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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.