Genre: Space Rock, Psychedelic Rock
Preceded by: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
Followed by: More (1969)
Related to: not available yet
Before: a psychedelic rock band fronted by Syd Barett, having released a couple of successful singles and a more than decent debut album. After: an ambitious rock act, featuring David Gilmour and packed with ever growing ambitions. Struggling with exuberance before, turning vinyl into gold afterwards and threatened to end up in its own shadow towards the end. This is a key album, the only album with Barett as well as Gilmour, a personal favorite, but above all: a beautiful Floyd album, merging great melodies with foggy instrumental parts without drowning in its own sound. As if the title could already foresee what would happen during the early seventies, this would remain the best preserved secret of the band.
Although Roger Waters went to the same high school as Syd Barett, and although Gilmour was hanging around in his neighborhood, he laid down the ground works for Pink Floyd together with Nick Mason and Richard Wright after they met (1962) at the school of architecture. Together with three other guys they played in a band named ‘Sigma 6’. As was made clear later, Waters was already not such a great fan of schools back then and he dropped out after one year, just like Mason. Wright apparently just didn’t show any interest at all in architecture and switched to the London College of Music. Not a bad decision at all, as was also made clear later.
The three of them initially kept playing together, till they are joined by Syd Barett (1964) after the departure of some other members. The younger childhood friend from Waters had meanwhile become an art student, fascinated by work from The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Barett’s star within the band quickly rises, as singer as well as lead guitarist, and when the band starts to grow towards its definite form, it changes its name to The Pink Floyd Sound in 1965. The Sound is dropped the next year and the four of them start performing in London’s underground clubs, where their long instrumental improvisations (avoiding to repeat themselves with their limited repertoire) were supported by surreal light effects. It was told that this new band played psychedelic music, which was not at all generally appreciated. Luckily for them, 1967 was within reach.
The rock scene turned upside down right from the start of this year by the massive booming of psychedelic bands, and on the very day the Monterey Pop Festival kicks off on the American West Coast, Pink Floyd releases its second (after ‘Arnold Layne’) single: ‘See Emily Play’. The debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn follows in August, being successful in their home country. The support tour in the US however is no success at all, due to many practical troubles and the mental downfall of Barett, set in already during the recordings of Piper. Nevertheless, the band would ultimately play at San Francisco’s famous Winterland in November, after Janis Joplin with Big Brother & The Holding Company.
On their return in the UK in December, Barett’s state of mind has further deteriorated and the band decides to add a fifth band member in case Barett can no longer perform properly: David Gilmour. He would initially become the second guitarist while Barett would stay connected with the band as non-performing songwriter, Brian Wilson-style. However, Barett left the band permanently in March and the four of them remained. Lots of material for the second album was already recorded at that point, resulting in A Saucerful of Secrets being the only Floyd-album with Waters, Gilmour, Mason, Wright ánd Barett.
With Barett gone as the bands main songwriter, the time had come for Waters to take things over. As this new Supreme Being he opens the album with ‘Let There Be More Light’. This track immediately draws your attention to the album, with an opening bass riff that originated from ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ but sounds (especially with the adding of the threatening organ in the background) like an anachronistic piece of techno music from the late sixties. However, when the drums fall in, you know you’re somewhere up high, lost in the cosmos and in the middle of this ultimate space rock song. The lyrics and music reveal that Waters is still inspired by Barett (and, apparently, some concept album by The Beatles; For there revealed in glowing robes – Was Lucy in the sky?) during his early songwriting, while new member Gilmour is also introduced. He takes on the lead vocals during the chorus and more important, he plays his first Floyd solo towards the end of the song, in that characteristic style we would get used to later on.
It’s up to the other new songwriter next, Richard Wright, presenting a song that was an outtake from Piper: ‘Remember a Day’. As we are used from him, the lyrics mainly deal with childhood memories, but because of the albums’ context it feels like we’re looking down from above to witness those young children playing. Might sound mellow or even poppy at first, but as a matter of fact it’s a real showcase for the drums (ironically played by producer Norman Smith instead of Mason on this track), giving this song a haunting groove from the moment they set in. That’s why Wright basically doesn’t need any guitars here, with Gilmour also being absent (Barett would have played acoustic and slide guitar but it’s barely noticeable). Great song.
The third song was the first one that was recorded for the album: ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’. This is the only Floyd song on which all five members play, although the guitars are quite overruled by drums and organ again. However, there’s only one guy completely defining this song: writer Roger Waters. Of course there’s the awesome bass playing, proving that it’s possible to create an entire song with this instrument as long as the guy who plays it is haughty enough to believe it. But the secret power of this song is without any doubt Water’s threatening whispering, in a style Thom Yorke would later apply to some Radiohead songs.
It’s followed by another Waters song, closing side one: ‘Corporal Clegg’. As the title already might presume, it’s also his first of many song dealing with war (inspired by Waters’ father, who died during World War II). The lyrics tell about this Corporal Clegg, a soldier suffering from shell-shock and losing his leg, while the music drenches the song in sarcasm by using a kazoo (played by Gilmour and once invented by… Thaddeus Von Clegg) in the second part. And in fact, apart from the solo on the opening track, this is the first song on which the guitar really shines.
Side two opens with the title track, a twelve minutes lasting instrumental that was compiled from several separate pieces, composed by Waters, Wright, Gilmour and Mason. According to Waters, it’s the musical translation of a battlefield, including the setup, the actual battle, the view of the dead afterwards and, in the end, the mourning. Again, it are the drums and the piano (+organ) that claim the leading role here. Nick Mason even shows that the drums can perfectly take over the role of the guitar when it comes down to soloing, if this instrument is played brilliantly. Meanwhile, Wright pounds the keys out of his piano with his fists, as can be seen on the legendary Pompeii recording. Some minutes later he switches to his church organ, and creates this mystical atmosphere on a part that might be considered a dress rehearsal for ‘Echoes’. To sum up: listening this song evokes more subterranean imagery than successively watching the entire Indiana Jones collection.
Over to Wright’s second contribution then, lyrically not differing very much from the first one. If one track must be called the least one on this album, it must perhaps be ‘See-Saw’. It sounds kind of peaceful all along and surely can help you falling asleep quietly, and maybe that’s why it was called ‘The Most Boring Song I’ve Ever Heard Bar Two’ on the recording sheet. Throughout the entire song you can ask yourself whether if it’s a charming dream or a sad condolence.
The final secret to discover is ‘Jugband Blues’, the only song out there written and sung by Barett. It was already recorded before Floyd’s trip to the US and Barett must already have known that he would soon (have to) leave the band. The Salvation Army band was added on his insistence, and initially he just wanted them to play whatever they wanted, independent from the rest of the group. Was he maybe inspired by Dylan’s opening track on Blonde on Blonde or is it a little naïve to presume that there still was some memory left at that point? Whatever the answer might be, if there was ever made a song that literally translates somebody’s mental state of mind into music, it must be this one, displaying total schizophrenia between lyrics and instrumentation. That’s why it deserves its spot on this album as a worthy clincher, with Barett seeming to drench his goodbye speech to the group in black humor and irony: I don’t care if the sun don’t shine, I’ll do my loving in the winter.
Altough Barett is represented by only one song on A Saucerful of Secrets, his songwriting still echoed in the first experiments of Waters and Wright. In this way they didn’t break completely with the band’s roots, something that would more or less happen on following albums. This new approach is already announced by the title track, which was a collaboration between the four members who would form the band from now on. That band would exceed their limits in many ways during the following years, but on almost every next album you can find something that points back to A Saucerful of Secrets. Enjoy.