this song like a ballet, but that’s exactly how it sounds on record. One of the band’s better ideas for the film, this is a truly beautiful piece of music that almost sounds as strong as the ‘Burning Bridges’ version, despite not possessing the gift of one of Roger’s better lyrics. A bit of trivia for you too: despite the sheer range of changing writing partnerships and publishing credits the Floyd used over the years this is one of only two Floyd songs credited to soulmates Rick and Dave. The other is ‘Marooned’, from ‘Division Bell’ in 1994 and I would stake my Pink Floyd t-shirt collection on that instrumental being deliberately started to ‘sound a bit like that organ thing we did on that bonkers film’ (though not quite as effortlessly made and therefore not quite as good).
‘Childhood’ End’ is one of the few Floyd songs credited solely to Gilmour (until he’s the only songwriting member of the band left in 1987 anyway) and it’s quite unlike the other clearly Gilmour-led songs the band recorded. For a start, it’s not a pastoral acoustic guitar lilting ballad and nor does it feature the ‘Californian’ style harmonies Gilmour was so into at the time. It is, however, a song about childhood, which is a theme Gilmour seemed to have picked up from his friendship with Syd Barrett (who wrote about little else during his short time leading the band) and so is a very Floydian-so0ng, albeit with a harsher, angrier tone than usual. Allegedly the song is based on an Arthur C Clarke story of the same name, but having read it too (it’s amazing how many fellow sci-fans became musicians) I can’t say there’s too much of a link there except for a civilisation ‘falling’ because its too far removed from the source that made it grow in the first place (actually Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ septology is a better bet for a template – and a more enjoyable read I have to say). Gilmour’s song is unusual in asking a lot of questions (something usually done by Waters’ work) and frequently repeating the word ‘you’, although I’m sure I’m not the first person to think that the guitarist is clearly writing to himself here. The theme is, a little like ‘Time’, the idea that the corrupt adult world and flawed human system for living together shapes us into quite different people to what we would have been as children as ‘fantasies merge with harsh realities’ and therefore is very Ray Davies-like too. However even in their hard rock period The Kinks would never have come up with something quite this nasty or this despondent-sounding; the whole atmosphere is one of doom and gloom (after all, how many other songs end with a line that effectively says ‘of course none of this really matters because if even if we get it together we can’t stop the world from ending one day anyway so we might as well not bother’). Talking of ‘Time’, if Nick Mason’s opening drum pattern sounds familiar then that’s because it’s exactly the same as the opening of the ‘Dark Side’ track; reviewers usually say, ‘well – they thought it sounded good so they recycled it on ‘Time’, but not so: Mason had been playing this riff live on that song for a while and might even have added it to tape by now. For starters, this pattern doesn’t need to be there – Mason plays his normal drums on top – but its clearly essential to ‘Time’ (and therefore must have been there at least near the beginning of its creation). It seems more likely to me that the Floyd knew their fans would pick up on the similarities and so added a little ‘link’ for them. Both songs touch on very similar themes, after all, although Waters is a little more poetic and less heavy-handed with his words (Gilmour won’t write his own words for the band again till the 1990s and even then they’re mainly written by his wife Polly Samson although they’re not that bad here, he just doesn’t have Waters’ natural flair for memorable and deep-but-understandable couplets). Another oddball song, but it’s heart is in the right place and fans of the Floyd’s heavier sound will find much to admire.
So far in this review you could argue that Pink Floyd are looking for a new direction, not withstanding the fact that half of the ‘Dark Side’ has already been lit by this time. Amazingly its ‘Free Four’ that provides it, despite it being the one track here that sticks out like a sore thumb. Roger Waters’ less commercial tones sing a simple pop song dripping in sarcasm as what sounds light and breezy on first listen is actually a song about death (even more amazingly this song became the Floyd’s biggest hit to date in America, which might be a clue as to why it became their main template from hereonin, even though death and sarcasm is not meant to sell. Yeah right!) ‘Free Four’ doesn’t sound like a hit song. It’s verses are clunky by Floyd standards, the funny title seems to be deeply anti-commercial (so-named because you can hear the band counting in ‘...three, four’ when the song starts) and the lyrics poke fun at other pop friendly bands selling their souls for fame (‘All aboard for an American tour – and maybe you can make it to the top!’) Perhaps it’s simply that no one had ever made a song quite like this before that made it take off? Either way its the first real chance Roger gets to start talking about events close to him, such as the death of his father Eric Fletcher Waters in the Second World War (see our review for ‘The Wall’ for more – much more – on this subject) ‘buried like a mole in a foxhole’ despite being a leading socialist who warned everyone about Hitler decades before the war started and campaigning against war as a conscientious objector. In fact in retrospect perhaps I can see why this song took off – by 1972 Vietnam was the most talked about subject in America, with everyone of all ages and backgrounds having their own view of things, and although we know now several hundred references later that Waters is casting his mind back further than the present day, that’s probably not how it sounded to people at the time. The song also manages to skirt round a radio ban for being just vague enough not to criticise directly, while at the same time not flinching from the details. The result is a song that sounds both catchy and deep, a website catchphrase which usually refers to a good thing, but here neither the poppy winning melody or the harsh lyrics belong together and the crunching atonal single note of synthesiser feedback isn’t fooling anyone that they do. That’s a shame because the best of Waters’ lyric deserves better. The image of a man ‘shuffling in the gloom of the sick room and talking to yourself as you die’ is better yet than what will appear on ‘Time’ and the idea of life passing ‘in the twinkling of an eye, 80 years with luck or even less’ is a mighty pioneering statement in an age when pop music was still about youth and being young. In fact, to accelerate five or so years, its ‘Free Four' and 'Time’ specifically with their talk of age and decay coming to all of us that you sense that the Sex Pistols were railing against with their ‘I hate Pink Floyd T-shirts’ and they actually got to the battle cry ‘no future for you (or indeed any of us) much earlier. Sadly, though, ‘Free Four’ can’t sustain its ideas as well as ‘Time’ – there’s no variation to keep our interest and a third verse about the band sleepwalking their way into another tour sound flippant when compared with ‘Time’s lines about ‘hanging on in quiet desperation’. Still, this song is important for two reasons: showing the band that they can get onto American radio using ideas like this and giving Waters the confidence to start taking over more and more of the band’s sounds (it speaks volumes that this is the only song on perhaps the Floyd’s most collaborative album with a sole writing credit – and it’s Waters’, not for the last time in Pink Floyd history). Quite where this all fits in with the film, by the way, is anyone’s guess: according to the few reviews I’ve seen of the film, it simply doesn’t try.
‘Stay’ doesn’t have much to do with the film either, although at least in this scene the pair of lead characters do want each other to ‘stay’. Bored middle class housewife Vivienne is far from the right person to play the ‘groupie’ to Rick Wright’s befuddled rockstar, although the song does kind of fit the theme of the futility of life. This song cleverly juxtaposes the night before (when the narrator was deeply in love and obsessed by a girl he’s just met) with the morning after (when he can’t even remember her name). Musically too this song comes in two sections: a sweet, reflective, hazy verse and a sudden stabbing chorus full of regret and despair over whether the narrator will ever find the love of his life. I’d always assumed that Rick wrote the music and Roger the words (that’s how they worked on ‘Burning Bridges’ and ‘Us and Them’ after all), but Toby Manning in his excellent ‘Rough Guide’ to the band puts forward the idea that Waters wrote the music to the verse and Wright the chorus, and vice versa for the lyrics. Certainly both words and music sound more than a little similar to Rick’s ‘Summer ‘68’ (a track from ‘Atom Heart Mother’ – and do see our album review of that record if you have a spare minute or two, it stars the cow from the front cover!) but with a lyrical kiss off and natural style that’s more like Waters’ work (‘Wrack my brain, try to remember your name, to find the words to tell you goodbye’). Rick sings the song throughout and does well on his last full lead vocal on a Pink Floyd song until as far away as 1994, even if his mispronunciation of the line ‘Morning dews, new born day’ did confuse one or two fans into thinking the band had suddenly become anti-Semitic. Thoroughly pleasant, but not really all that memorable, ‘Stay’ is a funny mixture of the memorable and forgettable which, given the circumstances, seems strangely apt.
The record then ends with another Rick Wright special, ‘Absolutely Curtains’, for which the keyboardist should have received sole billing (a few rattles from Nick Mason’s drums is the only other sound on the track. As the climax to ‘La Valee’ the film, this piece works rather well, with an aura of weary travelling ending in misty mountains that only slowly give up their secrets and the revelation that the ‘hidden valley’ (which we never actually see) is one like all the others (but seems different because of the experiences the characters have gone through) is about as good an ending as a film like this can have (even if it does end rather abruptly). As the climax of an album, however, this is flimsy stuff, with three minutes of triple-tracked organs pulsating round each other and the only real thing of substance of show here is the lovely mournful organ part at the centre. Unfortunately a word that sounds like ‘surprise’ but probably isn’t (does Papa New Guinea have a word for ‘abracadabra’?) ushers in the second half, which is simply two minutes of chanting by the natives from the film. Had the Floyd carried on playing and backed the locals by turning this into a song or an East-meets-West dual piece of music it could have worked well. Unfortunately the two sides don’t belong together, the locals sound bored and dispirited rather than unified and joyous and the album ends on a very sudden note, with the cycle seemingly cut in the middle (had I only known this album from the CD mix then I’d have assumed that this is one of those vinyl LPs that goes round on a loop until you take the needle off the record, but no – my old vinyl copy did exactly the same thing). By the way if you like this piece (and many Floyd fans do, funnily enough), check out George Harrison’s soundtrack to the ‘Wonderwall’ film, which features several dead ringers for this song (and I’m not the first biographer to point out how similar the ‘quiet ones’ of the Beatles and the Floyd were to each other). Also, why is this track called ‘Absolutely Curtian’s instead of something more accurate (like ‘The End Of The Journey’) or something more Pink Floydlike (such as ‘Untying The Gordian Knot Of Infinity While Several Species of Mud-Covered Natives Gather Together In A Valley And Groove With A Mellotron And A Pict’) instead?
Overall, then, how do you make sense of an album scored for a film that about 99% of you have probably never seen, that was released a mere nine months before ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ meant half-baked-mud albums like this one seem sloppy by anyone (not just the Floyd) and which is bookended by the most contemporary heavy metal instrumental and an anachronistic cross between a travelogue and a church service? It’s easy to see why ‘Obscured By Clouds’ gets obscured, so to speak – there are after all four instrumentals here from a ten track album and of full songs only ‘Burning Bridges’ ‘Wot’s....Uh The Deal’ and ‘Childhood’s End’ approached the band’s best work. But for all it’s faults and its uneasy attempts to have the Floyd sound like every mainstream wannabe rock act one minute and heading down loopy paths even for the Floyd the next, there’s something likable about this album. ‘Bridges’ and ‘Mudmen’ especially sport one of the greatest melodies in their whole pantheon of great melodies (even if they both sport the same melody) and Waters’ lyrics may have been written in a hurry but they show more care and thought across this project than the months spent working on albums like ‘Meddle’ and ‘Ummagumma’. Even the poorest parts of the record aren’t that bad either, they’re just slightly dull and lacklustre rather than overwhelmingly misjudged and that’s actually something I can’t say about better known and better loved albums like ‘Wish You Were Here’ or even ‘The Wall’ that make a few mistakes as well as showing genius at work. When Nick Mason says this is his favourite Floyd album many fans think he’s joking but, in the right mood, with plenty of understanding as to why the short deadlines mean this album isn’t perfect and an ability to overlook one or two mistakes, ‘Obscured By Clouds’ is a highly likable record that deserves to be many other fans’ favourite too. It will never be my favourite Floyd record (how can anything beat the sheer invention, wit and imagination of ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’? And how can you think ‘Meddle’ is one of the greatest albums for including the 23 minute perfect prog rock epic ‘Echoes’, even with all the lesser stuff on side one. Meanwhile ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ and ‘The Wall’ are two of the only AAA ‘mega-huge’ albums deserving their title unlike, say, ‘Pet Sounds ‘Sgt Peppers’ ‘Harvest’ or ‘Brothers In Arms’), but I can see why it might be other people’s and I do think that ‘Obscured By Clouds’ more than deserves it’s time in the spotlight to be obscured no longer, whether by meteorological entities, impossible-to-find tie-in films or Dark Sides of mega-selling follow-up albums. Overall rating – 6/10.
Other Pink Floyd album reviews from this site you might be interested in reading:
'Piper At The Gates Of Dawn' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-13-pink-floyd-piper-at-gates-of.html
'A Saucerful Of Secrets' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/news-views-and-music-issue-118-pink.html
'Atom Heart Mother' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/01/news-views-and-music-issue-18-pink.html
'The Madcap Laughs' (Syd Barrett) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/news-views-and-music-issue-101-syd.html
'The Wall' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-76-pink-floyd-wall-1979.html
'Amused To Death' (Roger Waters) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-96-roger-watters-amused-to-death.html
'The Division Bell' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/11/news-views-and-music-issue-47-pink.html
'Immersion' Box Sets (Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall)http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/news-views-and-music-issue-144-pink.html
Rick Wright Obituary and Tribute: http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008_09_07_archive.html
A while ago (in News and Views issue 166 in fact) we reviewed Pentangle’s final album ‘Solomon’s Seal’ and commented that the 15th century ‘Cherry Tree Carol’ was probably the oldest song ever covered by an AAA band. At a loss of what else to write about this week, I thought I’d go and look into this deeper and see if I can work out what the oldest 10 AAA songs were. The bad news is that this is more difficult than it sounds – most of these songs changed so much from their original form that it’s hard to pinpoint down which original sources they come from and records of dating are almost invariably out until as recently as Victorian times, when they stopped being ‘oral’ folk tales and started being written down and collected. In short this top 10 is probably not as accurate as we’d like and we’ve had to go for the songs whose dates are specified as good as we can get them (although we’ve had to guess at our top number, because it surely has to be older than when it was first written down –it was noted then that people had been singing it for ‘generations’). The good news is that we were more accurate in our earlier claim for Pentangle than I feared we’d be: ‘The Cherry Tree Carol’ is, by my reckoning, the second oldest AAA song ever covered! As with all these things, I may have missed something glaringly obvious so do feel free to write in or leave a comment if something occurs to you that I’ve forgotten! Pentangle, naturally, dominate the list as they made it their speciality to cover olf English folk songs, but the rest of the top ten comes as a bit of a surprise. You might be interested to learn, too, that just missing out on a top 10 placing were ‘Clementine’ (the old folk ballad also covered on Neil Young’s ‘Americana’ album), Pentangle’s ‘The Snows’ and ‘Lord Franklin’, The Who’s cover of ‘Land Of Hope and Glory’ (segues from ‘My Generation’!) which dates from surprisingly modern times, The Beatles’ pre-fame Scottish ballad ‘My Bonnie’ (which is almost certainly old enough to make the list but was only committed to paper in 1881), The Byrds’ ‘Go To Sea Once More’ aka ‘Jack Tarr The Sailor’ and Cat Stevens’ folk cover of the old hymn ‘Morning Has Broken’ (which is old, but not as old as everything else here!)
The Searchers “When The Saints Go Marching In”/”Saints and Searchers” (c.1200?) (‘Sugar and Spice’ 1963)
We start our travels in America, home of a gospel hymn that started out as a declaration of conversion to Christianity and ended up a jazz standard before being picked as a witty choice for a cover on the second Searchers album. Traditionally, this song was played at funerals to commemorate the passing of a spirit to Heaven, played by bands accompanying coffins to their resting place. On the way they played slowly and mournfully and on the way back happily as they celebrated the passing of the spirit. By this reckoning, The Searchers are coming home with a fiery performance that finds Tony Jackson on top form, adding a rock and roll Merseybeat strut and a 4/4 rock tempo to a song traditionally associated with free-form jazz. However it was Fast Domino who first turned the song into a rock standard via an arrangement that he called ‘The Saints Of Rock ‘n’ Roll’!
Pentangle “The Cherry Tree Carol” (c.1400) (‘Solomon’s Seal’ 1972)
Thought to be one of the earliest Christmas carols surviving, this is the tale of the unborn Jesus still in his mother’s womb causing the trees near Bethlehem to reach down and offer his mother Mary their wares. The words are paraphrased from the gospel of Matthew and is listed as no 54 in the ‘Child Ballads’ collection of folk songs, which is more or less the earliest collection of folk songs around. The song was first brought to folk circles in 1960 when Davy Graham (who wrote the Simon and Garfunkel guitar instrumental ‘Anji’) added it to his setlists, although Pentangle’s very traditional version is arguably closer to the way the song would have been played initially.
Pentangle “Cruel Sister” (1656) (‘Cruel Sister’ 1970)
Another Pentangle song from an earlier LP, this folk tale is based on a popular song of murder known as ‘The Twa Sisters’, when a jealous older sister drowned her sibling. Most versions – though not the original – include the detail that both sisters were going out with a local gentlemen who couldn’t tell them apart and that each sister wanted him for themselves. Worryingly, too, most versions end with the gruesome detail that the dead girl’s body is converted by her sister into a musical instrument (generally a harp) and it’s this instrument that’s the ‘narrator’, of sorts, telling the truth about what really happened. Like many a Pentangle song, their version is as traditional as possible and again their version is closer to the original than most folk versions, although Peggy Seeger seems to have been the first. The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia recorded his own version of the story as ‘Dreadful Wind and Rain’ on the duets album with David Grisman, ‘Shady Grove’.
Pentangle “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” (1689) (‘The Pentangle’ 1968)
The opening track of the opening Pentangle album, ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’ became one of the band’s best loved re-arrangements of a traditional song, dating from what appears to be their favourite vintage of the 17th century. The carol started life as ‘The Sprig Of Thyme’ and probably pre-dates the date given here by several decades if not centuries, although as ever we’ve gone for the first confirmed date that was written down. A tale of innocence, it’s told from the point of view of a young maiden whose ‘garden’ is ‘attacked’ by the gardener’s son and that her ‘thyme’ can never grow again once plucked (honestly, the censorship boards were much easier to fool back then!) Pentangle add (or at least adopt a later, unusual verse) about the maiden wishing she was in the arms of her true love and vowing never to have anything to do with ‘false’ love interests before then.
Pentangle “Lyke Wake Dirge” (1686) (‘Basket Of Light’ 1969)
My favourite of all of Pentangle’s traditional songs, this one from their third album has a fascinating backstory. The date we have here is clearly well within Christian times but its thought this piece dates back many centuries and is actually a song from Pagan times before being adapted and re-written to suit the new religion of the day (hence why it was never written down in the past 2000 years – it would have been seen as blasphemous). The lyrics deal with the soul’s adventures as it passes through earth to heaven, via a stop-off at purgatory along the way, ending each verse with the narrator calling out ‘Christ receive thy soul’ and enabling it to move further on it’s way. The end of the journey is particularly lovely, ending in a final heavenly flourish of sound. I was obsessed with this song for a time, which helped inform one of my better piece of creative writing I must add on this site as an appendix one day. By the way ‘Lyke’ is an old English term for body, a ‘wake’ is a happier term for a funeral and a ‘dirge’ isn’t what it is today (a slang term for something slow and boring) but a musical term for a composition that expresses grief and regret. Modern listeners know this piece best as a ‘serenade’ by Benjamin Britten and folk fans are split between whether Pentangle or Steeleye Span recorded the best version. Surely there’s no question? Ghostly, haunting and unlike anything else ever committed to tape, the Pentangle version is a masterpiece.
Neil Young “God Save The Queen” (1774) (‘Americana’ 2012)
Goodness only knows why Neil and Crazy Horse thought recording the English national anthem was a good idea for an album about things ‘Americana’ I have no idea. At least it means someone other than Pentangle made the list though! I’m intrigued, too that Neil went for the ‘Queen’ version when, traditionally of course, most English subjects since 1774 have been singing about ‘kings’ (if you’re American and the tune sounds familiar, that’s because you guys get the much superior ‘My Country Tis Of Thee’ as your anthem and the tunes are basically the same). Chances are this piece of music, too, predates the date given here, although it took several centuries of being a hummable tune before the words got added and the meaning of the song got pinned down. Frankly any piece of music that has words that you sing about wishing someone would come in and tell you what to do gives me the creeps – even when Neil Young’s singing them. I doubt I’ll ever say this sentence again in any other context but the Sex Pistols actually wrote a much more mature and well thought out song using the same title which should, of course, been the British number one during the Jubilee weekend of 1977 (only someone fiddled the sales figures so it didn’t look as embarrassing for the tax-payer funded anachronistic blood-sucking monarchy).
Pentangle “Willy O’Winsbury” (1775) (‘Solomon’s Seal’ 1972)
Or Child Ballad 100, which will give you some idea of how old this song is (only 46 songs gathered between this and ‘Cherry Tree Carol’ above, some 375 years earlier?!) A Scottish folk ballad, the title character is known by all sorts of names and all sorts of spellings, although Pentangle plumped for the most common one. Whoever he is, he’s been having it away with the King’s daughter when he was off to battle and the monarch isn’t too pleased to find the princess pregnant on his return. Before Winsbury can be sentenced to hang, however, the King is touched by how much his daughter loves him and what a fine prince he would make, so pardons him. This is a test, however, which Winsbury soon passes, refusing offer of land and riches because the only thing he wants is the princess’ hand in marriage. All together now: aaaah! As far as I can tell Pentangle’s reading of the song was the first in modern times (or at least guitarist John Renbourn’s original was – this ‘band’ version dates from a few months afterwards) but there’ve been dozens of them since.
The Byrds “Amazing Grace” (1779) (‘Untitled’ bonus track, recorded 1969 released 2000)
Another Christian hymn, it’s actually another AAA band (The Hollies) who spent the most time singing it, ending most of their 1970s live sets wo=ith this song although unfortunately it was never committed to tape (a ‘phantom whistler’ ruined the version intended to be used on ‘Live Hits’ in 1977). Chances are the melody for this song is a lot older than the words, too, which were written by vicar and part time poet John Newton about his own lifestory of redemption once he ‘found’ his calling (while serving in the Navy as part of the slave trade, his boat was blown into rough seas and only a cry for help from God saved him, or so he thought anyway). The song is better known now In America, where it was a big hit in the post-Civil War era and came to prominence again in the 1960s as part of the African-American civil rights movement. That’s probably where The Byrds first heard it, too, recording a lovely a capella version of the song that amazingly went unreleased for 40 odd years, which makes perfect sense in a repertoire that included similar songs about Christianity such as ‘I Am A Pilgrim’ ‘Jesus Is Just Alright’ and the traditional-but-later-dated ‘Oil In My Lamp’.
David Crosby “My Country Tis Of Thee” (1831) (‘Oh Yes I Can!’ 1989)
Or ‘God Save The Queen’ repeated, albeit with infinitely better lyrics. Many were surprised when Crosby – the great political rebel of the swinging 60s who openly took drugs, sang songs about three-way relationships and told a nation live on stage that JFK’s death had been covered up and all politicians were a bunch of hooligans – recorded this song. However the concept of the true ‘American Dream’ before it became a capitalist conceit has always appealed to Crosby and this sweet reading actually makes a lot of sense, sung in far more innocent and hopeful tones than many recent post-modern readings of the song. Samuel Francis Smith wrote his new set of words, to better reflect America rather than Britain after the American Civil War, while still a student inside 30 minutes. If that doesn’t seem so impressive to you then keep an ear out for the original which runs to 13 verses, each better than the famous first one which is usually the only one sung.
The Byrds “Oh! Susannah” (1848) (‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ 1965)
Composer Stephen Foster sold his rights to this song for $100 – a fortune at the time, but surely small recompense for one of the most covered and recognised American songs of all time. Historians disagree entirely over what this song is all about: some claim the opening references to ‘banjos’ make this is an African-American song, others that it’s based on the very white middle class dance the polka, others still that it comes from the minstrel song ‘Rose Of Alabama’. More likely, Foster wasn’t thinking about any of those things but about his sister Charlotte (known to her family by her second name Susan) who’d died from a fever not long before. In this light the song becomes another ‘Lyke Wake Dirge’, about the soul’s progress to heaven. Amazingly only three acts in rock and roll history have ever covered this song: James Taylor, Neil Young again (see ‘Americana’ for his rather muddy and unconvincing cover version) and The Byrds, who used it as a ‘shock ending’ to their second album after receiving such good feedback for ending their first one with a tongue-in-cheek cover of the WW2 song ‘We’ll Meet Again’.
And that’s that. Join us next week when we’ll be slightly more up to date with more news, views and especially music!