‘GAMES FOR MAY…!!!’
Album Retrospective of:
‘THE PIPER AT THE GATES
OF DAWN’ by PINK FLOYD
(5 August 1967, Columbia SCX 6157)
‘I know a room of musical tunes,
some rhyme, some ching, most of them are clockwork,
let’s go into the other room and make them work…’
The first question is, where did it come from? Where the hell did all those wonderfully strange musics come from? People say LSD. ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ was released as a mono album 5th August 1967, with its stereo counterpart following a month later. A lot of weird stuff was going on around that time. A lot of people taking LSD. None of them create anything approaching the extreme innovatory oddness of this album. There’s a plethora of answers. None of them in itself, totally adequate. To select one at random, Norman Smith is one such. He engineered for George Martin. He’s there on the liner credits of Beatles albums. He’d watched, and participated in the conjuring of ‘Rubber Soul’ (December 1965). ‘Sgt Pepper’ emerged 1 June, some few months before ‘Piper’, but recordings for ‘Piper’ were being made as early as February. In fact, both albums were being recorded simultaneously, in different Abbey Road studios. But Pink Floyd was Norman Smith’s opportunity to take up that stethoscope and walk the walk in his own right. To take that open attitude, and apply it to his own product. The fact that Syd Barret would’ve preferred Joe Boyd as producer, but straight-besuited Norman Smith was foisted on them by EMI, could be reason for some of his obstreperous behavior. The fact that Norman would later go on to become ‘Hurricane’ Smith and chart his own MoR hits is not here yet relevant. This was his event horizon into his own expression.
“Arnold Layne” – Floyd’s debut 45rpm release from 11th March, was produced by Joe Boyd, an American associated with Witchseason and the ‘UFO’ Happenings. He’d already worked with Incredible String Band, and would reach greater levels of expression through Fairport Convention. But “Arnold Layne” and its ‘B’-side “Candy And A Current Bun” make a stunning first outing for the Floyd, with Syd already sketching in complete stories with a few selected words – ‘Arnold Layne had a strange hobby, collecting clothes, moonshine, washing line, they suit him fine’. Pre-video, a short tie-in promo-clip catches the band cavorting on a beach with a bowler-hatted mannequin, in masks, with low-budget but effective reverse-film trickology. “See Emily Play” – from 16 June 1967, became an early project with Norman Smith, recorded at Sound Technique Studio 23 May. Syd had conjured the lyric about the girl who ‘tries but misunderstands’ and ‘always borrows somebody’s dream till tomorrow’ about fifteen-year-old ‘Far Out’ Emily Young, after seeing her smoking post-gig joints at manager Peter Jenner’s house, adding the ‘Games For May’ reference later after playing the 12th May concert of the same name at Queen Elizabeth Hall.
I watch them miming to “See Emily Play” on ‘Top Of The Pops’ (6th July) and it was revelatory. They sit cross-legged on huge cushions. The audio-inserts, the accelerated-tape piano bridge between the first chorus and second verse, all edited down into neat singles-length may well have been actioned by Norman Smith, in much the same way that George Martin translated and enabled the Beatles’ vague concepts into notated charts. Norman Smith is also credited as producer for ‘Saucer Full Of Secrets’ (June 1968), and although his name remains through ‘Ummagumma’ (1969) and ‘Atom Heart Mother’ (1970) there’s an impression that by then the Floyd themselves were becoming, album by album, more in control of their own work. But his DNA is all over ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’. He’s a catalyst.
Another answer – to me the more intriguing, is the Floyd’s own imaginings. No internet back then. No ‘YouTube’. Stuff moves more slowly. Reports and hearsay are tantalising. There’d been a rapid, but creepingly slow evolution taking place, almost month by month, step by step, single by single. The British invasion shook the world. Gradually, American bands retaliate with their own inventions and additives. The Byrds. John Phillips. The Turtles, Frank Zappa. Then yet more intriguingly evocative names. Especially those from Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. The acid sub-culture. But here, in this grey grey town, known for its sounds, there were only hints and rumours. Liverpool-born publicist Derek Taylor was working as PR in Los Angeles. He filed a weekly column to the ‘Disc’ music-paper, which became increasingly strange. Writers in US u/g magazines, and their local counterparts, ‘It: International Times’ and ‘Oz’, took surreal prose into fifth dimensions describing the hallucinogenic live-music psychedelic-events of Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe & The Fish. Walls move, minds do too. An enticing weirdness, fiercely absorbing. But as yet, little more. When the Floyd finally got to play America I recall their disappointed reaction to Big Brother & The Holding Company, that they’re ‘just a Blues Band’. Because what Floyd had been doing, during those first days, was not replicating West Coast acid, but attempting to create something analogous to what they imagined was happening there. An imprecise distorted reflection of hypnotic ideas and images picked up from impossible hyperbole. From which they bled uniqueness.
There are other answers yet. Syd Barret obviously. He’s become his own continuum through the mystique of his post-Floyd albums, from ‘The Madcap Laughs’ (1970) and on. Which are amazing. But to me, his finest work is here, the vinyl within the sleeves of the first two Floyd albums. For the first, Vic Singh’s prism-lens kaleidoscope cover-photo of the group’s four members carries just the EMI logo, and the name Pink Floyd in yellow lettering. It only says ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ heading the monochrome reverse. Then the song-titles reversed-out in white across Syd’s own tentacular black image fusing the four group-members into a single organism. Syd wrote eight of the eleven tracks. Then co-wrote two more with the other Floyds (“Pow R. Toc H” and “Interstellar Overdrive”). Roger Waters adds one original song. Syd also does lead vocals for six tracks, two with Rick Wright (“Astronomy Domine” and “Matilda Mother”) and one with Roger Waters (“Pow R Toc H”). And there’s a mutant literacy about each which was never previously present in Rock, which right-angled everything that had gone before, and has seldom, if ever, been equalled since. Drawing in everything. Knowingly, people say LSD. But that’s inadequate. That’s to reduce all the complexity of imagination down to a chemical pill, a magic bullet. A ludicrous proposition. The poetic wonderings, the mental tendrils sparking synapses, were there all along. “Candy And A Current Bun” was a stoned word-play substitution when the original line ‘let’s roll another one’ was vetoed. But it was the word-game, not the joint that makes the track. It was 1967. There were ‘Plastacine Porters with looking-glass ties’. They ‘skipped the light fandago, turned cartwheels cross the floor’. Earlier, as early as August 1965, there was “Desolation Row”, and that’s closer still. But Syd Barrett takes it further, into knowing, and sometimes unknown otherness.
It starts from the very fade-in of the opening track – “Astronomy Domine”, with Peter Jenner’s muttering murmuring voice, amplified by megaphone, yet as indistinct as dialogue-signals from high-orbiting cosmonauts. First track. First album. A bass pulse. Morse bleeps. Syd’s Fender Esquire riff edged on by Mason’s drum-tick. What the Beatles down the Abbey Road corridor, or what ‘Their Satanic Majesties’ achieve with orchestration and budget, the Floyd conjure within their own group instrumentation and imagination, something totally unprecedented in Rock. Stunning. Glides and glissades of guitar, Wright’s Farfisa organ levitating it all, defying gravity. Yes, ‘the stars can frighten’, the sheer cosmic scale gets you, and the Floyd evoke in 4:12 minutes what it takes Stanley Kubrick 161-minutes to do in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968). The recitation of ‘Jupiter and Saturn, Oberon, Miranda and Titania, Neptune, Titan’ envisioning head-swimmingly beautiful astro-literate mind-scapes of those psychedelic worlds in deep frigid space, until bringing it into even sharper triple-rhyme focus – ‘stairway scare, Dan Dare, who’s there?’ referencing the vivid lavish gravure-colour ‘Eagle’ pages where, chances are, listeners first saw those planets visualised. But listen to the internal rhymes within the lines, ‘lime and limpid green, a second scene’, then ‘a fight between the blue you once knew’, but – even more, the recurrent onomatopoeic chiming of ‘floating down, the sound resounds, around the icy waters resounds’. The words flow fluid as water, you wonder – were they written that way? rippling out one into the other in spontaneous cumulative connections? Or was Syd squatting in the corner scribbling in his pad, crossing words out with his biro, substituting and replacing them until it felt right? The ‘icy waters underground’ could just be a prescient glance towards Europa, the sixth moon of Jupiter. Yet the lyrics are both cryptic and enigmatic, expansive and numinous. Where the sound and music of the words matter as much as their literal meaning – a collusion between the figurative and abstraction. Recorded 11-13 April, to hear this for the first time barely four months after, was nothing short of revelatory. There’s a later 8:29-minute version on the ‘Ummagumma’ (1969) double-set, retrieved live from a set at the Birmingham ‘Mothers’ Club on 27 April 1969 with Gilmour’s guitar, and later still on the 2-CD ‘P.U.L.S.E’ (1995), from an Earl’s Court performance 15th October 1994. But nothing can ever capture the shock of wonder in that first spiral vinyl play-in groove.
Afterwards, if the second track carries more conventional shapes, that’s only within the extreme context of the album itself. “Lucifer Sam” (3:07-mins) supposedly written about Syd’s ginger ‘siam’ cat Rover, is also ‘something I can’t explain’, built on Syd’s descending echoed-guitar riff, overlaid with odd whip-like scratching-percussion slap-effects. Rick’s swelling organ breaks out into a mid-point bowed-guitar break. The lyric involves Syd’s then-girlfriend Jennifer Spires (not the same girl as ‘Iggy The Eskimo’ naked on the Hipgnosis ‘The Madcap Laughs’ sleeve). She’s ‘Jennifer Gentle you’re a witch’ – with Sam as her familiar, always by her side. The ‘you’re the left-side, he’s the right-side’ sees them, girl-and-cat, as the twin balanced hemispheres of the single brain, the poetically convenient but now psychologically-discredited idea of the logical girl left-brain, and feline-creative right-brain. Draft-titled ‘Percy The Rat-Catcher’ it goes on to add ‘he’s a hip-cat’ in a play on the Beatnik nad-sat, with the following line ‘ship’s-cat’ perhaps too throw-away obvious to miss. There had been cat-songs before. Some pretty good ones. Syd adds the supernatural edge. Sam and Jennifer work together to weave their spell.
Syd is legendary for his long-drawn-out Buddha-like vegetative after-glow. This is the Syd I prefer. Sparking gem-like ideas. Where, you imagine, a chance observation in his flat, that Sam stays as close to Jennifer as a witches’ cat, ignites this strange track. “Lucifer Sam”, lest we forget, is also a quirky little spiky Pop-song. This is not the stadium-huge Floyd of the 1970’s and 1980’s with Flying Pigs and fly-past Spitfires. No, this is a small group. Four individuals inventing themselves in swirling times. More an Indie-group than the monster corporate dinosaur some accuse them of becoming. They don’t write this album for posterity, with the forethought of its contents being pored over, analysed and dissected four decades later. That wasn’t the way things happened. I doubt they even thought further ahead than weeks, the next gig, the one after that. The songs were instant ideas created for the moment, in the furious buzz of that moment.
So yes, where did it come from? Where did all this wonderfully strange music come from? “Matilda Mother” – side one, track three. Who is Matilda? There is no Matilda. There’s certainly a Mother-figure, the one reading the spell-weaving bedtime fairy-tales to the child. But the child, surely, is autobiographically Syd, and his mother is Winifred. No, this is another startling example of spontaneous creativity. Not that it was intended to be. The song had been an intact part of the Pink Floyd set even before they’d signed to EMI’s Columbia label. He’d written it in time for their support spot with Soft Machine at the Roundhouse ‘It (International Times)’ launch party, alongside “Intersteller Overdrive” (15 October 1966). Then they recorded it during the first album sessions, on the 21st February. Snag was, the lyrics were directly lifted from a series of comic-grotesque poems taken from ‘Cautionary Tales For Children: Designed For The Admonition Of Children Between The Ages Of Eight And Fourteen Years’ (1907) by Hilaire Belloc. The three verses tell the tale of ‘Matilda’ who told lies, ‘Jim’ who ran away from nurse only to be eaten by a lion, and ‘Henry King’ who dies from eating bits of string. Maybe they were poems that Winifred had recited to infant Syd – or Roger as he was then, during his childhood Cambridge days, the fairy stories that ‘held me high on clouds of sunlight floating by’. Drawn from sensory memories of ‘time spent in that room, the doll’s house, darkness, old perfume’. He uses the linking device of setting the verses way back then, when he was the child hanging on the tension of each ‘scribbly-black’ line, urging ‘Oh Mother, tell me more, why’d’ya have to leave me there, hanging in my infant air, waiting?’
Complete in itself, all that was necessary for the track was the mere formality of obtaining permission from the Belloc estate. Meanwhile, the group continued with the rest of the album, until, at the last moment, that permission was denied. Syd must hastily rewrite the song clear of litigation. But what is more impressive is the substitute lyrics Syd hastily contrives to replace the abruptly denied Hilaire verses, ghosting Belloc’s metre and rhyme-scheme. In doing so, he adds a new dimension to the song, and to the internal mythology of the album. He retains the link, the mother who reads the lines, so that ‘everything shines’ but conflates it with his own fairy-tales. Part Tolkien ‘a thousand misty riders climb up, higher once upon a time’, part Enid Blyton ‘across the stream with wooden shoes’ – wood floats, what other kind of shoes would you need to cross the stream? It opens ‘there was a king who ruled the land, his majesty was in command, with silver eyes the scarlet eagle, showers silver on the people’. A richly lyrical imagination of both ‘wandering and dreaming’, reflecting a child’s-eye view in which ‘the words have different meaning’. So, what of the original version? Although the song was re-recorded on 7th July with the new lyrics, and subsequently edited down by Norman Smith from 3:55 to 3:06-minutes, unheard takes of the Belloc’s lyric-version remained in the vaults. As decades passed, some doubted the veracity of the tale. That the draft-version had ever happened.
Sure, “Lucifer Sam” might nod towards Christopher Smart’s poem “My Cat Jeoffry” found in the collection ‘Jubilate Agno’ (written in a lunatic asylum 1759-‘63, first published 1939). And Syd performed much the same poem-into-song trick with the James Joyce “Poem V” from ‘Chamber Music’ (1907) to create the haunting “Golden Hair” for ‘The Madcap Laughs’. The phrase ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ itself is lifted from the Chapter Seven title of Kenneth Grahame’s enduring classic of Ratty and Mole, ‘The Wind In The Willows’ (1908). Syd with his raggled hair and disturbingly intense stare was, in the words of his biographer, a ‘Very Irregular Head’, his wide-eyed lyrics giving a hallucinatory spin to English sensibilities and eccentricities. He also had a thing about Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. “The Effervescing Elephant”, based on Lear and Belloc verses, also brings alive the bookshelf of a clever middleclass schoolboy. Just as Grace Slick reconfigured ‘Alice In Wonderland’ (1865) into Jefferson Airplane’s beguiling “White Rabbit”, or Marty Balin and Paul Kantner drew “The House On Pooh Corner” from AA Milne’s second book of Winnie-The-Pooh tales into their ‘Crown Of Creation’ (1968) album. Whimsical Fairy Tales were an integral part of Psychedelic DNA. While hints of the first take of “Matilda Mother” appeared on bootlegs, an intact track eventually appears as a bonus on the ‘40th Anniversary’ 3-CD edition of ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’, with the intriguing clearly-heard ‘the chief defect of Henry King, was chewing little bits of string, at last he swallowed some which tied, itself in ugly knots inside’. Evidently the Belloc estate had second thoughts, or belatedly appreciated the magnitude of royalties involved. This version also escapes Norman Smith’s edit-surgery, leaving the lengthy fade intact with teasing hints sampling other tracks. Which version is best…? It’s an impossible choice to make. Many years later, with Syd long-gone, Dave Gilmour with Roger Waters wrote “Comfortably Numb” for ‘The Wall’ album, dealing with his own disturbed childhood, writing ‘the child is grown, the dream is gone’. Pace Syd Barrett.
When the Floyd’s third single – “Apples And Oranges” totally failed to chart, their American label, Tower, a Capitol subsidiary, took note and it was substituted instead by the fourth album track, “Flaming” (c/w “The Gnome”) which became their equivalent third US single. It too, failed to chart. But it’s the superior track. It glides in on quivering organ, punctuated by strange whistles and night-calls resembling something from a haunted forest of phantom birds. Yet it leads into a deceptively careless sunshine-Pop of carefree throw-away lyric, sitting on a unicorn, sleeping on a dandelion, alone in the clouds all blue. The stuff of psychedelic cliché now. But not then. Its morphing metaphors magically suspend the laws of reality, logically illogical in a nonsense that makes perfect sense. ‘Hey-ho, here we go, ever so high’ with ascending spirals of organ lifted by rattling clatters, clumping percussion, sizzling serrations, shoots and tendrils, drum-thumps and guitar splinters. And cleverness too – the ‘buttercups cup the light’ and the teasing playful ‘I won’t touch you… but then, I might’. There’s also ‘you can’t see me, but I can you’ reprised with ‘you can’t hear me, but I can you’. Why this one-way perception? Something as banal as keyhole-voyeurism, or is Syd insubstantially lurking on some detached ‘Twilight Zone’ alternate plane of discorporated being? Is that to read too much into a simple hide-and-seek child-game scenario between two friends? How to unpack its meaning from admission and evasions? Perhaps there is none? Fading out with bells.
There’s mesmerising early film of Floyd performing “Pow R Toc H” in a kind of incantatory fluctuation of light-grids, effects and soft shadows. This is what journalist Penny Valentine meant when she wrote about how ‘the Pink Floyd burst on the London club scene in a kaleidoscope of colours some months ago. Literally, because colour, shapes and light gave impact’ (‘Disc & Music Echo’, April 1967). This is what she meant, the fifth album-track (the last to be recorded) is a surging instrumental with submerged voices, ‘whoo-whoo, and Doy-doy, ka-choom pa-pa, ka-choom pa-pa’, with cocktail jazz piano rising into distinct sections before resuming the signature jog-along rhythms. Yes, instrumental, but if by that you mean the Shadows, or even Booker T and The MG’s, tight catchy tunes with clean construction, this is not it. Or even jazz, of which there are free-elements. But no, it’s not that either. It is constrained by neither parameters. It’s more a mood, an atmosphere, a love-letter to instability, drawn back at touching distance from form. Later bands would dissolve into long free extemporising jams. This is concise. A sound poem. No filler. It’s by no means an insubstantial track.
The sixth track, and the closing one on the first vinyl side, is also Roger Waters’ debut song-writing contribution to the Pink Floyd. As part of the improvisational structure of “Pow R Toc H” and “Interstellar Overdrive” he gets a co-writing credit, but this is the first stand-alone song. Following Syd’s departure he’d inherit the role of principal writer and conceptual leader, until ‘The Wall’ (1979) is virtually his own creation, with ‘The Final Cut’ (1983) essentially a solo album. He mistakenly assumed his ambitions had outgrown the restrictions of the group. Causing a further rift as he went on to forge his solo career. Yet, against expectation it was the Floyd who went on to further success. All of that unknowable future began with the jerky rhythms of “Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk”. There’s something of Syd’s word-rhyme games with ‘gold is lead, jesus bled, pain is red’, spinning off apparently random connections based on their phonetic sound rather than their meaning.
Where did it come from? Where the hell did all those wonderfully strange musics come from? Lift the stylus as it circles into the final spiral groove of side one, and flip the big twelve-inch black vinyl album over. Drop the stylus onto the outer rim. See it bite. “Interstellar Overdrive” is a major anti-gravity moment for the album, and for the evolution of Rock music itself. The riff is a device with its roots in Blues and Jazz, the recurring motif that establishes and ties the architecture of the piece together, allowing for all manner of melodic changes, meandering explorations and instrumental interplays to happen above and around it, but always establishing the solid point of origin to which it will return. The riff entered the vocabulary of Rock with the Rolling Stones “The Last Time” in March 1965, followed by the Beatles “Day Tripper” in that December. By the time of Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love” it had become central, and would subsequently decline into formulaic Heavy Metal repetitions. But “Interstellar Overdrive” – the 9:41-minute side two opener, takes the riff where it had never been before, and would seldom go again. They’d already demo’d the constantly evolving track as early as 31 October 1966 at the ‘Thompson Private Recording Studios’ in Hemel Hempstead. It’s loose structure allowing for improvisation at whim, an extended 16:52-minute live-performance is captured 11 January 1967 in Peter Whitehead’s ‘Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London’ ‘Swinging Sixties’ movie (released in an edited version on the July 1968 soundtrack LP, the full-length version not legally issued until the 1990 See For Miles extended CD). The version that appears on the album was recorded 16 March 1967, with final overdubs in June. Many radically altered live versions appear on bootlegs, there’s a BBC studio-session, and a later post-Syd incarnation with Dave Gilmour’s guitar. Seriously at play, it is capable of endless reinvention.
A down-turning whip of guitar leads into throbbing bass-pulse and the opening statement of the riff-figure. A core-riff that shuffles the spine of Love’s “My Little Red Book”, itself scored by Burt Bacharach. The drums kick in for its second repetition. The riff holds fast in knife-edge contours, but almost immediately variations and disintegrations start attacking its structure until it phases down into diminishing complexity. Lines controlled, incised, repeated. Fading in a minimalistic reductionism, devolving down until it clusters around a single throb, with fragments of Richard Wright’s Farfisa organ, drums and guitar orbiting like electrons around a nucleus. Even that gaining accelerating momentum, before declining back into a drifting silver ebb and nebulous vapour-flow of galactic swirls out of which cold squiggles of guitar emerge at the frequencies of light. Sealed off by alien perfection, pale figures loom out of chaos, dazzling, mysterious and disturbing. Then it finally pours back to full intensity, drums and channel-phasing ripping into the final reprise, and the way it shocks from speaker to speaker in a restatement of the motif-riff, swooshing from left-channel to right, makes the mind rattle and the skin tingle, into a climax droning and decelerating to a tom-tom-paced close. It’s a head-exploding piece, happiness guaranteed. How much is anticipated? There would be longer looser spacier improvisations in Rock-to-come – the Grateful Dead’s endlessly meandering “Dark Star”, but this is tight as well as loose. Although live it could work on intuition and rapport, in the studio it must have been disciplined tight, surely? It must have been scored. Yet Syd captures the lightning, if not in a bottle, at least in a vinyl groove. This final edit is a revelation.
There are four tracks remaining. Three neat little psychedelic songs, and one final extended mind-blower to close the album. All are Syd originals, in every sense of that overworked word. He puts a reliably effervescent spring into the step of each verse. “The Gnome” is Syd at his most twee and whimsical. Even Donovan Leitch, frequently dismissed for his whimsy, is never as whimsical as this. There’s a tick-tocking metrognome play-in. Then Syd, states his intention, ‘I’d like to tell you a story, ‘bout a little man, if I can’. He goes on to introduce ‘Grimble Grumble’. If this little gnome in his scarlet tunic with its blue-green hood, eating sleeping and drinking his wine, is a Hobbit-related species, then his (unspecified) ‘big adventure’ could be of a JRR Tolkien-ist nature. Or maybe it’s just more scribbly-black lines from fairy tales told by Mother Winifred to infant Syd during his ‘time spent in that room, the doll’s house, darkness, old perfume’. What does his big adventure consist of? He wanders in the enchanted forest, ‘amid the grass, fresh air at last’. He looks at the sky, he looks at the river – with whispered double-track echo and acoustic guitar-strum as he judges ‘isn’t it good?’ He’s finding winding places, and a new way for gnomes to say… what? Variously the long convoluted evocation sounds to be ‘Hoooooray’, or it might just be an existential ‘Whooooo-am I?’, or then again, a kind of invented mantra sorcery-word ‘oooom-rai’. Gnomically, it’s not easy to decipher. If it’s ‘Hooray’ then he’s repeating a refrain from two lines earlier. There’s a version on the ‘Dawn Of The Piper’ bootleg (HRV CDR018) recorded at the BBC Playhouse Theatre (25 September), and broadcast as part of Radio One’s John Peel ‘Top Gear’ (1st October 1967). Here the vocals are more harmonised, and the word ‘Hooray’ becomes a party-celebration. But instead, on the official album, he ‘leaves us there, hanging in the infant air, waiting’. Maybe for Marc Bolan – the ‘Bopping Elf’, to pick up on it…?
Between “The Gnome” and “The Scarecrow”, is “Chapter 24”, and on an album of much strangeness, this is seriously strange. With tune-lines structured around the kind of eastern phrasing favoured by the likes of Incredible String Band, with nothing resembling a conventional chorus or middle-eight, it opens with cymbal-clash, and is etched with the piping organ-sound soon to be repeated on the Beatles near-contemporary ‘B’-side “Baby You’re A Rich Man” (July 1967). The matching lyric-phrases are extracted and modified from ‘The I-Ching’, the Chinese ‘Book Of Changes’, ‘a movement is accomplished in six stages, and the seventh brings return’. Sure, it’s now become a commercial Fortune-Teller’s mystification with practitioners located through woman’s magazine box-adverts or tabloid classifieds. But back then it was something unfamiliar and esoteric, ‘action’ it suggests, ‘brings good fortune’. John Lennon was an early sceptic with ‘I don’t believe in I-Ching’ (in “God” on ‘John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’, 1970). Although on outtakes from ‘Blood On The Tracks’ (1975) Bob Dylan sings ‘I threw the I-Ching yesterday, it said there’d be some thunder at the well’ (“Idiot Wind”). As a believer or merely an opportunistic visitor to the pages of hexagram divinations, sampling its oracular poetic potential, Syd constructs a web of allusions which imply philosophical depth while actually meaning very little, ‘the seven is the number of the young light, it forms when darkness is increased by one’. But it works on the cut-up principle of accumulating dislocation, with mesmerising effect.
One of the strengths of this album is that any individual track, even those that seem minor additions, can be spun off and unraveled into such speculative argument and analysis. “The Scarecrow” is just such an example. Superficially it’s a dip into the Worzel Gummidge, ‘Wizard Of Oz’ Straw Man world. The forlorn black and green man of straw, with the ‘bird on his hat’ standing in a field of barley. Unmoving, unless stirred by the wind. Only field-mice for company. With a head that does no thinking. The track clackety-clacks with click-click pop-pop percussion and a meandering organ blown by that same breeze. But the line lengths are disrupted by two jarringly brief seemingly throwaway couplets – ‘he didn’t care’ and later ‘he doesn’t mind’, intimating that because this is Syd Barrett, there’s a kick too. The last of the three brief verses, before finally bowed-strings emerge in time to fade, switches the focus. Now, the scarecrow ‘is sadder than me’. Is Syd, within the whirling psychic maelstrom of his own disintegrating meltdown, drawing parallels? As though he is the ‘head that doesn’t think’ who is ‘resigned to his fate’ because ‘life’s not unkind’? Or is that to be too fanciful?
And – finally, there’s “Bike”, recorded 21 May 1967. The Beatles made a point of closing their albums with a stand-out track, from “Twist And Shout” through to “Day In A Life”. With “Bike”, ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ follows this precedent. It crashes directly into the vocal, which, as an example of Syd’s seemingly spontaneous composition, seldom gets better. The four initial verses, each opening with a crash, use a throw-away first-thought rhyme that could seem casual verging on the slapdash – ‘I’ve got a bike, you can ride it if you like’, then ‘I’ve got a cloak, it’s a bit of a joke’, followed by ‘I know a mouse, and he hasn’t got a house’, before finally ‘I’ve got a clan of gingerbread men, here a man, there a man, lots of gingerbread men’. That it works, that it gets the balance right, that the cartoon-lightbulb inspiration equilibrium holds, validates his quirky technique of teetering on the serendipitous edge, a fragile creation made of words and dreams without safety-belt. The connecting chorus, defined first by a descending whine, then – for its first repeat, an ascending whine, ‘you’re the kind of girl that fits in with my world’ explains that ‘I’ll give you anything, everything – if you want things’. Things are material. They are not important. The world he’s inviting her into is not a materialistic world. Back at the very dawn of the sixties – a mere seven years earlier, blonde Popstrel Adam Faith had asked ‘vot do you vont if you don’t vont money, vot do you vont if you don’t vont gold, say vot you vont and I’ll give it you darling, vish you vanted my love, boy-bay’. As a further inducement to seduction Adam offers the object of his desire pearls, ermine and a diamond ring. For Syd, none of these things are important. Instead, she can have the bike, although he’s only borrowed it. She can have the cloak if she thinks it could look good, even though there’s a tear up the front. She can have a couple of gingerbread men too, they’re on the dish. Naturally, it’s easy for the likes of George Harrison to scorn those trapped in the material world, from the luxury of one of his Beatles-financed mansions. Syd Barrett was never a wealthy Rock star, although arguably the other members of Floyd use this album as a first step to achieving that status. For Syd this is naturally the Bohemian Beatnik contra-bling mindset of his unworldly world.
But for “Bike”, this is just the first phase. Going into the third bridging chorus repetition there are scattered keyboards, before a return to the ascending whine for its final reprise, but slowing. Now it seems that all of the afore-mentioned material inducement are less important than the song’s shattering denouement. His real gift is the invitation ‘I know a room of musical tunes, some rhyme, some ching, most of them are clockwork, let’s go into the other room and make them work…’ There are footsteps. A reverberating door-slam, then the crescendo cacophony clockwork sounds that represent ‘the other room’ (the same audio-joke of sound-footsteps leading the listener between rooms had been used by Norman Smith’s mentor, George Martin on his production of the Goons’ “Ying-Tong-Song”). The long introductory passage of chiming clocks and ringing alarms on the ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ track “Time” are perhaps a distant echo of this primal big-bang detonation. As the track’s final bizarre sound revelation, and the last for the album itself, there’s a procession of duck-voices! And what absurdist visual images that conjures! For me, it’s an endless spiral of quacking cloned yellow plastic-ducks receding, uncoiling to infinity across a background of swirling paisley-fractel images. And the last question has to be this, where did it come from? Where the hell did all those wonderfully strange musics come from?
On 9th June the Floyd arrived in Hull to play the ‘College of Technology and Commerce’. On Thursday, the 28th September they return to play ‘The Skyline Ballroom’ above the city-centre Co-op store. Prior to the gig I was intercepted by their tour-van adjacent to Drypool Bridge. An encounter detailed elsewhere. Across those same six months, from first sessions to album release, the Floyd had accelerated from humble shambolic support-slots to the front covers of ‘Melody Maker’. Critically, the album was generally well received, with ‘Record Mirror’ commending ‘plenty of mind-blowing sound’ in the way ‘the psychedelic image of the group really comes to life on this LP, which is a fine showcase for both their talent and their recording technique’. It entered the ‘Record Retailer’ album chart at no.14 (9th August), rose through no.13, spent two weeks at no.8, up one rung to no.7, then peaked at a modest no.6 (23 September). You wonder what five better albums could possibly have outsold it that week? Well – they were (1) ‘Sgt Pepper’, (2) ‘The Sound Of Music’ soundtrack, (3) ‘The Best Of The Beach Boys’ hits compilation, (4) ‘Scott’ by Scott Walker and (5) the ‘Doctor Zhivago’ movie soundtrack. ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ was listed for a respectable fourteen weeks. It gets no higher than no.131 on ‘Billboard’. For the Floyd, it was a start… for Syd, pretty much the end…
For Norman Smith the sessions seem not to have left pleasant memories. He considered Syd to be unmanageable, undisciplined. In truth Syd had always intended to be the aural equivalent of Jackson Pollock, not the neat Beat-group product Smith was tasked with shaping. But, if testing for Norman, this was a testing-to-destruction process for Syd, the doomed poet. Prior to their October American tour they were pressured to come up with a third single. The result was “Apples And Oranges” c/w “Paintbox” (18 November 1967), Syd’s final Floyd ‘A’-side, supposedly prompted by seeing his enigmatic one-time girlfriend Lindsay Corner shopping in Richmond. There are flashes of originality – ‘I love she, she loves me’, ‘I stop and have to think, what a funny thing to do ‘cos I’m feeling very Pink’, and the almost choir-boy mid-point break, but for the first time its strangeness seems forced, its dubbed-on effects (‘down by the riverside feeding ducks in the afternoon tide’ – ‘quack quack quack’) added to built wackiness rather than naturally growing out of it. The lyrics – ‘thought you might like to know, I’m a lorry-driver man’, clumsy and silly. Its failure would redirect Floyd away from singles, into concentration on underground album-centric status, encouraged by the reception of ‘Piper’.
In January of 1968 Dave Gilmour was tried-up to augment the four-piece, not as a replacement, more compensating for Syd’s increasing unpredictability. 26th January the group played Southampton without Syd. On April 6th Syd’s separation from the Floyd became official. He plays on three of the ‘Saucerful Of Secrets’ tracks (issued 29 June 1968), “Remember A Day”, “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun”, and his only composition-contribution “Jugband Blues”. With some irony he writes ‘I’m wondering who could be writing this song’. Adding with some mocking self-awareness ‘it’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here, and I’m much obliged to you for making it clear… that I’m not here’. Other fractured songs he’d written, “Vegetable Man”, “Scream Thy Last Scream”, “In The Beechwoods” and “No Title (Sunshine)” were omitted from the album but have since filtered out in various salvaged forms. From that point on Syd, and Pink Floyd continue as distinct separate entities, with only very occasional cross-overs. The long-lost “Matilda Mother” was finally issued in 2007 as part of the 3-CD ‘Special Edition’ drawing in the constellation of surrounding singles – “Arnold Layne”, “See Emily Play”, and “Apples And Oranges” and alternate mixes of the 9:41-minute magnum opus “Insterstellar Overdrive”. Neil Armstrong’s small step was still two years into the future, but this album was the equivalent great leap forward for Rock music.