I’ve never got on well with Pink Floyd’s song Atom Heart Mother. Brass bands and psychedelic rock are distantly related musical cousins. Brass tends to present a hard, angular, pragmatic sound, completely at odds with the soft edges favoured by space cadets. And on the evidence of Atom Heart Mother, they mix about as well as oil and water. The brass arrives like an uninvited party guest, and parps and farts to no discernible purpose. To these ears, it sounds like it doesn’t belong there. Still, they tried, so full marks for effort.
Recognising their wrong turn, the band wisely banished the brass, and began to refine what would become their signature sound, a languid music of refined, understated power. Take a trip to Cambridge and follow the River Cam, as it meanders through the gentle furrows of Grantchester Meadows. There are echoes of natural themes throughout their work, and it’s no coincidence that their best music has always worked well outdoors.
But hang on a minute. Fast forward four decades and we stumble across a song called Heavenly Waters by British Sea Power. It’s got a brass band all over it, but seems to be trading on the thrill of Floyd’s Us and Them. The understated power is present and correct, and yet the brass doesn’t jar or stick out. It melds seamlessly to create a new and glorious whole. It’s a more fully realised version of what Atom Heart Mother could have been. Should have been. A missing link, if you like, an update on an inchoate vision.
So, brass bands and psychedelia: heaven or hell? And what other songs have you heard that suggest a much improved version of other bands’ earlier works in progress?
(The best version of Heavenly Waters is on British Sea Power’s ‘Sea of Brass’ album. It’s not available on Youtube, but for those with Spotify, check out the link below).