Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn - The Floyd in Mono

The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is the set-aside Floyd LP in that it represents the one-up, trippier, less-classic original line up with bassist Roger Waters, keyboardist Richard Wright & drummer Nick Mason led by doomed genius singer/guitarist Syd Barrett. Psychedelic rock doesn't get much more trippier than Piper, a far-out collection of avant-garde space rock; songs about gnomes and scarecrows, off-the-wall production and sound effects, not to mention the superb performances. Although he made one last "cameo" appearance with the Floyd on A Saucerful Of Secrets with that album's closing number, "Jugband Blues," Syd Barrett's legacy with the band is contained right here on Piper (or in the non-LP singles). Writing all but one song, with his charismatic singing voice and incredible guitar-playing skills, Barrett was truly a musical genius, and his equally-talented bandmates match him song for song. Every track on the album is a highlight in it's own right, with tracks like "Astronomy Domine," the before-there-was-alternative alternative "Lucifer Sam," the far-out instrumentals "Pow R Toc H" and "Interstellar Overdrive," or the frenetic rock of "Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk" (written & sung by Waters, in his debut composition for the band). After the release of Piper, of course, Syd Barrett's experimentations with psychedelic drugs ultimately destroyed him, and he was finally ousted from the band. Roger Waters more-or-less took over as the group's leader, and Barrett's vacated slot was filled by guitarist David Gilmour.

At the time The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released in 1967, it was one among many aurally ripped, acid-tripped albums including Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced, Cream's Disraeli Gears, Jefferson Airplane's After Bathing at Baxter's, and, of course, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which the Beatles were recording down the hall from Pink Floyd at Abbey Road. But as those albums have gracefully slipped into the mainstream of our music consciousness, Piper, along with The Velvet Underground and Nico, still sounds like it broke through from another dimension.

Interestingly, Piper is an LP that I never owned, having discovered Pink Floyd as a teen a few years later, and really only heard the tracks casually or from A Nice Pair. I've been through a modicum of formats for the LP, but recently came across a brand-new experience by mistakenly picking up Piper on vinyl in mono, one of the great mistakes I've made recently. Piper in mono was released on August 5th, 1967 a month before it was released in stereo. (The album's title comes from the title of the seventh chapter of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows.)

Mono was the main format of the day and so those mixes were done at separate sessions for each track, while the stereo album was mixed in a single day. Mono was where all the work and time went and the stereo mix, like that on Sgt. Pepper, was pretty much cobbled together as an afterthought. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn mono mix is much "punchier" and upfront. It just plain sounds better. However, there are many subtle changes in effect, moment to moment gradations that alter the flow of an entire track. For example, Syd Barrett's whoops and shouts on "Take Up thy Stethoscope and Walk" are simply dripping with delay and the sound collage constantly morphs, unlike the stereo version which is fixed. The coda of "Flaming" is briefer than on the stereo version, as is "The Gnome." There's a layer of organ missing on the stereo mix at the start of "Interstellar Overdrive" with a bongo fade-out and seriously different sections thrown together in "Pow R Toch H." Do yourself a favor: rediscover Piper (an AM7) – or better yet, discover Piper in mono (AM8)!

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