“The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” by Pink Floyd (1967)
The decline and fall of Roger “Syd” Barrett (1946-2006) stands as one of rock’s great tragedies.
Some stories have vaguely similar plot lines. Roger Kynard “Roky” Erickson and the late Alexander “Skip” Spence, both contemporaries of Barrett, also suffered drug-induced breakdowns that stunted their musical careers. But neither of the bands they were members of at the time – the Thirteenth Floor Elevators and Moby Grape, respectively – could hold a candle to the long-term success of the group Syd was instrumental in creating.
In fact, two albums in Barrett’s collection, by Georgia bluesmen Pink Anderson (1900-74) and Floyd “Dipper Boy” Council (1911-76), prompted Syd to call his band the Pink Floyd Sound.
By the time Barrett, Roger Waters, Nick Mason and the late Richard Wright recorded their debut single, the tale of the cross-dressing “Arnold Layne,” in February 1967, the “Sound” had been eliminated and the group was at the vanguard of London’s psychedelic scene.
Just a year later, Syd had effectively been booted from his own band, leaving as his Pink Floyd legacy three singles and a solitary album.
“The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” named for a chapter in Kenneth Grahame’s early 20th-century children’s book “The Wind and the Willows,” bears almost no resemblance to the darkly themed, technologically advanced albums that made Pink Floyd a household name in the ’70s. The debut instead reflects Syd’ relatively whimsical worldview, or beyond-this-world view; songs titled “Astronomy Domine” and “Insterstellar Overdrive” gave birth to the sub genre space rock, which still has it’s practitioners.
The former opens “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” with band manager Peter Jenner reciting the names of various planets and stars through a megaphone as the instrumentalists lurch into what remained as a Pink Floyd concert favorite long after Barrett’s departure. In fact, his replacement, David Gilmour, opted to open 1994 shows during Floyd’s final tour with “Astronomy Domine.”
“Piper” continues with Lucifer Sam, which features a minor-key riff reminiscent of the scores for the various secret-agent movies and TV shows that were popular at the time. Despite the rather menacing musical tone, the lyrics turn out to be about a Siamese cat.
“Matilda Mother” and “Flaming” both delve into Grahame’s type of fantasy world. The latter, which was released in the United States as a (flop) single, makes references to “sitting on a unicorn” and “traveling by telephone” among other fanciful pieces of imagery.
“Pow R. Toc H.” is basically an instrumental driven by Wright’s piano and organ, but differentiated by some of the strangest voice-generated noises to come out of the psychedelic era.
Waters’ sole songwriting contribution to “Piper” is the rapid-fire, somewhat atonal “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk,” which represents the opposite end of the spectrum from his later, better-known compositions such as “Money” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.”
“Interstellar Overdrive” is the song on which the early Pink Floyd built its original reputation, as a vehicle (no pun intended) for Barrett’s free-form, feedback-driven guitar. The album version features two takes of the song dubbed on top of each other, in a primitive but effective attempt to capture the ambiance of the stage show.
“The Gnome, “Chapter 24,” and “The Scarecrow” are comparatively sedate, with Barrett returning to a fairytale-like songwriting motif to create pastoral characters and settings.
By the time “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” was released in the summer of ’67, Barrett was beginning to “give every indication of having been launched into a permanent LSD orbit,” the late Nicholas Schaffner wrote in his Pink Floyd biography, “A Saucerful of Secrets.”
Syd’s state of mind at the time seems to ring through loud and clear on “Bike,” the final track on “Piper.” More a series of fragments than a cohesive song, “Bike” concludes with a collage of clock, bell and duck sounds that Schaffner labeled “diabolical and demented.”
He also quoted early Pink Floyd producer Joe Boyd about his encounter with Barrett prior to a June 2, 1967, performance:
“I greeted them all (band members) as they came through, and the last one was Syd. And the great thing with Syd was that he had a twinkle in his eye … And he came by, and I said, ‘Hi, Syd!’ And he just kind of looked at me. I looked right in his eye and there was no twinkle, no glint. It was like somebody had pulled the blinds – you know, nobody home.”
Wright had this to say about Barrett’s deterioration: “Certainly acid had something to do with it. The point is, you don’t know whether the acid accelerated the process that was happening in his brain or was the cause of it.”
Pink Floyd, meanwhile, soldiered on and recorded four more Barrett-penned songs. “Apples and Oranges,” released as a follow-up to the British hit “See Emily Play,” failed to make the charts; “with each manically sped-up verse set to completely different music, (it was) hardly the recipe for a pop smash,” Schaffner wrote.
“Jugband Blues” made it onto Pink Floyd’s second LP, but it’s even more of a disjointed effort than “Apples.” Jenner has described “Jugband” as “possibly the ultimate self-diagnosis on a state of schizophrenia.”
“Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream” have yet to be released legitimately, and the chances of them doing so grow slimmer with each passing decade.
Onstage, Barrett was no better as 1967 progressed: “He might just play the same song for 40 minutes, and the same note all the way through it,” Jenner recalled.
Finally, the other members of the band asked Gilmour to join. Syd stayed on for a while, “until the day when the others decided not to bother to fetch Barrett for their performance,” Schaffner wrote.
“Syd never really understood that,” Jenner explained, “because he always thought of them as his band.”
For one inspired and inspiring album, they effectively were.