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Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Pink Floyd: Atom Heart Mother

PINK FLOYD: ATOM HEART MOTHER (1970)

1) Atom Heart Mother; 2) If; 3) Summer '68; 4) Fat Old Sun; 5) Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast.

General verdict: This is their «Pink Floyd Take A Lazy Holiday» album — get in the groove if you can.

In this present day, the Hipgnosis cow on the front cover would have been instantaneously memetized, in a «what the fuck, bro?» kind of way. In 1970, the band members simply said some­thing about getting sick of being constantly pegged as a «space rock» outfit, and wanting to do away with stereotypes. Indeed, there is practically nothing related to deep space on this record, and a whole lot of quiet, mellow, pastoral elements that have a clear and concise connection to the imposing quadruped, staring at you with a mix of curiosity and annoyance.

Atom Heart Mother is another transitional album, and one that remains somewhat «pointless» if we approach every Pink Floyd album the way we think we are supposed to approach any Pink Floyd album — that is, a conceptual whole. It is dominated by two ideas, neither of which works all too well. The first side, conforming to the progressive spirit of the times, consists of a side­long suite, recorded together with the EMI Pops Orchestra and the John Alldis Choir — Pink Floyd's own response to Deep Purple's Concerto For Group And Orchestra. The second side, albeit on a smaller scale, reprises the Ummagumma approach of «four composers, four compositions». Thus, you have a single quadraphonic (quadrophenic?) personality for the first half, and four distinct personalities for the second one. Nice in theory, clumsy in practice.

On the other hand, as long as they all stayed together, Pink Floyd never once recorded a truly bad record — and if we come to terms with the fact that Atom Heart Mother holds up poorly as a whole, it still has enough juicy bits and pieces to be worthy of our attention every once in a while. It has some firsts, some unique moments, and some bizarre failures; it never seems to know where it is going, and for those who sometimes get irritated with all the meticulous calculations of classic era Floyd, there might be a certain charm here that no Dark Side Of The Moon is ever going to provide. At the very least, this rustic flavor I've already mentioned — this is one of the last times you are going to get it without some accompanying kick in the guts of bourgeois society from Roger Waters' venomous pen.

If it were up to me, I'd suggest reversing the album sides: the presentation of four personalities seems more logical as an introduction, upon which they all take the stage and merge together in megalomaniacal ecstasy. Anyway, in this particular contest I feel hard pressed to name the winner: all the three main contributions are good, not great, songs. Roger once again steps into the shoes of an acoustic singer-songwriter — ʽIfʼ is a tender folk ballad whose numerous referen­ces to insanity fall on deaf ears (this has to be one of the least credible "if I go insane" bits in popular music history); frankly, I can see somebody like James Taylor doing it — pleasant, sympathetic, forgettable — and really, Waters is never at his best when he is being that soft. Rick contributes another psychedelic piano nugget: ʽSummer '68ʼ is a mix of music hall, ʽPenny Laneʼ, autumnal French pop, and Mamas & Papas-style vocal harmonies that people frequently single out as the highlight, but I think that it lacks sharpness, just like everything else here — and could never endorse it higher than Gilmour's ʽFat Old Sunʼ, the first bona fide song which he wrote completely on his own and which is essentially one fat old tribute to The Kinks (David's falsetto on the verses is so Ray Davies that I refuse to believe the similarity of the title to ʽLazy Old Sunʼ was merely a coincidence).

One thing that all these three songs show surprisingly in common is a general feel of weakness and apathy, upgraded to the state of (not too) high art — Roger is moodily complaining, Rick is sentimentally nostalgizing, David is lethargically chillin' in some hammock, as if the album was their reflection of some lazy vacation. What better to do than to conclude it all with a 13-minute collage of breakfast noises and banter about food? The poor drummer, suffering the typical poor drummer's fate, could not come up with a suitable composition of his own, so he had to serve as engineer on ʽAlan's Psychedelic Breakfastʼ, mixing all that stuff in between half-assed snippets of melodies that the band probably gathered together from rehearsal jam sessions. As rotten as that suite is, really, it at least ties into this general concept of making an album side about nothing in particular — the laziest-sounding side in Pink Floyd history, with everybody just chillin' like a big old Holstein-Friesian in the meadow on a hot summer day... hey wait a minute!

Curiously, the same «lazy» feel, although in a somewhat different manner, also permeates the big orchestral suite on the first side. Very soon, Floyd would be using their slowness and moodiness as traps for the listener, ready to open the gates of Hell at a moment's notice — ʽAtom Heart Motherʼ does nothing of the sort. Its main theme is a solemn, mildly epic horn melody with a bit of a Morricone flavor (not surprisingly, it began life as the band's own «Theme for an imaginary Western»), and all the other movements are largely there to answer the question «what sort of disparate elements can we all put together because 1970 allows us to?» So there are bluesy inter­ludes with pretty (not gorgeous or stunning, but pretty) examples of Gilmour's slide technique, medieval-style exercises in vocal harmonics, avantgarde keyboard passages, pastoral ballads, and funky jamming — you name it, you got it. It does not look like the whole thing was very well planned in advance, and with Floyd, this is a flaw, because when they improvise or, at least, do not have all the separate pieces precisely thought out, they tend to meander and not give it their all. Hence, lazy feel, of which there's plenty on ʽAtom Heart Motherʼ, too.

But in the end, none of it is bad. The twenty-three minutes of the suite pass by quite merrily: the main heroic theme is memorable, they come back to it pretty often, and the other sections are short enough to let you rather enjoy the diversity than get bored with particularities. It is simply that the whole piece — the whole album, as it happens — does not stand competition with the major prog acts of its day. This is Floyd trying to gain position on the turf of ELP / Yes / King Crimson, and for that kind of ordeal they had neither the wild energy, nor the expert musician­ship. They did have the feels, for sure, but the album ends up being too much of a question mark — what is it exactly they are trying to say? why are they saying it? are we supposed to be finding connections between cows, atoms, symphonic orchestras, and psychedelic breakfasts, or is this just one big put-on?.. whatever.

One definite thing about Atom Heart Mother is that it is not in a position to become a major fan favorite — all the more ironic in that it was the band's first #1 album in the UK — and this means that it is a great candidate for a cult favorite. «They really blew minds with Atom Heart Mother, and then they went and sold out with Meddle» is a very handy slogan for those who like being in the minority. I will say this one thing: discussion on Atom Heart Mother is far from over, and even if the band members themselves these days have few kind words to remember it by, it is perfectly possible to have some sort of awesome individual connection with it. I never had one, but I am ready to believe in the existence of people who did. Then again, one must never under­estimate the power of an intense glare of a prime Holstein-Friesian specimen.

6 comments:

  1. The comparison with the major prog acts is tempting in hindsight, but it seems misplaced in context. The major prog acts as we typically remember them were still finding their feet in 1970 and in their quintessential forms (Tarkus/Brain Salad; Fragile/Close to the Edge; In the Court/Lark's line-up) had very different goals than I hear from this album.

    The title track of Atom Heart Mother was developed in the first months of 1970 and worked into shape live before the orchestra was added. ELP wouldn't play their first gig until August that year. Yes performed with an orchestra in March of 70, but the compositions on the resulting Time and a Word are not so ambitious in terms of structure and length. King Crimson is of course the exception, being pretty much fully formed from the beginning, but were first in a holding pattern and then transitional disarray that year, and I don't hear much threat to KC's 69-70 territory here.

    Comparison with Deep Purple's 1969 concerto, as you point out, seems more apt, as well as (obviously) the Moody Blues and also The Nice's Five Bridges Suite from 1969.

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  2. ^nice knowledge drop, Unknown!

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  3. I wouldn't say I'm a cult fan of this whole album, but perhaps I am a cult fan of Summer '68, one of my top Pink Floyd songs, and certainly one of the best songs that Rick Wright wrote. I like how deftly it shifts between minor and major keys, particularly with the keyboard hook. It also features both big, bombastic sections and quieter empty spaces, like any good prog song, and has some tasteful time signature changes as well. I admit that the song doesn't click for everyone, and can see how there are a few things that hold it back. The lyrics in the verses don't rhyme. Also, perhaps a stronger vocal from Rick during the verses might help, although he probably wouldn't be capable of such a delivery anyhow.

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  4. Back when I collected concert tapes (yes, let's call 'em that because it's more polite than "bootleg") of bands I liked, I had one that combined two BBC radio shows from around when this album came out. They had some very nice versions of Embryo (now found on the compilation "Works" and one of the "Early Years" discs) -- interesting and all, but more relevant right now is that they also contained a version of the whole Atom Heart Mother suite! Interesting and all, but I don't think the live context added a whole lot. Not sure what purpose this story serves now, except to say that it's really odd that a live performance of the AHMS exists. (Oh, yeah, it looks like the radio shows in question are on the Early Years compilations "Devi/ation" and "Reverber/ation." I guess I could track them down and give those old radio shows another listen. The former even has ANOTHER live AHMS.)

    Well, I like the suite, but I'm not that interested in listening to all of it straight through 99% of the time. Give me some indexing, you bastards! Incidentally, my CD copy of this album is from, like, ten years ago, so if there actually IS indexing on a newer version, well, I guess this is a CD that's high on my list of things to replace.

    Oh, yeah, the rest of the album is okay (aside from the last track). I used to be kind of taken with "If," but nowadays I just regard it as okay; meanwhile, I could never really get into "Summer '68." Not bad, just okay.

    So, one big shrug of an album for me. I can see the appeal and all, but nowadays, whenever I think about it, I can't help but think about all of the other great stuff out there I could be listening to instead. Maybe I should listen to it at the same time as something else.

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    1. They played the suite live frequently from 1970 to 1972, albeit in an edited version after difficulties in finding orchestral accompaniment for a whole tour. It was debuted on 1970, before the album was finished, as "The Amazing Pudding".

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  5. You really need to stop with that yellow font.

    Excellent review as always, though. Never really thought of the whole album as lazy before, only the last two, but now that you mention it, it's quite apt. I disagree with you on Wright's tune's mood, though; I hear more tinges of regret from the alleged one-night stand. And also about it being the highlight; I still like the title track a little bit better, and it's a shame this is his final composition for the band (for the next 24 years, anyhow), but it's the most memorable thing on here otherwise.

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