As the fiftieth anniversary of Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn approaches, I figured I’d give it another spin. It had been forever since I’d heard it front to back. To be honest, I always preferred Floyd’s later work and considered Dark Side of the Moon to be the true start of their artistic journey. Everything that came before that, I thought, was just a lot of roly poly, trippy exploration. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I was familiar with Barrett’s work on the first two Floyd albums, as well as his solo efforts, and I always found it interesting if only in the sense that it well captured a specific period of time and place. I was also captivated – in a ghoulish way – by the story of poor Syd’s mental collapse. Still, that was just about the extent of my interest in early Floyd.
After listening to it with fresh ears – and more years – I have to say, it really is a masterpiece. It’s not merely the songs themselves that are so extraordinary, it’s how Barrett was able to create a sound and aesthetic that would resonate for generations to come. As I zoned out to the song cycle, I could hear the countless bands that ripped the guy off… Sonic Youth, Robyn Hitchcock, the Flaming Lips, Brian Jonestown Massacre, the Butthole Surfers, etc… All this to say, the man was ahead of his time in a way very few are. More surprisingly, the music doesn’t sound dated at all. Fifty years later, the space rock slash of “Interstellar Overdrive” and scratchy menace of “Lucifer Sam” sound as fresh and relevant as any new group out on the make.
Track after track, I became more entranced by Barrett’s hypnotic whimsy. In 1967, this was certainly Syd’s group, his vision, and it’s virtually unrecognizable from the Waters dominated seventies iteration. The fairy tale psychedelia of “Scarecrow”, “the Gnome”, and “Bike” are all at once endearing, crystalline cool and a little unsettling – if not outright creepy. I’ve gotta tell you, it all very much does take you somewhere – it did me, anyway. But where Waters went for the jugular with his seething observations on the human condition, Barrett’s took you gently by the hand down a kaleidoscopic path.
I think what I ultimately took away from this re-examination, was just how superior Barrett’s songs were and how sad was his fate. He was a beautiful guy and by all accounts a kind, delicate, poetic flower. You can certainly hear it in his music. It’s ironic that out of such innocent, cosmic-twee beginnings, Floyd would develop into a band that produced work that was filled with such weary insights as, “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way, the time is gone, the song is over…thought I’d something more to say”. In the end, I still wouldn’t change my belief that Floyd truly became Floyd after Dark Side of the Moon, but Piper was a lovely beginning in that ‘Summer of Love’ – borne out of the innocence of youth, when gorgeous madness surrounds you and is ever a siren that beckons.