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These kids knew how to make music to party to.
These kids knew how to make music to party to.
Original The Piper at the Gates of Dawn album cover.

Before They Were All Anxiety and Bile, Pink Floyd Knew How to Have Fun

Bands evolve. This is been part of the template of rock and roll since the very beginning. The four lads who created a sensation at the start of their careers were a different group of men, sonically speaking, by the time The Beatles came to a close. Whether these evolutions are successful or not isn't really the point – there will always be an audience to hear you play the old stuff that brought you to the dance in the first place – but it's a very human thing to try and expand your horizons in ways big and small.

But most evolution is linear. For every hardcore political punk band that releases a prog-rock record, the world is full of bands that extended their careers by making smaller, less radical changes: slowing down the tempos a little bit, adding some synth parts, or making their writing more universal instead of awkwardly personal are all parts of the playbook that'll get critics talking about how a band has “grown up.”

There are few bands with as interesting a sonic arc as Pink Floyd, who through tragedy and happenstance evolved into one of the most important bands in the rock music canon. This is no secret, of course, and there are plenty of music historians, fans of both prog and psychedelic rock, and completionists out there who'd be happy to talk your ear off about The Man and The Journey, but they're the minority. For most people, Pink Floyd means about four records in the middle of their career, the ones responsible for a series of iconic songs and just as iconic album art, records so big that the shadow they cast covers much of the rock and roll landscape of today while completely obscuring their own back catalog for most. It's a shame, but not really a surprise.

Pink Floyd's legacy has endured largely because every new generation that comes along can identify with the big broad subjects their four biggest records – The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall – all deal with. This is clear if we just retitle them to make their themes more clear; Adulting is Hard, Your Job Doesn't Care About You, Society is the Worst, and Fascism is a Really Unhealthy Way to Deal With Trauma sum up the four records quite nicely and should clue you in why modern audiences, maybe more than any other, can really identify with what the band were singing about. They're also records with fabulous music, stellar production and a creative vision unmatched by 98 percent of groups out there.

But if you flow back into the mists of time, back before they were making music what you needed to take drugs to make more enjoyable and back to a band that was making music that was enjoyable to do drugs with, you find a band that might not have been as “talented” but were certainly more interesting. They still sound like Pink Floyd in their own way – sound effects run rampant, they make references to space, the songs are expertly constructed – but if you compare a song like “Bike” to a song like “Dogs” you just want to take all the guys in the group, wrap them in blankets, make them a cup of hot cocoa and ask them “who hurt you?”

Early Pink Floyd is oddball, somehow feelings joyful yet with a dark menace lurking almost imperceptibly just under the surface. To go back to “Bike”, it's a pretty silly song lyrically, but then lead singer Syd Barrett also kind of sounds like a guy who would drive a stake through a pig heart, give it to you as a gift and expect you to think it's super romantic. Other songs masqueraded as psychedelic freakouts, but they're just a little too neat in their framework, the band mostly made of architecture students never allowing the studio versions to come anywhere close to shaking apart.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a record that everyone should give a listen to at least once, just to see what a “fun” Pink Floyd record could be. With the loss of Barrett as a creative figurehead in the group, the band would go on to be enormously successful and capital-I important, but a world where Barrett kept it together and never had to give up on music is a much more interesting counter-factual than “What if The Beatles never existed?” Can you imagine trying to write a song as twisty and turny as “Interstellar Overdrive” while also trying to write poppier fare like “See Emily Play”? Three cheers to Nick Mason for bringing some of these less loved but equally fascinating songs out on the road this year.

Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets perform Monday, March 25, at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. Doors at 6:30 p.m. and show start at 7:30 p.m. $59.50 - $274.50.

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