The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (reissue) – Pink Floyd
It is a foregone conclusion that there had never been an album quite like Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn when it dropped onto acid-drenched turntables forty years ago. Hence, the new mono/stereo reissue packaged with a bonus disc of early Floyd singles and alternate tracks, recorded before frontman Syd Barrett’s depressing departure due to mindless incompatibility between muse and reality.
Much has been made of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club’s Band and The Beach Boys’s Pet Sounds, which also appeared during this surreal span of the ’60s. However, neither have the bizarre extraterrestrial gravitas of Piper because, where John Lennon and Brian Wilson rode the Electric Acid Trip into the nether regions of triple fantastic multi-folding burrito dimensions, they came back from their spectacular mind fuck trips. [Or, at least, Lennon did. — ed.] The same cannot be said about Floyd frontman, chief songwriter, guitarist/singer Syd Barrett — a sad and tragic loss to acid and alleged genetic schizophrenia. His corporeal death last year only seemed to be a strangely sobering anti-climatic formality.
That isn’t to say that Floyd’s legendary debut was better than either the Fab Four or the post-pseudo-Surf King’s output. And yet, much of the release of this 40-year-old audio dynamite totem has to be listened to within that historical framework. What is really interesting that the music and lyrics and general weirdo spasmodic chutzpah of these snooty Brit art college cum architectural students still holds up. This music hasn’t dated because no one had ever heard music without much of a central iconic sensory force like this in 1967, nor has there been anything since that can quite melt the brain with such amateurish professionalism gone mad. Swinging London? Nope. Try Swallowing London.
These are all wildly long, chaotic sentences that bump from one to the other without any sense of a future. Therein lies the secret of Piper. What at first appears like absolute loopiness blossoms and expands like a sombrero galaxy. Huh? The opening and closing songs are crazoid Floyd bookends which serve to foreshadow the Barrettless Floyd years that would follow: “Astronomy Domine,” with its heavy guitar rave-up freak-out, and “Bike,” the album coda which appears to echo most of Roger Waters’ future obsession with mindless activity circumventing the artistic process. Waters needed therapy; Barrett — especially in the jagged glee of childlike yet eternally adrift cosmos of his lyrics — needed much much more and he certainly wasn’t going to find it on this planet.
The following three songs after “Domine” are a trio of delights that Barrett appeared to be able to do in his sleepthese are the real caretakers of his sad soul as the listener then drifts into the mid-section of the disc and finds Floyd providing three massive nearly instrumental meltdowns that feature keyboardist Rick Wright at his all-time spookiest on the beloved and bedeviled Farfisa organ. After the middle freak out, Piper swims back into the Barrett current of a trio of songs that no longer border childhood and sanity. This is pure, unadulterated madness but at such a genius level that the songs lift the work above almost anything crafted in the last 40 years. Again, “Bike” closes the album. Like the opening salvo, it drifts over a deluxe acid landscape but this time, apparently, Barrett got too close and the concluding minute of the song almost appears to detonate the first complete mental breakdown on record.
Barrett would soon exit the band — they just chose not to pick up their former leader for a gig since he didn’t seem to want to play their time-and-spatial reindeer games anymore, anyway — and further proof that Piper contained his artistic zenith and psychic downfall can be evidenced on his two solo albums which appeared within the next four years. He never recovered and, sadly, neither did the genre he helped create. Piper ignited an underground zeitgeist that morphed into the fey and pouncy world of early ’70s progressive rock.
Ironically, many of the seeds of the far more successful post-Barrett Pink Floyd were planted on Piper. Some of the bass licks Waters layers underneath the swirling cacophony would appear on Animals and The Wall. Percussionist Nick Mason and keyboardist Wright also appear to drop hints of victories soon-to-be-made on future soundtracks such as Obscured by Clouds and other seminal works like Meddle. They would, indeed, supplement these initial offerings with victories born within the hallowed universe of Piper. However, Wright especially never sounded more sinister than in 1967. His organ runs are tasteful and downright demonic. Sometimes, one isn’t sure if it is the lyrics that are driving Barrett crazy or the combination of acid hits and Wright keyboards.
The decision to listen in mono or stereo, obviously, is a personal choice and depends on one’s frame of reference and mind. To think that the ultra-modern Floyd were once recorded in mono seems absurd but the mix is every bit as hauntingly magical in its original narcotic beauty. The bonus disc includes singles that were not featured on Piper but complete the Barrett-era quite nicely: the twin pop landmarks, “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play,” as well as “Apples and Oranges” and “Candy and a Current Bun” (originally known as “Let’s Roll Another One,” but the title was changed due to record company pressure) and Wright’s debut songwriting credit on “Paintbox.” A second take of “Interstellar Overdrive” is also included. Much like many previously unreleased but bootleg-available versions, it is a true original mindbender — each journey reaching beyond the mind and celestial ether, seeking something else entirely that one cannot quite comprehend. Perhaps, that will always be the Syd Barrett legacy. May we all have such determined ambition without the tragic residue of a life spent chasing elusive daydreams.