Wednesday, April 25, 2018

A Saucerful of Secrets - Pink Floyd

Recorded at Abbey Road Studios from mid-1967 through early '68. A Saucerful of Secrets was produced by Norman Smith, primary sound engineer on virtually every Beatles recording through the end of 1965. The LP was a milestone in Pink Floyd's history as it marked the end of one incarnation of the band and the beginning of another. Like Yes a few years later, the original band was a far cry from what it would become.

Unlike Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which had received respectable airplay and critical acclaim, Saucerful failed to chart. Rolling Stone called it "a lot of uninteresting noise," and said it was "boring melodically, harmonically and lyrically" with instrumental work that was "shoddy and routine." Shifting roles within the band was the likely cause, though retrospectively the LP shows the band delving further into the electronic soundscapes they would develop over the next few years. The lengthy (11:57) "A Saucerful of Secrets" suite is an excellent example of melding avant-garde electronic experimentation, Rick Wright's celestially modulated keyboard, and glimpses of song snippets, themes that the Floyd would revisit over the next few years, perfecting them on Dark Side. There is the meditative and somewhat menacing Water's piece "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" and two spacey psychedelic numbers loaded with mellotron by Rick Wright, "Remember a Day" and this writer's favorite "See Saw." "Corporal Clegg" earmarks the catalyst of Roger Water's increasing focus on his father's death in the war and features a few riffs on the guitar from Syd. The truly odd track on the album is Syd Barretts' "Jugband Blues," a chaotic mix of Salvation Army Band (he told them to play whatever they felt like playing), kazoo, and a penchant for asymmetric and surreal lyrics. It would prove to be his last studio performance with the group. Where the LP suffered was in production and yet, 50 years on, the remasters create a whole new sound, well worth revisiting.

By the end of 1967, Waters, Wright and Mason were becoming increasingly concerned about Barrett, the creative genius behind Pink Floyd, whose heavy psychedelic drug use and erratic behavior threatened to derail them. Mason approached David Gilmour, a college mate of Barrett's, about joining the group as a second guitarist and a sort of understudy for his friend. Gilmour's task was to jump in and cover for Syd should the band's unpredictable leader suddenly decide not to sing or stop playing altogether to wander about the stage, as he sometimes did to the consternation of his bandmates.

Up until this point, the whimsical Barrett had been responsible for most of the band's music, but with his deteriorating mental state, Syd’s bandmates had no choice but to step in and take over the reins. Of the seven songs on Saucerful, only the closing number, "Jugband Blues," was written by Barrett. The remainder of the album's material was written by Waters, Wright, Gilmour and Mason. Compare that to The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which was almost entirely written by Syd.

Though the trippy, atmospheric, and discordant Saucerful may have lacked the shimmer and pop of its predecessor, it is a most significant album in the band's oeuvre. Saucerful is the only Floyd record that all five band members appear on; "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" the only song all five members play on together, and the one song that features both Barrett and Gilmour on guitar. It is essentially the first album with the classic Floyd lineup, right down to the band’s longtime graphic designer, Storm Thorgerson. As for Syd, while en route to a performance in Southampton, a band member asked if they should collect Barrett. According to Gilmour, the answer was "Nah, let's not bother." And that was that.