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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Pink Floyd: The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn

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; 12*) Arnold Layne; 13*) Candy And A Currant Bun; 14*) See Emily Play; 15*) Apples And Oranges; 16*) Paintbox.

General verdict: One of the first "quintessentially mad" albums in rock history, no?

There is a good reason why there is such a large gap in quality between Pink Floyd's universally acclaimed debut, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and their big-ass hit albums of the Seventies. Like The Doors across the Atlantic, Pink Floyd was a band consisting of a flashy, charismatic, eccentric, and mad-as-a-hatter frontman — and three gifted, diligent, intellectually stable working men, able to get in tune with the madness of the frontman, but biologically unable to cultivate that same madness within their own souls. In both cases, the inevitable outcome was the physical or mental death of the frontman — and while with The Doors this ultimately led to the group's demise, Pink Floyd had to go through a transition phase where, eventually, they had to realize that they simply could not live up to the legacy of Syd Barrett, so they simply had to live up to something completely different.

And that they did, but for now, we find ourselves in 1967, as four young and talented English­men are looking for brand new ways to open up your mind at EMI Studios, just as four other young and talented Englishmen are recording Sgt. Pepper across the hallway. The comparisons between Pepper and Piper are nearly ubiquitous, and whenever they arise, the outspoken outcome is almost always not in favor of Pepper: fans of early Pink Floyd are known to deride the psychede­lia of Pepper as rosey, juvenile, and superficial next to the heavy astral shake-up of Syd and his gang. However, as ridiculous as it is to compare those two records from a who's-better-who's-best perspective (ʽApples And Orangesʼ indeed!), it is certainly not ridiculous to put them in mutual context — both musical directions set only partially intersecting goals, and it is instructive to realize the different ways in which they complement each other.

First and foremost, Piper is a «naughty» album. It is so often referred to as one of the greatest psychedelic records ever made that it is almost easy to forget how deeply British it is in essence, and not just British, but Nursery British, if I may say so. Syd Barrett's heroes are not Timothy Leary or the Maharishi — they are gnomes, scarecrows, black cats, little boys listening to their mother's tales and playing counting-out games. Occasionally, they are also perverted gentlemen stealing ladies' lingerie, if you count in ʽArnold Layneʼ, the band's first single; and most of the time, they look and sound creepy and disturbing, which, if you think about it, is quite a logical continuation of the overriding themes of the nursery rhyme tradition. Yet this is not exactly «dark humor» in the vein of, say, The Who's John Entwistle: emphasis is on the strangeness of what is going on, without an explicit wish to spook the listener. In other words, most of the songs on Piper are quite safe for kids (provided their DNA is substantially divergent from Syd Barrett's in the first place, otherwise there may be complications).

This centuries-honored British eccentricity is, perhaps, the main difference of Piper from, say, contemporary Hendrix psychedelia — even more so than the widely different styles of Jimi's and Syd's guitar playing. But it is not at the forefront of the album: our induction into the acid world of Pink Floyd is with ʽAstronomy Domineʼ, a composition as staggeringly unique as they come, almost as if it is placed there strategically so that, with our minds properly blown, we would lack the energy to laugh at Barrett's cuddly gnomes and scarecrows. This is the second face of early Floyd — space-rock — and while it shares certain features with the first one, it is also the face that far more clearly transcends the Britishness of the music. It is also a face that bravely treads the turf of ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ and ʽThird Stone From The Sunʼ and is not afraid to com­pete with the visions of John or Jimi.

Here, the difference made by Floyd is that they do not make music about the beauty of the uni­verse, or about its majesty, or about its transcendence. Whether we are talking about ʽAstronomy Domineʼ or its even bulkier instrumental twin, ʽInterstellar Overdriveʼ, the imagery is that of a spaceship, making its way with much difficulty through endless fields of cosmic debris — plane­toids, asteroids, deadly cosmic rays, weird particles, bizarre alien life forms, an enormity and a diversity too terrifying for words. Or, perhaps, not too terrifying for words: "Neptune, Titan, stars can frighten", upon which an array of nasty stars begins spooking you with ghostly falsettos. Maybe the music itself is not exactly terrifying, but when played loud enough in headphones, it is disconcerting: where the kaleidoscopic overdubs of something like ʽBeing For The Benefit Of Mr. Kiteʼ create the illusion of a mesmerizing magic show, the interactions of Syd's scraping guitars, Rick Wright's funereal organ, and Waters' occasional bass bombs are more like a musical battle­space, littered with life-threatening cosmic junk.

If there is actually a close stylistic parallel here, it would be the sonic experiments that the Stones had on Satanic Majesties' Request — the album that tends to get a lot of flack for allegedly ripping off Sgt. Pepper, when in fact its «terrified-of-space» vibe on songs like ʽ2000 Light Years From Homeʼ is far closer to the material of Piper. But the Stones, even if they may have been duly stoned at the time, were not crazy — their vision of deep dark space was almost analytical when compared to stuff going on in ʽAstronomy Domineʼ and ʽInterstellar Overdriveʼ. The most amazing thing about it all is that none of these guys were seasoned professionals or virtuosos — most of the instrumental parts, though sometimes compositionally unusual, seem to be fairly simple, well on the level of your local garage band. Deep artistic vision can sometimes be downright terrifying all on its own.

The «missing link» between these terrifying visions of space and the cuddly scarecrows is ʽLucifer Samʼ, Barrett's ode to his cat, powered by a Bond-like dark surf riff, subliminal whispers, bowed bass passages, and an overall feel of cruising through one of Hell's ventilation shafts. This is where, on the surface, things get sort of mundane — it is about a cat, after all, not about Jupiter and Saturn — but leave it to Syd to be the first pop artist to properly explore the Satanic connec­tions of our favorite felines. "That cat's something I can't explain" is just as powerful a statement of our helplessness in mastering the universe as is "stars can frighten", regardless of the diffe­rence in scope. No wonder it comes to you on the musical wave of a spy movie theme.

Much of the album's quieter content would probably be called «alt-folk» today, and belongs to the same thematic stock as the music of The Holy Modal Rounders and The Incredible String Band, both of whom probably influenced Syd quite a bit. Floyd's take on folk is far more accessible: the musicians were not skilled enough to seriously dabble in dissonance and challenge conventional harmony rules — but they could evoke strange feelings simply by finding an odd balance between their instruments, and at this stage in their career, the presence of Rick Wright in the band may have been even more quintessential than in the Waters years: his array of different keyboard tones and instruments, from Farfisa to celesta, is impressive, and he remains the key ingredient on every tune that is not expressly dominated by a heavy Barrett riff. The mid-Eastern soloing on ʽMatilda Motherʼ, the quiet ambient tones accompanying the hypnotic chorus of "look at the sky, look at the river, isn't it good?" of ʽThe Gnomeʼ, the pseudo-bagpipe imitations on ʽScarecrowʼ, the creaky, broken-up musical box impersonation on ʽBikeʼ — that cat's something I can't explain, not in a pre-prog rock age when keyboard players in rock bands were generally expected to play supportive rather than primary roles. (Again, is it that much of a coincidence that at the very same time, Ray Manzarek was challenging that assumption in The Doors?).

But in the end, it still comes down to Syd and his demons: lucky as he was to have the support of his talented buddies, it is his vision that permeates all these songs — the vision of a nearly autistic person, capable of going beyond the common perception of objects at the price of cutting himself off from the world at large. If you look real close at the lyrics to ʽBikeʼ, they are really disturbing — rooted in count-out rhyming, no doubt ("I've got a bike, you can ride it if you like..."), but ultimately sounding like a monologue out of the mouth of some alienated Twin Peaks personage, and with such complete conviction that any serious psychiatrist, I'm sure, who might have had the chance to listen to the song back in 1967 would come up with a diagnosis right on the spot. It is in these relatively quiet moments, not in the album's loud ones, that the madness really becomes evident. It's an awesome madness, one that lets you catch a glimpse of whatever is going on behind the proverbial doors of perception, but it also makes you aware of all sorts of morally challenging questions — or, at least, it should make you aware, because most of the time people just enjoy the cool music, without giving much thought to the deeply deranged conscience behind the art.

Anyway, the amusing thing about Piper is that a couple of its most superficially deranged tunes were written by thoroughly sane people — and, unsurprisingly, they are among the album's worst offerings. I am primarily referring to ʽTake Up Thy Stethoscope And Walkʼ, the first officially registered songwriting credit of Mr. Roger Waters, who, in his desire to challenge the artistic vision of Mr. Syd Barrett on Mr. Syd Barrett's own terms, came up with an ugly, irritating, and utterly pointless avantgarde piece that marries bad wannabe-beatnik poetry ("Gold is lead, Jesus bled, pain is red") to a post-Yardbirds bluesy rave-up passage that pushes you all the way back to around 1965 and would probably merit a scoffin' sneer from the likes of Jeff Beck. Another tune that, to me, breaks up the smooth flow of the album is ʽPow R. Toc H.ʼ, credited to the entire band — it is essentially a lounge jazz instrumental, where Wright turns into an underworked Bill Evans clone for a few minutes; the attempt to disguise it as a psychedelic piece of art by inserting a short free-form noise interlude does not really work too well. These two tracks presage every­thing that would be bad about Pink Floyd in the next several post-Barrett years, namely, the inefficient attempts at «mad music» as produced by very sane people.

But even these setbacks are instructive: the weak links of the record only make its strong parts, which are far more numerous, more impressive (and, upon further thought and analysis, more disturbing) in comparison. Conversely, the only Barrett track that I have always found weak is ʽChapter 24ʼ, a brave, but less than satisfactory attempt to set a bit of The Book Of Changes to music — the result comes across as a pile of verbal mumbo-jumbo set to incidental music from a traveling magic show, and Barrett's own personality is much less prominent in this track than in any of the others. (Then again, I've never really liked The Book Of Changes all that much, either: to me, it is one of the least attractive pieces of ancient Chinese literature, precisely because of its all too puffed-up enigmaticity).

Returning to the Pepper vs. Piper debate (because why not?), it is clear that Piper could never truly compete with The Beatles in popular conscience — despite the importance of all the players, and Rick Wright in particular, it is essentially a «singer-songwriter» type of record, revealing the inner world of a solitary — and somewhat dangerous — person, and, like a Lynch movie, is forever doomed to cult status. But it is one of the first and best, and luckiest, cases of a happy matching between a deranged artistic personality and the immense new possibilities offered by the musical and technological breakthroughs of its epoch. It is so very British, so very loony, so very melancholic, and it was recorded at EMI Studios, and produced by The Beatles' own sound engineer — what's not to like? I'll tell you what's not to like: Roger Waters looks highly uncomfortable in all that psychedelic garb on the front cover. Then again, come to think of it, Roger Waters always looks highly uncomfortable, period.

On a technical note, everybody should probably own the 40th Anniversary Edition of the album, which throws in both mono and stereo mixes and, most importantly, finally collects all of the band's contemporary singles on a third disc, making it no longer necessary to own masterpieces such as ʽArnold Layneʼ and ʽSee Emily Playʼ on separate hit collections such as Relics. Oddly enough, the original US release of the album, totally fucking over the track order, replaced ʽAstronomy Domineʼ with ʽSee Emily Playʼ — no doubt, completely changing the American listeners' percep­tion of the band — but, on the other hand, it cannot be disputed that these songs encapsulate just as much of Syd Barrett's soul as any of the Piper tracks, and now, in the digital age, you can make your own perfect Piper for yourself. I'd suggest, personally, throwing out that stupid ʽStethoscopeʼ bit — ʽApples And Orangesʼ would fit in that slot so much better.

4 comments:

  1. Not sure if Bill Evans and lounge jazz should be mentioned in the same sentence, but otherwise, spot on as usual.

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  2. I think you mean Jimi's "Third STONE from the Sun." Great review!

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  3. Great review. And if only Pepper and Piper had their singles attached. If anyone spends a minute they can think of two tracks from both albums - or one long one - that could be replaced with Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, or Arnold Lane and See Emily Play.
    Apple and Oranges is awful and was more a post-Piper single.

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  4. This review is spot on. Really encapsulates what PF lost when Syd went nuts. And arguably became a far, far less interesting band.

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