Pink Floyd Pilgrimage #1: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
Prior to 2019 my only familiarity with English group – Pink Floyd – could be found in the songs Wish You Were Here, Comfortably Numb, Another Brick in the Wall Part 2 and Money. I loved all four songs and have for many years but for some reason I never went further into Floyd’s back catalogue or even the group themselves. I had never listened to an album, never bothered to delve into their history. I had heard the name, Syd Barrett, but knew nothing else of their story.
If you search for Pink Floyd on YouTube you’ll find their songs, albums, documentaries and hundreds of reaction videos. A new generation of music lovers are discovering their music and having their minds blown by what they hear. Thanks to them I have decided to begin my own journey – a Pink Floyd pilgrimage, you could say – to find out more.
What drew me towards Pink Floyd was the countless comments I had seen from other Floyd enthusiasts, the same messages and appreciation for the group. They insisted that nothing else sounds like Pink Floyd, that listening to an album in its entirety was essential, that their music could help you drift into an alternate plain and that you must, simply MUST, have headphones on when you do listen to the Floyd. It sounded cathartic and I wanted to try for myself as a form of meditation, something I’ve never been good at. I did see plenty of comments suggesting listening to Floyd while high is the way to go, well, I won’t be doing that, dear reader, you will be relieved to hear though I am sure it’s an interesting experience.
My Pink Floyd pilgrimage began earlier this year by reading two books – Mark Blake’s Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd and Martin Popoff’s Pink Floyd: Album by Album. This gave me an insight into the group’s often turbulent history as well as their extensive discography. I have also watched a few documentaries on YouTube so gained a further insight into their work. There is, however, one thing left for me to do.
Each month I will be listening to a Pink Floyd album in full and writing a reaction on this blog. I will listen multiple times – all the way through – and with headphones on. I will NOT be pausing during a David Gilmour solo and I’ll see if I can figure out which one is Pink! I will begin with The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) and conclude with The Endless River (2014). In all, there are 15 studio albums to get through. By November 2020 I will have been through the early days of the band with Syd Barrett as the leader, the middle years where a close-knit quartet gradually fell apart as Roger Waters seized control, and the later years when a more democratic David Gilmour led the group in its twilight years.
One final thing, dear reader. As far as Pink Floyd are concerned, I am a novice, a mere apprentice and know very little so what I offer here are just my opinions of their music as I take it on board. I will attempt, and likely fail, to rank the albums in order of preference and try – big emphasis on try – to select the best song from each record even though I know they are to be treated as one long piece of music. If you have insights of your own to help me, or just want to share your own love and appreciation of these music legends then please throw a comment my way.
Time to grab the headphones and go on a journey…
Pink Floyd Pilgrimage #1: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
The first stage of our pilgrimage is back in the mid-1960s with the earliest version of Pink Floyd. This is the first of three eras of Pink Floyd and the shortest one. The early years are primarily about Syd Barrett who has near mythical status to this day in music circles. For those that are not familiar, Floyd’s early history is painfully sad and – some might say – brutal.
The origins of Pink Floyd were at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London where architecture students – Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason – first met and formed a band. They would go through numerous name changes and additional personnel in the years that followed before Waters’ friend from Cambridge – Syd Barrett – assumed leadership of the band as its singer, lead guitarist and creative force. By late 1965 the group were known as the Tea Set but changed their name when an upcoming gig had another group of the same name. Awkward. In a moment of ingenious spontaneity, Barrett came up with the name The Pink Floyd Sound, inspired by Blues artists, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, he just happened to have in his record collection at home. The name would stay.
In 1966 Pink Floyd became one of the resident bands at the UFO club in London’s underground scene and slowly gathered a loyal following. They had dropped the “Sound” part of their name and were now The Pink Floyd. The band had a limited set list so resorted to lengthy instrumentals to draw out their performances, as well as intricate light shows to keep the crowd entertained. The group have always professed they are dull to look at so fancy lights and effects behind them were put in place for the audience’s benefit. They didn’t have the exuberant stage presence of someone like Freddie Mercury, for instance, nor did they desire to.
The band’s breakthrough came in 1967 when they signed with EMI and released their first single, Arnold Layne, a Top 20 UK hit which was penned by Barrett and told the story of a transvestite that stole women’s clothes from washing lines before winding up in prison. Unusual was an understatement and you can imagine what radio stations thought of it! Pink Floyd worked on their debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, from February to May 1967. The majority of the album was written by Barrett but the other members contributed on some of the songs. For the star-struck among us, The Beatles were recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the same time and the band members would visit one another’s sessions. I can only speculate how intimidated Pink Floyd would have been to not just meet The Beatles but to witness the four legends at work.
In June 1967, prior to the release of their debut album, Pink Floyd released the single, See Emily Play, which reached no.6 in the UK charts and led to appearances on Top of the Pops. It was a promising start but things soon began to go wrong. Syd Barrett was a heavy user of LSD and in 1967 his band members looked on in dismay as he began to change into a completely different person. This wasn’t the colourful, mesmeric, intricate images of Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds (if you accept the drug references there), but a devastating and personal nightmare. Barrett’s behaviour on stage, in recording and in interviews became erratic and the pressure to produce another single after the success of See Emily Play was not helping. The change was gradual but one weekend Barrett is said to have disappeared and when he re-emerged a few days later he was never the same again. The talk was of his eyes being darker than before and a complete change of personality was evident.
From what I have read it is debatable what went wrong with Syd Barrett. Some have said LSD damaged his brain, others have said he was schizophrenic and that the drugs exacerbated his mental illness. Barrett was not officially diagnosed with a mental illness in the years that followed so the mystery remains. What wasn’t in doubt was that Barrett was clearly ill and the increasing pressure and exposure of celebrity was not helping him, it was making him worse.
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released in August 1967 with Barrett already unravelling. This was Floyd at the very beginning of their journey and the album they released is considered one of the best examples of psychedelic rock to this day.
We begin with Astronomy Domine which was written by Syd Barrett and has a feeling of being in space. The”astronomy” of the title is the study of celestial objects, space and the universe, while “domine” is Latin for “Lord” so we could be considering one who controls the universe. The song opens with what sounds like a radio transmission in space before the music comes in, beginning with Barrett’s guitar, before Mason joins in on drums and we have a menacing bass line from Roger Waters. Barrett sings the bulk of the song but Richard Wright provides backing. There is an eerie feel to the song throughout, an almost out of body experience to it. It’s like being out in space and the maladjustment is hammered home by a long drawn out “Ouuu” sound (I believe this is Wright!) at the end of each verse.
Lyrically, it’s a bit of a mystery. I’ve seen comments attributing the striking imagery to an LSD trip. We know that Syd Barrett was a heavy user of LSD so there could be some value to these claims. The song has depictions of planets and their moons and although it has a sense of the fantastical, Barrett tells us that such things “can frighten”. It seems an LSD trip is both exhilarating but also very dangerous. We hear of floating down from on high and there is repetition from the sound of icy waters beneath us. The lyrics are evocative, confusing and the music makes them somewhat terrifying. It’s a startling opening song and you immediately feel, whether you have taken drugs or not (I haven’t by the way, just thought I’d be upfront), that you are being taken on a hallucinatory trip.
Next up we have Lucifer Sam, written by Syd Barrett, and debatable about the subject matter depending on which source you go with. On the one hand, it appears to be simply about Barrett’s Siamese cat, Sam, and I have read suggestions that this breed is very clingy, something arguably emphasised in the song. There is also come confusion in here with the chorus being the memorable line, “That cat’s something I can’t explain”. As an owner of multiple cats, I hear you Syd, I hear you, brother. An alternative definition is that Barrett was writing about his girlfriend at the time, Jenny Spires, who was having an affair with another man. She is referred to in the song as “Jennifer Gentle” and Barrett calls her a “witch” for good measure. In this scenario the cat may be the guy she is with and Barrett has made him subordinate to the woman i.e. the witch with her black cat. Nasty.
Lucifer Sam is an example of Pink Floyd’s experimentation in the studio with Barrett’s guitar riff fed through an echo machine during recording. The support from Waters on bass, Wright on organ and Mason with percussion succeeds in making this one somewhat unnerving. It feels more grounded in reality than Astronomy Domine, less hallucinatory or trippy certainly, while the ambiguity enhances the song’s quality. I prefer to lean towards this being a song about a cat and how perplexing they are but I am happy for Floyd fans to set me straight on this one.
The third track from the album is Matilda Mother, written by Syd Barrett. Barrett was inspired by Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, so much so that Belloc’s estate forced Barrett to change the initial lyrics to the song otherwise face a lawsuit. It is a song about longing for the simple childhood of having fairytales read to us when we are children. The song describes images of kings ruling vast lands and the narrator implores their mother to tell them more, they want the story to go on for they can’t get enough. It’s nostalgia for simpler times. As I have become older I have often felt that children should be allowed to enjoy their childhood for life is never the same when you become an adult and see the world for what it really is. Let’s not beat around the bush, the world in general is not a nice place. Matilda Mother taps into a similar idea, a longing for better days.
The vocals are shared between Barrett and Wright to great effect. Wright takes the lead vocals with he and Barrett singing the chorus together before Barrett takes charge again for the last verse. Their vocals are distinct but blend together well. The organ and bass are dominant in the song, rather than Barrett’s guitar. Far less sinister than the previous two tracks, this one has a more dreamy feel to it, perfectly apt for the subject matter of fairytales and drifting back to childhood days. Three songs in and already the album is rich and varied in the music and subject matter.
The fourth track is Flaming, which was written by Syd Barrett. I’ve seen interpretations of drug trips for this one which has some credence. This is another child-like song with Barrett singing of being in the clouds on an eiderdown and saying “Yippee! You can’t see me, but I can you.” It’s fantastical with images of being on a unicorn or sleeping on a dandelion. Barrett seems to be in his own world, a myriad of perplexing universes where he is invisible to anyone else, almost like a game of hide and seek or make believe childhood role playing. The idea of being up on high in the clouds or travelling through the night skies could be akin to one of his LSD trips but I get the feeling of a child’s imagination running wild here. Others have suggested a feeling of isolation which also has merit.
Barrett takes the lead vocal here with some backing from both Wright and Waters. As well as the music, we have sound effects in the background such as bells and what sounds like a cuckoo at one point. It becomes more than a piece of music. You feel transported into Barrett’s own imagination. It doesn’t have the sense of unease that is prevalent in Astronomy Domine; I don’t feel that sense of danger if this does relate to an LSD trip. It feels innocent, harking back to simpler childhood days, and the music enhances the feel of silly games and thoughts, untainted by the adult world. Evocative stuff.
Pow R. Toc H.
The fifth track on the album is Pow R. Toc H. which was written by all four members and is a largely instrumental song. I have seen different interpretations of the title which is allegedly subtle abbreviations of particular words. One suggestion is that Toc H. is an army signal code for Talbot house, a place where individuals are treated as equals. The song is dominated largely by Wright’s piano but all members contribute to the music.
The vocals provided are incomprehensible. Barrett performs percussion vocals, an early precursor to beatboxing, while Waters throws in some screams and Wright some additional vocals. Listening to it, you get the feeling of being in a jungle listening to a multitude of sounds from the different species resident there. It’s weird, funny and fascinating all in one. Overall, it’s an intriguing little number that probably has a much deeper meaning than I am able to convey here so I may not be doing the song justice. Floyd experts, please come forth if you can offer some enlightenment to this mere apprentice.
Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk
We conclude Side One of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn with Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk, which was written by Roger Waters and is the only song on the album where Syd Barrett is not credited. That in itself indicates just how pivotal Barrett was to the birth of Pink Floyd. The title of this song is a play on Biblical proverbs including “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk”, though bed could be “mat” depending on which version you go with. The lyrics are a repetition of “Doctor” at the outset before describing being in pain in a hospital with unpleasant food and being malnourished. The second verse talks of music helping with the pain and the patient then beseeches the doctor to tell his wife that he is alive and well. Strange stuff indeed. Is there a doctor in the house to help shed some light?
Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk sounds very different to the previous five songs on the album, a marked contrast to Barret’s work. Waters takes the vocals here and I have seen some Floyd fans suggest this one isn’t their favourite, especially the vocals, but they do like the musical interlude separating the two verses. I concur here. I don’t think the vocals are bad but the song is strongest when it’s the four members focusing on their playing and it’s a rich combo that they have. At this point, Roger Waters hasn’t yet found his niche as a songwriter. I can’t be too critical of him though. This Pink Floyd were driven by Syd Barrett and I know in later years, the 1970s in particular, that Waters would rise to prominence as a brilliant songwriter, a mantle he is highly revered for to this day.
Side Two of the album opens with the seventh track, Interstellar Overdrive, which was written by all four members of the group. The song is bereft of lyrics and is purely an instrumental number that weighs in at nearly 10 minutes long. It is said to give a nod to jazz in that the opening and concluding segments have a common theme but the middle section of the song is Pink Floyd improvising for a sustained period of time and getting this spontaneity recorded in the studio. I’ve heard analysts say this is as close as we’ll get to Pink Floyd during those live sets in places such as the UFO Club in London when they were improvising to stretch out their setlist.
The same riff is noticeable at the beginning and conclusion but at the end the sound is completely distorted and you really feel the benefit of having those headphones on to savour the pandemonium of the moment. The sound alternates from ear to ear and you almost lose your sense of where you are. The improvisation sounds great but the only potential downside, and this seems like an unfair remark, is that the song’s true identity is impossible to attain. Floyd performed it live until 1970 when it was retired but on stage the song could be 10 minutes or it could be 30 minutes so nailing down its truest form is a difficult task. On the album it’s a vital track. Listening to Interstellar Overdrive, a part of you wishes you could have been in the UFO Club, though I still think I’d have been my usual night club self, standing on the periphery, drinking whisky and looking uncomfortable.
The eighth track on the album is The Gnome, written by Syd Barrett, with the lyrics said to have been written off the top of his head. The song is the story of a gnome who goes by the name of Grimble Gromble and decides to go out for some adventures while the other gnomes stay home eating and drinking wine. Barrett is said to have drawn inspiration from the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and listening to the song it does sound akin to being in the Shire with Bilbo Baggins, heading out on one of his adventures with Gandalf and the dwarves. Some have interpreted the song as an LSD trip but it feels like Matilda Mother, with childhood stories and delving into the realms of fantasy.
This is an amusing yet pleasant number led by Barrett. It’s a strange one to follow Interstellar Overdrive but, that said, each track feels very different to the one that came before. Compared to some of the other tracks, this one is much quieter, more acoustic driven with Barrett on vocals once again. As with other songs we have heard so far, the possible ambiguity to The Gnome only adds to its intrigue. I am likely only interpreting the surface of its meaning, being the story of a little gnome, but there may be more depth to it. It’s hard to say with Syd Barrett. He is a complex individual.
Next up we have the ninth track which is Chapter 24, written by Syd Barrett. It is inspired by the Ancient Chinese text, I Ching, also known as Book of Changes. In the lyrics Barrett draws on extracts from the text, his focus being on Chapter 24 which deals with Hexagram 24 known as Fû (复) and meaning “returning”. I have never read I Ching so trying to decipher the song is not straightforward. Barrett has lifted passages referring to movement being accomplished in six stages, success coming with change and fortune favouring those that take action. The little I read up on I Ching was intimidating but it’s certainly a text that warrants further exploration based on what I have read.
Chapter 24 is heavily driven by Richard Wright on the organ while Barrett is once again on the vocals. His words are delivered relatively slowly and with the rest of Floyd backing him, Barrett’s voice has a haunting feel to it. The previous song, The Gnome, was potentially inspired by Tolkien and this one from I Ching, which emphasises how well read Syd Barrett was. I Ching would also inspire George Harrison in 1968 to come up with While My Guitar Gently Weeps so you can’t help but feel more musicians should have a look at the text as it seems to equate to great songs.
The tenth track on the album is The Scarecrow, written by Syd Barrett and in a similar vein to The Gnome. In this song, Barrett describes a scarecrow out in the field with a bird on his hat, never having to think, and the only time his arms move is when the wind picks up in the fields of barley. It seems a simple enough song set in agricultural circles, but Barrett then compares himself to the scarecrow and tells us it is sadder than him, “resigned to his fate”, and that the scarecrow is okay with this because “life’s not unkind.” Some have interpreted the song as Barrett essentially predicting what was to come for him with his heavy use of LSD which adds a great deal of poignancy to the song if it is true. Others have thrown in comparisons of everyday people locked in a routine and resigned to such an existence. However you look at the song, it’s a sad one.
The Scarecrow is a brief one on the album with Barrett on vocals once again. It has a feel of the childish to it, as with other songs on the album, but while The Gnome is debatable with the ambiguity of its underlying meaning, there is something almost sepulchral beneath the surface of The Scarecrow. The backing music, including Wright on that organ again, manage to mask some of the unease but burrowing down into the lyrics leaves a lingering feeling of sadness long after the final seconds have played out.
The eleventh and final track on the album is Bike, written by Syd Barrett. Barrett wrote the song for his girlfriend at the time, Jenny Spires, who may previously have been referred to as a witch in the second track, Lucifer Sam. In Bike, Barrett seems to be offering a list of the very few items he has in his possession, being completely honest with a girl, and assuring her that he wants her to come into his world. Of the gifts he offers are a bike he has borrowed, gingerbread men on a dish, a well-worn cloak and even a mouse named Gerald who has no home. It sounds utterly ludicrous at times but if you take a step back it’s quite sweet.
For this concluding song, Barrett is on vocals once more and the first two minutes he delivers all of his lyrics. The sound of what seems like gunshots follows each delivery of the chorus but once all the words have been sung, the song switches to a series of sound effects such as bells and clocks as Barrett invites this girl into his room. Bike fades out with what sounds like manic duck sounds but is actually the members of the group laughing with the recording reversed and doubled in speed to create a peculiar denouement to a very strange, very varied yet very accessible album.
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn offers the only complete Pink Floyd album with Syd Barrett at the helm and for that reason it is priceless. Ambiguity flows throughout the eleven tracks and you imagine definitions and interpretations of the album have been batted back and forth in the 50+ years since the album was first released and it likely will still be debated when its 100th anniversary comes round.
It was a privilege to delve deeper into early Pink Floyd and to experience the band when Barrett was leading them. This is a completely different Pink Floyd to the one I have previously heard on Money or Comfortably Numb. Better or inferior? I think it is unfair to compare. What we have here is an album full of fantastic imagery, experimentation and variety. It also carries a great deal of sadness for by the time Bike has ended, we can only speculate what Syd Barrett may have gone on to achieve and where he would have taken Pink Floyd.
It’s really tough to narrow this down but I strongly favour Lucifer Sam, Flaming and Scarecrow for different reasons. However, I have gone with Astronomy Domine. It’s a powerful opening track, the perfect introduction to the bizarre, fantastical but also potentially dangerous journey Barrett is about to take us on.
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was well-received by the critics and could have been just the beginning of something special for Pink Floyd under Syd Barrett’s leadership. Sadly, with Barrett’s behaviour continuing to be unpredictable and his contributions to live sets sometimes non-existent, the other members desperately needed a solution otherwise the band was finished before it had even got started.
In December 1967, a college friend of Syd Barrett named David Gilmour was asked if he wanted to join Pink Floyd as the fifth member. Gilmour agreed and his role was to step in as a second guitarist and singer. If Barrett was struggling on stage, Gilmour could stand in for him and keep their shows going with guitar work and vocals. Perhaps this would enable Pink Floyd to continue with Syd Barrett still as their creative leader and, more importantly, still as a member of the group.