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Culture Re-View: Pink Floyd release their first album

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn Copyright Pink Floyd Music/EMI
Copyright Pink Floyd Music/EMI
By Jonny Walfisz
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4 August 1967: Pink Floyd release their first album

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There have been many Pink Floyds. The one most well-known is the line-up featuring Roger Waters on bass, David Gilmour on guitar, Nick Mason on drums and Richard Wright on keys.

Together, that foursome would pen some of the most well-known prog-rock albums in history. The four-album run of ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’, ‘Wish You Were Here’, ‘Animals’, and ‘The Wall’ from 1973 to 1979 put them alongside The Beatles and The Rolling Stones as all-time greats.

In later years, a new Pink Floyd would emerge. When Waters left the band in the 80s, he mounted legal complaints against the other three demanding they stopped performing under the “Pink Floyd” moniker. That didn’t happen and Gilmour et al released a string of lukewarm Pink Floyd albums while Waters went progressively more unhinged as he toured his old material.

Before all of this though, there was another Pink Floyd. The first Pink Floyd. Before Gilmour brought his virtuoso guitar ability to the group, the band was led by the mysterious figure of Syd Barrett.

AP/AP1967
Syd Barrett, top right, with other members of the band, top left, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, left, and Rick Wright.AP/AP1967

Barrett joined the group of young musicians in 1965. He was a lone art student among architects. Inspired by The Beatles’ experimental sound, Barrett pushed the band into psychedelic avenues. He wrote songs inspired by nursery rhymes, folktales and fantasy novels. Regular trips under the influence of LSD were also a driving force in Pink Floyd’s early days.

In London, Pink Floyd quickly gained an underground following as an exciting new band. A bidding war broke out to sign the group with EMI winning out.

They set up at Abbey Road Studios to record their first album, ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’. Although it’s disputed how well these sessions went, it’s documented that a major challenge was condensing the band’s sprawling improvisational style into something recordable. In the end, the album oscillates between tighter tunes and more rambling odysseys of sound where the band had freer reign.

Listening back to it now, it’s an intriguing album, far from the work that would define the band. Where later albums are tight and uncompromising, there’s a freeness to the way songs jump in and out of sections. It feels alive with guitars chirping and synths whirling all the time. Barrett’s vocals are the most distinctive part. He’s a whimsical storyteller and foreboding prophet, all wrapped up in English charm.

In the end, the album was released on this day in 1967. It was relatively commercially successful at the time, scoring at number six on the UK’s album charts. Also well received critically, the album ensured that Pink Floyd would go on to record a second album.

Things were not alright with Barrett though. The heavy LSD usage was getting to the frontman as it disturbed his undiagnosed schizophrenia. Increasingly remote and unresponsive, the band started cancelling gigs.

The next year, the band returned to Abbey Road to continue work on their follow-up album ‘A Saucerful of Secrets’ which Barrett had written the song ‘Jugband Blues’ for, but by this point his health had deteriotated too much. Unable to perform, the band replaced him with Gilmour and a new era of Pink Floyd began.

Barrett’s mark on the band was not forgotten. The album ‘Wish You Were Here’ is largely dedicated to him. However, outside the band his condition didn’t improve. He withdrew from the music scene to live with his mother, without contact from the band members. Barrett died in 2006 from pancreatic cancer aged 60.

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