It might seem kind of obvious to review a Pink Floyd album--what's next, Greg, taking a crack at the Beatles??--but of all the Pink Floyd albums most people think they remember, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is the most slippery. It is timelessly fascinating in its strange-ness. While most people know Pink Floyd because of the Dark Side Of The Moon and after era, even those who are aware that they were a band who released music as early as 1966 probably don't know just how out there Piper was and remains.
See, I was playing this album at work the other day, and anytime I play something I know they haven't heard before, I always hear it through their ears. It's like giving an oral report to the class and feeling intensely self conscious, only now it's your music you're hearing through others instead of seeing yourself through their eyes. Though no one made any comments to the effect, imagining myself hearing this album for the first time really struck home how bizarre this album is. Yes, by the time this album was released psychedelic music was starting to become a known quantity, but even compared to the 'psychedelic' offerings of The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is one, dare I say, trippy album: songs about space, gnomes, scarecrows...eerie, druggy music with extended instrumental passages, otherwordly studio effects and sounds never heard by sober men. Why, that awful demonic duck cackling at the end of 'Bike' is enough to freak people out four decades later.
Of course, most of this can be credited to the visionary Syd Barrett, who semi-accidentally took enough acid, wrote enough weird songs, and then subsequently burned out in just such a way that he almost singlehandedly wrote the book on British psychedelia, which has always been--at least in my limited knowledge--more whimsical than its American counterpart. One must keep in mind that, Bob Dylan's breakthroughs not withstanding, it was considered very bizarre to write songs about the above mentioned material. Hell, one of Pink Floyd's earliest singles was about a guy who stole women's underwear off clotheslines. But if nothing else, the total effect of Piper is of the twin voyages of psychedelia: into the inner self and into outer space. Everyone probably knows 'Bike', 'Interstellar Overdrive', and 'Astronomy Domine', but what about the philosophical, time and nature examining 'Chapter 24'?? And the animal-like screeching at the beginning of 'Pow R. Toc H.', an instrumental that sounds like little else in music history, which so enraptured a younger version of me he used to write the song's title in his notebooks over and over?? And the Tolkien-esque fantasy pastiche of 'Matilda Mother', which flies into the atmosphere, if not outer space, on ethereal, stoned keyboards and guitar??
This is where splitting hairs becomes a necessary evil, because while Dark Side Of The Moon and Piper At The Gates Of Dawn are both considered druggy albums, and they both come from the same band, there are enough differences between them as if to render them incompatible. Yeah, they sound enough alike to make sense, but the Pink Floyd of '67 and the Pink Floyd of '73 were entirely different bands, arguably. While Dark Side is stoner friendly, Piper has extremes of 'cute' and 'experimental' more akin to an acid trip. Dark Side is huge arena rock, intelligent and monolithic; Piper is simply surreal and otherworldly.
The best testament I can give for an album like this is that it's so weird, fascinating, and great that you won't even need drugs. And the last time I found myself describing an album like that, it was Trout Mask Replica...