Pink Floyd Pilgrimage #2: A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
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 #2: A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
The next stage of our pilgrimage is in 1968. The first Pink Floyd era with Syd Barrett at the helm begins to draw to a close. We transition from that period to the second phase where the remaining four members initially work together but gradually the influence of Roger Waters and David Gilmour will become more crucial and ultimately Waters will emerge as a dominant force, for better or worse.
We resume our story at the start of 1968. Syd Barrett’s Cambridge friend, David Gilmour, has now joined Pink Floyd. Gilmour was initially required to sing and play guitar, to cover for Barrett whose excessive LSD use and possible mental illness had resulted in him becoming unpredictable and unreliable in the studio, on stage and with media commitments. On a tour in America, Barrett was at one point observed walking from one room to another and standing in a corner quietly and unresponsive. His bandmates did not know what to do to help him. As Barrett’s condition worsened, Pink Floyd initially wondered whether Barrett could be retained as a creative element within the group, writing songs but not touring, just as Brian Wilson began to do so with The Beach Boys. Pink Floyd began recording A Saucerful of Secrets in 1967, before Gilmour joined, and worked on it periodically in between touring commitments. The album would be the only one where all five members contributed and marks a clear progression between the early Floyd to the next era.
In January 1968 Barrett’s behaviour on stage was severely impacting on the other members of Pink Floyd. While Gilmour took up singing and guitar duties, Barrett would sometimes contribute but other times he would just be on stage wandering around and the band did not know what to expect from him. One day Roger Waters was driving around, picking up the other members for a gig at Southampton University. The question was raised about picking up Syd to go to the show. The response that came? Don’t bother. By the end of January 1968, Syd Barrett had agreed to leave Pink Floyd.
Barrett’s departure could be viewed as a cold dismissal by the other band members. It was clearly not an easy decision for any of the group and from interviews I’ve seen there was a lot of guilt and shame in spurning someone who was a close friend to them all. An alternative perspective could argue that it was the kindest thing to do for Syd Barrett. Being in the group was making him worse, not better. Such tender feelings for their lost friend would come back to Pink Floyd in the 1970s.
The remaining members – Roger Waters, Richard Wright, Nick Mason and now David Gilmour – had an unfinished album on their hands. They soldiered on, without the creative drive responsible for the majority of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (remember Barrett contributed to 10 of the 11 songs on there!) and managed to complete the group’s second album. This would prove to be a huge test.
A Saucerful of Secrets was released in June 1968 with Barrett now gone and David Gilmour slotted in as his replacement. No pressure, David! Pink Floyd had been struck by a devastating early blow in their history but they were now pushing on without Syd Barrett.
Let There Be More Light
The opening track on the album was written by Roger Waters and is very much a collaborative effort. In terms of meaning the song appears to be about a UFO landing at Mildenhall, northeast of Cambridge where Waters, Syd Barrett and David Gilmour were all originally from. The song talks of a spaceship touching down and making contact with the human race. It also makes reference to Lucy in the sky, undoubtedly a nod to The Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Also, rather intriguingly, is reference to Hereward the Wake, an Anglo-Saxon who led resistance against Willam the Conqueror during the Norman Conquest of England after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Despite studying the Norman Conquest at university, I was unfamiliar with Hereward until listening to this song. In summary, it’s a peculiar science fiction number.
This is a landmark song in Floyd’s history in many ways. Roger Waters wrote one song on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn; he takes the helm on this one and it is a marked improvement to Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk. The vocals are shared, with Richard Wright taking the verses, backed by a whispering Waters, while David Gilmour sings the chorus. Listening to the song, I felt like Barrett was singing the chorus so not sure if Gilmour was replicating Barrett’s voice a little or, more likely, he’s just a versatile singer given some of the later songs such as Money and Wish You Were Here I have already heard and on which Gilmour has the lead vocal. After the lyrics have been delivered the song continues for another 2 minutes or so and we get to savour our first David Gilmour solo. It’s no Comfortably Numb but it’s still a welcome addition. For a group in the midst of transitioning from the huge influence of Syd Barrett, this is a positive opening track.
Remember a Day
The second track on the album, Remember a Day, gives us another landmark as it is the first song written solely by Richard Wright. The song has echoes of Matilda Mother from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The day the narrator wishes to remember is childhood. We have some striking images of the simplicity of being a child. The song makes reference to seemingly endless days, being kings and queens, climbing trees to touch the sun and hiding from siblings who are armed with pretend guns. More than just a nostalgia trip, Remember a Day asks the question and demands an answer as to why such carefree days have to end. There is a sense that the narrator is an adult now, they have experienced the world and they crave long ago days when they had nothing to worry about.
Wright takes on singing duties here and his voice is almost angelic. Syd Barrett on guitar and Roger Waters on bass supported Wright on the song, while producer, Norman Smith, stepped in on drums when Nick Mason struggled with the recording. During the verses Wright’s words sound distant and dream-like, as if we are being swept through the breeze of time back to our own childhood. The tone slows and Wright’s voice grows louder as he asks why childhood has to end. The music alternates with a dreamy and relaxed feel accompanying Wright’s vocals, but when he stops singing the music is more intense as if taking us back to the unwanted reality of maturity. I have heard that Richard Wright is sometimes overlooked in the pantheon of Pink Floyd but Remember a Day showcases both his songwriting and vocal skills to great effect. It’s a truly beautiful piece.
Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun
The third track, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, was written by Roger Waters. He borrowed some of the lyrics from Chinese poetry dating back to the Tang dynasty (AD 618 – 907). Interpretations of the song are plentiful with the consensus being that it isn’t a sci-fi song as such, though the title gives images of steering a spaceship into the sun. Instead, I have read thoughts of references to meditation and also of the cycle of life and suffering. The lyrics do seem to attest to a range of creatures being afraid of the rise of the sun, taking more comfort in the sun having set and having the night skies overhead. There is also a reference to a man raving at a wall and looking up and speaking to the heavens. He seems keen for the sun to set so our brightest beacon does seem to have negative connotations here. It’s a difficult song to unravel with Waters having used elements of Chinese poetry mixed in with his own ideas. I daresay I could use some enlightenment on this one, Floyd aficionados, no pun intended.
Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun is said to be the only track on the album that features all five members of Pink Floyd. Syd Barrett initially recorded some guitar parts for the track then when David Gilmour came in, he too contributed some of his own work. It’s hard to discern differences between the guitar as the song is dominated by Mason’s eerie drumming and Wright’s impressive multi-tasking using an organ, vibraphone and celesta to create a truly atmospheric piece. Roger Waters takes the vocals here and his singing is faint, not quite a whisper, but certainly quiet and his words are not easy to make out, playing subservient to the music. Although the meaning is not easy to comprehend this song is an amazing experience, one you feel you could drift away with. It’s a strong testament to a songwriter who is already beginning to find his feet.
The fourth and final track on Side One is Corporal Clegg, written by Roger Waters. It was inspired by Waters’ own father who fought and died in the Second World War in 1944 when Waters was only five months old. In the song, Corporal Clegg has fought in the war and lost his leg. He does have a medal at least but he found it in a zoo, his injury being his only reward for fighting for his country. Very sad. Corporal Clegg is eventually given a medal by the Queen but sadly this is just in his dreams. We also hear about Mrs Clegg with the band saying she must be proud of her husband and they also ask her if she wants more gin, which may suggest she is an alcoholic.
Corporal Clegg has drummer Nick Mason sharing the lead vocals with David Gilmour on the verses with Richard Wright joining in on the chorus. This is a first for Mason with the other members of the band tending to take on the vocal work. Although the subject matter is serious the song plays as more of a farce with some interesting rhymes thrown in. It doesn’t come across as something to be taken too seriously. Some Floyd fans in online forums have suggested this is one of the group’s worst songs. I don’t believe it to be a bad song as such but considering the other songs we have had thus far it does pale in comparison.
A Saucerful of Secrets
It’s a sense of deja vu as we open Side Two of the album with the fifth track. On The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Pink Floyd began Side Two with the instrumental, Interstellar Overdrive. On A Saucerful of Secrets we have the title song which is also an instrumental. While Interstellar Overdrive was around 10 minutes long, A Saucerful of Secrets clocks in at almost 12 minutes. It was composed by all four band members – Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason – and is divided into four individual pieces of music. I have seen two alternative interpretations with one stating it covers the different stages of an LSD trip but the more likely candidate, also confirmed by Roger Waters in an interview, is that the song is about a battle. The four events are as follows:
I – Something Else – the battle preparation
II – Syncopated Pandemonium – the battle itself
III – Storm Signal – sepulchral experience of those who have fallen in battle
IV – Celestial Voices – mourning for those who have died on the battlefield
A Saucerful of Secrets is a beautifully crafted instrumental. We begin with Something Else which has Richard Wright making heavy use of an organ while David Gilmour is on slide guitar. It’s a slow but steady build-up and there is undoubted tension as we wait for something on the horizon. Syncopated Pandemonium sees Nick Mason enter proceedings with some frantic drumming that is akin to an army marching into battle. The rest of the band soon partake and the “pandemonium” of the title is very apt with chaotic pounding on the piano particularly prevalent and the rest of the music manages to capture the mayhem and confusion of a battle. With the battle over we move onto Storm Signal, which is the briefest piece, and you really do hear the sound of a storm before Wright returns once more with a gentle organ playing. The music is sombre and ponderous, leading us smoothly into the final part. Celestial Voices once more has that organ and you feel like you are in a church watching a poignant service of remembrance. You can make out Water’s bass in the background before Wright and Gilmour provide the song’s only vocals, wordless voices reminiscent of a church choir, beautiful though incomprehensible. The battle is long since over but the grief of those who have lost loved ones is only just beginning. We partake of this mourning service as the music gently fades and you cannot believe 12 minutes have just passed you by. Simply stunning.
The sixth track is See-Saw which was written by Richard Wright. There is a great deal of ambiguity to the lyrics and their imagery. It appears to tell the story of a brother and sister who are very close in childhood. The verses speak of fond childhood memories, such as the brother lifting his sister up high or she is throwing stones. The siblings play together and are happy but then the tone changes. We learn that the sister has grown up and the brother has now left. The brother having left could be that he has just moved away or possibly that he has died. The sister is described as selling plastic flowers which I saw one Floyd fan interpret as poppies, potentially signifying her brother died in a war, likely one of the World Wars. The song mentions that the sister has another man in her life, a husband presumably, and he has potentially filled some of the void left by her brother now being gone.
As with Remember a Day, there is dream-like feel to See-Saw. It’s very much Wright in command here with Pink Floyd’s keyboardist taking the lead vocals and playing an organ, piano and even a xylophone accompaniment on the track. The rest of the group ably support Wright on this venture with what could be David Gilmour providing backing vocals. Wright’s compositions thus far tend to lean towards nostalgia and this one, though open to debate, seems to tap into that desire for the past, especially that much-loved and now much-missed childhood that many of us get to savour. I do feel that the brother has died in the song, though it isn’t clearly stated whether this is the case, only that he is no longer there. Pink Floyd still seem to be echoing some of Syd Barrett’s songs about being a child here but their sound is already beginning to differ slightly.
The seventh and final track is Jugband Blues, which was written by Syd Barrett, and is the only song on the album that he wrote. It has been interpreted as Barrett acknowledging his mental illness and is considered something of a dig at those around him. Barrett states “I’m most obliged to you for making it clear that I’m not here” which could emphasise his growing distance from the rest of Pink Floyd but also a sad awareness of his own illness and its terrible impact. Barrett even questions who it is writing the song we are now listening to. Is his grasp of reality beginning to fail? The whole song comes across as the final severing of Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd. He is out of the group now and heading into the unknown years that lay ahead of him.
The song was recorded with the original members – Barrett, Waters, Wright and Mason – with David Gilmour not credited here. The Salvation Army was brought in to provide backing music and Barrett initially wanted them to improvise before structure was given to them. Barrett sings of his growing distance from the rest of the band in the opening verse. The second verse seems to change subject with Barrett now singing of the various things he does not care about and there is mention of enjoying love in the winter. The Salvation Army steps in at this point for a prolonged period then, without warning, the music suddenly stops completely. You think the song is over but then – coming in faintly – Barrett returns for the last time, an acoustic guitar and his voice more distant than ever before and before he leaves us he asks two questions, what is a dream and what is a joke? With that, the song is over and our time with Syd Barrett is at an end. It’s a beautiful but poignant end to the album.
A Saucerful of Secrets is cited by drummer, Nick Mason, as his favourite Pink Floyd album as it contains contributions from all five members. This in itself makes it an album to be treasured but it does reflect a band in transition. With The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Syd Barrett was the dominant presence but here the other band members are sharing out creative duties with Roger Waters and Richard Wright, in particular, taking responsibility for crafting some of the songs.
Although we are witnessing the passing of Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd, his presence still resonates strongly. Richard Wright’s compositions feel like the band are clinging to Barrett’s style somewhat, but Roger Waters is also pointing towards something new with Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun. I would argue for The Piper at the Gates of Dawn being a superior album to this one but there is still a great deal to be savoured here. Jugband Blues hits hard at the end and you once again consider what more Barrett might have achieved had things turned out different for him.
This is a tough one with Remember a Day and Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun being stand-outs for me. However, by a tiny margin I will have to go with Jugband Blues. It leaves a cold yet moving imprint on you, especially in that final, distant verse, the last time we hear Syd Barrett. Incredibly moving.
A Saucerful of Secrets received some praise from critics but the consensus was that this was an inferior album to The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The loss of Syd Barrett was evident and it is credit to Pink Floyd that they were able to push on and complete the album. It is a bittersweet album in that Barrett’s voice is still on here but it also marks his departure from the history of Floyd.
Going forward, Pink Floyd were now a different group. Their creative genius was gone. He had contributed the majority of material to the first album and had played a role in the second album. Pink Floyd now knew that the next time they returned to the studio they would not be able to rely on any creative input from Barrett. He was out of the band now. The ideas and music would have to come from the other four members. The question would be how would Pink Floyd survive without Barrett and in what direction would their music take them next without his influence?
Pink Floyd Roll of Honour
1) The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
2) A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)