Pink Floyd - The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn

by John Plowright Rating:10 Release Date:1967-08-04
Pink Floyd - The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn
Pink Floyd - The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn

If ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ had included ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, as might well have been the case, then it would undoubtedly be held in even higher esteem. Similarly, if Pink Floyd’s first album ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ (coincidentally recorded at the same time as ‘Sgt. Pepper’ at Abbey Road), had included ‘Arnold Layne’ and ‘See Emily Play’ it would certainly be an even more beloved album. The original US release included ‘See Emily Play’ but at the cost of removing ‘Astronomy Domine’, ‘Flaming’ and ‘Bike’. Reference here is therefore to the original UK release.

Just as The Beatles were put into suits and ties and made to bow at the end of performances by Brian Epstein, so Pink Floyd made compromises for commercial reasons when they, too, were poised on the brink of stardom. In their case this meant obscuring drug references (so that ‘Let’s Roll Another One’ became ‘Candy and a Currant Bun’) and curtailing the length of some of their songs. Thus ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, which was recorded in a 16:46 minute version for Peter Whitehead’s ‘Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London’ (aka ‘London 1966/67’), was pared down to 9:41 on ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’.

Outer space also features on ‘Astronomy Domine’ the first of the eleven tracks of ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ (which takes its name from Chapter Seven in Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’) and the first of eight penned solely by Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett. He tells us that “Stars can frighten” and we hear of a “Stairway scare” but the mock Morse emanating from Richard Wright’s Farfisa is not tapping out a Major Tom distress signal as the general mood is rather one of exhilaration than anxiety, most obviously evident in the childishly infectious descending “Ooh-ooh-ooh-oohs”. Indeed, the tin can which the Floyd’s joyful flight of fancy most strongly evokes is Lennon and McCartney’s Yellow Submarine, with Peter Jenner on megaphone rather than John Lennon.

‘Lucifer Sam’ is an ode to a Siamese cat whose presence “I can’t explain”, although its name and its constant attendance upon Jennifer Gentle, who’s identified as a “witch”, strongly suggests that he’s her familiar - an animal shaped spirit or demon - a surmise supported by the sinister descending riff which provides the song’s hook. Given that the Jennifer in question was Syd’s then girlfriend Jenny Spires she’s presumably to be understood more as bewitching than as practising black magic. Given the two magical paths should we read anything into the fact that Jennifer is identified with the left and Lucifer Sam with the right? Probably not - it is just a wonderfully atmospheric song which is ultimately as mysterious and unwilling to yield its secrets as any cat.

Childhood, or more precisely a nostalgic yearning for childhood, is one of the central themes of psychedelia, at least in its British form, which reaches its classic expression in the ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’/‘Penny Lane’ double A-sided single, and ‘Matilda Mother’ shows Barrett wistfully evoking that “once upon a time” when a mother’s fairy stories to her young child about “a king who ruled the land” held him enraptured. Syd’s seductive journey of memory is not summoned by a Madeleine dipped in tea but conjured rather by remembrance of his mother’s perfume in a darkening room but is nonetheless enchanting and, like the child of the story, leaves one wanting more.

Full-blown psychedelia really kicks in with ‘Flaming’ with the song’s subject variously “sitting on a unicorn”, “sleeping on a dandelion” and “travelling by telephone”. How does one explain the song’s title? ‘Flaming’ is derogatory slang signifying a gay person whose homosexuality is clear because of their wardrobe and/or flamboyant behaviour. Although Syd was straight he may well, like many men in the sixties wearing their hair long or dressing unconventionally, have been branded a “queer”. In calling his song ‘Flaming’ is Syd playing with the notion that the men in suits are clueless (“You can’t see me/But I can you”; “you can’t hear me/But I can you”) and flirting with the idea of repressed homosexuality (“I won’t touch you/But then I might”), on the grounds that it “takes two to know”? Fanciful speculation? Possibly. But what could be more fabulous - or phallic - than “sitting on a unicorn”?

‘Pow R. Toc H.’ is an equally obscure title but at least in this case one can be sure of at least part of its origin, Toc. H being the British Army signaller’s code for Talbot House – a club opened at Poperinge in Belgium in late 1915, as a place where soldiers could meet and relax regardless of rank. Although Roger Waters is credited with having taken the lead, all four Floyd members at this time (Barrett, Waters, Rick Wright and Nick Mason) are credited with having written the track, which is mostly a Pow R-ful if highly idiosyncratic instrumental, featuring vocals (Barrett’s anticipating beatbox) but no lyrics.

Waters has sole writing credit for ‘Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk’, a colourful way of saying ‘Physician, heal thyself’. We don’t quite get “Moon/June” but we do get “June/bloom”. In other words, there’s very little evidence here of Waters’ later lyrical dexterity but plenty of his song-writing ambition and commitment to the band’s well-placed faith in free form freak-outs.

The instrumental ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ was allegedly based on the chord pattern of Love’s ‘My Little Red Book”. Attributed, like ‘Pow R. Toc H.’, to all four Floyds, this exploration of outer space is as disorienting a bad trip as the one depicted in ‘Astronomy Domine’ was a blast, although the last sixty seconds or so does a very good job of powering down and resolving things musically. Its ‘spacey’ feel is partly attributable to the fact that one complete version of the track is superimposed upon another.

‘The Gnome’, the story of Grimble Grumble, sees Barrett reverting both to childish fantasy and to his beloved internal rhyme, sometimes achieving three rhymes in a single line (“Wining, dining, biding … Hooray, another way for gnomes to say”). It’s a song about as substantial as the “haze of candy floss” (to use a later Floyd lyric) but has a certain naïve charm.

Just as Lennon’s ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ quotes ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’, so Barrett’s ‘Chapter 24’ quotes from ‘The I Ching or Book of Changes’ or, to be more precise, Richard Wilhelm’s 1924 translation of Chapter 24 of the text, entitled ‘Fu/Return (The Turning Point)’. The song and original are closest in the first verse, which is repeated near the end. The original ‘I Ching’ passage reads as follows:

“All movements are accomplished in six stages, and the seventh brings return. … seven is the number of the young light, and it arises when six, the number of the great darkness, is increased by one.”

‘Chapter 24’ is no ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (very few songs are) but it succeeds as literally sunshine pop, with a glow of spiritual profundity.

At just 2 minutes and 11 seconds ‘The Scarecrow’ is the album’s shortest track and is chiefly worthy of note because it illustrates Syd’s tendency (shared with Lennon) to adopt a very flexible approach to bars in the interests of serving a song’s mood, which is here one of quirky meditation on identity, or rather its absence (“His head did no thinking”).

‘Bike’, the album’s last song is, like Syd’s cloak, “a bit of a joke”. Humour is very subjective and there’s no surer way of killing a joke than having to explain it. At least one commentator - Toby Manning - has expressed the view that had Barrett not been evicted from the group it is hard to imagine him continuing to produce whimsical exploits like ‘Bike’ without the appeal soon fading, although Paul McCartney’s career, with songs including ‘’When I’m 64’, ‘Your Mother Should Know’, ‘Honey Pie’, ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ and ‘Uncle Albert’ suggests that this need not have been the case. Paul’s ‘English Tea’ even addresses the issue of tweeness directly.

Nevertheless, Manning’s remarks raise an interesting point, namely, that it is virtually impossible to view ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ without reflecting on Syd’s sad fate, whether it was drug-induced or whether acid merely brought out a pre-existing disposition to self-destruct. Waters, Wright and Mason are very much more than Syd’s backing group but his character, sensibilities and talents shaped early Floyd to such a degree that it is difficult not to see ‘Piper’ as ‘his’ album and thus to view it as a memorial to the effective loss of a major talent.

‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ is clearly a great first album. Although very much of its time, with its psychedelic fusion of Eastern religion, acid and attachment both to the certainties and mysteries of childhood, its originality is without question. Its wasn’t until their third UK album that The Beatles weaned themselves from reliance on songs written by others and even that step proved temporary, whereas Pink Floyd’s very first album was entirely authored by its members.

Allusions to The Beatles have run like a thread throughout this review and there’s one last reference with which I’d like to end. ‘Bike’ and thus the ‘Piper’ album ends with a looped duck call which bears more than a passing resemblance to the “Never could see any other way” (forwards) or “We’ll all be magic supermen” (backwards) of the inner groove of ‘Sgt. Pepper’. Maybe as a former audio engineer of The Beatles, Norman Smith, the ‘Piper’ producer, not only managed to get them into the studio to meet The Beatles but also informed them about, or even enabled them to have an early hearing of, the ‘Pepper’ run-out groove. What is beyond dispute is that an endearingly quirky and very English sense of humour is one important component in helping to make ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ a classic album.

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