Pink Floyd - Ummagumma
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There is something close to a critical consensus regarding Pink Floyd’s problematic 1969 double LP Ummagumma (a British euphemism for the old in-out, in-out). Ask anyone who knows the Pink Floyd lore, and they’ll tell you: the live album is akin to seeing God, while the studio album is something lower than shit. It’s such a widely held opinion as to have become almost fact, an indisputable truth about the world and the way it works. But I’m here to attempt to reverse this trend, to salvage the reputation of one of the most misunderstood and unfairly overlooked records in the already misunderstood Pink Floyd catalogue.
Of course, there is no denying that Ummagumma was something of a stop-gap release. When it came out at the end of 1969, the band had been struggling through a rough year following the enforced departure of founding singer and guitarist Syd Barrett and his replacement by David Gilmour. The first post-Syd albums, A Saucerful of Secrets and the soundtrack More, were sporadically interesting experiments for the shaken Floyd: tentative steps towards finding a voice apart from their former leader. Ummagumma, with its rough sketches and studio fuckery, clearly fits in this same category, but its charms are far greater than either of its predecessors.
As has already been alluded to, the album was split into a studio portion and a live portion. The live disc is canonical -- it’s still the only officially available document of the early Floyd monster in concert, and it deserves every florid word that’s been dedicated to its brilliance. The version of the oft-mentioned, rarely heard b-side “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” contained here is the definitive one, unfolding slowly with a meandering ambient intro that lulls one into a false sense of security before the adrenaline rush of Roger Waters’ blood-curdling screams. If this wasn’t enough, the band tears into equally weighty takes of the early classics “Astronomy Domine,” “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” and “A Saucerful of Secrets,” all of them blowing gaping holes through the paler studio versions. So much has already been said about this disc, and these songs, that there’s not much else I can add; as a visceral document of the early Floyd’s proclivity for atmospheric, energetic jamming, there’s nothing else like it.
It’s not the live disc that concerns me, though -- those four performances have already received their fair dues from the critical community. The studio disc, on the other hand, has been either entirely ignored or totally ripped apart, perhaps without giving much attention to the context of the album’s recording and its importance in relation to everything the band did afterward. Ummagumma’s studio disc is the most democratic album in the entire Pink Floyd catalogue. Before Roger Waters grasped full control over the band’s direction in order to exorcise the demons of his childhood, the Floyd was wandering, admittedly aimlessly, through some very strange terrain.
It was during this key time when the possibilities were endless, when the band could have proceeded in literally any direction, that they unsurprisingly produced their most scattershot work. They had just lost their leader, previously the sole source of the group’s vision, and they were groping around in unexplored areas for a new direction. This is the album where all of the group’s latent tendencies and eclectic interests are, for once, not suppressed; they let everything hang out, and once you get past the often unbearable pretentiousness of it all, it can be downright captivating. This album captures the sound of a band unafraid to do anything. After this, they would narrow their focus considerably, which of course resulted in a handful of classic records, but also points towards the possible paths untaken by the band.
For the studio album, each member of Floyd recorded a set of compositions completely on their own, apparently without any limitations. To give you an idea of just how desperate for direction the band must have been to attempt this project, drummer Nick Mason has not written a composition on his own for a Pink Floyd album ever again, and keyboardist Rick Wright’s songwriting contributions since this album have been nearly as slight. But in 1969, a separation of the songwriting duties probably seemed like a worthy experiment, a brief detour that might generate ideas and spark some renewed creativity for the floundering band.
Whether or not Ummagumma actually accomplished this or not is debatable, although the band did go on to record three solid albums immediately afterwards before being catapulted to massive success with Dark Side of the Moon. At the very least, the innovations this experiment sparked probably led to the similarly split (but more cohesive) Atom Heart Mother, which contained two experimental group compositions and one song each by Waters, Wright, and Gilmour. In any case, regardless of the place of Ummagumma within the historical context, the album itself is certainly a curiosity worthy of further dissection.
The record begins with Rick Wright’s contribution, a four-part suite entitled “Sysyphus.” Composed entirely for synthesizers and pianos with the odd sound effect, this suite shifts through a wide variety of moods in a relatively short time. Wright was clearly toying with ideas of classical composition, and mostly coming up lacking, but he does generate some interesting textures. Wright was no doubt inspired by Wendy (neé Walter) Carlos’ pioneering recordings of Bach and Brandenburg on the early Moog synthesizer, and in his emphasis on mood and tone he perhaps predicts Carlos’ similarly-minded 1971 score for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Still, Wright’s piece is more notable as a primer in the sounds you can extract from a few keyboards than as an actual composition, though it is remarkably effective at setting the mood, from atonal, claustrophobic crashes to lightly pleasant tinkling. Just a year later, Wright would turn in his finest moment with the upbeat pop psychedelia oddity “Summer ’68,” a far cry from this abstract noodling.
Roger Waters’ contributions to the album, “Grantchester Meadows” and “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving With a Pict,” have been the most widely discussed, probably because they are, respectively, the most accessible and the strangest pieces on the record. The former song is an overlooked gem in the Pink Floyd canon, a delicate, barely-there pop song held aloft by tweeting birdsong and a hushed acoustic guitar melody. Waters’ vocals are unobtrusive, almost whispered, and the song floats on the very edges of consciousness. Later in his career, Waters would use similarly quiet music to create a very tense, unsettling effect; here, it’s simply a beautiful song with no menace whatsoever, hidden or otherwise. Waters’ other contribution is somewhat more atypical, an experiment in which he replicates animal noises over a fast-paced slapping rhythm. This is the song everyone plays as an indication of just how trippy 60s Floyd was, and whoa man, it’ll like totally blow your mind if you’re on acid.
The most innocent moments on Ummagumma are provided by David Gilmour, whose three-part “The Narrow Way” is a meandering guitar composition that finally coheres into a song at the end. Its first part is a pastoral acoustic guitar piece, providing a counterpoint to “Grantchester Meadows.” On the brief second part, Gilmour lays on the distortion with some proto-Sabbath riffs, and the third part emerges from the chaos with some muted vocals and more midtempo guitar. This last part would evolve more fully in concert that year, when the band would adapt this track (and “Grantchester Meadows,” along with a host of reworked earlier material) to a conceptual suite they dubbed The Man & The Journey. This recording, however, makes it clear that Gilmour hadn’t yet blossomed as a songwriter (and he wouldn’t, really, until “Childhood’s End” from Obscured By Clouds) but it’s nice enough anyway.
Nick Mason -- ever the easy target of the group -- set himself up for some more potshots with his hippie drum circle solo, “The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party.” Mason was never a Ginger Baker or John Bonham, and thankfully this intermittently interesting drum solo never approaches the sheer excessive lunacy of a “Toad” or a “Moby Dick,” but that’s about the best that can be said for it. I mean, it’s no coincidence that Mason never wrote a Pink Floyd song on his own after this.
Despite all its weaknesses and inconsistencies, Ummagumma somehow transcends its fractured construction to make a full album-length statement. Not only was it a daring move for the band to release what was essentially their home demos and half-finished solo tapes, but they managed to extract more engaging and worthwhile music out of the project than most of their peers would’ve been able to. Over thirty years later, Ummagumma has aged surprisingly well for an experiment of this nature: its flaws have become more tolerable, and its quirky high points have only become better. Pink Floyd’s earlier album’s may have been more charmingly psychedelic, and their later albums may have been more consistent, but this is one of their most interesting recordings precisely because it sits at the cusp of everything, right when they were doing everything at once. Whether it’s always apparent or not, the genesis of Pink Floyd’s entire future lay in these deceptively simple pieces, which is why this is worth rediscovering.
By: Ed Howard
Published on: 2003-09-01