19 September 2010

CD RETRO REVIEW: Pink Floyd - The Piper at the Gates of Dawn 40th Anniversary Edition

Pink Floyd in 1967 was a completely different musical beast than the band most people came to know and love in the 1970’s.

Most of this was due to the genius (and insanity) of founder member Roger Keith (Syd) Barrett, the mastermind whose childlike innocence and penchant for psychedelic hook writing would rocket the band to the forefront of the British pop scene during the spring and summer of 1967. While most people rightly consider the band an album group, crafting lengthy conceptual pieces, the early Pink Floyd was just as much a singles group, crafting several UK top 20 singles. Already a bit of an underground sensation, the group convened in Abbey Road studios in February of 1967 (at the same time the Beatles were creating their psychedelic masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) to record what many consider the very first true psychedelic rock album, The Piper At The Gates of Dawn.

Syd would leave the band under difficult circumstances in later 1967, but his presence would continue to be felt for the rest of the group’s career. Whether it was the groups’ efforts to ensure continued royalties to their founded through reissues of his early work (A Nice Pair, 1971, the inclusion of “Astronomy Domine” on both Ummagumma, 1969, and P.U.L.S.E., 1994) or the writing of a 20 minute epic that drew inspiration from their former bandmate’s meteoric rise and fall (“Shine On You Crazy Diamond”), Syd was always there in spirit, if not flesh.

2007 marks the 40th anniversary of Piper’s release, and the band has spared no small expense to ensure it gets the deluxe reissue treatment it deserves. The album is currently available in two distinct formats; in wide release, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is available as a 2-CD set, containing the original UK mono LP mix as well as the UK stereo mix most people are familiar with from reissues and the initial 1987 CD release. A deluxe edition is also available, in cloth hardbound book binding, containing both UK LP mixes as well as a third CD featuring all 1967 non-album singles and B-sides, as well as several alternate versions and EP mixes not available on CD previously. This deluxe package also includes an enlightening reproduction Syd Barrett notebook, filled with collage art and sundry other bits that provide insight into Barrett’s creative process.

Perhaps most enlightening with this collection is the ability to compare and contrast the stereo and mono versions of the album. For many US listeners (perhaps the majority of them), the stereo version of the album is most familiar. It has been readily available since 1987 on CD, and makes up the majority of the first LP of A Nice Pair from 1971. Listening to the mono mix of the album is a bit of a shock then; one might assume that the mono mix would be flat and lifeless, but the opposite is true. At the time, far more energy was expended in mixing for mono as most audio systems were still monaural. As a result, greater care was taken, with more presence and immediacy audible in the material. Songs like “Interstellar Overdrive” or “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk” jump from the speakers as if alive.

By way of comparison, the stereo mix now feels safe and somewhat unassuming. Beyond a few interesting panning choices (the extreme swirling of sound from channel to channel at the end of the stereo “Interstellar Overdrive” is the best example), the stereo mix simply feels softer and less immediate. The mix varies from track to track, often limited to hard panning of instruments to left and right, with little experimentation or risk taking. After 20 years of hearing the album in stereo, it’s odd to say that it’s less of an enjoyable experience, but I think I’ll be playing the mono edition far more often than the stereo mix from here on out.

For hardcore collectors, CD 3, which collects the non-album singles and b-sides, as well as some alternate versions, may seem somewhat anti-climactic. Between older collections such as Relics and the Early Singles disc from the Shine On boxed set, a lot of these tracks have been available at the commercial level. I believe that several of the alternate versions included have also seen circulation in an unofficial manner at one time or another as well. However, having them in one collection is certainly simpler and more appropriate. The alternate version of “Matilda Mother” included on CD 3 is a definite highlight: musically, this version of “Matilda Mother” is much like the album versions. The divergence can be found in Barrett’s lyrics, which crib liberally from Hilaire Belloc’s “Cautionary Tales for Children,” which features a rather naughty young lady by the name Matilda with a penchant for telling mistruths. Originally planned for release on Piper, Belloc’s estate withdrew permission for Barrett to use the intended lyrics, resulting in a hasty rewrite. It’s an interesting experience to hear such familiar music with such wildly different lyrics, and while the eventual album release’s lyrics are perhaps more original, hearing how the song was initially intended offers insight into the evolutionary songwriting process.

This reissue of Pink Floyd’s classic debut album achieves a number of things. Not only does it do a fine job of memorializing the pop genius of their earliest leader, it does so in packaging that is exquisite and beautiful. For many listeners and fans of the band, it will allow for a reevaluation of the material in more than one form. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is one of the seminal proto-progressive and psychedelic albums, and this reissue should hopefully get it into more hands. Seek out the 3-CD version if at all possible…the extra material and packaging is certainly worth it.

Track Listing CD 1:
Astronomy Domine (mono)
Lucifer Sam (mono)
Matilda Mother (mono)
Flaming (mono)
Pow R. Toc H. (mono)
Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk (mono)
Interstellar Overdrive (mono)
The Gnome (mono)
Chapter 24 (mono)
The Scarecrow (mono)
Bike (mono)

Track Listing CD 2:
Astronomy Domine (stereo)
Lucifer Sam (stereo)
Matilda Mother (stereo)
Flaming (stereo)
Pow R. Toc H. (stereo)
Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk (stereo)
Interstellar Overdrive (stereo)
The Gnome (stereo)
Chapter 24 (stereo)
The Scarecrow (stereo)
Bike (stereo)

Track Listing CD 3:
Arnold Layne
Candy and a Currant Bun
See Emily Play
Apples and Oranges
Interstellar Overdrive (French Edit)
Apples and Oranges (stereo version)
Matilda Mother (Alternative version)
Interstellar Overdrive (Take 6)

Roger Keith ‘Syd’ Barrett - vocals, guitar
Roger Waters – bass guitar, vocals
Richard Wright – farfisa and hammond organs, piano, vocals
Nick Mason – drums, percussion

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder how much of Syd's music was written in his head verses on manuscript, or sheet music - I wonder that about a lot of groups' songs / pieces!
Songs can also be written correctly in key in other fashons, too, like on Chordy.com with lyrics, and chords written above the words, which I find easier to do and read...
Then the timing or time signatures can easily be done in your head, too, just get a beat and rhythmn down in your mind, too! Bet Syd wrote this way, in his mind ...