Listening to The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn for the first time in a while (and in a remastered stereo version) I find my thoughts wandering to what might have been.
What if Syd Barrett hadn't mentally crashed and burned after the release of that groundbreaking album? What would it have been like if his imprint, so deeply etched in the lyrics, music, voice and spirit of Piper had continued to define the band's work?
What We Do Know
Since we'll never know what might have been, let's focus on what was.
Probably no other album had as much impact on psychedelic rock. When Piper was released in August, 1967 the genre was still in the process of inventing itself. The Beatles were recording Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at the same time Pink Floyd, literally in the next studio down the hall at Abbey Road, were recording Piper. Grateful Dead hadn't yet caught on outside San Francisco, and Jefferson Airplane had only just begun to.
Then along comes Syd Barrett with his "out there" lyrics about gnomes and fairy tales, an instrumental trip through interstellar space, and the use of sound and production effects that were only just in the experimental stages -- all a bit disjointed and hard to follow unless you were really hip, or very stoned.
An article in Rock & Folk magazine in early 1968 summed it up. "Pictures of Pink Floyd fill you with wonder. The clubs they play at have weird names. The titles of their songs themselves are mind boggling. [T]hey indulge in sonic experiments and even, mind you, go so far as to improvise! [O]ne inevitably comes to the conclusion that this trend a danger for pop music."
Updating the Past
Come we now to 2007 and the 40th anniversary of the release of what would become Syd Barrett's lasting legacy.
The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn has been digitally remastered, and reissued in the form of two anniversary editions. A two-CD set contains stereo and mono versions. A three-CD version is packaged like a clothbound book, complete with a reproduction of 12 pages of Barrett's production notes. The additional CD contains all of Floyd's 1967 singles, including some alternate mixes and limited release versions.
Your mileage may vary, but to me there is a marked difference in the stereo and mono versions. In stereo, the electronic effects and disembodied voices seem much more an integral part of the music rather than something added to it. Of course, the ability to separate sound elements either singly or in groups gives the music much more presence -- more of a "live" feel.
Should you shell out the extra bucks for the slick "book" version, or be content with just the two mixes of the album? It depends solely on whether the extras in the 3-CD version are worth an extra seven bucks or so to you. And that really depends on whether you're a collector, or just a fan.
As you listen, try to imagine how the band might have sounded in the '70s and '80s if history had been different and Syd Barrett had continued to be its driving force. But don't dwell on it. Just enjoy experiencing the small bit of Barrett's legacy that does exist.