THE AMAZING PUDDING

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…

Atom Heart Cassette

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.

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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.

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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.

Strategically positioned floating cow obscures name graffiti and evokes Animals floating pig. What a smartypants.

Strategically positioned floating cow obscures name graffiti, evokes Animals’ floating pig and signifies Waters separation. What an insufferable smartypants.

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

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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.

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“There was a woman who had had heart surgery and had an atomic pacemaker fitted on her heart, and she was a mother” [David Gilmour reveals the magic, Mojo #96]

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.

 *

SOURCES

[1] Mojo: The Music Magazine, #6, May 1994

[2] Mojo: The Music Magazine, #96, November 2001

[3] Schaffner, Nicholas [1991] Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Story. Sidgwick & Jackson, London

Thanks, Michael. Hope your pastures are green.

Thanks, Michael. Hope your pastures are green.

22 comments

  1. Sorry this is longer than normal VC posts, but I found it difficult to edit down.

    Would love to hear from anyone who treasures the album as I do.

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  2. It’s awesome that you bonded so strongly with this album, giving it a special meaning! The whole process Floyd used to create, name, and visually brand it is so DADA- an art form that isn’t usually emotionally evocative. But that’s the magic of VINYL, isn’t it? (A cassette can serve the same purpose for what we’re discussing here). Listening to it and puzzling out it’s oddities in my darkened room made me feel so cutting edge and experimental. Anybody could recognize Dark Side Of The Moon for the masterpiece it was, but the beauty in their early work was a special gift for the patient listener. The path less traveled, that led me to Soft Machine, Holgar Czukay/CAN, and Pere Ubu.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Right on the money, Earl. I like ‘puzzling out it’s oddities’.
      And totally agree about following the less travelled paths. Pushing through the undergrowth of unfamiliarity until reaching some sort of clearing. A place where Soft Machine, Can and others are justly celebrated and cherished.

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  3. Daddydinorawk · · Reply

    A la Atom Heart itself, eh? No seriously what they were doing with AHM live in ’70/’71 is truly a Mother load (yeah I did that) for the Floyd fanatic.

    You don’t get to the Dark Side without going thru Mother and some Echoes to get your Eclipse on.

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    1. Quite so.
      With you on the live material. Space precluded working in further comment on Floyd bootlegs. After posting this piece I put on a DVD called “Reach for a Peach” which was recorded live in France in 1970. The AHM is fascinating; sort of like the backing track for the album version.
      Thanks for joining in the conversation.

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  4. thepiratehorizon · · Reply

    i always dodge reading or taking into consideration the later statements of the authors about their earlier works. they’re strangers to those works now. personal feelings have meddled in the meantime, personal relations with the other members of the group have rotted, the years have gone and have left debris.

    but to a listener who used to love and be inspired by such a thing as AHMother there’s nothing of the kind. it’s an absolute moment ruined by anything. it’s fresh, immediate, as if it was really a mother tongue to speak: impossible not to connect.

    i’ve got the vinyl and i still enjoy its psychedelic and sarcastic take, carnally, almost – to my wife’s dismay. she hates it 😉

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    1. Wonderful response, P. Delighted you connected with the personal strand of the piece.
      If the LP is with you, dare we hope for one of your album portraits?

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      1. thepiratehorizon · · Reply

        as soon as i unpack the vinyls in the new flat i’m moving to

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  5. I avoided full exposure to AHM in the early 70’s because I wanted to avoid friends who used LSD. (Looking back, perhaps it was an unconscious yet strategic application of cowardice).
    Anyway, listening now, I recall having heard most parts of the album, at one time or another. I quite like it. You certainly got your $2 worth – and so did we, thanks.

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    1. Strategic cowardice is an under-appreciated attribute.
      Glad the price of admission was rewarded.

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  6. This was the first Floyd album I heard and liked! I’ve since bought other Floyd albums but I never got round to buying this for whatever reason. I’m going to have to get it now.

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  7. Much as I loved the cover I’ve somehow never bought this LP, it’s the only Floyd one I don’t own up until I lost interest after ‘Momentary Lapse’, so I can’t really comment on the music.

    Really, really enjoyed reading this, as usual. Good on you and Michael!

    (P.S – Hmm, placing objects on LP covers … that could just work – quick, to the time machine!)

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    1. Atom Heart Mother has sort of fallen off the Floyd catalogue (in no small part because the creators don’t like it). Another one I like that’s rarely mentioned these days is Obscured By Clouds.

      (PS. What are those little plastic blocks and figures that kids play with? You should try those.)

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      1. I like OBC, they plundered it for ideas later on too. I did briefly think that Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast was the coolest thing in the world when a mate of mine put it on a compilation tape for me.

        It is the ultimate cow LP cover, I’m with Mr Hipgnosis on that one, just like KLF ‘Chill OUt’ is the ultimate sheep LP cover.

        (Nah – that stuff’s just for kids, it’s make me look a right idiot – my blog is serious art)

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  8. I love the melodic songs on Side Two, not so much the title suite. I have the sleeve displayed in my music room, and my 89-year-old mother saw it and asked “Why is that cow looking at me?” Maybe because she was looking at him?? 🙂

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    1. Well those bovine eyes do follow you around the room, don’t they?!

      You are certainly not alone finding the second side easier to access than the more experimental suite on side one.

      And now, I hear, we have a new Pink Floyd album to anticipate in October.

      Like

  9. […] How lovely to have that often over-looked 1970 album pointed out, albeit very subtly. (More on AHM here). Then the ‘Allons-y’ theme makes a return appearance before we segue into ‘Talkin’ […]

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  10. […] What it means is anybody’s guess, though it is certainly no more enigmatic than the Pink Floyd cow from the previous year. The contents, meanwhile, are refreshingly direct: sturdy early 70s British […]

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  11. […] up we have “Summer 68”, a nostalgic song from Atom Heart Mother in its original setting, but here a bouncy reggae almost-instrumental that sounds like it was […]

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  12. The Boys weren’t going for top 40 radio with this one. (Bruce have you heard Waters and Geesin’s soundtrack ‘Music From the Body’? Same time frame)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘The Body’ is a strange, but intriguing album, that’s for sure. Not sure I’d want mine to sound like that!

      Liked by 1 person

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