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Pink Floyd Pilgrimage #5: Atom Heart Mother (1970)

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. 

I don’t know what prompted my change of mind this year. It’s been a challenging time for my family with my wife, Donna, diagnosed with rapidly evolving severe multiple sclerosis in 2018 and our lives completely changing as we adapted to a new way of living. Donna is now disabled and not able to get around, let alone leave our home without a power chair (Buzz she is called in case you were wondering). Thankfully, she is still enjoying working from home (she’s always loved her work) while I juggle being a carer with having five cats running rings around me each day. Donna calls us a team. She’s generous like that.

Always more concerned about my welfare than her own, Donna has continually pushed me to find something, anything, to take me away for a time from being a 24/7 carer. She can never have a break from her MS, sadly, but wants me to be able to, as often as I can. I do go to football to watch my beloved Barnsley FC and go running when morning motivation is with me (that one’s a work in progress) but something else came along in 2019.

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 #5: Atom Heart Mother (1970)

We now move into 1970 for the latest stage of our Pink Floyd pilgrimage. The previous year had been a busy one for the group with the release of More and Ummagumma. As a new decade dawned, the Floyd were back in the studio to work on their fifth album. Like Ummagumma, Atom Heart Mother would prove to be a divisive album the group did not have much nostalgia for but it marked another important step in the group’s journey.

Hang on! What’s that cover? It seems to be a cow in a field. I’ll move closer to see what the hell is going on.

Background

Having previously worked on the More soundtrack, Pink Floyd spent late 1969 writing music for the soundtrack to Zabriskie Point, by Michelangelo Antonioni. They were not the only contributors though so this soundtrack is more a side project and not for consideration as a studio album or part of the group’s canon. The Floyd’s experience on this soundtrack wasn’t great with Antonioni heavily supervising their work. They ended up with multiple pieces of music with some being discarded, one in particular known as The Violent Sequence, would remain on the sidelines but appear on a later album. Having finished their work on Zabriskie Point, Pink Floyd returned to the studio at the start of 1970 to begin recording a new album. 

Atom Heart Mother was a tough project with ideas proving scarce. The title came from a headline in a new newspaper that Roger Waters was glancing through, while the cover design by Hipgnosis was simply a cow in a field with no writing to indicate this was an album and certainly not one by Pink Floyd. However, the group loved it and so the image stayed and why not? The four members spent the first part of the year working on instrumental pieces that were honed and improved through live sets until the group ended up with a suite of music that became the title track and the only song on Side One. Working in Abbey Road studio, the technology had changed with the introduction of eight-track tapes and an admonishment from the record company, EMI, that they did not want any tapes splicing so the group could edit pieces together. Consequently, tracks required the band members to perform takes from start to finish with no break in between. This proved challenging for the title track, Atom Heart Mother, with both Roger Waters (bass) and Nick Mason (drums) having to get through a 23-minute take without making a mistake. Ouch! The group completed what they could with Side One before embarking on a tour. They left producer Ron Geesin to recruit an orchestra and choir to complete the solitary song as they didn’t feel it was complete. 

Upon their return, Pink Floyd applied a similar approach as they had with Ummagumma when working on Side Two. It was divided between the four members. Roger Waters, Richard Wright and David Gilmour each contributed one song each, while all members worked on the closing track to complete the album with Nick Mason said to be the lead on this one. Much of Atom Heart Mother was put together from scraps that the group had, unfinished pieces or the workings of new ideas. It sounds like the whole project was a mess but from the detritus, the developing of music during live shows and the many hours in the studio, the group had another album finished. They were still searching for the new direction that had started with Ummagumma but the turning point was not far away.  

Atom Heart Mother was released in October 1970 and after much difficulty in completing the album, what would the fans make of this new Floyd venture?

 

SIDE ONE

 

Atom Heart Mother

The opening and, indeed, the only track on Side One is Atom Heart Mother alias Atom Heart Mother Suite, written by all four members of Pink Floyd with an additional credit going to producer, Ron Geesin. This collection of instrumentals weighs in at almost 24 minutes and called upon all members of the band to contribute to the musical journey. As discussed already, Ron Geesin was handed a near finished track by the group but they felt it needed something else. 

In response, Geesin brought in the EMI Pops Orchestra to flesh out Atom Heart Mother Suite though his attempts at being a conductor left a lot to be desired and there was some conflict between him and the orchestra. Also involved was the John Alldis Choir who were brought in  to provide wordless vocals to the music. Luckily, Alldis had some prior experience of conducting an orchestra so Geesin handed control to him and the work began in earnest. When Pink Floyd returned from touring they found, between them, Geesin and Alldis had managed to complete the opening track.   

Atom Heart Mother Suite is divided into six sections. When one section ends and another begins is open to debate with various alternatives offered. Therefore my interpretation of the divisions will inevitably contrast with other listeners dependent on which version you subscribe to. The sections are as follows:

 

I – Father’s Shout

The suite begins with Father’s Shout which is just shy of 3 minutes. It opens with Richard Wright on the organ with a slow and gradual entrance into proceedings which makes the music sound somewhat ominous. The organ is suddenly followed by the brass band that Ron Geesin brought in to complete the track. When the other band members join in with the brass section we have a main theme that reverberates throughout the suite and returns at different moments. This opening segment has background noises of neighing horses and even a motorbike in the midst of full throttle. The music then begins to fade before we shift into the next section. 

 

II – Breast Milky

Next up in the suite we have Breasty Milk which is around 2½ minutes. This part brings in a cello alongside Roger Waters on bass and Wright on the organ. Nick Mason soon comes in with the drums before this section shifts briefly over to David Gilmour for a gentle guitar solo. The rest of the group soon resume alongside Gilmour. As the music begins to ease, a choir comes in which marks the shift into the next segment in the suite. 

 

III – Mother Fore

Next up we have Mother Fore which is roughly 5 minutes. Here the suite changes once again with the introduction of both a choir and soprano. The bass and drums recede into the background but remain part of the music. The singing is quite repetitive in this section before the voices gradually build, as does Mason’s drumming which grows more urgent and the climax of the section is reached leading us into the fourth part.

 

IV – Funky Dung

For the fourth section we have Funky Dung which is also about 5 minutes long. It opens with Wright once again on the organ before the rest of the band join in. This sounds more like a standard instrumental from Pink Floyd with Gilmour in particular upping the intensity of his guitar playing. Gilmour’s guitar diminished as the mood changes and we are suddenly interrupted by the return of the choir. The vocals continue to be wordless but sound like some kind of chanting in the background. Gradually the brass band returns and we revisit that main theme that began in Father’s Shout. The conclusion of this piece of music then leads us into the fifth section.

 

V – Mind Your Throats Please

Section five is Mind Your Throats Please which is just under 4 minutes. It starts with electronic noises as Richard Wright switches to a mellotron to create these chaotic effects. We hear a voice saying “Here is a loud announcement” before the sound of a steam train whooshing by spells another change. Next we have a range of instruments intermingling, fading in and out of the piece, before the brass band begins to return and become the dominant force once more. The section ends with Nick Mason saying, “Silence in the studio”, before we transition to the sixth and final part of the suite. 

 

VI – Remergence

The final section is Remergence which is just under four minutes. It opens with the main theme once more as Pink Floyd and the brass band combine before shifting to a cello solo that we previously came across in Breasty Milky. When that fades out we return again to David Gilmour with a guitar solo also reminiscent of the one he played in that second section of the suite. The rest of the group then return and the music becomes more urgent. Gradually the brass band take charge, as do the choir as we build steadily towards the denouement. All components now play in unison before the music ends with the choir vocals and brass arrangement.

 

Atom Heart Mother Suite is a behemoth of a piece. Divided into six parts, there are so many changes going on here it’s hard to keep track of everything. The four members of Pink Floyd demonstrate their respective versatility as they switch between instruments, Wright and Gilmour, in particular. The orchestra really complements the band’s work here while the choir and soprano additions sound great. The only section I wasn’t sure about was the chanting in Funky Dung, but that is a minor criticism. All in all, this is a terrific achievement with credit to Pink Floyd, Ron Gessin and, of course, John Alldis for conducting the orchestra and leading the choir arrangements.  

 

SIDE TWO

 

If

The second track on the album and the first on Side Two is If, written by Roger Waters. If has been argued by some fans as being from the perspective of founding member Syd Barrett which is possible but uncertain. The narrator uses the repetition of “if” to describe themselves and their approach to life. Comments range from being late if they were a train and not being able to resist bending if they happened to be a rule. The most heart-rending introspective lines in the song talk of what they would do if they were a good person and that becomes two key areas: talking with others more often and understanding a growing distance between friends. The narrator is saying they are not this good man though which makes this all the more tragic. It could be about Syd Barrett but, more likely, this is Roger Waters staring deep within his own soul, especially given what would befall Pink Floyd in the 1980s.

If is another beautiful song by Roger Waters and continues to demonstrate his growing gift and talent as a songwriter. Grantchester Meadows was delightful on the Ummagumma album, but If eclipses it in so many ways. It is deeper and far more meaningful, bravely personal, and unlike the previous album we have the benefit of all band members performing here. Waters is joined by Gilmour with the guitar work, while Richard Wright’s piano melody bolsters the lyrics. Mason is also there with the drums and together the song just sounds more complete and meaningful with all members contributing. The ambiguity to the song’s lyrics make this one even more irresistible.   

 

Summer ‘68

The third track on the album is Summer ‘68 written by Richard Wright. Presumably semi-autobiographical, Wright sings of being a musician on the road who has a brief relationship with a groupie which means more to him than a simple one night stand. There is a sense of regret in the brevity of this liaison and the narrator has concerns that the feeling is not mutual and that the groupie will soon have another man in her life. The musician himself suggests that he will also move on and there will be other women but this one has affected him more deeply than he could have imagined.

Richard Wright makes a welcome return to vocals for Summer ‘68 and leads proceedings with some beautiful piano work. Wright enlists the help of David Gilmour in singing the chorus and he also provides the backing vocals too. Roger Waters and Nick Mason blend in with bass and drum accompaniments, while the song also enlists the addition of a brass band, also used to great effect in Atom Heart Mother Suite. This element offers a Pink Floyd that is reminiscent of what we have heard before but also one that is pushing the boundaries in different directions. Summer ‘68 is ultimately a tender and often moving piece about love (lust?) and regret. 

 

Fat Old Sun

The fourth track on the album is Fat Old Sun written by David Gilmour. There is a story that Gilmour was left alone in the studio and told he couldn’t leave until he had written a song for this album. Never confident as a lyricist, Gilmour came up with Fat Old Sun and like Roger Waters’ Grantchester Meadows on the Ummagumma album, this song appears to be about being back in Cambridge and savouring the scenery. Gilmour tells us of the setting sun, the singing of birds, being hand in hand with a lover, and even the sound of children laughing. All the associations are of a dream-like summer retreat, a rural idyll where one can simply just be. The pressures of everyday life don’t taint one here. One must take it all in and be grateful before that “fat old sun” of the title sets. 

The distant sound of church bells sets the scene for this one and it sounds as delicate as a summer flower in an unrelenting breeze. Gilmour takes the vocals and demonstrates his range once again with quiet, tender singing. He played guitar, bass and drums on Fat Old Sun as well with only Richard Wright being brought in to contribute some music on the organ. All of the lyrics are delivered in the opening three minutes with the remaining couple of minutes devoted purely to music with another majestic solo from Gilmour. As with The Narrow Way on Ummagumma, Gilmour demonstrates that he is capable of writing songs, just as Wright does, but already at this point we can see that Roger Waters is a superior lyricist to his bandmates. 

 

Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast

The fifth and final track is Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast, written mainly by Nick Mason but with contributions from Roger Waters, David Gilmour and Richard Wright. The song is made up of three instrumental pieces interspersed with audio recordings of Pink Floyd roadie Alan Parson’s making his breakfast and talking about it. What do we learn about Alan during the song? Well, he has coffee instead of tea, he likes marmalade, a cooked breakfast, also enjoys all kinds of cereal as well. On the road it sounds like he often has a bad back and can’t be bothered with electrical stuff. Going back to food he describes having breakfast in Los Angeles as “macrobiotic stuff”. Not sure what that is but it sounds unpleasant. All the time we can hear the bang and crash of plates, utensils and other items in the kitchen, such as cereal being poured and food cooking, as Alan works on breakfast.

The instrumentals are as follows:

 

I – Rise and Shine

The opening instrumental is around 2½ minutes long and is primarily Richard Wright juggling piano and organ accompaniments while David Gilmour slots in on guitar. The organ and piano are largely dominant here.

 

II – Sunny Side Up

The second instrumental is around 3 minutes long and involved David Gilmour on multiple guitars. The opening has the sound of Alan in the background chomping on his breakfast before gradually the music takes centre stage. 

 

III – Morning Glory

The concluding instrumental is performed by all members of the band with Wright throwing in organ and piano additions, while Gilmour is on guitar, Waters on bass and Mason on the drums. During this closing segment we can faintly hear Alan repeating a list of breakfast items he enjoys. When the music ends the track continues for another minute or so with Alan leaving his home and driving away in his car. The piece ends as it began with the distant sound of a dripping tap.

 

What can one say about Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast? I wasn’t as perplexed with this one as I was with Waters’ Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving With a Pict from the Ummagumma album but it was still rather peculiar. I enjoy it more as an experimental track rather than a fully rounded song. This is Floyd continuing to test the water with studio effects and merging them into their musical pieces. It won’t threaten the best songs by Pink Floyd but it’s still interesting to listen to, a footnote in their avant garde history.

 

Overall Thoughts

As with Ummagumma, Atom Heart Mother is an album that divides critics and fans alike. The group themselves were not happy with it in retrospect but David Gilmour lifted Fat Old Sun for his solo live sets, just as Roger Waters would do with If, so not all of the material on there was as bad as they might let us think. It’s similar to Ummagumma with Side Two being divided between three of the four members, with the fourth being a collaboration spearheaded by Nick Mason. The difference here is that there is more collaboration and it makes for a stronger set of tracks. The production of the album was somewhat troubled with Ron Geesin entrusted with completing the Atom Heart Mother Suite and I do like the brass band addition here, taking Floyd in a completely different direction to what we have had before.   

Listening to the album as a whole you do get the feeling of a group throwing tracks, albeit good ones, together into a structure that isn’t completely even. The opening track is an epic listen, never dull, but the transition over to Side Two doesn’t feel as smooth with the songs there not really feeling like they have any linkage to what we have already had. Individually the songs here are all good but Side Two ends with Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast which seems a strange way to conclude the album after the three songs we have just had. The comparisons to Ummagumma are quite clear though this isn’t as disjointed as that particular album was with half of it being live songs and the other studio recordings. For all Floyd’s reservations this is still a decent album in their canon, demonstrating a band who were fearless in trying something new. As with all experiments, it can’t always be expected to work, but when it does work it sounds fantastic.

 

Best Song

The Atom Heart Mother Suite is an impressive collection of instrumentals and you don’t feel like you’re sitting for 20+ minutes listening to the track in its entirety. However, I feel Side Two is where the best music is. Richard Wright’s Summer ‘68 is poignant, David Gilmour’s Fat Old Sun is beautifully crafted and tender, but I have to give the crown to Roger Waters’ stunning If. The most personal song we have had from Waters thus far, it shares the beating heart of a man and reveals some ugly truths when you stare into the recesses. It almost feels somewhat prophetic for the divisions that would haunt Pink Floyd a decade later.  

 

Aftermath

Atom Heart Mother had a mixed reception upon release but it was a breakthrough for the group in that it gave them their first UK no.1 album. The critics were torn, the group would dismiss the album in later years, but their fans were still on board the Floyd express and enjoying what they were hearing. It’s an improvement on Ummagumma in that there is more of a structure here rather than a live album and a studio album but as a whole it’s still uneven. That said, I don’t feel it warrants the dismissal of the group.

Atom Heart Mother was building on the work the group did with Ummagumma. The struggle to perfect Side One and bring in a producer shows what a challenge the album was for the group. The members have looked back at this as a time when they were struggling for ideas and trying to come up with what they could to fill an album. At the end of 1970, the group was now five albums into their career and had topped the charts with this latest effort. They had a loyal following but were not yet the megastars or legends that they would one day become. The Floyd were still searching for something. Would they find it with their next album?

 

Pink Floyd Roll of Honour

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

2) A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)

3) Atom Heart Mother (1970)

4) More (1969)

5) Ummagumma (1969)

My name is Dave and I live in Yorkshire in the north of England and have been here all my life. I live with my amazing wife, Donna and our cats Razz, Kain, Bilbo, Frodo and Buggles. We had a sixth cat, Charlie, who sadly passed away in 2018.If you love running, books, films, music, writing, theatre, art or are a fellow Barnsley FC supporter then hopefully you will find something of interest here. I’m also hoping that other carers will find a warm welcome in some of the pages here. I will likely blog about MS from time to time but am happy to hear from all whose lives have been affected or even changed by an illness or disability.

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