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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

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.

General verdict: This is your mind off drugs, but still very much on inertia.

Go no further than the distance between Pink Floyd's first and second album to understand the difference between «crazy psychedelia» and «sane psychedelia». By the time serious sessions started for the band's second record, Syd had largely become completely dysfunctional, his place in the band taken over by David Gilmour; Barrett is credited exclusively for the last song on the album (ʽJugband Bluesʼ), plus guitar playing on two more tracks where he largely acted as an incidental sideman. Yet at the same time, somehow, in some way, his spirit still had to dominate the band: Pink Floyd was his project, largely owed him its essence and its image, and the whole business now looked like the desperate flight of an interstellar spaceship whose captain had just accidentally fallen out of the airlock.

Thus begins the «transitional» era in the life of Pink Floyd, an era in which Waters, Wright, and Gilmour had to endure the legacy of Syd Barrett and, for a while, play the role of a collective Syd Barrett without actually having that much in common with the real Syd Barrett. It is not as if Waters, already at this point the most productive songwriter in the band, was disinterested in Syd's subjects — the frightening mysteries of space and the absurdist sides of British rituals — but he could never get into them with the same reckless abandon as his old friend did. From the very beginning, A Saucerful Of Secrets is very much about composition, calculation, and discip­line: a product of artistic reasoning rather than artistic inspiration. Which, in a different setting, would have made it vastly inferior to its predecessor; fortunately, artistic reasoning can be quite a bitch, too, when coming from a bunch of superior reasons.

A superficial comparison between, say, ʽAstronomy Domineʼ and ʽSet The Controls For The Heart Of The Sunʼ (both songs are relatable to space exploration, even if, technically, the latter is, outside of its title, just a bunch of quotations from Chinese poetry), clearly establishes the difference in territory. Waters' early space-rock masterpiece moves slowly, softly, transfixing you with repetitive bass and keyboard lines as the latter gradually become louder and more intense, yet the musical spaceship never for once loses its steady course — guided from beginning to end by a firm, steady hand, not a single accidental collision along the way, as opposed to the bumpy ride (and that's putting it mildly) of ʽAstronomy Domineʼ. The instrumental combination still works wonderfully — close your eyes and you can imagine yourself inside a vast engine room, with Mason's mallets as pistons. But all safeties have been locked, just as they also have been on the lead-in track, ʽLet There Be More Lightʼ (which is more dynamic and epic, but guided just as steadily by that unnerving bass pulse).

Even the album's most experimental and improvisational piece, the multi-part title track (which was actually created at the last moment to fill out empty space), plays out more like an homage to intellectually crafted modern classical music. Its most turbulent part, ʽSyncopated Pandemoniumʼ, superficially resembles Barrett-era improvisations — with Gilmour producing waves of feedback by dragging his guitar across the floor or something, Wright bashing out dissonant chords with his elbow or something, and Mason pounding his kit with the energy of a buffalo stampede. But somehow it is all just too well coordinated, and, most importantly, the sound is curiously static: piano bashes and guitar buzzsaws enter in at appropriate points, do more or less the same schtick, then rinse and repeat, whereas during ʽInterstellar Overdriveʼ pretty much anything could happen at any given point. This is neither good nor bad — just different, an altogether separate musical perspective that might appeal far more to those who, for instance, might have found ʽOverdriveʼ too loose and sloppy in comparison.

And, by all means, that last part, ʽCelestial Voicesʼ, dominated by Rick Wright's church organ and Mellotron and collective group harmonies, is as far removed from Barrett-era Floyd as possible — it is, in fact, one of the earliest precursors to the classic Floyd sound, with an aura of ceremonial, religious grandness and sadness, a mini-requiem for all those who have probably just given their lives in the epically calculated thunderstorm. It gives good closure to the whole thing: ʽA Saucerful Of Secretsʼ truly reads like a musical story, recounting some terrible event that happened in the universe, and its consequences — but, again, a story means a plan, and that was never a part of the original band's vision. Suddenly, instead of just cracking open your mind and peeping at what lies within, they are playing Greek tragedy. (Not surprisingly, this piece always looked awesome within the setting of the Pompeiian amphitheater).

Less efficient, I believe, is Waters' attempt at stealing the other side of Syd's personality — the playful British eccentricity, that is — with ʽCorporal Cleggʼ, a song nominally dedicated to the WW2 service of Roger's dad (in those happy innocent pre-Wall days) but essentially following in the footsteps of such character vignettes as ʽArnold Layneʼ and ʽThe Gnomeʼ. It actually sounds like it would rather belong in a Who-style or Small Faces-style sarcastic gallery (The Who Sell Out, etc.) than in with these other space panoramas, and its carnivalesque elements (the irritating circus kazoo merry-go-rounds) are a poor stab at humor from a band whose funniest member had just mutated into a vegetable, and whose other members have always had a collective sense of humor about the size of a pinhead. That said, it isn't really a bad song — multiple sections, catchy chorus, theatrical delivery, clear message — it is simply very much out of place here.

With a respectful nod to Rick Wright's two atmospheric, stately, gentlemanly (but, as usual, too humble to be particularly memorable) contributions (ʽRemember A Dayʼ and ʽSee-Sawʼ), it is always more comfortable to focus attention on the last song on the album — while ʽJugband Bluesʼ was allegedly not written by Syd specially as a parting gift to the band, there is no other way one might interpret the lyrics about how "it's awfully considerate of you to think of me here / and I'm most obliged to you for making it clear that I'm not here". I am pretty sure that many fans at the time, not fully aware of the dire nature of the situation, had to regard the inclusion of the song as one final insult to a terribly mistreated Barrett — when in reality it was more of a last sorrowful farewell. Here, the carnivalesque atmosphere actually works («sad clown» was quite a legitimate part of Barrett's image), and the acoustic conclusion ("and what exactly is a dream? and what exactly is a joke?") still occasionally brings me to tears. There is madness, exuberance, and terrible sorrow in this song — Syd almost literally breaks down over the course of its three minutes, a lost and confused piper at the gates of sunset. For that matter, the song is very typical of the solo stuff on his 1970 albums, so if you somehow happen to consider yourself above this sloppy, broken-down shit, do not even bother with The Madcap Laughs.

Since none of the CD editions of the album so far seem to have included any bonus tracks, it should be quickly noted that Pink Floyd released two more singles that year — both of them com­mercial flops, but both also very nice if you do not judge them by classic Pink Floyd standards: Wright's ʽIt Would Be So Niceʼ is, by all accounts, his personal reply to Brian Wil­son's ʽWouldn't It Be Niceʼ, and does the baroque dream-pop schtick quite convincingly (at least it is not any worse than the usual stuff on Nuggets II), and ʽPoint Me At The Skyʼ, too, sounds like it could occupy a solid place in the pantheon of psychedelic pop one-hit wonders like Dantalian's Chariot or Sagittarius. That last single, however, is probably better known for the first appearance of ʽCareful With That Axe, Eugeneʼ, Floyd's first horror masterpiece that we will talk about in more detail once we get to Ummagumma (because, honestly, the single version sounds like an early rehearsal take next to the expanded version on the album). In any case, all those songs are decent stabs at a style that neither Waters nor Gilmour nor even Wright himself were comfortable with — songs that do not put too much of a Pink Floyd stamp on the psycho-pop standards of the time, but still deserve to be remembered as footnotes.

On the whole, though, I like and endorse this period and this album: I like the idea of Pink Floyd trying to persevere in the ways of Syd Barrett more appealing than the idea of Pink Floyd searching and searching and searching for a different way, which would result in the relative disasters of Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother. Without Syd, they may not have been the most convincing and sincere of space-rockers on the block, but they knew the ropes well enough to produce results that could still be memorable, emotional, and even haunting. I mean, when you are really out in space, you don't want it always to be a bumpy ride, right? Sometimes it pays off to have yourself a calm, steady soundtrack — at least long enough to consume and digest your saucerful of cosmic lunch in relative peace.

1 comment:

  1. "Corporal Clegg" fails in that it tries to straddle the line between Barrett whimsy and the dark cynicism of the band's later work. It probably would have worked better on "Piper" itself, as Waters' first published song -- it's an ok song, whereas "Stethoscope" is a flat-out ugly fail. The darkness would be somewhat at odd with the rest of the album, but then again so is "Stethoscope", lyrically anyway -- "Clegg" is simply a more, shall we say, committed work, not something that sounds like it was dumped out at the 11th hour.