25 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #24

Pink Floyd, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn  (Mono Mix) (Columbia/EMI, 1967)

Tonight I'm deviating from my original plan (I forget what record I was going to review but it seemed dull) and doing a very specialized review of an album I deeply enjoy, which is The Piper at the Gates of Dawn by Pink Floyd. I won't really get into the Syd-went-bonkers-and-Roger-got-depressed history, etc. Basically I'm only going to talk about the mixes. (That's right. I'm going full audiophile with this, God help me.)

In the music industry, it was standard practice up until the beginning of 1968 to issue albums in mono and stereo mixes. You see, at that point stereo was regarded as sort of a goofy novelty. It wasn't taken seriously until enough people bought it to make it become industry standard out of necessity. A few pop musicians from the '60's still like the sound of mono - Brian Wilson, for example, still prefers it to stereo. Anyway, what this all means is that in the '60's, albums would be issued in mono and stereo mixes. Frequently, the mixes would be strikingly different from each other, and the stereo mixes would often be tossed off by studio engineers - the mono mixes would be the ones that the band spent time fine-tuning and working on with the engineers. Thing is, when it came time to reissue all these albums on CD - hell, when it came time to reissue all these albums on stereo LP - the tossed-off stereo mixes were, by default, the ones that were used. This means that the mono mixes of many classic albums went relatively unheard by tons of people for years. Both Revolver and Sgt. Pepper are reputedly noticeably different in their mono, band-supervised mixes - I've never heard them - than in their quickie stereo mixes, which became the way most people heard them for decades. Another example of this phenomenon? The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. And man, is it different in the mono mix.

I learned tonight that producer Norman Smith did the stereo mix of Piper in a day. I never knew this before. But it certainly does explain why there were just some very... strange mixing decisions on that album that I previously just took for granted. Hey, let's listen to Pink Floyd being psychedelic, you know? It didn't occur to me that cramming the band into one speaker for at least a minute - leaving the left speaker completely silent - might have just been a dude rushing his fucking ass off to get a usable mix for some gullible kids with their new-fangled stereos. Or that the shooting the band around the sonic spectrum for that legendarily disorienting panning effect at the end of "Interstellar Overdrive" was literally someone fucking around with his cool new pan-pot that they'd installed on the mixing console recently. Take off some effects here, subtract some tracks that were all over the song there, hey let's take these kids for all they're worth!

The mono mix doesn't sound completely different - I mean, these are still the same takes and still the same performances. But it's different enough for me to be very surprised. As a whole, the mono mix is much more powerful and, it seems to me, much more guitar-focused than the stereo mix is - though honestly there are times when it sounds like Rick Wright's bizarrely menacing organ is battling with Syd Barrett's blaring, dissonant guitar for dominance. Since it's mono, there are none of the stereo tricks that characterized the stereo mix I'd always heard. There are also effects they put on a few of the tracks in the mono mix that make the songs sound even more disorienting and strange than they already were. Some instruments that were very prominent in the stereo mix get somewhat buried in the mono mix - one somewhat unfortunate example is Roger Waters' awesomely pissed-off bass playing in "Interstellar Overdrive." But you know what? Trying to describe this in general is starting to bore me. Let's get into specifics.

"Astronomy Domine" has the announcer chatter in the center of the mix and starts slightly earlier. It sounds like there's much more natural reverb on the guitar here, and like it's much more upfront and slightly harder-edged than it was in the stereo mix. The drums also sound absolutely cavernous as well - the toms sound massive. The delayed guitar sounds even weirder here, because it's clearer. The organ and bass are farther to the back in this mix than they were in stereo, but the open space in the mono mix is more powerful than in the stereo version because Nick Mason's forcebeat drum smashing is given the sonic space it needs. There's some prominent reverb on Barrett and Wright's singing. 

"Lucifer Sam" is all guitars in the mono mix. Guitars and drums. Waters' bass is solidly on background duty here, and Wright's solely adding texture and trippy atmosphere in the background as well (except for his garage rock organ solo, which sounds like it's straight out of Nuggets). This song rocks even harder in the mono mix because it's so dominated by Barrett's guitar playing. There must be three guitars on this song, at least. This is also probably Nick Mason's best drumming on the album. It might be the hardest he ever rocked in his album career. There's also a lot of reverb on the shaker percussion too for some reason.

Things are a little buried all around on "Matilda Mother." First the guitar and bass are very upfront, then they're all squashed together briefly (because Wright's vocals are at the forefront of the mix and have reverb added to them that make them sound much more distant), then Barrett's guitar, which sounds even treblier and more wiry than it did before, is very upfront during the "Why'd you have to leave me there" section. Things continue in this manner - the instruments do sound a bit pushed together underneath the very reverbed vocals. Then we come to the weird solo section and the guitar and organ suddenly get very loud. This part sounds very unexpectedly violent. The organ in particular sounds extremely strange (mostly because it's louder). The formerly distracting backing vocals are relegated to background duty and given another sheen of reverb. The mono mix makes clear that there's an obvious full-band edit right after the solo section; could they really not make the transition back into the third verse satisfactorily for Smith? Who knows why, but it's there.

"Flaming" sounds really different than before. To wit - the whole track is drenched in primitive phasing and cavernous reverb. There was no phasing at all on the stereo mix and precious little reverb. This version sounds like Smith literally put his thumb on the master as it was playing and then dropped the tapes down a well. The mid-song freakout also sounds much stronger and much scarier - you can really hear how hard they're pounding away at their instruments, Mason in particular. While "Flaming" was never my favorite Piper song, I think the mono mix makes the unsettling juxtaposition between Syd Barrett's childlike lyrics and delivery and the violence of the band's playing very clear. The bizarrely regal tack piano solo is also slightly buried too, again in favor of Barrett's bizarre electric guitar playing. There's so much phase on this version that you can't quite hear the acoustic 12-string guitar clearly. The ringing bells are even higher in the mix on this version than in the stereo version. The whole thing sounds like a really unsettling psychedelic mess - beats the stereo version for sure, although I wish there had been more clarity in the mixing of the 12-string and the piano. There are almost no backing vocals on this version either - the line about the buttercup has no backing vocal there at all.

"Pow R. Toc H." is probably the worst song on Piper, but the mono mix proves you can put lipstick on a pig and have it be semi-successful. There are thankfully no stupid stereo experiments here. The band's clear - not shoved into one speaker - and you can actually hear what's going on. There's noticeable delay and reverb put on the vocals here, which helps. They're still yowling "DOY DOY!!" in stupid voices but you can't have everything. First "jazzy" part of the jam: Massive tom sound here. Nice bass sound. Lead guitar in the deep background during this part? Maybe. You can hear Barrett's swinging acoustic rhythm guitar here quite well, it adds to the track. Is Rick playing the piano with one hand? Sure sounds like it. The sound is much, much, much fuller and more powerful here than in stereo. The second "noisy" part of the jam is more obviously an edit, but it's also more gracefully handled. The sound is suddenly cavernous here. Huge drum sound. It has more upfront screaming and stupid mouth noises (at one point they actually audibly crack each other up, which almost redeems the whole thing then and there), much more upfront and noisy guitar (Syd really smacks it around here), and some competing organ as well. Again, pay attention to how much clearer Barrett's electric guitar work is here.

"Take Thy Stethoscope and Walk" has absolutely no reverb on the vocals: very dry, except for the ending where the vocals are unexpectedly echoed for a few seconds. There's some more very upfront guitar slashing and more competing organ, fuller and more cavernous sound as well for the whole band. It sounds like there's actually two sets of drums dubbed onto this for some reason, though my ears might be playing tricks on me. If you pay attention, though, you can hear where the edit was. (The jam on "Take Thy Stethoscope and Walk" originally lasted something like 15 minutes.) More lipstick on a pig here - the song itself is still garbage, but the jam which is the song's reason to live sounds even more awesome than it did before.

Apparently there were two entire tracks of guitar and organ that didn't make it to the stereo mix of "Interstellar Overdrive." Nice one, Norman. In addition to the lead guitar, the bass, and the low organ, there's a high organ part that simply wasn't there before, and a heavily delayed atonal lead guitar that's buried in the mix (but is nevertheless audibly there - it sounds like a UFO, appropriately). As the band's full-band overdub over their original full-band performance begins to lead into the free-form jam here, you can hear Nick Mason getting totally out of time with his own drumming, it's great. Completely disorienting. This mix doesn't quite emphasize guitar so much as it emphasizes the entire band. It hangs over everything like a noxious cloud full of really, really bad shit. Wright's organ is really reverbed, there's much more reverb on Barrett's guitars (it's also clearer that there must be something like four or five guitar overdubs on this track alone at different points), and it's somehow even more frightening and insane than the stereo version was, which is really quite a feat. You can even hear two bass guitars at points. Two Masons bash away - it's much more powerful. Wright's reverbed background organ playing is in real horror movie territory. I mean, you don't even get the full picture with the stereo mix. I would never have believed that until I actually heard it for myself. This is the triumph of the album, even more than it already was. This is terrifying. And there's no panning at the end. You can hear Barrett detuning his guitar way more clearly in real time. Those are bongos at the end. The segue into "The Gnome" is even more abrupt.

"The Gnome" doesn't have Barrett's voice crammed into one speaker and the band crammed into the other. Instead, Barrett sings over the band like a normal human being would and the mix is much, much, much clearer and more listenable (and not such a fucking headache on headphones). And Waters' absolutely wonderful, bouncy bassline leads the music so well. This is just so much more listenable than the stereo mix was. There's no reverb on the whispered vocal at all. Everything sounds nice and clear here, if a bit cramped occasionally.

The position of the instruments is all central in "Chapter 24." There's no stereo separation at all, and the effect is more overwhelming and more powerful here than in the stereo mix. Here, though, you can actually hear the bells. The vocals in this mix are more prominent and quite reverbed. Wright's organ dominates the sonic picture - the piano sounds as small as it did before. I don't have too much to say about this one. It's not that different, but the mix is clearer and more powerful. A fairly constant theme, no?

"The Scarecrow" lacks stereo separation as well, so that Mason's clip-ty-clop percussion is much easier to hear. The electric guitar is strangely not too prominent in this mix - it may be less prominent here than in the studio mix. Barrett's vocals are very upfront, but overall I'd say this is the closest to the stereo mix. Almost nothing was changed.

The first part of "Bike" features a few intriguing differences. There's no reverb on the full band's performance at all during the verses - it makes it easier to hear what they're doing, for sure. They are all smashed together in the middle of the mix, but you can hear Wright's goose-stepping piano (which is what makes it sound confusingly warbly), Barrett's guitar, and the organ on top and slightly in the background. During the "You're the kind of girl" sections, there's that bizarre, primitive (if nowhere near as overwhelming) phasing from "Flaming" again, and it's on Barrett's voice and the "BAM! BAM!" percussive stuff that everyone who's heard the song knows. It sounds really weird (and good). There's also a ton of reverb put on the regal tack piano - which almost disappears during the "You're the kind of girl" sections.  However, as far as I can tell, there's little difference between the mono and stereo mixes for the second part of "Bike," outside of more clarity in mixing. The second section is quite reverbed at first, but there's absolutely no reverb on anything by the time the chipmunk laugh loop comes in to finish the album.

Well after all that, I hope I've basically convinced you to go listen to the mono mix of this record if you like The Piper at the Gates of Dawn at all; as far as I'm concerned it beats the pants off the stereo mix, which I'd always been used to. Finally, there's one thing I've noticed about this album that I sort of want to get off my chest: for a bunch of dudes who later went on to occasionally insult punk music in interviews, the general virtuosity level on this album is pretty much at punk level or below. Hell, I think most punks were better instrumentalists than these guys. They could barely play their instruments on this album, and you can really fucking tell. Mason plays so many stiffly rudimentary beats on this album that it's kind of amazing. I mean, I can barely keep a steady rhythm and I could probably learn how to play most of these songs. Please realize that none of this is meant to be insulting, of course. These guys really were amateurs on this album (one handed keyboard solos! flatly amateurish drumming! guitar solos that consisted of nothing but insane slashing and distorted noise!), and really it all paid off tremendously. It worked. This album sounds like no other album. It was a huge influence on me - Barrett's chaotic guitar style, especially, was an inspiration, along with his songwriting. I originally bought a Telecaster because I wanted to sound a bit like Barrett. Hearing this album in the mono mix was not quite like hearing it for the first time, but it redefined an album that was really essential to my musical development.

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