Pink Floyd’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”

50 years

piper

Yippee, you can’t see me

But I can you

Not long ago I wrote about a dinner party I hosted (“The Craziest Meal I Never Had”). While I thought it was a good party, there were also some tense moments. After I bade goodbye to Herman Melville, Billy the Kid, and Crazy Horse, I retired to the den to reflect on the evening. I thought about how ill-mannered Billy was, and how distracted Herman seemed. My Indian friend, understandably, appeared very uncomfortable.

Then I thought about the fourth guest I invited: the one who never showed up. In fact, I didn’t even get an RSVP. But it’s probably good he didn’t attend. He would have been as uncomfortable as Crazy.

When finished reflecting, I decided to honour this reticent invitee the only way I knew. So I dragged myself upstairs, lit a stick of patchouli incense, dimmed the lights, and put on one of his records.

***

Most people have heard of the rock band Pink Floyd, even if they may not be fans. Casual fans might have a hazy recollection of a mysterious chap who led the band in its earliest days… before Floyd was “welcomed to the machine,” when it was still a cult psychedelic group known mainly in England. Only the most devoted fans know the full details of the tragic yet poignant Syd Barrett, a brilliant artist who briefly burned like a nova, then fried to a crisp and spent 35 years living like Greta Garbo.

Since I’m reviewing a record album here, I won’t go into Barrett’s strange and sad odyssey through music and life. There are plenty of places out there that deal with that stuff.

Anyway, discussing his music is the best way to properly honour this artist. And I do mean “artist.” Pink Floyd guitarist and childhood friend David Gilmour, who knew Barrett as much as anyone other than his family (and despite taking his place in the band) called him one of only a couple musical geniuses, along with Bob Dylan. He also maintains that Barrett’s collapse wasn’t all that unusual: many people in the late 1960s also fell by the wayside. But 99 percent of them we don’t hear about. Barrett stands out because he was so gifted, and because the band he fronted oh so long ago achieved phenomenal international success…without him.

Barrett was a butterfly that broke through the netting, his wings forever damaged. But this is important: despite numerous attempts, they were never able to pin him to Styrofoam.

***

THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN (released August 5, 1967) is a surreal, slightly ominous title for a rock album.  Surprisingly, Syd Barrett didn’t conceive it. He borrowed it from his favourite chapter in his favourite book, Kenneth Grahame’s fantasy classic The Wind in the Willows. But the title expertly sums up the mixture of science fiction and children’s fantasy that inform the words and music on the record.

grahame illustration

Paul Bransom illustration from “The Wind in the Willows”

Within these grooves we share English tea with all varieties of the phantasmagoric. Hallucinating gnomes. Existential scarecrows. Sinister, mind-reading cats. Outer (inner?) space denizens. “The doll’s house, darkness, old perfume…”

Ok, I hear you snicker. “This is the kind of airy fairy shit that gave hippies a bad name.” You may be right. A lot of this stuff was done by hack musicians/writers eager to hitch a ride on the magic bus. But…

Long ago, before LSD became laced with kerosene and the Summer of Love became a cliché and marketing tool, there existed a few imaginative, English art students bent on taking music, words, and art to undiscovered areas. The blueprint for the new music was created by the band Pink Floyd, helmed by the youngest member, Roger Keith (Syd) Barrett of Cambridge, who named his band after two of his beloved cats (who were named after two obscure American bluesmen). Barrett had already penned two eye-opening acid-pop singles that titillated the London youth underground: “Arnold Layne,” a true story about a transvestite who steals women’s underwear from washing lines; and “See Emily Play,” a slice of English whimsy that teeters on insanity.

Based on these singles, EMI Columbia financed Pink Floyd’s first full-length LP in early 1967. It was recorded in Abbey Road Studios, right when the Beatles were putting the finishing touches on SGT. PEPPER. Legend has it that the Floyd members occasionally peeked in on Lennon and McCartney to absorb the brilliance. I propose it was the other way around.

If so, what might John and Paul have heard? There are two faces to this record: an unsettling and ragged trip into space (I’ll call it the Gates of Dawn) and a pleasant and pastoral trip back to childhood (The Piper… this would be all Syd). I’ll save The Piper songs for later.

“Astronomy Domine” “Pow R. Toc H.,” and “Interstellar Overdrive” come close to the later Floyd sound and were staples of the band’s blinding, liquid-light-fantastic live shows. All soar into space on the static-y strings of Barrett’s guitar. “Astronomy” is bolstered by Nick Mason’s tribal drumming, and the 10-minute “Interstellar” by Richard (Rick) Wright’s cosmic organ. “Pow R. Toc H.,” one of the album’s lesser songs, is an instrumental crammed with vocal and instrumental sound effects, but it has a characteristic spacey Floydian closeout.

Let me interject that Barrett on guitar was no Eric Clapton. But he made up for technical inadequacy by bravely exploring the instrument’s electric and aural capabilities (using a silver guitar adorned with 15 circular mirrors). He pioneered a technique of channeling bottleneck slide through an echo device, which gave the Floyd a distinctive eerie sound. His replacement, Gilmour, used this technique throughout his time with the Floyd.

Back to the songs: “Take Up thy Stethoscope and Walk” is Roger Waters’ very first composition. Nothing notable here except the paranoid vocals by Barrett.

Hutton Archive, Getty Images

Waters, Mason, Barrett, Wright (Hutton Archive, Getty Images)

“Lucifer Sam” is a sleek nugget about a third feline owned by Barrett, a mysterious Siamese named Sam. The descending chords and twangy guitar lines have been described as “psychedelic Duane Eddy,”  and recall the Sloan-Barri hit sung by Johnny Rivers, “Secret Agent Man.” In my garage-band days, I used to love playing this song (Sean Connery always popped into my head). It’s the closest song to a single on PIPER, in the same vein as “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play.”

Now for The Piper part of the record: these songs were written exclusively by Barrett, except for “Matilda Mother,” where Rick Wright assists on the arrangement.

“The Gnome” and “The Scarecrow” might as well be solo Barrett – I’m not sure if anyone else even plays on them, except perhaps Mason offering soft percussion help. Both are pastoral evocations that capture children’s fascination with the unreal possibly being real. “The Scarecrow,” also, has a rolling melody that may have made Paul McCartney blush while eavesdropping on the proceedings.

“Chapter 24” is a collection of observations lifted from the I Ching and set to music: “Change returns success/Going and coming without error/Action brings good fortune/Sunset, sunrise.” This song may have been inspired by Barrett’s interest in Eastern philosophies. Like other young people seeking new ways of thinking, he’d attempted to join a Sant Mat sect, but was rejected for being too young. Some say he took the rejection as a personal insult. He turned to LSD for his enlightenment.

The oddest song here is probably “Bike:” “I’ve got a bike/You can ride it if you like/It’s got a basket/A bell that rings/And things to make it look good… I’d give it to you if I could/But I borrowed it.” Note the rhyming, alliteration, and syncopation. Also, the little lyric twist at the end. On surface, it seems like a nothing song.  But Barrett was a skilled writer, and like all great writers, he understood the power of letters and words.

John Steele Collection

Teenaged Syd Barrett in the family garden with guitar and tiger cat (Floyd? Pink?). Lucifer Sam is by his side in the foliage shadows (John Steele Collection)

Now for the pièce de résistance, the two songs that may be the cream of all English psychedelia. Musically and lyrically, they’re a joy to listen to: “Matilda Mother” and “Flaming.”

“Matilda Mother” is a bittersweet memory of Barrett’s about fairy stories read by his mother. The best psychedelic music was less about hallucinating through drugs than about escapism in general, and in “Matilda Mother,” Barrett yearns to throw off the baggage of adulthood and return to the comforting calm of his mother, and the “scribbly black” lines she recited, where the phantasmagoric was tangible and “everything shines.” Rick Wright, the low-key, underrated keyboardist in Floyd, who later also wrote several evocative songs about childhood, co-writes and co-sings.

“Flaming” is my favourite song on the album. Originally entitled “Snowing,” it’s a tune that requires no effort to listen to, just opened ears, an open mind, and a willingness to float on “eiderdown” through fields of buttercups and dandelions. Listen to this with a good set of headphones and let Wright’s deep organ fills wash over you, and Barrett’s stirring multi-tracked vocals warm your insides. You may giggle at the sudden entrance of a cuckoo… but, then, you’re supposed to. On surface, this song is about playing hide-and-seek. We were all children, once, so who cannot relate to that? But, as Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, and Syd Barrett all knew, words have different meanings.  “Flaming” clocks in at a mere two-and-a-half minutes, but it’s more breathtaking than all four sides of THE WALL.  And it has one of the most beautiful musical closeouts ever devised.  John and Paul certainly walked away shaking their heads in astonishment.  It’s obvious where they got the final notes for “She’s Leaving Home.”

Many have tried over the years, but nobody writes songs like this anymore. Very few back then could, either.

To its credit, U.S. subsidiary Tower Records actually released “Flaming” as Pink Floyd’s third U.S. single. But the song is too good, so it never charted.

floyd with gilmour

Revealing photo of the brief five-piece Pink Floyd. Gilmour is front left, Syd is hovering in back…a non-entity at this point (Pink Floyd Music Ltd Archive)

***

The Pink Floyd sound and image changed noticeably after PIPER was released and Barrett left the band. Rick Wright’s keyboards replaced Barrett’s guitar as the dominant instrument. The songs became longer and more thematic. Lyrically, Roger Waters adhered to Barrett’s philosophy of “keep it simple,” although Waters being Waters, more than a little social and political commentary crept into things. And since the band had no distinct leader anymore, the members’ identities were mysterious, even to many fans.

With the release of the epic DARK SIDE OF THE MOON in 1973, however, the Pink Floyd capsule finally broke the sound barrier of fame. Although the musicians still retained an air of mystery, their days as a curious cult attraction were forever gone. They could now enjoy the fruits of the capitalism which Roger Waters criticizes.

Strangely, however, The Piper never totally disappeared: his spirit and influence haunted the band and its songs until the end.

Psychedelic rock, or acid rock, only lasted a few years, from 1967 to ’69 or ’70.   Much of it was juvenile and derivative (“bullshit” … see earlier post). But the best psychedelic rock is extremely interesting, in my view, and a few records could be termed classics. One of them is THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN, Pink Floyd’s one and only album with a colorful, talented, and enigmatic butterfly named Syd Barrett.

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Longitudes has now profiled four groundbreaking albums this year (three of them debuts). In December, I’ll discuss one more rock masterpiece in honor of its 50th anniversary, closing out what I consider the penultimate year for rock albums: 1967. But, in the spirit of “laughing Syd Barrett” (as Jimi Hendrix  jokingly called him) I’ll keep you guessing as to what it is.

(Have you got it yet?)

The Wind in the Willows Shepard