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CLASSIC ’60s: Pink Floyd – ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’

Influenced by: Sun Ra, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Kinks, Roy Harper, William S. Burroughs, The Velvet Underground, The Doors

Influenced: King Crimson, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Mike Oldfield, Genesis, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Can, Neu!, Kraftwerk, XTC, Kate Bush, The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, The Orb, Smashing Pumpkins, Spiritualized, The Boo Radleys, Blur, The Verve, Super Furry Animals, Mansun, The Beta Band, Sparklehorse, Neutral Milk Hotel, of Montreal, At The Drive-In, MGMT

Hailed first as a psychedelic rock formation, and later as progressive rock legends, Pink Floyd conquered British music, during the ‘70s most notably, and went beyond the artistic standpoint of what was thought possible, considering the time of their inception. Sure, groups like The Beatles and The Beach Boys were shapeshifting the means behind, what was then, traditional pop music in 1966 with the releases of Revolver and Pet Sounds respectively. However, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, released a year later, was in another galaxy, let alone sounding unlike pop music or any other Earthly constitution. The bottom line is that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, together with The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn changed rock music forever in 1967. Moreover, The Beatles and Pink Floyd were recording Sgt. Pepper and Piper at Abbey Road Studios in adjacent recording rooms. How did these albums rise from almost unforeseen circumstances? Drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. It was the Sixties, after all.

Pink Floyd came about from two sets of friends. Roger Waters (vocals and bass), Richard Wright (keyboards) and Nick Mason (drums) all met each other whilst studying for an architecture course at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London. Syd Barrett (vocals and guitar) and Waters had already met at The Cambridgeshire High School for Boys in 1957. In addition, Barrett met future Pink Floyd member David Gilmour five years later at Cambridge Technical College. In retrospect, Waters was the middle man. In Mason’s well-received book Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd, Mason talks about the first time he met Barrett. He was “unfashionably outgoing; my enduring memory of our first encounter is the fact that he bothered to come up and introduce himself to me” – no surprises there then.

MORE: The Beatles // Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at 50 years old

In 1964, the band formed but would not be definitively known as Pink Floyd for another couple of years. They went by numerous names including The Screaming Abdabs, Sigma 6, The Meggadeaths – yes, I know, what were they thinking? – before eventually settling with Tea Set in 1965 but then changing to the Pink Floyd Sound later that year, a name derived from blues musicians Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.

If the band were to receive any kind of publicity, the haven/mecca was of course London and so they moved there. Although Britain’s post-war austerity and rationing ended in the ‘50s, the country didn’t boom, as it were, until the ‘60s. The stereotypical flowery, make-love-not-war, anti-establishment hippie subculture started to become engrained in society. And then we come onto a drug craze of this subculture: lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD. This potent hallucinogenic drug subjects the user into an artificial state of consciousness and euphoria – users refer to this experience as an ‘acid trip.’ Why is this important? The group, and Barrett in particular, took a lot of LSD and, being attributable as the driving force behind the band’s sound at the time, it’s no wonder why The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn sounds like it does and why the forgery of psychedelic rock was conceivable.

In March 1966, Pink Floyd would regularly perform at the infamous Marquee Club’s Spontaneous Underground and soon established connections with future mangers Andrew King and Edward Jenner and went on to found Blackhill Enterprises together (their short-lived music management company). Their notoriety increased forthwith with additional concerts at All Saints Church Hall and the IT party at the Roundhouse. As a result, they landed themselves every Friday night at the UFO in December 1966, a club co-founded by Joe Boyd, who later recorded Piper’s psychedelic centrepiece ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ with the group.

EMI later signed the group and ‘Arnold Layne,’ the band’s first single, was released 11th March 1967 and hit #20 in the charts. Amusingly describing a cross-dressing transvestite stealing female underwear off washing lines, the single was banned by Radio London because of its societally far-removed nature (according to them). Their sophomore single ‘See Emily Play,’ unveiled June ‘67, projected the Floyd further up the charts to the #6 spot and gave them their first appearance on ‘Top of The Pops’ in July ’67 when, a few months ago, they could not before for ‘Arnold Layne’ because the song had dropped several positions in the charts. David Bowie fans will be familiar with his (appalling) version of ‘See Emily Play’ from his 1973 covers album Pin Ups.

While the band had no free studio time, as well as lousy royalty and budget deals, they could write and produce anything they wanted – that freedom is seldom-seen and borderline unthinkable by today’s music industry’s modus operandi. The middle track ‘Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk,’ written by Waters, showcases this freedom. Judging by the biblically-inspired lyrics “Jesus bled / Pain is red,” a morbid, painful affair is envisioned. After the first round of lyrics, all the band members go on a musical rampage with Wright’s keyboards grabbing the attention from Barrett’s guitar and Water’s basslines. Mason’s drums entail a freestyle spirit, much like that of Mitch Mitchell from The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

The 10-minute ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ is one of the most ambitious instrumental psychedelic tracks to have ever been bred. Barrett’s signature ‘60s-esque guitar tone kicks things beautifully into tempo but does not take long for the track to evade into something even more profound. Think of this track as a visual-to-musical conversion machine for anyone on LSD. Thanks to automatic double-tracking (ADT) being used extensively throughout Piper, tape delay and natural doubling effects create the tracks indefinable, echoic atmosphere. It is that sense of playfulness and humour, which is often not borne out in the music that’s sometimes dissonant and frequently chaotic, that makes The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn such a restless and unsettling experience as a listener.

‘Pow R. Toc. H’ is the second of the two instrumentals featured on the album. The introduction is made strange by Barrett’s peculiar, onomatopoeic vocals but then Wright’s bluesy piano playing intervenes with majesty. Like ‘Interstellar Overdrive,’ the ADT interlopes again creating more drug-infused instrumentation. The opening track ‘Astronomy Domine’, which has no clear meaning but a deep extra-terrestrial concept, was certainly coagulated by LSD. Barrett’s guitar playing in the middle of the song is one of the premium moments on the album. ‘Lucifer Sam’ proceeds this with a catchy descending guitar riff, backed up harmoniously well by the background organs.

Barrett and Waters are not the only two members to dispense vocal content on The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Wright gets his chance on ‘Matilda Mother’ within Barrett’s story-telling childhood memories (“Oh mother / Tell me more”). ‘Chapter 24’ showcases Barrett’s interest in the ancient Chinese divination scripture I Ching. Most of the lyrics are translated directly from the text (like “A movement is accomplished in six stages”) that revolves around cleromancy, or outcome by chance – goes to show Barrett can be sophisticated and mad at the same time. Also written for Jenny Spires, closing track ‘Bike’ goes off on a tangent about a bike, a mouse called Gerald and gingerbread men, all of things. If it were not for the line “You’re the kind of girl that fits into my world,” as in a world of LSD-induced hallucinations most probably, the track would have been nonsensical concept-wise. Then as Barrett takes Jenny to a “room of musical tunes,” the remaining minutes of the album depict chiming clockwork and mechanical workings.

Soon after the release of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Barrett’s LSD intake increased dramatically (as if he hadn’t taken enough already). The band members started to worry as Barrett started have a myriad of problems that included schizophrenic episodes like mood swings, memory lapses and forceful hallucinations. During their tour with Jimi Hendrix in late ’67, Barrett’s condition became evermore obvious with abnormal stage antics which, ironically, the audience sometimes enjoyed. Despite this, the vox populi is that Syd Barrett’s writing on The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is largely responsible for the Floyd’s epitomising success in years to come.

Let’s talk more about Barrett. Although his final contribution to Pink Floyd’s catalogue was their fractured, dark second album A Saucerful Of Secrets, whose themes seem to allude with his disintegrating mental state in 1968 (particularly the harrowing ‘Jugband Blues’), Syd’s reputation as a cult hero remains truly enormous. Having been ejected from the band, he recorded two rather extraordinary solo albums both released in 1970, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, before disappearing from public life pretty much entirely. Though a rarities/odds’n’ends compilation Opel was released in 1988, nothing else ever issued forth from his creative brain. Half a century later, and more than a decade after his death, Barrett still has massive appeal as an icon for alienated outsiders, his often whimsical and unabashed compositions reflecting a doomed wish to re-capture the innocence of childhood. Early promotional pictures of Pink Floyd and Barrett show a waif-like gentleness in his features and disposition; in retrospect, perhaps simply not designed for mainstream society.

While various unconfirmed stories about the extent of the damage he did to himself through LSD usage have always flown about, his story is undeniably a deeply sad one, underscored by his brief appearance in Pink Floyd’s control room as they were recording Wish You Were Here in 1975 when they were international megastars and, spookily, just as they were rehearsing ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, a track very obviously about Barrett himself. Having gained considerable weight and with a shaved head, it took the group several minutes to cotton on to the fact that it was Syd and, when they did, some of them were driven to tears at the dishevelled sight of their former bandmate. He left without saying goodbye, and none of the band saw him again, from that day until his death in 2006.

The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, however, is indisputably Barrett’s masterpiece, and there’s little doubt that he was the prime driving force behind its restless creativity. But put next to virtually all of Pink Floyd’s subsequent catalogue, it sometimes seems like the work of a different band altogether.

Considered by many to be Floyd’s magnum opus, The Dark Side Of The Moons insanity and mental state themes were partially inspired by Barrett. However, the aptly-titled Wish You Were Here album, particularly both parts of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ with Gilmour’s classic four-note despondent guitar melody, was a heartfelt tribute to Barrett and his guiding-light, sacrosanct impact. Although The Dark Side Of The Moon is a revolutionary album in its own right, Wish You Were Here feels like a highly personal album to the group – an album that one would listen to for abject pleasure rather than for the sake of it being revolutionary. Gilmour and Wright have both stated that it is their favourite Floyd album despite all the arguments during production.

MORE: Pink Floyd // Wish You Were Here at 40 years old

After the late ‘60s, there was never a massive recrudescence in psychedelic rock but the sub-genre would evolve into heavy metal during the ‘70s. Black Sabbath’s debut, arguably the first ever metal album, has various similarities to the year of the Summer of Love’s psychedelic classics like Disraeli Gears and Are You Experienced. The Piper At The Gates Dawn was the album that verged towards chaos rather than love. As Pitchfork writer Joshua Klein wrote back in 2007: “Where The Beatles exerted complete control over the tools of the studio, Pink Floyd used the studio to lose control.” Originally foreseeing themselves as a pop group, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn rendered Pink Floyd as anything but and brought about unutterable and irreversible pandemonium to the world of music.

Listen to The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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