Depending on your mindset, this is one strange album. By 1967 Pink Floyd had become the latest darlings of the lysergic underground movement in London. While The Beatles were at Abbey Road Studios applying the finishing touches to their latest masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pink Floyd were busy recording their debut, whose name was taken from Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows (at the behest of the band’s principle song writer Syd Barrett). The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a children’s playground of English whimsy and cosmic wonder, all watched through the lens of LSD. There are rumours that some of the tracks contain ‘sounds’ that the listener can only discern while tripping. But this is more likely due to what people thought they were hearing than to what is actually on the record. And while Sgt. Pepper’s… was overall rather inviting and friendly, Piper is at times a little disturbing and even downright scary.
Beginning with the somewhat schizophrenic “Astronomy Domine”, one thing is instantly clear; this is Barrett’s journey and his alone. The bass line is ultimately what holds the song together, the gravity if you will, without which the whole tune would probably fly apart into outer space, never to be heard again. Hearing this sort of music live must have required some nerve, not to mention a lot of purple candy and funny cigarettes. “Lucifer Sam” induces (in me at least) images of Batman and Robin tearing around Gotham City in the Batmobile after dropping a couple of tabs back at the Batcave while hanging out with Timothy Leary. You’ll have to hear it to know what I’m talking about.
The trip continues with “Matilda Mother”, a nauseous ride of kaleidoscopic keyboards and echo-ridden vocals, which must have really had the acid heads reaching into their inner consciousness. It’s actually not a bad song, if you can get past all the extraneous sound effects. “Flaming” is all absurdist and experimental nonsense. Syd’s vocals are buried too deep, while the whole thing just sounds badly mixed, to the point where the instruments are starting to affect my brain patterns. The madness doesn’t stop with “Pow R. Toc H”, which could be described as a sort of traditional Irish ditty where it soon becomes apparent that even the Leprechauns have been imbibing far too many mushrooms. On Roger Waters’ “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk”, Barrett plays some eccentric guitar while Richard Wright pounds away maniacally on the keyboards. Now my wife’s pretty open when it comes to music, but if I played this for her, she’d probably threaten me with divorce.
The next song has Barrett and the band exploring the farthest regions of the solar system with “Interstellar Overdrive”, and out to areas of space not even Voyager I and II have yet to venture. The song (if one could call it that) segues rather oddly into “The Gnome”, who is, according to Barrett, merely “Biding his time” in what one can assume is a quintessential English garden. This ‘gnome’ is also apparently fond of a glass or two, which explains why they always appear to have ruddy cheeks and a delirious expression.
“Chapter 24” is probably about the closest Barrett ever got to writing what could be described as a traditional pop song. There is the odd moment where it reminds me of The Kinks, Syd’s very own “Waterloo Sunset” in a way. Except that Barrett’s sunset was I’m sure more surreal than Ray Davies’ ever was. I wonder if Brian Eno had ever heard “The Scarecrow”, because there are aspects of this brief tune that are reminiscent of Another Green World, vocal wise. If nothing else, Barrett brought a definite English sensibility to pop music at a time when most British singers were doing their best to imitate Americans.
The trip finally ends with “Bike”, which is a sort of pseudo-pop song with lyrics as literal as they are nonsensical. It’s difficult to say whether Syd was being serious or just taking the piss on this one, in that Spike Milligan/Tony Hancock mode of irrational observation. Either way it remains to this day an innocent and eccentric example of a human mind as unique as it was unconventional.
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn may not be to everyone’s taste, or indeed comprehension; nor could it be considered easy listening much less the sort of music one would play over a relaxing dinner with the neighbours. An LP so far removed from the band’s later more user-friendly yet existential and depressing period. Whether Syd Barrett himself had a vision (outside of his hallucinatory journeys) is doubtful to say the least. Was he a genius? Perhaps. Was he a deliberate spokesman for his generation? I doubt it. Having been raised in the academic and relatively protective confines of Cambridge, Barrett’s intellectual upbringing proved to be perhaps his ultimate undoing. However one thing we can be certain of is the important influence which the late nineteenth century British poet and children’s author Hilaire Belloc and his book Cautionary Tales for Children played in informing Barrett’s imaginative world view. More than anything else it is these stories one must read in order to better appreciate the inspiration behind much of Syd’s choice of subject matter.
The three disc 40th Anniversary edition preserves both the original mono and stereo mixes of the album, along with several outtakes and demos, but more importantly the first three non-album singles “Arnold Layne”, “See Emily Play”, and “Apples and Oranges”, along with their respective b-sides. Young people today might wonder what all the fuss is about, but in late sixties London Pink Floyd were regarded as being at the cutting edge of the newly emerging counterculture (something which sadly no longer exists), in all its naive and psychedelic glory. And while those days can never be repeated, they can at least be remembered.