Although the album was well received at the time of release, and was a top five hit in the UK album charts, it has since been looked upon unfavourably by the band, who have expressed negative opinions about it in interviews. Nevertheless, the album has been reissued on CD several times, along with the rest of their catalogue.
The album is also notable for its artwork, featuring a number of pictures of the band combined together to give a Droste effect. Like several other of the band's covers, it was designed by Hipgnosis.
The album's title supposedly comes from Cambridgeslang for sex, commonly used by Pink Floyd friend and occasional roadie, Ian "Emo" Moore, who would say "I'm going back to the house for some ummagumma". According to Moore, he made up the term himself.
The studio album came as a result of Richard Wright wanting to make "real music", where each of the four group members (in order: Wright, Roger Waters, David Gilmour and Nick Mason) had half an LP side each to create a solo work without involvement from the others. Wright's contribution, "Sysyphus", was named after a character in Greek mythology, usually spelled "Sisyphus", and contained a combination of various keyboards, including piano and mellotron. Although initially enthusiastic about making a solo contribution, Wright later described it as "pretentious". Waters' "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict" contained a variety of vocal and percussion effects treated at various speeds, both forwards and backwards, and was influenced by Ron Geesin, who would later collaborate with both Waters and Pink Floyd. Waters' other contribution Grantchester Meadows was a more pastoral acoustic offering and was usually played as an opening to concerts over 1969. Gilmour has since stated he was apprehensive about creating a solo work, and admits he "went into a studio and started waffling about, tacking bits and pieces together", although part one of "The Narrow Way" had already been performed as "Baby Blue Shuffle in D Major" in a BBC radio session in December 1968. Gilmour said he "just bullshitted" through the piece. He asked Waters to write some lyrics for his compositions, but he refused to do so. Mason's "The Grand Vizier's Garden Party" featured his then wife, Lindy, playing flute, and Mason playing a seven-minute drum solo.
The cover artwork shows the members of the band, with a picture hanging on the wall showing the same scene, except that the band members have switched positions. The picture on the wall also includes the picture on the wall, creating a recursion effect (i. e. the Droste effect), with each recursion showing band members exchanging positions. After four variations of the scene, the final picture within picture is the cover of the previous Pink Floyd album, A Saucerful of Secrets. The latter, however, is absent from the CD release; instead, the recursion effect is seemingly ad infinitum. Hipgnosis also prepared an advert for EMI repeating the exercise with different band positions, Richard Wright now as the dominant seated figure hitherto the least so on the album cover. The illustration was bigger than the cover, therefore the number of iterations toward infinity had to be increased.
The cover of the original LP varies between the British, American/Canadian and Australian releases. The British version has the album Gigi leaning against the wall immediately above the "Pink Floyd" letters. At a talk given at Borders bookstore in Cambridge on 1 November 2008, as part of the "City Wakes" project, Storm Thorgerson explained that the album was introduced as a red herring to provoke debate, and that it has no intended meaning. On most copies of American and Canadian editions, the Gigi cover is airbrushed to a plain white sleeve, apparently because of copyright concerns; however, the earliest American copies do show the Gigi cover, and it was restored for the American remastered CD edition. On the Australian edition, the Gigi cover is completely airbrushed, not even leaving a white square behind. The house used as the location for the front cover of the album is located in Great Shelford, near Cambridge.
On the rear cover, roadies Alan Styles (who also appears in "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast") and Peter Watts are shown with the band's equipment laid out on a runway at Biggin Hill Airport. This concept was proposed by Mason, with the intention of replicating the "exploded" drawings of military aircraft and their payloads, which were popular at the time.
Song titles on the back are laid out slightly differently in British vs. North American editions; the most important difference being the inclusion of subtitles for the four sections of "A Saucerful of Secrets". These subtitles only appeared on American and Canadian editions of this album, but not on the British edition; nor did they appear on original pressings of A Saucerful of Secrets.
The inner gatefold art shows separate black-and-white photos of the band members. Gilmour is seen standing in front of the Elfin Oak. Original vinyl editions showed Waters with his first wife, Judy Trim, but she has been cropped out of the picture on most CD editions (with the original photo's caption "Roger Waters (and Jude)" accordingly changed to just "Roger Waters"). The uncropped picture was restored for the album's inclusion in the box set Oh, by the Way.
Ummagumma was released in the UK and US on 25 October and 10 November 1969, respectively. It reached number 5 on the UK albums chart and number 74 in America, marking the first time the band reached the top 100 there. The album was certified gold in the US in February 1974 and platinum in March 1994. American versions of the cassette omitted "Careful with That Axe, Eugene", "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" and "A Saucerful of Secrets". In 1987, the album was re-released on a two-CD set. A digitally remastered version was issued in 1994 in the UK and 1995 in the US.
The CD edition includes a longer version of "Sysyphus", extended to 13:26, with the movements lasting 1:08, 3:30, 1:49 and 6:59, respectively. The original "Part 1" of "Sysyphus" was split into two tracks and called "Part 1" and "Part 2". "Part 2" on vinyl became "Part 3" on CD, and "Part 3" and "Part 4" were combined into the CD's "Part 4" (the original "Part 4" begins with the lengthy orchestral thud). "The Narrow Way" and "The Grand Vizier's Garden Party" were also split into their three parts for easier navigation. The times below reflect the original vinyl pressing.
In 2009, to mark the 40th anniversary of the album's release, Thorgerson sold a limited number of autographed lithographs of the front cover. Although the 2011 re-release campaign Why Pink Floyd...? presented all fourteen albums newly remastered in 2011, only the studio disc of Ummagumma was remastered – the live disc is the previous 1994 version.
On release, Ummagumma received favourable reviews.International Times were particularly positive about the live album, with the reviewer describing it as "probably one of the best live recordings I have ever heard".Vox included the live half of this album on its list of 'The Greatest Live Albums Ever'
However, the band have since been dismissive and critical of the work. Recalling the album in later years, Waters said: "Ummagumma – what a disaster!", while in 1995, Gilmour described the album as "horrible". In a 1984 interview, Mason said: "I thought it was a very good and interesting little exercise, the whole business of everyone doing a bit. But I still feel really that that's quite a good example of the sum being greater than the parts …" Later, he described it as "a failed experiment", adding that "the most significant thing is that we didn't do it again".
Paste, reviewing the 2011 re-release, described the album as "rock excess of the worst kind", although the writer praised the live version of "Careful with that Axe, Eugene".Robert Christgau has suggested that the album's "hypnotic melodies" made it "an admirable record to fall asleep to".
Roger Waters - bass guitar, vocals, all instruments and vocals on "Grantchester Meadows" and all instruments on "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict"