Piper at the Gates of Dawn has been extolled as the crème de la crème of psychedelic albums, one of the best ever in what proved to be a fleeting genre. The honor is somewhat cheapened because there are thirty or so other albums that have been similarly celebrated, and calling a record the “best psychedelic album ever” is the ultimate backhanded compliment, given the general weakness of the field. This series is teaching me that psychedelia was far more important for the doors it opened and not so much for what it achieved.
That said, this is one of my top two or three favorite psychedelic relics, and the reason I like it isn’t so much the quality of the music, which can be spotty. What I love about Piper at the Gates of Dawn is its purity: it is the archetypal psychedelic album, full of the sounds that come to mind when you think “psychedelic.” If an alien anthropologist arrived at my doorstep and asked me to explain psychedelic music, this is the album I’d play. Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a compendium of the key features of psychedelic music: the long, often dreary jams; the fascinating sound collages; the baroque harmonies; the lyrics that often imply meaning beyond their true significance; the playfulness and experimentation.
There are several reasons why Piper is a more satisfying whole than many of the albums in this period. First of all, ex-Beatle engineer Norman Smith teamed up with the talented Peter Bown on production and engineering, providing not only knowledge in the studio but a force of restraint to balance some of Pink Floyd’s wackier ideas (restraint that the band members deeply resented). Second, three of the four original members of Pink Floyd were architectural students, so they had some idea of universal truths concerning structure, a definite advantage over the often sloppy thinking you hear in many psychedelic bands. Finally, the fourth member and leader was Syd Barrett, who spent most of his time on acid during the sessions. Barrett wrote the majority of songs, and although the effects of so much acid wound up eating away his brain, the drug does have a temporarily useful liberating effect on the perceptual field, opening the doors to original and unconventional ideas, and Syd’s contributions are fresh and insightful.
The U. K. and U. S. versions differ in terms of both track order and content, but the most important change is that the U. S. version opens with “See Emily Play,” which is omitted from the U. K. album based on the old British tradition that singles do not belong on albums. I will review the U. K. version because “See Emily Play” was not intended as part of the album and was recorded in a different studio under different intentions. However, the song does affirm Syd Barrett’s melodic gifts, the band’s talents and their passion for experimentation, and from a pure marketing standpoint (what else do Americans think about?), I can understand Capitol’s motivation to use it as the lead track on the U. S. release. From an artistic standpoint, it really doesn’t belong here, so I’ll stick with the British version.
“Astronomy Domine” is a daring and appropriate opener to what in retrospect was a fairly courageous first release. First we hear a loudspeaker-amplified voice in the background, like a voice announcing flights at a space station. A repeated note on electric guitar similar to what you hear at the start of Eric Burdon’s “When I Was Young” comes next, followed by a stutter step tom pattern from Nick Mason, then we hear a second guitar playing a two-note motif on the right channel, sounding like an outer space clone of Duane Eddy. Syd Barrett and Richard Wright enter in harmony over a single melodic note that falls to another single note pattern at the end of the second line; the series of monotone patterns continues throughout the verse, moving to different parts of the scale. The effect is one of eerie detachment, as if the vocalists are androids. The words the androids sing mean virtually nothing to those of us who haven’t had our innards replaced with positronic parts:
Lime and limpid green a second scene
A fight between the blue you once knew
Floating down the sound resounds
Around the icy waters underground
Jupiter and Saturn Oberon Miranda
And Titania Neptune Titan
Stars can frighten . . .
The Shakespearean moons mentioned all orbit Uranus, the planet that everyone tries to avoid because of the double entendre. The stream of consciousness lyrics sound like someone experiencing an acid trip, but they could also form an impressionistic version of a journey through the back half of our solar system. The piece moves forward with falling notes played on guitar with some sort of slide or E-bow effect that gives you the feeling of slowly gliding through an atmosphere. Nick Mason keeps things moving with some superb off-beat drumming until the song suddenly stops and we hear an eerie organ accompanied by a strongly-plucked high note on the guitar that echoes to fade; meanwhile, in the left channel, an engine-like whirring fills that auditory canal. The band then falls into a jam over the main theme driven by Roger Waters’ insistent bass; the pattern continues as the loudspeaker voice re-enters. When the vocals return they remain in monotone but take a slightly different path and are sung with more breathiness and less detachment, as if the music has re-energized the androids. The falling note pattern returns to guide us to the fade. The piece seems very strange at first listen but is held together by a very strong theme, and the repetition of the main motifs give “Astronomy Domine” a unity you will not find in the lyrics. This is not your typical hippie-band filler but a well-constructed piece of music that evokes both the anxiety and the calm you might imagine if you were floating in a no-gravity environment. The experience is actually exhilarating in a curious way, and demonstrates why this album is a prototypical psychedelic record.
“Lucifer Sam” also evokes an emotional reaction in me: it’s a hoot! Lucifer Sam is a cat that is unusually attached to Syd’s love interest in the song, a witch named Jennifer Gentle. This cat creeps the fuck out of Syd with his mysterious omnipresence getting in the way of healthy male-female interaction. The music is of the sub-genre Cold War Secret Agent, led by a guitar riff that could have easily become the theme for The Avengers or The Man from U. N. C. L. E. The echoes and reverberation combine with the panning to create an soundscape of playful tension over a surprisingly danceable go-go rhythm. Roger Waters frigging soars on the bass and Syd’s vocal is his strongest and clearest on the album. “Lucifer Sam” is easily the most fun I’ve had during this series so far.
“Matilda Mother” takes us back to childhood and reminds us of how active our imaginations were before we grew up and became what Keith Johnstone called “atrophied adults.” The story is told from the child’s perspective as he hears his mother reading a fairy tale; the child hungers for more to feed his insatiable need for learning and to stimulate his ever-active imagination:
Why’d you have to leave me there
Hanging in my infant air waiting
You only have to read the lines of
Scribbly black and everything shines
As he listens, he makes a great discovery about human communication: “Wondering and dreaming/The words have different meanings.” The story ends with the child repeating the words, “tell me more.” Syd Barrett had a unique ability to connect with the pre-civilized mind of a child without turning the experience into a sanitized Disney tale, and it’s likely that one source of his mental illness was his inability to cope with a world that trivializes the imagination by categorizing everything into correct and incorrect answers. Such a perspective must have made frequent contact with that world a very painful experience for Syd. In this sense, he reminds me very much of Christopher Smart, who was locked away for his madness and wrote some of the most vivid poetry I’ve ever read.
The music on “Matilda Mother” shows that Pink Floyd were far, far ahead of their psychedelic competitors in terms of musical knowledge and application. The scales support the story line, shifting from modified Phrygian (giving off hints of Arabian Nights) in Wright’s organ solo to Mixolydian (for a touch of the medieval) on the fade. The combination of arpeggiated guitar chords and dreamy harmonies in the verses provide a perfect backdrop for Syd Barrett’s isolation-booth vocal; it’s as if we’re hearing the child’s inner thoughts. This is a carefully-designed arrangement with clear intention, quite unlike the often superficial, slapdash efforts you hear from too many bands of the era.
Dark, eerie sounds introduce “Flaming,” a bookend piece to “Matilda Mother.” Here the child is in active imagination mode without the intervention of a parental figure, calling up unicorns as he sits on dandelions and imagines himself “streaming through the starlit skies.” The music is a combination of fanciful and dreamy, with flowing organ, celeste and luscious splashes of pop harmony . . . perfectly delightful. This track was left off the American version of the album, which only reaffirms the universal perception of Americans of mad workaholics grounded in dull reality.
Of course, this is the psychedelic era, so there’s no escaping the ridiculous. “Pow R. Toc H.” is group instrumental with lots of funny noises, peculiar panning and a very long and not particularly interesting piano solo followed by trippy sounds and “Lovely Rita” noises (Pink Floyd had just watched The Beatles record “Lovely Rita” before recording this track). File it away as a period piece and move on to Roger Waters’ only composition on the album, “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk,” interesting only because it gives us an early illustration of the contrast between Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd and the more famous Waters-driven version: it’s like comparing The Garden of Eden with Doomsday. Syd Barrett focused more on preserving imagination from destruction by an indifferent world and did so by demonstrating the value of imagination; Roger Waters’ work focuses on how shitty the world can be and shows us the ugly side of human culture. Both are valid perspectives, so it’s very intriguing to imagine a Pink Floyd where both visions were given equal weight.
Side two of the LP opens with the nearly ten-minute instrumental, “Interstellar Overdrive,” a chromatic free-form collage of trippy sounds and dissonance, the essence of psychedelic excess. When straight, it’s a crushing bore, and I doubt its usefulness as the soundtrack to an acid trip as it’s far too creepy. It’s followed by “The Gnome,” a pleasant and occasionally too cute number about a gnome named Grimble Gromble; compared to “Matilda Mother” and “Flaming,” it’s pretty light. Syd then consults the I Ching for “Chapter 24,” quoting heavily from the interpretations of the hexagrams. The hippies were all over the I Ching in the sixties (my mother and father are power users), and Barrett’s contribution to the fad is really just a rehash of text fragments and fails to capture the real value of the I Ching: the validation of intuitive approaches to problem-solving. The music is appropriately flavored with eastern influences, clearly identifying the track as an antique of limited value.
“Scarecrow” opens with hand percussion instruments and a Country Joe-like organ that leads to a narrative that the Wikipedia author of the entry for this song claims “contains nascent existential themes.” That’s pretty highfalutin’ language to describe a pretty simple experience: Syd Barrett tries to compare his fate to that of the scarecrow’s. He doesn’t do a particularly good job, however, and we leave the song not entirely sure what point he was trying to make. Piper at the Gates of Dawn ends with “Bike,” a more rollicking version of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” Where Lennon just copied lyrics from a poster, Syd Barrett comes up with a cheeky, stream-of-consciousness narrative where he attempts to connect with a girl (who’s probably listening to him wondering what planet he came from) by essentially saying anything that comes into his mind:
I’ve got a cloak it’s a bit of a joke.
There’s a tear up the front. It’s red and black.
I’ve had it for months.
If you think it could look good, then I guess it should.
You’re the kind of girl that fits in with my world.
I’ll give you anything, everything if you want things.
I know a mouse, and he hasn’t got a house.
I don’t know why I call him Gerald.
He’s getting rather old, but he’s a good mouse.
Not the greatest pick-up lines, but I believe that’s the point. Mating rituals involve a whole lot of phoniness as each party tries to present themselves in the best possible light, a rather contradictory approach to building an intimate relationship based on trust. But what if we could really say what we’re thinking and feeling without internal and external censors? Shit, we’re all at least a little weird, so why not reveal that right up front? Naive and ineffective as that may sound, what “Bike” does is point out the rather wide gap between open honesty and the games we play to get laid. “Bike” is a fun song to listen to, full of the carnival sounds that accompany you as you stroll down the midway with your sweetheart. After a slightly decrease in tempo, Syd invites her into a “room of musical tunes,” where we hear all kinds of fun house noises in a splash of musique concrète.
Piper at the Gates of Dawn will always be remembered as Syd Barrett’s album because he set the tone and wrote most of the songs, and several of those songs reveal a unique and special talent. While Piper has several misses, that’s usually the case with maiden albums. What matters is that Pink Floyd clearly demonstrated musical ability beyond the norm combined with an explorer’s spirit, a combination that simply had to lead to bigger and better things down the road. This is true even when you ignore Syd Barrett’s significant contributions, for the core of Wright-Waters-Mason shine throughout the record. Piper at the Gates of Dawn gets a little too trippy from time to time, but it captures the sound and ethos of a strange and wondrous era, and makes for a more-than-satisfying listening experience.