MGF Reviews Pink Floyd – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (40th Anniversary Edition)

Pink Floyd – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (40th Anniversary Edition)
EMI/Capitol (9/4/07)
Psychedelia / Classic rock / Anniversary Cash-In

Like James Agee and Walter Evans, I praise famous men. Actually, I tend to praise men who should be more famous than they are; people you may have heard of but haven’t heard much about. Therefore, let me now praise Norman Smith. And, for a change, I’m doing it while the person in question is still alive and could possibly read this.

Norman Smith is now 84 years old. He’s still a very talented musician who, as Hurricane Smith, had a few hits in the ’70s. But it’s what he did in the previous decade that matters to music, and not in his capacity as a person who could literally play any instrument put in front of him. After serving as a glider pilot in World War II, Norman became a staff engineer at EMI Studios, located on a thoroughfare that some of you may have heard of called Abbey Road. In 1962, he was the engineer assigned to a session by a group newly signed by an EMI subsidiary. EMI policy at the time was that if you engineered an act’s first session, you stayed with the act as long as it was signed to EMI. And, thus, Norman Smith was behind the console for the most spectacular run of hits ever recorded. The clean, appealing sound he crafted for the Beatles on those early records became a standard that engineers all over the world would try to reproduce. John Lennon’s nickname for him, “Normal”, was an act of affection by Lennon, who realized that Smith was the stable center of the hurricane of Beatlemania. For this task, he’d remain uncredited on the records. Most people today still don’t know who engineered the Beatles. Well, there’s your answer.

For some, working with the Beatles would have been enough. Not for Norman Smith. As an EMI employee, he was always on the look-out for new acts to sign to the label. As The Beatles’ engineer, he was tapped heavily into the music scene of London. In early 1966, he saw a new group playing at a club. Their sound, a combination of good old-fashioned rock combined with the influences beginning to creep in from the United States, especially San Francisco, appealed to him. He thought that he knew exactly how to get that sound on a record. He pushed for EMI to sign the group, and they did. There was only one little complication: Smith insisted that he had to produce them in order to get that sound on record. In the hierarchy of EMI, that meant that Smith had to be promoted. His bosses had no problem with the promotion, but it meant one thing: Smith couldn’t be the Beatles’ engineer anymore. He had to make a choice. He decided that this group was too good to let anyone else get a hold of them, and he gave up his seat next to George Martin. He thought this new act could be bigger than the Beatles. Foolishness? Well, in the annals of rock music, that group is one of the few to come close to that status, so Smith, as usual, was right.

Norman Smith’s decision actually had two effects. One of them was on music, and we’ll be discussing that in more detail. The other was on the Human Resources Department at EMI Studios. Smith’s decision left a void in the Beatles’ apparatus. George Martin filled it with nineteen-year-old Geoff Emerick, promoted to full engineer at a time when no one at EMI made that status before the age of forty. It would be Emerick that would become the Beatles’ audio alchemist from Revolver on, creating new sounds that no one had ever thought of making, especially at an antiquated studio like Abbey Road. When Emerick walked out during the fractious sessions for the White Album (and would return for Abbey Road after being begged by Paul McCartney to come back), it opened up a space for other young assistant engineers to get promoted to full engineer and eventually producer, most notably Chris Thomas, Ken Scott, and my beloved Alan Parsons, who’d go on to work with Norman’s group and become engineer on one of the most influential and popular albums ever made. But that was in 1973. Let’s go back six years from that and examine the ingredients in the test tube that became the rocket fuel for that trip to the shadier side of Luna.

So, Norman Smith got his way. He brought in his group, comprised of an elfin lead singer named Syd Barrett, along with Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason, to Abbey Road. With the help of another of EMI’s phenomenal engineers, Pete Bown, he was able to translate the group’s slightly twisted vision into vinyl. He did such a great job that the unusually-named group, who took for a cognomen the first names of American blues players Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, became the centerpiece of Lysergic London. And forty years, two hundred million records, one legendary acid casualty, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and numerous lawsuits between the group members later, we can look back at this record and celebrate its existence with a special two-disc package.

But, like The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and for that matter, anything Pink Floyd’s done over the years, this is not a normal package, despite the presence of Normal as producer. Both discs contain the same material—the album as it was released in 1967. No bonus tracks, no bonus remixes of “Arnold Layne” or any of the group’s early singles that you’d expect to find on a celebratory package. So why bother buying this? What the heck does it need two discs for? Because of two technological developments that came in after this album was recorded: stereo and CDs. One disc is a brand-new stereo remaster. The other disc is in mono, the way God and Norman Smith intended this album to be heard.

Ah, I can see your eyes rolling around in your heads, you know. Who the hell would listen to mono in a day and age when albums are released in 5.1 DTS and the man who popularized the phrase “Back to Mono” is sitting in a courtroom in California on trial for murder? Because of the way things were in 1967. Ah, you children. You need a little history lesson. Well, step up and let Professor Eric provide you with one. Unlike you, he was actually alive in 1967, although his musical tastes didn’t incorporate Pink Floyd at that point. Regrettably, I wasn’t the coolest three-year-old in the world.

In 1967, stereo equipment was still expensive and designed for audiophiles. Home stereo wouldn’t become popular for a few more years (and then would lead to the ridiculousness of quadrophonic and 8-track tapes, the less said about which the better). Most radio stations that would play music were located on the mono AM band. The experiments with music on the FM band in stereo being conducted by Tom Donahue in San Francisco still hadn’t borne fruit, and if you think I’m going to pull out a gay joke at this point, you don’t know how much I respect the late Mr. Donahue and what he did for radio before the whole medium became bastardized and turned into a joke. Therefore, most human beings heard their music through one speaker, and producers and engineers knew this. They’d end up creating two sets of master recordings, one in mono and one in stereo (EMI Studios wouldn’t switch to a stereo-mix-only policy until 1969). The mono mix was lavished over with incredible attention, since that’s what pretty much everyone was going to hear. The stereo mixes were an afterthought and were, to put it politely, shoddy. But when CDs came around in the early ’80s and the record companies realized what a goldmine they were sitting on with their back catalogues and the need for consumers to alter to the new and incompatible-with-everything-else format, they pulled out those horrid stereo mixes and used them to master CDs. Therefore, CD issues of material from the ’50s and ’60s sound pretty bad.

Now do you understand? For an album like The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the mono mix is perfect and stands out as a salutary lesson on the art of being a recording producer and engineer. The original stereo mix had to be scrapped in order to create something that would appeal to modern ears, with even the cheapest available audio equipment today being unimaginable forty years ago. The mono mix is the true indication of how the group, Smith and Bown intended the record to be heard. The stereo mix is a modern compromise. Therefore, this set is designed to appeal to the average consumer with its stereo remix and to the total snobs like me among us who are perfectly willing to go Back To Mono in order to hear the true sound.

And that’s what I did. I listened to the mono mix of this collection first. After forty years, “Astronomy Domine” still retains its astonishing quality. It’s one of those few tracks that not only open an album, but open a world of possibility. You want to know how great Smith and Bown were? Listen to that mono mix of “Astronomy Domine” and the illusion of space it creates. They did this without using stereo tricks and using the most primitive of enhancement equipment. But it’s still so deep that you can fall into it. It also provided a good test for the stereo remaster. I have to admit that it’s a good job done by James Guthrie and Joel Plante. The stereo version “swirls” more (if you know your psychedelia, you know what I’m talking about) and Nick Mason’s drums are pushed a little more forward, becoming more cavernous. Syd Barrett’s vocals have a little more echo on them, which is appropriate to the setting.

The care taken in the stereo remaster comes through on “Lucifer Sam”, especially on Barrett’s vocals. He’s never sounded more shamanistic. Listening to that vocal, you begin to understand Barrett’s reputation, one that fortunately was established while he was still alive, even if he wasn’t very cognizant of it. Unfortunately, the opposite is true of “Flaming”. Barrett’s vocals are clarified too much for the sake of authenticity, but the improvement in the sound of Richard Wright’s keyboards makes up for that lapse. The quality control breaks down a little on the instrumental “Pow R. Toc H.”. There seems to be a bit of a balance issue between Mason’s drums and Wright’s keyboards that swamp the keyboards a little too much.

But the acid test of the mix experiment, so to speak, is “Interstellar Overdrive”. This extended instrumental was what really made Pink Floyd’s early career. Nine and a half minutes plus of freak-out that made The Who look tame, not to mention the closest comparison you can make of Roger Waters to John Entwhistle on their common instrument. Its only negative is that it provided the prototype for the Album Sides Of Doom that the Floyd would come up with in the early ’70s. The stereo version is a little more shallow, with more attempt at separation of instruments. Yes, it’s a more modern approach to the song, but the fact is that the instruments are supposed to mesh, collide, blend and conflict with each other. That’s the charm of “Interstellar Overdrive”. Removing that charm, even only a bit, is devastating to this album, which established its reputation on its charm, peculiar though it may be.

Of course, there are weak spots on this recording. “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk” leads you to one of two established conclusions: (1) that Roger Waters really improved as a songwriter over the years or (2) that Waters has always been a crappy songwriter. And not everything Barrett did was a masterpiece, despite the claims of some of the apologists out there who claim that the Floyd was ruined when the group brought in David Gilmour to enhance and eventually replace him as he fell further into acid casualtyville; “The Gnome” is so twee that Donovan would have considered it ridiculous. And “Chapter 24″‘s philosophy makes George Harrison’s incessant Krishna-izing look mature and subtle. But this was the ’60s, and things like this are to be expected from artifacts of that era. Then again, I don’t hear any of that stuff on Pet Sounds, despite the beautiful harmonies inherent in both. After that, the surface gooniness of “Bike” is a refreshing antidote, and the stereo remaster really shines on that track, with Wright’s piano glissandos literally luminous.

Does The Piper at the Gates of Dawn deserve its reputation and deserve an anniversary package? As the beginning of Pink Floyd’s career and as a document of what the world missed out on when Syd went around the bend, it’s undeniable. But it’s a strange mixture of timeless and artifact-of-its-time. It’s a document of the future of music and a document of the kind and quality of drugs that were floating around London as all the hip kids switched from speed to LSD. As a piece of psychedelia, it’s certainly no Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but it’s definitely better than Their Satanic Majesty’s Request. But it’s a singular piece, the only recording on which Syd Barrett’s vision was dominant. You could tell the difference in the group on their very next recording, A Saucerful of Secrets. Despite having Smith and Bown around to do that one with them, there is a substantial difference. Compare the bass domination of “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” to anything on the Barrett-guitar-dominated The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and you can tell that the Floyd had a new master, one whose vision would dominate the group until the fractious sessions for the anti-war self-indulgence of The Final Cut. Waters’ guidance made the Floyd a legend. But was that a good thing? How would Barrett’s Floyd have evolved, even assuming that they’d become a five-piece with Gilmour? Would they have evolved in four years to something as beautiful and solid as “Fearless”? And what about Dark Side of the Moon? Would that have come about? Too many questions, and I don’t even want to delve on what would replace Wish You Were Here without the inspiration of Barrett’s non compos mentis status.

I think I totally lost the point of my argument in that last paragraph. However, that’s what listening to The Piper at the Gates of Dawn does to you. You get lost in it and lost in the possibilities it now represents. Yes, it does deserve a lot of its reputation. But as the sine qua non of the Floyd? No. There’s just too much in the catalog of such incredible excellence to counter that assumption. Yes, some romantics out there say that the real Floyd ended when Syd went bonkers, and it’s fashionable to hold that opinion. But the evolution of the group between their first album and Dark Side of the Moon is a clear path. Those people are indulging in sins of omission.

And God bless Norman Smith for putting them on that path. Very soon, he’ll be releasing a mass-market version of his memoirs that, like the CD booklet for this collection, includes rare photographs of the Floyd and reminiscences of his three albums of work with them. Pick it up, and give the old man his due. Anyone whose work includes both “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Ticket to Ride” deserves a lot more than that from us.


Mono Mix:

Stereo Mix:

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