In-depth reviews of classic or neglected albums, mainly from the 1960s and 70s, plus a weekly newsletter featuring all the latest news, views and music. Artists covered include Beach Boys, Beatles, Belle and Sebastian, Buffalo Springfield, Byrds, Crosby Stills and Nash, Dire Straits, Grateful Dead, Hollies, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, Kinks, Nils Lofgren, Monkees, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Searchers, Simon and Garfunkel, Small Faces, 10cc, The Who and Neil Young.
Friday, 21 October 2011
Pink Floyd "A Saucerful Of Secrets" (1968) (News, Views and Music 118)
You can now buy 'Remember A Day - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Pink Floyd' in e-book form by clicking here!
Pink Floyd “A Saucerful Of Secrets” (1968)
Let There Be More Light/Remember A Day/Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun/Corporal Clegg//A Saucerful Of Secrets (Something Else/Syncopated Pandemonium/Storm Signal/Celestial Voices)/See-Saw/Jugband Blues
Alright. Everyone else is doing it so I might as well cave in and join in the whole ‘Pink Floyd rediscovered’ bonanza we’ve had the past month – although, this site being what it is, we’ve gone with one of the obscurer moments of the Floyd canon. The new series of re-issues has been given the truly mind-numbingly awful title ‘Why Pink Floyd?’, as if the mystique and originality of the band can be captured in one sentence, such as ‘Barrett’s elfin charm’ ‘Waters’ tirade of feeling’ ‘Wright’s placid seriousness’ ‘Gilmour’s transcendental guitarwork’ or ‘Mason’s loose-but-solid drumming’ and explain everything away. You can’t explain the Floyd in one sentence because there are many different Floyds, all separate and in opposition to each other so that truly I can’t even begin to tell you ‘Why Pink Floyd?’ even if I write reviews of every band and solo album, dissect every corner of their output and spend the next 100,000 words talking about a single album cover. There is no one Pink Floyd. There is no one single moment that sums up this band because all of them, even the famous moments the casual person in the street might know (‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ ‘Money’ ‘Comfortably Numb’ ‘See Emily Play’ ‘Another Brick In The Wall’ etc) are all so different to each other. The band spent their whole career (assuming for the moment that, 17 years on from the last album, it really is all over) hiding behind a blanket of anonymity - refusing to do interviews, tending to hide away band member names on record covers if printing them at all, releasing one single roughly every 12 years and making their touring set so stuffed full with light shows, flying pigs and the like that no one really paid much attention to the performers on stage. To this day even the biggest fans struggle to name all the band members in all of the line-ups over the years and the casual ones often don’t even realise they ever changed. Why Pink Floyd? It varies from album to album – and from track to track. Even bar by bar when the manic energy and abundant curiosity of Syd Barrett gets involved.
But the one album that sounds like it ‘belongs’ in the Floyd canon, the one where the band really strut their full range of stuff and fly off into the regions of outer space further than anyone has gone before is ‘Saucerful Of Secrets’. Even though nothing off this album was released as a single, never mind becoming a hit and even though none of the tracks here stayed in the setlist once ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ came along this is nevertheless the Pink Floyd DNA in its clearest, most detectable form. Dare I say it, its Pink Floyd at their most formulaic – but then given that this is one of the most free-form, rule breaking bands of all time that doesn’t really matter as much as it would with other artists. If ever an album explained ‘Why Pink Floyd?’ its this one, full of mystery, wit, political attack, dreamy space, poignancy, terror, nostalgia and some of the weirdest sounds you’ve ever heard outside of a Spice Girls CD. Its random experiences sound nothing like, say, the tight compactness of Dark Side Of The Moon, stretch a point to double album length like The Wall, there’s no consistency as on ‘The Final Cut’ and there’s very little going on to link it to its one lone Floyd predecessor ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ (see review no 13). And yet it sounds more like what most people think of as ‘Pink Floyd’ than any of these.
‘Saucerful’ also sounds completely unlike any other album made by any other band, an uneasy hodepodge of light and dark, menace and cruelty versus laughter and beauty and the answer to that ‘why?’ is much easier to explain. Most bands are settled by the time they make their second album. It may be the last album they ever make, it might be the best or worst album they ever make, but there’s nearly some sort of consistency to what’s gone on before thanks to a consistent line-up, the same singers and songwriters in the band and the same style and themes. Pink Floyd, though, were robbed of their ‘distinctive’ sound when Syd Barrett suffered his well documented ‘troubles’ and disintegrated, leaving the band without their lead singer, lead guitarist and pretty much their sole writer (this issue’s sad ‘Syd’ story, finds Rick telling his ‘Madcap’ flatmate he’s off to buy cigarettes before piling in a van for the gig – only for Syd to stare in replacement David Gilmour’s neighbouring kitchen for hours on end with nothing else to do). As a result, the band were directionless – and managerless once Peter Jenner, perhaps not completely understanding Syd’s mental state, decided to back the band’s very own ‘Halley’s Comet’, leaving the other three in its tail to wither and die without anyone to guide them. The wonder, really, is that EMI welcomed the band back into the studio without their leading light, given the problems and good-but-not-overwhelming sales the band had given them in their first year together. Fans can only imagine what a second Floyd album with Barrett would have sounded like – I think he would have gone down a darker route anyway, drawing on ‘Piper’s later recording sounds like ‘Matilda Mother’ and ‘Astronomy Domine’ rather than the whimsy of ‘The Gnome’ and ‘The Scarecrow’, but whatever Sydf would have done and however much the others would be encouraged to write, they’d never have made an album like this with Syd in the band.
This album was a struggle to make. The interim between Syd’s breakdown and its release had been punctuated by one flop after another – undeservedly in my opinion as the manic ‘Apples and Oranges’ (Syd’s penultimate song with the band), the charming ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ and the poppy ‘Point Me At The Sky’ are all deserving of more recognition (it doesn’t help that the band have – yet again – failed to take advantage of renewed interest in their catalogue to properly re-release these singles, leaving a half-hearted assorted mix of them on the ‘Relics’ compilation instead).The band’s leisurely recording pace (two singles a year and 10 months since the first album) might make the Floyd sound workaholics nowadays but back in the mid 60s it fell way short of EMI’s expectations (in the same period The Beatles released ‘Sgt Peppers’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ and were halfway through ‘The White Album’ – while The Hollies had released ‘Evolution’ and ‘Butterfly’ and a long line of singles) Making most of this album while jetlagged from a tour – and still trying to integrate David Gilmour into the band after a very bumpy learning curve – can’t have helped.
To top it all, there wasn’t one clear leader waiting in the wings to take over but two (three when Gilmour gets going a few months later). The Floyd had always been a bit of a dictatorship simply because of Syd’s dominant role in the band so understandably the rest of the band seemed to consider the void he’d left behind as an opportunity to become dictators themselves. For this album in the red corner we have bassist Roger Waters: the only man other than Barrett to have his work released on ‘Piper’ (albeit with the uncharacteristically ramshackle ‘Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk’ whose best feature is its name) and an attitude and belief far in advanced of his work rate up to that time. In the blue corner we have Rick Wright: Syd’s second-harmony singer with the lovely pastoral voice (the only man other than Barrett to sing on ‘Piper’ – Roger’s tuneless growl on ‘Stethoscope’ underneath Syd’s harmony and funny sound effects doesn’t count!) and an attitude and belief far below his actual ability up to that time. Roger was an architect who turned to music as a way of ‘creating’ things as a pattern, with the lyrical ability to analyse and empathise with the human condition who made it clear in interviews of the day that he didn’t care about music as much as he did about themes and ideas. Rick was a musician first and foremost who was more into the sounds than the concept and made it clear in interviews of the day that he didn’t really give a hoot about the lyrics. The two of them should never have ended up in the same band and indeed might never have stayed together without Barrett’s brilliant light (and Mason’s soothing humour) to tie them together. The pull between them will shape the band’s sound for the rest of their time together in the Floyd (when Roger will unceremoniously boot a demoralised Rick out of the band during sessions for ‘The Wall’) and will alter and change depending how large their input is in ratio to the other. Add Gilmour’s voice into the mix from next album ‘More’ onwards and you have a right old fight for control of a band that, till Barrett’s dissolution, had probably never questioned it’s outlook or purpose in life. Why Pink Floyd? Each member of the band is so different and the Floyd so different in their eyes that they’re bound to give you a different to one another. Perhaps the reason ‘Saucerful’ sounds like it does, then, is that Rick’s and Roger’s parts are largely equal here, with an equally mixed success rate so that - along with Barrett’s final band cameo – this is as rounded a picture of The Floyd as you ever get on one album, even with Gilmour turning up late to the party.
Amazingly, there’s ome unity between Rick and Roger here too, for perhaps the last time. In their day Pink Floyd were often referred to as a ‘space band’, much to the anger of Roger Waters who correctly stated that the band only ever made three ‘space’ songs in their life. Two of them are his and they are both on this album. ‘Let There Be More Light’ and ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun’ both represent the one logical thematic leap from ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’, taking the urgent paranoia of Syd’s ‘Astronomy Domine’ and turning it inward, so that a yearning for the stars in fear of life on Earth turns into a desperate search to go back home again. It’s as if Roger attempted to start writing something that sounded like Syd – and found a whole new other style made just for him, where the music is confining, eerie and hypnotic and the words are all about struggle for survival and the loss of humanity in the past and the future, themes still integral to his work today. Rick’s songs ‘See Saw’ and ‘Remember A Day’ are more logical leaps from ‘Piper’ musically than they are lyrically, with the same dreamy hazy feel as Barrett’s songs and same horror-filled-whimsy atmosphere where everyone is happy but might not stay that way for very long. Thematically, though, while ‘Remember’ deals with childhood in a similar way to Syd back on ‘Piper’ and ‘See-Saw’ sums up easy going romance with a metaphor in the same way Syd will on their solo albums, the two don’t sound much alike. Barrett is all booming curiosity, exploding with inventiveness on every chord, filled with exotic sounds and rousing choruses that demand attention. Rick’s are laidback and thoughtful, falling into melancholy without really trying and with a much less frazzled air than Syd’s songs – and remarkably like the early, more laidback style used by Roger Waters here. It’s as if Rick attempted to start writing something that sounded like Syd – and found a whole new other style made just for him. Having the two in the same band and the similar themes of longing for something lost (a theme that’s going to be central to almost every Floyd album from hereon in) give ‘Saucerful’ a unity that of the other Floyd albums only the similar three-way-split ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ possesses.
But unity doesn’t necessarily mean a strong album. For a record that contains just seven tracks there’s an awful lot of filler here – and the band news is that the longest ‘song’ here – the 12 minute title track – is one of the heaviest going recordings in the whole Floyd canon. Whilst the other songs are better, both Roger’s ‘Corporal Clegg’ and Rick’s ‘See Saw’ are among their creator’s worst tracks, not terrible by any means but full of the excesses (awkwardness and dullness respectively) that both composers suffered at their worst. This ought to be excused or at least explained by the fact that both men are having to work on their feet to save their band from sudden destruction after Barrett’s breakdown and they both probably knew to their cost that, had this album failed, it might well have been their last crack at fame (Roger for one seriously feared a life on the scrapheap going back to work as an architect). They were also so young (all the band were 25 with the exception of 22 year old Gilmour), trying to cope not only with the loss of their biggest ticket to success but their best friend and it must have been horribly difficult to play gigs in the same places and record in the same studios without Syd there. ‘Saucerful’ has many bad moments but considering the state in which it was made its a wonder there aren’t more of them and its amazing that the remaining four songs on the album are as good as they are, with all (five) members given their chance to shine somewhere along the way. Like the curiously dated and hackneyed cover (I wouldn’t have gone back to using Hipgnosis after the mess of space, astrological and biblical drawings we have arranged asymmetrically here on a horrible brown background) its not the most distinguished thing The Floyd will ever do, but somehow it sums them up – their good points and their bad – all on record. Why Pink Floyd? Saucerful is a good clue – and a good jumping off point to new fans not quite sure if they’ll ‘get’ this band or not (word of advice – don’t worry if you don’t ‘get’ the title track just yet, not many fans do either).
That’s not forgetting, of course, Syd’s last contibution to the band – and last of any kind until the unexpected pleasure of two bumpy but largely enjoyable rides with his solo albums in 1970. ‘Jugband Blues’ is as good a signpost as any to how low and confused Syd was feeling at this point in time and its a brave decision to add this song to the tail end of the album, in all its haunted clanging majesty, setting out its stall in three awkward passages that sound like a low budget ‘A Day In The Life’. Fans may prefer the still unreleased and even more revealing ‘Vegetable Man’ and ‘Scream Thy Last Scream’ to ‘Jugband’ but, while surely no harm can come of releasing them now (come on EMI!) leaving these scary, paranoid visions in the vaults in 1967 was probably a good move. ‘Jugband’ still offers far more insight into mental illness than was the norm in the mid 60s and still sounds like a brave testament now, with Syd trapped forever on record at the point where his line between this world and some other of his own making was at its thinnest. It would be funny in a post-modern kind of a way if it weren’t so poignant, so much of a cry for help. I’m intrigued too that the band chose to ininclude this song at the end of the album as a sort of ghostly encore, after 35 minutes of laregly successful attempts to hone a ‘new’ direction away from Barrett and leaving him behind. Brave of Syd for writing and taping it, brave of the band for wanting to release it, brave of EMI for allowing them to, ‘Jugband Blues’ is one hell of a way for the band to wave goodbye to their creator (a wave they kept up for most of their career it has to be said).
If you get the chance, keep an eye out for next week’s issue where we’ll be picking out the ‘top 50 AAA Youtube Rarities’ (currently in progress!) because there are two astonishing Floyd TV appearances from this period that explain what I mean. The first is the ‘forgotten’ Barrett-era single ‘Apples and Oranges’, a song that tries desperately hard to sound fun and sophisticated and ends up sounding disjointed and creepy. Syd vaguely mumbles along to the first line and then freezes, more or less staring forward blankly for the rest of the song, leaving Roger and Rick to cover for him, over-miming to each word and putting on a show. Drummer Nick Mason has never been seen in shot so many times in a desperate attempt to cover up for Syd not being ‘there’ and even though Syd was in the band for a few months more, you can see the look in Roger’s eyes as the point where he’s finally had enough of coping with Syd in the band and wants him out. The other video is ‘Jugband Blues’, an astonishing performance with Syd fully coping with the words this time but staring right ahead, pleading for help in his ‘rollerblind’ eyes while the rest of the band fill in on an array of exotic instruments to compensate for the lack of the Salvation Army. Presumably this is the last time Syd ever sang live anywhere with the Floyd (‘Jugband’ was his last vocal and the band play along on top of a pre-recorded tape of the song) and its one of the most moving things I have ever seen.
Back to ‘Saucerful’, though, and at first fans might not have realised things have changed. ‘Let There Be More Light’ starts off very much in the same way as the equally manic ‘Astronomy Domine’ on ‘Piper’, with a scary song about space travel seemingly doomed to failure. Roger’s bass work at the beginning is impressive, easily the hardest thing he ever made himself play during his time with the band, seemingly played at double tempo and pitched against Wright’s more solid organ work. David Gilmour takes his first vocal for the band on the verses (that’s Rick on the choruses – interesting that even back then Roger was handing his material over to others in the band to sing) but only really fires up his guitar on the fade, with a bed of organ and drums underpinning and dominating the sound. The tune, when it settles down, goes for laidback eerie rather than manic and is one of the band’s better attempts at building up atmosphere, even if the switch between verse and chorus structure is played one too many times (like many a Waters song this one badly needs a middle eight to break up the monotony). While the riff is a good one, tight and ear-catching, the melody isn’t one of Waters’ strongest, although the sudden jolt between the verse and chorus (as segued by Rick’s sudden swirls on organ) are very successful the first time round. The lyrics are something of a mixed bag too, telling a sci-fi ‘story’ akin to CSN’s ‘Wooden Ships’ or Jefferson Starship’s ‘Blows Against The Empire’ about alien visitors coming to Earth in a very psychedelic spaceship (its ‘like Lucy in the Sky’ sings Gilmour at one point, in homage to The Beatles who recorded ‘Pepper’ next door to the Floyd working on ‘Piper’. Some of the lyrics are toe-curlingly awful (the spacemen were ‘glowing slightly from their toes’ funnily enough – hmm) but some are really good for a lyricist working on only his second song ever on an album. There’s even a slight joke when the band’s repetitive structure breaks down from ‘something in ...[rhyming with why]’ which the listener assumes has to be ‘sky’, but waters adds an extra line and makes it ‘something in my eye, something in the sky’, as if the narrator seeing spaceships can’t quite believe his eyes. The best part of the song, though, is the close, when arguably we get the Pink Floyd sound for the first time, with Gilmour translating all the hidden horror of the song into his seamless guitar slide while Rick adds all sort of creepy ‘space’ noises and Roger and Nick lock the listener up in a trap where they seem to be p[laying in slow motion. Frightening, compelling and completely unlike anything else around, ‘Let There Be More Light’ is a successful stepping stone towards the greatness to come, even if there are signs that this was a hurried and slapdash recording (Rick’s ghostly counterpoint humming along with the verse in true Barrett style messes up the words on the line ‘something...waiting there for me’). A good start, mixing the psychedelia of 1967 with the slightly harder edge of 1968.
‘Remember A Day’ is my favourite song on the album, though, a charming if again slightly creepy song about childhood and nostalgia by Rick Wright. Every reference book on Floyd I own says that this song is an outtake from ‘Piper’, which would explain why Syd is very much present on guitar (some of the best playing of his short career) but not why the band chose to pass this song over given that a) Rick was very much the second-in-command in the band at this point, b) its themes of childhood and the past not being what they seem is artguably the key theme running through ‘Piper’ and c) its one hell of a lot better than over half that record (and my favourite Floyd record, at a push). Rick’s song would have been wonderful on its own on piano, a lovely little song about how summer’s seemed to go on forever in childhood and why can’t we ever match that feeling again in adulthood when arguably we have more freedom and power? Nick’s career best drumming, though, make the sudden switches and jolts of growing up sound almost painful while Syd’s bottleneck guitar, likely played with a cigarette lighter down the frets, is the scariest rollercoaster ride you could ever experience, a cry of pain of anguish that adds yet more depth to an already pretty complex song. Rick’s choir boy double-tracked vocals are exactly right for this song, a man lost in memories of childish innocence where ‘evening never comes’, remembering some forgotten ‘day before today’ that probably only existed in his memories. ‘Free’ is a word that keeps cropping up on early Floyd and its at its most important here, with the musicians trapping the narrator into a chord change so tight that the only release he has is a plaintive chorus: ‘Why can’t we play today? Why can’t we roll the years away?’ The answer, sounding likle its coming from God its so huge and other-worldly, is a creepy instrumental interlude with Barrett’s favourite vocal noises challenging each other to a fight across the stereo channels, a childish mouth popping and tch-tch teeth clicking noise that, drenched in echo, sound less like fun and more like the horrors of a world out to grab you (till someone in the left channel – Rick? – messes up right at the end and gives a noise halfway between a chuckle and a gurgle). Legend has it that the rest of the band hated Rick’s early attempts at writing singles for the band (‘Paintbox’ and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’, which are actually rather good but not built for the Floyd sound) – if so, why the hell wasn’t this track released because its better even than the Barrett compositions of the time (they also thought enough of the song to include it on their ‘Relics’ compilation). A sterling effort, that for more or less the first time uses the Floyd trick of making the mundane seem other-worldly and life seem strange and unpredictable – even when its life you’ve already experienced and are remembering. The band also put in possibly their best group performance of the whole of their early years, with Syd and Nick on splendid form and only Roger’s rather independent, grumpy bass fills not quite making the grade. A staggering achievement for a band in such turmoil, this is among my favourite songs in the whole Floyd canon.
After such heights for Rick, ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun’ is Roger’s crowning achievement, another eerie space epic that shows Roger’s interest in sci-fi at this time (the title was first coined by writer William Burroughs although like many a Waters work the song itself sounds more like Arthur C Clarke). In fact, its interesting to note that Rick’s angle for the band is childhood and nostalgia, whilst Roger plumps for two imaginary scenarios from our future, making this album pitch what might have been against what could be. Another eerie bass-leap led song accompanied by some more fantastic other-worldly noises from Rick’s hammond organ and a pulsating rhythm from Nick, this is one of the few songs recorded in the interim between Barrett’s decline and Gilmour’s rise (and may feature both men or – in my opinion – neither, as heard in the final mix for the album at least). Unlike ‘Light’, which was all about aliens coming to us this is about us going to them and a suicidal Earth captain who, charged with taking a colony of Earthlings to a new life on a nother planet, gets sidetracked by the beauty of space and the smallness of man and decides on suicide instead. Again unlike ‘Light’, this is a laidback song that slowly builds up to a crescendo (something the Floyd will specialise in from here on in) and is quite riveting by the last verse when the tempo has tripled and Roger is getting more manic. Strong enough to deservedly stay in the band’s setlists for some years, this song sounds infinitely better live – your best bet is either the ‘Live At Pompeii’ version where the band attack the song at a much earlier point and the lyrics are easier to hear or the ‘All My Loving’ version included in the Tony Palmer documentary that was repeated on the Yesterday channel a month or so ago, a full on onslaught of booming crashing percussion and Gilmour’s guitar on overload. Here the song never quite takes off despite a nice hazy vocal from Roger and some atmospheric seagull sound effects at the end (Why? Are there seagulls in space then? See our review for ‘Meddle’ – review no 50 – for more Floyd fun with seagulls).
‘Corporal Clegg’ may well be the most significant song on the album, although its also possibly the worst. It’s the first time Roger writes about his lifelong hatred of war and hypocrisy of those in charge and despite being treated as a comedy song is actually among his most biting. For those who haven’t read review for ‘The Wall’ or ‘Amused To Death’ Roger is, surprisingly I have to say, the only AAA musician to have lost a parent in WW2. What made things worse is that Roger’s father Eric was a big socialist who hated the concept of war and bravely declared himself a conscientious objector at the outbreak of war before finally volunteering late in the war in 1944 (where he was one of many thousands to die at Anzio). Given that the dad (and mum too) had drilled into Roger as a boy how terrible war was, its no wonder that this experience had such a huge life-changing impact on the bassist when he grew up and suddenly found himself with a ‘platform’ to continue his dad’s work (note that Clegg loses his ‘leg’ in 1944 too). The film of ‘The Wall’ and ‘The Final Cut’ are the height of Roger’s anti-war feel but even this early on, when anti-Vietnam war songs were all the rage, this is clearly more than just a passing phase but a lifelong obsession. The chord changes in this song are abrupt and angular, almost painful to listen to in the way they suddenly jolt the listener out of his comfort zone and have a comical gait that spoofs the Major-Generals who haven’t got a clue what they’re doing and send the lad to his death anyway. Roger’s lyrics are dripping with sarcasm here: Clegg ‘wins’ his false leg in the war as if its some kind of achievement society kindly ‘rewards’ himwith instead of compensating him for his loss and the casual throwaway ‘he’s never been the same...no one is to blame’ is one of the most damning lines about the casual response to shell shock on record. There’s a damning and daring moment, too, when Roger pits his blood-stained corporal against Her Majesty The Queen, giving a medal out like sweets and not comprehending the amount of suffering that went on in ‘her’ (or at least her country’s) name – quite something for a band to come out with this attack as ‘early’ as 1968! Clearly someone is to blame, or rather a whole bunch of people, and Roger saves his biggest tirade for the heartless Majors who parade down Mrs Clegg’s garden path to the accompaniment of comical kazoos and think that passing her a glass of gin is all they need to do get her through her life-changing experience. Ah yes the kazoo – ‘Saucerful’ must be unique in being the only album to feature not one but two kazoo solos and this one is seemingly deliberately bad and out-of-tune, sounding not unlike the ‘musical’ round on ‘Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’. Roger is on top sneering form as you’d expect, but what’s surprising is how into this song the rest of the band are: Gilmour will go on record as feeling ‘no connection’ with Roger’s songs ‘whinging about the war’ come the 1980s but his vocal is deliciously sarcastic here and Rick, too, turns in some sympathetic harmonies. Ah well, they probably thought, if Roger has to get it out of his system...But experiences like that which uproot your little world and leave you distrusting every authority figure in your life in case they destroy your life again is not something you can get over and its no wonder Roger returned to this theme over and over. It’s also no surprise, though, how many fans hate this song which is hard to listen to, tuneless, uncomfortable in the extreme, not half as funny as it thinks it is and clearly written with only Roger, not the audience, in mind.
The title track begins the second side in true Floyd epic form and unlike the other tracks on the album nearly everyone has something nice to say about it, whether its ‘originality’, ‘breadth of vision’ ‘atmospheric’ or simply ‘dull but worthy’. I personally don’t see ‘Saucerful’ as any of these things except one big 12 minute mess, one which is no better than other supposed misfires such as ‘Atom HeartMother’ or the unlistenable solo sections of ‘Ummagumma. If I want creepy sound effects building atmosphere, I’ll go listen to a music-only track on a Dr Who DVD, not turn to the Floyd at their most faffing-about. To be fair, this song does get better live (again ‘Pompeii’ is the definite version) where some (but certainly not all) of the gauche passages have been edited out. Sounding like a soundtrack for a film that never existed, there simply isn’t much of a point to ‘Saucerful’ – and it speaks volumes that it was created by Roger and Nick (both architecture students) laying out what they wanted to do on a piece of paper, without any instruments to hand. Although fleshed out by Rick and David, it lacks the buzzing excitement of improvisation in, say, ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ or the cleverly edited balanced climax of ‘Echoes’, leaving it a bit of a hodgepodge. The one redeeming feature of the ‘song’ is the closing segment, ‘Celestial Voices’, which I wish to goodness had been given its own track number on the CD so I wouldn’t have to listen to the rest of the thing. This pieces, which sounds more like a hymn thanks to some organ playing from Rick with long chords and ‘happy’ (ie major chord) resolutions, is genuinely uplifting and ends up with another great band performance (especially live, where Gilmour ‘sings’ the choir parts). Most people say ‘yeah, well, no one was doing stuff like this back then so therefore it should be applauded’ – but actually The Moody Blues had already turned in a hard-going but (compared to this) nifty journey through ‘The House Of Four Doors’ on ‘In Search Of The Lost Chord’ and even that slow and dreary tune was less of a slog than this. Interestingly, Rick uses a very Moodies-like mellotron on the final section for the one and only time – the Moodies being the only other AAA band to employ a full time keyboardist (apart from The Small Faces). I also fail to understand the title: it implies something magical growing out of something mundane, or at least something small and yet the four ‘passages’ don’t relate to this story in their titles which actually imply a battle (perhaps a continuation of the space one heard in ‘Light’ and ‘Controls’). Bizarre filler, elevated to ‘God’ status only because everyone thinks there must be ‘meaning’ within these 12 minutes – actually the deadline was looming and the band had to fill up the record with something so they chose to fill it with this. Not one of their better ideas.
‘See-Saw’ unfairly gets ridicules by fans, perhaps because after the last five tracks it very much sounds like an ‘old’ style the band have thrown off and partly, perhaps, because the band themselves hated it (someone, probably Roger, offered up the title ‘The Most Boring Song I’ve Ever Heard, Bar Two’ when Rick didn’t have one during recording – no one’s ever found out what the other two were by the way!) ‘See-Saw’ pales in comparison to ‘Remember A Day’, having only Rick’s banks of keyboards to build on and a rather dreary tune that repeats itself endlessly throughout the song. But its not as bad as people say: the torrent of sound effects in the middle and the contrast between that and the peaceful happy innocent verses makes for a very Floydian moment and the central idea of love being like a see-saw ride (OK so the Floyd and Moodies were definitely borrowing from each other, then!) is a good metaphor, with one half of the couple happy when the other is down, etc. The whole song is about a meeting of minds, the fact that we as humans never really get to speak to other people on equal terms because we all have different experiences that affect how we ‘act’ (perhaps Rick’s been trying to understand Roger’s mood swings and turbulent WW2 history?!) that make us different to each other. So far so good, but this song really needs something extra to make it sparkle and Rick’s getting no help from rest of the band, who turn in one of the sloppiest rhythm tracks I’ve ever heard. There’s also no real resolution: the song merely fades and ends mid falsetto ‘ahhhh’, making it a song without much point or purpose. Still, its easier to listen to than either ‘Corporal Clegg’ or ‘Saucerful Of Secrets’!
The album ends with ‘Jugband Blues’, one of the best and bravest of all of Syd’s songs, added here almost as an afterthought after the band have (largely successfully) proved they can get by without their leader to lead them. The song features no jugbands and isn’t a traditional blues, being more a hypnotic schizophrenic song about the world changing constantly and trying to right yourself before you fall off it. Musically this song must be unique in rock and roll – there’s a second kazoo accompaniment and the presence of a Salvation Army Band on the middle section. Told to improvise in the style of ‘A Day In The Life’, the players are too timid or perhaps too uninspired to break rules as The Beatles’ orchestra did and the results are slovenly, chaotic and confusing – accidentally conjuring up the perfect picture of the rest of the song. You see, this is Syd knowing he’s sinking into some sort of abyss and doesn’t know when he might get out again so he sings his farewell message to the band, that he’s ‘awfully grateful’ that they’ve taken over from him and he won’t have that awful pressure of fame hanging on him anymore. Some fans hear Syd as being sarcastic on this song, as if he’s sending up the idea that he’s moving aside for them and was really pushed, but if Syd’s being sarcastic about anyone here its himself (‘and I’m wondering who could be writing this song?’ is his most sarcastic song). Even by Syd’s standards this song is a very over-enunciated effort, as if he’s making clear how important his ‘final’ message to the world is. There’s a slip back into a singalong chorus to brighten things up, a la most of ‘Piper’, about going to a new unknown place uncaring what it does to you – but even that’s swept under our feet with the line ‘and I don’t care if I’m nervous with you’, sung in a sad way that we’ve never heard from Syd before (but will hear again on his two solo albums). The rhyming scheme, scattered and faltering as it is, sounds like a more serious version of ‘Bike’, one where words suggest other words and the mind travels there whether its logical to or not (‘so you brought me here instead dressed in red’). That Salvation Army chorus, which descends into madness, is cruelly cut off with a guitar snarl, just as its picking up speed, like a light being switched off – which, in a way, it was. All that’s left is that ghostly coda which fans have pored over ever since ‘The sea isn’t green, and I love the green, and what exactly is a dream? And what exactly is a joke?’ For the record, I see this as Syd acknowledging that his flights of fancy aren’t real, that the topsy turvy world of psychedelia (also shown on the Jefferson Airplane song ‘The Ballads Of You And Me And Pooneil’) makes the world a darker and scarier place as well as a different, enticing one. The realisation that escaping into drugs and creativity has become a chore rather than a delight is such a shock that Syd is left to mourn its loss. After all, Syd never felt like he ‘belonged’ in the real world, even when he was well, and the realisation that his imaginary world was also turning into a prison of touring, recording and schedules he couldn’t face left him nowhere to ‘belong’ to. Fans have made much of the ‘joke’ line, seeing it as evidence of how ‘with it’ Barrett could be, but ‘joke’ was a word Syd used a lot (there’s a ‘record review’ feature he did in late 1967 that uses the word about every other sentence), to imply happy, repercussion-free play that left him happy without the guilt that money and fame brings. It’s yet another recourse to childhood, in other words, that suddenly seem a long way away here in Syd’s most grown-up song that takes in real deep romance, loss and the reality of what he was facing in his addled state as 1967 came to a close. Thankfully Syd got back to writing ‘funny’ songs again for his two solo records – comparatively speaking, anyway – and actually sounds in a much happier state, even if he’s far less in control than he sounds on this record. A moving testament to Syd’s creativity, all credit to the rest of the Floyd too who chose to put this harrowing experience on record despite having to create a new life for themselves without Syd’s control. Truly heartbreaking, yet fabulous all at the same time. If Syd had to say goodbye, then thank goodness he said goodbye with a song as powerful and – in its own way – as direct as this.
‘Saucerful’, then, is quite an experience, never quite going where you expect it to. Sure there are songs you will hardly ever play and large chunks that don’t match up to later, more focussed efforts when The Floyd have worked out their vision and where they’re meant to be going. For a record created in such turmoil, however, there are a lot of positives to take from ‘Saucerful’ and it’s easy to see why the band’s old fans took it to heart so much – there’s just enough of the ‘old’ sound here to love, as well as successful forays into finding new terrain. The band themselves seem to look back on it fondly – well, more fondly than they look back on the next albums ‘More’ ‘Ummagumma’ and ‘Atom Heart Mother’ anyway and by then they had David Gilmour’s many talents to throw into the mix as well. A bumpy ride, then, but an intriguing and inventive one even if its not always an enjoyable one. Why Pink Floyd? Because nobody else was doing what they did back then and, even if they didn’t do it as well as they’ll do later, they have a sound all of their own which simply flowers in this period.
A Now Complete List Of Pink Floyd and Related Articles To
Read At Alan’s Album Archives: