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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Pink Floyd

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (40th Anniversary Reissue)

Review by Julie Knispel

Pink Floyd in 1967 was a completely different musical beast than the band most people came to know and love in the 1970’s. Most of this was due to the genius (and insanity) of founder member Roger Keith (Syd) Barrett, the mastermind whose childlike innocence and penchant for psychedelic hook writing would rocket the band to the forefront of the British pop scene during the spring and summer of 1967. While most people rightly consider the band an album group, crafting lengthy conceptual pieces, the early Pink Floyd was just as much a singles group, crafting several UK top 20 singles. Already a bit of an underground sensation, the group convened in Abbey Road studios in February of 1967 (at the same time the Beatles were creating their psychedelic masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) to record what many consider the very first true psychedelic rock album, The Piper At The Gates of Dawn.

Barrett would leave the band under difficult circumstances in later 1967, but his presence would continue to be felt for the rest of the group’s career. Whether it was the groups’ efforts to ensure continued royalties to him founded through reissues of his early work (A Nice Pair, 1971, the inclusion of “Astronomy Domine” on both Ummagumma, 1969, and P.U.L.S.E., 1994) or the writing of a 20 minute epic that drew inspiration from their former bandmate’s meteoric rise and fall (“Shine On You Crazy Diamond”), Barrett was always there in spirit, if not flesh.

2007 marks the 40th anniversary of Piper’s release, and the band has spared no small expense to ensure it gets the deluxe reissue treatment it deserves. The album is currently available in two distinct formats; in wide release, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is available as a 2-CD set, containing the original UK mono LP mix as well as the UK stereo mix most people are familiar with from reissues and the initial 1987 CD release. A deluxe edition is also available, in cloth hardbound book binding, containing both UK LP mixes as well as a third CD featuring all 1967 non-album singles and B-sides, as well as several alternate versions and EP mixes not available on CD previously. This deluxe package also includes an enlightening reproduction Syd Barrett notebook, filled with collage art and sundry other bits that provide insight into Barrett’s creative process.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2007 Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Disc 3
Arnold Layne
Prior to the release of Piper, Pink Floyd released this song as a first single. Originally recorded with American expatriate Joe Boyd, an attempt to re-record the track was made with album producer Norman Smith. The single, as released, featured the original Joe Boyd recorded session, and famously was banned by Radio London for its disturbing lyrical content. The banning did not keep the track from becoming a success, peaking at number 20 on the charts. The lyrics tell the tale of a transvestite who would steal women’s clothes from the washing lines of neighbours, and according to Roger Waters, both his and Barrett’s mothers were victims of this felon.
Candy And A Currant Bun
Much like “Matilda Mother,” this song exists with more than one set of lyrics. Unlike “Matilda Mother,” the alternate version of this track, titled “Let’s Roll Another One,” has yet to see official release, although it exists on several bootleg sets. The B-side to “Arnold Layne,” the lyrics are a thinly veiled series of vignettes about summer love in the most physical sense, juxtaposed in disturbing ways against fairly innocent, childlike scenes. Interestingly, while Barrett was forced (this time by the record label) to rewrite the lyrics due to their obscene content, he was able to slip in an uttered “f***,” making this one of the first instances of the expletive on a hit single.
See Emily Play
Originally titled “Games for May” and debuted at the festival of the same name, this was Pink Floyd’s second UK single. Building on the success of “Arnold Layne,” “Emily” was more popular by far, peaking at #6 on the UK charts while scraping the bottom of the US charts at #134. The song is incredibly poppy and melodic, quite unlike the Pink Floyd most listeners were familiar with at the time. Barrett supposedly argued against the release of this track due it its commercial nature, fearing it would pigeonhole the band as a singles group rather than a collective of serious musicians and artists. Despite this, the song remains a glistening, near perfect pop piece and a relic of a distant, different time.
Apples and Oranges
Pink Floyd’s third single, “Apples and Oranges” would be the final single written by founder Barrett. Never released in the US as a single, the song failed to chart even in the UK. As a song, “Apples and Oranges” begins to show the fragmented connection between Barrett and the rest of the group, and heralds his more fractured songwriting style that would evolve during his solo years. The track is patchy and sounds nothing like the Pink Floyd that recorded Piper or the previous two singles. The single was originally released in mono format, though a stereo mix could be found on an obscure European compilation album in 1970. The stereo mix is now available on this 40th anniversary collection.
Paintbox
Richard Wright’s B-side for “Apples and Oranges” sees the band exploring some territory more familiar to listeners, as the song feels much like later Wright compositions such as “Summer ’68.” Strummed acoustic guitar and long Mason drum fills create a summery musical feel, while Wright’s lyrics explore anti-establishment and anti-social themes. Light and jazzy, “Paintbox” is a grossly under-appreciated part of the Pink Floyd canon, and deserves far more recognition and play.
Interstellar Overdrive (French EP)
Released as part of a special French EP in July 1967, this take on “Interstellar Overdrive” is almost half the length of the original album version released on Piper. Featuring slightly different instrumental takes, a shorter mid section and a fade before the final slowed iteration of the introductory melodic theme, the result is like a time compressed acid trip rather than a leisurely ascent into space and gentle return; more an out of control rocket ride that fades from view than a planned flight.
Apples And Oranges (Stereo Version)
The stereo mix of “Apples and Oranges” derives from the same sessions and tracks used for the eventual single release. Separation is fairly basic; while the stereo mix of “Interstellar Overdive,” by comparison, would utilise wild panning and effects, the stereo mix of this track is far more basic and mundane. It also lacks some of the punch and presence of the final mono mix that would fail as a single.
Matilda Mother (Alternate Version)
Musically, this version of “Matilda Mother” is much like the album versions. The divergence can be found in Barrett’s lyrics, which crib liberally from Hilaire Belloc’s “Cautionary Tales for Children,” which features a rather naughty young lady by the name Matilda with a penchant for telling mistruths. Originally planned for release on Piper, Belloc’s estate withdrew permission for Barrett to use the intended lyrics, resulting in a hasty rewrite. It’s an interesting experience to hear such familiar music with such wildly different lyrics, and while the eventual album release’s lyrics are perhaps more original, hearing how the song was initially intended offers insight into the evolutionary songwriting process. 
Interstellar Overdrive (Take 6)
On 16 March 1967, Pink Floyd’s studio work included a series of takes of “Interstellar Overdrive.” All were approximately 5 minutes in length, save for a single aborted take. This version, labeled as “take 6,” dates from those sessions. This take is a bit more aggressing in opening, with a thicker sound and much less emphasis on space. Almost punk music when compared to the nascent space rock the band would become known for, “take 6” is again a wonderful opportunity to gain insight into how this minor Pink Floyd classic developed into its final form.
Discs 1 and 2
Astronomy Domine
While Pink Floyd has always had music that explored, literally and figuratively, the depths of outer space, the opening track on their first album was one of only two to have a title or lyrical content evoking outer space themes. With opening narration from manager Peter Jenner speaking out star names and coordinates through a megaphone, the song takes its astronomical themes seriously. Using strange (for its time) chord progressions and healthy doses of echoplex, this piece was psychedelia distilled into its most basic aural form. “Astronomy Domine” would feature in the band’s performances through 1971, with scattered performances on the band’s final tour in 1994. “Astronomy Domine” benefits from its stereo mix, as Barrett’s descending echo guitar shifts from channel to channel, while electronic whooshes and swirls in the left channel give way to keening guitar in the right. Sadly, the stereo mix would vary wildly from track to track on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, with some odd choices made (or often, ignored) that limit the album’s impact when compared to the more widely available mono mix at the time of release.
Lucifer Sam
Titled “Percy The Rat Catcher” early in the song writing process, this Barrett composition is built around yet another descending chord sequence, with Barrett’s guitar fed through several echoplex units. Richard Wright’s organ lines are deep in the mix, rising up every now and again to make their presence known. Jennifer Gentle, name checked here, is Jenny Spires, Barrett’s then-girlfriend, while Sam was their Siamese cat. The stereo mix features drastic panning of instruments, with guitar, drums and bass in the right channel, with Barrett’s vocals high in both channels, while the original mono mix is a bit more forceful and powerful.
Matilda Mother
This song appears three times on this boxed set. The album version, best known to listeners, opens with an organ and bass interlude, while Barrett mostly refrains from playing chords throughout the song, layering single note lines and arpeggios throughout. Wright’s organ solo is fairly intense when compared to the rest of the song, run through a bit of distortion to match. The track ends on a simple waltz beat with wordless vocal contributions from Barrett and Wright. The stereo mix for this track allows the vocals a bit more distinction, with echoes and whispers of the main vocal line heard in the right channel, while the organ solo pops a bit more when separated from the wordless vocal backing. Despite this, the stereo mix is still very basic and fails to take advantage of the benefit an additional channel of audio can provide.
Flaming
Wild jungle animal sounds and an ominous distorted organ chord lead into a jaunty keyboard and bass driven Barrett original. Barrett’s lyrics are again innocent and playful, relating a series of games and adventures enjoyed by friends. It’s easy to meta-analyze the line “travelling by telephone” and imagine it as a reference to things such as the Internet, but it’s just as easy to think of it as talking to friends in far away places, which is far more likely. Very little differentiates the stereo mix from the mono mix in this case, and all the standard caveats apply here; basic separation of instruments, which allows individual instrumental parts to have perhaps a bit more individual presence, but at the expense of the song’s overall punch.
Pow R. Toc H.
This composition is the first of two instrumentals on the album, and is an early look at some styles the band would explore more fully on later albums. The piece is more jazz than rock oriented, with a feel that can be described as “jungle-like.” The title is non-sensical, although Toc H. is signaler code for a military house called the Talbot House, where officers and enlisted men could meet as equals. This piece would remain, sporadically, in the band’s live set through 1969, re-titled as “The Pink Jungle” as a part of their extended suite The Man and the Journey. The stereo mix here shows some promise, as vocal parts shift from channel to channel on each utterance, while guitar and keys are panned back and forth about 2:40 in. Instrumentally, however, the decision to simply pan bass and guitar to one side, piano and drums to the other shows the general lack of interest in exploring the audible space afforded by discrete left and right channels.
Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk
This piece would be Roger Waters’ sole vocal track contribution on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (he was also credited, along with the rest of the band, on the album’s two instrumental tracks). This piece shows none of the depth or lyrical cynicism that would drive Waters’ more renowned works later in his career. Repeated chants of “Doctor, doctor” lead into each line of lyrics, which feels more like a stream of consciousness list of images than anything coherent. Barrett’s guitar skitters and jumps all over this track, mirroring the schizoid lyrical content. The stereo mix of this track shows slightly better use of both channels, with “Doctor, doctor” separated between the two channels, while the instrumental break features Richard Wright in one channel dueling with Barrett in the other. This track’s stereo mix is perhaps the best on the album.
Interstellar Overdrive
This is the second track on Piper to have a space oriented theme, though this time in title only. “Interstellar Overdrive” was the band’s first extended instrumental opus, clocking in at a hefty 9:40. The distorted descending chord sequence that opens the piece is as much fun to play as it is to listen to, and the slowed iteration that closes out the track is every bit as ominous as it is powerful. The extended mid section verges on free form jazz, showing the exploratory spirit that drove Pink Floyd even in its earliest days. The stereo mix features some of the wildest and most extreme panning in channels known to man, and listening to the end of the song on headphones is a recipe for vertigo, as instruments shift left to right so rapidly that dizziness is bound to ensue.
The Gnome
This happy child-like piece segues from the preceding blast into outer space, and how more complete could the contrast be, shifting from a careening ride through the cosmos to a jaunty tale of a little gnome named Grimble Gromble? “The Gnome” features some of Barrett’s most innocent, unaffected lyrics and songwriting ever. With nothing holding him back, nor anything impeding him, his bright-eyed innocence shines here. “The Gnome”’s stereo mix feels and sounds much softer and diffuse than the in your face mono mix, and I’m not sure if that’s a positive or a negative. It does perhaps better suit this innocent track, giving it a kind of aural patina and warmth that the mono mix lacks.
Chapter 24
Extending beyond psychedelia and childhood innocence for lyrical inspiration, Barrett derived the lyrics for this song from the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes. As the title implies, the lyrics came from the 24th chapter of the book, “24. Fu / Return (The Turning Point),” and are often word for word from the Wilhelm translation. Sadly somewhat underrated and under-appreciated when compared to the early singles and pieces such as “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive,” “Chapter 24” nonetheless is among the band’s most mystical works, open to much interpretation. While there tends to be very little difference between the mono and stereo mixes in terms of song length, the stereo mix of “Chapter 24” is a full 9 seconds shorter than the mono version. Outside of this difference in length (a shorter fade out over the final section), very little else differentiates the two mixes musically.
Scarecrow
As The Piper at the Gates of Dawn moves towards its end, the songs become more eerie and disconnected musically and lyrically. “Scarecrow” is Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett at their existential best, with Barrett’s lyrics comparing himself in a metaphorical sense to a scarecrow in the midst of a vast field, both “sadder than me” (Syd) yet “resigned to his fate.” The lyrics are very self-exanimate and somewhat frightening in their prescience, while the music is disarming in its apparent joy. The opening phases of this track should offer great opportunity to show off the wonders of the new-fangled stereophonic sound, yet the listener is forced to accept a fairly bog-standard mix, with percussion hard left, organ hard right, and Barrett roughly equal in both channels. One would think that the hand percussion would be an easy choice to switch up between the channels to add some interest and change, but apparently the engineer and producer felt otherwise. This again shows the amount of respect shown to stereo sound versus the dominant mono audio market of the period.
Bike
“Bike,” which closes out this first Pink Floyd album, verges on insanity incarnate, with a wildly careening descending riff during the verses leading into dreamy, softly sung vocal choruses. The final iteration of the main musical theme is sung at half speed, much as the final variation on the “Interstellar Overdrive” riff is greatly slowed down. From here, the singer does as sung in the lyrics, and footsteps are heard moving to another room, where clocks, bells, whistles, gongs and other sounds burst forth in musique concrète fashion. The techniques used here would be more fully explored later in the band’s career, yet they are already fairly fully formed here, ending the album on a strange and discordant note. The stereo mix again shows how unevenly the production staff looked at things; where other mixes are fairly safe and unadventurous, the stereo “Bike” actually shows a bit of risk. Panned vocals echo in one channel almost before the actual vocal is sung, while organ stabs come from both channels one after the other. The ending musique concrète section should have been a rich vein for stereo mixing, yet it is decidedly plain by comparison, lacking the presence the mono mix proffers.
 
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