prog rock composers

Make Mine A Double #3: Pink Floyd’s “Ummagumma” (1969)

The third entry in my series on the wild and wondrous world of rock’s double albums.
by Rick Ouellette

Pink Floyd at the end of the Sixties was very much the band in flux. In 1968, singer-guitarist and founding visionary Syd Barrett left the band and after an abbreviated solo career was hardly seen in public before his death in 2006. Barrett’s fanciful compositions had dominated their classic ’67 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, but he barely appeared on the follow-up (A Saucerful of Secrets) and soon retreated from London to the group’s original home base of Cambridge. Beset by mental health problems complicated by prodigious LSD use and unwilling/unable to play the rock-star card for more than a few hands, the secluded Barrett would become one of music’s most fabled figureheads. Few at the time would have doubted the talents of his bandmates: bassist Roger Waters, keyboardist Rick Wright, drummer Nick Mason or guitarist David Gilmour, a boyhood friend of Barrett who joined the band shortly before Syd exited. But absent the primary writer of one of rock’s psychedelic masterworks, Pink Floyd struggled for a revised identity. After producing the soundtrack for the French hippie film More, Floyd ended the decade with the double LP Ummagumma, the type of project that would defy release today. Exploiting the era’s trend towards heavy acid jams (on its live disc) and openness to experimentation (in the studio half), Ummagumma was popular enough (#5 in the UK) to keep the band’s profile high before they hit their stride and became rock music titans with their all-world headphone classic, 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon.

On Piper, Barrett’s delectable mix of childlike whimsy and foreboding fairytales had been balanced out by two seminal excursions into what would be called space rock. One of youth music’s first extended pieces, the nine-minute “Interstellar Overdrive” was well-explained by it’s title. The other, “Astronomy Domine”, starts the live disc in an expanded version that ably states the new line-up’s mode of attack. The increased amplification of the instrumental excursions and Roger Waters’ eerie replication of Syd’s planetary roll call emanating from “icy waters underground” upped the ante of the original for the tuned-in provincial punters in the audience. “Careful With The Axe, Eugene” is transformed into a real horror show of tension-and-release, with its stalking build-up yielding to Waters’ ungodly screaming and Gilmour’s slasher guitar work. The live disc is rounded out by “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” and the title track from Saucerful, now a 13-minute ramble through a psychedelic funhouse led by Nick Mason’s propulsive drumming.

Giving each band member a half-side to go freeform in the studio was an early example of the self-important tendencies of ambitious acts, or maybe it was just lack of new material. The underrated keyboardist Richard Wright contributes “Sysyphus Parts 1-4” an effectively doomy piece of program music that depicts the hapless mythological character, usually spelled Sisyphus. He, of course, is fated to forever push the same boulder up a hill—probably the exact feeling Floyd roadies got during the mammoth tours in the decades to follow (the album’s back cover shows two of them with the band’s gear spread out on an airport runway).

Abandon ye all hope, the road crew that enters here.

David Gilmour’s folksy acoustic guitar on “The Narrow Way” prefigures what Jimmy Page soon was getting at on Led Zeppelin III and the vocal part that follows presages the musical heights later attained on “Comfortably Numb”. Nick Mason never had a songwriting credit before Ummagumma and after hearing his aimless percussion workout, one could be forgiven for wondering where the writing was in this case. The only track that sinks lower is “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict,” a Roger Waters’ toss-off that sounds just like its title, which should be warning enough.

Less than the sum of its “parts”?: The back of the CD 2 breaks down the multi-sectional nature of the studio disc.

Luckily, he also offers up “Grantchester Meadows,” a lovely pastoral number named after a real greensward in the band’s hometown. One of the greatest of Floyd’s lesser-known numbers, simple acoustic guitar and looped sound effects of bird tweets cushion Waters’ softly sung boyhood idyll that’s tempered by the realization that this a memory recalled from the confinement of his “city room.” The profound disatisfaction with the vicissitudes of a cold modern society, merely hinted at here, would become the primary aspect of Pink Floyd’s art in the decade to come, culminating in their other double album, 1979’s The Wall, where the confined character is not just shut off in a solitary flat, but in an enormous brick prison of his own making.

If you like the in-depth writing of rock music, both on record and on celluloid, please check out my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey now available. You can sample a 30-page excerpt by clicking on the book cover image at the top right of this page.

We’ve All Gone Solo #6 (Pete Sinfield)


(A series of occasional posts hearing out the solo excursions of rock history’s supporting players whose breakaway efforts never amounted to a high-profile solo career.)

Progressive rock as a genre had well and truly arrived in October of 1969 with the release of King Crimson’s formidable debut album In the Court of the Crimson King. This was obviously not sock hop music but instead an album to be reverently pondered in teenage dens of iniquity half-obscured in a cloud of hashish smoke. Their music, like many of their prog contemporaries, was undeniably adventurous, ranging from almost medieval-style balladry to speed-demon jazz-rock—in this case led by the guitar work (lilting and furious by turns) of KC kingpin Robert Fripp.

In a musical zeitgeist where subject matter was reaching way beyond the old boy-gets-girl-or-not variations, it was not unheard of for bands to have their own in-house wordsmith—Procol Harum’s Keith Reid, the Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter, etc. Enter Pete Sinfield, born in the Fulham section of London and raised by his bohemian-activist single mother, helped by Maria Wallenda from the famous high-wire family. An easygoing poet/songwriter type, he was briefly in a band with multi-instrumentalist Ian MacDonald before the latter joined King Crimson. Sinfield didn’t have a chance matching up with the highly-skilled players in this band, but his words were a perfect fit. Pete’s fanciful lyrics had an otherworldly flair, drawing on both ancient-sounding fantasy scenarios and science-fiction. The words were printed prominently on the inner-gatefold amid the album’s striking artwork.


The keeper of the city keys
Put shutters on the dreams.
I wait outside the pilgrim’s door
With insufficient schemes.
The black queen chants
the funeral march,
The cracked brass bells will ring;
To summon back the fire witch
To the court of the crimson king.

Such writing reflects the era in its own way, the turbulence, the inner searching, the drugs. Though Sinfield’s type of lyricism, along with prog rock in general, came under a lot of criticism for its perceived pretensions, younger boomers embraced it as an alternative maybe to the naïve we-can-change-the-world stance of slightly earlier hippie times. In fact, a lot of his implied social criticism (see “21st Century Schizoid Man”) holds up much better nowadays.

Sinfield in 1971.

Sinfield would pen the words for the first four King Crimson albums and near the end of that tenure, released the 1972 solo LP “Still” with Manticore Records. Although he was a decent enough singer, he did enlist ex-Crimsoner Greg Lake to help with some vocalizing. Still was a pleasing effort that wisely stayed away from trying to replicate the instrumental firepower of his band’s output (though several of them help out), leaving the songwriting front-and-center. There are some eclectic touches: a brass section on one song and a vegan-themed rocker called “Whole Food Boogie” stand out. But the best parts are on ethereal numbers like “Under the Sky” and “The Piper”, the folksy “Hanging Fire” and the untypically straightforward “Can You Forgive a Fool?”

On into the Seventies, he re-teamed with Greg Lake to write for supergroup Emerson, Lake and Palmer, as well as for Italian proggers PFM. In 1975, Sinfield and Lake collaborated on “I Believe in Father Christmas” which has become a holiday standard, although the steely core behind the seasonal frosting is a trademark touch. Sinfield has attempted in recent years to record another solo album, stymied in part by health issues, though he remains active as a poet and member of the British Academy of Songwriters.

Here he is featured in a 2008 clip from the excellent Prog Rock Britannia series, looking back at the heady early days of King Crimson.