Thursday, February 25, 2010

Atom Heart Mother (song)

Atom Heart Mother 23:36
     (written by Mason, Gilmour, Waters, Wright, Geesin)

(a) Father's Shout 2:52 (0:00)
Instrumental

The piece begins quietly, then Ron Geesin's 'stuttering' brass leads into the main theme of the Atom Heart Mother Suite. The erratic brass melodies return, before surging into the main theme once again. Because many CD versions of this album do not divide the Suite into its titled parts, the time in parentheses indicates the approximate position of the CD timer at the beginning of each section (there is occasionally some overlap).

(b) Breast Milky 2:32 (2:52)
Instrumental

Breast Milky begins as a duet for organ and viola, and slowly brings in guitar and other instruments.

(c) Mother Fore 4:46 (5:24)
Instrumental with vocal arrangement
Vocals: John Alldis Choir

Mother Fore begins with another Geesin-created duet, this time between Rick's organ and a member of the choir. The piece then becomes choir-dominated as everyone joins in.

(d) Funky Dung 5:14 (10:10)
Lyrics:
Coffee, yeah
Vocals: John Alldis Choir

Roger's funky, rhythmic bass introduces this section, dominated in the first part by the four Floyds only (especially Dave's guitar), and later bringing in the Choir (at 13.20) to sing strange nonsense syllables, as well as a few recognizable words. The piece then returns to the main theme.

(e) Mind Your Throats Please 2:35 (15:24)
Lyrics:
Here is a loud announcement.

A bizarre, effects-laden section reminiscent of Revolution 9. The title may have been inspired by some of Roger's work with Ron Geesin on The Body soundtrack.

(f) Remergence 5:37 (17:59)
Lyrics:
Silence in the studio!

In this section, many various bits of the previous sections 'remerge' only to be born away again on the tide of eddying musical ideas. The sounds of Mind Your Throats Please continue in the background, while snatches of Breast Milky, Father's Shout, and Funky Dung are heard overlaid on each other before the main theme reappears triumphantly once again. This is followed by an extended recap of Breast Milky, a little heavier this time, before the main theme returns for the final time.

The longest unbroken Pink Floyd track (but only by about five seconds), Atom Heart Mother Suite had a complex development and recording history. Work on the piece probably began in November or December of 1969. It was at this time that Dave wrote the main theme of the Suite.

Dave Gilmour: "That whole main theme came out of a little chord sequence I had written, which I called 'Theme from an Imaginary Western' at the time. It sounded like 'The Magnificent Seven' to me."

When Roger heard Dave play the chord sequence, he was immediately captivated by its "heroic, plodding quality," which reminded him of "horses silhouetted against the sunset" as in a "very heavy movie score." So the band decided to build an extended piece around that theme. Ideas were thrown about by various people, until four or five distinct parts had developed, connected by the main theme.

Dave Gilmour: "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, until we got some shape to it."

It was at this point, in late January 1970, that the piece began to be played live as a work-in-progress under the title The Amazing Pudding. Probably around late February or early March, the band began recording. More ideas were added, including a reprise of all the sections in the finale (Remergence). Recording finished in late April, but the band realized that as it stood now, the piece lacked something, another dimension to make it more interesting. It was decided that it was necessary to bring in someone else, preferably someone with an extensive musical background, to create the sweeping, grandiose effect they wanted by overdubbing other instruments on top of the existing track. They decided on Ron Geesin, with whom Roger had just done the music for the film The Body (his first endeavor apart from the Floyd), and who was also friends with Nick.

Nick Mason: "I was introduced to him by Sam James Cutler, one of the few good things Sam Cutler ever did — no, that's not true. He was a Scotsman practicing in Ladbroke Grove and then Roger met him and did The Body with him. Then when we started [on AHM] it was agreed that it wanted orchestration and Ron got the gig. Had we got a rough?"

Roger Waters: "Yes, I think so. We'd got a lot of backing track, which we gave him so he knew vaguely what we were into."

Nick's comment on Sam Cutler was an obscure reference to the fact that Cutler was the one who hired the Hell's Angels as bouncers for an infamous Stones concert at Altamont, where a fan was killed.

Ron Geesin commented on why he was brought in.

Ron Geesin: "They were pretty exhausted at that time due to getting famous and being pushed. Steve O'Rourke was a heavy pusher. They just needed some other kind of input — another thinking being in there."

The band worked with Geesin for a short time before leaving for an American tour in May. Rather frustrated at this point by the unwieldy and complex piece, they preferred to just hand over the whole project to Ron and let him do something with it. Roger and Ron commented on the contribution from the band to Geesin's work.

Roger Waters: "Rick worked with him on the pieces for the people to sing and he wrote the introduction completely out of his Scottish head. The other things we had vague melodies that he worked on. That was about all."

Ron Geesin: "Rick Wright looked over the choir section with me for maybe half a day, and Dave Gilmour suggested a riff for one part. Roger couldn't read music and just kind of accepted that this bloke Geesin was getting on with it. There was no great creative input from them."

During most of May, Geesin worked on his score for orchestra and choir. He sat down with the basic tracks which were already recorded — bass, keyboards, guitar, drums, and sound effects — and wrote music which could be dubbed over the already existing material.

Ron Geesin: "Given that their cards were set, the actual tunes and the harmonies were entirely mine. That again is part of my crafts area — having an existing concept, and having to fit and yet get something over. I always felt that the one thing the Floyd lacked was a real sense of melody, in those long pieces drifting along with the odd spiky bit here and there. But that's why we worked so well, because I was giving them melodies and tunes."

After completing the score, Ron took on the task of conducting the ensemble of session musicians hired by EMI to record his music. Unfortunately, exactly what instruments were used is unknown. However, it is certain that there was a complete brass section, including trumpets, trombones, and a tuba. There was also a cello and some other strings, plus a twenty voice choir, directed by John Alldis. Realizing too late that he should have hired the session musicians himself, Ron had difficulties in getting his ensemble to play exactly what he wanted.

Ron Geesin: "There were problems with tempos because of the way they laid down the original tracks. There were variations between sections that weren't due to any progression, just to an accident — dropping back in tempo when it really should have increased a bit, maybe; or it would be better to have a sudden change rather than a very slight change. But these were the things we were stuck with, because they had recorded this slab of backing tracks, with all their usual — the long organ chords, the droning bass lines, the flowing guitar. So it was a problem, when it came to actually recording the live musicians on top of the prerecorded tracks, to get the tempo right. It's normal anyway for classical musicians to have problems with the beat. Classical beat sense and rock beat sense are quite different."

Some of the musicians, not used to Ron's unique and eccentric musical style, became uncooperative. Geesin described the brass players in particular as "hard, uncaring types who certainly weren't going to tolerate anyone green or naive. Brass musicians, I've discovered, are the hardest and most belligerent of all; they've been shit upon so much by prima donnas that they've formed this crust that's covered up their gentle, helping core of being. One horn player was particularly awkward — making little remarks, and asking questions he knew the answers to."

Finally having got the musicians in line, Ron settled down to the near-insurmountable task of getting down on tape the music that he wanted.

Ron Geesin: "The first thing that happened was that what I wrote for that very strange stuttery introduction was actually meant to be far more stuttery, but to play it at the speed I'd written proved pretty well impossible for those players. They had to regularize that stutter, to become a syncopation they could understand."

Making the situation more complicated, it was June by this time and the band had arrived back from their tour, and wanted to be involved in what was going on.

Ron Geesin: "Then, when it came to the funky section, which has the choir in it, I'd reckoned that beat number one was in a certain place, and had written the whole section calibrating the inflections from there. It turned out that from Nicky's point of view, beat number one was one beat off that — and he insisted that everything I'd written for the section had to be moved one beat. So that whole part has all my writing one beat away from where it should have been. I should have just rubbed out the bar lines and moved them one beat up, but I wasn't clever enough."

Geesin finally reached a point where the stress of such a huge project became too much.

Ron Geesin: "Having written this thing, I'd had a very heavy year, and was definitely pretty shattered. I couldn't cope any more. I dare say the group in the box were tearing their hair out, thinking, 'Christ, is this bloke going to get through this? My God, what have we taken on?'"

The upshot of this was that John Alldis, the choir director, took over as conductor of the ensemble. In retrospect, Ron believed that the benefits of this change "might have been outweighed by the rather puddingy quality of the beat from then on, because John Alldis was a classical choir person, and was definitely not into hot rhythms. The brass were all plonking along just a nudge behind the beat all the time. As a jazz appreciator, I would tend to phrase slightly ahead of the beat — that's the essence of hot. So the whole execution was kind of puddingy — a Scottish word, that."

However, everything finally got recorded, and the project probably finished around the beginning of July. The final result, which elegantly interweaves the existing instrumentation with the overlaid music, creating beautifully executed artificial duets between Pink Floyd and the sessioners, is truly a tribute to Ron Geesin's skill, ingenuity, and musical brilliance. Reportedly, after hearing the final playback, Ron said, "Okay, that's a good demo. We've had a good practice. Can we do it for real now?"

There are some sections of the piece where there are no Geesin overdubs, and the band distinguishes itself with some interesting playing (such as Funky Dung and Mind Your Throats Please). Though it certainly wasn't perfect, the final product was saved from its fate as an interminably dull pseudo-classic and became quite nice and listenable.

At the time the group was supposed to perform the piece for John Peel's 'Sunday Concert' radio show,
they still hadn't thought of a title.

Dave Gilmour: "...we did it for the John Peel Programme and had to hurriedly think of something to call it, so we got out an evening paper [at Ron Geesin's suggestion], and there was a story about a woman having a baby who had this thing put in her heart. Upon seeing the headline Atom Heart Mother, Roger said, 'That's a nice name. We'll call it that.'"

Nick Mason: "It came from a newspaper headline about a pregnant woman who had been kept alive with anatomic heart pacemaker. There is a connection between the cows and the title if you want to think of the earth mother, the heart of the earth."

Rick Wright: "We often pick titles which have nothing to do with the songs. The name is just a way of marking it. We could have called our songs Number One, Number Two, and Number Three, except words are more interesting, and — like Careful with that Axe, Eugene — can create a nice sort of image."

Possibly to avoid having to put 'Pink Floyd and Ron Geesin,' and partially to emphasize the brilliant cover by Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis, the band decided to leave their name and the album's title off the front of the LP, a decision which did not please Geesin.

Ron: "My wife, Frankie, was pretty incensed that my name was missing from the acknowledgments. My conscious self was saying, 'I'm not concerned about having glory on a record sleeve; I'm concerned about having done a piece of work.' But it would have done me some good if they had given me the credit. I believe they were a bit embarrassed about not being able to see the thing through themselves, and so they weren't up to crediting properly who had done the work. But that is a minor rip-off [compared] to what goes on in the business. And I am on one-fifth royalty for that side."

After the album's release, reaction varied from one extreme to another, both from the band and the public.

Dave Gilmour: "It's funny, Leonard Bernstein came to one of our American concerts and he was bored stiff by Atom Heart Mother [Suite] but he liked the rest."

Nick Mason: "Atom Heart Mother [Suite] is just a piece of music — there really isn't a very strong theme; it's very sectionized and a mood runs through it — it's not the story of the Bible to music or anything!"

Dave Gilmour: "The trouble was, we recorded the group first and put the brass and the choir on afterwards. Now I think I'd do the whole thing in one take. I feel that some of the rhythms and some of the syncopations aren't quite right."

Nick Mason: "[It was] a specific exercise... it wasn't entirely successful, but I think some people were frightened we were going to stick with a choir and orchestra... it was just something that seemed like a good idea at the time. We'd all like to do it again. We'd all like to re-record it. It wasn't entirely successful but it was extremely educational."

Years later, when they were far more focused on more traditional rock 'n' roll, both Dave and Roger would be very critical of the Suite.

Dave Gilmour: "[It was] a load of rubbish, to be honest with you. We were at a real down point. We didn't know what on earth we were doing or trying to do at that time, none of us. We were really out there. I think we were scraping the barrel a bit at that period."

And Roger has stated that he wouldn't object if the piece were "thrown into the dustbin and never listened to by anyone ever again."

However, at the time, the piece was highly thought of enough to allow Pink Floyd to be the first contemporary band to perform at the prestigious Festival de Musique Classique in Montreux, Switzerland in September, 1971. Furthermore, it was important in that it was a significant step in development for the band. As Nick commented at one point, they couldn't have recorded Echoes, a high point of their career, without having done Atom Heart Mother first. And next time, they wouldn't overextend themselves with orchestration, but would create a great piece from their own ingenuity, without relying on outside assistance.





TRACK LISTING
Atom Heart Mother
If
Summer '68
Fat Old Sun
Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast

2 comments:

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