#253: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Pink Floyd
When I first saw Pink Floyd’s debut on the RS Top 500 Album list, I kind of assumed it was bullshit. Like, I didn’t know a single song. Not every great artist has their reasonably-good debut included. So what gives?
Syd Barrett, is the answer.
I was knowledgeable enough about the Pink to know that Syd Barrett was important enough to be mythologized, but not enough to know what role he played in the band. I didn’t realize he was their original frontman, or that he departed the group shortly after this record (which was his creative baby) was released. Well, kind of. Everyone was too afraid to formally kick him out, so they just sort of stopped inviting him. (To be fair, it sounds like they were in the difficult position of dealing with a coworker that was going through a mental breakdown.)
And when I listened to it — I don’t know. It’s not that I think this is necessarily one of the greatest albums ever — I just think Syd Barrett was maybe a brilliant songwriter who made weirdo music that struck me right in the frontal lobe.
The RS blurb quotes Barrett as saying that he was full of “dust and guitars,” which is a beautiful sentiment. And that’s exactly what the album sounds like. “Astronomy Domine” is a freaking meditation on dust and guitars, and “Lucifer Sam” is surfer rock with a mystery-flavored tremolo riff. The tremolos were just one of the things that make it technically impressive (especially for 1967), even when the lyrics are insane, like on “Take Up Thy Stethoscope.” (Don’t listen to that doctor, by the way.)
I was mesmerized throughout, even though it was a bit befuddling to hear an album like this in context of the two uber-famous Pink Floyd albums we’ve already heard. “Matilda Mother” sounds nothing like the gloomy, discordant Floyd on Wall (#129), more like Led Zeppelin sung in the style of The Who. “Flaming” has wolf noises and clock noises, just like Pink will later on, but it’s soft and playful. “Pow R. Toc H.” is silly scatting over jazzy piano. Imagine Roger Waters scatting Doy doy! on Dark Side (#55).
My favorite is when they really go off the rails, like on “Interstellar Overdrive,” a nine-minute instrumental that’s dedicated to being weird. “The Gnome” and “The Scarecrow” were so pleasant it kind of made me want to quit my famous band and become a gardener. And just when you think you’re content, “Bike” comes in like a demented circus clown, reminding you that you’re gardening in hell.
For what it’s worth, Barrett wasn’t a rock and roll casualty — he lived until 2006, gardening and painting and living off of Pink Floyd royalties until passing away of pancreatic cancer. It sounds like a sweet life. I wonder if he ever played Piper for himself, or if that music felt very far away.
Least Favorite: “Chapter 24” is a bit too long, also this isn’t a book.
Favorite Tribute To Syd Barrett: “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” which is coming up! See you on Wish You Were Here (#264) Syd Barrett!