Looking back on the Pink Floyd of the late 60s, the fledgling band first led by Syd Barrett can seem a bit like Britain’s answer to The Velvet Underground. Idiosyncratically druidic, mysterious, and playful, but also inspired by literature (though Barrett was much more Kenneth Graham than Delmore Schwartz), drawn to experimental film and hypnotic stage effects, inspired to turn the experience of being on specific drugs into a disorienting new way of playing music.
The comparison may seem odd, especially given the Velvets reputation as the most famous band no one heard of until after they broke up and Pink Floyd’s reputation as one of the biggest-selling bands of all time. But before they filled stadiums, they were scrappy and strange and psychedelic in the earliest sense of the word.
Sadly departed singer Chris Cornell remembers discovering their first record, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, in the mid-80s, and meeting a very different Pink Floyd than the one he'd come to know: “It could almost have been a British indie-rock record of the time.” Indeed, Syd Barrett’s work, including the solo albums he recorded after leaving the band, left a long, lasting impression on indie rock.
[T]he important thing about The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was the music’s strange juxtaposition – sometimes whimsical and pastoral, but simultaneously desperate and sad. I don’t think I ever found another record which that type of dichotomy worked so well. With Syd Barrett, it never felt like an invention.
The BBC’s Chris Jones put it a little more succinctly: “this is Edward Lear for the acid generation.”
If all of this sounds appealing and if, somehow, like Cornell, you missed out of the earliest incarnation of Pink Floyd—with elfin savant Barrett first at the helm—you owe it to yourself to watch the hour-long compilation of footage above featuring some of the earliest live performances, first with Barrett, then a fresh-faced David Gilmour taking over for their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets.
As Barrett’s spidery Telecaster lines give way to Gilmour’s gritty Stratocaster riffs, you can hear a more familiar Floyd take shape. They clearly always wanted to reach an audience, but in their first several years, Pink Floyd seemed totally unconcerned with filling arenas and selling albums in numbers measured by precious metals. Songs like “Astronomy Domine” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” are all about heady atmosphere, not the gut-level hooks and brevity of pop.
Though they started out in 1965 like every other British classic rock band, obsessively covering American blues songs, Pink Floyd took their rock chops to another galaxy. “If you look back at some of the great psychedelic albums that came out that year”—writes Alex Gaby in an essay tour of the band’s entire catalogue—The Piper at the Gates of Dawn “doesn’t quite sound like any of those…. It’s as if Pink Floyd were the piper and they are opening up the gates to a new dawn of psychedelia and music.” Watch the gates open live, on film, above.