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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

PINK FLOYD MORE ALBUM ANALYSIS - Neville Harson

Pink Floyd More
PINK FLOYD MORE ALBUM ANALYSIS - Neville Harson

Soundtrack albums have traditionally been a mixed bag; part blessing, part curse. Pink Floyd’s “More”, the soundtrack album to the movie of the same name, is no exception. More was the third album by Pink Floyd, and their first whole LP without founding member Syd Barrett. It was recorded back in the days when people used to produce legitimate soundtrack albums, not just throw a bunch of (s)hit records together on a CD and call it a soundtrack. So you get a few actual songs, a few mood pieces and a bit of filler. For the band, it was a giant step away from the earlier psychedelia of Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Saucerful of Secrets. In essence, it sounds like the foundation for their "middle period" albums, a sound that would reach it's full fruition on Dark Side of the Moon. Nicholas Shaffner, in his book "Saucerful of Secrets," points out that, ironically, "the More soundtrack features a higher proportion of actual songs to instrumental mood
pieces than several of the Floyd's regular albums." It is a scattershot album, but an intriguing listen, and not without a few (crazy) diamonds in the rough.

Pink Floyd had been attracted to the idea of doing music for films for some time before signing up to work with director (and former associate of Jean-Luc Goddard) Barbet Schroeder on his film More. Besides their fascination with all things multimedia, the band saw soundtrack work as a potentially lucrative venture. They had previously recorded different versions of "Interstellar Overdrive" for a couple of shorter film projects, and doing an entire film soundtrack seemed like a logical next step.

Though this article focuses on the More soundtrack and NOT the film, I think it's worth mentioning how I first came to see the film. I was going to Boston University in the early 1980's and saw that More was being shown in a tiny arts theater in Brookline (it turned out to be more of a community room than an actual theater). I was already very familiar with the soundtrack. As I watched the film I was somewhat confused by a strange temporal gap, and also a short running time. This mystery was solved a while later when, after the movie, the projectionist came running up to a group of us that were talking outside the building and told us that he had forgotten to show the second of the three reels. He offered us free beer and we went back inside to watch the missing reel. So my memory of the movie remains a bit of a jumble. I have seen it only once since then and remember it being a moralistic tale of a guy who gets romantically involved with a woman who turns him on to heroin, and their hellish descent into abuse, and, if I'm remembering correctly, death. Not what you'd call a "feel-good" movie, though I do remember it starting out that way. Here's the trailer:


Here's another scene from the film:


Here's the Green is the Colour Scene:


The main problem that I have with the More soundtrack is not the material, but with the production. If any album in the Floyd canon deserves a thorough remix, it's this one (the album was remastered on CD in 1995). There are not many Pink Floyd albums that were carelessly thrown together; indeed one could say the band made a career out of making albums that were painstakingly labored over. But More, according to both guitarist David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason, was written and recorded over a period of just eight days. They worked with engineer Brian Humphries, but no outside producer. Apparently they were eager to show that they could produce their own records, and not rely on outside help. Big mistake! The production is generally murky, with some pieces sounding like someone gave the order for everything to be quieter than everything else. The band had not yet mastered the art of sonic foreground and background that would become their stock in trade with the more cinematic albums of later years. They were, however very fond of stereo panning, with almost every song containing instruments that zip from speaker to speaker, or right through the center of your brain if you're wearing headphones.

Even the cover art seems somewhat slipshod. On the front cover we see a solarized still from the movie, with the two main characters tilting at a windmill. The band is credited as "The Pink Floyd", even though they had dropped the "The" long before. On the back cover there is another low-quality image of the couple from the movie sitting serenely on a hillside. The album credits and song titles are seemingly spelled out in rub-on letters, as there are some uneven spots where the letters don't line up quite right. The band members are not listed, except for the songwriting credits.

More has many of the same musical elements as Ummagumma, which was released later that same year. On More, these elements are put together in arguably more accessible ways. Side One, which contains more of the actual songs, is mostly credited solely to Roger Waters. Waters was really growing as a lyricist and the words he wrote for these songs, no matter how rushed, are still a quantum leap forward from his earlier tracks like "Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk." Apparently he still wasn't comfortable as a vocalist, and he gives all of the songs to David Gilmour to sing. Overall, the acoustic folk ballads of Side One mirror similar back-to-the-earth movement of the Beatles (Sgt Pepper>White Album), The Grateful Dead (Aoxomoxoa>Workingman's Dead), Bob Dylan (Blonde on Blonde>John Wesley Harding). Gone are the multi-part psychedelic freakouts of yore, with only Cirrus Minor retaining the "space music" motif of the earlier years. It's like they were saying "less is More" (sorry, couldn't resist that one!). According to Nick Mason, the film was pretty much complete when Pink Floyd started working on the music. Using only a stopwatch, they timed the scenes that needed music, and then retreated to Pye Studios to put their ideas on tape.

Song-by-Song

Cirrus Minor
The album opens with "Cirrus Minor", a not-too-distant cousin of Floyd songs like "Grantchester Meadows". Some bird songs from the EMI sound effects library set the scene. A descending chordal pattern gives the effect that you are sinking into something. The chords, coupled with a growing reverb effect on some of the lines, make you feel like you're tumbling down a well in slow motion. There is an organ coda by Richard Wright that sounds a lot like the "Celestial Voices" section of "A Saucerful of Secrets". According to Wikipedia, this track was played entirely by David Gilmour and Richard Wright, even though it was written by Roger Waters.

The Nile Song
The mood set by "Cirrus Minor" is suddenly broken by the power riffing and explosive drumming of "The Nile Song." Although this was my favorite song on the album when I was younger; it is one of my least favorite now. Part of it has to do with Gilmour's forced "rough" vocals, which just don't work for me. Later manifestations of this same Gilmour vocal style are "Young Lust", "Not Now John" and "The Dogs of War", all low points (for me) in the Floyd canon. Gilmour's voice can be a honey balm at times, but he just can't pull off both kinds of voices in the same way that someone like Paul McCartney can (think "Mother Nature's Son" and "Helter Skelter" on Side 3 of The Beatles). The other problem I have with this song is Nick Mason's drum fills. Nobody drums like that anymore, and for good reason. And I'm not sure what Roger Waters was thinking about when he wrote the lyrics, as the Nile doesn't run through Ibiza (where the film takes place) last time I checked. Big and dumb, "The Nile Song" was released as a single in 1969. Needless to say, it didn't exactly rocket to the top of the charts. Listen:


Crying Song
We're back to the more mysterious and moody Floydian realms with "Crying Song." I had totally forgotten about this song until I listened to the album again just before I wrote this article. It has a beautiful intro, with delicate acoustic guitar, vibraphone, and a subtle snare drum pulse. The melody in the first two lines is similarly moody than abruptly becomes hokey in the third line, and the instrumental fill that follows. I think this could have been a really great song if they had gone somewhere else with it.

Up The Khyber
"Up the Khyber" is arguably the first bit of filler on the album. It's Nick Mason and Richard Wright making a kind of generic "exciting chase" music or something. Jazzy tribal drums, percussive piano stabs (though far more conventional than Wright's later keyboard work on Ummagumma), a few tape effects and some lead organ comprise a serviceable piece of film music, but not much more. Although the title could refer to the Khyber Pass, which links Pakistan and Afghanistan, a more probable reference is to cockney rhyming slang (Khyber Pass=Arse).

Green is the Colour
This is a really pretty song that wound up, in extended form, in the Floyd's live repertoire for the next couple of years (where it would often segue into "Careful With That Axe, Eugene", aka "Beset by the Creatures of the Deep"). During The Man & The Journey shows in 1969, the song was known as "The Beginning". As on Ummagumma's "The Grand Vizier's Garden Party", Nick Mason's wife Lindy was recruited to add tin whistle to the song. Waters-as-lyricist is really reaching towards poetic and philosophical musings on this song--until I looked it up, I never realized that the last line was "Envy is the bond between the hopeful and the damned." I'll bet you didn't realize that either. See a live version here:


Cymbaline
Like "Green is the Colour", "Cymbaline" (also known as "Nightmare") stayed in the Floyd's live set for a couple of years, being dropped when the band started performing their Dark Side of the Moon material. The lyrics convey a sense of anxiety, though not specifically about any one thing. The rousing chorus, "And it's high time, Cymbaline" suggest that when the world is getting to be too much for you, it's time to light up. Yes, I know the phrase "high time" can also mean "it's about time", but I think the band was intentionally playing up the double meaning. After all, regardless of the band's appetite for drugs, or lack thereof, they had a psychedelic reputation to uphold. All of this is not meant to take away from the fact that "Cymbaline" is a great Floyd song; an overlooked classic, and perhaps the strongest song on the album. Here's a live version from around this time:


Party Sequence
This is filler, but at just over a minute long, not particularly bothersome. It consists of some well-played hand drums and a bit more tin whistle on top. It's much more disciplined than what usually happens when people pull out hand drums and flutes at a hippie party. According to Wikipedia, the whistle is supposedly playing the melody to "Seabirds", a track that the band recorded for the movie but does not appear on the soundtrack album (nor on any Floyd album thus far)--but to me it just sounds like improvised warbling.

Main Theme
It's a little strange to have the main theme to a movie soundtrack be the first song on Side 2, but what about the Floyd's music isn't strange? This "Main Theme" begins with a gong fading in and a few ominous organ notes before the bass and drums appear. Waters plays a bass line that seems to be a variation on Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" Gilmour adds some queasy slide guitar. The keyboard melody is peculiarly mechanical and simplistic, sounding more like Kraftwerk than Pink Floyd. Nonetheless, the whole piece gels nicely and sweeps the listener along in waves of something between anxiety and bliss.

Ibiza Bar
This song shares the same heavy main riff as "The Nile Song", but overall, it's a little more restrained, and that's a good thing. Nick Mason's drum fills are simpler, and Gilmour backs off from the harsh voice he uses on "Nile Song." There's even a "pretty section" --the chorus, actually--when the whole band backs off a bit before coming in hard again on the verses. You can listen to the version from More here:


More Blues
It's sometimes hard to believe that Pink Floyd started as a blues band, remember, with founding member Syd Barrett naming the band after two semi-obscure blues musicians. During their concerts in the late 60's and early 70's they would sometimes revert to playing a simple blues jam. "More Blues" is exactly that, with one strange twist. The drums cut in and out, almost like the dub version of a reggae song. I'm not sure why they did this, nor am I sure if it serves the music. One of the many things I would do if I could get my hands on the More master tapes, is let Mason's drums play through the track. Who knows, though, maybe he was just off that day and the band decided to pull the faders down at particularly bad moments. All in all, nothing too spectacular here. Listen here:


Quicksilver
This may be filler, but it's moody and evocative and is the highlight for me of the instrumental pieces on the album. Beginning with strange metallic crashing tape effects the piece meanders through the now familiar gong sounds, with added vibraphone, which is a nice combination. Wright does a couple of gently unsettling keyboard tracks. This is obviously the same band who made the Ummagumma LP, but while the sonic elements are similar, they are played here with far more restraint, and therefore, more mystery. If this piece reminds me of anything, it reminds me of certain works by classical avant-garde composer Morton Feldman. Listen here:


A Spanish Piece
The mood is abruptly broken again with the "comic relief" of "A Spanish Piece. We hear two acoustic guitars, over which someone (Wikipedia says it's Gilmour) hoarsely whispers a bunch of stereotypical Spanish/Mexican catchphrases, like "I keel you", and something about tequila. Embarrassing, but like the "Party Sequence", mercifully brief. Listen:


Dramatic Theme
This is the companion piece to the Main Theme. Waters plays the bass line from "Let There Be More Light" and Gilmour knocks off some heavily echoed guitar notes. Wright has less of a presence on this track than he has on the Main Theme. Seems like it could've been a little longer, but since the band was timing their pieces to certain parts of the film, this is all we get. Check it out:


Honorable Mention: Seabirds (et al).
This track was recorded for the film and used in the background in one scene. It does not appear on the More album. There are versions of it floating around on YouTube but it's almost impossible to make sense of the song behind the characters' dialogue. It appears to be sung by Roger Waters, which is a departure from the rest of the songs on the More album. Rick Wright's organ sound (played through a wah-wah pedal) is reminiscent of Syd Barrett-era Floyd freakouts like "Scream Thy Last Scream." Perhaps for those two reasons, the band decided to leave it off the record. Still, it would make a great bonus track on a remixed and remastered edition. There was one other track, an instrumental known as "Hollywood," that was used in the film but not on the album. Curiously, Glenn Povey, in his book "Echoes: The Complete History of Pink Floyd," lists two more tracks from the More sessions that have yet to see the light of day: "Paris Bar" and "Stephan's Tit".

I will resist the urge to say something like "this album leaves the listener wanting More" (oops, I just said it), but it's kind of true. Listening to the album, I'm left with a sense of regret that they didn't/couldn't work just a little longer on it, perfecting some of the songs and including others. This era of Pink Floyd's musical output was not preserved too carefully, with tracks like "Point Me At The Sky" and "Embryo" (and other tracks that may or may not exist in the Pink Floyd vaults) getting scattered and lost over time. Sometimes these tracks surface in some obscure place, like when the extended "Zabriskie Point" soundtrack turned up a few more unreleased Floyd pieces. When this happens, it's almost always a cause for celebration.

Pink Floyd's next album would be their avant-garde/live space rock masterpiece Ummagumma, followed by the less successful Atom Heart Mother, and the more successful Meddle. After that they would record the album Obscured by Clouds" as the soundtrack to another movie ("La Vallee") by Barbet Schroeder. This album saw the band moving in the less experimental direction that would bring them fortune and fame in the 1970's.
 


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