Pink Floyd Pilgrimage #7: Obscured by Clouds (1972)
Prior to 2019 my only familiarity with English group – Pink Floyd – could be found in the songs Wish You Were Here, Comfortably 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 #7: Obscured by Clouds (1972)
Pink Floyd enter 1972 with six albums now behind them. In 1971, they had made big progress with Meddle, ironing out the mistakes of Atom Heart Mother and Ummagumma to create a stunning record. 1972 would be a busy year for the group as they toured relentlessly and worked on not one, but two, new albums. The first of these would be a soundtrack by the name of Obscured by Clouds.
With Meddle now behind them, Pink Floyd began work on a new album that would go through different titles but ultimately became 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon. Film director, Barbet Schroeder, who had directed the 1969 film, More, which the Floyd recorded the soundtrack for, now contacted the band for help with his latest project – La Vallee. Already hard at work on The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd had the added complication of touring commitments including shows in Japan. The previous year after Meddle, the band had recorded the bulk of the footage for the documentary, Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii. Roger Waters himself stated in one interview around this time that the group were working far too hard with a ridiculous amount of commitments their manager was pushing at them.
With Pink Floyd being so busy, they had limited time to work on the soundtrack for La Vallee. As a result, they set aside two sessions in a studio in France to put the album together. Having watched a rough cut of Schroeder’s film, the group were able to produce music and cobble together songs afterwards to flesh out a soundtrack. The time in the studio across the two sessions amounted to less than a month of recording due to other commitments. By the time the album was ready, Pink Floyd fell out with the film company so instead released the soundtrack as an album entitled Obscured by Clouds. This complicated genesis has meant that, like More, Obscured by Clouds is a strange entry in the Pink Floyd canon and the release of The Dark Side of the Moon less than a year later would unsurprisingly overshadow it.
Obscured by Clouds was released in June 1972 but how would it fare compared to Pink Floyd’s previous soundtrack work and indeed their other albums?
Obscured by Clouds
The opening track on the album and the first on Side One is Obscured by Clouds, which was written by Roger Waters and David Gilmour. This is an instrumental track, lasting around three minutes and was used as the opening and closing to La Vallee. The music builds steadily at the outset, is quite atmospheric with, I presume, organ work from Richard Wright before Nick Mason comes in on the drums. Gradually we hear Gilmour’s guitar entering proceedings and this serves to dominate the rest of the piece, evoking a sense of unease and urgency. It’s an interesting opening track to the album.
When You’re In
The second track on the album is When You’re In written by all four members of Pink Floyd. This is another instrumental track lasting around two minutes with Obscured by Clouds, flowing quite naturally into this one. Mason opens proceedings before Wright joins in on piano, followed by Waters and Gilmour. Unusually short for Pink Floyd, the music starts pretty loud and cycles through a similar rhythm. Around the halfway mark, the music gradually begins to fade until there is only silence for the remaining few seconds or so.
The third track on the album is Burning Bridges which was written by Richard Wright and Roger Waters. This is our first vocal track on the album with the singing shared between Gilmour and Wright, as they did so beautifully on Echoes. The song itself seems to tie into La Vallee whose central character, Viviane, leaves behind her monotonous life of old to embrace a new existence of travel and searching for herself in New Guinea. Typically of Roger Waters, the lyrics here are quite ambiguous but the theme seems to be of breaking free of an old life to go in pursuit of a new one.
Burning Bridges thrives on some gorgeous organ solo from Richard Wright, while Gilmour’s sweeping guitar enhances the experience. The high point is unsurprisingly the vocal work. Gilmour sings the first verse alone, Wright sings the bulk of the second solo before Gilmour joins in, then together they takes us through the third and final verse. Waters and Mason are there in the background but seem happy to let Gilmour and Wright shine throughout this one.
The Gold It’s in the…
The fourth track on the album is The Gold It’s in the… which was written by Roger Waters and David Gilmour. The music accompanies a scene in La Vallee where the main character spends the night in a tent with a guy she has met. In the song, we hear brief mention of gold to be found in the distant hills, but our narrator is only interested in adventure, rather than material gains. The narrator seems to suggest they are happy to travel with others but ultimately no one should try and form attachments with them as they will not be sticking around for any length of time. Sounds like they’re a free spirit.
David Gilmour takes the vocals on this song which sounds very different to the previous tracks we have had thus far. As tends to happen with other Floyd songs, the lyrics are sung early on, in this case by the halfway point, before the rest of the track is taken up by the music. There’s some nice guitar solo work in there from Gilmour with the rest of the group as back up. It’s a decent little track but not as strong as Burning Bridges.
Wot’s…Uh the Deal?
The fifth track on the album is Wot’s…Uh the Deal? which was written by Roger Waters and David Gilmour. Alluding to a Biblical journey, the song also seems to be a commentary on life itself. The narrator spends the first two verses and the chorus as an outsider looking into life and all its mysteries and challenges, searching for a path through time and experiencing the hardships that can be found. By the time we reach the third and final verse, the narrator is now on the inside of life and staring out at those whose journeys are just about to begin. Our narrator has commented throughout the song that they are getting older but at the end they are now old and the end is not far away.
Wot’s…Uh the Deal? is driven by Gilmour on the acoustic guitar, ably supported by Waters and Mason. The first two verses with the accompanying chorus are covered early on but then we have an interlude which includes some delightful piano work from Wright. This piece likely serves as the continuation of life for the narrator before we close out the song with the onset of old age and the poignant self-reflection that this brings. This track demonstrates Roger Waters continuing gift as a lyricist with some beautiful lines in this one and given how quickly the album was put together, this makes it all the more impressive.
The sixth track on the album and the closing one for Side One is Mudmen which was written by Richard Wright and David Gilmour. This is an instrumental track which lasts around four minutes. The music is similar to Burning Bridges and opens with some piano work from Wright with Mason backing on the drums. Organ work also blends with the piano and drums which sees us through the first minute or so of the piece. The tranquillity is then overtaken by Gilmour’s guitar which comes in like a rocket and intensifies the piece before easing back and allowing the organ and drums to compete once more. Into the final minute, Gilmour’s guitar ups the tempo once again and it is both stunning to listen to and a great way to round off Side One.
The seventh track on the album and the opener on Side Two is Childhood’s End which was written by David Gilmour. A Gilmour only penned piece is a rarity in the early Floyd years. This particular song’s title was taken from a novel by sci-fi author, Arthur C. Clarke, and is in a similar vein to Wot’s…Uh the Deal? Gilmour writes of life and how our childhoods are soon left behind. The opening verse seems to focus on restless nights and tormenting dreams. In the second verse Gilmour uses a metaphor of a ship, raising the sails and allowing the breeze to carry it onwards to the distant horizon. The final verse is a reflection on life and its many challenges, there are joys and horrors to be found in equal measure, but the narrator ultimately concludes that we are all the same in that we eventually become dust. Well, that’s cheered me up for the day!
Childhood’s End builds slowly with organ work from Wright for the first minute before Mason, Waters and Gilmour then join in, changing the complexion of the piece entirely. Gilmour takes the vocals here and at that stage his voice begins to take charge. He sounds more confident singing his own lyrics than he did on the likes of The Narrow Way and, to some extent, Fat Old Sun. We have the first two verses back to back before Gilmour throws in another guitar solo. The final verse spells the conclusion of this song with the final line being “So this song will end” just like the life that Gilmour has been musing about.
The eighth track on the album is Free Four which was written by Roger Waters. The song is another that offers a reflection of life with Waters throwing in a variety of themes. Waters tells us that life is fleeting, we may get 80 years or so, if we are lucky. One verse makes reference to being in a band, off touring America and the hope of making it big but he warns us once you are on board the ride it isn’t easy to turn back. The song also makes reference to Waters’ father who was killed in World War II when he was just a baby. Free Four opens and ends the same with an old man lying in bed dying, thinking back over his life.
Free Four is the only song on the album where Roger Waters takes on the vocals. It was clearly a personal song for him, especially with making reference to his late father. The song sounds upbeat enough when it first starts with Waters taking us through the first three verses before a brief musical interlude. He then delivers the final three sections, before the rest of the band play out the closing moments of Free Four. Ambiguity is the name of the game again here from Waters but with the theme of life popping up once more, it’s clear that the band were being very self-reflective at this particular juncture.
The ninth track on the album is Stay which was written by Roger Waters and Richard Wright. The song has a narrator reflecting on a one night stand and echoes Wright’s Summer ‘68 which appeared on Atom Heart Mother. It’s unconfirmed, but Wright apparently wrote the lyrics to this one and it does sound like it may have been him given the subject matter. The song is quite tragic with the narrator wooing a woman into his bed but the following day in a drunken haze he has no recollection of her name and is even surprised to find her by his side the following morning.
Richard Wright takes the vocals on this song which opens with a gentle piano melody before the rest of the group join in. Wright sings through the two verses with accompanying choruses early in the song before a musical interlude from the Floyd separates us from a repetition of the chorus to close out the song. Stay manages to capture the regret and awkwardness of a one night stand and some of the imagery is terrific, but it doesn’t have the same poignancy as Summer ‘68 did.
The tenth and final track on the album is Absolutely Curtains which was written by all four members of Pink Floyd. This is an instrumental piece clocking in at nearly six minutes and is the longest track on Obscured by Clouds. The instrumental is essentially in two sections with the first part being Pink Floyd delivering an atmospheric ensemble piece that takes up the first three minutes or so. At this stage the Floyd’s music begins to fade and its place comes the second part which is singing from the Mapuga tribe of New Guinea, which forms the main setting for La Vallee. This closing section is an interesting way to round out the album and links it back to the film for which the music was originally composed.
Obscured by Clouds seems to be a black sheep of sorts in Pink Floyd’s canon, unfortunately slotting in between Meddle and The Dark Side of the Moon. What this album didn’t have, which those two did, was time. Floyd tended to spend months on their albums but Obscured by Clouds was put together in less than four weeks. Its gestation is also problematic with it originally being intended as a soundtrack but then released as a Floyd album when they fell out with the film company for La Vallee. I don’t know what the argument was about but Floyd felt strongly enough to claim this album as solely their own. The only problem with that is that the soundtrack feel to it does not change simply by re-categorising it and it has the same restrictions that More was produced under.
As an album, I would say that there is some strong material on here though it took me a few listens to get into it, which wasn’t the case with More. The overwhelming theme seems to be musings on life and death, which may be down to the group simultaneously working on The Dark Side of the Moon whose theme I understand is life and all its pressures. As with More the instrumentals don’t stand out as much as the songs though Mudmen is a great piece. Obscured by Clouds is very much a collaborative effort with Roger Waters being well supported by David Gilmour and Richard Wright with lyrical output. I can understand why the album isn’t as highly regarded. It isn’t their strongest work and coming after Meddle it feels like a backwards step, but you have to consider the background to this record. It was put together in a short space of time and it has the same restrictions as More did being a soundtrack. Taking these factors into account you can overlook its shortcomings.
This is a close run thing with there not being much between the songs on the album. Burning Bridges is a good start, Childhood’s End is a solid effort from David Gilmour while Roger Waters’ Free Four is a contender also. However, given the theme of life that is prevalent on the album, I have to give the nod to Wot’s…Uh the Deal? which offers great vocal work from Gilmour but it is the lyrics from Waters that really stand out with this one. Five years after Floyd’s first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Roger Waters has demonstrated growing maturity and skill as a songwriter.
Obscured by Clouds worked its way to no.6 in the UK charts so for an album cobbled together quickly it was still embraced by Pink Floyd fans and, you have to say, did pretty damn well. At the time, critical response was generally negative but time has been kinder to the album with music critics and fans revisiting it and finding strong moments that even hinted at what was still to come from the band as they continued through the 1970s.
As Pink Floyd pushed on through a busy 1972, Obscured by Clouds was behind them in what had proven a frustrating project. However, they were hard at work on another album, moving from the studio to live performances, where the makings of what would be The Dark Side of the Moon were being compiled. Pink Floyd now had seven albums behind them. Their eighth album would change their lives forever.
Pink Floyd Roll of Honour
1) Meddle (1971)
2) The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
3) A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
4) Atom Heart Mother (1970)
5) Obscured by Clouds (1972)
6) More (1969)
7) Ummagumma (1969)