Pink Floyd is one of the few bands that people truly love or hate. Some are infatuated with their druggy, space rock freakouts. Other people dismiss them as stoner fluff. I, myself, can’t stand them. Dark Side of the Moon? Overrated. The Wall? Don’t even get me started. Animals? An hour-long solo, if you ask me. And yet, I absolutely can’t get enough of Piper At the Gates of Dawn. It may seem hypocritical, but it’s not. To me, this was an entirely different band, thanks to the leadership of guitarist Syd Barrett.
While Roger Waters led the group into slow, indulgent territory with later albums, Barrett preferred a more concise, psychedelic, no doubt LSD-influenced approach. Piper At the Gates of Dawn was the closest to a pop album that Pink Floyd ever made, save for maybe A Momentary Lapse of Reason, thanks to its MTV accessibility. But Piper was a weirder pop album. At the time, there was nothing like it. Even now, there really isn’t that much like it. You can hear shades of Barrett in Neutral Milk Hotel, The Decemberists, Broadcast, Pram, Robyn Hitchcock and just about anyone who likes their pop music a little on the bizarre side. Still, Piper is a unique album that the band was never able to outdo, and probably never wanted to.
Syd Barrett’s songwriting on Piper is playful and childlike, though drugs definitely played some influence, and many of the songs suggested the madness he would lapse into later in his life. Yet, the playfulness manages to take center stage. The title of the album is taken from The Wind in the Willows, and several songs suggest flashbacks to Barrett’s childhood, like the carnivalesque “Bike” and the melodic, almost Byrds-ian “Matilda Mother.” The former is without a doubt one of the weirder songs on the album, though still accessible and quirky, containing lyrics about a bicycle, of which Barrett says, “I’d give it to you if I could/ but I borrowed it.” The latter, however, is a prettier song, and one of the best on the album thanks to its gorgeous vocal harmonies during the chorus.
Piper is also credited as giving birth to space rock, which may make it a more infamous album, thanks to the implications that come along with that sort of responsibility. But I don’t think we should necessarily blame Piper at the Gates Of Dawn for psychedelic music’s later failings. Furthermore, the space rock tracks on the album are actually quite good — “Astronomy Domine” is quite accessible and nearly anthemic and “Interstellar Overdrive” is one of the few nine-minute freakouts worth listening to. “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk,” however, is the only song on the record that Barrett didn’t write and, thus, is one of the most indulgent and least enjoyable. But instrumental “Pow R. Toc H.” makes up for it, beginning with a series of weird noises before veering into a jazzy melody interspersed with more odd noises, most likely made by Barrett himself.
The true standouts on the album, despite the new experimentation with sprawling psychedelic instrumentals, are the pop songs. The aforementioned “Bike” and “Matilda Mother” are essentials as well as “Scarecrow,” a near-Medieval romp over minimal organ and hand percussion, resembling a horse clip-clopping on a cobblestone road. “Lucifer Sam” is a fun little tune, borrowing from surf-rock with its almost Batman-like riffs. “Flaming” is a simple organ-centric track that mentions such things as “sitting on a unicorn” and “watching buttercups pass through light.” And “Chapter 24” is a like-minded track, though a bit slower, yet no less heavy on the organ and with the added bonus of ringing bells, an instrument that AC/DC and Iron Maiden would utilize often later on.
As great as Piper was, the rest of the band was having difficulties with Barrett, as he began to show erratic behavior on stage and often didn’t play anything at all, though he did release a few solo albums and contributed to the next couple of Floyd albums. But it wasn’t the same. Just like Sabbath without Ozzy or Van Halen without Diamond Dave, Pink Floyd after the departure of Syd Barrett wasn’t the same. And though it was all for the best in terms of the band’s vitality as well as Barrett’s mental health, the rest of their catalogue suffered. Say what you will about Wish You Were Here, my friend. It probably sounds great after a lot of hash, but Piper is one hell of trip on its own and a hell of a lot more fun.
Similar Albums/Albums Influenced:
Love – Da Capo
United States of America – United States of America
Broadcast – haha Sound
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.