Wednesday, 11 January 2017

MUSIC MILESTONES - Pink Floyd album profile

September 2016 - Future Publishing

Down In La Vallée

Three years after their soundtrack for More, its director approached them for another soundtrack. But this time he found a band very much in control of their sound - and in the middle of a project that would launch them into the musical stratosphere, and beyond…

When the French-based film director Barbet Schroeder wanted somebody to compose a soundtrack for his second feature-length movie, his first impulse was to track down the people responsible for the music from his first. But some three years after his debut, More, his original scorers had grown from the slightly shell-shocked post-Syd experimentalists he had known before into a confident group of men at the height of their creative powers, and that showed in both the way that the music was produced, and the way things turned out in its immediate aftermath. This was 1972, after all, and that band, Pink Floyd, were smack in the middle of making what would go on to become their masterwork - The Dark Side Of The Moon.

Indeed, much of Dark Side had already been written, demoed and performed live - but not yet formally recorded - by the time the band moved into the Strawberry Studios at Château d’Hérouville in France for a couple of extended sessions to create Obscured in February, March and April of 1972, and you can almost taste the later, greater album’s DNA in these recordings.

Again, Schroeder’s film told the story of a middle-class Western European innocent on a voyage to an exotic land for self-discovery, but by this point the Floyd had already travelled this path, and knew exactly who they were. After finding their feet with More (1969) and experimenting with the live stuff and more wigged out brain farts of Ummagumma (1969), they’d begun to hone their sound by the time of Atom Heart Mother (1970) (which itself was almost something of a revenge album for the difficult time they’d had contributing to the Zabriskie Point (1970) soundtrack), and then distilled it further with Meddle (1971). So with Dark Side conceptually in the bag, the band were at a creative peak when it came to laying down the tracks for Obscured. Schroeder had, quite by chance, hit the motherlode, but perhaps wasn’t prepared for quite how difficult things would become.

It is clear from even a first cursory listen that Obscured By Clouds is a much more mature and together piece of work than More. Indeed, it holds its own as an album much more than the previous spot of movie work, perhaps in part due to the massive fall out that the band had with the film’s producers that led to them erasing all reference to the film’s original title, La Vallée, and changing it to Obscured By Clouds, a reference to the hidden, mystical valley at the heart of Schroeder’s film.

Nick Mason often cites that the sessions in France were often much more hurried than they would be for a more formal Floyd album, but don’t let that make you think that this is going to a patchy affair cut from the same cloth as More. Here, each piece stands on its own, but folds neatly into the next to create a greater whole, in stark contrast to More’s few bold gems set into a sea of fragments and noodling.

Again, the band took a pragmatic approach to composing a score. Watching a rough director’s cut of the film, they noted down the timings of key events and used them as cues for adding musical highs and lows as the film progressed. However, they also remembered Schroeder’s more naturalistic relationship with music in his films, and how he preferred to have it only appear in real world situations, like clubs, shops or car radios. This method led many observers to suspect that a few of Floyd’s pieces for More were placed out of composition order - for instance, the song Ibiza Bar is positioned during a party in Paris long before the protagonist ever gets to the Spanish island. So much of the work on Obscured is more loose and fluid, and possibly ambiguously pitched in order that it could be placed at any point across the movie. Another complication is that the film is based in a remote valley in Papua New Guinea, so the chances of stumbling across any radios or hippy parties so deep into the jungle would be scarce, so the band also had to consider this as a potential problem when trying to second guess the director.

But in the end, what could have been a problematic album for a band in the midst of a massive escalation of fame turned out to be one of their most engaging and under rated works.

From the deep, dark throb of the opener, the album’s instrumental title track, it immediately disarms you. After its slow, rasping build, its nodding metronomic pace is reminiscent of kraut rock masters like Can or the motorik sounds of Neu! before Gilmour’s familiar scratchy blues guitar licks come rolling in to wrench you back into the world of Floyd, quickly kicking into the more urgent When You’re In that follows. These instrumental pieces, and the other pair that sit at the end of each side of the album, are much more complete than those on their earlier complete score. As opposed to the short excerpts scattered about the More soundtrack release, these are generally more solid pieces, designed for Schroeder to pick and choose from as they faded in and out of specific passages from the film.

But it is the songs themselves that stand out, with barely a weak track on the whole album. Burning Bridges offers that laid back style evident on much of Dark Side, only with Gilmour and Wright’s dual vocal too-and-fro offering a strange, unsettling quality (and if you liked the melody of this song, don’t worry, it turns up again in three songs time with a different time signature in the instrumental Mudmen). Later, It’s Gold In The… gives us a more standard bar room rock workout, eschewing Wright’s keyboards for a rollicking guitar and bass stomper, while the prowling Childhood’s End, written after he’d read an Arthur C Clarke novel of the same name, was the last entirely Gilmour-penned song until A Momentary Lapse Of Reason some 15 years later.

But it is the album’s principal single, Free Four that gains the most plaudits from this collection. Despite its plinky-plonky funtime swing, its sarcastic lyric offers us the first glimpses of Waters’ dissatisfaction with the rock on roll life, and reprises the motif of his lost father. It has often been posited that this is the sour egg that eventually hatched into The Wall at the decade’s end, and indeed, you can see the early themes of Waters’ grand and personal work begin to incubate within the cracked shell of this song.

The titles of some of this album’s songs have also caused much discussion among fans of the band. While it’s clear that some names, like Burning Bridges, Mudmen, and Stay have clear and distinct links to the happenings within the movie, others are perhaps a little more obscure. Many have proposed deep and cosmic explanations for some of the more mercurial titles, but popular myth suggests that its all a little more prosaic, and that that both When You’re In and Wot’s… Uh The Deal? are inscrutable band in jokes, referring to regular phrases uttered by their larger-than-life crew member Chris Adamson. But whatever the real reason, they’ve added just a little bit more mystery to the Pink Floyd cannon of myth and legend.

So despite being a hastily put together collection of songs that they had to break off recording smack bang in the middle of to go and tour Japan, Obscured By Clouds ended up being a reasonably successful interim album between the well-liked Meddle and the stratospheric The Dark Side Of The Moon some nine months later. And despite their set-to with the film’s makers, there were still some early editions released entitled either La Vallée, or anglicised to The Valley. Track these down and you’ll make an avid collector a very happy human. Indeed, so much had Pink Floyd’s stock risen that the film’s production company eventually retitled the movie La Vallée (Obscured By Clouds) to cash in on Floyd’s post Dark Side success. A strange and corporate footnote to one of the band’s often overlooked collections.

The Film

Barbet’s Schroeder’s follow up to More, La Vallée, for which Obscured By Clouds was the soundtrack, explored many of the same themes of his earlier work, but expanded them into a much broader, existential plane. 

Again we follow an innocent, slightly uptight Western European on a journey to self-destructive self-discovery, but here the chief protagonist is Viviane, the wife of the French consul in Melbourne who has a bit of a thing for exotic feathers. After a chance meeting with some hippy travellers, she decides to follow them to a remote part of Papua New Guinea to track down the feathers of an incredibly rare bird that only lives deep in the heart of a particular forest. 

But these hippies have a different quest - to plunge themselves into the very heart of the last unexplored place on the planet, and to discover paradise by assimilating the ways of the locals. And so it is that Viviane’s mundane existence in Australia quickly turns into a whirl of sex and strangeness when the group meet up with the Mapuga tribe - one of the most isolated peoples on the planet - and begin to work their way into their community.

However, things in paradise are never as idyllic as they seem, and the more they work their way into the tribe’s lives, the more unsettling things become.

Some of the scenes of the film’s impressive tribal dancing and mud-masked men will be familiar, although you’d have never imagined they’d have come from a hippy wig out film with a Pink Floyd soundtrack. Some, however, are pretty harrowing depictions of a brutal lifestyle - be sure to turn away if it looks like the locals fancy a bit of pork for dinner. But while it’s an often sparse and incredibly dated piece of work, with only scant suggestions of Floyd’s work on the soundtrack despite their full-length album that accompanies it, it’s definitely a document of its time, and worth a look if you’ve got a strong stomach for gory scenes and stilted dialogue.

The Studio

For their first sole foray to a foreign studio (although their parts for Zabriskie Point were recorded at a difficult session in Rome), the band decamped to the famous Strawberry Studios at the Château d’Hérouville in France. Located in the tiny village of Hérouville, out beyond the edge of the very furthest North Western suburbs of Paris, this 30-roomed mansion, built in 1740, was once painted by Van Gough, and was for a while the home of the composer Frédéric Chopin. But after a fire in 1969 the then-owner, Oscar-nominated composer Michel Magne, converted it into a recording studio that would soon become a must-visit haunt for a whole generation of the world’s most important rock and pop stars.

Dubbed the Honky Château by Elton John (who often recorded there and named his 1972 album after it), Strawberry was the source of many monster albums the like of David Bowie’s Pin Ups and Low, Gong’s Camembert Electrique, Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, Rainbow’s Long Live Rock ’n’ Roll and even, somewhat surprisingly, Sham 69’s The Adventures Of The Hersham Boys. Other stellar acts that passed through its doors included T Rex, Jethro Tull, The Bee Gees, MC5, Joan Armatrading, Uriah Heep, Fleetwood Mac, Sweet and many more. 

However, after Magne’s death in 1984, the studio, and the mansion that housed it, fell into disrepair, and it is only in the last few years that work on renovating this historic building has begun. A team of  dedicated restorers are beavering away on it as we speak, hoping to bring it back to its former glory and reopen the studios before the end of the year.

The Mapuga Tribe

If you’ve never seen the film from which the music comes, a little passage of music at the very end of Obscured By Clouds may have left you a little nonplussed. After a typically phlegmatic instrumental passage by the band, the music quietly decays into the hypnotic tribal chants of a people who are clearly from nowhere you have ever been.

Those that have seen the film will readily identify them as the Mapuga, the remote Papua New Guinean tribe at the heart of La Vallée. But who are these people? And how did they end up in such an unlikely hippy trip out film? Well despite being sandwiched between the more urbanly developed Australia and Indonesia, Papua New Guinea still has many areas within its massive borders where the tribal life is more widely valued than any notion of 21st century western ideal. It is estimated that there are many hundreds of tribes still living in the island’s less explored creases, with in excess of 800 distinct languages spoken. Many of these tribes are only just beginning to make contact with the outside world, so dense and remote are the areas that they live in.

Film director Barbet Schroeder became fascinated with the notion of whether it was impossible to completely get back to nature and cast off the shackles of the post-industrial life, so decided to explore this idea in this film. And while there’s a typically early-70s existential road movie feel going on for much of the film, this intersperses with some scenes of genuine documentary, as he films the real-life rituals and daily experience of the Mapuga, who often seem visibly amused at these strange people who have come to record them. If you can track down the BFI’s dual format edition DVD of the film, the extras include three ethnographic shorts that Schroeder filmed while he was there that offer fascinating extra insights into their world.

And exactly what is it that they are singing at the end of the movie? No one entirely knows. Pink Floyd simply picked a sequence of singing that they liked from the film’s sound tapes and placed it at the end of the track Absolutely Curtains. To this date it has never been translated, as even other Papuans don’t recognise the language being sung. So if you fancy a project to solve one of the great unanswered questions in the Pink Floyd cannon, do let us know what they are saying after you get back from La Vallée, because we’d love to know. If you get back, that is…

Looks Familiar

If you’re one of the lucky few to have tracked down a copy of the film, and have been thinking that one of its stars, Monique Giraudy, is a little familiar. Well you might be right, because Monique here is more commonly known as Miquette Giraudy, the vocalist and keyboard player best known for her work as a member of the proto-proggers Gong with her husband, and fellow Gong alumnus, Steve Hillage.

Before becoming a maker of music, she’d had a brief career in movie making in her late teens and early twenties. Beginning as the assistant to film maker Jackie Raynal, she also has script and assistant editor credits on Barbet Schroeder’s previous film, More. She then moved out to the front of the camera, with acting roles in Jean-Pierre Prévost's 1971 film Jupiter (this time under the name of Marsiale Giraudy), before her more developed role in La Vallée. She also gets a full editing credit in the 1972 Martial Raysse movie, Le Grand Départ.

But her head was turned towards music after meeting Hillage, and she briefly replaced Diane Stewart-Bond in Gong in 1974, before leaving with Hillage to play and sing on all of his solo work. The pair still occasionally pop up at Gong reunions, although these days they are perhaps more well known amongst ravers and techno fans for their work on the underground dance scene with System 7, who are still gigging frequently to this date. 

For more information on the Music Milestones series, click here.

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