Piper at the Gates of Dawn

When people tell you that Syd Barrett was nuts, that’s not an understatement. He was the original leader of Pink Floyd, and he liked to do LSD. He was also intensely creative, writing most of these songs, and he was the primary force behind this group in their early years. Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Rick Wright already displayed superb musicianship, but at this point they were merely the followers of this grand guru of mind-blowing psychedelic music. Unfortunately, Barrett’s sanity was hanging by a thread (something that any amateur psychologist would note reading his lyrics), and the band would be forced to kick him out shortly after the release of the album. Luckily for us all, however, he hung on long enough to record Piper at the Gates of Dawn, a premiere psychedelic album. If any album is going to ‘blow you away,’ it’s gonna be this one.

If you’ve ever wondered what it must be like traveling through outer space while tripped up on acid, you needn’t look further than “Interstellar Overdrive,” the nine-minute spaced-out jam session that the band reportedly made up on the spot. Doing acid is dangerous and I wouldn’t recommend it, but I would highly recommend listening to this song! It’s a stream-of-consciousness that takes you down a wild ride. It opens with a menacing and memorable riff that repeats a few times… But after that, we’re treated to a wild array of organ noodles, strangely textured guitars, beeping noises, dissonant chords, and complicated drum patterns. At times, you get the feeling that they were really not even concerned with what they were playing … just that it came out as weird and spaced-out as possible. And what can I say? This draws me in right from the very beginning, and it never loses my attention. Believe me, this is a feat difficult to achieve.

“Astronomy Domine” is also one of the great space-rock tracks, and this one has a vocal melody and really bizarre lyrics! The rhythm guitars and the drums play at a menacing pace while Barrett’s sleepy and tone-deaf lead vocals take us on a strange journey through the cosmos. Some of the instruments, notably that descending, high-pitched guitar that wails every once in awhile, is a little bit out-of-tune.

If you thought those two songs were weird, wait until you’ve heard the children’s songs which is when Barrett’s at his all-time creepiest. It’s like he’s trying to mess with our inner child.“Bike” is reminiscent of a carnival ride tune, and Barrett is the evil ringleader of our minds. He sings a catchy melody with crazy lyrics about a mouse, a gingerbread man, and whatever else he could think of… You’ll note that his lyrics usually don’t make much sense, but there’s typically a barely logical but followable thread that runs through them. Probably the sanest song in terms of linear lyrics is “The Gnome,” which is simply about a gnome that goes out exploring one day.

As far as “pop songs” go, the one that can’t be beat is “Lucifer Sam.” The melody is catchy as nobody’s business, and the instrumentals are both exciting and trippy. The drums and that descending rhythm guitar provide an excellent backbone while Nick Mason does some weird organ noodling in the background. I’m also quite fond of “Flaming,” with its strange catchy melody and the effective echo put to the vocals. Many of the comments I read about this album express tons of admiration for their technical achievements in the studio. I have to say I’m fairly ignorant about studio techniques and so I can’t comment on much. But I can say that part of the reason Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a masterpiece is due to the production. And I’m sure other bands of the time were taking notes.

Just to prove how insane Syd Barrett actually was, look “Take Thy Stethoscope and Walk.” I say that because it wasn’t a Barrett composition but rather Roger Waters, his very first one. He does his mightiest to imitate Barrett’s sheer nuttiness, but all he can manage is a three-note melody that rhymes random words together. Yeah, I can tell those are random! No such luck! Also lacking enjoyability is the dreary “Chapter 24” with lyrics taken right out of a Chinese proverbs book. Not that the lyrics really matter much, but the melody is dull and so is the instrumentation. Disappointing.

The album might have its low-spots, but who cares? This is a nutty, nutty, nutty album that pioneered the menacing space-rock vein of psychedelic music. Not only is it historically important, but it’ll take you on an acid trip through outer space. Short of paying NASA a million dollars and sneaking LSD with you onto the ship, this is the closest thing you’ll ever get to that.

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