Pink Floyd originally consisted of Roger Waters (bass guitar), Rick Wright (keyboards), Nick Mason (drums), and Syd Barrett (guitar/vocals). Barrett was the driving creative force during the band’s early days and was responsible for writing nearly all the songs on their trippy 1967 debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
But Barrett was becoming increasingly unstable and unpredictable—probably due to all the acid he was dropping—and so he was replaced by guitarist David Gilmour. Barrett was fired soon after the band’s second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, and so Pink Floyd was left searching for a new musical identity.
Ummagumma, released in 1969 and only a year removed from Barrett’s departure, is Pink Floyd at their most directionless. A lengthy double-album comprised of both live and studio tracks, the term Ummagumma might as well be defined as “we don’t really know what the hell we’re doing but here ya go anyways.”
Let’s start with the five studio songs.
Each band member contributes one solo track (two from Waters) and every song sounds different from all the others. Diversity is good, but not when the music sounds like this. Richard Wright’s “Sisyphus” is 13-minutes of keyboard cacophony that doesn’t go anywhere, while Nick Mason’s extended drum solo in “The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party” is certainly no “Moby Dick”.
“Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict” (yes, that’s a real song title) is probably Pink Floyd’s most pointless song ever: a five-minute sound collage of…several species of small furry animals gathered together in a cave. What’s a pict and how does one exactly groove with it? Who cares.
There are two worthwhile songs here. Waters’ acoustic “Grantchester Meadows” might run a little long (7 minutes), but it is still a very relaxing song. Likewise, David Gilmour’s “The Narrow Way”—on which he plays all the instruments—shows his growing confidence as a songwriter and foreshadows the directions that Pink Floyd would take in the future.
The four songs that were recorded live are a bit of a saving grace for Ummagumma. Once again, the tracks are pretty long (ranging from 8 to 12 minutes) but they manage to be interesting the whole way through, more or less. The spacey in-concert jam sessions are far more enjoyable than the randomness of the studio “experiments”. “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” is the album’s hypnotic highlight, and it is as good as its title.
So, if the live half of Ummagumma is good and the studio half is (aside from “Grantchester Meadows” and “The Narrow Way”) terrible, does that make the whole of Ummagumma decent? Not exactly. I guess it’s worthwhile for the Pink Floyd die-hard, but I’d say that the best thing about Ummagumma is the album cover. Hard to argue when even Pink Floyd themselves have largely disowned the album.