Second Look: Pink Floyd – Ummagumma

Ummagumma is a pretty good snapshot of where Pink Floyd was in ’69. “Ummagumma” is a colloquial slang for sex (maybe). The album sleeve is a sort of pointlessly busy portrait within portrait of the band in all their long-haired, blank t-shirt glory. And the double album itself is a split between four of the most interesting and moving psychedelic excursions the band ever recorded, and some of the most over-indulgent, divergent, and uninspired art-piece improvisations you can find in the Pink Floyd archive. But even those first four compositions are telling. They’re live recordings, for one. “Astronomy Domine” was taken from the group’s 1967 debut, The PIper at the Gates at Dawn, “Set the Controls to the Heart of the Sun” and “Saucerful of Secrets” can be found on the record named for the latter song, and “Careful With that Axe, Eugene” was a B-side from the Saucerful sessions. It’s all sort of a mess. Floyd was still in the throws of an identity-loss with the absence of leader Syd Barrett that they wouldn’t quite recover from until 1971 on Meddle. But regarding those four tracks, it’s perhaps the only post-Piper, pre-Meddle Floyd document to capture the brilliance of a more exploratory band that seems to belong more to the German psychedelia that came with Ash Ra Tempel and Amon Duul rather than where the band came to define themselves on The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall.

The first half of Ummagumma in fact so typifies the opposite of what Waters and company become by the time that definitive string of albums appeared that its hard to reconcile the sound as being a result of the same four Englishman. The 1970 film, Live at Pompeii might be a better sampler and conclusion of sorts to the more psychedelic and less progressive end of Floyd’s trajectory, packaging the space-rock classics in a more cohesive and viable document. Though that end still remains quite overlooked and pondered for the sake of what was to follow in its wake and how Pink Floyd managed to contextualize those more experimental tendencies into songs like “The Great Gig in the Sky” or “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” which is unfair. Yes, it was a time of palpable transition and the search for solid footing as a band was apparent in the music itself, but with Ummagumma we have a wildly embryonic vertical slice of group that exists in a space working beyond boundaries and limitations to simultaneously create some truly singular and moving works of music worth cherishing as well as some borderline-unlistenable half-cocked noodling.

Like many I had to backtrack from Meddle to Live at Pompeii and Ummagumma in order to experience songs like “Careful With that Axe, Eugene” and “Set The Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” And, again, like many I’ve never quite forgiven the world for so perilously tossing 1968 – 1970 Floyd into the precipice of ambivalent curiosity. I understand it though. As much as Pink Floyd became defined by lengthy instrumentation with Wish You Were Here, Animals, and to a lesser degree “Echoes,” “Careful” and “Saucerful,” while pushing and exceeding the ten minute mark, don’t tread the same grounds of orchestration and sophistication. They’re abrasive and unpredictable and feral and scary. “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” features an other-worldly inhaling scream from Roger Waters and “Saucerful of Secrets” is a rhythmic tribal massacre of conflicting electronic noise punctuated by a wordless vocal melody from Gilmore.

It’s easy to trace the latter three tracks of Ummagumma‘s first album to Syd Barret’s sense of psychedelia featured on songs like “Interstellar Overdrive” and Ummagumma opener “Astronomy Domine,” but without the direction of their original leader Pink Floyd seemed to push that element into less harmonized, more astrologically-bent realm. Gilmore proved to be a more aggressive and inventive guitar player than Barrett and no one yet seemed entirely comfortable to take the vocal and songwriting reigns, resulting in approach we find on Ummagumma Part 1 (and 2 for that matter). As a snapshot of the band you later came to worship along with everyone in it, these live cuts are endlessly fascinating for how each of Pink Floyd’s members take to their instruments. Beyond the generality of “improvisation,” which translates here into a slower-to-rise, more atmospheric and delicate, each finds an individual identity in their instrument. Perhaps the most interesting is David Gilmour and Richard Wright as the they’re often left to divining their parts on the spot, gravitating toward a the more textural and exotic. Gilmour especially seems to embody the antithesis of where he managed to stake himself as one of the best guitar players ever – focusing on soggy abstracted effects and sonic outcomes rather than emotional and technical precision.

It’s worth tracking down the original cut of “Careful With that Axe, Eugene” only to compare it to where the song found itself when recorded live for Ummagumma. The original lacks the detonation of the crescendo found in the 1969 version as well as the passion that emblazons Waters’ alien shriek. The difference is as telling of Pink Floyd’s place as a group in ’69 as the material on Ummagumma – a band floundering in incrementation and improvisation and poorly advised ideas, yet still able to meet some compelling ends with decidedly suspect means. Often times I find myself daydreaming about where Pink Floyd might have gone if they had chosen improvisation over orchestration, lamenting the more constricted direction the group decided to take during the 1970s. Then I remind myself that new found sense of purpose resulted in The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall and it’s easy not to feel so bad about it. We’ll always have Ummagumma to return to.