Atom Heart Mother – Reassessment or Abandonment?

What constitutes the boundaries of music? Bands such as Black Sabbath and Cream would probably blame the dependency on four-four timing while The Beatles would blame the limited number of notes one can reach on an instrument. However, of all the musical bands in history, it was perhaps Pink Floyd thatmost blamed the narrow-mindedness of popular convention. Floyd were a risk-taking band, always the first to experiment with new instruments and musical techniques. This is perhaps best shown in their 1970 album Atom Heart Mother — an incredibly brave and frequently underrated album which explores the use of classical music in rock, resulting in some of the strangest songs in Pink Floyd’s music canon. Despised by some yet adored by others, the album has been shrouded in a frozen veil for almost 50 years. This begs the question: should Atom Heart Mother be reassessed or should it remain a vague footnote in Pink Floyd’s history?

Atom Heart Mother was a change in pace for Floyd, taking place after their disastrous 1969 album, Ummagumma, and before their now seminal 1971 album, Meddle. Having grown in popularity since their first album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, along with their various tours, the band now had enough money to rent an orchestra. Recording began in late 1969 iin collaboration with the surrealist composer, Ron Geesin. This collaboration would result in the recording of the album’s title track — a 23-minute long suite covering the entirety of the first side of the record.

This track, to the casual listener, is a confusing and even uncomfortable mash of rock and classical music; hardly the song for a Sunday morning. But the track is so much more. Floyd took the then-normal approach of playing with an orchestra as a backing sound and flipped it on its head; now the band would be a backing track to the orchestra, creating an entirely different sound and feel. Geesin’s surreal skipping between time frames and styles gives the piece a quirkiness while Roger Waters’ bass tightly knits it all together. This was also David Gilmore’s first chance to spread his wings, creating some beautiful guitar solos throughout.

The remainder of the album consists of shorter, more palatable songs; this is a strong factor to the album reaching number 1 in the charts upon its release. First, we have Roger Waters’ poetically simple song, ‘If’ — a clear indicator to his gradual maturity as a song writer. Next is a rare gem from keyboardist Richard Wright with ‘Summer ’68‘, a fun and imaginative number which utilises the orchestra once again. Of all Wright’s work within the band, this stands next to ‘Paint Box’ and ‘Remember A Day’ as one of his strongest songs. The penultimate track is a celebrated classic from David Gilmore; ‘Fat Old Son’ is a soft journey down memory-lane, remembering the days of Cambridge banks and golden sunsets. If this album were more popular, this song would surely be considered a must-listen for summer collections and compilations. The album’s final track is a return to the style of the first, ‘Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast‘ is an odd mixture of recordings of kitchen appliances and Wright’s eccentric keyboard work; a stoned man’s breakfast in a nutshell, I suppose. This track is rather amusing upon first listen but quickly loses its charm upon subsequent listens.

Despite its short-comings, Atom Heart Mother is a unique album which explores a different approach to musical recording. Highly experimental and unafraid of the public’s growing interest in the styles of bands like Led Zeppelin and T Rex, the album works as a statement for the creative freedom of bands and individuals. It was this attitude that led to the band’s breakthrough with The Dark Side Of The Moon three years later. So I feel I am right in stating that this album deserves a reassessment in order to claim the love and acclaim it deserves.