In this article, Andy Gibbons takes us from the political scene of 1968 when the early threads of ‘Careful With That Axe, Eugene’ were sewn together, through a multitude of dimensions and view points up until the raw energy of that scream was expressed as The Wall.
|Roger Waters circa 1968|
It is May 1968. In Paris the streets erupt into protests which threaten to topple the government and across the world youth is rising in a cry of rage against the Vietnam war.
On the 23rd of May 1968 Pink Floyd plays a new instrumental at the Paradiso in Amsterdam. Based on a two note bass riff underpinning a guitar and organ jam, it’s called ‘Keep Smiling People’ and will feature in their live performances for much of the next 10 years. It is to become known, amongst other names, as ‘Careful with that Axe Eugene’.
The track had been recorded earlier in the month for a short film called ‘The Committee’, to which the Floyd had provided the soundtrack. The main character, played by Paul Jones from Manfred Mann, has killed a man by severing his head, then surreally reanimated him by sowing it back on again. The dialogue over this section of the film is about responsibility and criminal action:
Central Figure: I think the whole world is a madhouse. An extended madhouse.
Director: Isn’t that a way of saying that you are mad?
The extract used features the distinctive, resonant ‘octave’ bass line and organ part. At this point the guitar provides colour but is low in the mix and there is no vocal.
In June 68 the band taped a session for the BBC, naming the new instrumental ‘The Murderotic Woman’. This version is a minimalist jam, with the two note bass line continuing throughout and more developed interplay between Rick’s keyboard and Dave’s guitar. As a piece, however, it lacks the dynamics of the live performances and once again there is no scream from Roger. John Peel premiered this recording in August ’68 commenting: ‘Their first number is an instrumental called ‘The Murderotic Woman or Careful With That Axe Eugene’. Please yourselves.’
Being rather prudish the BBC seems to have changed the title to ‘The Murderistic Woman’ for later broadcasts – one of several brushes with radio station censorship that the Floyd encountered in their early years.
The First Official Release
|Point Me At The Sky – German Edition 1968|
The first official release of the track under the title ‘Careful With That Axe Eugene’ was for the B side of their December 1968 single Point Me At The Sky. This version, which became much more widely known owing to its inclusion on the budget compilation Relics, is a laid-back and low-key performance. Nevertheless, it does have Roger’s scream for the first time on a recorded version as well as his abstract vocal sounds at the end. The recording shows the jazzier side of the Floyd with Rick playing vibraphone as well as organ while Dave weaves in fuzzed guitar lines. Nick contributes the distinctive ride cymbal pattern at the start of the track and tom-toms as it builds to the central climax. John Cotner, a musicologist, analyses the track in like this:
‘Broadly, I argue that the 1968 studio single of “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” represents the successful convergence of particular improvisational idioms and conceptual strategies the group had begun to develop in their first two albums. More to the point, the studio track manifests a vital structural-textural rhythm, perception of which suggests a multidimensional sonic-experiential macrocosm: on one plane, a kind of heterophonic textural “infrastructure,” while on the other, a kind of stereophonic space of affective depth. Within this distinction, aspects of the musical language and recording medium continually transform the sonic environment and engage the listener in the process of its experiential unfolding.’
For the ‘Massed Gadgets of Auximines’ tour beginning in April 1969, the number took on another guise, being paired with ‘Green is the Colour’ as part of ‘The Journey’ suite. For this it was renamed ‘Beset By Creatures of The Deep’. The Journey itself was part of a project which the band originally hoped would get them a grant from the Arts Council and was inspired by the mythical journey of Odysseus – although this appears to have been transformed into the Journey of Theseus to the Labyrinth of King Minos where the Minotaur dwelt. Needless to say, the arts council passed over this opportunity to fund the band, but the tour was a great success and was their first attempt at combining songs in a single conceptual piece.
During the tour the Floyd also recorded a live version of the instrumental which became part of the Ummaguma set. Recorded in May 1969 at Mother’s in Birmingham and also at the Manchester College of Commerce, the Floyd needed to touch up the recording in the studio owing to equipment failures. Nevertheless, the track is full of atmosphere from Rick’s sinister yet melancholy organ chords at the beginning, though Rogers’ piercing scream and Dave’s blistering solo, to the final, hushed ending. The voices of the crowd at the beginning and the clinking of glasses only add to the sense of an outstanding live club performance.
Scoring A Film
|Zabriskie Point Soundtrack|
As Pink Floyd’s reputation as a counter-cultural band grew, so did the interest of filmmakers. Barbet Schroder had asked them to score the soundtrack for More in 1969 and in 1970 Antonioni wanted them to write music for Zabriskie Point, a film set in the USA about the growth of student protest and political opposition to the Vietnam war. The Floyd’s experience of working with Antonioni was not a happy one, but they did use the opportunity to work on material which would later become part of the Dark Side of the Moon. But it was ‘Axe’ that Antonioni really wanted: he used it in the stunning final sequence depicting slow motion shots of an exploding house showering consumer goods across the landscape. This version is the best of the studio recordings with a much more powerful bass line, guitar and drums. For this take the track was renamed ‘Come in No. 51 – Your Time Is Up’ (a line from eccentric British comedian Spike Milligan), highlighting the band’s dark sense of humour – Mark, the rebel hero, is killed while attempting to escape the police who are hunting him down for allegedly killing a cop during a student demonstration.
September of 1970 the saw band touring America and playing a TV gig at San Francisco’s Filmore. The hour long show, broadcast by KQED, has become a bootlegger’s favourite, featuring a tracks such as Atom Heart Mother and Granchester Meadows which didn’t make it onto the official Pompeii film. The performance as a whole suffers from the fact it was recorded without an audience, but the version of Axe is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly the director shows the majority of the performance in psychedelic chromakey colours – an effect very much of its time – to interpret the number as an epic bad trip. Secondly Roger includes the strange animal sounds and whisperings which begin to feature in live versions of the 1970’s. These and the chants from Atom Heart Mother convinced some fans at the time that the tracks had hidden occult meanings. Indeed the track has continued to provide a space in which fans can construct their own narrative, as this internet posting from 2004 shows:
‘An axe murderer claiming their latest victim… played out through music’.
The first part is where he’s sneaking around… muttering gibberish but generally keeping quiet… then the adrenaline builds up as he gets closer to the victim… then eventually, once they’re within reach, he takes to them with his trusty axe :-).
Then we hear the scream of the victim as they realise what’s coming to them. That’s where the band kicks in and it all goes ballistic… as killer and victim flail around wildly. Then it starts to go quiet… as the victim’s life slowly leaves them and then everything slowly fades out.
I think ‘Careful With That Axe, Eugene’, is actually supposed to be a phrase the killer says to the victim just before he kills them… like it’s his catchphrase he uses before each killing.’
The Greatness of Pompeii
By 1971, with the band wanting to move forward and break new ground, they had decided to film their established set to mark the end of the psychedelic era. Director Adrian Maben, teamed up with the band to produce the ‘Live at Pompeii’ film. Rightly regarded as one of the best realisations of the track, Maben’s use of super-imposed images of lava flows and burning screen effects give the performance a sense of apocalyptic violence distilled in Roger’s terrifying scream. The mysterious whispered utterances during this version have supposedly been deciphered as:
‘Down, down. Down, down. The star is screaming.
Beneath the lies. Lie, lie. Tschay, tschay, tschay.
Careful, careful, careful with that axe, Eugene.
The stars are screaming loud’.
Despite their intention to draw a line under the old tracks – partly a response to criticism that the group relied too heavily on the same live material – Axe was still a central part of the set in 1972 and 1973. On stage it was accompanied by pyrotechnic detonations, which, at one concert in the Cobo Hall, Detroit, nearly blew Nick Mason up! Although Maben’s film had shown the band recording ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ and it was pioneered as part of the live set, the band played the new material alongside Axe and other stalwarts of the old set such as ‘Set The Controls’ and ‘Saucerful of Secrets’. Eventually, Earl’s Court 1973 saw the last regular performance of the number.
Eugene Takes A Rest
It wasn’t until 1977 that Eugene saw the light of day again, when it was a surprise encore for the Oakland, California show of that year. Moving with the times instrumentally, this performance spotlighted Rick Wright’s Moog synthesiser as well as Dave Gilmour and Snowy White’s duelling lead guitars.
Although Axe was not played live after this, it remained an influential musical force in the band’s development, particularly for Roger Waters. At the heart of the ‘Careful With That Axe’ is a scream: in 1970 Arthur Janov had written a highly influential book about psychotherapy called ‘The Primal Scream’. As his wife and collaborator Vivian Janov explained:
‘What the therapy is about, is releasing the tension and the repressed pain of early childhood and that release comes about in the therapy through talking about your life, crying about the pain and sometimes people do shout or scream, but I really try to get away from the idea of screaming because that’s not the usual thing, people usually cry about pain. Through that release, people come to feel very cleansed, very free, very knowledgeable about what really happened to them when they were children. In primal therapy people actually relive the scenes, the painful scenes of their life and have the emotions, the feelings expressed that they really didn’t express when they were children.’
Famously, John Lennon underwent therapy with Janov leading to his raw, emotional album, “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band”. The album featured a number of songs which were directly inspired by his experience in therapy, including “Remember,” “Isolation”, “Mother,” “My Mummy’s Dead,” and “Working Class Hero.”
By 1978 Roger Waters was writing The Wall: it was as if the unfocused scream of rage in ‘Axe’ had been turned into words. The album itself contains musical and lyrical references to the song. The two note bass riff, which is the foundation of the track, reappears in ‘Goodbye Cruel World’ whilst in ‘One Of My Turns’ Waters sings: ‘Look in the bedroom in the suitcase on the left you’ll find my favourite axe’ In this lyric he plays with the idea of an ‘axe’ as both a weapon and a guitar: a force for creativity and destruction.
Over the ten years since 1968 the wordless howl of anger in ‘Axe’ had become a statement of political and personal philosophy. In Dark Side of The Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall, Waters wanted to explore the ways he saw an unjust society driving people to madness and violence. Yet the seed of this was planted in the politically charged year of ‘68. The aim of the Situationist revolutionaries on the streets of Paris was to ‘disrupt the spectacle’; to smash the hollow show of the consumerist, capitalist society which kept the people smiling as they were exploited. When Waters first envisaged the film version of the Wall he imagined:
’a rock and roll audience being bombed and, as they were being blown to pieces, applauding, loving every minute.’
In this context the original title of Eugene – ‘Keep Smiling People’ – can be seen as an ironic challenge to Pink Floyd’s audience. In the live Wall shows Waters tried to do just this by building and breaking down the alienating Wall between audience and performer.
So, is ‘Careful With That Axe Eugene’ an acid nightmare, a musical exercise in improvisational minimalism and dynamics or a cry of pain and rage? Whichever it is, there is no doubt that it is one of Pink Floyd’s most powerful and original tracks.
|A sketch from The Wall|
Discuss this article on the forum.