Pink Floyd: The Story Behind Atom Heart Mother

Friesian cow from the cover of Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother album
(Image credit: Hipgnosis Copyright Pink Floyd Music Ltd)

“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.

Pink Floyd’s gargantuan seven-volume box set, The Early Years 1965-1972, dedicates an entire volume, Devi/Ation, to Atom Heart Mother and the Zabriskie Point soundtrack that inspired its title track. Here you’ll find the earliest known recording of the AHM suite, plus filmed performances from Hyde Park and St Tropez, and much more besides.

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.

Pink Floyd in 1971

Pink Floyd in 1971 (Image credit: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)

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 (now TeamRock) 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.”

Pink Floyd live in Hyde Park on July 18, 1970

Pink Floyd live in Hyde Park on July 18, 1970 (Image credit: Michael Putland/ Getty Images)

It’s believed Pink Floyd performed the first version of their new instrumental on January 17, 1970 at the Lawns Centre in Hull. But they were still undecided on their next recording project.

“We’re going to do the music for an Alan Aldridge TV cartoon series called Rollo,” Waters announced in Melody Maker. “It’s rather Yellow Submarine-ish, about a little boy in space.”

But Waters never mentioned Rollo again. Instead, Pink Floyd entered EMI’s Abbey Road studios in early March to record their new work. EMI had just installed state-of-the-art eight-track recorders that used a specific one-inch tape. The company insisted this tape was not to be spliced and used for edits, meaning Waters and Mason recorded the backing track for their new composition in one 23.44-minute take. “It demanded the full range of our limited musicianship,” said Mason in his memoir, Inside Out.

Floyd had been playing the piece live for some weeks, tweaking the arrangement. “We added, subtracted and multiplied the elements,” said Mason. “But it still seemed to lack an essential something.”

Pink Floyd eventually decided that the missing ‘something’ was an orchestra and a choir. But first they needed someone to write a score.

Enter Ron Geesin, an Ayrshire-born banjo player, pianist, poet and writer. Geesin had started his career in a jazz band in the early 60s. By 1970 he was composing TV soundtracks in his basement flat/studio in Notting Hill.

Nick Mason met Geesin through a mutual friend, the Rolling Stones’ tour manager Sam Jonas Cutler. Geesin wasn’t familiar with Floyd’s music. And when he did hear some, he wasn’t impressed. “I called it ‘astral wanderings’,” he said.

Geesin also preferred opera to most rock’n’roll, and he took Mason, Gilmour and keyboard player Rick Wright to hear Wagner’s Parsifal at Covent Garden. “I think it’s significant that they all fell asleep,” he grumbled.

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.

Still, Geesin was the obvious choice to compose the score. He and Waters were already writing music for a scientific documentary called The Body. Between them, they crafted a soundtrack from conventional instruments and ‘human noises’ such as breathing, talking and farting. Atom Heart Mother would offer a similar fusion of ordinary and extraordinary sounds.

Talking in 2006, Geesin said Pink Floyd had only the vaguest idea of what they wanted. “As far as I can remember, Dave talked to me about the theme and Rick came round to my studio and we went through a few phrases for the vocal section. The Floyd then went off to play in America and left me to get on with it.”

Geesin composed his score in the midst of a heatwave, “stripped down to my underpants” in his Notting Hill basement. This half-naked Scotsman would play a vital role in Pink Floyd’s next album.

The early 1970s were a challenging time for classical session musicians – it was as if every long-haired rock group wanted cellos and tubas on their records. First The Beatles, then The Moody Blues, The Nice and Deep Purple. Now Pink Floyd.

Ron Geesin had just recorded a TV commercial with members of the New Philharmonic Orchestra. They’d treated him with respect. But when Geesin and the Floyd reconvened at Abbey Road in June, the EMI Pops Orchestra regarded Ron as another clueless hippie and made the session as difficult as possible. It didn’t help that an error in the score meant the first beat of the bar was absent, rendering it almost unplayable.

“For the more experienced director, it would have been considered a normal display of nerves and status-jostling and would have been put in its place,” Geesin said. “But I was a novice. I was not a conductor. You’d ask the EMI players a question and it was all, ‘You tell us… I don’t understand.’ One of the horn players was especially mouthy.”

When Geesin threatened to hit the mouthy horn player, he was told to leave. “They removed me,” he explained.

Geesin’s replacement was conductor John Alldis, a respected choral scholar. The contrary session musicians quickly fell in line, while Alldis’ choir contributed the track’s haunted-sounding, wordless vocals.

Waters’ description of the Atom Heart Mother suite’s opening movement (later titled Father’s Shout) as “plodding” is apt. But three minutes in, the plodding ends and Gilmour’s slide guitar takes over, underpinning Icelandic session man Hafliði Hallgrímsson’s lovely, mournful cello. On moments such as these, you get a taste of what Pink Floyd would soon achieve on Meddle and The Dark Side Of The Moon.

On the fourth movement, Funky Dung, the guitar and Hammond organ play lazy tag on what sounds like a precursor to Any Colour You Like. The choir’s gospel-like vocals evoke those later heard on Eclipse. Geesin and Waters’ Give Birth To A Smile, from the soundtrack for The Body and included on The Early Years, also used female backing vocals, alongside the rest of an uncredited Pink Floyd.

Meanwhile, the suite’s fifth section, Mind Your Throats Please, merged Nick Mason’s distorted voice shouting “Silence in the studio!” with the sound of Rick Wright’s piano played through a Leslie speaker cabinet, the same trick later used on Echoes.

Perhaps inevitably, Ron Geesin was frustrated by the finished article. Under John Alldis’ direction, the brass had become softer, less aggressive. “It wasn’t how I’d envisaged it,” Geesin said, before conceding, “It was a good compromise.”

On June 27, Pink Floyd played the Bath Festival Of Blues And Progressive Music, joined by Alldis’ choir and The Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. They didn’t make it onstage until dawn, where Waters introduced their new suite as ‘The Amazing Pudding’. “It was a heavenly sound,” claimed the reviewer in Disc And Music Echo. But less heavenly for a tuba player who had a pint of beer tipped into his instrument before the show.

A month later, Pink Floyd were back at Abbey Road to record the album’s second side. The creative freedom EMI allowed them now seems unthinkable in the era of micro-managed, focus-group pop. Even though Floyd were producing themselves for the first time, any snooping EMI executive was given short shrift.

Tape operator Alan Parsons, who would later help engineer The Dark Side Of The Moon, recalled the time an executive dropped by the studio.

“Floyd had a general aversion to record company people,” Parsons said. “An A&R guy showed up and Roger and Ron said, ‘We’ll play you a bit of the album.’”

Prior to his arrival, they’d hidden a turntable under the desk and proceeded to play an old 78rpm disc through the studio speakers. The A&R man looked baffled and walked out. “But we were all unable to keep a straight face.”

We all have our insecurities. I thought If was one of the brilliant gems.

Nick Mason once said Pink Floyd “never threw any musical ideas away”. Ron Geesin recalls the four songs on the album’s second side developing from “scraps of things they had lying around”. And long-time Floyd watchers know that the second side contains some buried treasure.

It’s the lyrics that make Roger Waters’ delicate ballad If so fascinating. ‘If I were a good man I’d understand the spaces between friends,’ Waters declares. ‘If I were alone I’d cry…’

This was Pink Floyd’s imperious spokesman showing a softer side. “We all have our insecurities,” said Ron Geesin. “I thought If was one of the brilliant gems.”

After all, Waters, like the rest of Pink Floyd, hadn’t forgotten Syd Barrett’s forced departure. While they were making Atom Heart Mother, the fragile Barrett was recording his second solo album next door.

Geesin was there the day Barrett appeared in Floyd’s studio. He sat on his hands, stared at his old bandmates for a few minutes and then disappeared. “He spun out again as quickly as he spun in.”

Next up was Rick Wright’s Summer ’68, a song about a casual encounter with a groupie, featuring the EMI Pops Orchestra’s buoyant brass. It’s a very human song on an often alien-sounding album.

“In the summer of ’68 there were groupies everywhere,” said a wistful Wright. “They’d come and look after you like a personal maid… and leave you with a dose of the clap.”

‘Human’ is also the key to David Gilmour’s charming Fat Old Sun. A very English hymn to the wonders of ‘summer evening birds’ and ‘new mown grass’, it suggests a snapshot of the Arcadian countryside set to music.

“It’s fantastically overlooked,” said Gilmour, who wanted the song included on the 2001 Floyd compilation Echoes. “Tried very hard to push the others… but they weren’t having it.”

The album ended with Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast, a meandering instrumental augmented by the sound of Floyd roadie Alan Styles cooking bacon, eggs and toast, and rendered in sumptuous quadrophonic sound. “One take went, ‘Egg Frying Take One,’ followed by, ‘Whoops!’ as the egg dropped,” recalled Parsons.

Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast is quite interesting,” said Nick Mason, who considered the song his baby. “But in some ways, the sounds effects are the most interesting part.”

“It was the most thrown-together thing we’ve ever done,” remarked a rather dismissive Gilmour.

Fans would spend decades pondering what Atom Heart Mother’s filmic prog rock concerto, folky ballads and frying eggs actually meant. But nobody, including Pink Floyd, was entirely sure. Commissioned to create the cover artwork, Hipgnosis’ Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell didn’t have a clue either. They proposed putting a cow on the cover almost as a joke, but the band loved the idea.

With its striking cover image in place, the group still needed a title, and ‘The Amazing Pudding’ failed to stick. Inspiration came on July 16, when Pink Floyd recorded a concert session for DJ John Peel (now included on Devi/Ation).

Former BBC producer Jeff Griffin was at the Beeb’s Paris Cinema studio that night. “John was reading the Evening Standard and Roger was looking over his shoulder,” Griffin revealed. “Peely said, ‘Come on, what’s the name of this piece? I bet you find something in the paper.’”

Also present was Ron Geesin, who insists it was he who told Waters to look in the newspaper. “I said, ‘Your title’s in there.’” And it was.

Waters leafed through the pages and stopped at a story headlined ‘Atom Heart Mother Named’, about a 56-year‑old woman, Constance Ladell, who’d been fitted with a radioactive plutonium pacemaker. “Roger said, ‘That’s it! Atom Heart Mother!’ – which had nothing whatsoever to do with the music,” laughed Griffin. “We were saying, ‘Why?’ But the band said, ‘Why not?’”

Two days later, Pink Floyd headlined over The Third Ear Band and Kevin Ayers’ Whole Wide World at a free concert in London’s Hyde Park. They performed Atom Heart Mother again with the John Alldis Choir and the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. But Ron Geesin walked out in tears: “The performance of the brass was terrible.”

In the summer of ’68 there were groupies everywhere. They’d come and look after you like a personal maid… and leave you with a dose of the clap.

Geesin had co-written Atom Heart Mother but he had to let it make its own way in the world. Pink Floyd’s manager Steve O’Rourke soon reminded him of the perpetual struggle between art and commerce. Geesin had divided his original score into movements, marked A to Q: “It was a practical necessity to see where I was going with the writing, but we all assumed it was one track.”

O’Rourke told him that due to Floyd’s US record deal, the suite had to be divided into separately titled movements as quickly as possible: “Or else they’d only get paid publishing royalties on one song.” Between them, Geesin and Pink Floyd carved the piece up into six movements. Geesin suggested the title Father’s Shout after one of his heroes, US jazz pianist Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines. The group suggested other titles inspired by the ‘cow’ cover, including Funky Dung and Breast Milky. For monetary purposes, one song became six.

It turned out to be a shrewd move. Released on October 2, 1970, Atom Heart Mother reached No.1 in Britain, making it Floyd’s biggest seller yet. Beat Instrumental described it as “an utterly fantastic record”, and Circus magazine in the US (where it reached No.55) called it a “trip trip trip, a tippy top trip”.

Soon after, director Stanley Kubrick asked if he could use the suite in his forthcoming dystopian drama A Clockwork Orange. But Kubrick wanted to edit the piece, and Floyd refused. Later, the LP sleeve made a fleeting appearance in the movie.

These days Ron Geesin has mixed feelings about his most famous work. His next major assignment after AHM was the score for director John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday. Since then, he has created sound and video installations and recorded some pioneering electronic music.

“I’d like to stand up and say, ‘Look here, world! I’ve done 2,000 pieces of work, some of which I think are much better than Atom Heart Mother, but no one has heard them.”

It also bugged him a little that he was never given a co-credit on the album. “Though that was never discussed with the group,” he explained.

(Image credit: Hipgnosis copyright Pink Floyd Music Ltd)

The Atom Heart Mother suite became a fixture of Pink Floyd’s live set throughout 1970 and ’71, until deposed by their next side-long epic, Echoes. Roger Waters performed If on his early solo tours, and David Gilmour reprised Fat Old Sun for 2006’s On An Island tour. But the band members have often been critical of the title track. Waters called it “rubbish”; Gilmour once described it as “absolute crap”.

Still, time’s a great healer. Gilmour joined Ron Geesin to perform the suite at the 2008 Chelsea Festival, with cellist Caroline Dale, a chamber choir, brass players from the Royal College Of Music and an Italian Pink Floyd tribute band, Mun Floyd. Geesin resisted the temptation to tamper too much with the score beforehand. “It’s a formed work,” he said. “Don’t poke it about too much or it’ll fall apart.”

Whatever misgivings Pink Floyd may have about Atom Heart Mother, it turned out to be a crucial step on the road to the world-conquering The Dark Side Of The Moon. But it’s more than that. Like the new The Early Years box set, Atom Heart Mother is a celebration of the wilfully experimental Pink Floyd. Before the big hits and the even bigger money, it’s the sound of a contrary art rock band making an ungodly racket in Abbey Road, while their EMI paymasters wondered what the hell they were doing.

Like that Friesian peering balefully from its front cover, the music on Atom Heart Mother challenges and confuses, but somehow draws you in. And in 2016, Pink Floyd’s “weird shit” has never sounded better.

The Early Years: 1965-1972 is out on November 11 via Pink Floyd Records. See the band’s website for more information.

Dark Side Of The Moo

How a cow helped give Pink Floyd their first No.1 album.

Atom Heart Mother’s world-famous cow came from a brief conversation between Pink Floyd and their sleeve designers Hipgnosis in the summer of 1970. “The Floyd told us they wanted something un-psychedelic,” recalled Hipgnosis’ co-founder Storm Thorgerson.

Hipgnosis had previously created a mishmash of cosmic swirls for A Saucerful Of Secrets, and an infinite ‘image within an image’ for Ummagumma. It was time for a change.

“I wanted to design a non-cover after the non-title and the non-concept album – something that was not like the other covers,” explained Thorgerson, though it was Storm’s friend, conceptual artist John Blake, who suggested a cow: “The thinking being that it was as un-psychedelic as you could get.”

Hipgnosis photographed the Friesian, Lulubelle III, and members of her herd, in a farmer’s field in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire. Hipgnosis presented Pink Floyd with three potential images: the cow, a woman entering a doorway and an upside-down diver. But when Roger Waters saw the cow, he burst out laughing. It was a done deal.

However, selling the idea to EMI proved more difficult. “The EMI art department hated us,” said Thorgerson. After being shown an album cover depicting a cow but eschewing the name of the group and an LP title, they hated them even more. “We were accused of trying to destroy the company. But Floyd backed us all the way.”

The cow and the missing information proved no obstacle to selling records. Instead, Atom Heart Mother went to No.1 in the UK and Top 5 in France and the Netherlands.

Never ones to waste a good concept, Hipgnosis recycled the woman in a doorway design for Principal Edwards Magic Theatre’s 1971 release, The Asmoto Running Band (which was produced by Nick Mason). Their upside-down diver finally found a home on hard rockers Def Leppard’s 1981 album High’N’Dry.

But it was Pink Floyd’s cow cover that the late, great Storm Thorgerson fell in love with. “I do like it,” he revealed. “It’s just so cow.”

Who was the ‘Alan’ in Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast?

The inside story of Pink Floyd’s marmalade‑loving, bacon-frying roadie.

When Pink Floyd released Atom Heart Mother, few outside their inner circle knew who the ‘Alan’ in Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast was. All we knew was that East Anglian-accented voice declaring: ‘I like marmalade… porridge… any cereal…’ while toast popped and bacon sizzled in our ears.

Roadie Alan Styles got around. He could be heard briefly on Pink Floyd’s The Merry Xmas Song, a joke number recorded for a 1969 BBC session. He appeared next to fellow roadie Pete Watts on the back cover of Ummagumma, and turned up unannounced in Mick Rock’s famous pictures of Syd Barrett outside his Earls Court flat.

Yet despite his nipple-length hair, Alan Styles was almost a decade older than his employers. He’d served in the merchant navy in the 50s before becoming a punt master on the River Cam in his home town of Cambridge.

Styles was also a musician. “Alan played piano, harmonica and saxophone, and trumpet in a big band,” his sister Jeanette Holland told Prog. “But after his first marriage broke up, he gave it up and went off with Pink Floyd.”

Styles became a mainstay of the Floyd’s crew from the mid-60s onwards, and was often mistaken for one of the group. “He was a real character,” said Nick Mason. “But he got to be such a big star, we were afraid to ask him to do things like lifting gear.”

Styles left the group in the early 70s after he met a woman on a US tour. They had a son and daughter, and Alan spent over 30 years living on a houseboat in Sausalito, where he became a well‑known figure in the ‘anchor-out’ community.

Interviewed in 2007, Jeanette thought her brother should have received royalties from Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast: “They wrote the song for him. But Alan was a big softie. Dave was very good to him, and he loved Roger Waters.”

Styles suffered his first stroke in the late 1990s. However, he remained, living rent-free, on his anchored-out houseboat until his health deteriorated for good. He died of pneumonia in December 2011.

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Mark Blake

Mark Blake is a music journalist and author. His work has appeared in The Times and The Daily Telegraph, and the magazines Q, Mojo, Classic Rock, Music Week and Prog. He is the author of Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, Is This the Real Life: The Untold Story of Queen, Magnifico! The A–Z Of Queen, Peter Grant, The Story Of Rock's Greatest Manager and Pretend You're in a War: The Who & The Sixties.