The “Lost” Pink Floyd Soundtrack for Michelangelo Antonioni’s Only American Film, Zabriskie Point (1970)

There’s a good argu­ment to be made that some of the most insight­ful writ­ing about the Unit­ed States comes from artists observ­ing the coun­try from afar or through the eyes of a bemused new­com­er. For Euro­pean artists and thinkers, writ­ing about the behe­moth across the sea seems to have proven an irre­sistible chal­lenge from the start, even if, like Franz Kaf­ka, some nev­er set foot on the con­ti­nent. Alex­is de Toc­queville, Wern­er Her­zog, Mar­tin Amis, Wim Wen­ders, the list could go on and on, and would include many very enlight­en­ing per­spec­tives.

But not every such effort has been a suc­cess, in either crit­i­cal or com­mer­cial terms. Michelan­ge­lo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), for exam­ple, the Ital­ian director’s “only Amer­i­can movie,” writes Richard Met­zger at Dan­ger­ous Minds, “com­plete­ly missed its mark and failed to cap­ture the zeit­geist of the hip­pie New Left coun­ter­cul­ture of the era.”

When the film was released in 1970, “audi­ences and crit­ics alike hat­ed it, just hat­ed it.” The film’s young, unknown male lead Mark Frechette “dis­tanced him­self from the direc­tor,” writes Den­nis Lim at Slate, say­ing, “he wasn’t mak­ing a film about any Amer­i­ca I knew.” Gui­tarist John Fahey, in Rome to record a song for the film, almost came to blows with Anto­nioni “when the mae­stro launched into an anti-Amer­i­can rant.”

If Anto­nioni came off to his crit­ics as a “clue­less tourist” cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly, he also passed up an excel­lent oppor­tu­ni­ty musi­cal­ly. In the stu­dio when the Doors record­ed “L’America” for L.A. Woman, he “inex­plic­a­bly turned down the track, which could have worked spec­tac­u­lar­ly well in his film.” Instead, thanks in large part to his co-writer and cur­rent girl­friend Clare Peploe, Anto­nioni chose Pink Floyd to score the film, after hear­ing Peploe’s copy of Ummagum­ma. He loved the album, and lis­tened to it obses­sive­ly, espe­cial­ly the dra­mat­ic, psy­che­del­ic “Care­ful with that Axe, Eugene.”

In the end, how­ev­er, only three songs from the band made the final cut. Anto­nioni instead filled out the sound­track with music by Fahey, The Young­bloods, Roy Orbi­son, The Grate­ful Dead, and oth­ers. The com­plete record­ing of the orig­i­nal Floyd sound­track was nev­er com­mer­cial­ly released and has only offi­cial­ly exist­ed in frag­ments. One fan in a music forum notes that the 2 CD Zabriskie Point sound­track includes the three songs from the film and four unused bonus tracks. The huge, and huge­ly expen­sive, Floyd box set The Ear­ly Years con­tains 16 out­takes, none of them on the sound­track CD.

The only way fans have been able to hear the com­plete, orig­i­nal sound­track has been through a series of bootlegs, some fea­tur­ing only the eight intend­ed final songs, oth­ers includ­ing some or all of the known out­takes. One such com­pi­la­tion, above, col­lects sev­er­al songs and out­takes, but does­n’t include the full com­plet­ed sound­track. Despite this disco­graph­ic dis­ar­ray, the dis­card­ed orig­i­nal sound­track, in its many forms, has proven “an extreme­ly sat­is­fy­ing lis­ten,” Met­zger writes. If it sounds “like a ‘lost’ Pink Floyd album record­ed at the end of 1969,” it’s “because that’s exact­ly what it is.”  Remind­ing us at times of Atom Heart Moth­er, or Med­dle, or Ummagum­ma, it both looks back at pre­vi­ous work and ahead toward what’s to come.

The band turned out some unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly straight-ahead elec­tric bar­room blues (above). “Heart Beat, Pig Meant,” which appears over the film’s open­ing cred­its (top) “was Pink Floyd’s first time using a human heart­beat as a musi­cal instru­ment (but it would not be the last).” Richard Wright’s “The Vio­lent Sequence,” fur­ther up, may have been scrapped by Anto­nioni, but it would lat­er “be retooled as ‘Us and Them’ on Dark Side of the Moon.” Aside from that album’s unin­tend­ed life as uncan­ny son­ic accom­pa­ni­ment to The Wiz­ard of Oz, the band did some of its most exper­i­men­tal, and tran­si­tion­al, work through film sound­tracks, such as those for Bar­bet Schroeder’s 1969 More and 1972 film The Val­ley. Their work with Anto­nioni is no excep­tion, but Zabriskie Point, like­ly because of its many con­fus­ing states of exis­tence, has not received as much atten­tion.

Per­haps it’s time to revis­it Zabriskie Point, the film, as well as its orig­i­nal sound­track. As fans of Pink Floyd, we can see what inspired the band to cre­ate music that would help deter­mine the direc­tion of their epic albums to come. As fans of Anto­nioni, per­haps, we may come to a greater appre­ci­a­tion of his much-maligned flop, which Lim con­tends “is of a piece with Antonioni’s best work: a lux­u­ri­ant por­trait of spir­i­tu­al alien­ation with a sense of place far more expres­sive than its blankly beau­ti­ful char­ac­ters.” Giv­en that descrip­tion, it’s no won­der Anto­nioni found Pink Floyd such an intrigu­ing choice, even if nei­ther the Ital­ian direc­tor nor Eng­lish band had said much of any­thing in their work about the caul­dron of polit­i­cal unrest, sex­u­al exper­i­men­ta­tion, and cul­tur­al dis­af­fec­tion of the U.S. in the late 60s.

via Dan­ger­ous Minds

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” Pro­vides a Sound­track for the Final Scene of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Hear Lost Record­ing of Pink Floyd Play­ing with Jazz Vio­lin­ist Stéphane Grap­pel­li on “Wish You Were Here”

Syd Barrett’s “Effer­vesc­ing Ele­phant” Comes to Life in a New Retro-Style Ani­ma­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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