Oh By The Way: Ummagumma

>> Monday, March 03, 2008

Up the road from the house where my family lived when I was in junior high and high school, there was a little record store in a struggling, tiny strip mall where you could still get vinyl. The keen thing, naturally, was that you could get vinyl within walking distance. I don't even remember the name of it, though I do remember walking in one day and they had this big bin of suspiciously-cheap used records that I assume were stolen. Those were the waning days of the record store, back in the mid-'80s. Sure, there are still record stores, hell, there are still stores that sell vinyl. But they're a dying breed. We tend to think of the dinosaurs all dying in an instant, pfft and they were gone, but the truth is that there probably were diminishing generations of the big beasts, wandering around dazed as the world changed, maybe even wondering what the hell had happened.

My first copy of Ummagumma, two vinyl platters in a heavy cardboard gatefold sleeve, wasn't one of those possibly-stolen records, but it came from that little record store up the road. Schoolkids' Records? Neighborhood Records? Anyway, I bought it before I had a car, when I was in junior high or maybe possibly even the first year of high school, walking up the road and back with this treasure. I used to feel guilty about blowing my money even though I had a job, a thing I only got over within the past ten years or so, and I probably snuck the record into the house. In retrospect, that maybe only made it more special.

Ummagumma was the kind of record that produces vinyl fetishists. No, not those vinyl fetishists, I mean the kind that loves the way the light catches the grooves in a 12" record, threading the spindle through the center hole and the hiss of the silence before the music starts right after the needle begins careening its death-spiral through the craggy valley of joyous noise. It's not a great record as music, it could have been a better record at two-thirds the length if you want to be brutally honest, but it's a great record as an object. Two platters of mystery and delight and a cover that manages a zenlike mix of simplicity and the complex, a cover that you just can't appreciate the same way when it's 5½" square instead of the 12½" x 12½" that an album cover ought to be.

The front cover of Ummagumma is a classic Storm Thorgerson brain fuck: a band photo containing a slightly-different photo of the same scene hung on the wall, in which there's a slightly-different version of the same scene, in which there's hung a slightly... a Russian doll of an image, if you will. The back cover depicts the band's stage gear circa 1969 elaborately set out next to the band's engineers, Alan Styles (who would eventually get a psychedelic breakfast) and Peter Watts (whose little girl, a year old at the time, would be in the moving pictures someday).

In 1969, Pink Floyd were still figuring out who they were. More had been a crossing point, a line of demarcation of sorts, but nothing is as easy as writing that makes it sound. I think they probably knew a line had been crossed, but not what was on the other side of it. I say that because there's a story, a reasonable claim made, that part of Ummagumma was supposed to be valedictory.

That was the first half. Ummagumma is a double album. The first half is a live record, the band's first live record and the last one they would release until 1988. The second half, the directionless half that almost breaks the record, was a sort of precedent for those four solo albums Kiss would put out almost a decade later: four solo chunks, each featuring one member of the band working more-or-less on his own.

The first half, the live half, was recorded on two evenings, April 27 and May 2 of 1969, at Mothers, a club in Birmingham, and at the Manchester College Of Commerce. Those were the kinds of venue the Floyd was playing in those pre-arena-filling days, though Nick Mason has said that playing Mothers was a little bit of a big deal. It's been said that it was the band's intent to retire the songs on the live album, but they all continued to be a staple of the band's live shows for many years after. Regardless, the live cuts on the first album are the definitive official releases of these songs--although it's easy to knock the recording quality of the live set (it's not great, and there are better-sounding bootlegs in circulation), the studio versions of "Astronomy Domine," "Careful With That Axe, Eugene," "Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun" and "A Saucerful Of Secrets" can't hold a candle to these four.

"Careful With That Axe, Eugene" in particular is a cut that smolders then erupts live. A sinister organ builds over light percussion until the band explodes into a fury of screams and crashing guitars. "Careful" would appear in almost every show the band did until Dark Side Of The Moon was released, and even popped up once again during the band's 1977 tour (in Oakland, California--with a Dick Parry sax lead, no less). The band would also make several attempts to record it in the studio, including a lackluster version that showed up on Relics and a much-better version retitled "Come In Number 51, Your Time Is Up" for Michelangelo Antonioni's 1970 film Zabriskie Point.

But the real surprise in the live set may be the live version of "A Saucerful Of Secrets." The studio version was an assembly done at least partly to fill up twelve minutes, and featured a voice choir. The live version is a four-part structured jam of a creation myth that descends into chaos and emerges on the other side with David Gilmour brokenly wailing the vocal part written for a tepid choir like a storm-god trying to lash the universe together by force of will. If I had to put together a Floyd ten-best-moments list, I think that's one. Maybe even a top five.

But the other half of Ummagumma, the studio half? Each band member took half a side, and each member was supposed to record his section alone, but two members cheated (a little).

Richard Wright put in a piece called "Sysyphus" (parts 1-4) that's a bit turgid and pompous, lacking the kind of jazzy flair Wright put into almost everything else he ever wrote. It's not terrible, but it's not good, either.

Roger Waters, who had written much of More and would ultimately write all of the band's lyrics and eventually much of their music (and who therefore hardly needed a showcase) contributed two cuts. The first, "Grantchester Meadows," is a lovely bit of folk-rock that would become a live staple of the band's shows. I don't mean to take anything away from Waters when I say the live versions are better: "Meadows" is a beautiful song, and the full band versions give it a lushness it deserves. If you can find a bootleg called Pink Pigs Over Fillmore West, it opens with a gorgeous rendition, Waters and Gilmour trading verses and Wright providing harmonies, a good example of what made Floyd a great band back in the day.

Waters' other contribution (get ready for a helluva title), "Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict," is a bit of a goof. The title is more or less literal: the piece consists of a good bit of chirping, whistling and howling (much of it achieved by playing with tape speeds) culminating in what appears to be a Scotsman raving about... well, nobody has ever understood much of what he's wailing about. If you want to start a flamewar for kicks, go to a Pink Floyd forum and claim some outlandish translation of the Pict's monologue from "Several Species." (Incidentally, Waters is one of the two cheaters here: "Several Species" features a small boost from Ron Geesin, who would go on to co-write the "Atom Heart Mother" suite with the Floyd.)

The high point of the solos album is David Gilmour's "The Narrow Way," a three-part piece that's a fairly minor contribution to the Floyd canon, but that at least has the benefit of sounding like the Floyd. Enough like the Floyd, indeed, that "Way" joined Waters' "Grantchester Meadows" as one of the pieces that joined the Floyd's setlist in various incarnations. Apparently Gilmour recorded the whole damn thing himself, too, which is notable in that "Way" is the only piece on the studio platter to feature a whole band's worth of instrument--guitar, drums, bass and keyboards. Gilmour supposedly asked Waters for help with the lyrics and Waters turned him down (not the point of the exercise, I suppose); the lyrics are mostly indecipherable on the record (even on the remastered CD). (Somewhat amusingly, the 1994 CD reissue includes the lyrics from every other song on the album. For those of us who eagerly thumbed through the booklet hoping to finally have an answer to the question, "What the fuck is going on in 'The Narrow Way'?"; nope. Denied.)

Nick Mason was the other cheater. But why not. He's a drummer, for crying out loud. He hits things with sticks and mallets. And he's quite good at that, really, but do you know what a drummer--not a multi-instrumentalist drummer who also plays keys, or a percussionist drummer who has various African and South American instruments to thwack and thump, we're talking about an old-school, English rock'n'roll drummer--do you know what he has to contribute to his solitaire section of an album? That's right. Drums. So Nick got his wife at the time, Lindy, to play a little flute on "The Grand Vizier's Garden Party," a three-part opus that is only a little better than the title suggests. I don't want to be mean to Nick. Nick Mason has always come across as a very good egg. And there are times that I actually sort of, I don't know if "enjoy" is the right word--times I don't quite mind "Garden Party" and even appreciate it in a "Hey, what a neat-sounding kettledrum" kind of way.

Who am I kidding? It really isn't very good. To his credit, even Mason knows it.

And there it is, Ummagumma.

Alright, you caught me. I didn't even bother with the only part you probably care about. Okay, nobody seems to know how to pronounce it. "Oo-ma-goo-ma" or "uh-ma-gum-ah" or even "uh-mag-you-mah." I'm not sure I've heard the band members pronounce it consistently, tho' they don't generally talk about the record enough to be helpful on the score--they liked the idea of the album when they started on it, and apparently didn't care too much for the result when they were finished, which I suppose I understand. I've usually said "uh-ma-guh-ma," and that's what I'm going to stick with, thank you very much. As to what an ummagumma is, word is that it was slang for a sex act. Possibly oral, or maybe just sex in general. I'm not sure how you get laid saying things like, "Hey, baby, can I have some ummagumma" or "Let's ummagumma," or "I heard you got ummagumma from that smelly chick in the flower skirt in the back of Wes' van," but it was 1969 when this album was made, and I was two years from being conceived. So what do I know about it? (I have no idea if ummagumma was involved, and my parents didn't start listening to Pink Floyd until some years later, so I'm reasonably certain Ummagumma wasn't involved, either.) Anyway, the title was one of those dirty inside-jokes, supposedly. If it was even a word. It's possible the band made it up while they were stoned and had to tell a journalist something, so they made it all up.

Live Album recorded at Mothers, Birmingham
and Manchester College Of Commerce
Side One
  • Astronomy Domine (Barrett)
  • Careful With That Axe, Eugene (Waters, Wright, Mason, Gilmour)
Side Two
  • Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun (Waters)
  • A Saucerful Of Secrets (Waters, Wright, Mason, Gilmour)

Studio Album
Side Three
Featuring Richard Wright:
  • Sysyphus (Wright)
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

Featuring Roger Waters:

  • Grantchester Meadows (Waters)
  • Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict (Waters)
Side Four
Featuring David Gilmour:
  • The Narrow Way (Gilmour)
Parts I, II & III

Featuring Nick Mason:

  • The Grand Vizier's Garden Party
Part I - Entrance
Part II - Entertainment
Part III - Exit


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