Saturday, October 8, 2011

Pink Floyd's "Obscured by Clouds:" The Ghost of Steve Jobs

While the rest of the city was waking up, the shopping center was eerily still.  Its well-lit window advertisements faced one another but, waiting in the early dawn, beckoned to no one. The only establishment open at this hour was the quiet coffee shop that has become the site of my ritual morning stop. I exited with a large coffee in hand and finally felt prepared to start my day when I noticed that the Apple store, with its frameless windows and backlit iconography, seemed particularly surreal in its stillness. Stopping for a second to absorb the moment, I found several flower arrangements set up by the door, left in tribute to Steve Jobs.

From a business standpoint, I never forgave Apple for trying to convert my MP3 library to ITunes format. As an idea person, though, Steve Jobs did a lot to make computers less like the 80s movie Wargames and more like the idealized 60s future in Star Trek. His gadgets and others based on them have burrowed into everyday American life, and because of this, Apple devotees regard him as a saint. Still, to go out in the middle of the night and lay flowers on the front door of your local Apple store seems a little like zealotry.

As I pulled away, I took in the scene one last time through my car window and the surreal took a turn towards the dreamlike under the influence of Pink Floyd;s distinctive atmospherics. I have always been a dedicated fan of Pink Floyd, but my teenage prejudice against 60s style production has been a limiting factor on anything released before Dark Side of the Moon. I'm really quite embarrassed to admit that my knowledge of this era of Floyd’s repertoire is patchy at best. With the exception of Meddle, I’ve never gone back to immerse myself in it - that is, until the recent spate of sale-priced Pink Floyd remasters provided the incentive. Obscured by Clouds was the one to open this can of worms, and that was, at the time, serving as Jobs’ ad-hoc requiem.

There was a lot that I did not know about this album. Obscured by Clouds is a soundtrack to a film called La Vallee. In the film, an isolated tribe in New Guinea meets the Western gaze for the first time: a classic rendering of the transformational ethnographic encounter.

Obscured by Clouds was recorded quite quickly during the Dark Side of the Moon sessions. The musical connection it has with this land mark and its predecessor is noticeable. From a certain perspective, it does seem a bit like a collection of Meddle B-sides and Dark Side demos. By itself, Obscured by Clouds might seem less coherent than its bookends, but when viewed as an extension of these classic albums it has an engaging relevance. Regardless, it holds together better than most other bands’ best work.

Pink Floyd rarely played the Obscured by Clouds material live, so vintage performance footage is pretty rare. Still, several tracks, like Childhood’s End, harbor the ghost of future Floyd.

Pink Floyd’s early resume boasts a significant amount of soundtrack work, and doubtlessly their music predisposes itself towards this use. Throughout their career, they capitalized on the visual and narrative capacities of their music (as have their fans – Wizard of Oz, anyone?). This characteristic was most likely cultivated and formed in their early soundtrack work. It’s a particularly unique quality of Pink Floyd’s instrumental side to suggest a narrative where one is not explicitly given. For me, it caused me to contemplate a man I did not know, but that inspired an empty store, a glowing icon, and floral tributes in the breaking dawn.

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