"Wots... Uh the Deal"
By Kevin Cenedella
Imagine, if you will, a time when Pink Floyd straddled the line between being a novelty act and achieving arena rock superstardom. A time when their reputation as conceptual geniuses was not yet set and they actually considered calling it quits. The early seventies were a trying time for the band and their emotions often swung with successive triumphs and failures. By 1972, they had not yet achieved what they had been working towards for five years: massive success in the U.S. In America, on one hand, they could be assured that they had enough of a following to consistently sell out places like the Hollywood Bowl. On the other, they had made uneven (Meddle), and sometimes downright bad (Atom Heart Mother) albums that didn't sell particularly well to their American cousins.
This period now seems almost quaint, in that, the struggling Pink Floyd spent a considerable amount of their time making movie soundtracks. In those years, Pink Floyd favored soundtracks because they were easy money and had less of the inherent public and record company pressure of "official" releases.
In February of 1972 they assembled at Chateau d' Herouville in France to score Barbet Schroederís film La Valle. They only booked the studio for two weeks. For Pink Floyd, perfectionists and relentless studio tinkerers, this was highly unusual. Because of a falling out with the movie producers, these recording sessions eventually became an official album, Obscured By Clouds. Upon release, it did little to fulfill their dreams of massive success. However, Pink Floyd knew they didn't have to be despondent. They had been working on another album before the recording of Obscured By Clouds and would finish it soon after. Obscured was later viewed by the band as only a distraction from the substantial pressure of making the album on which their fates ultimately rested: Dark Side Of The Moon.
And so, because of the resounding and immediate success of its descendant, Obscured has rested in the shadows and has only recently begun to be acknowledged for what it is: a hidden gem. The album suffers from some of the same inconsistencies that had plagued their earlier work. But, in Obscured you can clearly hear a band on the edge of a breakthrough. More importantly, its strongest songs all contains clues about what would come next.
"Wot's...Uh the Deal," whose words were written by Roger Waters and whose music was composed by David Gilmour, may be the albumís strongest song. It is required listening for anyone interested in knowing what made these mild-mannered gentlemen tick because these same themes would keep them ticking to the tune of 200 million albums sold.
In 1972, Roger Waters was clearly the groupís leader and was growing everyday as a lyric writer. On "Wots...Uh The Deal," gone are the grand visions of Outer Space and fantasy that had defined his earlier work. He was increasingly looking inward towards his own neuroses. More importantly, he believed that in exploring his own neuroses, he could touch on themes that could be related to universally. He would later say that this period (starting with Meddle) was the beginning of "empathy." Take the middle verse:
What's the deal?
Gotta make it to the next meal
Try to keep up with the turning of the wheel
Mile after mile
Stone after stone
You turn to speak but you're alone
A million miles from home
You're on your own
Water's manages to succinctly express in one verse what he would spend the entire next decade expounding upon. Namely, isolation from society (The Wall), despair in the face of time passing (DSOTM), and his growing disgust with the music business (Wish You Were Here).
The verse also seems to be a perfect summation of early adulthood-the period in life that Waterís was just exiting-a period when oneís expectations rarely coincide with the reality of the world. Pink Floyd were Londonís darlings in 1967. At the time, it would have been easy to imagine them achieving a meteoric rise to fame on par with the Beatles or the Stones. However, for Pink Floyd, that was not in the cards. "Wotís.." lyrics encapsulate the bandís long slog on the road trying to capture the commercial success that had largely eluded them since Syd Barrettís departure in 1968.
For Roger Water, the lyrics were extremely personal. Water's constantly ruminated on the subject of time passing and the line "try to keep up with the turning of the wheel" expresses it perfectly. On Dark Sideís "Time," he would describe his uniquely British manner of coping with getting old as "hanging on in quiet desperation." "Wot" also shows Waters dipping his toes into the subtle humor that he would use on future songs like "Have a Cigar." During the chorus he states that "I think Iím growing old." He would later say that he was shocked when, at 27, he realized that "preparation" for his adult life was over and it was now up to him alone to live "a unique life." The truth leads to empowerment and by the third verse Roger concludes his shock was actually a blessing:
Someone sent the promised land
And I grabbed it with both hands
Now I'm the man on the inside looking out
Although some of the seeds of Rogerís discontent had already been sowed by 1972, his estrangement from his bandmates had not yet begun. Co-writing credits between Waters, Gilmour, and Richard Wright are shared pretty evenly on Obscured. However, Obscured can also be seen as the end of an era for Pink Floyd; it is the last album that any member other than Waters wrote lyrics during Floydís classic lineup. This was a relief for David Gilmour in particular, who, well into the future, would express embarrassment over the lyrics he had contributed up until then. He didnít have to worry about lyrics on "Wots" though and it is a joy envisioning Gilmour and Waters writing this beauty together.
Gilmour's contribution is significant and it is clear that he was finding his musical footing. Remember, in 1972, Gilmour was not yet considered a guitar god, and as Pink Floydís newest member, it had taken him years to find his niche. That niche was increasingly helping Waters bring his ideas to life. Beginning around this time, Waters began to harbor a prejudice for more words at the expense of melody and more "concepts" at the expense of standalone songs. Gilmour and Wright always wanted the opposite. Obscured By Clouds was recorded in that sweet spot when neither side was able to win over the other. Gilmourís melancholy acoustic start and Wright's tasteful flourishes make the song. Gilmourís choice of the lap steel as the vehicle for a solo is inspired. It was becoming increasing clear that his soon-to-be famous black Stratocaster was not the only instrument he excelled at playing. As for the vibe, the acoustic-melancholia into rousing-slide-guitar-solo was to be one of Gilmourís calling cards and it was used expertly even as far ahead as The Division Bellís closer, "High Hopes."
Ironically, Obscured by Clouds may be a delight because of the time constraints that had vexed the band while making it, and that, depending on your point of view, may reflect negatively on what Pink Floyd were to become as a band. One of the things that makes Obscured so interesting is that it is the last Pink Floyd album with Waters' that was devoid of a "concept." The "remember-kids-this-is-not-an-official-release. Oh-wait, fuck-you-Barbet- Schroeder, it-is" circumstance was obviously unique in the band's history. That circumstance makes the album the sonic equivalent of a brilliant student pulling an all-nighter and getting a C+. If Pink Floyd had been given months to make Obscured By Clouds I'm sure they could have pulled a solid 'A.' However, giving Waters months to record and then relieving the burden of having to score a movie would also have assured that a concept was attached to an album that doesnít really need it. I'm sure I would not like it nearly as much. The album offers beautiful musical snippets which arenít burdened by having to get any "point" across.
Obscured is airy and meandering and even frivolous at some points, but none of those qualities should be mistaken as flaws. Itís "imperfection" is what makes it so interesting considering the exactingness of the albums to come. Waterís would soon have the power, and thus the time, to write and re-write and record and erase to his hearts delight. He, and to a lesser extent the others, would also have the desire and luxury of denying access to anyone not within the bandís tight circle. Waters would eventually pull the shades down to stop any whispers about the charming fallibility of the men who had created Obscured. He had only shown their conceptual imperfections because the clock was ticking, after all. By the late seventies, he had firmly sided with prose over poetry and he would increasing use more prose to explain the "concepts" that are absent on Obscured. Consequently, Gilmour and Wrightís melodies and vocal harmonies would increasingly take a backseat to Waterís overarching visions, and unfortunately, his vocals. Water's would eventually no longer make music that allowed your mind to wander. He would no longer want to leave anything up for interpretation.
Pink Floyd never played "Wots...Uh The Deal" live. Dark Side was released nine months later and its songs would dominate their sets for the next five years. Maybe Pink Floyd was not initially enamored with it anyway. Other songs from Obscured By Clouds graced their sets well into 1973. However, David Gilmour seems to reserve a soft spot in his heart for the song, as he would dust it off for 2006's Live at Gdansk.
Although charming, "Wots" and Obscured By Clouds exude a sense of melancholy that is notable even for the often-depressed Floyd. It is clear that they were all both anxious and exhausted at the time. Pink Floydís new mammoth boxed set The Early Years includes a long forgotten French television special promoting La Valle which shows footage of Pink Floyd recording "Wots" and an interview with Waterís and Gilmour. The interview is pretty standard early-seventies Pink Floyd fare in that Waterís seems both annoyed and tired and Gilmour seems amused and really stoned. It is a dichotomy that anyone who has watched Live at Pompeii is familiar with: Gilmour taking it all in and Waterís taking it way too seriously. When asked why theyíre recording France, Waters whispers "income tax." In response to a question about their future plans, this exchange follows:
Gilmour: "We plan to do everything. I donít think weíll suddenly stop touring America or suddenly stop saying "yes" to doing movie scores if people come along..."
Waters: "Unless we have our breakdown of course."
Gilmour: "Yeah. Unless we crack up and fall about on the floor raving."
Waters: "You reach a point where thereís hundreds of people asking you to do things...I still personally think weíre accepting too much work. (annoyed): Is that it?"
They were truly a band on the precipice, they just didnít know of what yet; financial ruin, global success, collapse from exhaustion, madness, or dare I say it-even genuine happiness were all on the table. DSOTM would preclude the first option and propel the second. Collapse from exhaustion in the near term would also be staved off, but only because the success of DSOTM made succumbing to it financially unreasonable. Gilmour's and Waters' comments about actually going crazy are obviously overstated and said in jest-by Gilmour at least- but the general idea that anyone could succumb to madness is what made DSOTM so universally relatable. As for happiness, by this point, Waters at least, was clearly wondering "is all of this worth it?"
The answer to that question may be a resounding "yes" for us, and "no" for him. In fact, Waters has commented frequently on why it might have been better if Pink Floyd had called it quits after DSOTM was released. We, as fans, would have been neglected an entire decade of excellent work. But, that work was largely based on Rogerís general miserableness and his growing antipathy towards the other members of Pink Floyd. The post-Syd/pre-DSOTM period is remembered now by Roger rather wistfully as a romantic time where everything was peaches and cream. However, there is considerable evidence, both in print and film, that he is remembering an era that never happened. Why does he remember it as such? It is probably because, like running a marathon, chasing the dream was thrilling but never actually much fun. For almost anyone else in the world, the "fun" would have come after having seeing commas in a bank statement. But, the depth of Rogerís self-loathing should never be underestimated.
On the plus side for Roger, he would no longer have to tolerate sitting through interviews which only played to people who spoke a language he didnít. He would largely forgo doing any at all after DSOTM. Pink Floyd became so successful that movie soundtracks were now no longer necessary (unless the movie was based on a Pink Floyd album of course). As a consequence of the first fact, future fans would have to put in a little research to find out who the men that made Obscured actually were. Sadly, the second fact meant that fans would never again be blessed with beautiful little albums as enjoyable as Obscured by Clouds.
Waterís has been accused of being a lot of things, but being imperceptive has never been one of them. There he stood, in February of 1972, knowing that he was too self-aware, too self-critical, and too obsessed with perfection to ever enjoy what his life would become after grabbing that brass ring. Though he would never admit it now, I suspect he looked at Gilmourís hash-induced cheesy grin with envy. Only a year from superstardom, while recording Obscuredís other standout track, "Free Four", he leaned into a microphone and decided to prolong his anguish and postpone any reckoning. He sang:
So all aboard for the American tour
And maybe you'll make it to the top
But mind how you go
And I can tell you cuz I know
You may find it hard to get off
ED NOTE: Also see Cenedella's new obsessive book about Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here called Dating the Demo, available on Amazon
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|