In the annals of rock history, 1967 may always be remembered as the zenith of high experimentation. That year saw the Beatles complete their transformation from teenybopper idols to psychedelic avatars. It witnessed debut albums by The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Blue Cheer, as well as seminal releases by Jefferson Airplane and Thirteenth Floor Elevators. Somehow, amidst this swirling maelstrom of creativity, Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn managed to emerge as a kind of climax to the Summer of Love and its revelry.
Having been formed (at least in the incarnation that most of us would recognize) for little more than a year, the group had already built a reputation for themselves in London’s underground on the basis of their avant-garde experimentation. In the early days of playing in such clubs as Middle Earth and the Marquee Club, they would stretch out with extended improvisations, using songs like “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive” as basic structures from which to take off on experimental space jams driven, primarily, by singer, guitarist and founder Syd Barrett.
Much of this wild experimentation made it onto their first record. The bulk of the rest were whimsical, fairy-like songs that Barrett had composed over a relatively short period of time prior to recording: “The Gnome”, “Flaming”, “Matilda Mother” “The Scarecrow”, “Chapter 24”. The child-like simplicity of these songs fit right in with the sunnier side of English pop, which by now had come to be heavily influenced by the psychedelic revolution. There were some, even then, who criticized the album for departing from the thrust of Floyd’s stage shows. For many others, though, this blend of quiet pastoral and freakout psychedelia came across as startlingly original. Indeed, the songs that Barrett wrote and the sounds that he invented both served as blueprints for the records that his bandmates would make in the wake of his departure.
In a music industry so often dominated by egos and rock star indulgences, the humility and simplicity of Barrett’s songs were refreshing, a tribute to imagination and wonder rather than swagger and sex and drugs clichés. Unfortunately, he suffered a mental breakdown that exacerbated his difficulties in dealing with the everyday world and also divorced him from his creativity. Though he made a couple of solo albums after leaving Pink Floyd, he was never able to recapture the magic of that first album.
The surviving members, having relied upon Barrett as their principal songwriter from the beginning, were obliged to draw upon The Piper at the Gates of Dawn for inspiration as they moved in without him. One can hear in their early albums, like UmmaGumma and A Saucerful of Secrets, the influence of Syd Barrett’s fairy-tale mode of delivery and his free-form explorations. Even new guitarist David Gilmour admitted that he spent the first few years in Pink Floyd “trying to sound like Syd”. In time, the newfangled group would manage to come into their own; but such was the greatness of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn that it continued to shadow their efforts for a long time before they got there.