Kiefer’s Music Mondays: Pink Floyd’s ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’

A free-form fusion of kaleidoscopic engineering, psychotropic songwriting, and symphonically-expanded consciousness.

A sonic barrage of spaced out rock fuzz and mind-melting psychedelia, Pink Floyd’s first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, transcends space and time. The first and only album created under the leadership of Syd Barrett, it still represents the brilliant maniacal train of thought that would bring the band unfathomable success and expound the psychedelic rock era.

With the help of producer Norman Smith at Abbey Road Studios, Piper at the Gates is a music engineering feat of inescapable proportions. Smith became an ambassador for the band to EMI Records, striving to create the most success for the group while protecting their right to endless experimentation.

Due to technological limitations of the time and the sheer complexity of the band’s vision, studio time at EMI had to be extended drastically. The album’s production relied on an extremely primitive and tedious form of what we now call “layering,” which had to be meticulously arranged in order to effectively acquire the desired result.

The process involved using two Studer J37 4-track tape machines, which were then state of the art. They would start by recording four separate takes, before “mixing” (condensing) the them together, and then transferring the mix to the other machine as one of the 4-track slots. This process was repeated over and over, back and forth between the two machines, to create an exponentially layered and stitched together mix of a song. Needless to say, an understated amount of planning went into the proceedings, and you can still hear some fallacies in the recordings due to non-linear “stitching,” but overall it came together quite seamlessly.

This highly experimental model for record production gave the band an overwhelming ability to play with sounds. And play they did!

Piper is well known for its early abstract use of ADT (automatic double-tracking), to manipulate echos and reverb, which is intended to enhance sounds, but used here to distort time. Bass lines on the album buzz over double bass drums, vocals weave in and out of themselves, and a multitude of keyed instruments hum and chirp at mixed frequencies, giving the entire album a sort of interstellar sci-fi feel.

The lyrics contain endless allusions to mythical, fairytale and even Eastern occult lore—naturally a byproduct of Barrett’s heavy use of LSD. Ultimately the sound of the album is a Dr. Moreau chimera creation: one part highly-realized experimental technique, one part whimsical folk storytelling, and one part aimless improvisation.

The opening track and lead single on the U.K. release, “Astronomy Domine,” unfolds as an orchestral tour of the cosmos, as ever evolving instrumentation lapses over it. A take on Eastern philosophy, “Chapter 24” references the specific chapter of the Chinese divination text I Ching, and nods ever so gracefully to contemporary songs like The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Within You, Without You” (released earlier that year). “Lucifer Sam” is best described as a bit of an Internet-based wet dream: a song about Barrett’s siamese cat set to an almost Bond film-esque riff as it deviates from satirical name-calling to a rambling list of the cat’s many adventures. “The Gnome” has a similar premise, but with an antithetical tone and about, you guessed it, a gnome named Grimble Gromble.

“Interstellar Overdrive” is an almost 10-minute instrumental improvisation that wades through thick acid-induced hallucinatory miasma losing all classical form as it spirals into mind-distorting notes of chromaticism, and is truly one of the first and greatest truly psychedelic songs of all time! There’s a really clever (pre-Queen) song simply titled “Bike,” and “Flaming” is the first of several Pink Floyd songs to reference an eiderdown. “Matilda Mother” is close to what would become their mainstream style in years to come, featuring a career-spanning sound and script about nostalgia, despotism, recompense and the loss of innocence.

A freaky, free-form fusion of kaleidoscopic engineering, psychotropic songwriting, and symphonically-expanded consciousness, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is one potent hit of Pink Floyd for first timers. As it completes its fifty-second trip around the sun, it remains an auspicious sign at the dawn of Pink Floyd’s immense talent and unfathomable ability in their immortal career.

Listen to: “Astronomy Domine,” “Matilda Mother,” “Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk”