Pink Floyd were famously in their wilderness years when they agreed to perform at the ‘Blackhills Garden Party’ in London’s famed Hyde Park in 1970. Two years after the official departure of former guitarist, lyricist and leader Syd Barrett, the Floyd adopted a highly experimental, and highly unfocused, approach to creating new music. After the film soundtrack More and the half-life/half-studio disasterpiece Ummagumma, the band were no closer to finding an identity or solid direction to the future, so they simply decided to keep moving forward.
Around this time, the band began to favour longer, more progressive compositions that were in opposition to the short, psychedelic songs of their past. Even in their original incarnation, songs like ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ and ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’ were extended to long jams, but starting with the title track to their second LP A Saucerful of Secrets, Pink Floyd started to explore suites as the potential fulcrum to build their second-generation line-up on.
With 1970 came a new novel concept: fill an entire side of an LP with one song. While the band later perfected this idea with ‘Echoes’, the dry run for this format would come in the form of the ‘Atom Heart Mother’, the 23-minute composition that would take up side one of their fifth studio album, also titled Atom Heart Mother.
Culled from a number of instrumental bits and pieces the individual members had been working on, ‘Atom Heart Mother’ is a bizarre listening experience even for the heartiest of Floyd fans. Whereas bands like The Grateful Dead or Santana would build their lengthy compositions on freeform improvisational jamming, Pink Floyd had their pieces contain specific sections and themes, composed in full, and with little variation. Featuring brass and choirs and various sound effects, the Floyd left no idea on the cutting room floor.
When it came to performing the piece live, the band decided to employ both a large choir and a full brass ensemble to bring the sounds on record to life. This would prove to be yet another misstep for a band who were practically fumbling over themselves at the time: singers and brass players would come and go, and a lack of adequate rehearsal meant the results were less than pristine.
For one of the suite’s first live performances, the John Alldis Choir and Philip Jones Brass Ensemble were brought in to accompany the band at their Hyde Park performance. This performance is likely the best that the band ever perfumed of ‘Atom Heart Mother’: not yet released to the public, the band were eager to show off their new material and sophisticated progression from the listless jamming and experimentation that was closely associated with their Barrett-less line-up.
The band managed to squeeze out nearly an hour of performance from only five songs in their setlist, which at the time included live favourites such as ‘Careful With That Ax, Eugene’ and ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’. Despite being at its freshest and most potent, ‘Atom Heart Mother’ still sags under its own weight here, as the composition just isn’t focused or memorable enough in its individual sections to warrant the major commitment that its length and instrumentation required.
‘Atom Heart Mother’ did, however, represent a more solid foundation that the band could build on. Replicating the format of Atom Heart Mother was the following year’s Meddle, a far more deliberate and purposeful album that saw the band begin the refine their new musical style. Even though ‘Echoes’ was a breakthrough for the band to combine length and strong musical ideas, it also represented an endpoint. From here, Pink Floyd still wanted to explore thematic ideas and cohesive narratives but decided to excise the meandering jams that were holding them back.
In January 1972, Pink Floyd decided to debut their latest piece at the Brighton Dome for the first time, tentatively entitled Eclipse. However, after experiencing technical problems, the band decided to perform the ‘Atom Heart Mother’ suite instead. This would not last. Soon after, The Dark Side of the Moon would be polished into something resembling its final form (with the only differences including ‘On the Run’ being a blues-laced jam called ‘The Travel Sequence’ and Bible readings being used instead of gospel-tinged wails on ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’, then known as ‘The Religion Song’), and it replaced ‘Atom Heart Mother’ as their go-to suite.
Check out the performance of ‘Atom Heart Mother’ at Hyde Park down below.