OLD REVIEW DUMP #2: THE SQEAKUAL (1/7)
Welcome to this week’s Old Review Dump, where I’ll reupload and comment on my second “wave” of review material. This wave is marked by me finally committing to the “one review a week” schedule and complete catalogue exploration.
So…Piper. It’s pretty clear from the ratings that this was before I had fully defined the categories of “Listenability” and “Resonance.” I meant them both in the traditional sense here, which limited my artistic scope. I would raise both to a 4 today, denied a five because of a few bad musical ideas and filler.
Piper, from where I stand, is still probably Floyd’s most overrated album, but only in the sense that I give it an 8 when everyone else gives it a 9 or 10. It’s still a fantastic album, an essential one for classic rock fans, and I still agree with just about everything I said here. I’m not sure my prose really does the album justice, but all in all I was much more comfortable writing about music as a SOUND then I was even on the last review.
Here it is, in all its Barrettability:
Alone in the clouds all blue
Lying on an eiderdown
Yippee! You can’t see me
But I can you
Lazing in the foggy dew
Sitting on a unicorn
No fair, you can’t hear me
But I can you
Since reviewing The Wall and especially Revolver was so fun, I’ve decided to go through the entire catalogues of my current two favorite bands. Since I’ve yet to become fully acquainted with either, this should be a fruitful exercise. So let’s talk about Syd Barrett.
Syd was a weird guy by any measure. His tastes resided in the realms of science fiction, fairy tales, and LSD. He headed Pink Floyd through their debut album before his deteriorating health led him to quit, embarking on a short-lived solo career. Though his leadership of the band was short, he got his money’s worth, making what many consider to be a psychedelic masterpiece: Piper at the Gates of Dawn. He penned all the songs except one, and those eclectic tastes I mentioned earlier informed all of them.
So is it good? Pretty much, yeah. I’m not quite as infatuated with it as a lot of people are, but as a piece of pure psychedelia, it’s amazing. This is definitely one of the weirdest albums you will ever listen to, though whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to your judgement.
So let’s get on with it! The album opens with an all-time space-rock-psychedelic classic in the form of “Astronomy Domine.” Aside from the fabulous name, the song is great. Right away the album punches you with weird sound effects, a garbled voice coming through what sounds like a broken speaker, some wacko riffs and even more wacko lyrics. The constant drumming sound creates a really cool undercurrent to the entire song, and the way they play around with it makes it almost sound like a boogie. Barrett’s lyrical imagery is memorable and distinctive, and all in all the song is a very intriguing opener.
So we’ve done a cosmic boogie, what’s next? How about cosmic beach music? That’s pretty much the best way to describe “Lucifer Sam”, another great song with memorable riffs and more weird lyrics. It’s about a cat…I think. If this were any other songwriter, I’d think it was a metaphor for something, but seeing as how this is Barrett, I guess it’s a song about a cat. Told you this was gonna be a weird one, folks.
Though somewhat less unique musically, “Matilda Mother” compensates by featuring some of the album’s strongest writing. A song about lost childhood framed in terms of Syd never getting to hear the ending to a fairy tale his mother told him, it’s the closest the album comes to actually being resonant, something it’s otherwise not preoccupied with. The composition is certainly very lullaby-like, and the Barrett/Wright vocals are trippy as all heck. This is probably my favorite song on the album, which from what I can gleam is a rather unpopular opinion. Oh well.
Then comes a friendly game of hide-and-seek in “Flaming.” Musically it’s almost downright normal, incorporating acoustic strumming and what I think is a piano. If any song on this album could be considered a “radio” song, it would be this one. The writing is once again great, with simplistic but bizarre imagery that feels right out of a seven-year-old’s imagination.
“Pow R. Toc. H” is an instrumental piece, and unfortunately it’s pretty underwhelming. It doesn’t really do anything unique musically, aside from some annoying vocal effects that took me forever to get used too. I like the song fine now, but it doesn’t really do much in the way of setting a mood or creating an atmosphere, which is a bit odd considering the rest of the album. This is discounting if “monkey noises” is an atmosphere.
Speaking of monkeys, the next song is by good ol’ Roger! Yes, even on Syd’s magnum opus, Roger found a way to stick his grubby little hand in by penning his first song and the only non-Barrett composition on the album…and it’s terrible in every way. “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk” is so embarrassing in its brainlessness that it hurts. It starts with some pounding, and then Roger yells about all his pain to a three-note melody that is so horrible that I cannot fathom how it was allowed on the album. Then Syd and Richard Wright jam out for a bit, and it’s actually pretty intense, like they’re just hammering away. Then Roger yells again, this time to an ascending scale that is also unimaginably atrocious. Just about the only redeeming thing about this song is that it just may be one of the greatest songs of all time. You heard me right! I used to hate this song with the force of a red giant supernova, but after repeated listens…I don’t know. Something about its awfulness is just…intoxicating. Its raw, primal idiocy really clicked with me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not good by any stretch, but I just have to listen to it every now and again because…wow…this song exists. Call it so-bad-it’s-good, I guess. What a way to close out side one.
Side two opens with another instrumental, “Interstellar Overdrive”, and we’re back…IN SPAAACCCEEE! So yeah, though it’s rather dated in parts, it’s still really cool-sounding, with a lot of nifty improv bits and sound effects. It feels like cosmic blues, if that makes any sense. If there was a space station that was actually just a 60s café, this is the type of live music they would have. Headphones are a must for this one, so you can just more easily imagine yourself floating through the LSD-influenced cosmos (Especially at the end, when the sound channels start switching back and forth like there’s an ape at the sound board. Roger, get back over here!). The control of tone, mood and atmosphere on this album is about perfect, if I haven’t made that clear yet.
“The Gnome” is literally the story of a Gnome, but it’s one of the more straightforward songs on the album. It’s just okay, not really vivid musically or lyrically, but not unpleasant. I much prefer the next, often maligned song: “Chapter 24.” With lyrics straight from I Ching, some lovely vocal harmonies, and appropriately Asian influenced music, it’s one of the coolest moments in the catalogue of a band whose primary musical philosophy was the Rule of Cool. “Scarecrow” is a bit of an acquired taste, but I don’t mind it’s annoying clicking much now. However, its lyrics are especially underwhelming, not really bringing to mind the unique imagery Barrett was usually so good at conjuring. Shame.
The album closes with “Bike”, which I have a lot of fondness for. It’s about a bumbling, not-all-there guy trying earnestly but unsuccessfully to hit on someone. The quirky, awkward lyrics are probably my favorite on the album. The production matches this really well, up to the end where it totally freaks out. It’s a great conclusion, one that sums up the album’s tone perfectly.
And that’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Due to the presence of some throwaways and at least one captivating disaster, I hesitate to give it the label of “unassailable classic”, but it’s a fascinating listen from a fascinating person. You’ll hear nothing like it in Floyd’s entire catalogue, and little like it even in the broader realm of psychedelic rock. I didn’t much care for it on first listen, and even when sitting down to write the first draft of this review I was ready to give it a 7 or a 7.5, but as I listened again it really clicked with me. Even if it’s too weird for you, you should own it if you have even the slightest interest in classic rock, as it’s a genuine milestone for music in general and psychedelia in particular. If you don’t like 70s Pink Floyd, give this one a shot, because it sounds completely different. If you DO like 70s Pink Floyd you should also give it a shot, because believe it or not these guys made more than Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall and Wish You Were Here.
Listenability: 3/5 Definitely an acquired taste. Extremely weird, often mind-boggling, and occasionally off-putting, but that’s all intentional. After a few listens it should sound reasonably musical.
Themes: 5/5 Space jams (no, not like the terrible movie, like jams about space), fairy-tale fantasy, LSD dreams…we’ve never had an album quite like this one.
Lyricism: 4/5 One point off for “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk” and a few throwaways. Barrett’s imagery is vibrant, nostalgic, disturbing, and wacky, sometimes all at once.
Diversity: 3/5 A bit samey at times, but it’ll always hold your attention.
Resonance: 1/5 This isn’t really music for the “feeling” type of person, but it’s not trying to be, so I don’t hold it against it.
FINAL RATING: 8/10 Weird, captivating, and historically important stuff, with minimal filler to boot!
Recommended Listening: Matilda Mother, Astronomy Domine, Bike, Interstellar Overdrive, Chapter 24, Lucifer Sam, Take Up Thy Lulz and Cringe