Saturday, January 20, 2018

Astronomy Dominé - April 15 & 16, 1967

While Brian Wilson and Frank Zappa had taken a moon-sized step progressively with "Heroes and Villains" and Freak Out, Pink Floyd was taking to the extreme what the Americans only partially envisioned. It was evident throughout their debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (the title borrowed from Graham Green's The Wind in the Willows), but it was "Astronomy Dominé" that was the true psychedelic torch burner. The song itself wasn't released on the American pressing of what was instead called Pink Floyd (replaced by another early example of psychedelia, "See Emily Play"), and so America wouldn't truly know of the song until the compilation A Nice Pair or live on Umma Gumma. It was a common practice for U.S. record companies (such as Capitol) to remove two or three tracks from an LP so that, if it was successful, these could be added to existing single releases to create a new album for immediate release. The Beatles suffered this commercial butchering to a great extent (explaining LPs like Beatles '65 and Hey Jude).

"Astronomy Dominé" was recorded at the second session for The Piper at the Gates of Dawn on April 15 and 16, 1967. (Next door, The Beatles were mixing "Getting Better," "She's Leaving Home," "When I'm 64," and "Lovely Rita.") At the beginning of
the track is heard two overdubbed takes of Peter Jenner (one of the Floyd's managers) speaking through a megaphone while reading an astronomy atlas, naming astrological star signs and astronomical facts, and setting the tone for a track which evokes fantastic images of the planets (limestone rock and limpid green underground pools of icy water); images that astronomers in the 60's thought would be found on Venus or Mars. In an additional bit of trivia, 'domine' is Latin for lord or master, usually used as a form of address. Syd took random liberties with the spelling (which would normally not have the accent symbol), creating a more mystical Lord Astronomy.

The verse consists only of an odd chord progression in major chords: E, E, G, and A, while the chorus is entirely chromatic, descending directly from A to D on guitar, bass, and vocals, down one semitone every three beats. For the intro, Barrett plays with an ordinary open E major chord and moving the fretted notes down a semitone.

While Barrett more easily transgressed into lyrical playfulness and melodic whimsy, here he was examining his early genius (more accurately his "still to be exhausted genius" — "early genius" suggests that there was equally "late" genius; there was not). Indeed, Roger Waters would complain, "Syd had one song that had anything to do with space — "Astronomy Dominé" — that's all. That's the sum total of all Syd's writing about space and yet there's this whole fucking mystique about how he was the father of it all." 

It cannot be denied, though, and Waters (despite his looming leadership and a songwriting prowess that dictated the band's direction) would rarely acknowledge the expertise of his colleagues or that Barrett was an adept and inventive guitarist willing to explore the sonic possibilities of dissonance, feedback and distortion; not to mention The Pink Floyd Sound's echo techniques or Syd's/Floyd's signature faux slide effect created by rasping a Zippo lighter across the strings of a Fender Esquire.

Because it's that infectious, and as special treat (we know you're humming the track as you read but that you don't know the lyrics), here they are:

Moon in the twelfth house                        . . . stroboscopic . . .
Scorpio, Arabian skies, Libra, Mars        . . . prominence, Polaris
Pluto was not discovered until 1930
Mars is in conjunction with the fixed stars
Sun sign systems (4x)                                 . . . two sign . . .
Lime and limpid green, a second scene
The fight between the blue you once knew
Floating down, the sound resounds
Around the icy waters underground
Jupiter and Saturn
Oberon, Miranda and Titania
Neptune, Titan, stars can frighten
Blinding signs flap
Flicker flicker flicker blam
Pow! Pow!
Stairway scare, Dan dare, who's there?
Lime and limpid green, the sound surrounds
The icy waters underground
Lime and limpid green, the sound surrounds
The icy waters underground

Syd's genius was like putting out fire with gasoline, and for some  artists (opinion looming) we can't just wish they were here, but need to acknowledge that there's something to be said about a love affair that burns out its passion quickly, hotly, exhaustively. Syd was early genius, and then there was celebrity and depression and Orange Sunshine, and like Brian Wilson before him, it was all too much.

AM is content with just Piper, indeed, we'd find satisfaction and an evolutionary catalyst in just the one song. It's hard to fathom the lack of Pink Floyd's incarnation into the foursome that created Dark Side; hard to contemplate where the band would have gone had Syd not burned himself out, flicker, flicker, flicker, blam.