Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pink Floyd--The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)

1. Astronomy Domine; 2. Lucifer Sam; 3. Matilda Mother; 4. Flaming; 5. Pow R Toc H; 6. Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk; 7. Interstellar Overdrive; 8. The Gnome; 9. Chapter 24; 10. Scarecrow; 11. Bike
1967, as you may or may not be aware, was a very important year in the rock scene, a year in which many important records were released (Sgt. Pepper's, for example), the year of the famed "summer of love," flower power, and the London and San Francisco psychedelic underground scenes. One of the quintessential 1967 albums, Pink Floyd's debut sounds nothing like Floyd's more famous 70s works, instead being largely the brainchild of guitarist/vocalist Roger Keith "Syd" Barrett, who wrote 8 of the 11 songs here. Pink Floyd rose to prominence playing many of the London clubs, cultivating a "space rock" image (which got them booed every time they set foot out of London in the early years), and eventually scored two major hits in 1967 ("Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play") before cutting this album at Abbey Road Studios, in the studio next door to a group of Liverpudlians cutting a little album known as Sgt. Pepper's.

Any discussion of Piper must acknowledge the fact that at the time of its recording, Syd Barrett's mental health was beginning to decline, although it would not really become obvious until later. A predisposition towards declining mental health was only exacerbated by Syd's heavy use of acid. This does not stop him from being an absolutely fantastic songwriter, though--many of the songs here are absolutely fantastic! "Astronomy Domine," easily one of my favorite Pink Floyd numbers, kicks things off with one of the best examples of space rock known to man--the disembodied voice announcing a shuttle launch, that grumbly guitar riff, Syd and keyboardist Richard Wright's creepy harmonies, and the midsong instrumental section complete with some great pounding drumwork by Nick Mason and more of that disembodied voice make this song an absolute classic, despite the fact that I still have no fucking clue who or what a domine is. It's a shame that this song isn't played on classic rock stations as much as Floyd's 70s oeuvre is, but this album sadly never hit big in the States. Anyway, nothing on the album quite hits these heights, and none of Syd's other songs really fit the space rock image--instead, they are largely a batch of childlike ditties that run the gamut from folkish (the enjoyable but slightly throwaway "The Gnome" and "Scarecrow"), to almost surf rock with "Lucifer Sam." This ode to Syd's cat boasts an absolutely fantastic riff in addition to it's engaging melody. Wright gets a chance to shine on "Matilda Mother," singing most of the lead vocals as well as providing some great keyboards (he doesn't get much attention, but Wright really was one of the greatest keyboardists in rock, something I will bring up many times throughout my Floyd reviews!), and the song really does evoke the feel of a child asking his mother to read just one more bedtime story, while "Flaming" capture the wonders of playing hide-and-seek, although it might be through the guise of a drug trip. Great song, either way. "Chapter 24," then, is the only slight misstep on the album, being rather dull for most of its duration, but there are some great harmonies in the "sunset...sunrise" section.

"Bike," then, almost defies description--while some might say it proves that Syd was (or at least was on the way to becoming) batshit insane, it's also another great song. Not only are the lyrics a total hoot, the ending sound collage is the perfect way to end the album. And I don't even like sound collages that much! Maybe it's the evil ducks at the end. Rock music needs more evil ducks. One of the all-time great album closers.

In addition to all the Syd ditties, the album contains two instrumentals. Well, "Pow R. Toc H." (another title I'm clueless about) has a hell of a lot of vocal noises from Syd and bassist Roger Waters, but has no lyrics. Some might be annoyed by it, and it pretty much only could have worked on an album like this, but I think it's a total blast! Nice piano work by Rick, too. "Interstellar Overdrive," then, is a simply amazing spacey instrumental that begins with an orgasmic riff before essentially descending into chaos that threatens to, but never actually does, become totally unhinged, before bringing the riff back at the end to give a real feeling of blastoff. "Overdrive" was a concert staple, sometimes running upwards of 20 minutes, and was the band's signature song in the early days, a spot it certainly deserved. Finally, as if all this wasn't enough, the album also includes Roger Waters' first songwriting effort in "Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk," is rather clumsy lyrically and does the job of proving that apparently the road to writing Dark Side of the Moon begins with knowing how to use a rhyming dictionary. And your father dying in the war before you were born, but I'm getting ahead of myself here. Anyway, clumsy though the song may be, I really dig the midsong freakout, during which Barrett and Wright both shine, which accurately sums up the album--this is Barrett's baby through and through, although Wright also proves that at this juncture he was clearly the second most important member of the band, as his vocals and keyboards form a key part of the sound of this album. The rhythm section, with the exception of the drumming in "Domine," is rather unspectacular, but Waters and Mason are certainly serviceable at their jobs, and do a great job of staying the fuck out of the way and letting Syd do his thing. Piper may be a shock for those of you who only know Floyd through their 70s albums (I know it was for me, and I knew not to expect anything like Dark Side!), but it is an absolutely essential purchase for anyone interested in Pink Floyd, psychedelic rock, or just some damn good music.


  1. So I guess I'm the only one who actually likes "Chapter 24", then?

    1. I don't particularly dislike it (as I said, I really like the harmonies), but I just think it's way longer than it really needs to be. Basically three and a half minutes of it bores me more than nine and a half minutes of "Interstellar Overdrive"