DARK SIDE OF THE VALLEY

When you think about the world-straddling colossus they became in the latter half of the 70s, it is easy to forget that Pink Floyd started life as just one spray of colour in the kaleidoscope of Swinging London.

Like many bands of the 60s, Pink Floyd embraced side projects and commissions. After all, it was all about getting your music out there any way you could. So we had Floyd’s contribution to David Hockney’s Tonight Let’s All Make Love In London (1968), an entire album for Barbet Schroeder’s 1969 road odyssey More, and incidental music for the underground US film Zabriskie Point (1970).

Having form with film work, it was far from remarkable that when Alejandro Jodorowsky was planning his epic (and doomed) film translation of Dune, he approached Pink Floyd1 to be one of the bands featured in the movie2. Nor would the band have been surprised when Barbet Schroeder made contact again to offer them the soundtrack gig for his new search-for-meaning film La Vallée. ‘It’s a trip, dudes’, he might have said. A bored French ambassador’s wife joins some hippies searching the wilds of New Guinea for the Valley of the Gods—an empty place on the maps labelled only ‘obscured by clouds’—along the way encountering the terrifying fecundity of the untamed tropical jungle and the utter otherness of the indigenous people.

Floyd said ‘Yes’. After all, they’d done all right with the More LP.

Pink Floyd La Vallee LP

Cover design by Hipgnosis

Meddle had been released in November 1971. Since then the band had toured, were already putting in studio hours for their next album3, and were engrossed in planning their own film, Pink Floyd at Pompeii. As a result, there was a feeling of urgency in getting the La Vallée music done. Recording was in France, Schroeder’s homeland, at the famous Honky Chateau outside Paris.

Although it has been described as ‘rushed’, that doesn’t come through in the music. Sure, it is a stripped back sound with fairly basic production values, yet the result is not thin or second-rate, but instead a marvellous snapshot of Floyd the rock band, getting down and playing. Nick Mason was certainly not dismissive of the album. ‘I thought it was a sensational LP, actually,’ he said4. I have no argument with that.

La Vallee CD booklet

A sustained opening note, mysterious, unsettling, under and over which a pulsing beat and synthesiser surge enters. Then Gilmour’s guitar cuts in, piercing the drone like a machete through jungle foliage. It rocks, sometimes bursting with procreative energy, sometimes screaming like a knife on rock. ‘Obscured by clouds’ flows neatly into the equally rocky ‘When you’re in’ —a powerful opening pair of instrumentals.

‘Burning bridges’ (Wright/Waters) has a floaty, airy ambience providing a breath of fresh air after the slightly oppressive opening. Floyd’s eternal immersion in mid-paced rock beats needs relief now and then and this song does it beautifully; ‘Burning bridges’ could easily have been on Meddle or an out-take from Dark Side. Then we’re rockin’ out again with the Gilmour/Waters ‘The gold it’s in the…’, sung by Dave and featuring a terrific straight-ahead guitar solo.

Acoustic guitar underpins the oddly titled ballad ‘Wot’s… uh the deal’, which has a haunting Gilmour vocal and Rick Wright on acoustic piano; a slice of Gilmour slide leads into the final verses. It’s a fine song, resurrected by Gilmour on his 2006 solo tour.

Side one concludes with another instrumental, the gentle ‘Mudmen’ with electric piano and organ evoking pre-dawn mists which the guitar pierces with blinding newly-risen stabs of light. Softened by synthesiser textures from Wright’s VCS3, the guitar lines contrast powerfully, making this a very satisfying piece.

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The second side opens with ‘Childhood’s end’, whose pattering drums strongly evoke the opening of ‘Time’, recorded not long after. This is a classic Floyd piece, written and sung by Gilmour, and was played live at the time.

“The memories of a man in his old age are the deeds of a man in his prime”

Special mention must be made of the next song, ‘Free four’ (a take-off of the traditional rock count-in ‘1, 2, 3, 4…’). This Waters spot has deeply nihilistic lyrics set to a jaunty tune of utter incongruity. In the words we have death, meaninglessness, rock tour ennui and early expressions of the themes that would totally overtake Waters writing over the next decade.

But you are the angel of death

And I’m the dead man’s son

He was buried like a mole in a fox hole

And everyone’s still on the run

And who is the master of foxhounds

And who says the hunt has begun

And who calls the tune in the courtroom

And who beats the funeral drum

Ageing, fleeing (life), death ☞ Dark Side Of The Moon

Soldier Father lost to war ☞ The Final Cut

Courtroom judgements/sentencing ☞ The Wall

A blueprint in a verse-and-a-half.

Lyrics aside, the song builds momentum until it is rocking like a Hades nightclub, which may have been why it received quite a bit of airplay in the US, assisting the album into the Billboard Top 505.

‘Stay’, a Wright/Waters co-write, is pleasant if a bit forgettable. Nice to hear Richard singing though, and Gilmour’s wah-wah guitar solo is excellent. The album closes with the instrumental ‘Absolutely curtains’. Correction. None of the band members sing, but the piece does cut to a chant by the Mapuga people, the isolated New Guinean tribe the travellers encounter deep in the highland jungle and whose impact on the journey is profound. This is the most atmospheric piece on the album and a fitting conclusion: evocative and enigmatic just like the ending of the film.

Obscured By Clouds works very well indeed as a stand-alone album and is, in this Floyd fan’s assessment, a seriously under-rated title in their catalogue. Both it and the film are worthy of further investigation.

Pink Floyd La Vallee CD

1. They agreed, but that’s another story.

2. Another was Magma, but that’s another story too.

3. Guess which one? Hint: It was a giant leap for Pink Floyd.

4. Nicholas Schaffner (1991) Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey, Sidgwick and Jackson, London, p.156.

5. In France Obscured By Clouds reached #1.

Sound sources: 2016 vinyl remaster / 1995 digital remaster. Original album released July 6 1972.

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LIGHTS UP

So that’s the end of the inaugural Film [Soundtrack] Festival. Eight bloggers covered more than thirty films over the two weeks. Amazing!

But as we sweep up the spilled popcorn and dump the drink containers into the recycling bin, it would be really good to hear from the ticket buying public.

Readers and writers are warmly invited to go to the Film [Soundtrack] Festival page and leave comments, suggestions and any other feedback. Would love to hear from you.

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17 comments

  1. Floyd’s a group I don’t appreciate as much as I feel I ought to – but your descriptions here, particularly of that side one closer, sound like this one would appeal.
    This member of the ticket buying public quite enjoyed the (potentially first annual?) film fest!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, Bruce. The kinda post that makes me want to listen to a band and album. Sadly I don’t own this album. Nor do I dig the band that much. One of those ‘I should like them more than I do’ types. This is early Floyd, though… the nice technicolor bonkers, stuff?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. More rock than psychedelic, this one. But worth checking out, certainly.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, Bruce…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. i bought the LP in my teen age. i had a rite: back from school (1:30pm), lunch, then a 90 minutes TDK tape: A side, The Dark Side Of The Moon. B side, A Trick Of The Tail. then the afternoon could properly begin, eheh.
    i like this Floyd’s work. part of the 60’s-70’s legacy. a 20-year-span that has given us the best and most nurturing juice of the century (it took the spirit of the early 30 years of the 900 to a sort of fulfillment). 🙂

    Like

  4. Nice description of an undervalued album, I have found my appreciation of the more fringe Floyd has grown. It’s almost as if there are three bands in there, the Syd years, the searching years and then the mega band.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’ve always liked this one too, the time constraints served them well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point – being on the run and not having too much time meant they didn’t eclipse their rock band roots, leaving us and them satisfied.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I see what you did there with the while us and them thing, More Bruce.

        Like

  6. I am ashamed to admit I only recently snagged myself copies of Meddle, Obscured By Clouds, Atom Heart Mother and Dark Side Of The Moon. I know, I know. I’ll get there!

    This is a fantastic post. Fan. Tas. Tic.! Someday, when I grow up, I will write this well. Great job!

    Like

    1. Aw shucks, I’m blushing. Thanks Aaron.

      With your Floyd acquisitions, that’s a lot of Pink to process. If I could be so bold, I’d suggest chronological order: Atom, Meddle, Obscured, Dark Side.

      I love ’em all. Haven’t written on Meddle (yet), but did a piece on Atom Heart Mother.

      Like

  7. Love that album a lot, one of the few PF albums I still revisit very often.
    And even though is one of their lesser known, it is actually very accessible compared to most of the albums they have done.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is a more rock orientated album, which might help those put off either by increasing use of synthesisers or by the early psychedelic jams.
      Thanks for your comments.

      Like

  8. I loved all this early Floyd. Good stuff Bruce. This is the PF stuff I cut my teeth on. You’ve set up my listening for the weekend. (Throw some Davis in for good measure)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounding g o o o o o d!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. […] any real coherency but a curious ‘of its time’ disc. Then the more confident, sophisticated Obscured By Clouds, music written for Barbet Schroeder’s La Vallée (an exotically nihilistic journey into early […]

    Like

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