Thursday, January 31, 2008

No. 347: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Band: Pink Floyd
Album: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The onset of Pink Floyd's recording career is a stark look into the band's troubled early leader, Syd Barrett. At times genius and complex, "Piper" is also often just plain weird.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's challenging, that's for sure, but it's the type of album that influenced a lot of people.
Best song: "Astronomy Domine" and "Bike" are great.
Worst song: I love Pink Floyd, so I love this album. No bad songs.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

"The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" was recorded at Abbey Road Studios at the same time as what many consider to be the greatest album of all time (certainly, RS does, as it puts it at no. 1 on this list), "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." You'd be hard-pressed to find two albums that were so at odds with one another.

For all its pleasures, "Sgt. Pepper's" remains, essentially, a pop record. The Beatles did most of their branching out on "Revolver" and "Sgt. Pepper's" was mostly just working with that. The album wasn't concerned with grand issues; the band was great at working on a micro-, emotional level. As much as it gets held up as a "Summer of Love" record, it hardly plays to the drug-addled times.

"The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" does. It's the type of album a band could compose, play live and record under the heavy influence of lots of psychotropic drugs. "Pow R. Toc H." is clearly the downside of this, as it's largely just the band playing various bits and screaming like jungle animals. Unlike the vast majority of "Summer of Love" albums (the Love record, the Zombies record, etc.), "Piper" was terrifying at times. In short, not all trips are good trips (more on that in a bit).

A frequent dismissal of hippies of that time is that they were overly reactionary and, frankly, bipolar during those times. The overwhelming need to love everyone was destructive on some levels and its reach, while noble (I guess) has given us a whole lot of, well, something. Just not everything. Drugs aren't just rainbows, love and baroque instrumentation. Drug use doesn't always make sense. Sometimes, a trip is scary, mind-bending and strange, all at once.

And that's "Piper at the Gates of Dawn." It'll bend your mind entirely -- as it did to just about everyone in Britain who had heard it -- but it'll also open your mind. It's scary, exhilarating and great. The comparison to the album's creator is apt; Syd Barrett was teetering on the edge of madness while making "Piper" and the record reflects that. It's not the structured power of the band's highlight work ("Wish You Were Here," "Dark Side of the Moon," etc.), not is it the often directionless (yet still amazing) mid-career records the band made directly after Barrett's departure ("Ummagumma," "More," etc.). It's somewhere in between, as the songs have thematic flourishes, long departures and beautiful pop hooks. Some songs on the record are pure quirk, something Zappa would compose ("Bike" being the grand example) while others are improvisational masterpieces like concert standards "Astronomy Domine" and "Interstellar Overdrive." As Pitchfork's Joshua Klein put it in a review of the recent reissue, "By 1980's 'The Wall,' Pink Floyd had become sterile and solipsistic. At this auspicious start, Pink Floyd were thrilling. Anything was possible."

That's what "Piper" sounds like, in a lot of ways. It's the endless possibility of rock and roll, the sound explorations that would come forth for the next forty years and beyond. Yes, "Dark Side" is cohesive and perfect. Sure, "The Wall" is far-reaching and flawed. But, "Piper" is raucous, beautiful and challenging. This is why Pink Floyd is among the best.

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