Album Review: Pink Floyd - The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
Pink Floyd are the beating heart of ’70s progressive rock. Easily the genre’s strongest songwriters and sincerest lyricists, Pink Floyd dialled down prog’s more pretentious tendencies to huge success. Iconic albums such as The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall secured the band a place in rock history rivalling The Beatles. This review, however, is set a little earlier. The year is 1967, long-time frontman David Gilmour won’t join the band until 1968 and experimental guitarist Syd Barrett – alongside bassist Roger Waters, keyboardist Richard Wright and drummer Nick Mason – is revolutionising rock music.
Pink Floyd released their debut single Arnold Layne on 10th March 1967. Thanks to a strong English accent defining Barrett’s vocals and controversial lyrics about transvestism, the song stood out in a saturated psychedelic scene. Its B-side, Candy And a Currant Bun, revealed a more distorted and dissonant side to the band and confirmed Barrett was a unique frontman. Three months later, the band released See Emily Play. Opened by an eccentric slide guitar and playful bassline, the song then swirls tirelessly through catchy psychedelic pop hooks, distorted guitars and Wright’s extraordinary electric harpsichord solo. See Emily Play sent Pink Floyd to number 6 in the the UK charts and confirmed they were something to be excited about.
On the 4th August 1967, Pink Floyd released their debut studio album The Piper at The Gates of Dawn. Astronomy Domine opens the album with a crescendoing guitar, futuristic beeping and manager Peter Jenner’s voice distorted through a megaphone. Lyrics immersed in planets, moons and sci-fi comic book heroes have led many to credit the track with pioneering ‘space rock’, a claim supported by Barrett’s cosmic sliding guitar and Wright’s spacey organ. Lucifer Sam is more down-to-earth lyrically, an amusing tribute to Barrett’s Siamese cat that – as a cat owner myself – I greatly appreciate. However, the music is no less inventive, notably featuring Barrett’s guitar fed through an echo machine, conjuring an eerie delay effect.
“Finally, the album topples into Bike, the delightfully unhinged final track defined by its erratic structure and endearingly surreal lyrics. Its musique concrète outro consisting of clocks, bells, gongs and a reversed tape loop of the band laughing concludes the record at a fascinating experimental peak.”
Wright and Barrett nostalgically reminisce bedtime stories and childhood imagination on Matilda Mother, with Wright’s Eastern-inspired organ solo continuing the album’s experimentation. Similar childlike fantasy floats through Flaming, created by tack pianos, slide whistles, finger cymbals and numerous windup toys punctuating the track. Then, the album gets really weird. After watching The Beatles record Lovely Rita from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at Abbey Road Studios, Pink Floyd were inspired to record Pow R. Toc H. just next door. Wright’s bluesy piano solo is bookended by vocal effects even madder than the Beatles’ song, including an early form of beat boxing.
Roger Waters makes his songwriting debut on Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk. Morbid lyrics, a disjointed drum beat and the berserk interplay between Wright’s organ and Barrett’s guitar make it the album’s darkest track, hinting at the themes Waters would tackle later in his career. Then, we arrive at the album’s epic 9-minute centrepiece Interstellar Overdrive. A striking guitar riff begins the track, then crumbles into a diverse free-form freak-out before returning to pull the composition back together for its intense finale. Whilst more reflective of the band’s lengthy live performances than their recorded material, Interstellar Overdrive is still early Pink Floyd’s magnum opus and a vital point in progressive rock’s development.
“If nothing else, Barrett’s legacy will forever endure in this album. A dazzling, innovative and definitive psychedelic rock landmark, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is an unforgettable masterpiece helmed by a one-of-a-kind creative genius.”
The instrumentation strips back on The Gnome, weaving a whimsical intimacy with acoustic guitars and subtle vibraphone taps backing fairytale lyrics. Matilda Mother’s brief eastern influence is then fully explored on Chapter 24 through the dramatic crashes of a gong and lyrics inspired by the ancient Chinese text I Ching. Existential musings and poignant personification populate the lyrics of The Scarecrow, significant for its lush baroque instrumental composed of a crisp 12-string acoustic guitar and hefty cello. Finally, the album topples into Bike, the delightfully unhinged final track defined by its erratic structure and endearingly surreal lyrics. Its musique concrète outro consisting of clocks, bells, gongs and a reversed tape loop of the band laughing concludes the record at a fascinating experimental peak.
Tragically, this was the only Pink Floyd album fronted by Barrett. Once an extroverted and cheerful personality, Barrett’s behaviour became more reclusive and unpredictable as heavy drug use – amongst other factors – deteriorated his mental state. He contributed to only three songs on the group’s follow-up LP A Saucerful of Secrets and was fired shortly after. Still, he continued to inspire Pink Floyd throughout their career, culminating in 1975’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond, a touching, 26-minute tribute to the founding frontman. Plus – if nothing else – Syd Barrett’s legacy will forever endure in this album. A dazzling, innovative and definitive psychedelic rock landmark, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is an unforgettable masterpiece helmed by a one-of-a-kind creative genius.
The Breakdown | Album Review: Pink Floyd – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
Pink Floyd’s 1967 debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn may be a far cry from the bombastic progressive rock that will define their most successful albums, but it definitively embodies the inventive spirit of ’60s psychedelia in ways just as inspiring 50 years later.