Ranking the songs on Pink Floyd’s debut album ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’
In 1967, as acid-rock began to hit the streets of London, there was one band who were seemingly soundtracking the new revolution. It wasn’t the pop music of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, it was Roger Waters, Syd Barrett, Nick Mason and Rick Wright. It was Pink Floyd.
The band quickly became the sound of a new movement and started to construct the foundations of psychedelic prog-rock almost immediately. The band’s debut album, released on this day in ’67, is one of the crowning moments of a group whose career lasted decades. So we thought we’d look more closely at The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and rank the songs from worst to best.
One caveat we must add is that thanks to the unique way Pink Floyd constructed and texturised their songs, there is almost certainly always somebody who has found happiness in their more obscure songs. The band prided themselves on being mercurial and they certainly lived up to that ethos. Even from the very beginning.
The band formed some years before under Syd Barrett’s leadership and soon became the voice of a generation who was beginning to expand their minds, both naturally and chemically. In the UK, no singles were released from the album and the LP showcased that the group weren’t interested in soaring up the charts. They were interested in providing a true ‘experience’.
Though Waters, Wright and Mason were involved in all of the songs, the album is seen largely as the brainchild of Syd Barrett, the band’s leader whom sadly struggled to curtail his drug abuse and found himself struggling with his mental health. He was replaced by David Gilmour before the band’s next chapter and so this album is a reminder of his astral genius.
Songs from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn ranked:
11. ‘Pow R. Toc. H’
It may well be one of the only songs the band composed all together, but there’s something a little lacking in this instrumental piece known as ‘Pow R. Toc. H’. The second-longest song on the album means that the song can tend to drag a little when compared with the rest of the record.
According to Nick Mason, the track was inspired by The Beatles after the four Floyd members were welcomed into the Abbey Road studios to watch The Beatles lay down ‘Lovely Rita’ for Sgt. Pepper. The voice effects and deliberate ‘noises’ influenced the band and the development of ‘Pow R. Toc. H’ was complete.
10. ‘The Gnome’
Quite possibly one of the more ridiculous songs you’ll hear from Pink Floyd, many have pointed to ‘The Gnome’ as being Barrett deliberately thumbing his nose to the overreliance on lyrical poetry for pop music bands. The rhyming couplets are so simple “a blue-green hood, it looked quite good” that the folk-rock angle can sometimes make the song feel a bit silly.
However, it may well be this simplicity that Barrett is trying to use on his audience. Sounding close to a nursery rhyme, yet apparently inspired by J. R. R. Tolkein, the song meanders through pop music to psychedelic trip without a care in the world.
9. ‘Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk’
It’s not very often you’ll hear Pink Floyd doing a garage rock number but you cannot avoid that comparison on this track. ‘Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk’ is often cited as one of the weakest songs on the album but there’s something about the Roger Waters-penned energy to the song that is intoxicating.
It may not have the slick skill of Floyd’s later work but the frenetic effervescence acts as a welcomed shot in the arm in the middle of the record. Waters’ performance is aggressive and unadulterated—some of his best.
A childlike presentation of the song can make this track shine with nostalgia. First released as the B-side to ‘See Emily Play’, the song returned for the band’s debut record. It once again sees Barrett play with the juxtaposing themes of childhood and existential dread.
Those themes would transform Pink Floyd into a powerhouse band but on ‘Scarecrow’ there’s a little something missing from it being the real deal. It still acts as a classic Barrett composition and highlights the singer’s moving mind.
7. ‘Matilda Mother’
Written by Barrett but sung by Rick Wright, ‘Matilda Mother’ was the first song written for the debut album and feels imbued with that energy and enthusiasm. Even listening back to the record over 50 years later, this song can still surprise you.
Not one of Floyd’s most expansive compositions, the track is still a bright moment in their career. The lyrics are snippets of fairy tales as if to mimic being read to by his mother. It represents a common theme in Barrett’s writing as he plunges his childhood for nostalgic tender moments.
6. ‘Lucifer Sam’
Pink Floyd have officially landed. This is the moment on the album where the full force of Pink Floyd’s vision arrives with aplomb. A space-rock giant in the making, ‘Lucifer Sam’ is another Barrett composition and sees the band at their sultry best, building off the sinister descending riff.
‘Lucifer Sam’ is consistently referred to as a cat during the song but that didn’t stop people suggesting Barret actually meant cat as in “hip cat” who was trying to be with his girlfriend Jenny Spires or “Jennifer Gentle” in the song. But in reality, Barrett really was referencing his own Siamese cat. The song was originally called ‘Percy the Rat Catcher’.
Another song which allows Barrett to dig into the fantastical fairytales of his childhood, this Syd Barrett-penned song sees the lyrics describe childlike games with unicorns and buttercups. It makes for a truly bewildering experience listening back over 50 years later.
It also offers one of the more intriguing looks into the mind of Barrett. Clearly fascinated by the fantastical on this song his lyrics work perfectly with the gentle sonics. The prominent organ is heartening and the driving bass makes sure this song is only going upward.
“Lazing in the foggy dew, sitting on a unicorn, no fair, you can’t hear me but I can you.”
Another moment of Barrett’s lyrical simplicity is perhaps the perfect album closer for The Piper at the Gates of Down—’Bike’ is another double-dose of Barrett’s mind’s eye.
Not only are you offered the view of Barrett in everyday life, penning some sweet lyrics for his love. “You’re the kind of girl that fits in my with world. I will give you anything, everything, if you want things,” sings the vocalist. But also into the morphing psychedelic mind too, as he continually refers to fantastical elements.
Aside from the lyrics the track takes a new turn after the final verse with an instrumental piece that is chock full of oscillators, clocks, gongs, bells, a violin, and other sounds edited with tape effects. It’s truly befuddling and worthy of closing out the record.
3. ‘Chapter 24’
One of the band’s most beloved songs on the album, it was even considered for some of their ‘best of’ records. The song may not be as whimsical or joyful as previous outings but the song’s roots are deeply seated in everything that made Pink Floyd a new and fresh band.
Not only is the music expansive and flecked with the modernity of the day, but lyrically Barrett translated some of the words from chapter 24 of the ancient Chinese tome, I, Ching. Perhaps best shown in the song’s opening lyrics “All movement is accomplished in six stages…” which is taken from the book’s instructions for performing divination.
It’s arguably the distilled beauty of Pink Floyd’s early moments.
2. ‘Interstellar Overdrive’
When you have a song placed between two of the nonsense songs on your record, as ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ was placed between Stethoscope’ and ‘Gnome’, then you need a real winner to stand out and hold the rest of the album up. The instrumental piece, ‘Interstellar’ certainly did that.
Composed by all four members of the band, the instrumental is a bold and brash footstep on to an uncharted planet. There’s some heavy rock guitars and absolutely zero whimsy on this song and it acts as one of the strongest moments on the album. Clocking in at ten minutes long it was a spiralling ascent into the atmosphere and beyond.
As well as being rightly seen as the starting point of Pink Floyd’s prog-rock dominance, the song was also the very first psychedelic instrumental improvisations recorded by a rock band. They were pioneering Pink Floyd, from the very start.
1. ‘Astronomy Domine’
We can already hear the groans of derision from our diehard Pink Floyd fans. The band have inspired such deep and meticulous research from their fans, that calling the most famous song from the album, the best, can leave a bad taste in their mouth. However, we hope they’d agree that ‘Astronomy Domine’, on reflection, cannot be beaten.
Often seen as one of the first times the band broke into their ‘space rock’ outfits, the song has been widely adored by Floyd fans since it was first shared. Opening the album with their manager reading the names of planets, stars and galaxies were always going to set an intention for the album and ‘Astronomy Domine’ sets the pace of the album and quite possibly the band.
There’s something about the song’s intention that makes it the clear winner of any album contest. The song offers an escape to all those who hear it and provides a crystal clear image of the worlds Pink Floyd were about to create.