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>> Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Another recent musical acquisition was the 3-CD 40th Anniversary Edition Of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.

I've been a Pink Floyd fan since I was about eight. Which I mention, not to establish my bona fides, but to explain why I needed to buy this and you almost certainly don't. I don't mean that you don't need to buy Piper itself: it's a classic psychedelic album by what was arguably the premier psychedelic band of the era, and it remains the chief artifact of Syd Barrett's contribution to rock'n'roll--the physical manifestation of Barrett's influence on David Bowie, Robyn Hitchcock, Camper Van Beethoven, Oasis, etc., etc., not to mention the later incarnations of the Floyd. But do you need to spend $30 on a special deluxe edition with booklets and bonus tracks and the works? Well. Probably not.

You might even wonder if you need this one if you're a Floyd obsessive. I'm not sure there's all that much that counts as new if you've been collecting ROIOs ("Recordings Of Indeterminate Origin") and bootlegs for any length of time.

Let's break it down a little. There are three CDs. The first CD contains the original mono album. The second CD contains the original stereo album. The third CD includes nine bonus tracks: b-sides and outtakes, three of which are "previously unissued." (Of the remaining six cuts, three previously appeared on Relics and two, if I'm not mistaken, showed up in the Shine On boxed set; the odd track out is a "French edit" of "Interstellar Overdrive," which I assume was not easy to get through official channels unless you were French--feel free to chime in if you know something.) All three discs have been remastered by James Guthrie, who has been working boards for the Floyd since at least as far back as The Wall. Along with this, you get a lyrics booklet bound into the box (which has an attractive cloth cover) and a pull-out booklet that reproduces a collage booklet Syd Barrett made for a friend back in 1965, when he was 19.

One thing to keep in mind about the CDs: back in the relatively early days of stereo, the mono mix of an album wasn't merely the stereo mixed down to one channel. The masters would be mixed in mono (the most common consumer format) as the primary project, and then those masters would also be mixed in stereo (for those cutting edge consumers); hence, the mono and stereo versions of an album are often completely different versions of the same album.

If you bought Piper on cassette, like I did in the '80s, you've heard the stereo mix. If you bought it on CD in the '90s or '00s (e.g. the EMI reissue released as part of the Pink Floyd Remasters series), you've heard the stereo mix. Indeed, unless you got it as a ROIO somewhere, you probably haven't heard the mono version unless you bought it on vinyl in the '60s or paid a lot for the import-only reissue in '99. The difference won't necessarily hit you on the top of the head and call you "Mary," but it's definitely noticeable if you've listened to the album more than a few times: a different phasing effect applied to the vocals on "Flaming," for instance.

But to the occasional listener and casual Floyd fan, there's not much there there: do you care that the mono version of "Astronomy Domine" is three seconds longer than the stereo mix?

The disc of bonus tracks is good but not great. The most interesting thing on it, actually, is an alternate version of "Matilda Mother" with completely different lyrics. Of the remaining tracks, there are good odds that if you care about them you already have them: early singles "Candy And A Currant Bun" and "Apples And Oranges" have been floating around on various bootlegs and ROIOs for a generation and made an official CD appearance in the Shine On box (assuming you went out and spent $200 for a bunch of albums you already owned, and a book; I didn't, so I'm not sure why you did).

The lyrics booklet contains a lot of photos, some of which you maybe haven't seen, and some typically nice graphic design from Storm Thorgerson (practically the Floyd's artist-in-residence).

Then there's the pull-out booklet, a 60% scale reproduction of a Barrett collage booklet. Well, most of a reproduction: the last page is missing because it's naughty, but you can see it here, unless sight of a single nipple and rude words starting with "f" bother you, in which case you might desist. The booklet is called "Fart Enjoy," and one looks at it with mixed feelings. Is it the mischievous work of an artistically-inclined teenager, or the sign of a mind that was teetering over into dissolution and alienation? It's almost definitely the former, but considering that Barrett would be fired from what had essentially become his band three years later, and completely washed out of the music industry five years after that, every scribble has a depressing and sinister cast it probably doesn't deserve.

Casting a slight pall over the entire purchase is also the recent announcement or rumor that the Floyd's entire studio catalog will be released as a boxed set next month. In what seems to be the current fashion for the band, that will make (I believe) the fourth separate re-issue of Piper in a 10-year span. While I love the guys and don't begrudge them the money, one can't help thinking that part of the reason Floyd (the current and real Floyd, not the defunct dream version that regrouped for Live 8) doesn't go back onto Gilmour's houseboat to record a follow-up to 1994s The Division Bell is that there's not much point in taking the risk of releasing a new album that might disappoint when new versions of the old ones still sell so well.

In any case: should you have a copy of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn? Well, it's a damn fine album, and a classic, and enormously influential. Do you need this copy? Meh--not so much.

Here's the Floyd hamming it up in a promotional film for "Arnold Layne," the band's first single:



(An interesting aside: this is one of two films I've seen for "Arnold Layne," the other being the one shot at the beach. In the unlikely event someone reads this and knows something about their being at least two "Arnold Layne" videos, I'm curious.)


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