This week marks the 50th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s seventh studio album, Obscured by Clouds. Preceding the might of 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon, the album seems to have been unfairly dismissed to the background of the Pink Floyd discography amongst the obscurity of Ummagumma and More.
The band recorded the material for Obscured by Clouds over two sessions at Strawberry Studios in Château d’Hérouville, France, in early 1972. They had been asked to create music to soundtrack director Barbet Schroeder’s new film La Vallée following the success of their previous collaboration on More (1969).
At the time, the band were already working on The Dark Side of the Moon and hence they felt a little rushed to get the score finished, resume other studio work and fulfil touring obligations. As they were already focused on another project, they didn’t feel the need to make the soundtrack work as a standalone album. Consequently, much of the material was made without a central focus on solos or choruses.
Before writing the music for the soundtrack, they watched a rough cut of La Vallée and used a stopwatch to determine how long specific sequences would need to be. The lack of solos and major choruses in most of the songs allowed them to cross-fade them in to fit certain passages of the film. Despite such limitations, the final product brought a selection of very well structured and immersive tracks.
The album is generally a cut against the grain in relation to Pink Floyd’s other contemporary work. While most of their other albums were prone to extended psychedelic excursions, the songs on Obscured by Clouds generally adhered to the four-minute mark. The heavier use of acoustic guitar also gave an out of character country music feel to several of the songs, especially ‘Wot’s… Uh the Deal?’ and the album’s only single, ‘Free Four’.
The unique, light sound of the album helped to prove the diverse talents of the band but may also explain why some of the Pink Floyd purists weren’t particularly accepting of the album at the time.
The beautiful acoustic tracks are joined by a balancing group of heavier and more familiarly prog-rock sounding songs, such as the eponymous instrumental opener, ‘Mudmen’ and ‘The Gold It’s In The …’. The surprisingly upbeat and chirpy tone of the album is often juxtaposed by the sombre lyrics, especially in ‘Free Four’, which refers to the death of Roger Waters’ father during World War II.
Shortly after recording the music, the band fell out with the film company. They subsequently decided to name their album release Obscured by Clouds instead of La Vallée to sever the connection between the two parties. In response to this, the film was retitled La Vallée (Obscured by Clouds).
Despite the sour and petty ending, Pink Floyd managed to produce an astounding album in such a short period of time which fits the film perfectly but also feels so at home as a stand-alone record. While its upbeat and lighthearted tone is far removed from the highly successful sound of The Dark Side of the Moon, there are some shared strands of DNA in Richard Wright’s prominent use of the VCS 3 synthesiser and Nick Mason’s drumming on ‘Childhood’s End’ which was re-used later for the introduction to ‘Time’.
Listen to ‘Childhood’s End’ below. The song marked the last solo lyrical contribution from guitarist David Gilmour until Roger Waters’ departure from the band in the mid-1980s.