Friday 4 July 2008

Pink Floyd "Piper At The Gates Of Dawn" (1967) ('Core' Review #13, Revised Edition 2014)

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Pink Floyd "Piper At The Gates Of Dawn" (1967)

Track Listing: Astronomy Domine/ Lucifer Sam/ Matilda Mother/ Flaming/ Pow R Toc H/ Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk/ Interstellar Overdrive/ The Gnome/ Chapter 24/ Scarecrow/ Bike (UK and US tracklisting)

A throbbing guitar part, morse code organ stabs, pounding drums, feedback – right from the very first notes of their very first album, The Floyd are already creating a style that sounds like nothing that’s ever been heard before. This is no longer just 'pop' music, a bit of escapism you spend your pocket money on, but something more primeval than that: everything about this opening sounds 'wrong', like a world in disarray. Pink Floyd are going to get rather good at summing up a scary world in trouble and will still be doing so right to the very end (1994's 'Division Bell') - about the only thing that will stay the same given the amount of band members and 'leaders' the Floyd will get through in their 27 years together (and apart). For me though the opening seconds of 'Astronomy Domine' are amongst the most special: no other band has sounded quite this close to the edge, with a battered morse code signal and some unintelligible chattering the backdrop for a song where everything is invoked for release, from Dan Dare to the stars and still nothing works, Syd Barrett's guitar left to thrash about wildly in wider and wider circles, persuaded home by the rest of the band working overtime. 'Piper' is an album that sounds like no other record ever made - it doesn't even sound like any other Pink Floyd album ever made given that it's the only one to feature lead writer, singer, guitarist and all round creative fireball Syd Barrett. And even the opening few bars of the opening song are revolutionary.
In retrospect you wonder how such a relatively new band as Pink Floyd could get away with it. Yes single 'Arnold Layne' had gone top twenty and follow-up 'See Emily Play' had gone top six, but even as late as 1967 record labels were reluctant to splash out on a full album on an untested band and usually came up with provisos such as including hit singles, making the opening tracks of an album the most commercial and not scaring the masses the way the opening songs of both sides of this record do. But then Pink Floyd weren't like any other band from the first: while a majority of the bands on our site met at school as teenagers, Pink Floyd were older college students who met mainly while studying to become architects (apart from Rick, studying classical music; one of the band's many rotating early names as 'The Architectural Abdads'; we'll get this out the way early for people new to the Floyd: their final name was chosen by Syd and combines the names of his two favourite blues artists 'Pink Andersen' and 'The Floyd Council'). Even their lecturer wasn't like any lecturers I've ever known: he let the noisy band (still blues purists at the beginning till Syd learnt to write) live and rehearse at his house and even provided their early light show. The perfect band for an era big into experimentation and rule-breaking, their early performances consisted of lengthy jamming sessions and from here-on in until as late as 'The Wall' most Floyd concerts will contain a mere single-digit list of songs, even when lasting several hours. The biggest surprise to those who knew The Floyd wasn't that people paid to see them (no other band quite summed up the thrilling new world just opening in late 1966/early 1967) but that they managed to secure a record contract and somehow managed to reduce all those extended experiments in sound into perfect three-minute pop singles. Had producer Norman 'Hurricane' Smith (promoted from his role as tape engineer with The Beatles) been even quicker off the mark than he already was in singing the band then their late 1966 album would have been a marvel: multiple psychedelic sing-alongs like 'Arnold Layne' 'See Emily Play' and 'Candy and a Current Bun' that have all the carefree joys of 1967 wrapped around a couple of infectious riffs and a powerhouse arrangement, but here the mood is dark and sinister from the word go – full of ghostly sound effects and myriad unworldly noises that spring out at you from behind closed doors.

Ever since he disappeared in 1968 and again when he died in 2006 Syd's legacy seems to have been called into question: how can a man whose entire collection of output is 14 songs with the Floyd and another 25-odd solo really be that good? Surely people only talk about Syd because of a) his sad decline b) the unfinished story and c) what Pink Floyd went on to do. The fact is, though, that most of the ten of the 11 Barrett songs on this album (Roger also wrote one) are involved in some way with that decline, a collapsing writer caught at just the right time when his ideas still mad enough sense to be turned into pioneering songs. In many ways this is the end of the story right here (with the forced single 'Apples and Oranges' revealing further decline and eerie coda 'Jugband Blues' Syd's sole contribution to follow-up LP 'A Saucerful Of Secrets'): Syd's lived out his creativity to its logical conclusion so fast he has nowhere to go (one moving quote from Syd during his brief spell as a solo artist in 1970 is that he found himself filling with so many ideas at once that to write any of them down would end the spell; restricting the endless sights he could see into something concrete and tangible that would somehow 'limit' what he was capable of - it's something many writers have expressed down the years if they get 'far' enough in opening the creative doors to their brains, though many get round it by limiting their scope - something Syd, ever eager to experience as much of the world around him as he could, never seemed able to do). The final argument that Syd only matters because the rest of Pink Floyd did later is also suspect: Syd haunts the band for many a long year to come, from the coda of B-side 'Julia Dream' the very next year ('Save Me!...Syd!') to the worries about brain damage and madness at the heart of 'Dark Side Of The Moon' to the title track of the album based around absence 'Wish You Were Here' to the entire concept of 'The Wall' (the character Pink' is' Syd, with a few bits and pieces added from Roger's own experiences along the way). In fact the only Floyd albums not to feature Syd anywhere are the two Floyds film soundtracks and 'Animals' (even though Syd is clearly a 'Dog', nagging Sheep to 'wake up' and prepared to go his own lonely way in the world). Most of all Syd's work matters because it's usually rather good  - unlike his peers Syd never had the time to sound uninspired, or be forced to sound like some 'new' band on the block (he never had to face the ignominy of his art being surrounded by synthesisers as most people's were in the 1980s, the Floyd included). Barrett's work also offers something no other artist can provide: an accurate representation of that slightly surreal, slightly scary, sometimes poetic, sometimes pretty moment between waking and dreaming that manages to both comfort and scare. To quote 'Lucifer Sam, 'That cat is something we can't explain': Syd and his songs are such a one-off that we mere mortals can't help but gawp, even though it was the biggest tragedy of his later years that people wouldn't leave him alone and let him be (the paparazzi pictures of a bald-headed overweight Syd doing some shopping the last decade of his life were heartbreaking - both because of the intrusion he didn't deserve and because a folk hero that charismatic should never grow old, grow fat or do something as mundane as the shopping).

There's an inbuilt mechanism in humans that hates change: we all know that we are going to grow older and die one day and each change (usually for the worse) takes us further away from what we were. I hear that mixture of adult knowing and childish longing in the works of several writers, but Syd always nailed that sentiment the best. 'Piper' is a record that's all about childhood, good and bad. Even the title 'Piper At The Gates Of Dawn' is taken wholesale from a chapter title in  Kenneth Grahame's  'pastoral' (a word used about a lot of Pink Floyd records) children's text 'The Wind In The Willows' (it's the chapter title in the book missed out in all TV, radio and film adaptations, where the God Pan visits the riverbank; most people find this chapter a bit out of kilter with the rest - no wonder Syd liked it! - and see it as too metaphorically profound for children; these same people clearly haven't worked out that all the 'Narnia' books are really about Christianity or that the second-half of Beatrix Potter's collection are in some way connected to the sudden death of her fiance: children tend to be tougher and better able to deal with high adult concepts than most adults tend to think). Syd was a heavy taker of LSD, a drug that's meant to make childhood memories fresher - that's why The Beatles started rambling on about 'Strawberry Fields' and 'Penny Lane' and why Eric Burdon suddenly came up with a string of rather good flop singles about being a child - but he seems to have always looked back over his shoulder while writing from the very beginning; LSD may have magnified his writing style and favourite topic but didn't 'create' it (by the same token LSD may have accelerated his downfall but seems unlikely to have caused it - overdoses aside, drug casualties tend to be the more open and sensitive sorts who are already gnawing at their nervous systems without it,  Brian Wilson being the other famous example).

Many people look at the fact that this record is all about 'childhood', which crops up in reviews 1967 date (when some psychedelia albums do tend to get a bit silly) and run screaming for the hills. But the fact is that 'Piper' is an album about a very tough child. We don't know why that should be: Syd's childhood was idyllic until his dad died in his teens and perhaps that's the point: Syd's memories are far happier than anything he can come to terms with in the present or future with such a hole in his life. Every songs comes with...something about them though. The cartoon character spouting 'Astronomy Domine' is an assault on the ears; 'Lucifer Sam' ends in tears when division comes into the imaginary world of a cat on his travels with the lines 'You're the left side, he's the right side, oh no!', not to mention that most haunting and terrifying of guitar riffs (Lucifer Sam, a close cousin of The Kinks' Phenomenal Cat', is straight out of a fairytale: wondering what he gets up to during the day Syd imagines all sorts of wild journeys for him);'Matilda Mother' finds the narrator 'left hanging on my infant air' waiting for the end of a story that never comes (perhaps Syd was too upset to make this 'Matilda Father'?!); 'Bike' ends ominously with a 'room of musical tunes' that might represent the path to adulthood: the door seems enticing but when you open it all hell breaks loose (many of the 'sound effects' toys seem to be madly laughing, while their repetitive chatter is the sort that young children are thought to hear before they've learnt how to interpret sound - not so much another language as a sea of alien sounds). Bike is the album in a nutshell in fact, a three-minute masterpiece which has no real tune, no real cohesion of ideas, too many lyrics to fit the melody and half of the words don’t rhyme, sung with childish abandon that suggests that Syd just doesn’t care, so filled is he with the glory of creating something. But if you can ‘get’ this song, you ‘get’ Syd Barrett: the way the words stagger into the next line and keep coming back to the same yearning phrase and beginning again are superbly unconventional, suggesting a darker world at work without actually spelling it out and the lolloping gait of the song make it part-comical and playful as well as part-sinister.  even 'The Gnome' and 'The Scarecrow' are sung in a vocal torn halfway between a sneer and a laugh: a parody of a children's song that can't really exist because as Syd knows only too well children don't think like that. This isn't some twee storybook: it's a Brothers Grimm fairytale where all the world is out to get you, with desperation pouring through every angry guitar solo, every descending bass riff, every funny sound effect, every clattered burst of percussion, every pore. Every time the narrator seems safe or having a nice time a trap-door appears out of nowhere to swallow him and us up. Syd was only 20 at the time this record came out (he was 19 for most of the recording of it), but seems to already instinctively know that adulthood isn't for him.

This album isn't wholly terrifying either, though. Another theme filters through about the very 1967 theme of the yin and yang of life, with people precariously balanced between the nasty and the nice, something explored several times on this album. Syd even writes a whole song based on a reading from the Eastern fortune telling bible the I Ching, telling us how things always go in cycles, that 'a movement is accomplished in six stages' and that life is always changing. The ending of this most beautiful of songs makes it clear that life can change for the better: a lovely cascading flow of harmonies that rise up life a sacrifice to the sun. Most of the sudden changes on this album happen to be unhappy ones, but a few of them aren't: 'Flaming' and 'Pow R Toc H' are as likely to relax into a jazz solo as they are explode into angry animal noises. 'Bike' is mainly a happy song until it all gets weird at the end and on paper at least 'The Scarecrow' and 'The Gnome' are too, pastoral tales of happenings that would brighten anyone's day (note too the line that 'The Gnome is sadder than me', mainly it seems because he can't move around the way a human can). Syd is too complex a character to be pigeon-holed and this contradiction is part of what makes his songwriting so much deeper than other writers who fail trying to write 'like' Syd (it's also why his solo work is a bit hit and miss I think; by 1970 Syd tends to stay in one mood the whole song).

You see, there isn't one 'Syd' on this record to talk about but several (Syd never was diagnosed with anything but most Floyd scholars accept that he at least had schizophrenia - possibly other things too). The fact was music was changing at an alarming rate across 1966/67, with even a week making a difference between what was 'in' and what was 'out'. Syd was changing at an alarming rate too: while reports of his odd behaviour generally tend to start only after the release of 'Piper', even at the time he was acting eccentrically. One of the reasons I love 'Piper' so much - and perhaps why so many other Floydians do too - is that it sounds like a much wider universe than most single albums generally have the scope to picture, mainly because the ever creative Syd is burning up at a rate of knots across this record. EMI have never really let out which songs were recorded when but I'm willing to be that compositionally at least they run like this: Piper's playful songs like 'The Gnome' and 'Scarecrow' are at one with the singles: charming, pretty, infusing life into everyday objects and making them 'real'. Syd then gets deeper into the mysteries of life, with either drugs or his own creative drive (or both) pushing him to write 'Chapter 24' (taken from the I Ching) Songs like 'Lucifer Sam' (about Syd's pet cat) and 'Matilda Mother' (about his mother, oddly enough) try to be playful but they're darker - the fact that Syd's cat is 'something I can't explain' and the fact that life isn't like the fairytale books his mother reads to him seem to give Barrett real pain. 'Bike' then finds Syd desperately trying to recapture what he 'used' to write, but finding that the more he tries to write happy songs and re-create the sound of his childhood the less sense the pattern makes ('Bike' randomly loses the rhyming scheme, the scansion, eventually all cohesion- ironically Syd seems to be deliberately pushing the boundaries of writing and losing touch with how to write just as he's writing a song about cycling, something you're allegedly meant never to forget, although I have to confess I did). Semi-instrumentals like 'Flaming' and 'Pow R Toc H' might run next, segueing from peace and calm into all-out attack in the blink of an eye (Syd's guitar at the end of the latter is terrifying and clearly channeling something, even if the rest of the song is mainly jazz cocktail lounge). We then end up in 'Interstellar Overdrive', a downright angry instrumental that doesn't let up for a second across it's near ten minute running time; based around Love's riff for their song 'Little Red Book', this is about more than just a telephone number: the future of mankind seems to be at stake. Then we end up, characteristically backwards, at 'Astronomy Domine', a cry for help if ever there was one in a stream of consciousness as eerie as lyrics come ('Floating down the sounds resounds around the icy waters underground...Neptune, Titan, stars can frighten'). Over the course of a single album Syd delivers sunshine, clouds and full on black holes. No wonder people still talk about this album with baited breath: over writers would make that transition over decades but Syd disintegrates almost in real time if you play the record in a certain order, going from charismatic man about time into helpless victim within a little over half an hour.

With so much talk about Syd's songs people seem to have forgotten what a fantastic guitar player he was. No disrespect to David Gilmour, who manages to sound both 'weird' and 'accessible' in a way Syd never could, but Barrett's playing all over this album is the best on any Floyd album: Syd's uncharacteristic, generally atonal heavily echoed guitar-work is a natural extension of his writing; worrying away at each of the songs like a clawed hand reaching out to grab us and pull us somewhere else. Syd's guitar playing never gets the respect it deserves, perhaps because there's comparatively so little of it and because it sounds so unlike anything else out there, but at its peak ('Astronomy Domine' 'Interstellar Overdrive' and the single 'See Emily Play'), it's exquisite, a ball of fizzing fireworks set to go off in multiple directions at once (God knows what would have happened if Syd had stayed together long enough to master the art of double tracking!) Syd's vocal style is much like his guitar playing: harsh and aggressive but also charming when he wants; not the sound of a natural lead singer (Rick always had the best voice of the Floyd) but one with a certain charisma. Talking of which, Rick is almost Syd’s equal here at times, holding the whole album together with his swirling organ and equally-swirling harmonies at their best, backing up his band-mate by smothering his often sombre playing and vocals with warmth although he’s very careful too not to dilute Syd’s sound too much or get in his way. A lot of this album's scare factor comes from Rick's organ playing, which manages to sound like its passing in front of us at half-speed, sweeping up the songs in a world that's always trying to tell us something just out of our reach (no wonder this album started with morse code!) Rick’s rare lead vocal on Matilda Mother is particularly noteworthy, striking the perfect note between being delicate and being frightening. Rick will sadly be under-used and under-rated during his entire time with the Floyd; for now it's worth mentioning that he's very much the only band member keeping pace with Barrett and to most people who owned this album seemed the natural inheritor to his crown. The reason he wasn't is a whole can of worms we'll delve into in our review for next album 'A Saucerful Of Secrets'...

For the time being, Roger Waters has less to do than on any other Floyd album until he leaves in the mid-1980s. His lone song, 'Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk', isn't as bad as some fans and critics say but sounds like a poor attempt to copy Syd's work rather than the poetry Roger will go on to write. His bass playing, too, is noticeably lower in the mix than what everyone else is playing (although he's already playing his distinctive bass runs in 'Interstellar Overdrive'). Nick, though, has never sounded better than he does here. It's a curious fact, much mentioned on this site, that drummers tend to play better not on songs with lots of rhythm or pace or chances to show of but when there's an emotional realism at the heart of the songs. Just as Ringo is at his best when Lennon's heart is breaking and Mick Avory plays out of his drumskins when Ray Davies is doing yet another concept piece about his family again, so Nick is at heart an 'emotional' drummer who plays best not when thinking deep thoughts but connecting with the singer. Close as he'll grow to be with Roger, Rick and Dave he appears to share a special telepathy with Nick and is a much more eclectic player here than elsewhere (his 'heavy' playing on 'Astronpomy Domine' and 'Interstellar Overdrive' offset by the light playful tapping on 'The Gnome' and 'The Scarecrow', where his tapped drumsticks are the whole backbone of the song).

The result - pioneering songwriting, groundbreaking playing, an excellent production that manages to be both 'busy' and 'clear (good job Norman Smith!)  and a sound like no other - makes 'Piper At The Gates Of Dawn' one of my personal favourite AAA albums. It's not that every song is first-class ('The Gnome' is a severe let-down after the outer space hi-jincks of 'Interstellar Overdrive'); it's not as if this album contains any of my all-time favourite Floyd songs ('Echoes' 'Us and Them' and 'Remember A Day' if you want to see how compatible we are!) But 'Piper' offers so much that no other album gives. I'd love to know whether, in some alternate time stream where Syd had six months off and bounced back stronger than ever, this would have been the start of a sound we'd have heard endlessly or whether Barrett would have moved on. I predict even he would never have been able to quite come up with a whole album like this again: there's simply too much here to be contained within one album, with 'Piper' simply fizzing with new ideas left right and centre. There's no doubt about it: this album is special and I'm honestly not just saying that because of the mystique surrounding Syd: there's two surrounding Kurt Cobain and Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers as well, neither of which have made any impact on me. But Syd was a one-off, a unique talent, who poured so much of his heart out into this album (although as we've seen its a borderline memory confessional and imaginary litany) that it would be almost rude not to love it. Even his own band-mates have since brought into question whether Syd's songs were actually any good (Roger particularly), but the truth is they're too close to their art to see it properly, figured that they worked hard at songs which came to Syd a little too easily for his own good (a continual creative, Syd never quite learnt the art of switching off) or were perhaps too jealous of the attention Syd got disappearing while they were forced to re-build their career: while not every Floyd fan worships 'Piper' as their greatest work ('Dark Side' naturally gets voted top on album polls, followed by most of the better-selling 1970s albums) most have at the very least a soft spot for this record. Many, like me, continue to rate it as the best thing they ever did (though comparisons between records as different as the Floyds is of course a moot point) and curse the fact that we didn't get anymore than this one record. Some may brand it as inconsequential back to back with 'Dark Side Of The Moon', other may complain that it's too noisy and unmusical, others that you can't hear the words. But that's the whole point: other albums can do these things and yes they do them better, but no other record out there dances to this piper's tune and you'll never ever hear it's like again.
The Songs:

[6a] Astronomy Domine is, despite the Floyd’s reputation as sci-fi rockers early in their career, one of only three tracks that directly follows this theme (and the only direct one to be written in the Syd Barrett-era to boot, although several of the songs on this album do admittedly touch on that theme). Quite unlike anything that ever came before it, this track out-Doors the Doors by taking everything safe and cosy in early psychedelic pop (lyrics about floating in space, glossy harmonies, slightly feedback-filled guitar chords, organ chords a la Whiter Shade Of Pale) and distorting it until it sounds as if its on the brink of falling apart. The song opens with a gibberish morse code opening, some out of control bass drum wallops from Nick Mason and the sound of the band’s producer giving us some inaudible speech as if he’s in a rocket taking off to space (Rather nicely, not to mention nostalgically, the band lampoon this beginning on their first post-Waters track Learning To Fly exactly 20 years after this LP’s release, when a now-genuine pilot Nick Mason reads an areoplane flight manual over the middle of the song; an unkind commentator could make some remark about them setting their sights rather lower the second time around but we’re not that cruel here at the album archives, honest). The rest of the song follows this lead by doing its best to sound like the cold, vast emptiness of space. Bleak and empty, the album is already fast on its way to becoming claustrophobic by the end of the first minute as the band build layer after layer of sound and tension on top, stretching the track to breaking point. The lyrics are notable too, with Syd mixing some very comic-book type images with fragmented lines that many commentators think is an early cry for help, with Syd picturing himself as a star burning far too brightly in the sky and about to implode (‘Neptune, Titan, stars can frighten’). You can hear that feeling best in Syd’s wild guitar break though – doing his best to fight his way out of the band’s ragged tempo, Syd rails against the walls of his spaceship prison, moving every which way round the song’s riff he can until the song finally limps home to a landing as if one of its engines have been blown.

No sooner is the listener able to catch his breath then Syd is off again, heading straight into another claustrophobic riff on [7] Lucifer Sam, doubled on the bass by Waters while Wright’s organ chirrips away over the top. Although a fine and failry recognizable Merseybeat-style riff props up the song, the terribly 60s production and instrumentation makes it sound like something beamed in by an alien species the way its played here. Yet reading the lyric sheet – and paying no attention to the recording itself – you would think Lucifer Sam was a rather sweet little song about Syd’s childhood pet cat. The guitarist creates a fantastic psychedelic set of lyrics here, possibly comparing the gleam in his cat’s eyes when he goes for a night’s prowl with his own after an LSD-fuelled night in (‘that cat’s something I can’t explain’), but if the ghostly aura of the music is anything to go by the cat would have been better off  staying at home. Syd even urges his beloved pet, in classic ’67 speak, to ‘be a hip cat, be a ship’s cat’ before wailing for him to go ‘somewhere, anywhere’. Ostensibly a sweet little song, am I the only Floyd fan to see something rather dark and nasty here, as if Syd is really using his cat as a metaphor to better talk about himself?

[8a] Matilda Mother at last offers a sojourn of sorts, with Syd’s eerie playing now at half-speed as Rick’s organ and Roger’s dancing bass lines now take over the lead. Another song about childhood innocence, with Syd being the first of many writers on this list to bemoan the loss of straightforward childhood beliefs and stories for something more complicated in adulthood (kings are born to rule and they do it well, with the people’s fortunes close to their heart, goes his mother’s story in the opening verse). Yet, after Rick sings these words on his band-mates’ behalf, Syd flies into a stinging middle-eight, accusing those in his childhood of giving him untruths that absolutely shatter his belief when he finds out they are wrong (leaving him ‘hanging in my infant air, waiting’ in one of Syd’s career-best lines). This tug of war between Barrett and Wright surprisingly ends in peace, as Syd comes to the conclusion that ‘fairy stories held me high’ and weren’t so bad after all, while the adult Syd’s closing words of the song are to ask his mother to return him to childhood and ‘tell me more’. Moving stuff, or alternatively perhaps Syd had been reading too much brothers Grimm.

[9] Flaming is another one of those songs on this album that, had it been recorded by anybody else, would have been a sweet little ditty about (presumably, because the lyrics are rather obscure) the glories of exploring space, reaching out to the stars free of all the rules waiting for the narrator back on space. The Floyd do their best to accommodate that view too with Rick’s glorious piano solo in the middle daintily creeping his way round the airier parts of space before falling back to Earth on Waters’ bass’ grounded cushion. But the group just aren’t built for playing delicately and the whole track sounds as if Flaming too is on the edge of tears and about to fall apart as soon as the narrator wakes up (the title – which has no direct link to the lyrics that I can see – suggest that this psychedelic dream is probably drug-fuelled and if so it again sounds more like a coded warning than gleeful delight).  

[10] Pow R Toc H is more evidence of Syd’s fragmented state in 1967, from the title (nobody knows what on earth it means by the way and neither do I) down to this instrumental’s multiple sections. Pow R is another battle royale between the dark and light, with spooky noises giving way to a lovely jazzy riff and back again into an Armageddon of sound effects. The band do a good impression of an early 60s blues group at the beginning (especially Rick, again, playing his little socks off), although the song ends up returning to the darker and ghostlier places explored on this album twice, before passing through to the other side again. Just as the song is winding up, with more of those characteristic non-worded vocal noises the Floyd often filled their songs with during this period, Syd lets his guitar finally rattle out of control and into destructive feedback, taking us back into the nightmare half of this cleverly balanced album. 

[11] Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk is Roger Waters’ first ever published song, although its far more like a continuation of the last track than the lyrical epics Roger is going to write within the next decade. A near instrumental, sandwiched between some very Syd-like childishly innocent word games played as if the band are sound-tracking a hammer horror movie, the band finally get going 55 seconds into the song when they all take off in flight for one of the nastiest sounding passages of rock, one step away from chaos throughout. The tension approaching the 2 minute mark is almost unbearable (and the vocals even go backwards towards the end, suggesting the song has actually gone over the edge and out the other side). A triumphant shout from Waters and Syd’s duetted vocals and a chorus of ‘realise’ sung three times over isn’t fooling anybody – the narrator may be back from the dead to the amazement of his doctor, but if he is then its surely as a zombie or vampire or something, this song is just not human!
[1b] Interstellar Overdrive is perhaps the most famous song here, a nearly 10-minute instrumental that broke all the boundaries of what could be put onto vinyl in the days of 1967. If the Floyd had had their way Piper would have been full of tracks like this but compared to the other lesser known material here it does tend to pall a bit, slacking off and then kicking back in a few too many times to retain interest. The overdone distortion and stereo-panning on the stereo version of this album towards the end of this song is also terribly gimmicky, a rare example of the Floyd falling into the trap of tying their sound to a particular era. For its time, though, this song is a revolution in performance bar none, breaking just about every 60s rule book under the sun, with only the merest of nods towards the song’s opening riff (stolen from Love’s Little Red Book according to band members in interviews years later), a total lack of melody (the  band are all playing such different riffs by the song’s midway point that there’s arguably no tune at all for a good two minutes) and so much noise going on it hurts your ears. Despite all the above negative comments, its still great stuff though, twisting and turning its way through so many variations that its among the most energetic and exciting Floyd recordings. Its also a rare chance to hear the Barrett-era Floyd actually playing as a group rather than applying lots of overdubs and shows what a fine foursome they were when they were all working in harmony. Aptly named, Interstellar Overdrive is slightly overdone but for the most part is one of the most stellar recordings of their career.

[12] The Gnome and [13] The Scarecrow are in contrast two very odd little songs, full of sweet little tunes and innocent lyrics without the bite of most of the song’s on Piper’s first side. Neither is particularly riveting given Syd’s best work, but some of the lyrics in the latter – comparing the narrator (presumably Syd) to a scarecrow and concluding that the straw man is ‘sadder than me’ because he’s tied to the ground and has no freedom – are worth a quick perusal. You can also hear possibly the earliest example of Roger Waters’ favourite octave-leaping bass riffs on the intro of Gnome and indeed its both Waters’ playing and Wright’s delicate harmony vocal (in the middle section dubbed with lots of echo to sound distinctly sinister) that make this first song sound more interesting than it really is. As for Scarercrow, it’s a Worzel Gummidge episode come to life (a very Syd Barrett programme if ever there was one, with its heavy mixture of light and dark) with some interesting percussion from Nick Mason enhancing the song and is more mediocre filler for the most part, However this song too is rescued by the delightful end section when an acoustic guitar (the only time Syd played this on a Floyd recording., possibly?)and a keyboard lick suddenly kick in to describe the Scarecrow’s personal nirvana, his realization that – bored as he is – at least he is doing the job of scaring crows he was born to do. 

[14] Chapter 24, as mentioned, is a complete steal from the I Ching set to music, although Syd’s completely original flowing tune is so beautiful and in keeping with the tone of the piece that its still hard not to applaud. Known as ‘Fu’ or ‘The Turning Point’, the 24th chapter is a very Pink Floyd-esque article forecasting that the ‘dark’ which had been shadowing over the reader’s head will be pushed upwards by some new form of ‘light’, using the allegory of the Winter Solstice turning into Spring. The ‘numbers’ in the song, by the way, refer to the ‘lines’ of each reading which are individually decided by a toss of a coin which comes down as either ‘heads’ or ‘tails’ (chapter 24 is five ‘tails’ followed by one ‘head’). Most of the forecast is surprisingly optimistic given what really did happen to Syd later that year, but Barrett may have been given a warning by the fifth line of his horoscope which the musician chose not to use in his song: ‘Walking in the midst of others, one returns alone’. Even so, this song’s gloriously expressive organ lines and its beautiful refrain of ‘sunrise, sunset’, poised perfectly once more between the ‘balancing’ of good and evil, is terribly atmospheric and perfectly suited to the yin and yang concept that seems to flow through much of  Piper.   

All that just leaves us with [15] Bike. The creepiest carefree song ever written, Syd tells us about his childhood treasures: his bike (which gives him freedom to go anywhere) his cloak which gives him style (even if it is ‘a bit of a joke’), his childhood companion (a mouse called Gerald) and a clan of gingerbread men (possibly his childhood gang or maybe even the Floyd). Now that Syd is deeply involved with the psychedelic lifestyle, its easy to see why he found so many parallels with his childhood memories, what with flower power’s expression of brotherhoods, fancy costumes, emphasis on companionship and desire to explore the universe. The end of the song, though, suggests the journey can only lead to disaster, with the room of ‘musical tunes’ an inspired jumble of sound effects that sounds like Schoenberg’s tape experiments played at a higher speed and – like the rest of the album – strike a perfect note between childish glee and adult knowingness. Did Syd know he was never going to artistically come out of that room? Its all too easy to say he did, but in the context of this album’s powerful balancing act its highly notable that the childlike Piper ends with its most childlike and innocent song, complete with a coda that leaves its author trapped on the other side of a door he doesn’t seem to be able to escape.

Overall, Syd’s short catalogue of published songs are at their best here, offering a sort of life-affirming hope that his solo work just doesn’t have, however great the tunes are and how off-the-wall his ideas might be and even with that confused, chaotic coda sticking in our memory we can’t help but be cheered up in some way after hearing this album. With its 11 slices of very different but very 1967-sounding songs,  Piper is an unrelenting psychedelia masterclass, more in tune with the Floyd’s boundary-pushing American counterparts than the generally cosier psychedelia coming from Britain. A powerful album, who knows what gems Pink Floyd might have gone on to concoct if they hadn’t been robbed of their guiding light so early?!

A Now Complete List Of Pink Floyd and Related Articles To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

‘Wish You Were Here’ (1975)

‘Animals’ (1977)

'The Wall' (1980)

'The Final Cut' (1983)

'A Momentary Lapse Of Reason' (1987)

'Amused To Death' (Waters) (1992)

The Best Unreleased Pink Floyd Recordings

Surviving TV Clips 1965-2014

Non-Album Songs 1966-2000

Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part One 1965-1978

Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part Two 1980-1989

Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part Three 1990-2015

Landmark Concerts and Key Cover Versions

Essay: Why Absence Makes The Sales Grow Stronger

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