“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.