Incorporating The Music Fix
24th October 2003 05:00:00
Posted by Eamonn McCusker

Pink Floyd - The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn

Named after the seventh chapter in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind In The Willows, where Ratty and Mole search for a lost animal but find instead the god Pan, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn was Pink Floyd's debut album and recorded after long residencies at such late-sixties counter-cultural clubs as UFO, where their extended versions of psychedelic space-rock jams had attracted the attention of EMI, who signed the band and gave them a producer and three months of recording time at their Abbey Road studios in 1967.

Whilst there is likely to have been times when both Pink Floyd and The Beatles were recording within the same building - Sgt Pepper's... was also be recorded at this time and Nick Mason recalls meeting The Beatles during the sessions for Lovely Rita saying, "It was a bit like meeting the Royal family" - the two albums represent two clearly separate strands of English psychedelia, with The Incredible String Band being a third. For unlike its US counterpart, which tended to be rather more serious about its mood- and mind-altering recordings - witness Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and the like - English psychedelia was content to mix lighthearted references to fairies, blue meanies and other nonsense with its lysergically-charged rock, taking as great an influence from the helpless laughter of tripping as much as following the trail one's hand leaves in the air.

Yet even within this grouping, whilst Sgt Pepper's... struggles to break free of The Beatles' history as a pop group, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn has no such concerns and from its opening crackle of radio chatter on Astronomy Domine, Pink Floyd's debut sets it sights on a distant orbit whilst wearing dandy outfits from Granny Takes A Trip and piloting a spacecraft as designed by Magic Alex.

It's fitting, therefore, that the two songs that provide the foundations on which The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn sits are the aforementioned Astronomy Domine as well as Interstellar Overdrive and that, unsurprisingly, both songs were revisited on other albums (Astronomy Domine on the band's later Ummagumma and an earlier, longer version of Interstellar Overdrive the soundtrack of Tonite Let's All Make Love in London). At this stage and despite the success of pop singles Arnold Layne and See Emily Play, Pink Floyd were marking themselves out as a band that could not only enjoy success with popular singles but could also deliver 'proper albums'.

The actual sound of the album is much more raw than you may expect and anyone looking for an album of eleven songs akin to Mercury Rev's mescaline-drenched Sweet Oddysee of a Cancer Cell To The Center Of Yer Heart would be advised to look elsewhere. Instead, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn was influenced as much by straight rhythm'n'blues as it a sound developed by the band with Syd Barrett's guitar playing, in particular, being much less affected than, say, Jimi Hendrix's. Indeed, were it not for Rick Wright's keyboards and the occasional space given to Barrett's singing - most evident on Astronomy Domine and Interstellar Overdrive - there would be little here beyond those two tracks to suggest the space rock for which Pink Floyd became increasingly famous for - a reputation that the band's next album, A Saucerful Of Secrets, and particularly its third track, Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun, would do more to reinforce than The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.

Where the album does stand out, however, from those that might be considered its peers is in its more experimental and quirky moments. In The Scarecrow, for example, being the album's second last track, Barrett sings of a scarecrow that stands in a field that, while depressed, actually accepts its fate by the song's close. Pink Floyd's backing of organ, clopping rhythms and acoustic guitar give the song a gentle folksiness that belies the description of space rock. Finally, while these is humour throughout the album - note the 'Doctor Doctor' backing chant that opens Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk - the album's finest moments are to be found within its closing track, Bike. Opening with a melody that crashes downwards, Barrett offers the listener the use of his bike, which he says has, "a basket, a bell that rings and things to make it look good" before remembering that he only borrowed it and that, after such a vivid description, the listener can't have it after all. Barrett then describes a cloak with a rip in it, a mouse he knows called Gerald, a clan of gingerbread men that he owns and, finally, admits that as the singer in a band, he knows a whole room of musical tunes into which he urges the listener to visit with him to get them to work. Bike ends on such a simple notion - of the singer inviting the listener to come closer to their work - that it almost slips by unnoticed but with a backing that highlights the band's experimenting with sounds, it does more to close The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn off from what Pink Floyd would follow it with than any other song on the album.

The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is a remarkably apt name for this album as there is as much of a sense of the unreal here as there is in The Wind In The Willows. In among the bits and pieces of space-rock that one would expect, there is a much greater amount of the same English whimsy that produced not only Kenneth Grahame's playful novel but also the Cottingley Fairies and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. With Barrett gone, not even Pink Floyd could repeat the music on this album and Roger Waters, having assumed the role of leader, took as his template the sounds of Astronomy Domine, Interstellar Overdrive and Pow R. Toc H. rather than The Gnome, The Scarecrow and Bike. Whilst this strategy would produce great songs - Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun, Echoes and One Of These Days, for example - Pink Floyd would never again find such an individual voice until Waters started to write about Syd Barrett rather than like Syd Barrett and which would take Pink Floyd to the enormous successes of Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall.
Track List
Astronomy Domine
Lucifer Sam
Matilda Mother
Flaming
Pow R Toc H
Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk
Interstellar Overdrive
The Gnome
Chapter 24
The Scarecrow
Bike
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