Music,  Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd Pilgrimage #4: Ummagumma (1969)

Prior to 2019 my only familiarity with English group – Pink Floyd – could be found in the songs Wish You Were HereComfortably Numb, Another Brick in the Wall Part 2 and Money. I loved all four songs and have for many years but for some reason I never went further into Floyd’s back catalogue or even the group themselves. I had never listened to an album, never bothered to delve into their history. I had heard the name, Syd Barrett, but knew nothing else of their story. 

If you search for Pink Floyd on YouTube you’ll find their songs, albums, documentaries and hundreds of reaction videos. A new generation of music lovers are discovering their music and having their minds blown by what they hear. Thanks to them I have decided to begin my own journey – a Pink Floyd pilgrimage, you could say – to find out more.

What drew me towards Pink Floyd was the countless comments I had seen from other Floyd enthusiasts, the same messages and appreciation for the group. They insisted that nothing else sounds like Pink Floyd, that listening to an album in its entirety was essential, that their music could help you drift into an alternate plain and that you must, simply MUST, have headphones on when you do listen to the Floyd. It sounded cathartic and I wanted to try for myself as a form of meditation, something I’ve never been good at. I did see plenty of comments suggesting listening to Floyd while high is the way to go, well, I won’t be doing that, dear reader, you will be relieved to hear though I am sure it’s an interesting experience.  

My Pink Floyd pilgrimage began earlier this year by reading two books – Mark Blake’s Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd and Martin Popoff’s Pink Floyd: Album by Album. This gave me an insight into the group’s often turbulent history as well as their extensive discography. I have also watched a few documentaries on YouTube so gained a further insight into their work. There is, however, one thing left for me to do.

Each month I will be listening to a Pink Floyd album in full and writing a reaction on this blog. I will listen multiple times – all the way through – and with headphones on. I will NOT be pausing during a David Gilmour solo and I’ll see if I can figure out which one is Pink! I will begin with The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) and conclude with The Endless River (2014). In all, there are 15 studio albums to get through. By November 2020 I will have been through the early days of the band with Syd Barrett as the leader, the middle years where a close-knit quartet gradually fell apart as Roger Waters seized control, and the later years when a more democratic David Gilmour led the group in its twilight years. 

One final thing, dear reader. As far as Pink Floyd are concerned, I am a novice, a mere apprentice and know very little so what I offer here are just my opinions of their music as I take it on board. I will attempt, and likely fail, to rank the albums in order of preference and try – big emphasis on try – to select the best song from each record even though I know they are to be treated as one long piece of music. If you have insights of your own to help me, or just want to share your own love and appreciation of these music legends then please throw a comment my way.   

Time to grab the headphones and go on a journey…

 

Pink Floyd Pilgrimage #4: Ummagumma (1969)

We remain in 1969 for the next stage of our pilgrimage and Pink Floyd’s second album in the calendar year. Previously, we indulged in the group’s soundtrack to the film, More. For the fourth album, Pink Floyd decided to work on what turned out to be a double album, one that none of the members would look back on particularly favourably many years later. Ummagumma would prove to be a divisive album, especially for fans, with some suggesting this isn’t a proper Floyd album. Let’s find out more.

Background

Working on the More soundtrack had given the band an interesting project and one that was a decent earner at the same time. I imagine being a soundtrack it also gave them an idea and theme for the album rather than having to start from scratch. That was not the case with Ummagumma, a term said to be Cambridge slang for “sex”. I know, me neither! Anyway, returning to the studio for their fourth album, Pink Floyd were scratching their heads for an idea. A double album would be proposed with the first two sides containing live recordings the group did at Mothers Club in Birmingham (April 1969) and Manchester College of Commerce (May 1969). That dealt with half of the album, but what about the other half?

Richard Wright came up with the idea that would shape the rest of Ummagumma. He had a desire to create what he termed “real music” so suggested that the four members each come up with their own compositions, essentially going rogue with no input from the other members. Wright and Roger Waters would divide Side Three between them, while David Gilmour and Nick Mason would split Side Four. Each member was essentially doing solo work, coming up with their own pieces and recording them. It was a bold experiment and would allow each of the members to flex their creative muscles. Of course, this was also a risky venture for not every musician is necessarily good at writing songs.

As the 1960s drew to a close, Pink Floyd were gaining more confidence in moving away from the influence and psychedelia of the Syd Barrett era. They were beginning a search for a new direction and meaning with their music. This would be a long and difficult journey for the group across Ummagumma and continuing into the next album, Atom Heart Mother, which will be our focus next month.  

Ummagumma was released in November 1969 and would offer fans a varied collection of avant garde compositions but what would the response be?

 

SIDE ONE

 

Astronomy Domine (Live)

The first track on Side One is a live version of Astronomy Domine, written by Syd Barrett, and provided the opening track to Pink Floyd’s debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The song was previously covered in my review of that album so I will not dwell too long on it here. What is interesting here is that the Floyd have kept the song in their set-list post-Barrett with David Gilmour and Richard Wright taking on vocal duties. We also have an indication of the group’s experimentation as the song has a longer run-time than it did on the album. It remains a haunting and evocative song and sounds fantastic live.

 

Careful with That Axe, Eugene (Live)

The second track on Side One and on the album is a live version of Careful with That Axe, Eugene, which was written by all members of Pink Floyd. This is quite a novelty, for the song originally appeared as a B-side on the single, Point Me at the Sky, and did not feature on any of the albums by the band. The song itself is largely an instrumental track and, as with Astronomy Domine, the Floyd threw in an extended version when performing it live. The track is most notable for Roger Waters on the lead vocal though the lyrics are sparse but memorable. After a few minutes of music we suddenly hear Waters whisper the song’s title before unleashing a stunning scream, maybe even a shriek (no offence, Roger!), that sounds hugely impressive live. Why Eugene has an axe is not specified and why he needs to be careful is also unclear but it doesn’t alter the impact of the song. It is a privilege to hear the song and you can only imagine what it must have been like to be in that crowd as Waters belted this one out. I just hope he had something on standby for his throat afterwards.  

 

SIDE TWO

 

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun (Live)

The third track on the album and the first one on Side Two is a live version of Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun which was written by Roger Waters. This was the third track on the group’s second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, and was covered in more detail on the blog post about that record so there isn’t a huge amount to add here. What is notable is that Floyd’s experimental approach to their music is evident with this particular song being almost double in length in its live manifestation. Waters’ faint vocals accompanied by Wright’s organ work retain the atmospheric nature of the song and it sounds so immersive live.   

 

A Saucerful of Secrets (Live)

The fourth track on the album and the second one on Side Two is A Saucerful of Secrets, written by all members of Pink Floyd. This song also appeared on the album of the same name. It was the fifth track on the album, or the first to appear on Side Two, depending on how you want to look at it. The original recording clocked in at 12 minutes. This live recording on Ummagumma weighs in at 13 minutes. There are some variations here, especially during the Syncopated Pandemonium section. As the song reaches its climax we hear the faint vocals of – I believe – Richard Wright and it is a powerful ending, just as it is on the album. I would love to have been amongst the crowds in the late sixties to hear the Floyd as they were then.

 

SIDE THREE

 

While Sides One and Two featured live recordings, Side Three is split between Richard Wright and Roger Waters. Richard Wright is first up with Sysyphus which is comprised of four parts. Roger Waters then completes Side Three with Grantchester Meadows and Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict. No, I am not joking, that is a genuine title.  

 

Sysyphus: Parts 1, 2, 3 & 4

The fifth track on the album is Richard Wright’s four part suite which is said to be named after the Greek legend of Sisyphus, the King of Ephyra (Corinth), who was deceitful and cheated death. He was eventually punished by Zeus who forced him to push a large boulder up a steep hill in Hades. Upon completing the task, Sisyphus watched as the boulder rolled downhill and he had to begin the process again…for all eternity. In Wright’s suite we have four instrumentals with no lyrics in sight.

Part 1 is around 1 minute and combines what sounds like an organ with intense drumming. It feels like we’re setting a scene here, building up to something. Wright recorded all the instruments on his own here, as did the rest of the group with their contributions, so this opening section does showcase Wright’s musical depth. 

Part 1 flows into Part 2 which is just over 3 minutes long. Gone are the drums and instead we have Wright switching over to the piano. This time we have a feel of classical music emitting a pleasant melody before the piece becomes more urgent and almost chaotic in its final moments. Unlike Part 1, Part 2 comes to an end without flowing seamlessly into the next part.

Part 3 is just under 2 minutes and sounds completely different to the first two segments. I’m not sure if Wright deploys a mellotron here as it doesn’t sound like the piano we previously had. This part contains a series of peculiar sound effects with some of the later ones akin to animals in a jungle, maybe frantic birds or even apes calling from the treetops. Bizarre stuff.

Part 4 is the final section and longer than all the opening segments put together, coming in at 7 minutes. It sounds like Wright switches back to the organ here while in the background we have effects such as birdsong and water flowing for the first three minutes. The music then has a brief moment of intensity with heavy drumming and organ playing, before transitioning again with some eerie organ work. With less than two minutes to go we come full circle. The frantic music gradually gives way to that drumming and organ accompaniment from Part 1 and the suite plays out. 

Richard Wright’s contribution to Ummagumma is certainly very interesting. After Part 1 and 2 flow effortlessly into one another, the remainder of the suite comes across as disjointed at times. I did, however, like how Wright gradually brings back the music from Part 1 to close out the final minute or so of Part 4. It was really effective to complete the cycle this way. Given that Wright penned Remember a Day and See-Saw on the second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, it would have been good to see him try his hand at writing more lyrics but I’m not sure if confidence was a factor here or whether he was just more comfortable focusing on music.   

  

Grantchester Meadows

The sixth track is Grantchester Meadows written by Roger Waters. This is the first of two songs from Waters to complete Side Three. In the song, Waters sings of Grantchester Meadows, a peaceful rural setting on the outskirts of Cambridge, England. Syd Barrett, Roger Waters and David Gilmour all grew up in Cambridge so this area has particular meaning for Waters as the song reveals. 

It opens with the sound of a buzzing fly and we hear the call of a lark which continues in the background throughout the song. Waters comes in with an acoustic guitar and describes the beauty of Grantchester Meadows with birdsong, misty mornings, a kingfisher in the water, a green river, trees all around, and images of being lazy by the meadow and taking in the world around you. Around four minutes in we hear the sound of a goose and then it splashing in the water as it takes flight. As Waters’ lyrics end and his acoustic guitar fades we are left with the sound of a fly buzzing around and then urgent footsteps as an individual gives chase trying to swat at the fly. The song cuts off abruptly as we transition into the next track.

Grantchester Meadows is a beautiful song, easily one of the best we have had from Roger Waters thus far. His evocative lyrics really capture the scene and one can almost immerse themselves fully in the surroundings of Grantchester Meadows. It’s clearly a place of special significance for Waters and one wonders how often he may have been back both during and after his time with Pink Floyd. 

 

Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict 

The seventh track is Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict , written by Roger Waters. Finding words to capture this song is not easy but I will do my best. The title alone tells you it’s going to be different. It’s unique in that Waters used no musical instruments. Instead, he created the sound of birds and rodents, and altered the speed in the studio, throwing in a myriad of effects to create the pandemonium of the many animals in a cave with a Pict. The Picts once lived in eastern and northern Scotland but as they merged with Gaelic groups, their identity was lost around the 11th century.

For the opening three minutes or so of the song we have the various animal noises creating confusion as we dare to listen in. Suddenly a loop comes in of a voice which sounds as if they are saying, “Come back”, but I can’t be sure and Roger sadly wasn’t available for comment. In the closing minute or two, Waters throws in his best impression of a Scottish accent and delivers some words about wielding claymores, which I believe are swords, going into battle and – by the sound of things – being killed on a battlefield. The song is said to have hidden messages if you slow down the recording with Waters saying “Thank you” at the end and before that commenting on how avant garde the song is. It certainly is, Roger.

Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict is an interesting song but very peculiar. You have to admire the way it was put together with tape effects and Waters’ voice creating the puzzling array of sounds you are treated to. It’s a stark contrast to Grantchester Meadows, which is a credit to the versatility of Roger Waters. It won’t threaten the highest echelons of the best Pink Floyd songs but it is an intriguing experimental number all the same.

 

SIDE FOUR

 

Side Four is split between David Gilmour and Nick Mason. David Gilmour opens the side with The Narrow Way, a three part suite comprised of two instrumentals and a concluding segment with vocals in. Side Four and indeed the rest of Ummagumma is completed by Nick Mason with a three part suite of his own entitled The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party

 

The Narrow Way: Parts 1, 2 & 3

The eighth track and the first on Side Four is The Narrow Way, written by David Gilmour. From what I have read about the Floyd, Richard Wright’s idea of the four members doing solo pieces and sharing half a side each is one that gave Gilmour much concern. Undoubtedly a great guitarist and musician, Gilmour has often expressed his weakness at writing lyrics. The only previous song we have had written solely by Gilmour was A Spanish Piece on the More album which I am still not sure about a month on. Gilmour is said to have asked Roger Waters for help with writing the lyrics here but Waters refused.

We begin with Part 1 which is an instrumental. Clocking in at around 3 minutes it is largely an acoustic driven piece from Gilmour. There are some weird, sometimes sinister, effects in the background which are a stark contrast to the gentle acoustics. The effects become more intense as the song goes on before we flow smoothly into the next instalment. 

Moving into Part 2 we have another instrumental. This section is under 3 minutes and this time Gilmour now switches to electric guitar and there is a percussion accompaniment which makes the song more hard rock than Part 1. The guitar gradually sounds like it fades and a mixture of sound effects begin to dominate proceedings. A drone effect then takes us into the final part of the suite.

Entering Part 3 we have Gilmour’s vocals delivering his first written lyrics as a member of Pink Floyd. The song is around 6 minutes and builds slowly at the outset before Gilmour’s singing begins. Lyrically the song is a bit mysterious. It seems to concern a traveller on a journey to somewhere unspecified. In the chorus they seem to be taking the time to rest their weary body but all too soon they are looking to the horizon and on the move again. The final verse taps into memories of brighter days and the traveller now heads down a dark and miserable path, perhaps one day reclaiming the sunnier days they had once known. There is a lot of ambiguity here, as you can tell from my woeful interpretation, which leaves this one perfect for discussion.

The Narrow Way is an interesting suite from David Gilmour. Lyrically I find it intriguing though Gilmour’s writing isn’t as strong as Roger Waters, nor Richard Wright with the songs he wrote for A Saucerful of Secrets. In Part 3 Gilmour’s voice does sometimes become subordinate to the music and you can’t make out his words clearly on occasion. That may be deliberate though for someone not confident with lyrics. There is an interesting contrast between the three parts and as a whole it feels more like a completed piece than Sysyphus, with each of the parts running smoothly into one another. I have no skill at writing song lyrics but I’d be happy to have penned The Narrow Way. 

   

The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party: Part 1, 2 & 3

The ninth and final track on the album is The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party, written by Nick Mason. As with David Gilmour, Nick Mason’s prior contributions have been with the music of Pink Floyd rather than lyrical input. For his contribution to Ummagumma, Mason provides an instrumental suite with no words in sight. Incidentally, the Grand Vizier of the title refers to a head of government in many Islamic countries. 

Part 1 is around a minute long and entitled “Entrance”. Mason is joined by his then wife, Lindy Mason, who plays a flute solo at the outset of the piece. Mason himself then comes in towards the end with a drum roll and cymbal that leads us into the next section. This opening part makes me think of music at a Medieval banquet with a group of minstrels off to onside entertaining the lords and ladies. 

Part 2 is around 7 minutes and entitled “Entertainment”. This central piece is made up of various drum and tape effects. It opens with what sounds like a kettle drum before the mood changes with additional effects, before Mason switches to a mellotron with distant percussion. The transitions have a humming sound, almost like a plane overhead, and signalling a changeover. Around 4 minutes in Mason throws in tape loops with an array of drum sounds which shift from one headphone to the other in frantic succession. It’s quite an effect. Into the final minute we get a more consistent drum beat, gradually building in intensity and rounding off this section.

Part 3 is less than a minute and entitled “Exit”. In this concluding segment we once again have Lindy Mason on flute but this time we have multiple flutes playing out the song in unison. There are no drum accompaniments here, just the flutes to bring the curtain down on The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party and also the Ummagumma album as well.

I found The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party similar to Sysyphus in that it doesn’t feel completely structured. The opening and closing parts are very pleasant with the flute accompaniments but too short for my liking. Part 2 is interesting and demonstrates Mason experimenting but it feels like there are too many transitions going on in those 7 minutes and it comes across as a little uneven in the end.

 

Overall Thoughts

This fourth album from Pink Floyd is a strange one to work with in all honesty though I do believe it belongs in the group’s canon. A double album, it is divided into the live album and the studio album. Considering the albums separately, the live album is a great showcase of Floyd’s sound in a live setting and boasts four terrific songs, as well as the group’s penchant for lengthy numbers. I can only imagine how enthralled the audiences must have been in these early years. The studio album pioneered by Richard Wright wanting the four members to essentially take ¼ of the album for their own, solo compositions is an interesting, brave and experimental idea but not one that fully works, something the group would later acknowledge for themselves. 

I have enjoyed listening to the opening three Pink Floyd albums all the way through, a golden rule of Floyd enthusiasts, and I did the same with Ummagumma. Going through the approximately 80 minutes length for both albums, it proves to be a strange mix. Four live tracks then suddenly a switch to the studio efforts. It’s a strange transition based on what we have experienced before. As for the individual efforts from the group, some are better than others. On Side Three, Wright’s Sysyphus works in places, while Waters delivers the sublime and the peculiar with his two songs. Side Four sees David Gilmour offer a decent piece but clearly one lacking in confidence, while Nick Mason’s contribution, like Wright, doesn’t completely work for me. Overall, this is an interesting but disjointed project from Pink Floyd, often showing great promise but its avant garde nature means not every contribution works and inevitably as a whole there is little unity here.

 

 

Best Song

Due to Ummagumma being a live album and a studio album, I have not considered the four live songs as three appeared on previous albums, though it was great to hear Careful with That Axe, Eugene. In terms of the studio albums, Wright’s Sysyphus has some good moments but is too inconsistent. Gilmour’s The Narrow Way is a great effort but, for me, the diamond on the album is undoubtedly Roger Waters’ Grantchester Meadows, which is beautifully poetic and makes great use of sound effects too. You might say I have simple tastes but Waters also sings about a kingfisher. What more do you want from a song?  

 

Aftermath

Ummagumma was generally well received upon its release with some positive reviews and made it into the UK Top 10 but time has ultimately not been kind to the album. All members of Pink Floyd have dismissed it as a failure and some fans of the group have gone so far as to place this one at the bottom of the list when it comes to ranking the group’s best work. Only time will tell if I do the same. For now, this is the weakest of the four albums I have listened to thus far.

Ummagumma was an experiment and the opportunity for Floyd to do something different, for each of the members to contribute their own ideas. It wasn’t an approach that the band would take again, perhaps an indication that it was an unsatisfying experience even at the time for them. It is an album that marks Floyd’s pursuit of a new direction for their music and for that reason doesn’t always work. The group would not find the answers they sought in 1969 but moving into the 1970s the quartet would continue to experiment and hone their skills in the studio in pursuit of perfection. The only way from here was forward.

 

Pink Floyd Roll of Honour

1) The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)

2) A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)

3) More (1969)

4) Ummagumma (1969)

My name is Dave and I live in Yorkshire in the north of England and have been here all my life. I hope you enjoy your visit to All is Ephemeral.

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