The soundtrack to a French film entitled La Vallee, 1972’s Obscured By Clouds is notable mainly for the increased influence of David Glimour’s soaring guitar work on the band’s sound. There’s also a left-field hit of sorts from Roger Waters that hints at the sarcasm and cynicism that would dominate his lyrics on future works. As a whole, the album holds up pretty well, even if it was just biding time until the breakthrough album that the band had already begun composing.
10. “Absolutely Curtains”- Keyboard beds that could shift from warm and inviting to foreboding and spooky at the drop of a hat were Rick Wright’s calling card, but he doesn’t really do much new on this closing instrumental that ends with the tribal chants of the Mapuga tribe.
9. “Burning Bridges”- The lyrics are frustratingly vague; maybe they applied to the film in some way but they’re weightless without context. Luckily, Wright’s off-key chord changes (which are revisited on the instrumental “Mudmen”) and Gilmour’s always evocative guitar keep things intriguing.
8. “When You’re In”- This instrumental builds off the opening title track with a full-band jam. It’s muscular if not too memorable.
7. “Stay”- It’s an odd combination of Wright’s sumptuous piano melody and Waters’ lyrical cynicism concerning romance on the run. Gilmour’s wah-wah solo is one for the books though.
6. “The Gold It’s In The…”- It kind of reminds me of “Living After Midnight” by Judas Priest. I’m not sure if that’s what Floyd fans desire, but at least you can say that they handled this grinding rocker capably, especially with Gilmour in rock-god mode on lead guitar.
5. “Mudmen”- This dreamy instrumental certainly comes off like soundtrack music, but the slow-motion pace and Gilmour’s piercing, elegiac guitar work make for a fascinating combination.
4. “Childhood’s End”- Even if Gilmour’s lyrics about the ephemeral status of mankind are nothing new, he conveys them well enough thanks to the gritty energy of the music, his attitude-drenched vocal, and, of course, his stinging guitar solo. Sort of a dry run for later successes like “Welcome To The Machine” and “Young Lust.”
3. “Obscured By Clouds”- They always could create atmosphere with a minimum of elements. Here it’s just synth washes from Wright, Nick Mason’s pattering drums, and Gilmour’s guitar wailing in the distance, and voila! You’ve got an album-opener dripping with moody portent.
2. “Wot’s…Uh The Deal?”- Maybe this ballad with the spell-check-flaunting title is a bit straightforward in terms of structure for such an experimental band, but it’s pulled off with such lovely restraint that it’s hard to complain. Wright and Gilmour stage a gorgeous instrumental duet in the break, and the melody is movingly melancholy. Waters lyrics, sung by Gilmour with typical placidity, muse in contemplative fashion on how the things that seem important to us change each day, so you should be careful what you wish for.
1. “Free Four”- This song is full of elements that shouldn’t work together: jaunty, back-porch acoustic guitar and hand claps, glammed-out bass notes that go on forever, Gilmour’s ferocious electric guitar in the breaks, and Waters’ snide commentary about the road all runners come. Yet the mixture is irresistible, which is why the song was a radio hit, one of several in Floyd’s career that was ironically unrepresentative of the bulk of their body of work.
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After suffering from a bit of a creative funk that dogged them for several years after the departure of Syd Barrett from the band, Pink Floyd found their footing with 1971’s Meddle. Although the album has some mediocre valleys, the stunning peaks, including one of their all-time great instrumentals and a side-long epic, more than compensate. Here is a song-by-song review.
6. “Seamus”- It’s forgivable because the band is clearly having a laugh with this blues parody featuring a surprising tuneful canine. It’s less forgivable when you consider there are only six songs on the album, and one of them is pretty much a throwaway.
5. “A Pillow Of Winds”- With “Dear Prudence” arpeggios and some pretty slide guitar, the framework of this acoustic folk song is pretty enough. But the melody meanders and the lyrics fail to make much of an impact, making this track somewhat forgettable in comparison to some of the wonderful songs all around it.
4. “San Tropez”- This interesting curve ball sounds little like the spacey reputation that Floyd had cultivated over the years. Instead, it’s more like some lost vaudeville track or the theme song to a sitcom. Roger Waters, who wrote the track on his own and takes lead vocals, attempts to enjoy the idyllic titular location in spite of some ambivalence about the opulence of it all (“I’m drinking champagne/Like a good tycoon.”) Nice piano work by Rick Wright at the end as well.
3. “One Of These Days”- Unlike their previous album, Atom Heart Mother, which found the band relying on an orchestra to beef up their sound, Meddle found them creating studio magic out of their own ingenuity and creativity without any outside help. The opening track sets the tone, with the echoing bass, intimidating drums, and sequencer effects all giving way to Nick Mason’s strangulated voice gurgling out the lone lyric (“One of these days, I’m going to cut you into little pieces.”) At that point, the band kicks into overdrive, led by Wright’s keyboard stabs and David Gilmour’s squalling guitar. Absolutely thrilling from start to finish.
2. “Fearless”- It took him a while, but Gilmour’s combination of melodic cleverness and guitar wizardry began to shape Floyd’s sound, especially on this relentlessly ascendant mid-tempo track. That climbing guitar hook and the persistent groove carved out by Mason and Waters’ are perfectly in keeping with Waters’ defiantly triumphant lyrics, which easily outstrip all the doubters in the narrative. This song deserves to be known by more than just Pink Floyd fanatics.
1. “Echoes”- For years, Pink Floyd had been trying out would-be epics like “A Saucerful Of Secrets” and “Atom Heart Mother” with mixed results. On “Echoes,” their songwriting skills and studio craftsmanship finally caught up with their ambition. The eerie ping of Wright’s piano, the way Gilmour’s guitar rises out the murk to dramatic heights, the seagull cries and ghostly winds in the experimental section, it all coheres because the main verse-chorus structure is so stirring. There is always a purpose, a common goal held by all of the disparate musical elements, a goal which is expressed by Waters’ lyrics, which are alternately frustrated at man’s tendency to isolation yet hopeful that the yawning distance can ultimately be breached.
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Pink Floyd entered the 70’s still a bit adrift creatively. Although the soundscapes on 1970’s Atom Heart Mother were as hypnotic as ever, the songs still seemed to be lacking any kind of deeper meaning amidst all the ambiance. So while there are no out-and-out embarrassments on the album, there is also nothing that leaves an impact too far past its time on the speakers. Here is a song-by-song review.
5. “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast”- At the very least, the sounds of roadie Alan Stiles preparing his morning meal provide some sort of unifying element, which is good because the three distinct musical passages bear little relation to each other. What’s worse, that music lacks any kind of bite.
4. “If”- This delicate folk song shows Roger Waters beginning to look inward in his lyrics, evincing the odd combination of empathy and paranoia that would become a hallmark of later work. He was also learning to outflank the limitations in his vocal abilities by connecting to the emotional content of the lyrics. These developments would reap major rewards in subsequent albums, even if the efforts here come off a tad limp.
3. “Summer ’68”- Rick Wright’s solo songwriting efforts were spotty at best, but this one gets by on its ambition, as it neatly changes from a restrained ballad to an impassioned grinder at the drop of a hat. The Beach Boys-inspired vocal effects come off pretty well, and Wright shows a little bit of fire that’s lacking from the efforts of his bandmates elsewhere on the album. A worthy obscurity.
2. “Atom Heart Mother”- This 24-minute would-be epic gets a little too big in spots; the horns and strings are ladled on a bit too thick, betraying the fact that they were done by Floyd collaborator Ron Geesin with little input from the band. It’s too bad, because the band made a big step with the song in terms of having all the musical motifs, from the Spaghetti Western touches to the choral section to the wild sound effects, cohere in time for a stirring conclusion.
1. “Fat Old Sun”- David Gilmour also got caught up a bit in the folk torpor that had enveloped Waters with this song that’s so ethereally languid it threatens to evaporate before our ears. Even if his lyrics lacked focus, his melodic instincts and his singing ability, here displayed via a tender falsetto, were excellent. But the song’s finest ingredient by far is the anguished song-ending guitar solo by Gilmour that brings the other band members to life and hints at the grandeur and glory that was in the offing.
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For the sake of thoroughness and morbid curiosity, any retrospective look at the works of Pink Floyd must include Ummagumma, their 1969 double-album that features two sides of live versions of early classics (which, since we’ve already covered them previously, won’t be included in the rankings here again), and two sides of what are essentially solo studio performances of the group’s four members. These solo efforts are nowhere near on the level of the group’s best, but they revealed the individual musical personalities of the four men well enough, if nothing else. Here is a song-by-song review:
5. “Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict”- You would think it would be difficult to accurately represent that title in song, but Roger Waters accomplishes it. Why anyone would want to listen to it more than once is another story.
4. “Sysyphus”- Naming his composition after the mythological rock-pusher (spelling variation aside) proved to be a fitting move for Rick Wright, because his attempt to meld classical and avant-garde keyboard motifs never quite gets up the hill.
3. “The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party”- The title sounds like it was borrowed from a rejected chapter from The Lord Of The Rings, so there’s that. The cacophonous combination of percussion instruments from Nick Mason dulls a few minutes in, which is problematic for a piece that spans almost nine minutes.
2. “Grantchester Meadows”- Even though it’s accompanied by a set of lyrics, some boilerplate Waters’ musings on a pastoral scene, the music is what does the job here. It’s hypnotic how the birdsong combines with the flatlined melody and Waters’ soft vocals. Nothing too revelatory, but it’s mildly diverting in a sleepy fashion.
1. “Narrow Way”- David Gilmour’s turn at bat is probably the best thing on this bizarre collection (at least the studio side), which is admittedly faint praise. At least “Narrow Way” rises to some Floydian peaks and captures a little bit of the drama that the band would harness in future releases, even if the lyrics don’t have much to say.
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Pink Floyd’s first foray into a full-length soundtrack also served as their third album. 1969’s More was the film, for which the band concocted an interesting blend of spaced-out folk songs, thundering rockers, and their trademark innovative instrumentals. It’s not so much of a step up from the previous year’s A Saucerful Of Secrets as it is a holding pattern, notable for providing David Gilmour with the chance to step forward as the lead vocalist.
13. “A Spanish Piece”- Some deranged flamenco-style guitar and a Spanish accent by David Gilmour that must have been an attempt at comedy. I guess you had to be there.
12. “Party Sequence”- Ah yes, the old bongos-and-penny whistle ploy.
11. “The Nile Song”- Cream and Jimi Hendrix seem to be the main influences here, with the Floyd doing their best power trio impersonation as Rick Wright sits one out. But the song comes off as mere imitation and the dreamy words are out of place within the blunt-force music.
10. “Quicksilver”- To their credit, Floyd pulled off these avant-garde tone poems much better than most of their rock brethren (see The Beatles “Revolution 9” for an example of how not to do it.) That said, I’m not sure that this one brings anything revelatory to the table.
9. “Up The Khyber”- This instrumental is the rare songwriting co-credit for Wright and drummer Nick Mason. The pair concoct a wild, free-form jazz duet that’s has the effect of a frenzied nightmare.
8. “Ibiza Bar”- Just a shade better than “The Nile Song” in terms of showcasing the band’s heavier side. The lyrics are nonsensical, but you can’t really hear them above the crunch of the music, so no sweat.
7. “Dramatic Theme”- Pretty much the same as the “Main Theme,” only a little bit shorter in length.
6. “More Blues”- For a band named after two blues artists, their recorded output contained very few pure forays into the genre. Hendrix again seems to be the benchmark on this track with a stop-and-start rhythm. Good thing Gilmour is one of the few guitarists who can approach that lofty standard.
5. “Cirrus Minor”- The minor-key folk contains some acoustic guitar from Gilmour that isn’t too far off from the work he would do on “Is There Anybody Out There?” many years later. Not much going on lyrically, but the organ work by Rick Wright in the second half of the song song that plays against some dissonant countermelodies in the background is a nice, subtly spooky touch.
4. “Main Theme”- This instrumental picks up steam as it goes along. Once the gong fades into the background, Roger Waters and Mason churn out a moodily insistent rhythm at which Gilmour and Wright poke and tear at random intervals.
3. “Crying Song”- An interesting mood piece that sneaks up on you with its unassuming power. Even though it comes on as a soft folk song, there is something unsettling in it. Maybe it’s Wright’s vibraphone or Gimour’s placid vocals, but the feeling lingers that something wicked is going to break the spell, even though it never does. Nice slide work by Gilmour at the end as well.
2. “Cymbaline”- Little by little, bits of more conventional songcraft were beginning to sneak into the Floyd repertoire, as on this piece, perhaps Waters’ best set of lyrics to this point in the band’s career. He combines symbolically threatening imagery with a few references to the mundane daily life of a rock star. Yet even in a typical verse-chorus structure, the band doesn’t lose its experimental edge thanks to Mason’s echoing bongos and Wright’s sumptuous organ bed.
1. “Green Is The Colour”- Giving the mystery and spookiness a rest for a moment, Floyd goes for straight beauty here and nails it. Gilmour sings in a high, ethereal voice that suits well Waters’ lyrics about an idyllic, sun-dappled beach. In the instrumental run-out, Wright plays soulful piano runs while a tin whistle, played by Nick Mason’s wife-at-the-time Lindy, provides a lovely tinge of nostalgia. Pretty and poignant.
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Just a year after their thrilling debut album seemed to herald a band with a limitless future, Pink Floyd had to deal with replacing their lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist when they decided they could no longer deal with Syd Barrett’s deteriorating condition. David Gilmour took over on guitar and the band soldiered on with 1968’s A Saucerful Of Secrets, which, although understandably disjointed and addled in parts, still includes a few impressive high points on which to build for the future. Here is a song-by-song review.
7. “See-Saw”- No need to pile on here. This Rick Wright original is a clunker. Let’s move on to the more promising stuff.
6. “Let There Be More Light”- The ominous riff that starts the song is promising enough, and the refrains achieve the kind of slow-motion, airborne majesty that would soon become the band’s calling card. Roger Waters’ lyrics seem to be an attempt to ape Barrett’s cosmic musings, but they’re too studied and measured to match the wilder flights of fancy that mark The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.
5. “Remember A Day”- In later years, Wright would look back at his lyric-writing attempts with disdain, but he was maybe a bit too harsh on this one. The sound effects don’t add much here, but there is a quaint nostalgic feel to the words and a catchiness to the main melody that render this track anything but an embarrassment. It’s not ground-breaking, by any means, but it’s subtly evocative.
4. “Corporal Clegg”- Here begins Roger Waters’ career-long assault on the folly of war. Maybe that assault is not as pointed here as it would eventually become, partly because the kazoos play up the black comedy aspect. The music is a bit chunky, but the section where the narrator addresses Mrs. Clegg features some beautiful harmonies, like an early precursor to “Goodbye Blue Sky” from The Wall.
3. “Jugband Blues”- Barrett’s final contribution to a Floyd album begins as sauntering, sing-along folk, only to change shape before our ears into a crazed, Salvation Army stomp. You can cherry-pick several lines here which point to Syd’s mental state, and he leaves us with a conundrum for the ages: “And what exactly is a dream/And what exactly is a joke.”
2. “A Saucerful Of Secrets”- The multi-part title track shows Floyd going off the experimental deep end with clever recording techniques making instruments sound like anything but their normal tone. Waters and Gilmour have both stated in interviews that the piece is meant to be the aural equivalent of a war and its aftermath, but I feel like it’s best appreciated in the spirit of adventurism in which it was concocted without looking for any deeper meaning. For me, the final section with the organs and disembodied voices is the undoubted high point and is quite beautiful. Elton John (“Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”) and Radiohead (“Paranoid Android”) seem to have been listening.
1. “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun”- The Floyd realized early on that the weird effects and aural ephemera worked best when revolving around a solid foundation. In this case, it’s Waters’ mesmeric bass line and Nick Mason’s timpani beat which do the heavy lifting while all kinds of squeaks and squawks scurry to and fro. Waters borrowed some of the lyrics from a book of Chinese poetry; they certainly have a Confucian feel to them. But it’s that title phrase, wondrous and terrifying all at once, that stays with you. You’ll likely need someone to snap their fingers in your face to wake you from the trance caused by this hypnotic high point.
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At the time it was released, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn was an innovative debut release from a young British band called Pink Floyd that created sounds so vivid and colorful that the entire Summer Of Love of 1967, into which the album was released, looked dim by comparison. Time and circumstance has turned it into the musical legacy of Syd Barrett, Floyd’s original frontman, whose drug and mental problems led to his dismissal from the group just a year after his release. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. Pow R. Toc. H-It’s the one instrumental here that gets a bit tiresome after a while. Rick Wright’s piano work in the early part of the song is the highlight, and a nicely moody ambiance is achieved at times, but the musical breakdowns aim for transcendence but come off bizarre.
10. “Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk”- The lone Roger Waters’ solo composition on the opening album achieves a brutal simplicity, at least in the early section, that predates punk rock by a good decade or so. It’s interesting to note that, as he would on future triumphs, Waters prefers a blunt melodic approach, but the difference here is his lyrics don’t pick up the slack.
9. “Flaming”- The pyschedelia here is so overdone that it’s almost feels like a parody. And maybe it was; Barrett certainly was self-referential in his songwriting long before that became all the rage. There is something vaguely threatening in the lyrics, the way Syd’s narrator floats high above those he’s addressing and speaks of touching them should the mood strike him.
8. “Scarecrow”- Even Barrett’s minor songs were never less than fascinating, simple because he had a skewed point of view that other songwriters just didn’t possess. This little character study, distinguished by snake-charmer organ and clicking percussion, has an unforced loveliness to it. It feels a little like an unfinished sketch, which precludes a higher ranking, but it’s still charming.
7. “The Gnome”- Another sweet little song that carries a bit of menace in it, especially when the whispered backing vocals hiss out, “Isn’t it good.” This one has a little bit of John Lennon’s winking wordplay and Paul McCartney’s melodic ease, and a whole lot of the whimsy of Kenneth Grahame (the author of The Wind In The Willows, which inspired the title of the album).
6. “Matilda Mother”- This one would have had a higher ranking were it not for the out-of-left-field instrumental break, which shatters the mesmerizing mood (and sounds just like The Zombies” “Time Of The Season”, which was recorded in Abbey Road studios just a few months after this song), and the jarring edit which takes us back to the main section. Besides that, the contrast between the fairy tale portion sung by Wright and Barrett’s exhortations to the mother in the song to not let the reverie end is wonderfully inventive.
5. “Chapter 24”- Barrett’s fascination with the I Ching apparently inspired the lyrics to this dreamy tune. You don’t need to know any of that to appreciate the beauty in the way the melody soars all around the droning buzz that envelops the song. George Harrison couldn’t have done it any better.
4. “Bike”- Maybe it’s too unsettling for some folks to hear the manic vocals and the clocks-from-hell coda, considering how Barrett’s condition would deteriorate so quickly. That said, there’s something absolutely captivating about the way his synapses fire; it’s really unlike anything that rock music has ever offered before or since. And it’s also a truly unique way to end this album that was ridiculously ahead of its time.
3. “Interstellar Overdrive”- You really can’t go wrong with this or “Astronomy Domine” in terms of spaced-out bliss, but I prefer the latter slightly because it achieves the same effect in a much shorter amount of time. Still, this nine-minute set piece is marvelous, constantly morphing into new shapes, always eluding us when we get it in reach only to sneak up on us again just when we think we’ve lost it.
2. “Astronomy Domine”- First of all, it’s got one of the great titles in all of rock and roll. The instrumental structure is such that the song always seems to be climaxing; indeed it seems like Nic Mason only has toms and cymbals on his drum kit for the track. Some credit also should also go to producer Norman Smith for helping the band realize such an intense sound in the studio. The zombified harmonies of Wright and Barrett utter trippy lyrics that sneak up on you with their darkness (“Stars can frighten.”) It all coalesces into something that’s beautiful and harsh all at once. It’s an insult to the skill and craft on display to say that this music can only be enjoyed on drugs. All you need is a pulse to truly revel in its wonder.
1. “Lucifer Sam”- “That cat’s something I can’t explain” is still pretty much the universal reaction to Syd Barrett; here it’s his way of describing a mysterious Siamese who mesmerizes him. There is none of the whimsy of “The Gnome” here though; just an insistent spy-movie groove that adds something sinister to the feline adventures. The funny thing about The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is that, even though it doesn’t have the conceptual bent that the Waters-led Floyd albums would boast, it’s mostly impossible to listen to songs from Piper without the context of the entire album and still get the full impact. But you can with “Lucifer Sam”, the song where Barrett’s off-kilter storytelling perfectly syncs up with the band’s instrumental ingenuity and provides a glimpse of an alternate history: What Pink Floyd might have been like had Syd somehow managed to not get blown away by that steel breeze.
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My apologies, but I’m running a little late today, so the first Pink Floyd Retro Review will have to wait ’til tomorrow. Twenty demerits for me, but I promise to have my take on The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn tomorrow, if not at dawn, at least before the afternoon is through.
Let’s start with my apologies for taking so long between posts. With the combination of deadlines for my magazine and book writing and the wrap-up of my season at my full-time job, there was simply no time for me to start up a new countdown. I dearly miss this blog when I’m away from it, so it’s good to be back.
Now for the first set of good news. Part of the reason that I’ve been so busy is that I was finishing up my second book for Scarecrow Press. That book, which will count down the Top 100 songs of Bruce Springsteen in the same way that I did with the songs of Bob Dylan in my previous book, should be coming out in the U.S. sometime in the summer of ’14 and in Europe a few months after that.
Unlike the Dylan book, which used large portions of what I originally wrote on this blog, the Springsteen book is pretty much new writing, with the essays that I wrote on this blog for my Springsteen countdown at best offering up a few phrases here and there. I also did some re-ranking to clean up what I thought were some mistakes on my part, so, rest assured Boss enthusiasts, you won’t be having much deja vu should you purchase the book even if you’ve been keeping up with this blog.
That brings me, alas, to the bad news. Even though the differences are vast between the essays in the countdown and essays in the book, even though the rankings are different, and even though the book is about 77,000 words long, which is more than twice as long as what I wrote on the subject in the blog, I still need to take down the countdown from this blog to ensure that people will check the book out. I’m sad about having to do it, but the idea for this blog was always to find readers for my writing so that maybe I could do it for a living, so the book has to be the priority.
But, and now we’re back to the good news, I do have time in my schedule now to start up a new series of Retro Reviews. And this one should be interesting. Starting on Monday, I’ll be going chronologically through the albums of Pink Floyd. It should be intriguing to compare and contrast the different periods, from the Syd Barrett debut album to the mid-70’s peak period to the controversial post-Roger Waters albums. Plus it will be fascinating to pull songs apart from albums that are so conceptually and thematically unified. I’ve been a huge Floyd fan for a long time, and the one thing about them that has always seemed criminally underrated to me is their songwriting skills, so this is my chance to spotlight that.
Any questions or thoughts in the meantime, please let me know. Again, for those of you who read the Dylan book and have a few minutes, I could really use some reviews on the Amazon page to help garner more exposure. Honest reviews, of course, but even a few sentences would help.
Talk to you all on Monday. Looking forward to it.