Producer Norm Smith Discusses Pink Floyd's First Rock Milestone, 'Piper at the Gates of Dawn'
From the GW archive: This feature originally appeared in the December 2007 issue of Guitar World.
How can I get a light show onto an album? Norman Smith asked himself as he stood on the floor at London’s UFO club in 1967, watching a set by a then-brand-new band called Pink Floyd.
As a staff engineer at Abbey Road studios, Smith had recorded all of the Beatles’ early discs. Recently, though, he’d received an opportunity to move up the ladder and become a record producer. All he needed was an act to produce, and he decided to take a chance on Pink Floyd.
At the time, the band was the toast of the London underground, famous for its freeform, freak-out style of instrumental improvisation and throbbing, hallucinogenic light shows. It was all a little overwhelming for Smith, who was one of the more senior staff members at Abbey Road. But he knew he was on to something.
“I’m an old jazz man myself,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t know anything about psychedelia. But I could see that Pink Floyd were extremely popular, so I thought, Well, it looks as though we can sell some records here.”
Boy, was he right. In the 40 years since Smith made his decision amid UFO’s strobe-light ruckus, Pink Floyd have become one of the best-selling artists in rock’s history. Catalog classics like The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall continue to sell in massive numbers.
The Floyd phenomenon defies rational explanation. And it all may never have happened if Norman Smith hadn’t decided to throw his lot in with four psychedelicized lads from the picturesque university town of Cambridge, England, and record Pink Floyd’s debut album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
To celebrate the 40th birthday of this landmark rock record, EMI is releasing a triple-disc anniversary edition of Piper that features the mono and stereo mixes of the original album and a disc of bonus tracks, all of it newly remastered.
Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a masterpiece of British psychedelia, Swinging London’s answer to San Francisco’s Summer of Love. The disc is divided between mind-bending instrumental improvisations such “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Pow R. Toc H.” and the fanciful, delicately unhinged songcraft of Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s original guitarist and frontman.
Barrett’s fairy tale imagination and warped, free-associative sense of song structure were a huge influence on later rock icons like Marc Bolan (T.Rex), David Bowie and Robyn Hitchcock.
Shortly after Piper was completed, Syd lapsed into LSD-triggered mental illness, ceding Pink Floyd’s guitar chair to David Gilmour. Which makes Piper at the Gates of Dawn all the more precious: it is Syd’s sole album with Pink Floyd, a rare peek into the fragile yet beautiful psyche of one of rock’s seminal tunesmiths.
Curiosity about Pink Floyd’s enigmatic founder has increased in the wake of Barrett’s demise in 2006 at age 60. In response, MVD Visual is reissuing the excellent documentary Pink Floyd and the Syd Barrett Story. And while Barrett left Pink Floyd in 1968, his specter has continued to haunt the mega-Platinum stadium rockers. Syd is the subject matter of both Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here.
There are also glimpses of Syd in the main character of The Wall, the disturbed rock star Pink. And when Pink Floyd reunited in 2005 to play the Live 8 benefit concert in London’s Hyde Park, bassist Roger Waters introduced “Wish You Were Here” by saying, “We play this song for everyone who cannot be here today, but of course in the first place for Syd.”
As for Norman Smith, he has recently published his own autobiography, John Lennon Called Me Normal, a career retrospective that details his studio exploits with both the Beatles and Pink Floyd, not to mention the author’s early Seventies run as pop recording artist Norman “Hurricane” Smith.
And yes, John Lennon really did call Smith “Normal,” not without reason. The straitlaced EMI career man made an unlikely partner for Pink Floyd, who were at the time London’s trippiest freak-out merchants. The producer had a particularly hard time with Syd Barrett, who was already starting to spin out of control as sessions for Piper at the Gates at Dawn got underway.
“I realized as time went on that Syd really and truly, in my opinion, didn’t get any pleasure out of recording,” Smith observes. “Syd’s thing was he would write these songs; he would go to an underground club, or something of that nature, and perform these songs. And that was really it for him.”
Still, one must acknowledge Smith’s perspicacity in signing Pink Floyd to EMI and also the sheer nerve he demonstrated in resigning his enviable gig as the Beatles’ engineer. Abbey Road’s rigid hierarchy at the time dictated that, in accepting the role of Pink Floyd’s producer, Smith could no longer engineer recording sessions. And so he said goodbye to the hottest rock and roll band of the Sixties, if not of all time.