Led by the late, great Syd Barrett, the original incarnation of the Floyd brought a level of strangeness to the rock and roll scene that was both refreshing in its seeming naivete and frightening in its representation of reality’s dark underbelly. These guys were louder and weirder than the Beatles (who, incidentally, were at Abbey Road studios at the same time as the Floyd, recording SPLHCB). Their sound was revolutionary in 1967, and it was a revelation for me when I first heard it 27 years after its original release. Melodic, warped, raw, freewheeling and at times, creepy as hell, I’d never heard anything like it. To say it blew my mind would be an understatement. From the top-
Astronomy Domine– Enter at your own risk. The original transmission from the satellite heart, accompanied by geiger counter bleeps, the chill of deep space and the feeling that something amazing was about to happen. Idiosyncratic caveman wallops, surf guitar Syd swooping in childlike and we’re off and running. If there’s a land of the dead, it’s at the edge of what’s real and you can go there without fear if you can remember that it’s all a dream. One can almost picture the Floyds careening through the inky black, wide-eyed, mad with laughter like four young delinquents on Halloween who’ve just learned to raise hell.
Lucifer Sam– Swashbuckling mystery cat. You can hear the Floyd’s rhythm and blues roots in the bass thump and the impatient thwack of the snare but the shifty production and whiplash guitar stabs hint at something altogether more sinister. That cat’s something I can’t explain…
Matilda Mother– The perfect soundtrack to a childhood fever dream, complete with claustrophobic organ incantations from the crypt. Something tells me this kid never woke up.
Flaming– An ominous drone, wind through gnarled willows and suddenly we’re through the looking glass. “Yipee! You can’t see me but I can you!” Wherever this is, it’s a far cry from the reality of consensus. Unicorns, giant dandelions and the ability to travel by telephone? I’ll take some of what they’re having. This song evokes nothing so much as the crystalline insularity of the perfect acid experience. By the end of the trip, Syd’s gleeful refusal to acknowledge any reality outside of his own sounds more like enlightenment than it does madness.
Pow R. Toc H.– If Bill Evans collaborated with Mola Ram and Weird Al Yankovic, the result might sound like this.
Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk– Bookended by what must be one of the most startling (and dogmatically mathematical) drum intro/outros in history, the boys close out side one with a bang. Stream of consciousness mumbo-jumbo and random pop culture references give way to the most fucked up R&B groove you’ve ever heard. The bass bumps, Rick Wright channels Booker T. on crack and Mr. Barrett can’t seem to decide whether he wants to play rhythm guitar or lead. The result sounds like shattered glass with a side of multiple personality disorder. All that and you can dance to it. Bassist Roger Waters penned this one and reportedly hates it. One of my personal favorites.
Interstellar Overdrive– Astronomy Domine may have given us our first glimpse of the final psychedelic frontier but Interstellar Overdrive catapults us directly into the heart of darkness at full speed. Angular thrash guitar and fuel-injected drums disintegrate in the vacuum of outer space (or is it inner space?)where a disjointed chorus of clicks, beeps, pops, drones and swells are our only signposts. This is probably where Major Tom ended up after the song faded out. By the time the diabolical main riff returns, home seems like a distant memory.
The Gnome– A welcome respite after the cacophony of I.O., this rustic ditty’s about a gnome.
Chapter 24– An appropriately eastern-flavored tone poem built around excerpts from the I Ching. Action brings good fortune!
The Scarecrow– Continuing in the pastoral vein of the last couple tunes, The Scarecrow is textbook English/Celtic folk with an odd meter. Pretty. Spooky.
Bike– And then, just when you thought the coast was clear, our fearless heroes drop a cuckoo clock on our heads. If this isn’t the sound of pure lunacy, I don’t know what is. The tune is comprised of increasingly nonsensical verses punctuated by vaudevillian drum rolls alternate with choruses that proclaim detachedly, “You’re the kind of girl that fits in with my world.” By the final verse, when our detached protagonist finally admits to having “a room full of musical tunes”, it has become eerily clear where we’ve really been for the last 41 odd minutes. This is classic English gobbledygook at its most maniacal.
The story of Syd Barrett’s subsequent drug-fueled descent into insanity and seclusion is well known. Perhaps in his attempt to enter into and pluck meaning from the darker corners of childhood memories, fairy tales, and dreams, he’d somehow become lost in the kaleidoscope of his own fantasies. Pink Floyd would never be the same band. They were never quite as experimental, melodic, or unsettling as they were with Barrett at the helm, and Piper At the Gates of Dawn is a testament to his dark genius. One is forced to wonder, “What if?” But it doesn’t matter anymore. With the addition of David Gilmour (Syd’s childhood friend) on guitar, the band went on to record several undeniably classic albums and succeeded in carving out a niche for themselves alongside rock’s most renowned dinosaurs, playing decidedly grown-up music to sold out arenas around the world. Syd Barrett died on July 7, 2006 at the age of 60.