We listened to all of ‘em so you don’t have to
Obviously, let’s begin by discussing Hawkwind’s Bring Me the Head of Yuri Gagarin.
First, we declaim that this is, arguably, the greatest album title of all time. But more pertinently, we also note this: Just because an album documents one of the greatest bands of all time at the height of their creative and performance powers, that doesn’t mean the damn thing is actually worth listening to, or even, dare I say, listenable at all. See, Gagarin, a quasi-legal live album taken from a 1973 concert, is a hissy, harsh, hall-bouncy mess of an audience tape that reminds you of Hawkwind’s almost apoplectic greatness without actually providing evidence of it. It’s a Post-it note, that’s all, one that says, “You need to pick up Tabasco, maybe the Chipotle kind; switch the autopay on the phone bill; and set aside time to listen to some high-quality Hawkwind, like the Space Ritual live album or Hall of the Mountain Grill.”
AUDIO: Hawkwind Bring Me The Head Of Yuri Gagarin
Right there, dear friends, is most (though not all) of what you need to know about the surprise (official) release of 12 live albums by Pink Floyd, all recorded between February of 1970 and March of 1972, an era during which the band were at the virtual height of their creative and performance powers.
The “why” is damn simple: This is a copyright dump of (mostly) readily available bootleg material, done to insure that none of this stuff slips into the gray and tepid waters of public domain. Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys, to name two, have also released a lot of this copyright protection-type stuff in the last few years, though their releases have been of significantly higher audio quality. I don’t think any of those acts have released thumpy, distorted audience tapes, much less a dozen of ‘em.
Maybe I was being a little unfair: Not one of these twelve albums is as nearly as much of a mess as Gagarin. The simple grace and minimalism of Floyd’s early ‘70s style means that even a second or third-rate audience tape retains some space and clarity. But like Gagarin, these dozen releases work best as a reminder. In this case, they remind us that Pink Floyd, in the five years post-Saucerful of Secrets (June 1968) and pre-Dark Side of the Moon (March 1973) were making utterly amazing music. In fact (and this is very hard for an old Syd-head to admit), 1969 – 1972 may be Pink Floyd’s most creative and fertile period. During the exact era when these twelve live albums were recorded, Floyd were the Kings of the Planetarium Sigh (Punctuated by the Occasional Post-Penedercki Crash). They were developing a truly original musical language that blended everything from Celtic folk to musique concrète to sugary Cambridge pop to Krautrock.
The result was somewhere between a gentle (yet persuasive) opium-dosed Hawkwind, Test Card music composed by Xenakis, a mostly-jazzless-polite-but-with-issues Soft Machine, or a Can with hands-wrapped in feathery over mitts. These twelve live albums are most decidedly not the place to discover all that, but they are the Post it notes that say to us, in thick Sharpie lettering, PAY ATTENTION TO POST SYD/PRE-DARK SIDE PINK FLOYD.
Before going into details, this is vital to note: There is virtually nothing here (with one important exception) that isn’t covered, far, far better, on five of the six PINK FLOYD THE EARLY YEARS compilations, specifically 1968 Germin/ation, 1969 Dramitis/ation, 1970 Devi/ation, 1971 Reverber/ation, and 1972 Obfusc/ation. The 1971 collection and the Live at Pompeii side of the 1972 album, especially, mostly make these dozen releases truly irrelevant.
But here are some details, so take a deep breath, okay? I listened to this stuff so you don’t have to (which is pretty incredible, considering I’ve never even made it through ten minutes of the Dead’s Europe ’72). The following run-down cites the full album titles, which are both odd and inconsistent in format and capitalization, and I have reproduced them precisely. It would appear that all of the titles have been retained from the previously circulated bootleg releases, and that’s either wonderful or supremely lazy, I haven’t decided yet.
Live at Grosser Saal, Musikhalle Hamburg, West Germany 25 February 1971 has a nice rendition of “Green Is the Colour,” and the echoing, reverb-y hall creates some interesting effects on “Embryo.” Mauerspechte Sportspalast Berlin, live 5 June ’71 is a low grade Gagarin-style audience tape, and there’s nothing here worth listening to twice. Live in Rome Palaeur 20 June ’71 is a muted but decent second or third generation audience tape, but it has a monster “Astronomy Domine,” which is one of the highlights of the whole collection; it may be the best recorded “Domine” I’ve ever heard the post-Syd band ever perform. They Came In Peace, live, Leeds University 1970 Washington University 1971 is the oldest set in the collection. The four tracks from Leeds are Gagarin-esque – i.e, pretty much unlistenable– but the three Washington University tracks are significantly better, and feature a smashing “Interstellar Overdrive,” full of drama, great variety in tempo and dynamic, and style; it disappears almost into ambient mist for a long stretch in the middle. It’s probably the best post-Syd “Interstellar Overdrive” performance I’ve heard.
(Let’s take a breath and insert a paragraph break! Let us also clear the palette by listening to Voivod’s “Astronomy Domine,” both live and studio versions.)
Amsterdamse Bos Free Concert 26 June 71 (Live) is an unusually good audience tape with fairly crisp vocals – it might even be a mega-degraded board tape? – and it has a great “Cymabline” that may be one of the “keepers” in this whole collection. Live in Montreux 18 & 19 Sept 1971 is a very good, in-your-face audience tape of a notably powerful performance. The band sound pumped and full of sand and sausage, and the set begins with a terrific “Echoes.” This recording hints at some of the fear, awe, and energy live Floyd must have inspired at this time. (I just made up the expression “full of sand and sausage,” and I’m quite proud of it.)
On KB Hallen, Copenhagen live 23 Sept 1971 (Vol I & II) some real energy and noise is conjured, especially on “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” and “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” but a harsh, distorted recording makes it all fairly unlistenable. One is also obligated to note a curious, not completely unpleasant, but utterly undistinguished and pointless blues jam, which is also a feature of the San Diego set.
Over Bradford Pigs On The Groove Bradford University, live 10 Oct 1971 (yes, that’s really the title) features a rich, almost Oasis-like “Fat Old Sun” (a song that has always reminded me of Danny Kirwan-era Fleetwood Mac), and a nice, spacy, Tangerine Dream-like keyboard reverie on “Cymbaline.” However, the whole thing is marred by a harsh and cloudy sound that makes this album one of the ones you can skip over in its’ entirety. The Screaming Abdabs Quebec City, live 10 Nov 1971 is a harsh and almost unlistenable audience tape, which is too bad, since it the set featured an especially strong, tight, and attitudinal performance of “One of These Days.”
Embryo, San Diego, live 17 Oct 1971 has decent if slightly crunchy sound featuring some warm, minimal performances (like “Fat Old Sun”) where the melody and the space really shine through. It’s curious how some of these sessions really reflect the spacy/grace-y side of early ‘70s Floyd, while others – like the Montreux set – are aggressive and almost angry. The San Diego album also concludes with that “Blues Jam,” which just leaves you asking, Why? Whhhhy? Like, seriously, what were they thinking? It’s not like Floyd do this thing badly – Nick Mason, especially, finds a nice, jazzy pocket to sit in — but one wonders why they pulled this “Blues Jam” nonsense out every now and then. It’s not like the “Blues Jam” sounds like, oh, early ‘70s Floyd play the blues! No, it’s just a competent, uninteresting blue jam, like something I would hear when I would drive by the Cocoanut T-Zer with the windows down in the 1990s.
Now, one of these dozen albums does feature unique material of some real significance. That’s the one titled Live, Lyon 12 June 1971, Tokyo 16 March 1972.
You can ignore the Lyon stuff (which has a strange, not unpleasant AM flatness which makes “Cymbaline” sound like jazz caught on some distant Clear Channel radio station), but the Tokyo side is the real fruit of this entire trove. It features a pile of Dark Side of the Moon material caught a full year before it was released and eight weeks before the commencement of recording. And it is fascinating. Significantly different from the finished and famous Dark Side stuff, it sounds compact, living, and strangely square. “On the Run” spiritually resembles its’ later recording state, but it also sounds deeply and weirdly Doors-ish, though with a little Krautrock there, too. “The Great Gig in the Sky” retains the chord pattern of the recorded version, but it takes the form of a Cage-ian exploration into noise and silence. “Time” sounds like it was played by a real band; it’s not the studio-sealed performance we are used to. “Breathe” has the rough edges and hints of aggression that I would expect out of a Soft Boys rehearsal tape. ”Money” is tough, grasping, and harsh, with the central riff almost tumbling down into Cream-ish growling.
Three-quarters of the Dark Side album is here (only “Brain Damage,” “Eclipse,” and “Any Colour You Like” are missing, though we should note that a really marvelous “Us and Them” fades out after about a minute). We tend not to think of this era of Floyd as a garage band, but on this March ’72 Dark Side live material they seem to summon that. They sound like college students trying to find a way to bring Brubeck into their earlier opium fog, and ending up with something almost Steely Dan-ish. In other words, we literally hear the band trying to find an island between where they were and where they were going.
Oh, to make this all so much easier for you, I have made a Spotify playlist with all of the above-mentioned highlights. Please use the time I have saved you usefully. Read a book. Listen to Nanocluster by Immersion, which may be the best art rock album of the last ten years.
So even if I would venture that you could probably skip all twelve of these surprise Pink Floyd releases (except, possibly, for the historic interest of the formative Dark Side tracks), I welcome these albums, because they shine a torchlight on the least known era in Pink Floyd’s career – 1969 – 1972 – when, full of air and invention, opium and chewing nails, they may have been making some of the greatest art rock of all time.