Counterbalance No. 99: Pink Floyd’s ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’

Pink Floyd
Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Klinger: I do not, as a rule, care for the music of Pink Floyd. I find their spacy noodlings tiresome, their concepts leaden, and their fixation on the many shades of Roger Waters’ alienation to be a complete drag. When last we discussed Pink Floyd, when Dark Side of the Moon showed up on the Great List, I believe I may have started to come around on that album, but I’ve since come to realize that that was a low-grade case of Stockholm Syndrome, and I have sought the appropriate professional help in the intervening months. (Thank you Dr. Steinfarb and the helpful staff at Tri-State Deprogramming Services!)

And yet I state without reservation that Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Pink Floyd’s 1967 debut album, is an absolutely terrific record. I’d heard bits and pieces of it over the years, but my overriding disdain for the Floyd kept me from ever really digging in. These past couple weeks, though, I have enjoyed this album tremendously. It’s such a perfect evocation of post-mod, early-psychedelic Swinging London that I can’t help but be swept away by it. Obviously it’s all down to the fragile genius of Syd Barrett, but I can’t help there might be more to it than that. Any thoughts there, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: I can’t stand this record. I don’t enjoy the post-mod, early psychedelica that is so evocative of the Swinging ’60s in London, I can’t get passed the obtuse, hardly sung lyrics, and I am in complete agreement with you about their spacy noodling—tiresome. I also don’t understand the whole “fragile genius” of Syd Barrett. This record sounds like it was recorded by a raving lunatic (and it was). I’m not trying to make light of Barrett’s struggle with mental illness, it’s a serious issue, but I don’t enjoy his musical ramblings.

And I feel a little conflicted saying that because, as I have stated before (and this will haunt me for the rest of my life), Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is the perfect rock album. I relieve myself of this conflict by merely telling myself that we are really listening to two separate bands: the Syd Barrett Pink Floyd and then the David Gilmour/Roger Waters Pink Floyd, which would later split as well. This isn’t the same band we talked about before. This is a mistake, a typo on the great rock ‘n’ roll canon.

Klinger: I have no idea what you are talking about, but at least your assessment—that these albums are the work of two separate bands—saves us from the tedium of having to talk much about Dark Side of the Moon. Except I will say that the spaciness of Piper at the Gates of Dawn is all about the discovery of uncharted territories, blasting off into new frontiers. Dark Side of the Moon sounds more like the languorous drifting and floating that happens once you get there. Maybe that’s a function of when they were recorded as much who was at the helm at the time. But “Astronomy Domine” has that blast-off feel that makes it more than mere noodling, and from there the album keeps pushing forward.

Plus I can’t help but be drawn to the very English sense of whimsy that’s shot through this record. This Pink Floyd is a group that wouldn’t take itself too seriously—even sourpuss Roger Waters makes silly noises in “Pow R. Toc H.”, and he contributes a nifty little psych-rocker in “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk”. If it all gets a bit noodly at times, it all seems to be done in the right spirit. And so I say to Piper at the Gates of Dawn-era Floyd: Noodle on, you crazy diamonds. And I say to you, Mendelsohn, that maybe you need to get into the groovy spirit!

Mendelsohn: Don’t use the word “groovy”. It immediately conjures images of Mike Meyers’ Austin Powers, which inevitably will lead to me thinking about all of the terrible sight gags that were packed into that movie and then I start to think about a certain point in the movie where he goes to very great lengths for a joke about an anatomical enhancement device. And then I find myself wondering when those devices were invented and if that joke is historically accurate but I don’t want to Google it for fear that somebody might find it in my search history. And this little rambling tangent turns into a nice analogy for my thoughts on Piper: Pink Floyd is all on the same stage but they don’t seem like they are all on the same page.

I can appreciate that sense of invention and discovery exhibited throughout Piper at the Gates of Dawn — it is a rare commodity in rock music — but with this record it sounds like each member of Pink Floyd is discovering something different and, unfortunately, they are all doing it at the same time. I want to like this album, Klinger, but as I’ve grown older, my tolerance for Pink Floyd has dropped from everything they’ve ever done to a select few years. Namely just 1973.

Klinger: OK, you might have to unpack some of this stuff for me a little bit further, because I don’t think I’m fully understanding it, and I never got around to seeing Austin Powers. I realize that there are a lot of disparate bits coming together here, from the straight ahead (and nicely Peter Gunn-inspired) rock of “Lucifer Sam” to Richard Wright’s jazzish piano bits in “Pow R. Toc H.”, to the space jam of “Interstellar Overdrive”, but to my ears it all sounds to be of one piece.

Unless you’re spooked by gnomes, Mendelsohn, I really don’t see what your issue is, other than Piper doesn’t sound like that one Pink Floyd album you like (for some reason).

Mendelsohn: I am spooked by gnomes. My wife used to collect garden gnomes and place them around the house. She has since moved out of that decorating phase into something much more tasteful, but then the gnomes migrated to the basement so whenever I needed to do something in the workshop they would all stare at me. I finally worked up the courage to throw the last one out, only to see it be rescued from the recycling bin by my son who now sits next to it while watching TV. Thoroughly spooked, Klinger.

The disparate bits that comprise Piper at the Gates of Dawn are the things that make it toughest to swallow this record whole. This is a debut album, so I’m going to be a little more forgiving about a band trying to find its way, but there are a lot of disparate bits that don’t mesh well. It was a problem Pink Floyd faced for several years before they figured out how to bring it around starting in Meddle and finalizing it on Dark Side of the Moon. The bits that I appreciate the most are the things that found their way out of Pink Floyd’s discovery mode into their regular repertoire. “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive” are the best examples, with their spaced jams and heavy feedback, but then we hit songs like “Gnomes” and “Chapter 24” and “Bike” and I’m left wondering how this band was even allowed to record another album. I think this album sounds far too organic. When it comes to Pink Floyd, I expect the guitars but I also expect other worldly, interplanetary soundscapes backing them up. I don’t get that with this record. All I hear are a bunch of kids plinking at their strings and hitting their instruments on stuff to see what kind of noise it will make.

Klinger: You may be the only person I know who uses the word “organic” in a pejorative sense. But the thing you find so grating in the songs you mention are, to me, the pastoral folk elements that were as much a part of British psychedelic music as blues was in the US version. It was sometimes more buried than overt, but it was a factor and Piper at the Gates of Dawn uses it to great effect here. Sure it’s a little heavy on the whimsy, but I rather have that than the self-seriousness that plagued Floyd’s later work.

Regardless, though, your disdain for Piper because you like Dark Side of the Moon so much is a little like saying With the Beatles is terrible because it doesn’t sound like Abbey Road. Especially when you figure that the group essentially became a completely different animal once Syd Barrett took leave.

Mendelsohn: I don’t dislike Piper at the Gates of Dawn because it doesn’t sound like Dark Side of the Moon. I dislike it because it’s full of things that I don’t like to listen to, namely: post-mod, early psychedelica, pastoral folk, gnomes. Those things just aren’t my bag, baby. The fact that the band who recorded this record would later turn into the band that recorded Dark Side of the Moon is almost a non sequitur in my mind. And do I really have to ask this next question? If Pink Floyd hadn’t turned into that other band that recorded Dark Side of the Moon, if Syd Barrett hadn’t taken his fragile genius and rode off on his bicycle with his gnome to reside with the Astronomy Domine, would we even be having this conversation? I don’t think we would. Piper at the Gates of Dawn would just be a long forgotten gem from the Swinging ’60s, spoken about reverently in closed circles. And that would be a shame because then you wouldn’t be able to find a way to connect with Pink Floyd and I would have to pick another album to bestow the title of “World’s Greatest Rock Album”.

Klinger: And I would have to find something else to disagree with you about. Plus ça change, Mendelsohn. Plus ça change.