Some things to consider if you’re coming to this new:
It’s December 1969. Pink Floyd are now an ‘albums band’, but I don’t think it’s at all clear what that means. As the idea of ‘rock bands’ took hold during the 1960s, a method for being successful emerged – you pumped out singles, catchy 3 minute songs which you hoped would get you airplay and into the charts, then collected all your best songs and put out an album to capitalise on those who wanted to own everything you did, as well as those few slightly older fans who didn’t really buy singles. By the mid sixties, the rock album was becoming a thing; you didn’t have to put all the singles on it (‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘Penny Lane’ aren’t on ‘Sergeant Pepper’, for example), and you could do some more interesting things than just churn out a dozen three-minute songs.
But by and large, bands who wanted to make money and be successful still put out singles every few weeks to keep the fan base engaged, to keep their name in the news (so to speak; pop music didn’t appear on the news unless someone was being arrested for something), and to keep the money coming in.
Having decided not to do that any more, Floyd were confronted with the fact that not only did they no longer have a chief songwriter and lead singer, but that they really didn’t know what they wanted to be. The live shows were still popular – this is the era of ‘happenings’, and Pink Floyd shows included psychedelic light shows, carpentry and cups of tea – but how did you get people to buy albums if there were no singles to get the music on the radio, and no other way to make direct contact with your fans?
The first disk of ‘Ummagumma’ is one answer to that – the live shows were the stuff of legend; the curious could now hear some of that for themselves.
To explain the second disk, however, I’m going to have to talk about Musique Concrete and progressive rock.
There was a mindset among certain musicians at the end of the sixties that everything was getting a bit stale. Guitar bands were ten-a-penny, and there seemed (Hendrix notwithstanding) to be a limit to what you could do with a guitar anyway. Keyboards offered one way out of the impasse – the development of keyboard technology around this time deserves a book of its own, but we were moving from electric organs, via the Hammond organ and Leslie speaker combo, the Mellotron and Farfisa organ, to the early experiments of Bob Moog and the emergence of the synthesiser. Keyboard music was where it was at if you wanted to sound different, but even that wasn’t enough for some people, Rick Wright and Roger Waters among them.
‘Rock & roll’ comes directly from the blues; I don’t think that’s a particularly controversial point of view. Some of those playing rock music at the end of the sixties asked themselves – what if it didn’t? What if it came from European folk traditions; what if it came from classical music? Classical composers at the time – from Messiaen to Boulez, and particularly Stockhausen, were doing things which far outstripped the ‘experimental’ end of rock music – this, for instance, is ten years old at this point:
(Don’t feel you have to listen to it all!)
Why, the question goes, can’t rock music do that, too? Why can’t rock music borrow from the avant garde ideas of musique concrete, where sound is manipulated and distorted by use of magnetic tape into things which can’t be produced by conventional instruments?
Rick and Roger, in particular, thought it was worth a try. In trying, they helped develop a movement which quickly became known as ‘progressive’ rock music – not beholden to the blues particularly; not tied to conventional song structures, and free to experiment in all kinds of directions. King Crimson are generally thought to have given first clear expression to this idea with ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’, which came out a couple of months before Ummagumma, but this is right up there in terms of sparking musicians to go off and do strange, unfathomable, album length things just because they can
(At this point, I’ll freely admit that I’ve overlooked the contribution of The Nice; maybe I’ll come back to them some day.)
OK, what else?
It’s a double album – a relatively new idea (I think ‘Blonde on Blonde’ was the first, only three years before); if you’ve never bought anything on vinyl, I can’t begin to explain how exciting the idea of a double album was – plus, the record company could charge more, and everyone made more money. Having the four live tracks lead things off was undoubtedly a key selling point, bearing in mind the lack of singles.
It’s the only record which features what we think of as the ‘classic’ Pink Floyd playing live. The live shows were the stuff of rock legend, yet, at a time when the double live album was the absolute high water mark for most bands, Pink Floyd never again visited the idea. ‘Live at Pompeii’ will come up in a couple of albums’ time – but it, of course, isn’t an album, and doesn’t in any case feature a live audience.
The second disk, in case it’s not clear, features each of the four members in turn showing what they can do. Some are, as we’ll see, more keen on this idea than others.
While they were pulling this together (and during the time when ‘More’ was being recorded), Gilmour and Waters were helping Syd record ‘The Madcap Laughs’; if you’re missing Sid’s contributions, or have simply never heard his solo stuff, it’s all here:
In many ways, Syd is still part of Pink Floyd, although the first track of ‘Ummagumma’ is his last concrete contribution to the band. Gilmour – possibly out of a strong sense of guilt – made sure that Syd continued to get his royalties from the early stuff, even at the times when Syd didn’t appear to want anything to do with it.
The title? Years ago, I was told it was pronounced ‘Oommagooma’, but I can’t give you any reliable source for that.
(I looked it up; apparently Nick Mason says ‘Oommagoomma’, so let’s go with that, shall we?)
There’s a bit here about Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis, but on reflection, I’ll leave that for the next one.
So, is it any good?
The live album is brilliant – it’s no coincidence that the band playing this music regularly honed it into a muscular, involving soundscape – it’s evocative and entertaining, and worth the admission price on its own, I think.
Lots of people are going to hate the studio side, and I completely understand why, but I love it. Not in a “I think I feel like some Pink Floyd; let’s put on ‘Ummagumma’ ” kind of way; more in a “I feel like something experimental and strange” kind of way.
In the context of what I’ve talked about up there, the first side makes perfect sense – Sysyphus channels Stockhausen; you can tell that Wright has studied composition, and is perfectly serious about being in a rock band which is blending into classical. Waters gives us both sides of his musical personality; the twiddly English pastoral stuff, and the full-on, let’s make music without any instruments stuff. ‘Pict’ had achieved legendary status for me before I ever heard it simply because of its name; it doesn’t disappoint.
The second side is less involving, mainly because I get the clear sense that Gilmour thinks this is all a bit daft, and why can’t they just play some rock music?, and because Nick Mason, lovely bloke though he is, isn’t a great drummer, and has no real interest in showing off his limitations, so they both just noodle about for a bit until there’s enough music to fill twenty minutes of vinyl. There are interesting parts, but nothing essential.
The flute bits by Mason’s wife are decent, and there are glimpses of what Gilmour’s mature writing style will be, but overall I’d rather be listening to properly experimental things than either of those.
But I still love it; there is much better to come, but if they had ended here, you’d forever want to know what this band might have developed into.