CK Retro Review: The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn by Pink Floyd

At the time it was released, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn was an innovative debut release from a young British band called Pink Floyd that created sounds so vivid and colorful that the entire Summer Of Love of 1967, into which the album was released, looked dim by comparison. Time and circumstance has turned it into the musical legacy of Syd Barrett, Floyd’s original frontman, whose drug and mental problems led to his dismissal from the group just a year after his release. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

11. Pow R. Toc. H-It’s the one instrumental here that gets a bit tiresome after a while. Rick Wright’s piano work in the early part of the song is the highlight, and a nicely moody ambiance is achieved at times, but the musical breakdowns aim for transcendence but come off bizarre.

10. “Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk”- The lone Roger Waters’ solo composition on the opening album achieves a brutal simplicity, at least in the early section, that predates punk rock by a good decade or so. It’s interesting to note that, as he would on future triumphs, Waters prefers a blunt melodic approach, but the difference here is his lyrics don’t pick up the slack.

9. “Flaming”- The pyschedelia here is so overdone that it’s almost feels like a parody. And maybe it was; Barrett certainly was self-referential in his songwriting long before that became all the rage. There is something vaguely threatening in the lyrics, the way Syd’s narrator floats high above those he’s addressing and speaks of touching them should the mood strike him.

THREE STARS

8. “Scarecrow”- Even Barrett’s minor songs were never less than fascinating, simple because he had a skewed point of view that other songwriters just didn’t possess. This little character study, distinguished by snake-charmer organ and clicking percussion, has an unforced loveliness to it. It feels a little like an unfinished sketch, which precludes a higher ranking, but it’s still charming.

7. “The Gnome”- Another sweet little song that carries a bit of menace in it, especially when the whispered backing vocals hiss out, “Isn’t it good.” This one has a little bit of John Lennon’s winking wordplay and Paul McCartney’s melodic ease, and a whole lot of the whimsy of Kenneth Grahame (the author of The Wind In The Willows, which inspired the title of the album).

6. “Matilda Mother”- This one would have had a higher ranking were it not for the out-of-left-field instrumental break, which shatters the mesmerizing mood (and sounds just like The Zombies” “Time Of The Season”, which was recorded in Abbey Road studios just a few months after this song), and the jarring edit which takes us back to the main section. Besides that, the contrast between the fairy tale portion sung by Wright and Barrett’s exhortations to the mother in the song to not let the reverie end is wonderfully inventive.

5. “Chapter 24”- Barrett’s fascination with the I Ching apparently inspired the lyrics to this dreamy tune. You don’t need to know any of that to appreciate the beauty in the way the melody soars all around the droning buzz that envelops the song. George Harrison couldn’t have done it any better.

FOUR STARS

4. “Bike”- Maybe it’s too unsettling for some folks to hear the manic vocals and the clocks-from-hell coda, considering how Barrett’s condition would deteriorate so quickly. That said, there’s something absolutely captivating about the way his synapses fire; it’s really unlike anything that rock music has ever offered before or since. And it’s also a truly unique way to end this album that was ridiculously ahead of its time.

3. “Interstellar Overdrive”- You really can’t go wrong with this or “Astronomy Domine” in terms of spaced-out bliss, but I prefer the latter slightly because it achieves the same effect in a much shorter amount of time. Still, this nine-minute set piece is marvelous, constantly morphing into new shapes, always eluding us when we get it in reach only to sneak up on us again just when we think we’ve lost it.

FIVE STARS

2. “Astronomy Domine”- First of all, it’s got one of the great titles in all of rock and roll. The instrumental structure is such that the song always seems to be climaxing; indeed it seems like Nic Mason only has toms and cymbals on his drum kit for the track. Some credit also should also go to producer Norman Smith for helping the band realize such an intense sound in the studio. The zombified harmonies of Wright and Barrett utter trippy lyrics that sneak up on you with their darkness (“Stars can frighten.”) It all coalesces into something that’s beautiful and harsh all at once. It’s an insult to the skill and craft on display to say that this music can only be enjoyed on drugs. All you need is a pulse to truly revel in its wonder.

1. “Lucifer Sam”- “That cat’s something I can’t explain” is still pretty much the universal reaction to Syd Barrett; here it’s his way of describing a mysterious Siamese who mesmerizes him. There is none of the whimsy of “The Gnome” here though; just an insistent spy-movie groove that adds something sinister to the feline adventures. The funny thing about The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is that, even though it doesn’t have the conceptual bent that the Waters-led Floyd albums would boast, it’s mostly impossible to listen to songs from Piper without the context of the entire album and still get the full impact. But you can with “Lucifer Sam”, the song where Barrett’s off-kilter storytelling perfectly syncs up with the band’s instrumental ingenuity and provides a glimpse of an alternate history: What Pink Floyd might have been like had Syd somehow managed to not get blown away by that steel breeze.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter. Check the links below for my books, which are based on material that originated on this site.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238

https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442230651

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One Comment on “CK Retro Review: The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn by Pink Floyd”

  1. John Mitchell says:

    First off, I am surprised that there has not been a lot of comment posting for one of the best bands of all-time. This may be due to the fact that the early Floyd albums are very avant-garde and most fans of Floyd are into the 1973 to 1979 period.
    I know it has taken me many years after getting into Floyd to finally get into the early stuff. I bought the Discovery box set about two years ago and I started to seriously listen to this early stuff, and now Jim’s latest series has put me into a Floyd listening frenzy the last couple of weeks with a focus on the early years.
    This album is one that I have listened to quite often over the years and now after a few recent spins appreciate even more. It is truly a unique album in the rock canon and a 5-Star Classic. The Floyd would never release another album like this for obvious reasons…Sid Barrett’s signature is all over this. And looking back after 14 albums it is not really a true Floyd album, but it is one of their most significant because it is truly a classic and it put them on the map and provided them a launching pad. The Floyd would not release an album of near quality until its 6th album Echoes and not surpass it until its 8th album – Dark Side of the Moon. That’s amazing…what band releases its best albums from album number 8 to 11? Most bands peak out way early.
    Obviously, Sid Barrett’s ousting from the band during the recording of the second album caused this. I believe with the benefit of hindsight this is probably a blessing. I think if Sid had kept it together, the band would have reached higher heights earlier, but I don’t think they would have become the rock giant they are considered today. If he stuck around, I think the Pink Floyd model would have been pigeon holed with the Syd Barrett model. Yes, they would have evolved, but the Pipers model was successful and I believed this would have bounded their creativity. Once he left, the others through the mother of necessity had to plow forward without a true dominant creative force, and everyone had an opportunity to experiment and grow. As a result, we got something even greater later. That said the early years without Sid have some really interesting moments and some great ones as well.

    My take on the songs from this album…
    2 Stars:
    11) Pow R. Toc H.

    3 Stars:
    10) Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk
    09) Interstellar Overdrive

    4 Stars:
    08) Flaming
    07) Scarecrow
    06) Chapter 24
    05) Bike

    5 Stars:
    04) The Gnome
    03) Lucifer Sam
    02) Matilda Mother
    01) Astronomy Domine


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