‘Fits in with my world’: 50 years of subjectifying Pink Floyd’s ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’

As a 60s scenester it is the cutting-edge sound of 1967, as a prog fan in the 70s the whimsical fluff from before the band got deep, and as an indie purist in the 90s the psychedelic masterpiece from before the band got corporate and bland… But who has the ‘true’ perspective on Pink Floyd’s debut?

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I’ve come to realise that any view I may hold on Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn depends, first of all, on what the hell version of it I subscribe to: the mono version, the stereo version, the Tower Records version that commences with ‘See Emily Play’, the Nice Pair version that features an eight-minute live rendition of ‘Astronomy Domine’, the 30th-anniversary edition, the ‘legacy’ edition, or the ‘discovery’ edition. It also depends on musical fashion and whether my current taste is for psych-rock, prog-rock, punk, post-punk, or maybe Britpop. But, most uniquely, it depends on how much I buy into the myth of Syd Barrett, in accordance with how I rate Pink Floyd’s strange and surprising – and often profoundly dull – pursuits without their founder vocalist and guitarist. This is all mixed in with what I assimilate from the mire of criticism that the album wallows in, from having been reassessed, reappraised and reconsidered to within an inch of its life.

Intrigued by the sheer impossibility of pinning Piper down, I set out in this post to illuminate just a sample of the wildly subjective viewpoints on the album that have amassed over the last 50 years, with the aim of demonstrating its fluctuating status within the rock world. To do this, I perform the daring feat of imagining myself into the minds of a succession of music fans at various different entry points to the record, showing how they each made it ‘fit in with their world’ (to lift a phrase from featured track ‘Bike‘). I start out, of course, as a listener to Piper during the fabled Summer of Love, when the vogue for acid-tinged rock properly took hold, going on to evaluate it as a convert to The Dark Side of the Moon in the early 70s, when it became de rigueur to scratch one’s head to more epic and conceptual sounds. I then consider – without the benefit of hindsight – the frequent rereleases of the album through time, as seismic Floydian shifts occur and my opinions get coloured by the latest media speculations concerning Syd Barrett and his ‘madness’. And then, as my visions become increasingly vivid, I prepare to offer a 2016 and 2017 perspective on this most enigmatic of albums.

August 1967

IMG_0631I have just bought the debut long-player, in mono, by The Pink Floyd, on the back of two mind-blowing hit singles – ‘Arnold Layne‘ and ‘See Emily Play‘ – and the group’s reputation as a spectacular live act at an underground club called UFO on the Tottenham Court Road. I’ve already been digging many of these trippy and crazy-sounding LPs that have broken through this year, actually, particularly the Jefferson Airplane one (Surrealistic Pillow) in February, the Jimi Hendrix one (Are You Experienced) in May, folky Donovan’s Sunshine Superman in June and, most amazingly, the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, also in June, featuring the far-out ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ with its Alice in Wonderland-style lyrics and that cool line about ‘the girl with kaleidoscope eyes’. All these records have a hallucinogenic vibe going on that I love, facilitated by state-of-the-art studio effects that sound fab on my Dansette record player. But this Piper at the Gates of Dawn sounds somehow darker and freakier, and just more deranged.

Opener ‘Astronomy Domine‘ straightaway takes you to a sinister new world (or worlds) with its echoing guitar chords that build against smashing drums, bleeps, wailing and disorienting organ wig-outs, IMG_0648accompanied by an exhilarating ‘shhhh’ sound. You then get these dreamy and whimsical songs scattered about, variously about a childish game, a scarecrow and a gnome, which definitely might sound twee were it not for the singer’s strangely languid and quite menacing voice. The surreal and ominous effect he creates is accentuated by the LP’s kaleidoscopic cover, which shows a multiple number of what is, in fact, a four-piece band (you can’t fool me, man) on a groovy fold-sleeve. Oh, and there is that title – another strange title for a rock album – which I recognise as a chapter in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows (1908), seeming to match the sense of nostalgia in many of the songs for a pastoral and mystical England. All in all, then, this is one head-exploding album and an absolute gas, making me wonder where on earth the band will go next!

September 1967

I’m now a guy who has just got a hold of Piper in new and wonderful stereophonic sound, which is a method of audio reproduction that I’m sure is IMG_0645going to replace mono very, very soon. You see, you get a separation of the sound into two channels, which creates more of a soundscape, perfect for this kind of album. Just check out the boss ten-minute instrumental track ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ for the full effect, the one with that shit-hot guitar riff and the out-there improvising, and witness the way the organ pans from speaker to speaker – thrilling! Also, check out the reverb effect applied to the whispers on the track ‘The Gnome’, which just totally gets under your skinin a way that wouldn’t in mono – being a whole lot more, well, psychedelic! So, believe me, this is how Piper should be heard and you’d be nuts if you didn’t go out and update your phonographic equipment accordingly, especially as the LP is getting such positive reviews in the music press. Record Mirror gives it 4 stars and says that ‘the psychedelic image of the group really comes to life on this LP’. Damn right! The NME also gives it 4 stars, while the US magazine Cash Box regards it as a ‘striking collection of driving, up-to-date rock ventures’. I’m also pleased to see it riding high on the Record Retailer album chart, currently at number 6, where it keeps company with Pepper, the now-solo Scott Walker, the Dr Zhivago soundtrack and the Best of the Beach Boys, as well as the bloody Sound of Music soundtrack which I’m sick of hearing (“I’m on sixteen going on seventeen” – aaargh!).

November 1967

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I’m now a US citizen (howdy!) who has come to the debut album by the Pink Floyd via a single I heard the other day called ‘Flaming‘, the first I have heard from this group, who are apparently quite the thing across the pond in what they are calling Swinging London, but who haven’t yet had any hits here. And what a very English and fairy-tale-like thing ‘Flaming’ is, all about floating on an eiderdown and sitting on a unicorn, with cuckoo noises going off in the background. It has similar fantastical imagery and hazy sound effects to ‘Lucy in the Sky’, which is no bad thing in my book. So, anyway, it was enough to make me go to the record store and pick up the LPIMG_0636, simply called ‘Pink Floyd’, which Tower Records put out last month. And on first listen, I can tell that it is going to be an absolutely phenomenal record, because it starts off with a track called ‘See Emily Play’, surely the most exciting psychedelic song I have yet heard, up there with ‘Paper Sun’, ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Eight Miles High’ and, hell, even ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, I reckon. What a tune! Any album that begins like this is going to be just awesome. And then…well, hmm, it is followed by a sort of shapeless instrumental thing with jazzy piano called ‘Pow R. Roch‘, which seems kinda odd, and not my idea of how to pace Side 1 of a record! But hold fire a minute, while I get the lowdown on this weird LP from the record-store guy…

Riiight, yeah, it turns out that this is actually a cheap and badly edited version of the UK release, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which IMG_0622makes total sense as that’s what it says on the back cover, which must therefore be the same artwork as on the UK release. So it seems obvious that the guys at Tower Records have done a hatchet job on putting this thing together, totally messing around with the track list, because ‘See Emily Play’ shouldn’t even be on there, and ‘Flaming’ should! There should also be ‘Astronomy Domine’ and ‘Bike’, which, I’m told, are pretty key tracks. What were they thinking?! I mean, Jeez, this record is obviously not what the band intended to put out. And look, instead of putting ‘Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk’, they have put ‘Take Up My Stethoscope’, while I can’t even be sure if it is ‘Pow R. Roch’ or ‘Pow R. Toch’ (as they’ve printed it both ways)! Proof that the people at Tower Records are absolute idiots, and it is no wonder that this record is only at number 131 on the Billboard chart. Shame. I’ll keep a hold of it, of course, but remind me to get the UK release of Piper by mail order ASAP.

October 1968

I’m now a guy who’s decided to give Piper a go after listening to the second Pink Floyd record, A Saucerful of Secrets (released in June), mainly because I’ve heard it is a whole heap more, well, tuneful! In a review in the current issue of Rolling Stone they complain about the absence of the singer/guitarist Syd Barrett on Saucer, who had previously displayed a ‘talent for writing as well as a not insubstantial ability to prepare special effects and production work’, whereas Saucer is ‘boring melodically, harmonically, and lyrically’. It also says that Barrett seems ‘either to have left the group or to have given up actively participating in it’. And yes, while I appreciate that the band is being hugely experimental here with these very long tracks that are full of weird sound effects, I do agree that it is all a bit of a dirge. And listening to Piper in comparison, it is obvious that Barrett had a hugely compelling – and melodic! – way of putting a song together, which the band now lacks, despite a new guitarist by the name of David Gilmour. It certainly makes me wonder what has happened to Barrett, especially as the one track he did write here – ‘Jugband Blues‘ – appears to speak (very politely) of severe alienation: ‘It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here/ And I’m most obliged to you for making it clear/ That I’m not here’. Let’s hope he manages to sort himself out for the next Floyd album.

April 1973

I’ve made a point of digging out a copy of Piper after having my mind seriously blown by Pink Floyd’s eighth LP The Dark Side of the Moon. I’ve had my mind blown by quite a few albums recently – Genesis’ Foxtrot, Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Pictures of an Exhibition, Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII – but this album is properly out there, man, and has understandably gone catastrophic. You see, it deals in big and complex subjects like death, madness, greed and the sense of waste inherent in the human condition, in a justifiably cinematic and epic way. (Sample lyric: ‘Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way / The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say’.) I just love the way all the songs seem to connect thematically, and how Roger Waters projects such angst into the singing, and the way Gilmour has this graceful guitar style, together with the amazing stereo effects and synths that sound majestic on my new music centre. They are all fine songs and not half-baked things like on the previous few Floyd albums. And they have compelled me, pure and simple, to go back and discover just how this hugely important band started out…

So I can’t help but be a little underwhelmed by The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. It all seems a bit daft and whimsical for my liking, after ‘Time’ and ‘Us and Them’, and with this Syd Barrett guy at the helm (who has since peddled a couple of solo albums that haven’t done anything at all). And it just sounds so lightweight and twee, and dated – so dated – with ‘Lucifer Sam’ coming across as some kind of cartoon theme, and ‘Scarecrow’ and ‘Bike’ being actually pretty annoying! (Sample lyric: ‘I’ve got a bike. You can ride it if you like’.) It’ll do as a curio, though, I suppose, and I’m pleased to add it to my record collection: the first Pink Floyd album.

December 1973

I’m now another of those US record buyers (how y’all doing?), with an inkling to discover what Pink Floyd did before they came up with the momentous The Dark Side of the Moon, particularly as the band are currently on tour over here. And luckily, Harvest and Capital have given me that chance by putting out this gatefold LP called A Nice Pair, which features the 60s LPs, from hippy days, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and A Saucerful of Secrets, both of which have long gone out of print. And who can blame them for wanting to remarket the band’s history a little bit?

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So yeah, erm, on listening to it, I find it all kinda confusing. Instead of having the band on the cover, you get this conceptual artwork with lots of visual puns, many of which I don’t really get, and one of which has been censored. And while it is great to be introduced to this era of Pink Floyd that features the singer Syd Barrett (who has retired from the business, I think), I don’t understand why there is the inclusion of an eight-minute live version of the song ‘Astronomy Domine’, which can’t have been on the original album, can it…?

No, I’ve checked, and the manifestation of ‘Astronomy’ included here has been lifted from Floyd’s Unmagumma album from 1969, because Tower Records messed up the release of Piper in the first instance, or something, and has tried to restore a few tracks. Despite this general confusion, however, it’s a pretty enjoyable and well-played piece of music – as is the whole four sides of this LP, which is now, I see, at number 33 on the Billboard chart. Yeah, I would basically say that it is okay, but it just isn’t Pink Floyd, if you know what I mean.

September 1975

I’ve had an urge to give The Piper at the Gates of Dawn a thorough listen after getting into the new Floyd album, Wish You Were Here, as it features a wondrous track called ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’. This is an epic, multi-part song (I love songs with parts!) which appears to put a new emphasis on the band’s founder, Syd Barrett, who has not been heard of for many years now. It paints him (or a symbol of him?) as a tragic hero, a true visionary and a deeply troubled and tortured soul. ‘You reached for the secret too soon’, Roger sings, ‘you cried for the moon’. Further, ‘Come on you raver, you seer of visions, come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine!’ There can be no doubt, from this, that Syd was some sort of Blakean figure when he made Floyd’s debut album, in the same boat, also, as Van Gogh when he painted his ‘Starry Night’, whose fate as a visionary was to suffer and to lose his mind: ‘Now there’s a look in your eye, like black holes in the sky’.

The song – so moving and so powerful – makes Piper all the more vital, in light of which we can read copious examples of Barrett’s creative genius. Look at ‘Astronomy Domine’ alone, which is akin to the poet Coleridge’s opium vision of ‘Kubla Khan’, though in a more interplanetary way:

Lime and limpid green, a second scene
A fight between the blue you once knew.
Floating down, the sound resounds
Around the icy waters underground.

Listening to this album now, it is clear that it is not just about some guy being off his head on LSD (as some people have told me), but about being given a window into the creative soul of a true prophet.

December 1979

I have just purchased a rerelease of Piper as a stereo vinyl album, it being high time this landmark work was given another airing.

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It was money well spent, because the record sounds very now, while Dark Side of the Moon and The shitting Wall, erm, don’t! I cannot be doing with all that proggy crap the Floyd have put out since Syd Barrett’s mental breakdown or drug overdose or whatever it was, with Roger Waters’ tedious songs about modes of alienation and Gilmour’s endless guitar solos. And I just haven’t got time for the ‘parts’ (songs should have one part, and that part should be a three-minute part – simple as that!). Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols is of course quite correct to wear a T-shirt bearing the slogan ‘I hate Pink Floyd’, because, really, who can be doing with all that po-faced doodling and so-called musical virtuosity. Syd’s Pink Floyd on Piper is, on the other hand, something I can get on board with. Syd is not musically skilled. He plays raw guitar. Listen to those serrated riffs on ‘Lucifer Sam’ and ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, and the frantic cut-and-thrust technique on ‘Take Up Thy Stethoscope’. He is punk. And he is at the helm of a punk band right here.

September 1985

I am now a guy very excited to have acquired The Piper at the Gates of Dawn on the new and shiny format of compact disc. I could have got Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, like everyone else, but decided to go for some 60s IMG_0633British psychedelia instead (which’ll really put my graphic equaliser through its paces!). Of course, as with anything in this digital format, you don’t get a sense of how the band paced side 1 and side 2, a shame, as it is just a straightforward sequence of 11 tracks. I mean – what next? – should we do away with dividing a book into chapters if new technology demands it?! But, boy oh boy, does this stuff sound fresh, not so different to the Teardrop Explodes or Echo and the Bunnymen or Robyn Hitchcock stuff that I have got into over the last few years. It certainly excites me more than anything Pink Floyd put out since the 70s – what a lot of AOR bollocks! And have you seen them live in one of those mammoth arenas they insist on playing? They look (and sound) like a bunch of middle-aged accountants! They also desperately lack a charismatic frontman like Syd Barrett, who I never tire of reading about in my magazines – my Melody Maker and my Record Mirror – as a guy who kicked down the doors of acceptability through the use of LSD while having a complete disregard for his own sanity – as well as massively cool hair! So I’ve got plenty of time for this here Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

October 1997

IMG_0644I’ve decided it is high time I appreciated Pink Floyd’s first album, given that it has been reissued for its 30th anniversary on CD (and, strangely, vinyl), allowing you to listen to both the mono and stereo version, as well as the band’s first three singles and B sides – all gathered together in a funky green plastic case! And I love it. It is basically the original Britpop, isn’t it, along with The Kinks and The Beatles – who Blur and Oasis are always spouting on about, or ripping off. In fact, I can see where Blur get most of their ideas from now! Their Leisure album sounds exactly like this, with all those songs about eccentric characters in the vein of ‘Arnold Layne’ (yes, yes, I know ‘Arnold Layne’ isn’t on the actual Piper CD itself, but it hardly matters). And the way Graham Coxon attacks his pedal board to get that psychedelic guitar sound is very Piper, the influence continuing up until the awful ‘Country House’ (that bridge section!). Meanwhile, the way people make fun of Radiohead for sounding like the prog-era Pink Floyd on ‘Paranoid Android’ makes it clear to me that the band who once played a gig to no audience at all at some ancient Roman amphitheatre is now widely regarded as something of a joke. But the Pink Floyd I hear on this CD is pure joy, and listening to it now helps alleviate the trauma I experienced at college of having to put up with a fellow student, with a pony tail, regularly blasting out The Dark Side of the Moon at 3 in the morning at the halls of residence I lived in. I swear, being woken up to the sound of ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’, with that banshee wailing away, used to give me severe palpitations.

September 2007

Right now I’m the guy to give The Piper at the Gates of Dawn a full and proper listen, because (1) I have just purchased it as a 40th anniversary ‘legacy’ edition, which includes an actual hardback book showcasing a reproduction of one of Barrett’s notebooks, a pink_floyd-the_piper_at_the_gates_of_dawn_a_4[1]mono and stereo mix of the album, the 1967 singles, B sides and alternate versions, and pretty much everything you could wish for! And because (2), it is clear to me now, like never before, that Pink Floyd are one of the most iconic British bands ever, made obvious by all the fuss made over them reforming (the ‘classic lineup’) for the Live 8 concert a couple of years back, which they dedicated to the absent Barrett. And also (3), because Piper has been making all the lists of best this and best that in recent times, such as number 40 in Mojo magazine’s ’50 Most Out There Albums of all Time’ in 2000. And one other thing, er (4), just look at the reaction to the death of Barrett in July 2006, aged 60, with all the stories in the newspapers about how he lived in a scruffy suburban house for most of his life and how he was, of course, a crazy diamond and how, according to the Schizophrenic Daily News, we should maybe now view him as having been a schizophrenic and as ‘one of the most legendary rock stars to develop a mental illness’.

I’m well into Piper now, then, because it is so legendary and because there is so much we can read into it concerning Barrett’s state of mind (I mean, surely all that atonal doodling on ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ is significant somehow). Moreover, I’m pleased to see the NME single out Piper from all of Pink Floyd’s ‘pompous, self-indulgent, joyless and big-selling’ records. They say: ‘no person in their right mind would ever want to listen to one of those albums all the way through, especially if there are kitchen knives or open windows nearby. Except this one.’ Happily, they call it the ‘most inventive and surprising psychedelic music ever recorded’. And Pitchfork further confirms my view that the Pink Floyd canon is an ‘AOR goldmine’, as they mark Piper out as having been an ‘auspicious start when anything was possible’.

October 2011

Unbelievable, I know, but I’m someone who still hasn’t got a copy of Piper, despite the endless the_piper_at_the_gates_-_2011-14491034-frntl[1]number of rereleases it has gone through and despite the unarguable status of the record within the canon of rock music. It’s going to be okay, though, as here is another chance to get it, as part of something called the ‘Why Pink Floyd?’ reissue campaign. And fortunately, I can get just the individual Piper CD from the ‘discovery’ box set of 13 studio albums, because I am not made of money, while I’m pleased to learn that it has been remastered and that it features a new 12-page booklet. In fact, I’ve heard that it has the biggest sound-quality improvement of all of the other reissues, while the booklet contains, as I have been intrigued to read, ‘an interesting picture of the band on what appears to be a demolition or construction site’. Good enough for me!

July 2016

Now I’m a guy delighted to acquire the Sony/Legacy vinyl reissue of Piper in its 1967 form, in the knowledge that the original record now appears to have come full circle and is being recognised as a truly hallowed thing (no need for lots of silly extras!). IMG_0634This is when Rolling Stone has rated the album at number 347 of its ‘500 Greatest Albums of all Time’, even though this venerable US periodical is still labouring under a serious misapprehension concerning the inclusion of one particular track: ‘The band’s debut is all playful, psychedelic imagery and acid guitars – both poppy (“See Emily Play”) and spaced-out freaky (“Interstellar Overdrive”)’. This is also when  Classic Rock Magazine has heralded it as ‘all the more compelling in light of Barrett’s subsequent breakdown and deterioration’, and when Chris Cornell in Teamrock has stated his preference for the album above The Dark Side of the Moon.

So I’m mega happy that I can now listen to Piper ‘as nature intended’, on durable 180-gram vinyl. You can’t beat the feeling of putting the needle on the record and hearing the fizz of ‘Astronomy Domine’ bursting into life in all its analogue glory. And across the whole LP, the sound is vibrant and fresh, the bass is punchy, and everything is well balanced. Special care has been taken to replicate the original packaging, too, which is great, though it is a bit strange that it isn’t really a ‘fold-over’ jacket, just the apparition of one (why not go the whole hog?!).

April 2017

And in the end, I’m one of those people who got up ridiculously early on this year’s Record Store Day and who was fortunate enough to pick up a limited-edition 12″ pressing of a previously unheard IMG_063915-minute version of ‘Interstellar Overdrive‘, recorded at the tail end of 1966 in what I believe to have been someone’s living room. It’s an awesome record and so much scarier and on the edge than the version on the Piper album, such that it forces you to reconsider that record, ahead of, I fully expect, the 50th anniversary edition in the summer. It is basically the sound of the Barrett-era Floyd in the raw as a live band, taking us on one hell of a psychedelic journey, as you’d have expected them to at the UFO club (just put on your own light show in your head). So you end up seriously questioning whether the band you hear on Piper is actually an accurate representation of what they sounded like back in ’66/’67. Did the producer, Norman Smith, put too much of his own mark on the record?

August 2017

Funny how I’ve not yet seen a 50th anniversary edition of Piper  – the ‘destiny’ edition, maybe? So what to say about it now? Hell, I don’t know. Let’s just say it is a ‘psychedelic classic’ and be done with it!

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8 responses to “‘Fits in with my world’: 50 years of subjectifying Pink Floyd’s ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’

  1. This is brilliant. A fascinating trawl through all the different versions. I came in around 2005 – believe it or not a youngish guy who worked behind the desk at my local library recommended it… I had never been a Floyd fan but wanted to know more about this Syd fella. I guess it would have been the original CD issue in stereo. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I was blown away and have been a giant Syd fan ever since – though haven’t changed my mind about post-Syd Floyd…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Much appreciated, Matt! You definitely do seem to get two different camps when it comes to Pink Floyd fans, don’t you? I’ve had my moments with the post-Syd Floyd, but never for long. Think I first got into Syd around 2005, too – from listening to Joe Boyd give a talk at the Green Man festival and then reading his excellent book.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting take on this classic album. I did my own WordPress review recently, though it lacks your imaginative angle. I first heard it in ’77, from “A Nice Pair,” and it sounded like it had been recorded during the time of King Nebuchadnezzar. The older I get, the more I appreciate and admire Barrett. Like Van Gogh, he was a talented but tormented artist, and a mystery who will always fascinate people.

    Liked by 1 person

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