Oh By The Way: Atom Heart Mother

>> Tuesday, March 25, 2008

It's frankly a little hard to know what to say about Atom Heart Mother, Pink Floyd's 1970 follow-up to Ummagumma. Nick Mason, in Inside Out, wrote:
My report card comments for the "Atom Heart Mother" track would be: good idea, could try harder. "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast" on the second side is a similar example.

Those two sentences could easily sum up the entire album, notwithstanding three solid individual tracks from Waters, Gilmour and Wright, including "Fat Old Sun," which may be in my top ten favorite Floyd songs. Atom Heart is a bit of a mess, frustratingly brilliant and stunningly overblown at turns. (Yet, Atom Heart would also be the first Floyd album to go gold, and their first number one record in the UK.)


Classical influences were big in rock and roll in 1970. Some of that was probably Paul McCartney's fault--actually, a pretty good bit of it was McCartney's fault, really. But McCartney at least had the pop instincts to pull it off--nothing on Abbey Road, say, is quite as ludicrously overblown as the worst excesses of Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Yes. To write that Atom Heart Mother joins the rest of the era in leaping off the bridge but somehow manages to survive the fall with only a few broken bones and a minor concussion is damning with a faintly positive diagnosis.


The band started playing around with a long-form piece late in '69 or early in '70, and futzed around with it a bit on stage under the title "The Amazing Pudding." This is actually pretty significant: not because it shows how much work the Floyd put into it, but because it's an example of how incapable Pink Floyd was of taking anything too damn seriously, even when they were being insufferably pompous art-rockers. Indeed, that's part of what I meant when I wrote "frustratingly brilliant"--Atom Heart Mother is one of the few sufferably pompous art rock albums of the era. (The badly-named Nursery Cryme is another, and maybe In The Court Of The Crimson King is another, mainly because Robert Fripp is, I don't know... Robert Fripp is just one of those guys who is able to get away with shit you'd punch someone else for, sort of the way Steve Jobs is in the computer industry. It's not merely that he's brilliant, though he is. But I digress.)


Anyway, the Floyd had this unwieldy, epic piece called "The Amazing Pudding," and it had its moments of coolness but it really wasn't working. And this is where the Floyd did something else that's atypical in rock and one of the unheralded examples of Why Floyd Is Cool: they brought in a consultant.


Years and years and years later, when David Gilmour brought the band back together without Roger Waters, he would get a lot of flack for all the other people who were brought in to write and record A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. What people had missed (partly because the Floyd did kind of a lousy job crediting people, especially in the late '70s) was that the Floyd had always brought in a little help when they needed it. Roger Waters wasn't happy with his vocals on "Have A Cigar," but Roy Harper was in the studio and could nail it. The Wall was too damn big to produce on their own, so they brought in Bob Ezrin, the guy who had made KISS sound so big in the mid-'70s. The orchestral arrangements on The Final Cut went to Michael Kamen, already on his way to becoming a sought-after movie composer/conductor. There were multiple backing musicians on every tour from 1974-onward, with the band literally doubled for The Wall concerts in 1980-81 (not counting the backing vocalists).


In the case of "The Amazing Pudding," the band consulted Ron Geesin, who had helped a little on Ummagumma and had worked with Roger Waters on a documentary soundtrack earlier that year. This was amazingly clever on the band's part: not only had they gotten themselves a little out of their depth, but Geesin wasn't exactly a conventional classical composer; indeed, he was a bit avant-garde at the time. "Pudding" may have been lengthy and sort of classical-ish, but it would also be a little silly and fun, too.


The sound effects came out in a major way. They'd always been around on Floyd tracks, but this would be the first time they'd be present as part of the musical narrative. Ironically, those sonic touches would become a Floyd trademark, but would actually be largely absent from the band's next two albums. It wouldn't be until Dark Side Of The Moon that those quintessentially Floydian noises and loops would be as large a part of the environment as they are on Atom Heart Mother. And Atom Heart has some of the wittiest uses of those effects in the Floyd canon: a bomb turns into a motorcycle, a man babbles about his macrobiotic diet while eggs fry. (Alan Styles' babbling also foreshadows the interview loops used so famously on Dark Side.)


By all accounts, the title was a last-minute touch. Desperate for an album title, the band looked at newspapers until someone saw a headline about a woman with a pacemaker--one of those old radioactive jobs--giving birth. An atom-heart mother. The album had a title, and "The Amazing Pudding" became "The Atom Heart Mother Suite."


The "Suite" is followed by three fairly strong songs, individual contributions by the band's primary songwriters. Roger Waters's "If" foreshadows Waters's Barrett-inspired obsession with madness (I'm not sure I can think of another song that links abandonment issues with electroshock treatments so mournfully). Wright's "Summer '68" (a cynical song about sleeping around), on the other hand, musically links back to the days when the band tried to make it with singles, and tracks like "It Would Be So Nice" and "Paintbox." And then there's Gilmour's pastoral "Fat Old Sun," beautiful and yearning.


The album's closer, "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast," is... well. Remember: "frustratingly brilliant and stunningly overblown at turns." This is an instrumental set to the sounds of breakfast being prepared while roadie Alan Styles talks about what he wants to eat, and where.


Sometimes it's not enough to merely be clever.


The cover bears mentioning because it actually was clever. There's no title, no identification, just this picture of a somewhat bored-looking cow looking over her shoulder at the camera. The label hated it, of course. Album covers are supposed to have band photos or maybe naked women on the front, though in 1970 you could get away with some kind of bizarre "psychedelic" picture--an armadillo-tank-creature-thing, maybe. Storm Thorgerson was apparently asked if he was trying to destroy EMI when he showed it off to the execs. But it works. Sometimes it is enough to be clever. Nick Mason identified the cow as Lulubelle III of Potter's Bar; he may be pulling our collective leg.


This album was possibly my first foray into Pink Floyd's early days. I would have been in junior high: I had Dark Side Of The Moon and was familiar with my parents' copy of The Wall and I think I'd made off with a copy of Animals that my dad had taped off the radio--this was back when radio stations would still play an entire album, uncut and unbroken, often announcing beforehand when they were going to do it so people could tape the show politely listen in on machines completely unattached in any way, shape or form to recording devices of any kind. (Yeah, you know how the recording industry acts like computers have radically altered the way music is distributed, making it possible for millions of people to hear a track distributed from a single source and surreptitiously copy it for their own illicit use... yeah....) Anyway, I had those records and maybe even The Final Cut, and I got a record I already owned for a birthday or Christmas, so my mom took me to the record store and my choice of Floyd was limited: Atom Heart Mother on cassette tape, with a tiny grainy picture of a cow in a little square on the front. I liked the songs and not the instrumentals as much, but I never fast forwarded through them, and not just because I didn't want to damage the tape. "Atom Heart Mother" can be weirdly compelling, mind-blowing, even.


The 1994 remaster, the version included in the Oh By The Way box, sounds damn fine. It may be because I've never given this album the time it deserves on a decent system: I own the old Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs 24k gold remaster, and I may need to try comparing the two releases sometime. I suspect that the '94 reissue sounds better--it sounds like they digitally cleaned up some of the murkiness of the original recording. (Mason notes that there was bleedthrough from the backing track when they recorded the orchestral sections of the title track--a permanent artifact on the original master that's always given "Atom Heart" a certain sludginess that somehow sticks to the rest of the record even when its no longer an issue. The first part--the bleed--is an undeniable fact; the second--the feeling it leaves--is purely subjective, of course.) This raises an issue, doesn't it? What's more important, the way an album was meant to be heard or the way it actually sounded when it was released? There's good arguments either way, I suppose. Discuss, if I haven't lost you eighteen million paragraphs ago.


(Okay, as I write this, I'm impressed. "Fat Old Sun" is up, and I think there's a layer of effects under the song I'd never picked up on before. A church buried beneath the line "Distant bells, new-mown grass smells so sweet" and then playful children's laughter under the next line, "By the river holding hands...." If I'm not hearing things, if that's really there, someone's done a fabulous job cleaning up this record. I've been listening to this album for nearly thirty years and I'm hearing new things. Wow.)



Side One
  • Atom Heart Mother (Mason, Gilmour, Waters, Wright & Geesin)
a) Father's Shout
b) Breast Milky
c) Mother Fore
d) Funky Dung
e) Mind Your Throats Please
f) Remergence

Side Two
  • If (Waters)
  • Summer '68 (Wright)
  • Fat Old Sun (Gilmour)
  • Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast (Waters, Mason, Gilmour & Wright)
a) Rise And Shine
b) Sunny Side Up
c) Morning Glory

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