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Pink Floyd - A Saucerful Of Secrets CD (album) cover

A SAUCERFUL OF SECRETS

Pink Floyd

 

Psychedelic/Space Rock

3.67 | 1712 ratings

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Finnforest
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator
3 stars From the Gates of Dawn to the Saucerful.

1967 was one gigantic rainbow for Pink Floyd. They would start the year with a freshly inked record deal and end the year with a leader in shambles. The first official Piper session with producer Norman Smith took place the evening of February 21 and the first track recorded was "Matilda Mother." It was a magical time and the Piper album would be a phenomenal artistic success, a piece of genius that many fans would place great historical importance on. Sometime in late spring friends began to note changes in Syd. In early August Piper was released and the band began the first sessions for their second album. The next few months would see Barrett become disillusioned with the thought of having to repeat what they just did and deal with the increasing publicity. His drug use was both active and passive. Everyone knows Syd took legendary quantities of acid, what they may not realize is that he was also constantly being dosed by the people around him. These "hangers-on" around Barrett were taking advantage of him and helping fuel his destructive behaviour. I recall reading that they were dosing everything from the tap water to the afternoon tea so that Syd never came down from one trip before the next one started. The Floyd were unable to intervene and some admitted they really didn't try very hard, it was easier to look the other way according to Mason. One wonders if things could have been different had they called for a break and had an intervention to get Syd out of destructive living arrangements but instead they forged ahead. By the end of the year he had become largely useless to the aspirations of the other members. Conventional wisdom calls Syd an acid casualty or mentally ill and there is evidence that supports those assertions. But that is only one piece of the puzzle. The other piece of the puzzle that doesn't get mentioned (because the "acid casualty" angle sells more magazines) is that Barrett forced the end consciously because he hated the direction they wanted to take it. This was at least a part of the reason along with the other issues. But he was conflicted of course: Syd liked the idea of being in a band but he wanted it to stay low-key and underground, he wanted things to be ever weirder and more avant-garde in direction. The others naturally wanted success in the more conventional sense and this meant singles, albums, interviews, and TV. Syd wanted no part of this and so he began to "act up" in ways that were no doubt magnified by his drug use and mental condition. They also admit to putting relentless pressure on him to come up with new material (per manager Andrew King) and being nasty to him when he couldn't do it. I have read other accounts as well stating that the band were unnecessarily mean, not just indifferent, but mean to him in a sort of bullying, mocking way that could not have been helpful. Of course they were quite young too and under pressure so some slack has to be cut. By early '68 Gilmour had been brought aboard as the back-up plan and Syd knew his tenure was about finished. He actually knew earlier than that when the problems began to escalate in the fall of '67 and he began to butt heads with Waters regularly, the legendary "Have You Got It Yet?" story just being one example. (More on his farewell middle-finger to Roger later.) Syd would play his last date with the boys January 20th 1968 at Hastings Pier, the last of a handful of gigs that included both Barrett and Gilmour. Gilmour would sympathize with Waters' decision to sack Barrett as he would again concur with firing Wright about a dozen years later. I wanted to provide this account of the Barrett to Gilmour transition because I get tired of the simple, degrading accounts in magazines-if you dig deeper into the many accounts (in books) of Syd's closest friends, family, and management, you eventually discover his story is a little more complex than just "acid casualty" alone. Also, I am a fan and enjoy boring you all to tears with this :-)

While Syd's exit and the reasons can be debated there is little argument that a Syd-less Floyd was not ready for prime time initially, though they would recover quickly to their great credit. Roger Waters was left to assume control and was far from ready to be lead songwriter though he must be given huge credit for keeping the ship afloat through this difficult period. Saucerful is a big step down from Barrett's masterpiece of psychedelic whimsy and underground folklore. To reduce the reason for this down to the simplest bottom line, it just lacks the incredible spark that happened to be in Syd's grasp in those few months while Piper was being cut. It lacks the wide-eyed enthusiasm they had in their first months before things began to sour. Saucerful is not horrible though and within the tracks can be heard scraps of the band they would become in a few years. Gilmour's first recording session with the Floyd took place on January 10 of 1968. "Let There Be More Light" opens the album with Roger Water's new role as songwriter and it's not too bad, with different trippy sections that fit well together and a nice whisper effect on the vocals. This was also one of the first tracks the new line-up worked on together. Gilmour contributes a somewhat tentative solo towards the end as Wright's keys swirl around it all. "Remember a Day" is a nice psych-pop song by Wright that was a leftover from the Piper sessions: Syd can be heard doing the scrapes of slide guitar roughening up what is an otherwise very "pretty" song. I love the mood of the song which is so melancholic and the theme of wanting to remain in an earlier more pleasant phase of life. There are very nice piano parts by Wright here that contrast well with the slide. Apparently Mason couldn't manage his drum parts on this song and so they are played here by producer Norman Smith who also contributed some backing vocals. "Set the Controls" is an early example of space rock, a tag which would drive Waters crazy in the years to come as he attempted to write more about the human condition than abstract ideas like outer space. The song features prominent keyboard work by Wright and Mason's typical rolling drum variations along with various sound effects. There has long been controversy about Syd's contribution to this track. According to David Parker's excellent book "Random Precision," which documents every early recording session with actual studio records and handwritten notes off the EMI tape boxes, the version that appears on Saucerful is take 2 from the August 8, 1967 session and is Barrett on guitar, not Gilmour. While Gilmour claims that some of his overdubs were added later Parker says there is no written evidence in the record to support this and there is no question that the version used on the album is the August '67 take. In a 1993 interview Dave would confirm Syd plays a bit on Set the Controls but still maintains he also is on there via later overdubs. Parker says the records do not show this but admits records aren't always perfect! Either way, the song is dominated by the main riff and would again be much better on future live versions. "Corporal Clegg" is the closest the band would get to the Piper sound with its harmonies and kazoo parts but it clearly shows a different thought process happening lyrically. There is some fine guitar work here by Gilmour and a Beatle psychedelic feeling at the end with the effects. The title track "Saucerful" is the only composition here written by the entire new band and is a source of disagreement among fans. As the longest track at 12 minutes it either makes or breaks the album for you. It features spooky sounding dissonant weirdness for the majority of the song. Some see it as incredibly boring and uneventful; others find the progressions and the bit of melody late in the piece promising. Nick Mason believes the song is one of the "most coherent pieces" they ever did. He and Roger carefully planned the piece out on paper and there was a real spirit of cooperation and constructive work ethic in the studio. This makes complete sense because the band needed to prove themselves in a hurry-no one really thought they had a shot without Barrett. One person who wasn't that happy was Norman Smith. After Barrett's departure he figured the boys would settle down and make some music that was more conventional, instead he wound up working on Saucerful which he called "rubbish." But while Mason thinks this studio version is great I think most fans would probably say that future live versions are a big improvement as the band had time to develop it substantially. Rolling Stone agreed saying "the group and particularly Wright have achieved a complexity and depth, building nuances into the main line of the music, far beyond what is on the studio version or Ummagumma." Other members of the press were not so kind calling it long, boring, and uninventive. "See Saw" is another lovely psych pop moment by Wright which sounds incredibly corny and melodramatic but features nice harmonies and string arrangements. The working title of "See Saw" in the studio was "The Most Boring Song I've Ever Heard Bar 2" which likely means Rick was getting some good natured ribbing over this track. Around 1990 Wright said he considered his two songs "an embarrassment" with "appalling" lyrics and that he had not listened to them since recording them. I think he's being too hard on himself, they are decent enough flower-power pop songs even if out of line with where Waters and Gilmour were heading.

And then there is "Jugband Blues" the one track written by Barrett. It is surely far from Syd's best song but it is one in particular where the lyrics are more direct and biting than usual. It's an important song because it is almost a resignation letter, an open letter to the others indicating he was unhappy and that he knew quite well he was on the way out. Some of the more obvious lines have been quoted to death but to me two other parts are the most striking. First we have the line "And I'm grateful that you threw away my old shoes. And brought me here instead dressed in red" which I believe is sarcasm thanking the others for bailing on him (in advance) and for making him something he was clearly not. (also others have noted that red is a color that signifies human sacrifice for what that's worth.) I tend to think it's about the business making him act in a way that is uncomfortable for him. More biting is the sharp edge of the final two lines that tell me everything I need to know about Syd's departure from PF: "and what exactly is a dream. and what exactly is a joke." This is Syd's "middle finger salute" to Roger Waters in my opinion. There were two directions that PF could have taken. Syd's avant-garde, low-key, underground, counterculture band of artistic weirdness which he clearly wanted (the dream) or Roger's desire for big commercial success (the joke.) Any skepticism of this interpretation I had vanished by watching the video of the Jugband Blues performance on youtube, which hopefully will not been removed by the band. In it you'll see Syd singing and you'll note that Waters is just over his left shoulder. Syd is very still mouthing the words and staring straight ahead. At the end when he utters the last phrase "a joke" he turns to look right at Waters as the cameras fade. Pretty clever for someone who supposedly had no idea what was happening. Sure this is only my speculation but after all I have read on the subject it's certainly not a big stretch.

This is a unique sounding album because Gilmour had yet to assert himself much and Waters was mediocre at best in the musical sense. Wright had the most formal musical training and certainly he was needed here. If you'll notice when listening there are many parts of this album where Wright is actually the most active, impressive player. This is surely the most democratic band period the Floyd would manage, out from under Syd-control but not yet under Roger completely. The band would get the album finished and released by summer '68, while also touring extensively in Europe and the US throughout the period to introduce their new guitarist to the world. Watching some video of early Gilmour performances one can sense a certain relief in the band to be playing with a more dependable vocalist/guitarist. There were probably few bands as good at live gig crisis-management than early Floyd and the Doors, always having to be ready for whatever crisis Barrett and Morrison respectively would throw at them! The cover was the first of many Floyd album covers designed by Hipgnosis.

So how to rate Saucerful? An interesting and mostly good album that fans will surely want to own but not an essential album by any means. They would develop their sound and explore their most fiercely progressive directions over the next few albums before refining and moving to the next level in the 70s. Waters and Gilmour have both been dismissive at times of their pre-Meddle material but their fans know better. There is much there to enjoy despite the frustrations and dismissal of their creators

Finnforest | 3/5 |

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