Friday, 4 April 2014

Careful With That Axe, Eugene

I promise to stop banging on about Pink Floyd after this but I just wanted to share one more thing with you. It's one of my favourite pieces of Pink Floyd music, 'Careful With That Axe, Eugene'.  It was apparently first performed in 1968, written by Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason, and it exists in a number of different recorded forms as it morphed slightly from day to day and from year to year.  Here's a live performance from 1972.

Pink Floyd's earliest studio recordings, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and A Saucerful of Secrets, give a very imperfect idea of the kind of band they were.  Their early producer Norm Smith wanted them to be a pop band like The Beatles.  Syd Barrett and then Roger Waters and Rick Wright did their best to oblige, writing and recording their best approximations of three minute pop songs, and these formed the bulk of the first two albums.

Their live performances, on the other hand, were highly improvisational affairs.  Most of their set would be taken up with extended performances of pieces like 'Astronome Domine' and 'Interstellar Overdrive', with experimental keyboard, guitar and vocal sounds stretching out the sparse, simple melodies.  These performances went down well with their core audience in the London underground scene, but once their Smith-produced songs started to get airplay and they got booked for gigs outside London, their live shows translated poorly to the dance-halls and nightclubs that were the staple of touring English musicians in the late 1960s.

If even their own producer and manager were not sure how to handle their music, what chance did the wider music press and the BBC have?  They were clearly unsure.  On the one hand, Floyd featured on Top of the Pops, miming 'See Emily Play' while teenage girls gyrated around them.  On the other hand, they appeared on Look of the Week, a snobby BBC arts show.  They played a short segment of 'Astonome Domine' and then were subjected to a patronising interview from a musicologist who asked them why they had to play so loud.

When critics don't know what to do with you, it probably means you're doing something new.  What Pink Floyd were doing was a form of fusion.  It involved two main elements.  The first was what went in those days under the name of Rhythm and Blues, exemplified by Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and Pink Floyd's favourite Bo Diddley.  Their first gigs, when they were young students trying to be in a band, always included Bo Diddley covers.

The other influence was a lot more obscure.  In their early years they often shared the stage at the UFO and Roundhouse with English experimental music quintet AMM.  AMM are apparently still playing, although now with only one original member.  Their performances were entirely improvisational.  They never rehearsed, their music had no melodic or rhythmic structure, they experimented with sounds on their various instruments so you could never be sure what was making each sound.  Impossible to describe really, but here's a little sample.  If you listen to AMM you will hear a lot of sounds that Pink Floyd borrowed.

Critics knew what to do with both these forms of music.  Bo Diddley was an entertainer, fun and immediately accessible, music for dancing and flirting.  AMM were Art, meant to be earnestly listened to and dissected respectfully.  What were they to do, though, with a fusion of the two?  Some tried to treat it as pop music, sending it out to the dance-halls of the world for the masses to enjoy.  Mostly it crashed and burned.  Others tried to treat it as Art but they found it was thin and derivative.  If you followed that path you would quickly bypass them and end up with AMM or maybe John Cage.

Of course it sits somewhere between the two.  You have to listen to 'Careful With That Axe, Eugene'.  You can't dance to it, or sing along.  It has no words to tell you a story, it has only hints - the slow, menacing beginning, the obscure whispers, the screams and thundering musical crescendo.  You have to use these to make up your own story.

This is a big step past Bo Diddley where everything is in the open and you don't have to guess at anything except maybe the occasional euphemism for sex.  Yet it is not a step all the way into AMM's territory.  'Careful With That Axe, Eugene' clearly tells a story, and it's not hard to work it out although each listener may tell it slightly differently.  With AMM there was no story, only sound.  The titles of their pieces tell you this very clearly.  'Before Driving to the Chapel We Took Coffee with Rick and Jennifer Reed'.  'After Rapidly Circling the Plaza'.  'Neither Bill Nor Axe Would Shorten Its Existence From the Crypt'.  'Later During a Flaming Riviera Sunset'.  If the band's name stands for anything, its members have never revealed what.

Pink Floyd wanted to make you think and stretch your sonic palette, but they also wanted to entertain you.  They wanted to sell records, they wanted to be loved, but they didn't want to be boring or sound like everyone else.  It took them a while, but eventually people caught on in a way they never would with AMM.

Meanwhile back in the 21st century, the critics seem to have solved this particular problem.  Pink Floyd, of course, are mostly thought of as prog rockers courtesy of their later, more structured music.  However, I suspect if they produced stuff like 'Careful...' these days it would be called 'Post Rock'.

This curious sidelight of the 21st century music scene, one of my recent delights, appears to owe a lot to AMM and their contemporaries.  Like them, it eschews melody and focuses on sound, with room for improvisation and experimentation but not the flashy showing off of prog.  Bands have obscure names - 'A Silver Mt Zion', 'God Speed You, Black Emperor', 'Youth Pictures of Florence Henderson'.  Album and track titles are even more obscure.  'He has left us alone but shafts of light sometimes grace the corner of our rooms', 'Lift your skinny fists like antennas to heaven', 'sit in the middle of three galloping dogs'.  Yet often they also take something from Pink Floyd's approach.  They use riffs and motifs to anchor their music.  Often they sample obscure pieces of spoken word - fiery apocalyptic sermons, or a man telling the tale of a court appearance.  There may not be a story, but there are hooks you can hang onto, sounds or ideas you can recognise.  Unlike AMM, this appears at times to cross the boundary from sound into music.

So by way of conclusion, and so I don't get lost in nostalgia like some boring old man, here's a little piece called 'Gathering Storm' from my favourite post-rockers God Speed You, Black Emperor.  If you think it's too long you obviously don't get it!

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