Happy Anniversary: Pink Floyd, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
47 years ago today, Pink Floyd released their debut album, a psychedelic masterpiece which still remains a mystery to far too many fans of the band’s later efforts.
As debut albums go, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is somewhat of a rarity, in that it’s a case of a great band getting a chance to strut their stuff in the studio with little or no worry over to what the higher-ups at their label thought of what they were doing. In Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey, Nicholas Schaffner revealed that label executive Beecher Stevens, who’d previously – and rather notoriously – passed on the opportunity to sign the Beatles when he was working at Decca, went to see the band because he’d heard “a lot of fuss about their music and lights and so on,” but although he deemed them “weird but good,” he also felt that “one of the boys, and some of the people around them, seemed a bit strange.” As such, when EMI ultimately signed the band, Stevens made it clear that he wanted someone involved to “keep a firm hand on the sessions.” Fortunately, the person he entrusted with that task was Norman Smith, who – in addition to having engineered all of the Beatles’ albums up through Rubber Soul – got along well enough with Pink Floyd to produce not only The Piper at the Gates of Dawn but also A Saucerful of Secrets and Ummagumma.
While Smith built solid relationships with Nick Mason, Roger Waters, and Richard Wright in the studio, he’s quoted in Mark Blake’s Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd as saying that, “with Syd, I eventually realized I was wasting my time.” (Syd Barrett, of course, was going through somewhat of a problematic period at the time, due to his ongoing flirtation with a little something known as lysergic acid diethylamide.) Nonetheless, Smith was able to corral the band’s tendencies toward what their manager, Peter Jenner, called the “live ramble,” resulting in an album filled with a wonderful blend of pop, rock, psychedelia, and sometimes – as in the case of “Interstellar Overdrive” – a bit of all three.
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn wasn’t what you’d call a massive hit in America, never even cracking the top half of the Billboard Top 200 (the highest it ever got was #131), but it was a top-10 album in the UK, earning high marks from Record Mirror and New Musical Express, and over the course of time it’s come to be viewed as one of the greatest albums in Pink Floyd’s back catalog, albeit one which really doesn’t sound like any else they’ve ever done. That, of course, is due to the contributions of the aforementioned Mr. Barrett: when Rolling Stone wrote of the album in 1999 and described it as Syd’s “golden achievement,” they were not wrong.
If you’ve never heard The Piper, then you should remedy that right now. And if you’ve heard it but you’ve never bought it, then we’d recommend that you spare no expense and pick up the expanded three-disc version of the album, which feature not only the mono mix and alternate stereo version but also three early singles and some previously-unreleased outtakes, providing a fascinating look and listen into the early days of Pink Floyd.