Friday, January 13, 2012

Pink Floyd--A Saucerful of Secrets

1. Let There Be More Light; 2. Remember a Day; 3. Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun; 4. Corporal Clegg; 5. A Saucerful of Secrets; 6. See-Saw; 7. Jugband Blues

This one's a transitional album, and one that's very much a product of its time. As Syd's mental deterioration kicked into (interstellar) overdrive, the other members realized something had to be done before Syd kept doing more weird shit like crushing Mandrax into his hair, detuning his guitar onstage, and letting Nick Mason sing. That "something" was bringing in guitarist David Gilmour to supplement their live shows--if Syd started spacing out and randomly detuning his guitar mid-song, Dave would run out and start covering for them. This arrangement soon proved to be a royal pain in the ass (although it was probably a better idea than Syd's suggestion of bringing in two female saxophonists), and one night the band simply decided not to pick Syd up for a gig. Obviously, this could have been handled in a slightly more tactful manner (and the members of the band seem to think so too--tellingly, in all the rounds of backstabbing and dishing dirt on each other in later years, nobody has ever revealed who said "fuck it, let's not bother [with getting Syd]"), and the fact that Barrett and Gilmour were childhood friends probably didn't do anything to reduce the awkwardness. The band soldiered on, however, first with the idea that Syd would be a studio-only contributor (mainly as a songwriter, but also some guitar and vocal work), but that idea was scrapped after Syd kept changing the instrumentation and asking "Have you got it yet?" However, one of his songs made it onto the album--the mournful "Jugband Blues," wherein he seems to be fully aware of his condition and the fact that he is being unceremoniously dumped from the band that he used to be the star of. The midsong horn freakout provides some typical psychedelic levity to the proceedings, but the final lines, just Syd with his acoustic singing "And the sea isn't green/and I love the queen/and what exactly is a dream? And what exactly is a joke?" never fails to get an emotional response from me. Of course, Barrett would resurface as a solo artist for a brief period, but this song makes it clear that his time in Pink Floyd is over. Shine on, Syd…

Anyway, most of the rest of the songwriting burden is split between Roger Waters and Richard Wright, both of whom had previously contributed all of one song apiece to the band's official catalog (Waters with "Take Up Thy Stethoscope…", and Wright with the b-side "Paint Box"), and both actually do a pretty decent job here. True, they both try way too hard to milk the cosmic vibe of Piper, and lyrically the songs mainly sound like sober, sane people trying to emulate a madman fucked up on acid (which they are), but these songs, for the most part, work. I'm not a huge fan of Wright's "See-Saw," but apparently he wasn't either--the working title was "The Most Boring Song I've Ever Heard Bar Two"! His other contribution to the album, "Remember a Day," is MUCH better. It has a nice psychedelic vibe and some great wistful, nostalgic lyrics. Turns out that Syd plays guitar on the track, which was recorded before Gilmour became a full time member, and for some reason engineer Norman Smith plays drums and provides the harmonies, since apparently Nick Mason couldn't get drum part down (and sure as fuck couldn't have done the harmonies). Great song either way.

Waters' three songs are also a mixed bag. "Let There Be More Light," the opener, is a cosmic masterpiece, featuring a great opening bassline and a great solo from Gilmour at the end. Not quite sure why he threw in a reference to "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," especially considering that he was never really into psychedelic drugs (seeing your childhood friend turn into a raving lunatic will kind of turn you against the stuff, apparently), but whatever, the other lyrics don't make much sense either. Syd and Dave actually both play guitar on "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun," but they both sound the same on the track and that same is inaudible. The focus is instead on the mantra-like lyrics, the hypnotic bassline, the vaguely Eastern keyboards and timpani drums. The song was clearly built for live performance, and after hearing the expansion the song would undergo live this version can't help but feel like a well-produced demo. "Corporal Clegg," the only light-hearted song on the record (and one of the few in the entire Floyd oeuvre), is Waters' first musings on the subject of war. Now, if you're at all familiar with the later writings of Mr. Waters, you might realize that he occasionally likes to make his opinions on the topic known, and the fact that his first anti-war piece is a borderline novelty song featuring kazoo solos. It's entertaining as hell, and if anybody knows which parts are sung by Gilmour and which parts are Wright please let me know (the parts that clearly aren't either are Mason, for those that don't know--for some reason, he never actually sang on a Floyd album again. Maybe he couldn't sing from behind the kit. Or on key. Or at all. Hey, I can relate.).

Finally, then, we have the group-composed instrumental title track, Gilmour's first-ever songwriting credit (his former group, Joker's Wild, was a cover band). Unlike the free-form freakout improvisations of "Interstellar Overdrive," "A Saucerful of Secrets" is extremely structured-- former architecture studentsWaters and Mason originally mapped it out like a building design, leading a bemused Gilmour to wonder just what the fuck kind of band he'd agreed to join! The song is certainly groundbreaking in its way, but the studio version does not have the power that live versions would have (I'm specifically thinking about the version in the Live at Pompeii film), and like "Set the Controls" is a song I like, but rarely listen to the studio version.

Given the strife that surrounded the recording, A Saucerful of Secrets is actually a much better album than it could or probably should be. While it would take the new-look Pink Floyd awhile to shake the image of merely being Syd Barrett's backing band, the work on this album was a clear step in the right direction, establishing Gilmour as a competent guitar player (although he hadn't really developed his style yet), and Wright and Waters as talented songwriters. The album is certainly flawed, but it remains a worthy edition to the Floyd canon.

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