Review of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
[completed July 1967]
Astronomy Domine
Lucifer Sam
Matilda Mother
Pow R Toc H
Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk
Interstellar Overdrive
The Gnome
Chapter 24

   This must be considered Pink Floyd's "debut" album, even though they had already placed 2 singles on the UK charts, and those two aren't on this album.  That is significant, because Pink Floyd seems to be saying right from the beginning that they saw a definite distinction between their "hits" and their "music". (for those two songs, see RELICS)   They had also been a fixture for some time at the UFO club, where they were honing their skills at songwriting and instrumental experimentation (with varying degrees of success).  At the time, the band was driven by the artistic vision of Syd Barrett, and displays an interesting tendency toward experimentation while remaining, at the core, essentially a late-60's psychedelic band.  Much of the music makes you want to dig out the old bell-bottom pants and paisley shirts.  It is indicative of a band very influenced by the LSD culture.
   Pink Floyd here is still primarily "song" oriented, with only one track being over 5 minutes long.  Ten of the 11 cuts on this album could have been released for radio play, but only one of them was.  If you are a fan of 60's psychedelic rock, you should find this album both historically interesting and musically pleasing.  It is not the hard-driving acid rock of Jimi Hendrix, nor is it namby-pamby 60's chart music, like Crimson & Clover or Mellow Yellow.  Ironically, given the distance of time that (hopefully) allows us to view this music more objectively, many of these tracks are far better musically than those that did make the charts in 1967.  Still, you should not be misled into thinking that this is typical Pink Floyd.  Though most of the elements are here, this album is as different from the Floyd of 10 years later as it is from Beethoven.
    The album title comes from The Wind in the Willows, and most of the songs seem to have a childlike nostalgia woven into them.  This is a major theme of Syd's work in the early years, an apparent fascination with fairy-tale settings and concepts.
   This album is a contemporary of "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" by the Beatles, an album which the Floyd found very motivating.  Interestingly, listening to that album enables one to see how rapidly the Beatles were developing in comparison to the Floyd, but that rapid development may also have been partly responsible for the impending breakup they would suffer.  Perhaps the Floyd's more deliberate pace of growth allowed the band to grow together for awhile, rather than apart.  Even though the band eventually did split up (as all creative rock bands seem to do) their greatest music was still ahead of them.

    Astronomy Domine is the sort of song you'd expect out of a "Space Band", as Pink Floyd was widely thought at the time.  It has an interesting free-form tune, one of the few by Pink Floyd that you can actually hum.  I often think that the lyrics here were a sort of poetic experiment by Syd, not being written so much to communicate a particular idea as to set a certain mood through rhyme, alliteration, and rhythm.  The ambient "Cape Canaveral" sounds {CPFS} here are very appropriate.  A very underrated tune, it came out quite differently when they recorded it live for UMMAGUMMA.
    Lucifer Sam could have been an Evil-Hollies tune, with it's deep guitar sounds and high chorus lines.  Syd obviously is too worried about this cat, but it's still a catchy 60's song.
    Matilda Mother takes a slower, hollow approach to Syd's childhood.  You can almost imagine his mom reading him bedtime stories, which he interprets in his own slightly-twisted way (as we all do).
    Flaming begins as a short experiment in feedback and vocal noises, then turns into a pretty silly song, that really doesn't fit in well with the other material on this album.  It's really pretty dumb.
    Pow R Toc H is the sort of space jam instrumental for which the Floyd was famous at this time, but it begins with a tropical-sounding set of vocal effects that seem to have come from a "George of the Jungle" cartoon.  This melts into an easy-going piano blues with pounding drums, and then just gets pretty weird.
    Take Up Thy Stethoscope & Walk is Roger Waters' first foray into songwriting, encouraged by Syd, so what do we get?  Mostly a bunch of guitar plucking by Syd (either foreground or background).  The early lyrics seem to be another experiment in how many words we can find to rhyme, and could have been written and recorded by any of about twenty 60's bands you'd recognize.  It shows none of Roger's later poesy or anger, and is pretty much uninspiring.
    Interstellar Overdrive had been in the Floyd live repertiore for a long while by the time it was put on vinyl (this was 'way before CD's kids).  It begins with an interesting guitar line that causes me to wonder about the direction a "normal" band would have taken.  Pink Floyd turns it into an extended collection of instrumental noises that sometimes connect, and sometimes don't.  The band recorded two separate tracks without necessarily planning their connectivity, then simply laid one upon the other. {CPFS} (This makes for an interesting experiment - listen to the tune once with only your left earphone, then once with your right, and finally with both together.  Hmmmm.)  It ends with a return to the early guitar line slightly modified, and Syd playing with the balance knob, to make the sound jump from  ear-to-ear, resulting in a dizzying effect.
    The Gnome represents another Syd voyage into childhood thoughts, and comes out much like Lucifer, Matilda, and Scarecrow.  It may be connected to some piece of literature I'm not familiar with, (who the heck is "Grimble Gromble"?) but it's pretty forgettable in any case.
    Chapter 24 seems to have derived all its lyrics from a bunch of fortune cookies (or perhaps the I Ching), and like the preceeding number, lets Syd's voice do most of the melody, while the instrumentation simply holds the piece together.  It may be artistic, but it's not really deep philosophy or great music.
    Scarecrow is much like the previous two in construction, but contains an interesting attempt by Syd to cram as many words into a lyric as he possibly can.
    Bike strikes my musical funny bone in just the right way.  It's both interesting in lyrical construction and musical formula.  It makes me laugh regularly, and exhibits an excellent combination of instruments, lyrics, and ambient sounds.  Though it sounds similar to much other 60's music (and similar to much of the other work on this album), it has its own special qualities that only Pink Floyd could have produced.  Syd has a really unusual collection of toys in his "other room".

   Syd was feeling very artistic on this album (as was his wont at the time), and Roger tried out one tune, but it is my feeling that this album helps us see that, if Syd had remained mentally healthy, the Pink Floyd that we see later would never have existed.  I do not believe that Syd would ever have been willing to allow the other members to stretch their creativity in the ways they eventually did; stretching which led to DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, their greatest composition. Still, this album is an excellent view of the Floyd of '67, and enables us to further appreciate the journey taken by the band in later years.
    The greatest irony here is the cycle of drug use and musical creation that inevitably begins with hope for new vistas and invariably ends in disaster.  Syd, through the use of LSD, has experienced "highs" that he wants to share with his audience.  He writes music in which he tries to communicate that "high" to his audience.  Since they are unable to grasp the full concept, the audience decides that IT must be high in order to enjoy the experience fully.  Being high, the audience misses the point of the music altogether, leaving Syd feeling unfulfilled.  When the cycle continues, Syd tries harder to go "higher" in order to achieve the effect he's been missing, and winds up with music that just plain stinks.  Sadly, the audience neither realizes that the music stinks, nor that they have helped destroy Syd through their ignorance.  In the end, everyone loses.
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