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Why Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd still remains captivating: ‘The Piper At The Gates of Dawn’ review

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Pink Floyd is typically thought as the transatlantic progressive rock powerhouse of the mid 70s – run on Roger Waters’ political commentary and David Gilmour’s sincerity. However, Floyd purists would probably have a fondness for the band’s original incarnation: Syd Barrett being principal songwriter, Richard Wright second in command, and Roger Waters just a bassist and multi-instrumentalist. 

When making their debut, Pink Floyd were students of psychedelic rock. They created a name for themselves in the underground scene with their entrancing live shows at the UFO club in London, and breaking through to the mainstream with terrific singles like ‘Arnold Layne’ and ‘See Emily Play’. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn proves to be the definitive statement of a band who were unknowingly reaching the end of a short chapter in their storied career. 

‘Flaming’ is gorgeously ethereal. Its lyrics can be read as a child’s inner monologue whilst playing hide and seek or a description of an idyllic drug trip

‘Astronomy Domine’ is a stunning opener. This track is one which typical Pink Floyd fans would find the most digestible given its space-rock atmosphere. Barrett’s poetry is exceptional, with lines like “the sound resounds/Around the icy waters underground” providing the lyrics with fluid grace. The band does a superb job in selling the song with the last leg being particularly impressive –  the harmonizing vocals accompanied by the increasingly intense instrumental work helps the song swell into a fulfilling conclusion, leaving the track worthy of its astral chant title. 

‘Lucifer Sam’, however, is a hilarious change of pace. This is the start of many instances where Barrett displays his whimsy and in this case, he releases his inner Ray Davies (of The Kinks fame). A Batman-esc riff propels Barrett’s musing over his “siam cat” and its poppiness makes this a standout. 

‘Flaming’ is gorgeously ethereal. Its lyrics can be read as a child’s inner monologue whilst playing hide and seek or a description of an idyllic drug trip. Verses such as “lazing in the foggy dew/Sitting on a unicorn” with refrains like “yippee! You can’t see me/But I can you” create a divergence in interpretation. Waters’ usage of the slide whistle and wind-up toys helps to cultivate a celestial and delicate air. 

The hypnotic track in ‘Chapter 24’ was inspired by the 24th chapter of I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination manual and book of wisdom. Here Barrett seeks to interpret its meaning and the song’s structure is perhaps the most accessible on the whole project. The song unfolds gracefully in its tranquil beauty.

However, the listener gets transported back into Barrett’s whimsical mind with ‘The Gnome’. Norman Smith’s production does well in portraying the intimacy of the song, with the acoustic guitar and vocals foregrounded only giving way to Wright’s celesta at the chorus. You can really get a sense of Barrett playing the role of storyteller, as if around a campfire, to a small group of obedient children. 

‘Bike’ is an eerie closer. Barrett’s poetic meter is expertly off-kilter and the instrumental is slightly clownish in an aesthetic which, tied together with a forthright song structure, provides this song with a perverse innocence. 

Barrett proves to be one of the high profile casualties of 1960s excesses

Nonetheless, the album does falter in the middle. The instrumental ‘Pow R. Toc H.’ is not terrible in isolation or following the greatness of the first four tracks. However, its close proximity to the disappointing recording of ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ renders it forgettable.

Speaking of ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, the live staple for Pink Floyd up to this point does not deliver in the studio. Its beginning and end are pleasant but the six-minute stretch in between sounds more like mindless noodling. You would have to be very under the influence to develop some appreciation for this composition. It would take several listens for an established Floyd fan to accept that Waters did, in fact, write ‘Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk’. It is definitely a song that very few would entertain more than once. 

Nevertheless, Pipers definitely makes it into Pink Floyd’s top five albums – top three depending on my mood. It is exemplary of Syd Barrett’s supreme talent as a songwriter and lyricist. Pink Floyd would never be as funny, innocent or poetic as this ever again. Barrett proves to be one of the high profile casualties of 1960s excesses, and it is with good reason that his work left an impression on seminal artists like David Bowie. It is no accident that it took several years for the band to find their feet after Syd’s departure

Pink Floyd were never known for their hooks and choruses so this project generally would be an intriguing listen for the common Floyd fan. Pipers does have shades of their musical trademarks (such as extensive instrumental bridges and an atmospheric sound) but all in the constraints of 60s psychedelic rock. It’s as much an LP as it is a legitimate historical document of British psychedelia – it contains all of its brilliance, madness and ugliness. It’s Pink Floyd at their most British and it’s a project that no real fan should miss out on. 

 

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