The year was 1967 – China had just exploded their first ever hydrogen bomb, a young Dustin Hoffman inquired after the intentions of “MILF” Anne Bancroft in The Graduate, the Boston Red Sox lost their World Series bid at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals, and Rolling Stone Magazine was born.
And at the already famed Abbey Road Studios in St. John’s Wood, London – Pink Floyd recorded their first full album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Generally well received, the album was ranked at number six in the U.K. In the last 40 years it’s been lauded as groundbreaking, seminal, and brilliant in the psychedelic/progressive/space genre. Piper was also the only Floyd effort written almost entirely by Syd Barrett. Now Syd was a whole story unto himself, a story of genius, waste, and much more, and his work was missed greatly by fans in subsequent Pink Floyd projects. Piper presents a unique chance to experience Barrett’s touch.
So, the big question is this: can a latter day Floyd fan enjoy or even understand Piper at the Gates of Dawn? The short answer is yes, but what a mind-trip it proves to be.
Progressive and psychedelic is the general theme – but the track arrangement is all over the place. Either Barrett’s doing, or producer Norman Smith; the result is seemingly random juxtaposition of psycho grooves, lyrics that range from childish to mysterious to clever, and even a bit of surprising jazz piano by Rick Wright in the odd but interesting “Pow R. Toc H.”
“Interstellar Overdrive” is a powerful yet dreamy instrumental that floats along for over nine minutes – leaving the listener in a rapt trance – only to be broken by the nursery rhyme sounding “Gnome” with its tick-tocky intro, and lyrics that state:
“….He wore a scarlet tunic/A blue-green hood, it looked quite good/He had a big adventure/Amidst the grass, fresh air at last/Wining dining biding his time…”
And again, the opening track, the wonderful “Astronomy Domine” (better known from later inclusions on the Floyd compilation albums, Pulse and Echoes as well as on Ummagumma) has majestic chord progressions and eerie lyrics that are the stuff of Dark Side of the Moon or even Momentary Lapse of Reason, commanding and surreal. But the very next song’s opening measures move abruptly into what sounds like the score of a 60’s style TV action show in “Lucifer Sam”, a song that wonders why ‘Siam Sam’ is incessantly at his mistress’s side, instead of being a “hip cat…a ship’s cat.” And the sweet and funny “Bike” concludes with random sound effects – bike bells, discordant violin plucking and geese?
Of course, this reflected the British Pop sensibilities of the time, even in America; the Television Academy was awarding Emmys to the likes of Get Smart and The Monkees. The melody in “Flaming” easily conjures images of Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery with Austin at his most Mod prancing through the setting described by Syd Barrett: “Alone in the clouds all blue/Lying on an eiderdown. Yippee/You can’t see me but I can you…”
Also, because this re-release is intended to be representative of the times, the set includes a mono version of all the tracks. Compared to the stereo, this inclusion seems redundant especially to the non-audiophile. Yet it is worth a listen as a reminder of what aural magic was possible with experimentation and a good sound engineer.
Piper at the Gates of Dawn is steeped in psychedelia, which explains the occurrence of not only the de rigueur sitar and reverb, but the incongruous special effects and odd vocalizations. These extras may be off-putting to some, and a joy to others, but either way it should be heard to appreciate the full experience that was – and is – Pink Floyd.