If you saw Pink Floyd at Live8 and wondered what all the fuss was about, then your instincts were right. Pink Floyd are one of those bands that even their fans have to make excuses for. Pompous, self-important, joyless and big-selling, they’ve become shorthand for grumpy middle-aged bank manager rock. Most famous for ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ – a record about half as clever as it likes to think it is – Pink Floyd’s career is built on kiddy choirs, 30-year rows, giant polystyrene walls, inflatable pigs, interminable guitar solos and being Very Serious Indeed. It’s been successful – they’ve sold 150 million albums – but no person in their right mind would ever want to listen to one of those albums all the way through, especially if there are kitchen knives or open windows nearby.
Except this one. If you like the inflatable-pigs Floyd, then you’re probably reading the wrong magazine. But if you fancy the idea of four young men making super-spooked-sounding music about space and creepy lullabies about sad scarecrows on recordings so raw that you can hear the strings buzzing and their breath on the microphones, then you’re going to spend the rest of the year playing Pink Floyd’s first album over and over again.
‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ has inspired plenty of people – Blur, The Coral, Klaxons, The Horrors, Devendra Banhart, pretty much every Home Counties art-school band ever – which makes it all the more ironic that one of the few bands that haven’t copied it is Pink Floyd themselves. It’s down to one man, of course: before he lost his mind, Pink Floyd’s main songwriter was Syd Barrett, a sensitive, good-looking middle-class art student from Cambridge. His songs on ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ assemble a cast of cats, silver shoes, unicorns, mice called Gerald, bikes, gnomes and the I Ching, and put them to some of the most inventive and surprising psychedelic music ever recorded.
Some people find Barrett tunes like ‘Bike’ (on which he trills “I’ve got a bike/You can ride it if you like”) insufferably twee, but even these whimsical moments are undercut with menace, while the camper songs are tempered by a genuinely spooked-sounding sensibility: fittingly for an album recorded late into the night and fixated with stargazing, its jumble of voices and sound effects only begins to stop being a jumble at about three in the morning.
This re-release, a 40th anniversary 3-CD set, comes with both mono and stereo versions of the album and the requisite rag-bag of alternate takes, but it also features two Barrett-penned singles not on the original album: ‘Arnold Layne’ and ‘See Emily Play’ are as good as anything The Beatles recorded, while ‘…Layne’ even caused a furore when it was banned from the radio for lyrics about a transvestite stealing clothes from washing lines.
The story, as we know, does not end particularly happily. By the end of 1967, Syd had become catatonic after daily LSD use – a situation exacerbated by a tour of working men’s clubs on which, by all accounts, Pink Floyd’s extreme volume, retina-melting lightshow and satin blouses caused enraged audiences of people that are probably now their fans to shower them with pint pots every night. In early 1968, Syd left Pink Floyd, making them a band for whom it’s easy to rapidly become acquainted with the highlights of their catalogue: buy this album and forget that they ever made any others while you’re being sucked into its wild little world.