Today is the 54th birthday of Pink Floyd’s 1967 debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, where Pink Floyd burst onto the scene. It is a standout of the band’s lauded Syd Barrett fronted era. For this reason, it ranks amongst the most significant works in the whole of the band’s back catalogue. However, there is another factor that has contributed to its unparalleled status.
If “The Big Bang” was the event that caused the universe to come into being, the same term can be used to describe what happened when Pink Floyd dropped The Piper in 1967. It is the founding masterpiece in psychedelic music, and it spawned subgenres such as space rock whilst deeply informing burgeoning fields such as experimental rock and acid pop.
You may be sat there chuntering to yourself that it was actually The Beatles who kicked off the age of psychedelia by teasing it on 1965’s Rubber Soul and then fully realising it on 1966’s Revolver. I would wager that you rethink your position.
Yes, The Beatles, among others, released major albums in the psychedelic genre. However, none captured the feeling of actually tripping out on LSD as much as The Piper. In actuality, Revolver resembles more of a straight-up rock record that flirted with psychedelia rather than a fully-fledged sonic trip.
Additionally, for those wondering, Hendrix’s debut, Are You Experienced?, came out in May ’67, but one would posit that it also features in the same category as Revolver. A visceral and groundbreaking record in its own right, it’s markedly different from Piper, and makes little use of electronic-analogue sounds.
Pink Floyd’s debut is a brilliant psychedelic journey through space and time, matched by an appropriate level of production that augmented the unhinged acid-drenched lullabies of frontman Syd Barrett. For diehard Pink Floyd fans, it might not even rank in their top five albums of all time, as successor, A Saucerful of Secrets (1968), built on Piper‘s brilliance. Herein lies the point, Piper started it all for Floyd. Without it, there would be no Atom Heart Mother (1970), Meddle (1971), The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), and all else.
It laid the groundwork for what Floyd would become, even if today it may seem like a rather juvenile and theatrical body of work in comparison to the longing retrospective of Wish You Were Here (1975) and the highly cerebral prog of The Division Bell (1994). However, Piper contains pepperings of the musical concepts that Pink Floyd would master on later albums.
It contains elements of the concept album, a modus operandi Pink Floyd would go on to perfect. Piper also experiments with dynamics and jams in a way that hadn’t been done before, again adding to the album’s incredible foresight. It is almost as if Barrett had conceptualised the album’s makeup whilst on an acid trip.
It is worth noting at this point that whilst the album is widely hailed as influencing psychedelia and LSD takers, Barrett is noted as the only one in the band who really ever paid much attention to the hippie movement’s drug of choice. This drug abuse has been regarded as one of the leading factors in the well-documented deterioration of his mental health.
The album opener ‘Astronomy Domine’ perfectly sets the pace for the rest of the record. It is a grandiose example of early psychedelic rock that has a sinister, off-kilter edge. Sonically, it can be taken as a masterpiece given the era. The tension builds and builds, and it sounds as if the band were performing it live from space, transmitting it back to earth. It also has a weird B-movie edge, undoubtedly owing to the time of recording.
Another highlight is the second song, ‘Lucifer Sam’ which fades in with that iconic riff. The riff is brilliant as it resembles a Bond-esque spy theme, which again is so ’60s but so brilliant. It is not hard to imagine this song soundtracking the overly zany TV show The Avengers while Diana Rigg and Co. work to thwart the latest sci-fi villain.
The album is so bizarre that its title was taken from the god Pan’s appearance in the 1908 story The Wind in the Willows. The pastoral classic can retrospectively be afforded psychedelic qualities stemming from its use of talking animals and wacky settings. It is also credited with sowing the seeds of psychedelic imagery in the young Syd Barrett’s head.
Other stand out moments from the album include the brilliant single ‘Flaming’, an uptempo piece with the unmistakable organ line that sounds as if Pan was playing it himself. ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, is another high point. If the name itself was not enough to convince you of its intent, it is a meandering, noisy instrumental that spans nearly ten minutes of unhinged yet brilliant dynamic variation.
Although it was omitted from the original release, no discussion of Piper would be complete without mentioning Barrett’s most iconic offering, ‘See Emily Play’. Originally released as a UK non-album single, but included on the 40th-anniversary edition of The Piper, ‘See Emily Play’ is the most concise and perfectly executed piece from the Barrett era.
It features his lullaby-like vocals, the classic LSD inspired lyric “you’ll lose your mind and play”, and groundbreaking use of varied effects and instrumentation all in under three minutes. ‘See Emily Play’ is the most apparent example of Pink Floyd’s path in later years.
Although now it is often overlooked for its compositional structure or overshadowed by the perceived drug references — which would culminate in Syd Barrett’s crippling mental breakdown and his departure from the band — The Piper at the Gates of Dawn should be regarded as the definitive album in early psychedelic rock.
It is a majestic work that laid the foundations of the titan that future Pink Floyd would become. Suppose the kaleidoscopic album artwork is not the most immediate inference of the journey the listener is about to embark on. In that case, within a minute of the needle touching the wax, you are transported into space by the band, a journey lasting just over forty minutes before you crash land back to earth, wondering what the hell you’ve just experienced.
So on its 54th birthday, why not jump back into the unmistakable sound of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and take yourself on a journey beyond our earthly realm.
Listen to Pink Floyd’s brilliant debut, below.