The Pink Floyd story, on top of producing some of the best music of the past 50 years, is also a wonderfully dense melodrama that occasionally reads like a bad soap opera. With an original leader who lost his mind to drugs and mental illness, a fallow period of experimentation, global success, and petty infighting that corrupted the group, everything about Pink Floyd deals with some sort of drama.
It’s worth noting that during this so-called “fallow period”, Pink Floyd were still one of the biggest acts in rock music. Although their albums were often listless and formless, the Floyd were perfecting the art of the live show, complete with elaborate lighting designs, projections, smoke machines, and visuals. As “space rock” became the genre they were most associated with, the band would blow minds with cosmic breakouts like ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’ and ‘Interstellar Overdrive’.
But outside the live sphere, Pink Floyd were a spaceship without a captain or a solid direction forward. A chaotic democratic process briefly took hold, exemplified by the individual compositions that made up the second vinyl record of the 1969 double album Ummagumma. No idea was a bad idea, and 1970’s follow up LP Atom Heart Mother strung together a wild central suite, folk songs, and an avant-garde album ender that was mostly just the sounds of their roadie cooking himself breakfast.
These two albums in particular came to represent the most “out there” that Pink Floyd ever got, and it was this unfocused feeling that lead David Gilmour to criticise Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother in more recent times.
“Well, we’d decided to make the damn album, and each of us to do a piece of music on our own,” Gilmour recalled about his contribution to Ummagumma, ‘The Narrow Way’. “It was just desperation really, trying to think of something to do, to write by myself. I’d never written anything before, I just went into a studio and started waffling about, tacking bits and pieces together. I haven’t heard it in years. I’ve no idea what it’s like.”
Gilmour wasn’t any kinder when it came to his assessment of the follow up. “Atom Heart Mother was a good idea but it was dreadful,” Gilmour told Mojo Magazine in 2001. “I listened to that album recently: God, it’s shit, possibly our lowest point artistically. It sounds like we didn’t have any idea between us, but we became much more prolific after it.”
Both Roger Waters and Nick Mason have expressed dissatisfaction with the two albums as well, but neither have put forth the rancour that Gilmour seems to have for Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother. If nothing else, Pink Floyd were lucky to have existed at a time where bands could take a few albums to really find themselves. The ill-defined experimentation would soon be abandoned, giving way to more heavily structured pieces that gave Pink Floyd the identity they were desperate to find.