When “The Pink Floyd” released their 1967 experimental psychedelic classic, Piper At the Gates of Dawn, the term “Swinging London” had just been coined by Time magazine.
Art school dropouts and all manner of urban Anglos were exploring music and film and staging mixed-genre “happenings”.
At the centre of the aural maelstrom for a brief moment was kid genius, Syd Barrett.
Blessed with good looks and a gift for guitar and song-craft, he quarterbacked his pals in Pink Floyd to stardom of sorts with Piper.
Named after the great god Pan from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, it was recorded from February to May 1967.
Some would say Barrett flew too high, too fast. However the record of that ascent is a pleasing, if slightly disturbing, rendering.
When the needle drops on Side One we hear the sound of control tower voices preparing a rocket ship take off on “Astonmy Domine”.
Dissonant guitars erupt, the atmosphere is established, and the chills and harmonies come in as Barrett sings “Around the icy waters underground / about Jupiter and Saturn, Neptune, Titan…”
Then the harmonies descend back down to earth in semi-tones — or something — and we are grounded again.
Many a basement musician has emulated these experiments with feedback and atonal jams, but these guys really hit a stride. The skill and discipline (and budget) that came with having the Beatles’ engineer, Norman Smith, at the helm accounts for a sound that is crisp, even when it’s layered and odd.
Barrett was in many ways the leader of the band at this early juncture. Which is something to consider: he essentially had Pink Floyd at his disposal as his backing band. Just as without David Gilmour (or Roger Waters) there is no Dark Side of the Moon, without Barrett, there is no Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
You can hear hints of prog-rock era Pink Floyd albums to come but Piper is a singular experience.
On track four, “Flaming”, Barrett sings of “Watching Buttercups the light” and seems to have heightened sensitivities: “Travelling by telephone / Hey ho Here we go ever so hiiiiiiiiiiiigh.”
Sid sings of “Sitting on a Unicorn” and playing hide and seeks while lying on an eiderdown: “Yippee you can’t see me but I can you.” It sounds like an innocent scene from a middle class British childhood. Is there a darker side to the journey?
The next rack, ”Pow R. Toc H” gets weird, although I wouldn’t call it disturbing. A fairly straightforward blues lick takes you through the swirling tunnel with Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — or whatever reference works for you.
Other tracks, like “Greasy Spoon” mingle pop, garage rock, and experimental “tick tock” microphone sounds. If there’s one song that does noodle a bit needlessly it’s this one, but it comes back with Barrett imploring us to “Realize!” with hopeful punctuation.
Then the classic “Interstellar Overdrive” arrives to blow our minds.
Aside: The Grapes of Wrath did an amazing cover of this track at a small club I attended in 1988.
The somewhat surfy, yet murky “Lucifer Sam” has since been covered by the likes of The Flaming Lips, Love and Rockets, Voivod, The Sadies, the Three O’Clock, MGMT, Southern Culture on the Skids, and some skeets from Whitehorse who called themselves Ben Mahony and the Big Eyed Beans From Venus.
The weirdness keeps coming after the pop songs are finished. This album really is a masterpiece and an argument that LSD experiences can bring gentle repose in addition to dark paranoia. However, It is crucial to note that LSD is almost universally accepted as the cause of Barrett’s mental illness, which forced him to leave the band.
Would moderation have helped one who flew too high, too often survive to create another masterpiece? His later solo works are fun to listen to, but Piper is a full Monty. “Bike” is a pleasant absurd ditty about gingerbread man, bicycles, and a good mouse named Gerald who is getting on in years.
If you ignore the slightly maniacal laughter and brief sound effects that conclude the album at the end of “Bike”, you could say that Piper at the Gates of Dawn has a happy ending and a sense that someone is tending the fire that shines the light at the end of the tunnel.