Sunday, June 03, 2012

This day in music - June 3, 1972: Pink Floyd releases Obscured by Clouds, the soundtrack for the movie La Vallée

It was 40 years ago today...

Between Meddle (1971) and Dark Side of the Moon (1973), back when Pink Floyd was starting to sound more and more like, well, Pink Floyd -- at least the Pink Floyd that most people came to know, departing from the psychedelia of the Syd Barrett years and turning towards the epic and the existential -- the band wrote the soundtrack to a Barbet Schroeder film called La Vallée, turning the soundtrack into an album called Obscured by Clouds. Pink Floyd had previously written the soundtrack for another Schroeder film, More, released in 1969, with the album coming out that same year.

Both More and La Vallée are very much products of their counter-cultural time. In brief, More is about a young man who follows a young woman to Ibiza and ends up hooked on heroin, while La Vallée is about the wife of a French government official who travels to New Guinea, meets an isolated native tribe, and, while searching for a valley said to be a paradise (but "obscured by clouds" on maps), comes to question her conventional, Western notion of civilization. They're decent films, particularly the latter, but, needless to say, the soundtracks are much, much better and much, much more memorable.

Obscured by Clouds isn't widely known even by those who are generally familiar with Pink Floyd, and is sometimes excluded, if not intentionally, from the whole Pink Floyd story: David Gilmour took over from Syd Barrett, the band moved away from its psychedelic roots, Meddle was the transition album, and then there was Dark Side, and the rest was history. To be fair, it's hard to fit Obscured by Clouds in. Not only was it a soundtrack but it was recorded quickly, and, on the whole, its songs, while shorter and in a way more commercial than much that would come later, are far less memorable than the great classics of the band's run from Dark Side to The Wall (1979). In this way, it suffers just as other "lesser" Pink Floyd albums do, albums like The Final Cut (1983), another really good album lingering in the shadows of the giants.

And yet, looking back, and listening to it again carefully, as I've been doing this weekend (I've listened to it hundreds of times but not for some time), it's striking just how good Obscured by Clouds still is. Yes, it's also a product of its time, more so than most other Pink Floyd albums, with its combination of hazy instrumentals, mind-bending psychedelia, pastoral folk tunes, and blaring rock riffs, but both musically and even more so lyrically and thematically it clearly indicates the direction in which the band was headed, and in that sense it accompanies Meddle, which shares some of its sound, as a transitional album leading into Dark Side. Just consider the lyrics (written by Roger Waters) for perhaps the album's best song, "Free Four":

One two three four

The memories of a man in his old age
Are the deeds of a man in his prime
You shuffle in gloom of the sick room
And talk to yourself as you die

Life is a short warm moment
And death is a long cold rest
You get your chance to try
In the twinkling of an eye
Eighty years with luck or even less

So all aboard for the American tour
And maybe you'll make it to the top
But mind how you go
And I can tell you 'cause I know
You may find it hard to get off

But you are the angel of death
And I am the dead man's son
And he was buried like a mole in a fox-hole
And everyone is still on the run

And who is the master of foxhounds
And who says the hunt has begun
And who calls the tune in the courtroom
And who beats the funeral drum

The memories of a man in his old age
Are the deeds of a man in his prime
You shuffle in gloom in the sick room
And talk to yourself till you die

This is prelude to all that came later: not just the themes of life and death, sickness and existential gloom, but the specific references to an American tour (and stardom) and to Roger Waters's father (who died in World War II), both of which come up later in The Wall (with Pink, in a hotel room in L.A., thinking back over his life, including the loss of his father). It's quite remarkable, actually, that there's so much here -- here and throughout the rest of the album.

With the success of Dark Side and the band moving off in a different direction, particularly towards epic stadium rock, nothing on Obscured by Clouds got much play in later years. The band included the instrumental title track and "When You're In," as well as "Childhood's End," in some live performances in 1972 and 1973, but that was about it until Gilmour, amazingly, included "Wot's... Uh the Deal" on his 2006 solo tour (with Richard Wright and a wonderful backing band of familiar names to Pink Floyd fans). (There were only ten shows in North America and I was fortunate to be at one of the two shows in Toronto, but this song wasn't on the playlist that night.)

Without further ado, here are Gilmour, Wright, et al. performing "Wot's... Uh the Deal" at London's Royal Albert Hall in May 2006 -- from the video Remember that Night. Enjoy:

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