Pink Floyd – Piper at the Gates of Dawn
Those who have only ever been exposed to Pink Floyd through classic rock radio or syncing Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz in a darkened dorm room are not going to know what to do with this. Nevertheless, to a certain sort of head, Pink Floyd’s 1967 debut album is their best. They never did anything quite like it again and yet it charted a course for the celestial overtones and experimental ambitions that would stay with them for the next half-dozen years (their eventual crash back down to Earth was pretty ugly).
The reason it stands at such distance from the rest of Floyd’s catalog comes down to one man: Syd Barrett, the band’s leader, lead vocalist, songwriter and guitarist. His personality dominated their early work until LSD abuse and erratic behavior forced his ouster—he’d only contributed one song to their second album. Nevertheless, he’s on fire here; launching straight into outer space on the album opener “Astronomy Domine,” then starting the B-side in “Interstellar Overdrive.” Much of the rest of the time he’s showing off how much irresistibleness he can pack into three minutes or less. There’s “Lucifer Sam,” with its menacing, spy-theme of a groove; the elegiacal “Matilda Mother”; the child-like fun of “The Gnome” and “Bike”; the flooring psychedelia of “Burning” and “Chapter 24.” Barrett’s lyrics, while brilliant throughout, very much sound like the musings of a man working his way through too much consumption of psychedelic drugs.
An anecdote from the recording of the album holds that in March 1967, Pink Floyd was working on Piper at EMI Studios with Norman Smith, the Beatles’ former engineer, when he took them into Studio Two to visit the Beatles as they continued work on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. At this session, John Lennon began behaving erratically, claiming to feel ill, and Beatles producer George Martin took him up to the roof of the studios for some fresh air and left him there. When Paul McCartney and George Harrison were informed of this, it “suddenly struck the two Beatles with force. They knew why John was ill—he was in the middle of an LSD trip”; this according to Mark Lewisohn’s 1988 book The Beatles Recording Sessions. “He was quickly fetched down to the studio before he killed himself.” Who probably dosed him? Syd.