There was an exchange here not too long ago about the way music made by and for young people may not speak in the same way if heard first when youth is getting pretty small in the rear-view mirror. That middle-aged-or-older person may like and/or appreciate it, but not take it to heart as might have been the case in youth.
That probably describes my view of the first two Pink Floyd albums. I didn't hear them when they were released in late 1967 and mid-1968, though I think they were reasonably popular among the people I knew. The first of the group's albums I heard was 1969's Ummagumma. I liked it, or at least parts of it, and have liked a good deal of their music since, though I wouldn't say I'm a zealous fan. Several years ago I picked up used CD copies of their first two albums and only recently gave them a good listen.
The Piper At the Gates of Dawn
This album is "psychedelic" in the sense that it makes use of sonic and lyrical devices meant to strike the listener as strange, off-kilter, mysterious, dreamy, maybe absurd and disorienting, and just plain weird. It's also psychedelic in the sense that the songwriter was very much into hallucinogens, about which more in a moment.
Much of that sort of thing from the same time sounds a bit silly now, maybe a lot silly. But this album doesn't sound any more dated than, for instance, a Beatles song like "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds." It's more musically accomplished and complex than I expected; it's whimsical, inventive, very tuneful, and very well-performed and produced.
The lyrics are mostly playful and nonsensical, or close to it. But I don't think it's only my imagination suggesting that there is some sort of unpleasant undercurrent there. Maybe it's a faint hint of menace. Or maybe it's just a slightly disoriented quality.
Having written the preceding couple of sentences, I looked at the AllMusic reviews of the album. It's definitely not just me. A number of the user reviews (that is, ones not written by AMG) say things along these lines:
Most explicitly, the final track Bike, which not only closes the album on an unnerving note and is the scariest part of the record, it's also it's weirdest. And outside of Bike, there's also a certain at times uneasy undercurrent to this album that gives you the impression that amidst all the wonder and bliss it can come crashing down into insanity at any moment....
Here's a link to the lyrics of "Bike." Seems harmless enough, doesn't it? And I can't say that the music is particularly eerie or menacing. But another AMG user says "Oh my, what a creepy song that is." You can go over to YouTube and hear it for yourself.
As everyone with any interest in this group at all knows, most of the songs were written by Syd Barrett, one of the original four members of the group. I knew it, but had not realized the extent to which Piper is a Syd Barrett album. He is the writer, singer, and guitarist; the group could have been called Syd and the Saucers or something. He had a mental breakdown, drug-linked if not drug-caused, and left or was expelled from the group soon after this first album. And maybe that knowledge is the real reason that people sense that uneasy quality. His breakdown pretty well ended his musical career. It's a terribly sad story, even sadder to me now that I know what a talent he was.
Would I have loved this album when I was nineteen? Probably. But then, as I discovered after listening to my copy (a used CD purchased some ten years ago), the original U.S. release, which I would have heard back then, is missing two significant tracks. In any case, today I find it more interesting as history than as art.
A Saucerful of Secrets
I think many people who really liked Piper were disappointed in the group's next album. Barrett is almost gone, contributing as a writer only the album's final disturbing and disintegrating track, the very misleadingly titled "Jugband Blues":
It's awfully considerate of you to think of me here
And I'm almost obliged to you for making it clear that I'm not here
David Gilmour, who would soon become an essential part of the group, was on board at this point but was still more or less just Barrett's replacement on guitar. The whole flavor of the album is different, and it's much less unified. You can hear quite clearly the ways in which the band would develop in the future. What was light and whimsical (except maybe for that uneasy undertone) on Piper has become more straightforwardly heavy and dark. The sardonic and abrasive anti-war "Corporal Clegg," written by Roger Waters, wouldn't have been out of place on The Wall. The 12-minute title track is just plain scary, the kind of thing you'd play as a Halloween sound effect for trick-or-treaters (though it does lighten up in the last few minutes). I used to think "Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun" was frightening: the riff seems to me a bit sinister, and I assumed that the words, which I couldn't understand, were about some sort of astronautical suicide mission. (It's actually about watching a sunrise.) Two songs by Richard Wright provide brighter spots, being relatively conventional and quite pretty pop songs, with a dreamy quality that would continue to surface at times in the group's future work.
Would I have liked this one? Not so very much, I think, on the whole. But I might have loved Richard Wright's "See-saw."