Pink Floyd - Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (3 disc Reissue)
EMI Keith Boyd 9.13.07
Although perhaps best known for their two Magna Opera , "The Dark Side of the Moon" and, "The Wall", I've always vastly preferred the earlier psychedelic Floyd offerings. Sure, the above mentioned twosome set a template for heady, self-analytical music that still resonates in acts such as Radiohead and The Mars Volta today but I still find myself drawn to the eerie menace and peculiar British whimsy of their first two albums. In particular it is their debut, "The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn" that I most often reach for. So it was with great glee that I dove into EMI's deluxe 3 disc repackaging of "Piper".
This beautifully done reissue is composed of three discs; the stereo and mono version of "Piper" and an extra of other Syd Barrett era singles and outtakes. The set is housed in a small red book with gold inset lettering and the classic kaleidoscope cover photo. Inside there is page after page of period era photos along with lyrics to the songs. Another highlight is the reproduction of one of Syd Barrett's art journals. Given both the historicity and relative obscurity of "Piper." this kind of attention to detail is both understandable and surprising.
"Piper at the Gate of Dawn" is primarily the work and showcase of Floyd's first frontman, Syd Barrett. For those of you who don't know the strange and tragic details of his story a few words are fitting to help with context. Syd was a brilliant and sensitive art school student who along with Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Rick Wright formed Pink Floyd. The band started, as so many of the time, mining American Blues for inspiration. However, under the odd inspiration of Barrett and sonic adventurism of the rest of the band they soon became a favorite of the British underground music crowd which centered around clubs such as UFO and The Marquee. As was the usual for musicians at the time Syd Barrett was a frequent and heavy user of drugs, in particular LSD. Given that he most likely suffered from a latent form of schizophrenia, the constant and heavy drug abuse caused symptoms to emerge and began a period of steep decline which led to his ouster from the band and an independent life in general. He went on to record two brilliant solo albums ("Barrett" and "The Madcap Laughs") before settling down with family in England where he continued to live until his death in 2006. Syd's life is often framed by the similar trajectory it shares with other 1960's drug casualties as Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison. This is an unfortunate fate for this highly original and creative artist. Given his underlying mental health issues it remains uncertain how much the drugs played a part in his decline. Despite these troubling aspects of his life Syd's time in Pink Floyd represents the amazing blossoming of a particularly British style of creativity and "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" is cut fully from the cloth of that spirit.
The eleven tracks that make up "Piper." are a wide ranging assortment of musical styles and texture. From the weirdly menacing whimsy of "Bike" to the Cosmos blasting, "Interstellar Overdrive" the album sparkles with energy and fantasy. Here we see the birth of that wide reaching experimentation that would lead Pink Floyd through the next several decades. Shards and pieces of this album can be heard to influence musicians and bands for 40 years. Bizzaro and folkloric songs such as "The Gnome" and "Chapter 24" are the obvious touchstone pieces for artists such as Robyn Hitchcock and can even be heard amongst today's "Freak-Folk" scene. Along with the lighter and quirkier elements are muscular and punchy rhythms with straight up rock guitar-fests. The album is such a satisfying and varied listen that although deeply rooted in the 60's, it presents facets that could have seemingly been recorded this year. The inclusion of both mono and stereo version is a master stroke that has been done before with albums such as The Velvet Underground's "The Velvet Underground and Nico". Hearing the two versions is quite an interesting study. On the mono disc all of the music seems to come from a central location. The sounds moves forward in a single motion with no separation to diffuse it. On the stereo disc the exact opposite is true. Having broken the tracks into different channels subtle additions come to fore and tend to change the overall rhythm of certain pieces. For the most part I appreciate the stereo versions but prefer the mono. That "all at once" sound represents the original songs best and lets them stay true their momentum. The third disc is a wonderful assortment of singles released at the time and is filled out with alternate versions of certain songs from different European pressings.
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a wonderful and magickal album. It is both an amazing debut and a fully realized project. Although some elements of this group would remain on their next disc, "A Saucerful of Secrets" Pink Floyd would never sound quite like this again. So go ahead and dive down the rabbit hole. There's enough great stuff here to keep you busy forever.