“Ah, Friesians.” It was summer 1970 and LG Wood, managing director of EMI’s Record Division, was peering at the cover of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother.It was EMI policy for Wood to sign off on all EMI album sleeves, but here was a cover missing a title and the group’s name. Instead, there was just a cow in a field. Presuming there were words somewhere, Wood turned the sleeve over, only to find more cows. According to one eyewitness, “Ah, Friesians” was all the baffled MD could muster.Three months later, Atom Heart Mother became Pink Floyd’s first No.1 album. EMI’s powers that be already knew that strange-sounding hairy rock groups sold lots of records. Now, it seemed, they could do so without including their name or the album title on the cover. Just a cow. In a field.
But in 2016, Atom Heart Mother is probably better known for the cow than the music. Revisiting the album now is like entering a parallel universe inhabited by epic orchestral suites and songs created from the sounds of boiling kettles and frying bacon. Pink Floyd would make better albums, but it remains the apotheosis of their experimental era or as guitarist David Gilmour later described it, “Our weird shit.” It was the most thrown-together thing we’ve ever done.
An album that ended with a cow in a field in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, began over a year before in Rome. Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni had commissioned Pink Floyd to score his next film, Zabriskie Point. They arrived in Rome to start recording in November ’69. Antonioni’s 1966 movie Blow-Up had been a clumsy portrayal of Swinging London, and Zabriskie Point was a drama about US student radicals fighting ‘the man’, blowing stuff up and having lots of sex.
The early Pink Floyd embraced the unexpected and the concept of being, as drummer Nick Mason put it, “more than just a pop group”. They’d stopped releasing singles after December 1968 and had followed their second album, that year’s A Saucerful Of Secrets, with a soundtrack for the art house movie More.
Floyd’s next release, 1969’s double album Ummagumma, included Roger Waters’ musique concrète experiment, Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In a Cave And Grooving With A Pict. The piece was fashioned out of found sounds, with its composer ranting in a Scottish accent.
Zabriskie Point was the next stage on Floyd’s varied musical journey, but the band quickly discovered that Antonioni was an impossible taskmaster. “We did some great stuff,” insisted Waters. However, the director, worried their music would overpower his movie, criticised everything: “You’d change whatever was wrong and he’d still be unhappy. It was hell.”
Floyd lasted two weeks in Rome and then came home. Zabriskie Point appeared in February 1970 and was a resounding flop. The soundtrack included just three Floyd tracks, padded out with songs by the Grateful Dead, among others. However, Floyd’s discarded outtakes contained a musical sequence around which the Atom Heart Mother suite would evolve. “Dave Gilmour came up with the original riff,” Waters told Capital Radio DJ Nicky Horne. “We all listened to it and thought, ‘Oh, that’s quite nice…’ But we all thought the same thing, which was that it sounds like a theme from some awful western.”
Note: Material for this post was collated from other sources