[6 December 2007]
This three-disc set raises a few old questions and, rather pleasingly, may not provide a definitive answer to any of them. For a start there is the old argument about whether or not the work of the original Pink Floyd line-up is preferable to the later Barrettless version. Then there’s the debate about whether marking this kind of anniversary is an opportunity to reassess cultural artifacts or a marketing opportunity to endlessly flog repackaged music. Lastly, listeners can decide whether Piper at the Gates of Dawn should be heard in stereo or mono.
It’s hardly news to note that Pink Floyd’s debut was dominated by Syd Barrett’s vision. He explored poetic, pastoral, and philosophical concerns with a gleeful simplicity that still resounds with joy and integrity. He continued the group’s instrumental experimentation by, amongst other things, the innovative use of tapes and an approach to guitar playing using the echo box and cigarette lighter. He also caught some of the flamboyance and musical seeds blown from the West Coast of the USA. It should be noted, though, that due in part to their wild light shows and enveloping volume, his Pink Floyd bore more resemblance to The Velvet Underground than any band from the psychedelic hippie scene.
He came, saw, conquered, and decided to go home. But when Barrett wrote, “you’re the kind of girl that fits in with my world”, no one knew that the girl who would really fit in with his world would be his mother. Her typed note to him is the most poignant and substantial part of the small booklet include here that is constructed from some of his journals. It’s an ordinary message, but the reference to his real name, the mention of her having paid ten pounds into his account, and the invitation to take a trip to the seaside together are all genuinely touching.
By contrast, some people may conclude that the best thing about Barrett’s lyrics is not their vaguely Learesque rhythm and rhyme but rather that they are just meaningless enough to have withstood the cruel gaze of deconstruction. Yet his words and vocal style unquestionably match the structurally liberated music. Many artists owe a debt of sorts to his avant-folk and space-rock blueprint, not least Algarnas Tradgard, Hawkwind, Robyn Hitchcock, Spaceman 3, and Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Meanwhile, set the controls for the heart of your bum. If nothing else, this anniversary release is a great reminder of how certain music magazines, Q and Mojo spring to mind as the chief culprits, risk disappearing up their own arses with their persistent rehashing of stories about popular artists who once kicked down the doors of the permissible. Pop will eat itself. So it’s 40 years since this album was released. Who cares? Well, some fans will already have snapped up this anniversary release, despite having previously owned much of the music before in vinyl, cassette, and CD forms. The 1967 singles, b-sides and a few other alternate versions are included, and it is always a treat to hear “See Emily Play”, but in the context of the history of Pink Floyd the collection seems a miserly gesture. Releasing James Guthrie’s remastered mono version as a stand-alone album, on CD and vinyl would have been a better tribute worthy of a 9 or 10 on the old PopMatters-o-meter.
Gripes aside, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is still a huge sonic thrill that lives up to its legendary reputation, especially in mono. “Astronomy Domine” remains a touchstone of blissed-out space-rock and the cool and detached Pink Floyd may never have sounded more down and dirty than on “Lucifer Sam”. At times the keystone piece “Mathilda Mother” tips into a weird frenzied whiplash rhythm somewhat incongruous for an appreciation of the joy of being read to by mommy. While Syd Barrett’s influence on the group never completely vanished and indeed his legend even became the essence of some of their material, this debut album contains much that echoes in their future work.
The languid hum and chime of “Flaming” has a pastoral feeling akin to later tracks like “Fat Old Sun”. Likewise, on “Pow R.Toc H.” there is a joyfully exaggerated separation of voice and instrument as well as some of the stretched out exploration that the group would harness, on Atom Heart Mother and elsewhere. Traces of mad wailing on the track would be extrapolated for pieces such as the fabulous “Careful with That Axe, Eugene”. Without a map and a time machine it’s hard to prove, but the glorious, rushing, spacey, noodling “Interstellar Overdrive” may have spawned the entire Canterbury scene and most of what has come to be known as Krautrock. Certainly, it still sounds powerful and must have seemed absolutely vital in 1967. During “Chapter 24” the fact that Barrett’s lyrics mention “darkness is increased by one”, may please those who study both the Book of Revelation and the conspiratorial fuss surrounding the number 23, probably much more than it should.
Anyone who has any interest in the sheer excitement of popular music should hear or rehear The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, but there will always be those who prefer the Pink Floyd after David Gilmour replaced Syd Barrett. It can be argued that Gilmour, an old school friend of Barrett, had a graceful and economic style which helped the group to a sleeker, better defined, more cinematic and spacious place. Apparently, for a time Gilmour had to play while Barrett glowered from the wings or stage front. However, the replacement guitarist would later assist with the ex-leader’s solo records and personally ensured that he received royalties up until his death, at which time his estate was calculated at $2.5 million.
Explanations of Barrett always fall short. To borrow one of his own lyrics, “that cat’s something I can’t explain”. It suits the music industry to depict him as an acid casualty and recluse (see Bruce Robinson’s undeniably glamorous and sympathetic portrayal of a remarkably similar figure in the film Still Crazy). Recently, though, one of Barrett’s sisters has contended that he never received medication for mental health problems. She told of his solo train rides to see art exhibits in London, shorter trips to Anglesey Abbey, and his love of flowers, gardening, photography, and painting. For years rumors would surface that he was dead or even bizarrely that he had faked his death! These were untrue and more to the point, whatever he fled or was rejected forty years ago, Roger “Syd” Barrett did not fake his life, either.