A lovely, sunny July afternoon in the heart of the Sussex countryside provided the perfect backdrop for a very special chat with Ron Geesin.
Ron was on fine form, and very happy to talk at length about not just the 2008 performances of Atom Heart Mother, but about his days with Pink Floyd in the late sixties and early seventies - sailing with Nick, exploring The Body with Roger, and his thoughts, looking back, on Atom Heart Mother.
Read our exclusive three-part interview to find out the full story of the Chelsea Festival shows, which includes a look to the future for the piece. Peppered with his son Joe's own pictures from the concert rehearsals, the interview reveals Ron's thoughts on music, the media, what might happen to footage shot in the run-up to the shows, and much, much more...
- So how did the 38th anniversary of AHM [Ron chuckles] come to be celebrated, in such style too, at the Chelsea Festival?
A friend of mine knew a millionaire who is on the committee, or the Board of Trustees, of the Chelsea Festival, and the millionaire said to a friend of mine last June, a year and a bit ago, "Can you think of anything high profile, or sensational, or something or other, that might work for next year?" This chap said, "Well, there's Ron, and Atom Heart Mother, and he might be able to get a Floyd along, or two of Floyd along, or something..."
So I didn't know anything about this, and then he invited me out for a pint, a couple of weeks after that. After the first pint, into the second pint he said "Do you want to do any gigs, are you doing anything?"
He sort of slided this thing in: "What are you doing these days? How about..."
And then he hit me with it, and I said "Yes. I have conditions. And the conditions are, that it's in a show that's my show, and not the other way around". So then we had meetings up in London with the Festival Director and it gradually got going.
We identified a conductor, and another meeting to meet the conductor, and then the conductor just happened to have a choir which was perfect because we were wondering whether to have a children's choir. I even went to see the Educational Music Coordinator of Kensington and Chelsea but that all fell to nothing. It was a bad time of year, because any secondary school kids would have been doing their exams, so it just didn't work out. So we dropped that, but fortunate Mark [Forkgen] had the choir.
So that's how it came about.
- So that's the choir. How did it come about that you used the Italian band, Mun Floyd?
Because I had heard them, because they'd wanted to do AHM. It just happened that I was in Florence, nearby, about two or three years ago, and they were in that area doing a gig, and they played the non-orchestral version and they sounded good. But I think they had a different keyboard player at that time, who was not the original keyboard player. Since that time the original keyboard player had come back. But when I heard them, they sounded pretty tight, and KNEW the piece.
The Festival just said "Yes fine, we'll get them over".
- And the Brass Ensemble, did they come from the conductor as well?
No. They were top end Royal College of Music students, and THEY were all coming up for exams as well, as it happens, but they all seemed to manage, more or less!
- Almost a good piece of coursework, isn't it, to do the performance...
Yes! I went to the Royal College of Music and said, "Have you got a Brass Ensemble?" They said, "Oh you need to speak with our External Events Coordinator".
It twas she who fixed the musicians, and I never did meet the Head of Brass - still haven't met the Head of Brass! [Laughs] As I was telling you earlier they have this sort of convention in the classical business of putting in "deps" [deputies] for the proper players but in this case, because I'd written a difficult brass piece to open the show I really wanted that to be done pretty damn crisp, and it was very difficult to get that to come out, to show itself, with these deps turning up at rehearsals. We only had about three rehearsals in total, and I said to her after the second one that there were a few players that weren't there, that were different from the first time.
"Ah", she said, "that's because it's not a paid rehearsal". I was a bit dumbfounded, and then later on I wrote an email that said "It's a funny time to tell me, standing there after the second rehearsal when we've got hardly any time at all, because if they needed to be paid to be present, then we would have FOUND THE MONEY!" [Laughs]
So it was all a bit of a scramble - it was not how I would have wanted it. If you are talking about top end, from what I remember, when I used to do stuff with live musicians in the early seventies I would have had the top players from the London orchestras, I'd get the brass section from the Philharmonia, etc., etc., and I don't think they would have put deps in, they would have just - the fee would have been higher, but so would have been the result.
- So was the intention then that you would have had all these deps appearing for the rehearsals, and JUST for the performance itself you'd get the real performers?
It wasn't that bad. It was never more than three maximum were different. There were quite a few that were there on the first rehearsal, who were there at the concert, but there were some that weren't, and some had changed on the way. But the Royal College of Music certainly knew about it because I actually blew a bit and said that this is unacceptable, and how did they expect us to perform this difficult piece of music?
The External Events lady went off in a sulk, or up the wall, or stuck to the ceiling or some place, [laughs] and the Festival Director had to placate her, but I wasn't pulling back from that as I'd made the statement and I meant it. I was injured. One of my policies has always been - and this is an old cliché of mine - to accept the limitations and compose accordingly! [Laughs] And that could mean anything from arriving at a club to find the piano has half the notes missing, to the windows blowing out, whatever it might be - one accepts the diverse acts of nature and war... [Laughs]
So I did, in the end, but I'm allowed to have a bit of a protest now and again!
- Exactly: where would the creative arts be without protest?
Yeah! But I've learnt an incredible amount, through doing this. I could do it again and it would be better!
- So Caroline Dale: was that someone you'd worked with before?
No, I'd not heard of her before, because I'm not really in that scene, I'm just locked away in my studio. Or just locked away! [Laughs]
That was David's recommendation, because he'd worked with her. There wouldn't have been such a difficulty finding a top quality cellist but she turned out great, and we're very good friends and we're going to work on new things...
- Excellent... And I guess that leads on to how David got involved?
Yes. Well, going back to the original selling points of the show, to the committee, many of whom would not have hardly heard of Pink Floyd ("Which one's Pink?" etc., etc.) early on the message came to me: "Do you think you could get anyone involved?"
And I thought, well, certainly I'm not talking to Roger and anyway he had fuck all to do with the composition in the first place. There might have been a couple of simple bass lines, and that was that. I imagine that he'd been responsible for the musique concrète section - the cavalry charge, the motorbike, and the other bits and pieces - but as far as the musical composition goes he very much took a back seat on that.
It was really David Gilmour's guitar and chords, and Rick Wright's chords, so I thought the obvious one was David Gilmour, and also I had an open offer to go for a mug of tea, when I was at the University of Portsmouth as Senior Research Fellow in Sound, and I was going down that way and I could have popped in any time.
So, I phoned him up, and I asked him straight. And that was for the one night - the Saturday night. And then the Festival thought, "Ah, well, we're going to have to do two nights then, as we'll sell out, and we'll be able to do more".
So then I went to David and said, "How do you fancy doing a second night?" And he said "[Sharp intake of breath] No, I'm very woolly on that..." That was his expression.
And then later, another time, when I went down there... I put quite a lot of effort into this, going down there to see him, draining the teapot, I said, "Listen David, it's really awkward - it would be nice to know that we've got a show and who's doing it. Why don't you just do the second night, do the two nights?"
"Alright", he said. "Yeah OK".
So he was down for two nights. And then a month before, I was down there finally just to check that he was into it, and that he was all sorted, and just to show him the gussets that I'd put in so that he knew what was extended. He was very awkward, he was quite embarrassed about it. We were in his studio and he was pacing up and down. He said: "Look, I've got to get out of Saturday night".
And that was that, and I was fairly shaken by that because of the effort I'd put in, plus the fact that I thought the thing was established.
- And this was a month before the performances?
Yeah. It might have been five weeks, but I think it was a month. It wasn't long.
And we were sworn to secrecy, as you know. We couldn't announce anywhere that he was going to appear until... the notional date was the 1st of June, in other words two weeks before. So don't ask me why he needed to get out of it: you'll never find out and neither will I! [Laughs] But that's the fact of it.
- So were there any thoughts of maybe trying to get one of the others involved?
There was. There's two things here: one, do we need a another, different person for the first night, a personality, a guitar player... By that time I said to my original mate, who'd set the thing up in the first place, and who had become the sort of part-time event coordinator, "You can do what you like, I don't care, I'll fit in. As long as I've got my slot, I'll get out there and I'll kill 'em! Do what you like with Atom Heart!"
And then it was found that it wasn't at all necessary to have someone else.
So that was that. But early on, when I was talking with David, he said "Well, Rick might fancy to turn out." He definitely said that. And then quite soon after that he said "No, it may be best just to... I'll just come and do it. You'd better keep it low key... it's your gig, Ron".
And I didn't approach anyone else. If Nick had thought - and in fact I was in touch with him, as I was asking him questions about a couple of photographs - he'd have said "Can I come and bang a skin?" but he didn't, and I wasn't going to go around inviting people. Because there's all sorts of... it's politics, you get into silly games, and I haven't got the energy for games...
- And people get very upset if they aren't asked...
And so they MIGHT BE now, for all I know!!
- There was a very strong rumour flying around two or three days beforehand that Roger was going to be doing the Saturday, fuelled by his son Harry being there, along with one of his current guitarists, Chester Kamen, sat in the middle of the front row.
Oh really? I didn't know about that. Do you know, I wrote a poem for the birth of Harry. If I'd have known he was there, that would have been a funny one to perform! [Laughs] It was a shame that he didn't come up and introduce himself. And also there would have been another guitarist who could have done the show.
As you know, I've got very mixed feelings about Atom Heart Mother in the first place! The relationship, and the combination, and all that. So, I was going along with the whole organisation of the show UP TO A POINT, and then after that point, I was not. But what I was going to say when we were talking earlier about the scoring and all that, is that I think, that if I've got anything to do with it, and I'm not the... I'm just one of five composers, if you want, legally, on that piece, I would sit on the score and wait until it can be done in the Albert Hall or the Festival Hall, a very big venue, with TOP, TOP quality performers. Which might mean the Floyd turning out if they fancied a bit of a holiday! [Laughs]
Fine. Great. But only done completely properly. Because we got DAMN CLOSE to completely properly on the 14th and 15th of June, and I know what that other 5% or 10% is - I know how that can be there, without sterilization, automation, painting by numbers, because it's all there, and I think the slightly extended score makes it even better, because it gives people time to become immersed in it.
- Absolutely. It's always been a piece that on the whole that the fans have either passed over, or ignored, or skipped past, and the critics (bless 'em) as well, but it's one of those pieces that is important in the band's evolution - the way the music changed - and yet it's one that people don't talk about very often, don't listen to, the focus is obviously on pieces that came after it, but without that, I think things would have been a lot different if they hadn't have moved in that direction, because that paved the way for some of the other things that came after.
Hmm...yeah. Yes, and even the record itself is half-cock, not half-cock, it's three-quarter-cock. When you think of the mixed-back feel of the brass, and the choir, at times, which was a Floyd policy of ALL having hands on the faders in the mixing, and so the thing always came out a bit... flat and spongey, but that was part of the style, part of the whole business.
- And a restriction of the record, as opposed to seeing it in a live setting, and hearing the dynamics and actually feeling the music and the voices, and everything else...
Yeah. So, it could be done again, properly, really properly. It might not be in England; it might be that it would take an Italian force or a German force to get up and say "Right, we're doing it. We've got the forces, we've got the Berlin Philharmonic or something like that, with the full force" - not that you need the full orchestra, you could use the same instrumentation, there's no reason to go stupid and blow it up out of its real proportion. That would be good. But I think that's how it will be, I've got a feeling. I don't want to be involved in anything that isn't now not 100%.
Because of all the effort I've put in, and all the problems getting there.
- Obviously you started the performance this time around with what sounded like the original cavalry charge and motorbike. How was that discovered? Where was that lurking?
That was kindly provided by the Pink Floyd Sound Archives. Run by David, because in case you didn't know, Nick runs the paper and photograph archive, and David runs the audio archive.
I think it would be true to say from what I know of the very nice chaps that are involved in it, and they are indeed very nice chaps, that finding that piece and the steam train in the second excursion will have helped them on a bit [in terms of sorting all the recordings]. Every move and a reason for looking for something, "Ooo, yeah, if we've got a reason to looking for it we should sort the thing out, so that it's easier..."
Well, we're all in it - we're all in archiving! [Gives example of his jazz recordings archives] And my archive, too, has got behind a bit, but anyway we're not talking about that!
- You met Nick in 1968, introduced by Dr Sam Cutler, and then the rest of the band. How did you get on with the different personalities? I'd imagine Nick you would get on particularly well with as you seem to have quite similar personalities. I could see you two being quite good chums?
Oh we were. I crewed for him, because he was into boats then - sailing - and we went down to Dell Quay, where his parents were. Dell Quay is down on the south coast, this side of Portsmouth, and he would be in for the Saturday morning racing at the club, and I crewed for him in a race. If you are in the crew, you get shouted at, so he's shouting at me, and I remember we went over, as you do, when you are sailing - you don't always get the wind just right - and I didn't know what the fuck was going on, I was just holding on to this, and pulling that, and stuff, and we went in and I lost my first decent watch in the drink. So he owes me a watch! [Laughs]
And we stayed at his house, at different times. When we moved down here, a couple of times I remember staying at his place.
And then I met Roger. Roger was the special friend, because we were a couple of awkward creators, and that was a bit more than just being friends with Nick, going out socially.
And then Rick lived in Notting Hill, just up the road, around the corner, Rick and Juliette. We saw quite a lot of them in fact, because he was into jazz music more, and so was I, so we had that common interest.
The one that I didn't see anything of was Mr Gilmour. But the other three, fine.
And then of course, when we moved down here, which was only a year after writing Atom Heart Mother - almost exactly a year - there was less reason to keep up with them, and they were moving into another airstream. I was continuing with my film work and crazy gigs, and NOT in the rock scene at all.
How I've worked it out, the way I say it is different airstreams. If you imagine there are currents of air in the upper atmosphere, and if you go up in a balloon for instance you move through different air currents and they are quite distinctly different. The pilot or captain of a balloon feels them when they are there - you can't see them - and it's just different stratae. Different thinking, as well.
You could say that I was against a lot of the whole machine of rock, and I could see that the Floyd was turning into a giant machine that minced its way across the countryside.
- Even at that stage?
Oh yeah. I could see - I'd known Steve O'Rourke for some time - it was looking at him that tells you what the machine was about. He was vicious and ferocious - not socially, but business wise, he'd be out there with his scythe, cutting his way through the field! [Laughs]
- Achieving what he needed to...
Yes, well, or what they [the band] needed to...
- So then you came to work with them.
Some say it was because I was seeing more of Roger, because we were two equal but very different creative energies, so it might have been he who swung it, but I didn't know, I wasn't sitting there, or saying "Do you want anything doing?" It was a surprise to me for them to come and say "We've got this... we're trying to put this thing together, and it's not happening much!" [Laughs]
- Was this before you started work on The Body?
Roger and I had done the music for the film of The Body around March, or February 1970. It might have been his experience with seeing me tackle bits of a film, and writing stuff because I wrote cello things, and different, small combinations, for different bits. It might have been him seeing that, that he knew that I would be capable of doing...
- Adapting around an existing structure?
Yes! Yes... And it can only be that the others did not disagree. They might have been a bit passive on it. But then they knew me anyway, except for David, and he was in the minority. If it had come to a vote, I suppose... I'd never been to a meeting, I had no idea how they worked.
And then February - March, the film. And then May, they came to me. Or, the beginning of May, maybe. Because I started mid-May. And in those days, you didn't hang about for long on ANYTHING. It was just like "This is what's needed to be done". "Right, I'll get at it tomorrow morning", that kind of thing. It wasn't like you had to wait two weeks. I might have been into another film, or doing something for the television or something. I'd have just had to get the drawing board clear and then on to it. And that was it, that was total. Mid-May to mid-June.
And then after that was done, Roger and I got together and did the album and remade stuff. That's how that happened.
- And then you started working on Atom Heart Mother, with all the associated, well-documented problems: the heat, the brass section, recording it one beat out!
Oh yeah - that's right...
- I love the comment you made to Steve O'Rourke at the end of the recording: "Well, that was a good rehearsal. When can we do it properly?"
The thing about the Chelsea Festival souvenir programme is that, as I had the space, I wrote a lot of good stuff down, and made a lot of the essential points [about the creation of AHM], so that's documented.
The interview continues with Ron's discussion of how rehearsals for the 2008 version went, and more exclusive pictures from the rehearsals, including David Gilmour in action... click here to go to part two!
The pictures shown here are all copyright of,
and provided courtesy of, Joe Geesin, and cannot be used elsewhere
without his permission.