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.