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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Pink Floyd Saucerful of Secrets - A Retrospective

Pink Floyd Saucerful of Secrets
Pink Floyd Saucerful of Secrets
Pink Floyd Saucerful of SecretsReleased in 1968, Pink Floyd's second album, "A Saucerful of Secrets," shows the band in a transitional period following up on their debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn which appeared the year before. The band's lineup was in flux, as the original guitarist and songwriter Syd Barrett had gone mad and would soon be gone entirely; while David Gilmour came on to replace him, while bassist Roger Waters picked up the bulk of the songwriting duties, along with a pair of contributions from keyboardist Richard Wright. Barrett's songwriting veered between little ditties of childlike innocence and spaced-out paeans to the glory of the cosmos. As his role in the band was diminished, Pink Floyd lost that whimsical side and came to focus exclusively on complex psychedelia.

Two of Barrett's most famous songs were recorded during this period but not used. They were "Scream thy Last Scream" & "Vegetable Man". Both were prospective follow up singles to Apples and Oranges. “Vegetable Man”, and “Scream Thy Last Scream”, are some of the last attempts at coming up with a hit single, in the wake of “See Emily Play” that Syd wrote before being booted out of his band. The band should have left off "Corporal Clegg" and "Let There be More Light" to include these insane masterpieces.

Roger Waters does his best to imitate Syd Barrett with his two of trippy psychedelic rock songs, "Let There Be More Light" and the very amusing "Corporal Clegg" (representing the first of Waters' various war-themed songs, though this particular tune is done with humor, including a solo on kazoo). Richard Wright delivers a fine pair of atmospheric songs, "Remember a Day" and "See-Saw", both left over from Piper...

The first of the two really standout tracks is "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun". Written by Waters, who based his lyrics on lines from Chinese poetry, it is a very spacey and exotic track, with the organ and guitar merging quite beautifully. It was far better live, but the studio version is pretty good anyway -- a vaguely Middle-Eastern melody, whispered vocals by Waters, and very spacey playing by Wright and Gilmour.

But the big centerpiece of the album is the title track, which is a twelve-minute instrumental of strange sounds and clashing of china and cymbals, with wild keyboard and piano action, and a very strange slide guitar solo- all with Nick Mason's solid drumming in the background. Roger Waters was once quoted saying that it was supposed to demonstrate the before, middle, and end of a battle. The first part is the tension build-up, the middle section is the war (with drummer Nick Mason's tribal percussion loop, Gilmour running his guitar up and down a microphone stand, Waters repeatedly smashing a gong, and Wright pounding his piano senseless), and the final part is the release, the calm after the battle. It's an amazing piece, one of Pink Floyd's best, and it points in the musical direction that the Floyd would take on future releases. It is not untrue to say that Saucerful of Secrets is the "A Day in a Life" of Pink Floyd.

However, it is Syd Barrett who gets the final, haunting word on "Saucerful" with his Pink Floyd swansong, "Jugband Blues," recorded just before his exit from the band, and which the Floyd rightfully saved for release on "Saucerful Of Secrets." The song---featuring some very twisted lyrics and a cameo by a Salvation Army band---may indeed represent Barrett's tragic fall into dementia, but he still sings it with tremendous feeling, and no diehard Floyd fan will ever forget Barrett's final, jarring line, "And what exactly is a joke?” It's his last composition on a Floyd album, and with his passing it seems an even more poignant track now than it ever was. This is pure wonderful, idiosyncratic Barratt. In a way it's a self-pitying song; "It's awfully considerate of you to think of me here, and I must oblige to you for making it clear that I'm not here"...yet it's as freaky as say 'Bike', complete with the Sally Bash army band in the background, together with Rick Wright's strange swirling organ. Oh, and that wonderful kazoo pops up yet again.

Jugband Blues is incredible. It was great to see the same style and creative talent that was the main motivation in Piper round off and conclude the CD. All the reviews that seem try to find psychological meaning in the lyrics or makeup of the song are really missing the entire point--Syd was a Surrealist and the song is surrealism. The meaning is not in the lyrics or in the structure of the song, but in the destruction and absurdity of lyrical meaning and song structure. It is obvious that the rest of the band isn't (at least quite yet) making Surrealism music, but they still do an amazing job playing with the sound and creating very interesting and intelligent music.

Far more than simply a transitional album, "A Saucerful of Secrets" profiles a maturing band that is still performing on the edge of lunacy while transitioning onto a more focused and purposeful musical path. As it is with all of their pre-"Dark Side of the Moon" releases, I cautiously recommend "A Saucerful of Secrets" to those who are only familiar with the "rock radio" edits from this fine band. If you had trouble relating to the albums that those radio-friendly edits came from, then this one is probably not for you. However, if you think that you are up to the challenge, this album may very well expand your musical horizon beyond anything you might have hoped for and, consequently, send you off on a mission to experience other early Pink Floyd offerings as well.

There are other tracks from this same period, the singles "It Would be so Nice" and "Point Me at the Sky" along with the amazing "Julia Dream". There's more in the can too, you can bet on that.

If "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" rates a digital remaster, then it's about time for a Pink Floyd Saucerful of Secrets, to get the same attention. And, please put the Syd tracks of "Scream Thy Last Scream", as well as, "Vegetable Man" on it as bonus tracks. In fact, anything else you find in the vaults centered on Syd and this album please include. Hurry up; we're not getting any younger waiting for this flawed masterpiece to be sonically remastered in this decade!

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