Pink Floyd - Ummagumma

Pink Floyd

Released 1969 on Harvest
Reviewed by Serotonin, 22/04/2002ce

The other day, I was browsing through the CD section of my university's library. It's mostly classical stuff for the music students to work off, but anyone can borrow CDs. This has introduced me to some nice chunks of Stockhausen, Berg, Xekanis, Messian et al, but there's also a few pop & rock CDs in amongst all the orchestral works, presumably for some popular music module. Sergeant Bloody Pepper is of course present, eternally the musical meritocracy's equivalent of what Jordan is to the Daily Star, alongside better inclusions such as Forever Changes. But it's only yesterday I noticed that Napier University Music Library carries not one, but two copies of the most sprawlingly indulgent, and, for me, most unfairly maligned Pink Floyd album of all: Ummagumma.

Christ on a bike, what kind of music department do we have?

I couldn't resist re-acquainting myself with an old favourite. If Q magazine ever ask me to contribute to their "You Might Think I'm Mad, But..." mini-article, this is unquestionably going to be the bizarre object of affection that I'll expound on.

In the days before I owned a CD player, I used to own Ummagumma on cassette. On the original vinyl and the CD reissue, the first 47-minute disc gives each band member half an album side to indulge their own interests, and the second 40-minute disc offers four live tracks. In order to even out the playing time on each side, the cassette is sequenced studio track, live track, studio track, live track and so on. So it was strange for me to hear the album as it was originally intended...where's the live Astronomy Dominie gone after Sisyphus? etc. But it probably works better the original way, as, in my humble opinion, Ummagumma is a monster masterpiece of one half bizarre, crazed and often quite beautiful studio experiments and one half blindingly kosmiche re-workings of tracks from the band's career thus far. Let me explain why.

The curtain is grandly raised on Ummagumma's studio album with Rick Wright's four-part keyboard extravaganza Sisyphus. An ominous, booming (I'm guessing) mellotron melody and thumping timpanis announce Ummagumma's seamless blend of the breathtakingly sumblime and the completely over-the-top ridiculous. Wright then calms things down for part two, with a nice piano piece that wouldn't be too out of place on The Faust Tapes.

It can already be seen that Ummagumma's studio half is about each member of the Floyd reaching far beyond their grasp for sheer grandiosity and generally grasping it only in gorgeously silly self-indulgence. This is displayed ever more clearly in the cranky, discordant Sisyphus Pt. III, with wild synth lines shrieking over the piano and percussion melange. Part Four is the longest and most texturally varied, displaying Wright beginning to stealthily stake out his corner as the cornerstone of the classic Floydian aural blend. The opening statement returns near the end to round off this laughably brilliant cod-classical "if Spinal Tap were prog" suite.

Roger Waters is next up on display. Now, Rick Wright the keyboard player has just played a keyboard-based piece. On the flip side of this record, David Gilmour the guitarist will offer a guitar-based piece, and Nick Mason the drummer will offer a percussion showcase. Roger Waters the bass player, the forthcoming obstinate bastard and conceptual autocrat of 70s Floyd, plays no bass on his offering, but instead comes up trumps with the most beautiful, fully-realised track on the album, Grantchester Meadows, an idyllic mix of summery acoustic guitar ballad and countryside ambient sound. The song concludes with the comic swatting of a buzzing fly, and Waters then offers an extended coda to the piece in the form of a truly bizarre tape experiment which surely must qualify for the greatest track title of all time (outside of Zappa and Beefheart of course), Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict. Just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?

David Gilmour's track The Narrow Way often comes in for one of the harshest critical bollockings of the entire Floyd canon, not least from Gilmour himself. But I've always liked the different guitar textures he puts on show in each section, from the dreamy acoustic picking of part one to the menacing, proto-One Of These Days shaman dance of part two, to the actual song itself in part three, which features a great instrumental coda.

Then there's Nick Mason's piece The Grand Vizier's Garden Party. Subtitled into "Entrance", "Entertainment" and "Exit", the bookending sections are an identical flute piece, and "Entertainment" is a lengthy percussion piece. It starts off sounding texturally very much like The Organisation's Tone Float album, then gallops into a looping stew of beats and effects.

So that's the solo projects...what about the entire band playing live together on the second disc?

I can't remember which Floyd member it was slated the live half of Ummagumma as weak and "terribly dated", but I beg to differ. It's fucking blinding, from a swooping wah-ed up Astronomy Dominie to a truly homicidal Careful With That Axe Eugene on side one (well, side three overall) to completely intergalactic skullfuck versions of Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun and A Saucerful Of Secrets on Side Four. the spirits of '73 T.Dream are awakened, the awesome power of Amon Duul at their best is summoned, and apart from the English accent on the vocals, you'd be hard pressed to think that these guys hadn't just stumbled out of a commune in Munich after a 120 day acid bender. This is awesome live Floyd, it bloody rocks, it bends every synapse in your brain with sheer psychedelic force, and leaves you wanting to rush out to the nearest record fair for as many bootlegs as possible from this era.

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