Before Pink Floyd became (deservedly) famous in the mid-70's for Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here, and later for The Wall, they were a different band--they were Syd Barrett's band. Instead of the epic, moody, atmospheric, trippy rock forged primarily by the synergy of Roger Waters and David Gilmour later on in Pink Floyd's existence, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn finds the band making music that is very much of its time (1967). The music that became known as "psychedelic" is loosely defined as music that combines creative sonic textures and surprising sounds with bizarre, often whimsical lyrics to either simulate or enhance a drug experience. With the Beatles just down the hall in Abbey Road Studios recording Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Pink Floyd (named after obscure American bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council) were on the cutting edge of the British psychedelic scene while recording The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Now, 40 years later, we're offered a worthy definitive edition of a classic band's classic debut that still endures today as a classic of its genre, thanks to Syd Barrett's unique vision and inimitable songwriting.
What is offered in this 3-CD set? Discs One and Two are Mono and Stereo versions of the album in its entirety. Many fans are passionately divided as to which version is better: younger fans are most likely accustomed to hearing music in stereo, so a mono mix may seem antiquated. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn's stereo mix is pretty awesome--I find it a very well-thought-out stereo mix (some from this era weren't particularly well-done), and some great panning effects happen (especially in "Lucifer Sam" and the finale of "Interstellar Overdrive") that really add to the music's psychedelic impact. On the other hand, the mono version is just as essential. At the time of the album's release, British pop music was more geared toward recording radio singles in mono, so a mono version of the album is likely truer to the spirit of the times and more reflective of how bands and producers approached the recording of music when entering the studio. It certainly sounds thicker, denser, and perhaps a bit more chaotic than the stereo version, which seems to benefit the wild nature of a lot of the album's music. The great part about this set is that you get both versions, so you can decide for yourself which one you like better. In my opinion, they're both essential.
Disc 3 is composed of bonus material--the A and B sides of Pink Floyd's singles from 1967. Of these, several (including the classic singles "See Emily Play" and "Arnold Layne") were available on the hodgepodgy compilation, Relics, but some weren't--the mono and stereo "Apples and Oranges" and the B-side "Candy and a Currant Bun" were heretofore quite scarce on CD. Additionally, Disc 3 offers a couple alternate takes of the classic "Interstellar Overdrive" and an alternate version of "Matilda Mother." Since the early Pink Floyd was definitely a singles-oriented band (they had to have a successful single in "See Emily Play" to record a full-length LP), these are all essential and worthwhile bonus tracks. Just listen to "See Emily Play," and "Apples and Oranges"--they're total British psych-pop gold, with Barrett's playful charm set over a quirky and snappy backdrop of irresistible, concise pop. Fans may be upset that other rarities (i.e. "Vegetable Man," "Lucy Leave," "Two of a Kind," the list goes on...) aren't included on this disc. Although it would be great to have a definitive CD collection of these rare tracks, it's understandable that they aren't included--most were recorded after the sessions that produced this album and the accompanying singles, so it makes sense that they'd all be bundled together. Throw on top of the 3 discs of music a beautiful cloth-covered book designed by Pink Floyd design stalwart Storm Thorgerson full of pictures, information, and an 8-page reproduction of Syd Barrett's notebooks, and this set fills the bill as a definitive package.
As for the music on the album itself, it certainly justifies the fanfare of a 3-disc edition. The Pink Floyd may not have been the only (or first) British band making psychedelic pop rock at the time, but they sure made some of the best. "Astronomy Domine" is a classic opener, with strange radio chatter giving way to Syd Barrett's mysterious and evocative spacey musings sung in his gentle but haunting voice. The backdrop is dominated by Barrett's reverb-drenched guitar and Rick Wright's crazy organ sounds--two musical elements that typify the classic sound of the whole album. Barrett's songwriting really shines for its uniqueness of vision and effortless un-self-conscious whimsy on the groovy "Lucifer Sam," the hazy childhood loveletter "Matilda Mother," and the tripped-out "Flaming." The middle of the album gets really trippy, with the bizarre "Pow R. Toc H.", filled with weird vocal sound effects, Roger Waters' only track on the album ("Take Up Thy Stethescope and Walk") and "Interstellar Overdrive," one of the early band's most classic tracks. Through these songs they show a penchant for jamming centered on virtuosity, but more on a restless urge to experiment sonically and chase down some strange and stimulating sounds. Unlike the tedious jams that typify some music from this era, Pink Floyd pulls it off remarkably well (case in point, the wild ride of "Interstellar Overdrive" sandwiched between the song's surf-sounding primary riff). Barrett's fantastical whimsy returns for the album's last few tracks, especially on the Tolkein-esque "The Gnome," which jollily interrupts the droning embers of "Interstellar Overdrive," the sublime "Scarecrow," and the classic "Bike," which sees Barrett rattling off nonsensical details about his life. The album ends (much like the contemporary Sgt. Pepper) in a chaotic clamor of strange sound effects and percussive noises, marking the end of a particularly distinguished psychedelic journey. Really, what sets The Piper at the Gates of Dawn apart from some of its contemporaries is Barrett's imagination and intuitive knack for catchy lyrical and musical hooks. This is music that, despite its weirdness, sticks with you by virtue of quality writing.
Who would I recommend this set to? Die hard fans will definitely want this version--the book is fabulous, both versions of the album are essential, and the bonus material is too irresistible to pass up. If you're interested in the music but don't want to shell out the extra money, the 2-disc version has both Mono and Stereo versions of the album at a lower price. If you're new to this classic music and aren't sure you're willing to go for a fancy version, I urge you to at least grab the 1-disc version that's been out for a while. This is great music and an excellent example of a great musical era that fans of the later Pink Floyd may really appreciate. Once you're hooked on Pink Floyd's take on British psychedelic rock, be sure to check out some of the other classic albums of the genre, like the Zombies' Odessey and Oracle, self-titled Tomorrow, the first two Soft Machine albums, the Small Faces' Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, the Move's Shazam, and The World of Oz, to name a few. I hope you enjoy this classic music!