Pink Floyd: “Wot’s… Uh, the Deal?” (Obscured By Clouds, 1972)
It’s the curse of the middle child. Someone else came first and had all the attention to themselves, and then you were only the focus until the younger sibling came along and stole your thunder. When people talk about Pink Floyd, Obscured By Clouds usually rates little more than a passing mention, overwhelmed by the albums it sits between, Meddle and Dark Side of the Moon.
Meddle earns its rep as the one that set the mold for the band, the one where they stopped flailing, focused, and made a really killer, back-to-front. Dark Side is of course the one that tens of millions of people all over the world bought, the one that’s still in heavy rotation on the radio today, the one that put them on an entirely different level.
And Obscured By Clouds is… the soundtrack they recorded in two weeks for Barbet Schroeder’s La Valee. It is easily the most conventional rock record the band ever made, a collection of ten songs, four of which are instrumentals, and two of which are almost shockingly tender ballads. There are no concepts, no extended pieces, no bits of studio experimentation. Only three of the songs ever made it into their live set (“Obscured by Clouds,” “When You’re In,” and “Childhood’s End”), and none stayed there for long.
Even in Nick Mason’s own biography of the band, this album barely comes up. He spends a page talking about it, and introduces it as a distraction from the work of developing Dark Side. It’s really quite a good album, though, and rather makes me wonder what might’ve happened if the band had been put on a tight deadline more often.
It also rather casually marks a few landmarks in the development of the band. The title track and “Childhood’s End” feature Mason’s first use of electronic drums, which would rear their heads importantly on “Time” and “Welcome to the Machine” later one. The title track also features their first prominent use of the VCS3 synthesizer (those big, droning tones), which is one of the signature sounds of Dark Side.
The VCS3 also features on “Free Four,” but that song is more important for being the first song in which Roger Waters brought together his disillusionment with the music business and his resentment of his father’s death at Anzio during World War II. “Free Four” is essentially the seed that grew into The Wall, though it approaches the subject matter with considerably more humor and bounce—it was also the band’s first big radio hit in the US.
My favorite song was always the ballad that closed side one, “Wot’s… uh, the Deal?” I suspect that the hideously awkward title, which is actually sung in the song, was hilarious to the band at the time; now it’s just curious. Bu the song itself is lovely. the middle has both a guitar solo and a piano solo, but they’re quick, tight, and memorably melodic, and the lyrics, among the only ones on the album to tie in thematically to the movie, make for one of the band’s only direct love songs.
The movie itself is a product of its time, which was really the last era when any part of the map of the Earth could still be marked “obscured by clouds.” It’s a post-hippie back-to-the-land story in its own way, with an upper crust woman joining a few other Europeans on a one-way journey into the backwoods of Papua New Guinea. The film has documentary-style scenes of the Mapuga people.
The thing that keeps the film from descending into finding-yourself-through-primitivism/they-have-so-much-to-teach-us cliche is the fact that the travelers, idealistically searching for a Shangri-la in this uncharted, inaccessible valley are so obviously doomed. They have not even a fraction of the ability to survive in this place that the natives do, and Schroeder never pretends that they do. The movie essentially declares hippie idealism dead.
The band scored the film by watching rough cuts and timing them with stopwatches, which is not a very precise way to score a film. In the final cut, the songs are cross-faded in and out. A couple of them play diegetically over radios.
The band titled the album Obscured By Clouds after a dispute with the film studio, rather than title it after the film. The film was retroactively retitled La Vallee (Obscured By Clouds) after Pink Floyd became global stars.
"Wot’s… uh, the Deal?" song features the band at their most relaxed and easy-going, not a look we got often. It also provides a glimpse of the band we didn’t get, the one that settled into a comfortable groove making ten-song rock albums with no overarching themes. It’s probably a band that wouldn’t have gotten nearly so famous. But it could have been a good one nonetheless.