PINK FLOYD UMMAGUMMA - A RETROSPECTIVE
By Neville Harson
It may be hard to imagine now, but there was once a time when avant-garde aesthetics and popular music were not so far apart. It seems there was a brief window of time; a window that opened a crack in the late 50’s, was thrown wide open in the late 60’s and early 70’s and was closed again by the end of the 70’s. This was a time when beat poets and abstract expressionist painters were covered in Life magazine; when people actually flocked to enigmatic movies like “Last Year At Marienbad”, and when bands like Pink Floyd made--and sold--records like Ummagumma. This is perhaps one of the strangest records ever to be released on a major label. If this album were recorded today, no major label would go near it.
Ummagumma, (the word itself may or may not be Cambridge slang for getting it on) is Pink Floyd’s first concept album. There is no story line of any kind; instead, the conceptual framework of the album is simple: one live LP, and one studio LP, the latter further broken into four sections wherein each of the four members of the band gets to indulge in whatever suits their fancy for 12-15 minutes apiece. When the double LP was originally released, it retailed for the same price as one LP.
Taken together, these two very different records give a partial snapshot of what Pink Floyd was doing in 1969. Still somewhat directionless in the absence of their erstwhile leader Syd Barrett (who was, at the time, putting together his first solo album with a little help from his Floydian friends), the band decided to release an LP that would be representative of their live shows of the time. Two live shows were recorded, in April and May, 1969 (though for some reason, the liner notes say June). The finished record consisted of four longish live versions of songs taken from their first two albums or recent singles. A fifth track, a new arrangement of the Syd-penned “Interstellar Overdrive”, was dropped due to the time constraints of the LP.
All of the songs on the live album are stronger, louder, more muscular, and, especially in the case of “Eugene,” far more effective than their studio counterparts. The record begins with Barrett‘s “Astronomy Domine.” We lose the strange radio voices from the studio version, but we gain a band who is audibly on fire. Mason’s drumming in particular, is hyperactive, sometimes pounding out the beat, other times playing around it; sometimes doing both in the same few measures. Gilmour uses his wah-wah pedal to great effect. There’s more of a dynamic range in this live version than there is on the original album, with the band dropping out of the middle of the piece, leaving only Wright’s lonely keyboard. Incredibly, the audience is dead silent until the very end of the piece.
“Careful With That Axe, Eugene” (the only track without a space-themed title) is also played to its full dramatic effect, with Gilmour’s eerie, wordless wailing suddenly building into Waters’ bone-chilling screams, which eventually subside and return to Gilmour. Amazingly, the song only has one chord. There are other versions of this song floating around, legally and otherwise, including “Come In Number 51, You’re Time is Up” on the Zabriskie Point soundtrack. None of them have the dynamic range that Ummagumma’s version has, and it would be hard to find better screams on any other version. My guess is that Waters knew this version was being taped for posterity (he even says so on Careful With These Tracks, an unedited version of the live album) and so he gave this rendition his absolute all.
And if you want more of the same (and who wouldn’t?) you could flip the record over and groove to the entrancing and powerful version of “Set The Controls For the Heart of the Sun.” This has always been one of my favorite Floyd tracks, thought the studio version is somewhat anemic, and I was mortified when Roger Waters opened his 1984 concerts with a “disco-fied” version on his 1984 tour. Wright plays in the faux-middle eastern scale he was fond of at the time, Gilmour is back on wah-wah guitar, and Mason just pounds the crap out of his toms. After an instrumental crescendo, there’s a quiet part that, like “Astronome Domine,” features Wright’s spacey keyboards, with a little bit of Gilmour on slide guitar.
The grand finale of this live set is the four part epic, “A Saucerful of Secrets.” And like the other live versions found here, the sounds are more fully developed and explored than they are on the studio versions of these same songs. There is more clarity and delineation between the different sections, which each section given its own subtitle for the first time. The first part isn’t much more than cymbals, organ, bass and slide guitar in a nondescript noise jam. This builds to a crescendo, and instead of dropping to near silence, it cuts to a repeated drum figure which the other band members make various noises over. This is followed by a short bit of ambient organ, which becomes the stately sixteen chord progression of part four (“Celestial Voices”). Starting quietly, and slowly adding instruments and volume, the piece culminates in a David Gilmour wordless vocal solo. Gilmour reportedly composed some of his classic guitar solos by singing them first, which makes me wonder if this was ever intended to be a guitar solo. Somewhere, perhaps, a version like that exists.
Here’s the “Celestial Voices” segment:
The second LP, recorded in the studio, is where the avant-garde side of the band takes center stage. Keyboardist Richard Wright kicks things off with the portentous mellotron riff of “Sysyphus.” In the original Greek myth, Sysyphus is punished by Zeus, and forced to live an afterlife of eternal frustration--he is to roll a stone up a hill repeatedly, only to have the stone roll back down the hill each time. I’m guessing there are some Floyd fans would probably opt to endure this punishment rather than listen to the 12 or so minutes of Wright’s four-part suite. Apart from the main riff, the first part consists of piano that grows more discordant until Wright is just slamming the keys, scraping the strings, and banging an occasional drum. The second part is arrhythmic prepared piano, random drums, what sounds like a steam train whistle and high-pitched animal squeals (that will also show up in Roger Waters’ segment). This all gets more and more chaotic until the relative calm of Part III, which appears to be an uneasy interlude for mellotron, organ, vibes, birds and other ambient noises. Part IV begins with a sudden, massive, evil-sounding chord, more tympani, cymbals and organ drone, concluding with the main theme once again. Though it has been reported in Nicholas Shaffner’s book “A Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey” that Wright “wanted the opportunity to compose real music,” it seems somewhat ironic that his section of the record seems the most improvised, and the least composed.
Roger Waters is up next, and he turns in a surprisingly restrained, acoustic guitar song, “Grantchester Meadows” (also known as “Daybreak” on certain live recordings). The lyrics are alliterative; the mood is pastoral; the sounds, cinematic. There are birds, a fly, and if you listen really closely, someone playing a few trumpet notes with their mouth during the instrumental section (the lunatic on the grass?) It’s a truly lovely and understated track--two adjectives rarely used to describe much of the Floyd oeuvre. But then suddenly the scene changes, and we’re in a house listening to the same pesky fly we heard in the meadow, and now there’s someone coming down the stairs and SWAT! SWAT! SMACK! This is perhaps the first instance of Pink Floyd using sound effects as a segue between tracks, an effect that would be repeated on most of their ensuing albums.
“Grantchester Meadows” video clip with footage of the actual meadow and river:
What follows is fairly remarkable. Pink Floyd has always been a band known for the theme of insanity that runs throughout their music. And this next track--”Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict”--may well be the most insane thing they’ve ever committed to tape. It consists solely of human-made animal noises (Animals!) as well as other sounds made by mouth and mouth only. I’m fairly sure the drumming is just a couple of fingers tapping on a microphone. There’s also a loop of someone chanting “Haam BAH! Wheeee!” It’s really quite stunning, though not very accessible, and it’s hard to believe this is the same four people who recorded “The Wall” a decade later. There’s some high-pitched animal operatics, some screams, and then an unintelligible monologue that sounds like something out of James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake.” (How this track was ever included on the Pink Floyd “greatest hits” compilation Works is a mystery!) If you slow the piece down, during the monologue you can hear someone, presumably Roger Waters, say, “That was pretty avant-garde, wasn’t it?” (Yes, Roger, it certainly was.)
“Several Species” video clip:
Flipping the record over we come to the comparatively gentle acoustic guitar strumming of David Gilmour’s “The Narrow Way, Parts I, II & III” The first section was previously known as “Baby Blue Shuffle in D Major”, when it was played live on the BBC. There are two acoustic guitars playing variations on D chords, and at least two slide guitars overdubbed and making trippy little background noises. Every now and then there are some even weirder sounds made presumably with guitar effects pedals and backwards tracking. Part II of Gilmour’s mini-epic begins with an ominous riff that harkens back to Wright’s “Sysyphus” theme. It repeats and repeats, with the guitar effects eventually taking over, until the riff is just a wobbly memory in the background. A drone sound leads to a couple of more conventional guitar chords, and we arrive at the second piece on this record that could comfortably be described as a “song.” Gilmour’s faintly ominous lyrics are sung in three part harmony, which is dreamy and beautiful. The vocals are mixed quietly, apparently, because Gilmour felt a little insecure about the lyrics. Nick Mason also makes an appearance on drums (Wikipedia says it‘s Gilmour, but listen to the fills--it has to be Mason). In later years, Gilmour wrote this piece off, saying he thought it was “pretty horrible“, but I really think he should give it another listen. I’d take “The Narrow Way” --all three parts--over anything from The Division Bell.
Listen to “The Narrow Way, Part III” here:
Finally we get to drummer Nick Mason’s nine minutes of fame. His piece, “The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party” consists of his slightly skewed take on a drum solo, bookended by two rather short, but pretty flute pieces, played by his wife Lindy (uncredited on the LP sleeve). It is all rather spartan, but there are some nice effects. As with Wright, Waters and Gilmour, there’s a section where he goes a bit crazy overdubbing drums on drums, building to another crescendo before the peaceful sound of the flute returns, providing a soothing ending to a rather difficult record.
Though it may be easy to call the second half of Ummagumma self-indulgent, I really don’t think it is. Yes, there is an “everything-including-the-kitchen-sink” aesthetic at play here. And perhaps with all four members working “solo” they didn’t have the checks and balances that come from working together. But the ideas on this record, while strange, are at least brief, varied, and mostly interesting. If they had taken only one of these ideas, and spread it out over a thirty minute side, THAT would have been self indulgent. Instead, the pieces vary and flow, and if you don’t like something, you only have to wait a minute or two and you’ll probably be hearing something quite different.
There are some similarities between the solo pieces. All of the individual members take a turn overdubbing their instruments many times over (though Waters does this with his voice and not his bass, thank god), but this is somewhat excusable as multi-track recording was a novelty at the time, as studios had only recently grown from 4 tracks in 1967 to 8 and 16 tracks in the final years of the decade. And the band also fall into the trap that most young male musicians fall into at one time or another of having a piece start quietly and then build to a climax before ending suddenly (just like male sexuality--or ummagumma!) It should be noted that this formula--where each band member gets their own track--would be repeated to some degree on their next LP Atom Heart Mother.
There was at least one other track recorded at these sessions, “Embryo” which was probably dropped because it was a full band piece and so didn’t fit into the conceptual framework of the record, being neither live nor solo. It was only released on a long forgotten label sampler until its appearance on the Works compilation.
The cover of the album, designed by Hipgnosis, is a picture within a picture, ad infinitum (although the original LP cover supposedly has four variations before ending with the cover of their previous LP, A Saucerful of Secrets). In each of the pictures, the position of each band member rotates. The back cover is a photo of two of the Floyd’s roadies standing in front of their transport van amidst a carefully arranged array of the bands equipment, from amps, tympani, and trombone(?) to drumsticks and microphones. The inner sleeve was the penultimate time the band would make a photographic appearance on one of their albums (the last being Meddle, two years later). Each of the photos--relatively normal black-and-white images--is a little bit odd. David Gilmour appears in front of a tree that seems to have little bodies and faces carved into it (the celebrated Elfin Oak tree in Kensington Gardens). Roger Waters gazes adoringly at his then-wife (whose indifferent gaze is turned away from him). Richard Wright is slumped down under his piano, looking rather unhappy. And Nick Mason appears in sixteen small photos that read like a film strip, which perhaps represents the band’s interest in film scoring, which they were doing a lot of around that time.
Ummagumma’s live album is essential listening, especially if all you know about live Pink Floyd is limited to Delicate Sound of Thunder and Pulse. This music is alive! The studio half is definitely recommended for the more adventurous Floyd fans, but might be difficult going for less curious ears.
Recorded at MOTHERS Birmingham, April 27th 1969 and Manchester College of Commerge, May 2nd 1969
Produced by Pink Floyd
Engineer: Brian Humphries
Produced by Norman Smith
Engineer: Peter Mew
Sleeve design and photographs by Hipgnosis
Labels: Pink Floyd Ummagumma