By Dave Thompson
“Atom Heart Mother” was Pink Floyd’s first masterpiece.
Actually, that’s not strictly true. Their debut album, “Piper At The Gates Of Dawn,” three years earlier, is generally regarded as the peak of the early (pre-“Dark Side of the Moon”) band’s efforts.
But that work was also by a different band.
Helmed by the late Syd Barrett, and reliant on his whimsical genius for songs, the Floyd that dominated the psychedelic scene of 1967 was very different to that which drove underground in succeeding years. Once Barrett departed the group lost itself within the intricacies of improvisation and jamming.
Albums like “A Saucerful Of Secrets,” the soundtrack “More” and the sprawling, half-live “Ummagumma” all caught the band in states of metamorphosis, learning their way through members’ own developing capabilities. “Atom Heart Mother,” its first side devoured by a single musical piece and its second spread across four more conventional songs, was the first album on which those capabilities rose above the musicians’ uncertainty and inexperience. It presents a vista that any future Floyd fan would recognize.
Drummer Nick Mason certainly thought so. “We have never trod a particular path, but simply zigzagged our way about,” he said at the time. “For example, we are probably best known at present for our electronic effects, but in a few months you will probably be hearing an entirely different side to the group.” “Atom Heart Mother,” he declared, was “the beginning of an end.” It was, he confessed, still some way from the perfection that the Floyd strived for and with which they would soon become synonymous. “The LP could have been technically better, but the effect is there and that’s very important,” he said.
The first indication that Pink Floyd’s next album would be an epic came on June 27, 1970, three months before the LP released, when the band headlined the Bath Festival in Shepton Mallet. Fully backed with choir and orchestra, “Atom Heart Mother” was the centerpiece of their performance. The few who witnessed it were nothing less than blown away.
Three weeks later, on July 18, Pink Floyd repeated the exercise at the Garden Party free concert in London’s Hyde Park, on the same bill featuring Kevin Ayers, the Edgar Broughton Band and the Third Ear Band. All of these groups shared Floyd’s Blackhill management company. Ayers’ performance that afternoon has recently been released on CD.
Just like at Bath, Pink Floyd’s set stuck to material that the audience was already familiar with – “The Embryo,” Green is The Colour,” “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” “Set The Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” Then Roger Waters stepped to the microphone to introduce “The Atomic Heart Mother” – a brass ensemble and choir appeared alongside the band on stage and, for the next twenty-five minutes, one of London’s most beautiful parks was held enraptured.
“The piece began with an arrangement for the brass and then switched into a lengthy choir pattern,” explained “Disc & Music Echo’s” review the following week. “Followed by a dash of marvelous Floyd rock-jazz. In came the brass again, pursued by incantations from the choir and swirling special effects in twin-channel stereo. A reprise took up the original theme and group, choir and orchestra projected it together in fine combination.”
The following day, another performance of the majestic leviathan was broadcast on the BBC, from a recording made earlier in the week for DJ John Peel’s “Sunday Concert” show. It wasn’t until September before the band could again marshal sufficient resources to perform the full and renamed “Atom Heart Mother” in concert again. On September 12, the band appeared before an estimated half a million people at an open-air event in Paris, titled the Fete de l’Humanité.
On the road in the United States in the weeks leading up to the album’s release, “Atom Heart Mother” became a familiar and often dynamic presence in Pink Floyd’s live show, although the presence of the choir in the touring party did provoke some bizarre reactions from band and audience alike. At the old Fillmore West in San Francisco, the group decided to forgo their usual encore and send the choir out instead, to perform “Ave Maria.”
Their efforts were greeted with boos and cries of “we want Floyd” from the crowd and, while Rolling Stone did leap to the band’s defense (“If [people] don’t understand what Pink Floyd’s music is all about, it’s a bit puzzling why they spent $3 to come to see them”), one can also sympathize with the bemused masses. If you go to see a band, and reward its effort with an encore, you really don’t expect somebody else to appear on stage instead and perform music that has nothing to do with the main attraction. Pink Floyd obviously saw their point as well and didn’t make the same move again.
From the US, the tour moved across to Europe, for dates that carried the band through the end of 1970. The album was out now, topping the charts in the UK and elsewhere across the continent, and another song from the set, “Fat Old Sun,” had moved into the show. It would be December, however, before the full “Atom Heart Mother” presentation hit the road, with a UK tour that opened with what stands as one of the most unconventional pieces of music in the band’s entire repertoire, “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast.” The song is, essentially, the sound of one of the band’s roadies, the eponymous Alan Stiles, preparing his breakfast. In concert, he would even fry egg and bacon on stage, to add scent to the sense of occasion.
For all its invention, “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast” is the one track on “Atom Heart Mother” that really didn’t take off. The album version was recorded in “a fantastic rush,” which Roger Waters regretted later. It was largely built around sound effects, although Waters furiously denied that.
“I’ve always felt that the differentiation between a sound effect and music is all a load of shit,” he snapped. “Whether you make music on a guitar or a water tap is irrelevant.”
But Richard Wright admitted that “it didn’t work at all … quite honestly, it’s a bad number.” David Gilmour described it as “the most thrown-together thing we’ve ever done.”
Elsewhere, of course, “Atom Heart Mother” sizzled. “If,” a folk-like song composed by Waters, would return him to his live repertoire in the 1980s, an indication of just how much the lyric (a masterpiece of self-examination and even criticism) meant to him; Wright’s “Summer ‘68” was another of the beautiful melodies that the keyboard player was so adept at creating (and the band, sadly, was so skilled at understating); and the sweet nostalgia of “Fat Old Sun” was Gilmour’s unintentional homage to the Kinks – when the similarities between his song and Ray Davies’ “Lazy Old Sun” were pointed out to him, he simply laughed “one sometimes gets the feeling about something that maybe one pinched it from someone… [but] they’ve never sued me.”
Yet these gems were overwhelmed by the majesty of the title piece. For many people, their first exposure to “Atom Heart Mother” came from the LP’s distinctive cover portrait of a cow. Storm Thorgerson of Hypgnosis art studios snapped the image after hearing artist John Blake rave about a cow-motif wallpaper Andy Warhol produced.
The impression was reinforced by the subtitles appended to the movements within “Atom Heart Mother” itself, “Breast Milky” and “Funky Dung” included. One can see the piece as a precursor of Floyd’s later “Animals” album in which sheep, pigs and dogs cavort with the brown-eyed ladies of the meadow.
In truth, however, there is little to connect the dots. “Atom Heart Mother” was, is and will always be, a piece of music unlike any other in Floyd’s catalog.
The piece developed from a chord sequence Gilmour called “Theme From An Imaginary Western” (a title Jack Bruce had already used on his “Songs For A Tailor” LP). Intrigued, Waters and Wright set about adding further themes and variations to the concept. Both worked hard to keep the cinematic feel of Gilmour’s original piece. “We sat and played with it, jigged it around, added bits and took bits away, farted around with it in all sorts of places for ages,” Gilmour reflected, “until we got some shape to it.”
That shape was something they titled “The Amazing Pudding” and, as early as January 1970, they were confident to try it out on a stage in France. It was already the longest single piece of music they had yet attempted. It soon became the most ambitious as well, as the band reacted to the recent orchestral peregrinations of Deep Purple and the like. Avant-garde musician Ron Geesin was brought in to develop “The Amazing Pudding” into something truly amazing. He and Waters had already worked together in the past, on a project titled “The Body;” an experience successful enough to convince the band that Geesin would produce something no other rock band could envisage. Their instincts were correct.