Monday, September 7, 2020

On Atom Heart Mother

The cows on the cover of Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother are far more famous than the music within. Pink Floyd was a band of stages. The Syd years (Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Saucerful of Secrets), the impossible years (how could one band create four such monumental LPs?), the Roger Waters "solo" LPs (The Wall and The Final Cut), and the non-Roger Years.

There are those albums we skim over like the soundtracks for More and Obscured By Clouds, and then there's Atom Heart Mother. EMI records under L.G. Wood signed off on the LP which didn’t have the album's title or the name of the band, just pictures of cows, and still, the album made it to No, 1 on the British Charts.

Side One is the monumental title cut (23 minutes worth) which is unlike anything else Pink Floyd ever did, filled with orchestrations and experimentation; indeed it is the apogee of the experimental years. Pink Floyd by Atom had nixed the pop philosophy and until "Money" didn't release a single from 1978 to 1973.

Prior to Atom Heart Mother, the band had another soundtrack offering, Zabriskie Point, this time with odd bedfellows The Grateful Dead. Most of PF's material was cut from the soundtrack and that, mostly the creation of Gilmour, was the catalyst for the "Atom Heart Mother" suite.

Pink Floyd entered Abbey Road in early March to record on the studio’s newly installed state-of-the-art eight-track recorders. Waters and Mason recorded the backing track in one 23.44-minute take. "It demanded the full range of our limited musicianship," said Mason. "We added, subtracted and multiplied the elements, but it still seemed to lack an essential something." That “something” was the orchestration and choir, the work of Mason friend, Ron Geesin.

Waters' called the opening movement "plodding," but three minutes in, Gilmour's slide takes over, underpinning a mournful cello. Here one gets a taste of what Pink Floyd would soon achieve on Meddle and Dark Side. On the fourth movement, "Funky Dung," the guitar and Hammond organ play tag on what sounds a bit like "Any Colour You Like," while the choir's gospel-like vocals evoke those heard on "Eclipse." The suite’s fifth section, "Mind Your Throats Please," combines Nick Mason’s gruff "Silence in the studio!" warning with Rick Wright's piano as played through a Leslie speaker, a trick later used on "Echoes."

Side two is Pink Floyd at their most merry and poppy, more so even than the hit days of "See Emily Play" and "Paint Box." Side two concludes with the odd "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast," with its run-on groove of a dripping faucet.

Tape operator Alan Parsons said, "Floyd had a general aversion to record company people," Parsons said. "An A&R guy showed up and Roger and Ron said, ‘We’ll play you a bit of the album.'" Prior to his arrival, they hid a turntable under the desk and proceeded to play an old 78rpm disc through the studio speakers. The A&R man looked baffled and walked out. "But we were all unable to keep a straight face."

Nick Mason said Pink Floyd "never threw any musical ideas away," and Ron Geesin recalls the four songs on the album's second side developing from "scraps of things they had lying around". 

It's the lyrics that make Roger Waters' "If" so charming. "If I were a good, man I'd understand the spaces between friends." Ironically, Geesin was there the day Barrett appeared at Abbey Road. He sat there staring at his old bandmates, then disappeared.

Next up was Rick Wright's Summer ’68, a song about a casual encounter with a groupie, featuring the EMI Pops Orchestra’s buoyant brass.  "In the summer of '68 there were groupies everywhere," Wright said. "They’d come and look after you like a personal maid… and leave you with a dose of the clap."

My favorite is Gilmour's "Fat Old Sun." "It's fantastically overlooked," he said Gilmour. "[I] tried very hard to push the others… but they weren’t having it."

The album end, of course, with "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast," a meandering instrumental augmented by the sound of Floyd roadie Alan Styles cooking bacon, eggs and toast, and rendered in sumptuous quadrophonic sound. "One take went, ‘Egg Frying Take One,’ followed by, ‘Whoops!’ as the egg dropped," Alan Parsons recalled.

Atom Heart Mother is one of those deep Pink Floyd listens, but everyone should hear it once to see the direction the band would take with Meddle, and then, of course, with Dark Side of the Moon. You may even find yourself gravitating back to it – it does have an odd musical spell.