Pink Floyd – The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn
Released August 5th, 1967 on EMI Columbia Records
Earlier this year, in January, this blog celebrated the 40th anniversary of Animals, a tough, gnarled, and asocial sort of album that was as much an indication of Roger Waters’ eternal crankiness as anything else. The band was celebrating it’s tenth anniversary that year, and it’s worth noting that the difference between Animals and the very first Pink Floyd album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, is staggering. Piper is the most psychedelic of the psychedelic rock albums that defined the genre in 1966-1968, and it screams “a lot of LSD went into the making of this” at the top of it’s lungs. The fact that it did is both a fascinating and terrifying story – perhaps the cautionary tale of acid rock and the 1960s.
Pink Floyd, the band – Roger Waters on bass, Nick Mason on drums, Richard Wright on keyboards, and Syd Barrett playing guitar and singing – had been going under various names since the Beatles were still playing German clubs hopped up on amphetamines. Sometime around 1965 they settled on the name Pink Floyd Sound, which was a combination of Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, two blues musicians whose records were in Barrett’s regular rotation. The name stuck, and seemed to spur the group to take things seriously; within a year they had paid gigs in the London club circuit, playing rhythm and blues for the hip audiences that made up the Swinging portion of Swinging London in the mid-Sixties. One such gig, at the Marquee Club, caught the ear of Peter Jenner, who taught at the London School of Economics; Jenner took up their cause, invested in them, became their manager, and convinced them to shorten their name to the now-familiar Pink Floyd. With increased gigs, and press coverage, the group began to experiment. Their R&B repertoire was fleshed out with lengthy instrumental jams, noisy art-sound, and mixed-media presentations that complemented the psychedelic flavour they were hashing out. Much of this stemmed from Barrett’s newfound love of LSD, and the visions that came out of his brain through the drug.
The band’s increased notoriety lead them inevitably to being signed with a record label, in this case EMI. EMI was exceedingly wary about what kind of band they were signing to a contract, and so the terms that were offered were awful, compared to their contemporaries. They received a very low advance, a terrible deal on royalties, and they had to pay for studio time. The only really good part of the contract was that EMI allowed them to do whatever they wanted while they were in the studio – and “whatever they wanted” ended up being The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.
The album is a perfect summation of where the band was at in 1966-1967. The songs are built along thrumming, hard-edged rhythms that flick and whirl with sharp, off-kilter guitar lines, spacey noise pads, and Barrett’s whimsical, at times disturbing vocals. “Lucifer Sam”, “Flaming”, and “Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk” (the latter the album’s lone Roger Waters song) are the most straightforward songs, taking the structure of most English psychedelic rock songs of the time and building off of the R&B stuff the band was playing in their earlier gigs. “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive”, meanwhile, represented the extended jams that they’d gotten into when they decided that what they really wanted to do was soundtrack Barrett’s LSD visions. “Matilda Mother” is creeping folk-rock; “The Gnome” rides a similar vibe but amps up the lysergic absurdity. “Bike” finishes off the album in a comfortable fashion, like a nice pleasant come down from a somewhat terrifying acid trip. It was, in terms of ideas and execution, far beyond what many bands at the time were attempting; it put other psychedelic acts to shame with it’s explosive exploration of the limits of rock ‘n’ roll.
Unfortunately, if acid was it’s main driving force, acid was also it’s ultimate destruction. By the time The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn came out, Barrett’s heavy, daily LSD use was taking a grim toll. Before 1967 Barrett was remembered as a friendly and exuberant person; as he continued to dose himself heavily with LSD, he became distanced, unfriendly, and detached from reality. He would go through manic stages and then bottom out with periods that were basically catatonic states. Rumours have abounded throughout the years that Barrett’s LSD use triggered a latent schizophrenic state in his brain, which would explain some of his subsequent behaviour. That behaviour, in the wake of the release of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, would become increasingly erratic and bizarre. He developed an infamous dead stare, and at times would be completely unaware of where he was. Before a gig at the UFO Club, Waters found him in the dressing room, completely unresponsive. With the help of Jenner, Barrett was lugged out on stage, where he stood motionless with his guitar hung around his neck. Nor was this the only instance of that dead stare during performances. While gigging in support of the album in America, Barrett spent a performance on The Pat Boone Show (where acts lip-synced to their singles) staring into the camera. An interview with Dick Clark was spent staring at Clark and refusing to answer any questions the host would ask. During one performance he refused to play “Interstellar Overdrive”, instead detuning each string on his guitar until it fell off; the audience thought it was all part of the act, but it was clear to the band and their management that Barrett’s mental state was completely unraveling and the American tour was cut short.
By 1968 Barrett’s tenure in the band was by-and-large over. After some abortive attempts to write new material and rehearse (including the infamous “Have You Got It Yet?” incident, which you should look up because it’s honestly fucking hilarious and indicative of Barrett’s weird sense of humour), the band decided to move on and replace him at live shows with a friend of the band, David Gilmour. There was an idea at first to keep going with Barrett writing the songs a la Brian Wilson, but Barrett’s catastrophic mental breakdown made it so even that was a dubious prospect. He would release an interesting solo album (1970’s The Madcap Laughs) and Pink Floyd would of course go on to become jet-setting international superstars, but The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is the sole artifact of the melding of the two forces, and it remains the best document of the entire psychedelic scene in 1960’s England. As the band grew, they jettisoned most of these tracks from their live shows, except for the long space fillers “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive”; regardless, these are all integral pieces of the Pink Floyd Experience, the sound of hip rock ‘n’ roll artists on the verge of something profound and new.
The Doors – The Doors
Released January 4th, 1967 on Elektra Records
The Doors hurled mainstream pop music into the mystic unknown, launching missives of darkness, poetry, and power on the unsuspecting masses. Fittingly, the album began on a beach, with Jim Morrison appearing back into Ray Manzarek’s life and singing the melody to “Moonlight Drive”. After hooking up with a flamenco guitarist (Robby Kreiger) and a jazz drummer (John Densmore) the group spent a time perfecting their act as the house band at the Whisky A-Go-Go in L.A., where they expanded nightly on their songs until they included the stretched-out jams found on “Light My Fire” and “The End”. The latter would cause the group to lose their gig at the Whisky due to the Oedipal nature of the song and Morrison’s heavy willingness to scream the word “FUCK!” in the middle of it. It would go on to have a searing second life in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now! where it would soundtrack Martin Sheen’s descent into his final madness and his assassination of Colonel Kurtz. Following the recording session for the song, Morrison returned to the studio high on acid and mistook the studio’s red lights for a fire, resulting in all of the recording equipment being sprayed down with a fire extinguisher.
Elsewhere, “Break On Through”, the album’s first single, failed to make much of a dent in the charts but “Light My Fire” (the first composition Robby Kreiger ever penned) drove the album to #2 in the U.S. Ray Manzarek’s autobiography (Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors, highly recommended) contains a passage where he gets his first royalty check for $50,000 and he thinks that it’s supposed to be split among the whole band and his girlfriend breaks the news that it’s actually just his share. Also of note: the two covers, “Alabama Song”, a German opera song from the 1920s and “Back Door Man”, a slick, sleazy Willie Dixon song that the band hones into a finely-edged switchblade; the party-all-night swirl of “Soul Kitchen”; and the hard-charging bounce of “Twentieth Century Fox”. The combination of hip, blues and jazz-influenced rock ‘n’ roll and eerie, mystical psychedelic unease would, er, light the fire of an entire generation of kids; that half-mad nighttime beat would inform both the more direct homage of the Psychedelic Furs and the more subtle insanity of Joy Division, as well as the vampires of 1987’s The Lost Boys.
Pond – Man, It Feels Like Space Again
Originally a side project of a few of the members of Tame Impala, Pond was designed to be an ever-changing collaborative project amongst the Perth neo-psychedelic scene. Their fourth album, the sublime Beard, Wives, Denim, became a success after Tame Impala’s Innerspeaker provided the rising tide. Man, It Feels Like Space Again was supposed to be the follow up to that breakthrough, but the band decided to record and release Hobo Rocket instead. With the band finally back on its original course, they’re now in the long shadow cast by their parent band’s monolithic Lonerism album. Man, It Feels Like Space Again doesn’t do a lot to break them out of that shadow, either. Too much of the album focuses on meandering trippy passages where fuzzed-out guitar leads intertwine with organ padding without bothering to do anything new with the trope. “Holding Out For You” does this the best, turning what might have originally been a rote piano ballad into blissed-out psych. “Zond” and “Outside Is The Right Side” strike out with some whalloping drums (the key ingredient that made me sit up and take notice on “Elegant Design” half a decade ago) and the closing title track is a shifting work of on-point psych-rock, but everything else fails to really capture my attention to any great effect. “Elvis’ Flaming Star” has a nice bass line but the vocals feel too drowned in studio trickery to connect at all. “Sitting Up On Our Crane” comes up with a great melody line but squanders its promise over six minutes. It’s a decent enough album, but it doesn’t match anything Tame Impala has been up to, and it doesn’t do much to stand on its own merit, either.
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Liam Hayes – Slurrup
Psychedelic rock is big business nowadays. What with Tame Impala and Foxygen riding their obvious influences to indie success, and the rather more scorching garage rock movement wrecking small venues across the continent, it’s now an established path to the, er, “top”. Liam Hayes has been putting out this sort of music since Nirvana was a white-hot, cutting-edge band; Slurrup is his fifth studio album since 1998 and it trades in the sort of stuff that all the kids seem to like – the Who, the Kinks, Psychedelic London. The problem here, though, is that it’s all just a bit too pat. He writes decent psych-rock nuggets in a manner that would have put him in the top ten in a battle of the bands in 1966. So what? Guided By Voices does the early Who better. Ty Segall makes much more engaging garage numbers. This is psychedelic rock by numbers, filling in all the requisite pieces without really taking it anywhere. Oh, there’s the organ, there’s the plunking piano, here’s the soaring, pastoral vibe lifted straight from The Village Green Preservation Society. Look, there’s the weird sound collage made out of people laughing, because no one’s ever heard fucking pre-Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd before! Slurrup is okay, and that’s it’s biggest stumbling block. It’s all been done before, better, and recently to boot.