The Wire

In Writing

David Toop listens, finally, to the legendary John Latham recordings of Pink Floyd

November 2016

Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965–1972 is set to be released 11 November. It notably features the long rumoured recordings resulting from a 1967 collaboration with conceptual artist John Latham.

There’s a brassy Little Richard track of Biblical intent if not proportions – "He Got What He Wanted (But Lost What He Had)" - that could offer useful moral instruction to those open to its cautionary message. It came to mind shortly after gaining access after many years of trying to the legendary Pink Floyd track/s (singular or plural, more later) named “John Latham”. I say legendary but in truth, a mere saucerful of secrets remains in the rock narrative; the John Latham sessions lie at the bottom of that saucer but beyond Floyd fanatics and Latham acolytes (I count myself latter, not former) few sane people are aware or care that a rock leviathan once recorded music for a film made by one of the most provocative, problematic artists of the 20th century.

So I’ve been curious about these tracks for quite some time. The curiosity was piqued during a conversation with Latham’s older son, Noa, back in 2005. According to Noa, a film called Speak made in the early 1960s by his father had attracted soundtracks by Pink Floyd, free improvisation pioneer Joe Harriott and electronics composer/dancer Ernest Berk. All of these were rejected by the artist as being 'unacceptable', leading him to record his own noise track with a circular saw, its grinding, furiously pulsing inexorability matching perfectly the hallucinatory flicker of coloured shapes that ricochet around the image frame.

A late night screening of Speak during the Hornsey College of Art sit-in of 1968 remains vivid in my memory, mixing with a 1966 encounter with AMM live at a Roundhouse concert by Cream, various performances by Pink Floyd in their Syd Barrett period and some long-range excitement about the Destruction In Art Symposium, held in London in September 1966. During DIAS, three of Latham’s Skoob Towers, columns of discarded art books in this case, were ignited close to the entrance of the British Museum. Firemen and police made short work of the event. Something about this convergence of psychedelia, free improvisation and explosions lit a fuse in my own mind. The result was an exhibition entitled Blow Up, co-curated in 2010 by Wire publisher Tony Herrington and myself at Flat Time House, once home to John Latham, finally closed this summer after eight years as a public art space.

A fine thing it would have been if Pink Floyd’s Speak music were available for our show but Pink Floyd management, archivist and drummer strenuously denied its existence. "I simply don’t remember this project at all," drummer Nick Mason wrote to me at the time, "I'm certain there are no tapes gathering dust – someone would have bootlegged them by now." But as Rob Chapman discovered when researching his autobiography of Syd Barrett, Speak was projected during Pink Floyd’s performances at UFO, the London Free School and the Commonwealth Institute. Barrett’s burgeoning interest in AMM and Latham and keyboard player Richard Wright’s love of Miles Davis and John Coltrane threw shadows over the band’s aspirations to be what Nick Mason called a "hit parade act". According to Barry Miles in his book Pink Floyd: The Early Years, Barrett was fond of combining acid with John Coltrane's Om album, behaviour not conducive to the hit parade mentality.

Then suddenly, as if the year 2016 made it propitious, these non-existent tapes materialise as part of a lavish, very expensive box set of 27 discs: The Early Years 1965–1972. The fabled 1967 recording, “John Latham”, mysteriously split into nine tracks despite being a continuous piece of just over 30 minutes duration, appears on the second of these CDs.

On being sent an online stream of the holy grail my reaction was to listen briefly, say "OK, got it" to myself and return to what I was doing. In part, this was a symptom of frustration. It would have been helpful to have the tracks for Blow Up or when I was writing my recent book on free improvisation, Into the Maelstrom. Why hold them back? I very much doubt that the enticement to spend £378.38 is contingent on 30 minutes of free improvisation by a band not equipped to play it. But as Little Richard once sang, you get what you wanted and lose what you had, in this case the sheer strangeness and mystery of imagining a band that became as dull as Pink Floyd trying their hand at being faux-AMM for a film by an artist who once blew up books.

On further reflection what it sounds like, this rarity of rarities, is an illustration of why free improvisation is difficult, needs experience, practice, technique, a sense of purpose. Richard Wright reveals unfulfilled promise (for a future he managed to avoid of playing gigs to ten people and co-producing Musics magazine); Barrett is abrasively caught between riffs and a wandering bottleneck; Mason is clearly at a loss and seeks salvation in whatever repetition is thrown his way, usually by the clicking bass of Roger Waters. All very fascinating, a mystery solved but seriously, we’d all be better off listening to AMM’s first record.

Subscribers can read David Toop’s essays Brotherhood Of The Bomb, tracing the links between 60s radicals John Latham, Joe Harriott and Syd Barrett, in The Wire 317 via our online archive.

Comments

Rob Chapman did an "autobiography" of Syd Barrett. That's amazing!

Did he channel him or use a crystal ball?

you have to be a syd barrett/floyd fan to understand how wonderful this is

I'm listening to this right now. It's awesome, probably not for repeated listening, but awesome none the less.

Quite interesting. Wright being the one to take off while everybody else is more restrained. The sound is open and dry and the performance bring back flashes of early Soft Machine at the time of their Third album. I can't remember any other place in Rick Wright's recorded history where his sound is so sharp and demanding on the ears.

What a pointless review. "Pink Floyd are boring and unable to improvise..." yet the dude reviews this anyhow just to say that. I'm listening to this "Latham" recording right now and it is an amazing find that this exists and is now available. But, many people, many Floyd fans, don't get what Barrett and his version of the Floyd were doing. So it goes. But no need to be condescending about it. It only reveals the author's poor taste. Go listen to circular saws, then, if you prefer noise.

fed up with AMM supposedly teaching barrett everything he knew-barrett and wright were both born improvisers and at their best in the early Floyd could be very interesting indeed using the binson echorec and other effects that nobody else was using in popular music at the time, and not afraid to be extremely melodic one moment, and rhythmic or atonal the next.They were influenced, and loved many things and utilised them with free abandon-Coltrane,davis and Stockhausen as well as English pastoral were an influence as much as anything else. I love this music whether people 'get it' or not and their 'speak' music is a major discovery and an important part of their history.

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