Producer Norm Smith Discusses Pink Floyd's First Rock Milestone, 'Piper at the Gates of Dawn'
Producer Norm Smith discusses Floyd's first rock milestone, Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
“In the Syd Barrett era, I regarded Roger the way a soccer manager regards his captain on the pitch,” Smith says. “I was the soccer manager in the control room; I told the band exactly what I wanted. I didn’t think Syd was listening too much, and I relied on Roger to make sure they knew in the studio, when they started playing, what my changes were.”
Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright made some inspired contributions to Piper at the Gates of Dawn: delicately filigreed contrapuntal combo organ passages on “Chapter 24” and “Scarecrow,” and even some cool jazz piano on “Pow R. Toc H.” But Smith seems to have been little impressed with Pink Floyd’s keyboard man.
“Rick Wright was a pretty adequate pianist,” the producer allows. “Didn’t talk much. Didn’t come up with ideas. Most of the ideas came from myself and Roger Waters. Nick Mason was just the drummer, but he would pitch in supporting or not supporting any change of arrangements. Rick Wright was certainly interested in what sounds we developed, but I can’t remember him actually ever saying to me, ‘Well what about such and such a sound?’ Whereas Roger Waters did.”
It’s hard to conceive what Smith thought of Syd Barrett compositions like “Lucifer Sam,” “Matilda Mother” or “The Gnome,” abstract tales filled with elfin folk, witches and other fanciful characters. While highly melodic and beguilingly inventive, these are not conventional pop songs, and Smith was looking for a hit. In fact, he needed a hit.
"Not only was this his first outing as a producer but he’d also gone out on a limb by persuading EMI to front Pink Floyd an unprecedented £5,000 [about $13,800 in 1967, or approximately $83,000 in 2007] upon the signing of their contract. “It was a semi-threatening acceptance from the [EMI] management,” Smith recalls. “They said, ‘Okay, we will pay this £5,000, but be it on your head as a producer. ‘I thought, Oh dear, what have I done?”
About halfway through the Piper sessions, Smith found the single he was seeking in “See Emily Play,” a Barrett composition purportedly inspired by the aristocratic 15-year-old Emily Tacita Young, known around Swinging London as the “psychedelic school girl.” “When I heard ‘See Emily Play,’ ” Smith recalls, “I thought, Ah, this is the one I think can do something with for a single. So I dressed it up and put one or two [effects] on. They didn’t mind whatever I was doing to it. I don’t think Syd was too keen, but by that time I’d gotten used to that, so I pressed on.”
For reasons widely speculated upon by rock historians, “Emily” was recorded at not Abbey Road but London’s Sound Techniques studio. “I couldn’t get into studio Number Three at Abbey Road, which I wanted for that session,” Smith says. “Actually, I couldn’t get into Number Two either.
"And Number One was a very large, orchestral, classical studio [and therefore inappropriate for a pop session]. I had some ideas about ‘See Emily Play’ and I wanted to do it while it was hot in my brain. I had been to Sound Techniques—I knew the engineer there—so I booked that. It was a very comfortable session, very good indeed. I was very pleased with what we finished up with at Sound Techniques.”
Smith denies the often-heard theory that he recorded “Emily” at Sound Techniques in an effort to reduplicate the sound of Pink Floyd’s pre-EMI single, “Arnold Layne,” which had been produced by Joe Boyd [Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, Nick Drake, R.E.M.] “I saw a couple of weaknesses in that, to be honest with you,” Smith maintains. “And I recorded ‘Arnold Layne’ with them again, and I released it on an EP. My version is on that. They had two releases of that.”
Whatever factors were at play behind the recording of “See Emily Play,” it is an absolute gem of pop psychedelia. Concise, yet trippy and infectiously melodic, it ranks among the greatest rock singles of all time. “Thank goodness my judgment was right,” Smith says. “ ‘See Emily Play’ got to Number Two in the charts here in England and did well, generally speaking, in Europe.”
Meanwhile, back at Abbey Road, work on Piper at the Gates of Dawn wound to a conclusion. It is known that Pink Floyd themselves participated in the mono mix of the album. There are tales of Barrett and his bandmates wildly flicking faders.
But Smith throws cold water on that colorful image: “I wouldn’t go as far as to say they were moving faders, no. But of course they contributed, naturally. As I said earlier, I had to form a friendship with the boys and form a trust. They trusted me and I trusted them. So of course that kind of thing went on: a contribution from one or the other of them in the control room when we were remixing.”
But Smith’s problems with Barrett didn’t end with the completion of Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The guitarist’s erratic and listless behavior during two Pink Floyd appearances on BBC television’s Top of the Pops program nearly made Smith apoplectic, as he feared that Syd’s despondent refusal to participate in the pop process would compromise the chart success of “See Emily Play.”
Barrett also took part in early sessions for Pink Floyd’s second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, with Smith again at the production helm. But by that point, Syd Barrett—the man who had given Pink Floyd their name and led them to their earliest musical triumphs—had spun too far out of control and was compelled to leave the group.
“And that’s of course when David Gilmour came in,” Smith says. “And then things, for me, really looked up, because David Gilmour was a completely different guy. He listened to everything I’d say. He loved learning from me about recording and sound techniques.
"Musicwise, he was interested in my past as a jazz man. Well, they all were. So I encouraged them and said, ‘Let’s have a couple of jam sessions then.’ And we did. I went over to the piano and started something up. We had several sessions like that with David Gilmour and they loved it. Also when David came, he was more receptive to the melodic ideas that I had, which they all accepted very much.”
Smith nonetheless drifted away from Pink Floyd during the making of A Saucerful of Secrets and later emerged, as mentioned earlier, as a pop artist in his own right. But with Gilmour on board and Waters coming more and more into his own power, Smith felt he’d left Pink Floyd in good hands.
“All through Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Saucerful of Secrets, I encouraged them to produce themselves,” Smith recollects. “I said to them, ‘I think you are a group which can and will produce yourselves. You don’t need any further tuition in production. I think you can make it.’ Which of course they did.”
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