David Gilmour reflected that Atom Heart Mother, Pink Floyd’s first album of the 70s, was “us blundering about in the dark” [1, p.92].
Keyboard player Rick Wright does not remember it fondly. “Looking back it wasn’t so good” [2, p.82].
For his part, Roger Waters would prefer the suite be “thrown into the dustbin and never listened to by anyone ever again.” [3, p. 144]
“The actual tunes and the harmonies were entirely mine,” said Ron Geesin, composer, performer and sound architect (according to his web-site) [3, p.142]. “I am on a one-fifth royalty for that side.” [ibid. p.146]
To a young man stretched out on the bedroom floor of a nondescript brick house in suburban Melbourne it was a revelation.
Taking the cassette from its cow cover and reading the strange titles became a nightly ritual; there was so much to hear and so much of it was strange. Brass, space guitar, a choir, the sound of eggs frying…
When I started Vinyl Connection and thought about some of the albums I’d like to write about, Atom Heart Mother was high on the list. But I swore that I’d wait until I had it on vinyl; mainly because of the cow. So when I found it for $2 in an Opportunity Shop last week – a UK pressing, excellent condition, once the property of Michael who owned a permanent marker – it was a happy day indeed. Not because the album is a five-star classic (it is not) nor because it was the Floyd’s first #1 album (in the UK), but because it was special to me and a significant marker in the development of the world’s most successful progressive band.
Back in that suburban bedroom, the first striking thing was the length. The title suite was some 24 minutes long while on Side Two the three songs and sound collage totalled over 27 minutes. That’s over three minutes of tape hiss at the end of the first side! Lying in the dark, even that gently undulating white noise seemed cosmic.
The “Atom Heart Mother” suite was the first really long rock composition I’d ever listened to. The piece ebbed and flowed with melodies that visited briefly only to reappear later and a range of sound textures that seemed incredibly rich and strange. And the contrast with the utter ordinariness of the cover picture twisted my mind.
Even though I never worked out where the divisions were between the sections, that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of those strange and evocative titles which seemed to have some foggy connection to me. “Father’s Shout”. Well, my Father certainly did that. “Breast Milky”; that’s a bit saucy. Unless it refers to the Friesian on the cover which is not very sexy at all. “Mind Your Throats Please” always conjured that moment late in the suite where the voice booms though a small speaker, “Silence in the studio!”. Don’t know why, it just did. And finally, “Remergence”. Did they mean re-emergence? I’d have to emerge once for that to be possible. What does remerge mean? To merge again? Not easy if you haven’t yet differentiated at all. But somehow all this wondering and bafflement was captured in the grandeur and pretty meanderings of “Atom Heart Mother”. It’s also grandiose, flawed and sometimes (to use Geesin’s word) puddingy. But I loved it then and I love it now.
In terms of Floyd’s development as a band, there had been a distinct lack of focus and cohesion since the first album and the departure of Syd Barrett. A Saucerful of Secrets was transitional as Gilmour integrated into the outfit while Syd disintegrated. More was an enjoyable hotchpotch soundtrack while Ummagumma was an early example of the ‘live album as stop-gap’ ploy with a second disc of largely unremarkable solo efforts (excepting Waters’ sublime “Grantchester Meadows” of course). Atom Heart Mother was a genuine attempt at an extended experimental work and although there is nothing particularly innovative or confronting about it in compositional terms, it was (and is) quite unique. Significantly, it also pointed the way towards the more confident cohesive extended work “Echoes” on the next album.
On Side Two we have a song each by Waters, Wright and Gilmour. Dave’s “Fat Old Sun” is a pleasant acoustic ballad with a mellifluous closing electric guitar solo that strives to evoke the pastoral beauty of “Grantchester Meadows” but falls some way short. That didn’t stop them playing it live, however, with performances from 1970-71 regularly stretching this slight song out to fifteen or even twenty minutes. Rick Wright’s “Summer ‘68” starts off with gentle piano accompaniment before a psychedelic chorus kicks in aided by brass à la “Penny Lane”. It’s OK enough, though the lyrics suggest of a self-centred pop star used to and using a steady supply of willing women for vacuous encounters then complaining about it.
Pick of the bunch is again Roger’s song. “If” is gentle, yearning, and a little disturbing. It is an early example of Waters fascination with madness and alienation. Perhaps that’s why it washed over and through to me with such tender rage.
If I were alone I would cry
And if I were with you I’d be home and dry
And if I go insane
Will you still let me join in with the game
The tears remained welded inside then, and there was certainly no “you”, but… but… Can you be alienated, disconnected, perhaps a little bit mad, and still be a good man?
If I were a good man
I’d understand the spaces between friends
Atom Heart Mother closes with the group sound collage “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast”, thirteen minutes of kettles, piano figures, frying pans, guitar doodles, tea, organ and eggs frying on the stove. There is something comforting about this everyday domestic scene presented with all the panoramic audio one’s imagination can provide. Roger Water’s commented thus:
I’ve always felt that the differentiation between a sound effect and music is all a load of shit. Whether you make a sound on a guitar or a watertap is irrelevant.” [3, p. 147]
Thanks for the musicological insight, Roger.
The packaging was absolutely striking. No type at all. A cow in a field. This from London’s (if not the world’s) premier psychedelic band?
Storm Thorgerson of LP design wizards Hipgnosis talked to the band about what they wanted for their new release. Words thrown around included “un-psychedelic”, “off the wall”, and “un-Floyd like” (whatever that meant in 1970). So Storm, seeking ordinariness, went for a drive in Essex looking for a cow to photograph. A successful quest resulted in – to use Thorgerson’s words – “the ultimate picture of a cow; it’s just totally COW” [ibid, p. 145]. The band played along by adding the vaguely bovine titles to the suite later.
Nor was there anything profound about the title. The story goes that having started life as “The Amazing Pudding” before transmuting to the less exotic but more descriptive “Epic”, the side one suite was still in search of a name. A newspaper article provided the springboard for a bit of word juggling and voila! Atom Heart Mother.
I suspect that if you don’t already have a place in your heart for Atom Heart Mother its charm may not be easily accessed these days. But for me it’s a special album in its symphonic aspirations and in its lesson that, eventually, we all have to remerge with the cosmic pudding.
 Mojo: The Music Magazine, #6, May 1994
 Mojo: The Music Magazine, #96, November 2001
 Schaffner, Nicholas  Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Story. Sidgwick & Jackson, London