Who is Pink Floyd? Cold experiments and saxophones. Twenty minute opuses and barren atmosphere. Faceless, immobile, serious musicians. Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall.
Who are The Rolling Stones? Sleazy sex and heroin. Mick’s lips and strutting. Blues, booze, and Berry. Exile on Main Street and Some Girls.
Who are The Beach Boys? Surf and sun. Hot rods and bikinis. Prancing old Reaganites in Hawaiian shirts. “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Surfin’ Safari”.
Who are The Who? Rock operas and ponderous proto-metal. Bluster and bashing. Classic Rock radio staples and Broadway bounders. Tommy and Who’s Next.
Classifying these acts as cult bands is a far-fetched stretch. They are among the most enduringly popular in Rock history. The Beach Boys were the biggest white American Rock band of the ‘60s, scoring three number one hits in their hey day and another some 25 years after their debut. Pink Floyd are responsible for one of Rock’s all-time bestselling and most iconic records. The Stones and The Who may only fall behind The Beatles and Led Zeppelin in the British Rock race. Yet within each of those band’s expansive histories lay genuine cult items; recordings that the majority of their fans and the bands, themselves, generally ignore. The cultists these oddities have attracted feel decidedly stronger about SMiLE, Their Satanic Majesties Request, The Who Sell Out, and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. We are the one percent.
Wish You Were Here, surviving Floydians speak indifferently of Piper and diminish its status by framing it as a primitive precursor to their bigger, better-known records.
Perhaps a reason each of these albums has been somewhat swept under the rug by their creators is that they each bear the residue of disappointment and trauma. SMiLE marks the beginning of Brian’s break from reality and the end of The Beach Boys as a hit machine. Their Satanic Majesties Request was cobbled together during a year fraught by nonstop trials and the very real possibility that Mick, Keith, and Brian Jones were headed to prison for piffling drug charges. The Who Sell Out housed just one heavy Rock song in the classic Who mode, a track that was Pete Townshend’s greatest hope for a breakthrough hit. Even though “I Can See For Miles” was The Who’s highest charter in the U.S. (Billboard #9) and a top-ten hit in the U.K., he always regarded its failure to take the number one spot as his greatest failure. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn coincides with the downfall of Syd, a marvelously creative person who, like Brian Wilson, would soon succumb to a cocktail of hallucinogen over-indulgence and mental illness.
With these albums out of their creator’s hands, they each took on new lives in the claws of cultists. Syd Barrett became the poster boy for Rock’s most outré galaxies. Low-fi weirdos Television Personalities secreted a number called “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives” on their brilliant debut album …And Don’t the Kids Just Love It. Punk bands that made their mission to eradicate “boring farts” like Pink Floyd embraced outsider Syd as a hero. John Lydon, whom his future fellow Sex Pistols discovered slinking down the King’s Road in his “I Hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt, loved Syd enough to name his pet hamster Sid (sic) the Vicious. A future member of his band, of course, would adopt that name too. The Damned were major Syd fans/post-Syd Pink Floyd-haters too. When their scheme to rope Syd into producing their second album Music for Pleasure fell through, they settled on drummer Nick Mason as a consolation prize (and regretted doing so when he displayed an utmost lack of interest in helming the band). Damned tracks like “Nice Cup of Tea” and “Gigolo” are explicit tributes to the man. More recently, Captain Sensible covered “Octopus” for a Mojo magazine tribute to Barrett’s debut solo album.
recently wrote, “I’m actually NOT much of a Stones fan either…. some of the unmitigated garbage that this bunch of bored rock stars have churned out in the last few decades would have killed most bands …But I LOVE Their Satanic Majesties Request. It is an album that rewards frequent playing.” The Damned made good on that love by covering “Citadel” on their “Friday the 13th” E.P. The Brian Jones-worshipping neo-psychedelicists Brian Jonestown Massacre paid full-length tribute to the album on their sprawling, fascinating Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request.
In 2005, Minuteman Mike Watt corralled former That Dog-singer/violinist Petra Haden to record an a cappella recreation of his favorite Who album, Sell Out. Even after receiving its long-overdue official release last year, SMiLE will forever remain the ultimate cult album, inspiring bands from R.E.M. to The Flaming Lips to The Wondermints (who later became Brian’s backing band) to create similarly ethereal music.
The oddness of these albums’ most prominent fans speaks to their own oddness, their own cultiness in light of the artist’s most famous, most monumental work. Meanwhile, a young generation of fans continue to embrace these records perhaps more readily than they do Tommy or The Wall or Tattoo You or Surfer Girl. Robert Larham recommended Sell Out among his essential ‘60s albums in The Hipster Handbook. Last year’s SMiLE Sessions box set was a rabidly anticipated media sensation rarely seen in the realm of classic rock archival releases. Syd remains the hip face of Pink Floyd, and Piper and Sell Out are the only albums by their creators to be profiled in Continuum’s 33 1/3 book series. Though it has not experienced a revival similar to its partners in cultdom, Satanic Majesties seems to be winning over more and more fans as The Stones’ blues and Rock & Roll purist reputation becomes less and less relevant. If nothing else, it has become less taboo to praise the record, as witnessed in 21st century reassessments by Kurt Loder, Richie Unterberger, and well, me. We one percenters may find ourselves in the majority in the end.
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released 45 years ago today.