On August 5, 1967, a budding British rock band called Pink Floyd released their debut studio album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, a psychedelic exploration led by the songwriting exploits of the band’s eccentric singer-guitarist, Syd Barrett. The album was named after the title of chapter seven of Kenneth Grahame‘s The Wind in the Willows and featured a kaleidoscopic cover photo of the band. It was recorded at the fabled Abbey Road Studios from February to May 1967, the same time during which The Beatles were recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band down the hall.
Label EMI‘s press release introducing the band ahead of the release claimed that they were “musical spokesmen for a new movement which involves experimentation in all the arts”, but EMI attempted to put some distance between them and the underground scene from which the band originated by stating that “the Pink Floyd does not know what people mean by psychedelic pop and are not trying to create hallucinatory effects on their audiences.” The band’s record deal was relatively small for the time, amounting to £5,000 over five years with virtually nonexistent royalties and no free studio time. However, the deal did include album development, so the label, unsure of exactly what kind of band they had signed, gave them free rein to record whatever they wanted, and that turned out to be exactly what EMI assured the public the were “not trying to do.”
The result of the label’s hands-off attitude and Barrett’s artistic approach, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn was met with critical acclaim, peaking at number 6 on the UK albums chart. While the release initially failed to chart in the US, it came to be recognized as one of the seminal psychedelic rock albums of the 1960s. In July 2006, Billboard described The Piper at the Gates of Dawn as “one of the best psychedelic rock albums ever, driven by Barrett’s oddball narratives and the band’s skill with both long jams and perfect pop nuggets.” Two of the album’s songs, “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive”, became long-term mainstays of the band’s live set lists, while other songs were performed live only a handful of times.
The psychedelic nature of Pink Floyd’s debut album can be largely attributed to Barrett’s affinity for LSD at the time, coupled with his inherently idiosyncratic nature. But while this experimentation may have fueled some groundbreaking work on The Piper at The Gates of Dawn, coupled with his deteriorating mental health, it catalyzed a breakdown that led to him being phased out of the band. Barrett’s acid intake escalated part-way through the album’s recording sessions, and by June of ‘67, Barrett’s habitual tripping had left him looking visibly debilitated. Once described as joyful, friendly, and extroverted, he became increasingly depressed and socially withdrawn, experiencing hallucinations, disorganized speech, memory lapses, intense mood swings, and periods of unbreakable, catatonic trances.
Barrett’s physical and mental deterioration began to cause the band serious concern as his erratic behavior began to spill over into their performances. There was the one show where Roger Waters and manager Peter Jenner had to virtually carry him out onstage, only to watch him stand motionless with his guitar around his neck for the duration of the performance. Then there was the show at The Fillmore in San Francisco where Barrett slowly de-tuned his guitar during The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’s “Interstellar Overdrive,” with the overt weirdness delighting fans but frustrating his dumbstruck band mates. The band was forced to cancel their appearance at Windsor’s prestigious National Jazz and Blues Festival in 1967, informing the music press that Barrett was suffering from “nervous exhaustion.” The band added guitarist David Gilmour—Barrett’s school friend—to pick up some of the now unfulfilled guitar and vocal duties, and on the way to a show at Southampton University in January 1968, the band decided not to pick up Syd. It was the beginning of the end of Barrett’s tenure with Pink Floyd.
Since Syd Barrett was the main songwriting force in the band up until that point, the initial plan was to keep him on as a “non-touring” member of the band, confining him to the studio where they could successfully harvest the fruits his antics. But even this arrangement proved to be untenable. According to Waters, in Toby Manning’s book The Rough Guide To Pink Floyd, Barrett came into what would be his final practice session with the group with a new song he had written called “Have You Got It Yet” and began teaching it to them. But while the song seemed to be simple enough when he first played it, the band had trouble learning it, always seeming to play something wrong. However, they quickly realized that they couldn’t nail it because every time he played them the song, he would make subtle changes to the arrangement, while singing “have you got it yet?” The whole exercise was a practical joke by Barrett, who took great joy in messing with his bandmates in this manner—“a real act of mad genius”, according to Waters.
While Barrett’s acting out may have been entertaining, it caused functional problems for the band, and he was finally left out of the group entirely. While he made a handful of attempts at solo projects in the years that followed and even contributed to the odd Floyd track, Barrett’s work never again reached level of the groundbreaking work he did on The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Pink Floyd, of course, went on to have an illustrious career with Gilmour, Waters, Nick Mason and keyboardist Rick Wright at the helm. We can only wonder to what heights the band could have climbed with a healthy, focused Syd on their roster, but it is undeniable that, in his short tenure with the now-iconic band, Syd Barrett had a major role in producing one of the most important albums of a generation.
Pink Floyd – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn – Full Album
[Originally published 8/5/17]