Oh By The Way: The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn

>> Tuesday, January 22, 2008

(For an explanation of what this series is, click here.)

They were college kids who liked music, and on top of that it was the '60s. They did what college kids do, especially (I suspect) college kids in the '60s: they formed a band. They had a hard time with the name though: that's always the hardest part of forming a band, really, that and getting people to actually rehearse at the rehearsals. The best method I ever heard of for coming up with a band name was the drunk method: everyone gets really hammered as they toss band names out, and the one you can still remember in the morning is the name you go with.

They were Meggadeath at one point, which someone else ended up using. And (because they were architecture students, natch) the Architectural Abdabs. They were also Sigma 6 for awhile. But the name they settled on, when their lineup finally stabilized down to four guys and no girlfriends, was The Tea Set. A good name, very English and arty in a low-key kind of way.

And taken. They were getting gigs around England, playing a lot of dances where they'd be one of four or five bands playing, and one night they showed up and there was already a Tea Set on the bill. I really wouldn't be surprised if there were a lot of Tea Sets running around England at the time. So Syd Barrett--the clever one, he was their leader even though he was a year or two behind the other guys and wasn't even one of the original members--Barrett suggested they name themselves after a pair of blues musicians, or possibly a pair of cats someone owned who were named after the musicians, there are different stories floating around. The musicians, or the cats, were Pink Anderson and Floyd Council (who, coincidentally, was born in and busked the streets of the town where I went to law school), and I guess you can see where that went. But it definitely wasn't already taken.

Barrett was crazy, only they didn't know it. He wasn't that crazy, not yet, and anyway he was brilliant. The Pink Floyd sound started out doing crazy blues covers, but Barrett had this idiosyncratic thing going on the guitar and he could just churn the songs out. Which maybe was just as well: the "covers" tended to devolve into extended jams that apparently didn't have much to do with the original songs.

They recorded a few demos and toured relentlessly, England and the Low Countries, and they had a regular gig at the UFO Club that practically made them the house band. It was the UFO gig that made them "controversial": they were loud and noisy, with an eccentric sound and they'd project homemade movies and light effects that had been designed by a guy named Mike Leonard who Roger Waters and Nick Mason (the Floyd's bassist and drummer, respectively) lived with and sort of interned with. They got enough attention--with the music press and BBC asking if they were even playing music and why did it have to be so loud and was this "underground" scene really the "future" of music and wasn't it really all about the drugs--that EMI signed the band to a record deal, and in 1967--the same year the Beatles were recording Sgt. Pepper's and The Doors and Jefferson Airplane were getting their shit together in the States--the Floyd went into the studio and recorded The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, named after a chapter in The Wind In The Willows.

This is where I was going to put a photo I took, but I'm not happy with the pictures I got with my cell phone. So, here's the picture from Wikipedia. The Oh By The Way reproduction is a reproduction of the original cover for the mono vinyl mix of the album: this picture is from the mid-'90s CD reissue (you can tell from the slight coloration of the logo). No matter: this is the Oh By The Way CD: in spite of the "mono" label, the album is the stereo version. (The stereo and mono versions of the album are noticeably different.) The guy in the center is Syd Barrett, the band's guitarist, lead vocalist and chief songwriter. The man in red is drummer Nick Mason, the fellow in paisley on the right is keyboardist and vocalist Richard Wright, and the shady-looking fellow in the upper left corner is bassist and vocalist Roger Waters, who would fire Syd and spend most of the rest of his life feeling guilty about it.

Stereo version or no (the mono version is better), the album sounds freaking fantastic. I've gotten into the bad habit of sitting downstairs, listening to MP3s served off a laptop on the bar between the kitchen and dining areas. Up here, with the real sound system and a nicely remastered CD... makes you realize what you've been missing.

Nick Mason, in Inside Out, writes that Piper represents a typical Pink Floyd set list from the era. Maybe. "Astronomy Domine" and "Interstellar Overdrive" were major setpieces for the Floyd until the early '70s. "Pow R. Toc H." would show up now and again, as would "Flaming". But I have yet to hear a '60s bootlegged show featuring "Lucifer Sam" (I'd love to hear one) or featuring Waters' one solo songwriting credit on Piper, "Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk" (I can sympathize if nobody in the band wanted to play that one live; it's a faintly awful song).

This was the first and only Pink Floyd album, except it wasn't. Remember that, because it comes up again later. For now, let's just say this was the Syd Barrett show: of eleven tracks, eight are solely credited to Barrett, two instrumentals are credited to the whole band (Barrett, Waters, Wright, Mason), and then there's Waters' "Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk."

When Barrett went crazy and couldn't work, there were a lot people who hated every other album the Floyd recorded because it wasn't this album, full of whimsy and fairy tales and Barrett's frenzied guitarwork. And when the Floyd belatedly became famous with their eighth studio album, there were even more people who had no idea that this band and this album existed--that there was this other Pink Floyd that performed songs about demonic cats, gnomes, and drifting across the sky on quilts. The first camp of people included a lot of music critics--there was a solid decade when the guys who performed under the name "Pink Floyd" couldn't have bought a good review from Rolling Stone or NME, because they'd had the gall to ditch the creative genius behind all their best work and trudge on without him....

....A bit of history that would manage to repeat itself twenty years later....

Side One
  • Astronomy Domine (Barrett)
  • Lucifer Sam (Barrett)
  • Matilda Mother (Barrett)
  • Flaming (Barrett)
  • Pow R. Toc H. (Barrett, Waters, Wright, Mason)
  • Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk (Waters)

Side Two
  • Interstellar Overdrive (Barrett, Waters, Wright, Mason)
  • The Gnome (Barrett)
  • Chapter 24 (Barrett)
  • The Scarecrow (Barrett)
  • Bike (Barrett)


Jeri Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 10:43:00 PM EST  

I love it that Pink Floyd was once called Tea Set... the things one learns blogwalking!

I'm not a huge, album owning fan - but I do now have "Brick in the Wall" stuck in my head.

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