The summer of 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of one of psychedelia’s definitive artifacts: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Pink Floyd’s first album, dominated by the mercurial Syd Barrett’s madcap weirdness, is a quintessential cult album, one that’s passed from veteran heads to young initiates as they prepare for their long voyage into rock’s deep end. Hordes of Floyd fans (you know the types I’m talking about) have never even heard the thing. For them, the album is forever consigned to the band’s impenetrably mysterious, pre-Dark Side of the Moon years.
Yet here’s the thing about Floyd’s legacy: Had the British band crash-landed before the making of the stratospherically popular Dark Side, they still would’ve gone down as one of the most influential (and far-out) groups of their generation. Sure, there’d be zero platinum records, none of those classic–rock standards, and no rivaling The Beatles and Stones for global domination. Yet those losses wouldn’t have any impact on their sweeping influence on alternative, underground, and avant-garde music (genres filled with countless musicians who prefer the earliest stuff). Exploration of their 1967 to 1972 output—from pre-Piper singles like “See Emily Play” through to the Dark Side dry-run Obscured by Clouds—reveals the building blocks for space rock, prog, kosmische musik, ambient, post-punk, shoegaze, post-rock, dream pop, experimental drone, avant-metal, and freely improvised noise, as well as too many micro-movements within electronic music to count.
It’s an interesting time for Floyd, as they were a young outfit unexpectedly thrusted into an extended state of liminality. You could go so far as to say they didn’t know who they were as a band. They parted with Barrett, their de facto creative leader, just three years after their formation. Without him and his powerful, if utterly erratic lifeforce, the group were plunged back into the depths of the underground, where they were forced to reinvent themselves without compass, map, or even rudder. Yet it’s this very lack of any tools or guideposts that allowed them to drift untethered into the farthest reaches of their imaginations and pull out sounds of stunning originality (the apex of which very well could be sides three and four of 1969’s Ummagumma). And while the music contains touches of acid rock, blues, and folk-rock in spots, they’re clearly trying as hard as humanly possible not fall back on established musical languages. I know music geeks love to hail Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music as the most sonically extreme statement from a major rock artist, but hell, Floyd ventured into the atonal, freeform abyss on a nightly basis during their transitional years.
To capture this aspect, I’ve done something that may rankle listeners. Instead of spotlighting studio recordings exclusively, my best-of playlist contains live versions of several pivotal songs. I know the studio takes of “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Echoes” (from Piper and Meddle respectively) are sublime. But I believe they achieve true lift-off in concert. The live “Interstellar Overdrive” found on The Early Years: 1965-1967 Cambridge St/ation explodes with third-eye aktion rock, scorching white noise, and overdriven bass swells that place Floyd closer to The Velvet Underground’s orbit than anything going on in England’s rock scene at the time. Then there’s the version of “Echoes” from Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii, filmed not long before the band achieved rock stardom. Firing on all cylinders, Floyd aren’t just mapping a future for experimental music but several futures simultaneously. Pick out any three genres from those mentioned up above, and I guarantee you’ll hear them lurking inside the piece’s 25 majestically expansive minutes.
But far more important, set aside your intellect and just allow yourself to bask in the seemingly three-dimensional space and textures from which “Echoes” is built. We’re talking architecture in motion, with atmosphere so sticky it clings to your skin, ethereal harmonies that slow time to a delicious crawl, and sharp electronic pings that pierce the listener’s consciousness and embed themselves in layers far below the waking. Call me crazy, but I don’t think the studio version does all this (even though it’s still one hell of a trip). I’m not going to lie: This is a long, immersive playlist. But that’s the only way to fully appreciate Floyd’s early years.