Tuesday, 8 February 2011

atom heart mother

When I compiled some of my musical memories last month, I deliberately left out Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, from the 1970 album of the same name, which has been my favourite music track since I first heard it in 1971 (having spent 1970 in the Australian outback, where the opportunities for keeping up to date with the contemporary music scene were severely limited). It was the longest continuous piece ever recorded by Pink Floyd, and it featured a brass ensemble, a choir and a wide range of sound effects to augment the band’s performance.

Actually, it is possible to argue that it was the band that augmented the brass and choir, and there is no doubt that the band was not particularly impressed with the result:
Atom Heart Mother is a good case, I think, for being thrown into the dustbin and never listened to by anyone ever again! It was pretty kind of pompous….
Bass guitarist Roger Waters, speaking in 1985.
Atom Heart Mother was a good idea, but it was dreadful. I listened to that album recently: God, it’s shit, possibly our lowest point artistically.
Lead guitarist David Gilmour, speaking in 2001.
The album was not well received by the critics at the time, which is a good reason for attempting to escape responsibility for its creation. Pink Floyd were never to attempt anything quite so grandiose again. However, although the tracks on the second side of the album cannot be ranked among the band’s finest work, the title track, which occupies the whole of side one, deserves a better reputation.

Unlike similar attempts at the time to fuse rock with more ‘serious’ elements, such as Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra, in which the orchestral contributions almost seemed irrelevant, Atom Heart Mother is a fully integrated suite of six ‘movements’. The way the band, the brass and the choir complement each other throughout the piece marks it out as much the more successful of the two.

The first movement opens with a long, droning chord on a Hammond organ that grows slowly in intensity. Then the brass section comes in with a series of short competing fanfares, rasping trumpets on the one side, blaring trombones on the other. Finally, the conflict is resolved: there is one last fanfare before the drums and bass join in for the first appearance of the anthemic main theme. This feel-good melody is suddenly interrupted by a return of the argumentative brass, and everything else falls silent, to be replaced by intermittent background sound effects: first, a whinnying horse, then several explosions, a rocket taking off, and a train rushing through a tunnel. But as a motorcycle roars off into the distance, discipline, and the main theme, is restored.

The main theme segues seamlessly into the second movement, which opens with a series of bass and organ arpeggios while a cello reprises the main theme. The accompaniment increases in tempo, and the drums come in; the cello is replaced by a slide guitar, and for the first time there is some limited embellishment and improvisation around the main theme. As the movement builds to a climax, the organ is replaced by a piano echoing the main theme, and the brass section lays down an understated backing.

The second movement ends suddenly, to be replaced by a slow, dramatic organ riff and the first entry of the choir. But there are no words, merely voices, soaring sopranos at first, then the contraltos provide a counterpoint, the organ reworking the main theme as the voices intermingle. Slowly, the tenors arrive, and the tone immediately becomes more menacing. Finally, the bass voices trigger a sense of urgency and, after a short crescendo, in come the drums, mostly tom-toms with the occasional cymbal, to bring whatever primitive ritual was being enacted to a resounding climax before petering out and leaving quietly.

The fourth movement is the most obviously rock-oriented of the six. It begins with a conventional guitar solo backed by staccato organ, bass and drums. Suddenly, the mood changes. The choir is back, and this time there are words. But it is a language that you cannot understand, although you feel that you should. An exotic ceremony is taking place. It builds to a climax that reintroduces the main theme, again played by the brass, which leads into a sequeway identical to that closing the first movement.

However, the following movement is a shock: relentlessly discordant, pulsating electronic noise that changes key erratically and builds remorselessly, through a background of yet more noise, although it could be voices, to the most stunning climax in the entire piece. This is scary stuff if you’ve recently ingested mescalin or LSD, which I did more than once in 1971 and 1972. Just before the end, a disembodied, distorted voice declares “Here is an important announcement”, a steam train rushes by, and the entire nightmare comes to a sudden, juddering, explosive halt.

Immediately, there are signs of a reawakening: optimistic tinkling notes, played by striking the strings of a piano with tiny hammers, a few tentative brass riffs. But they all appear to be out of phase. Sections of the brass try to establish the main theme amid competing riffs, and gradually the fragments come together. After a couple of false starts, the disembodied voice announces “Silence in the studio”, and the brass launches enthusiastically into the main theme, driven on by pounding drums. There are short repeats of the cello and slide guitar solos, this time with brass accompaniment. Finally, the choir provides ethereal background harmonies as the main theme builds towards its final crescendo.

And my personal memory? In 1971, I joined the staff of Eskdale Outward Bound School as a temporary instructor. The mainstay of Outward Bound in those days was the 26-day ‘standard’ course. The daily routine on such courses included an assembly at 9 o’clock each morning (unless everyone was out on expedition). The format of the assembly was simple: the warden made any announcements that were required, then an instructor gave an ‘inspirational’ reading and led a short prayer.

On my second course, I was asked to perform the second and third parts of the ceremony. I decided to interpret ‘reading’ in the widest possible sense. I rigged up my two large speakers to a recently acquired stereo cassette deck containing a tape that had already been cued to the start of the final movement beforehand. Before pressing the ‘start’ button, I explained to the capacity audience that the music symbolized the symbiosis between different levels of consciousness (I’d recently been reading Timothy Leary’s The Politics of Ecstasy). I sat down and started the music. The warden didn’t look too impressed, but he said nothing.

After what seemed like a lot more than the six minutes that the final movement actually takes to play, the music stopped and I stopped the tape. The reaction was so far beyond my expectations as to be halfway to the outer reaches of the solar system. All 108 students (all male, all between the ages of 16 and 20) stood and gave me a standing ovation. Even the warden admitted that he’d ‘appreciated’ it, and he appeared not to notice that I skipped the prayer. Several students sought me out during the day to tell me that I’d made them think.

This may have been the single most personally uplifting experience in my entire life. If you’ve heard Atom Heart Mother and still agree with Waters and Gilmour, all I can say is that it is your loss. If you haven’t heard it, then ignore Waters and Gilmour and give it a listen. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

8 comments:

  1. I get the feeling this isn't really your scene, but I passed along the "Versatile Blogger" award to you. You can see my post about it here:

    http://philenotfound.blogspot.com/2011/02/unstoppable-spread-of-awards.html

    Just figured I'd tell you about it, anyway.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Nanoinfinity. You're right. Not my scene, but I do appreciate that you thought of me.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Which of the following albums reached No 1 in the UK charts?
    1) Atom Heart Mother
    2) Dark Side of the Moon

    Surprisingly the answer is 1)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I’m not surprised Keith, but then I already knew the answer.

      Delete
  4. Atom Heart Mother is my second favorite Pink Floyd song. First one is Echoes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You have good taste Hubert. Echoes is a must-listen if you’ve never heard Pink Floyd before.

      Delete
  5. Sorry to Dig this Pos out of the grave , but what is your opinion on the live renditions of AHM without the Brass and Choir? I'm a massive Floyd geek and i looove these versions, mainly because of the section where Gilmour is doing he sopran singing by himself. It's so damn amtospheric.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Apologies for the delay in replying, but I get so few comments nowadays that I sometimes forget to check. I’m not familiar with any live versions of Atom Heart Mother, but I’m more than happy with the studio version, as you might guess.

      Delete

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