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.
“I wasn’t upset to leave the Beatles and become a producer,” Smith maintains. “I could see that things weren’t going so well at that time with them. We’d had such a happy time before, but at that point it wasn’t so happy anymore.”
As the principle engineer of the Beatles’ prolific output from their first hit single, 1962’s “Love Me Do,” to their classic 1965 album, Rubber Soul, Smith had worked under George Martin.
As a result, he’d learned quite a few sonic tricks and production strategies in the course of his experience with the Beatles and their legendary producer. All this stood him in good stead as work got under way on the first session for Piper at the Gates of Dawn on February 21, 1967, in Abbey Road’s Studio Three.
The site of sessions for Revolver, among other Beatles recordings, Studio Three had a small, cramped tracking room but a comfortable control room with windows that brought natural light into the workspace. It was here that Pink Floyd gathered for a pre-session huddle with their new producer.
“My first job, obviously, was to form a friendship with them and, above all, to form a trust, being their producer,” Smith says. “So we’re sitting there chatting in the control room, getting to know one another. The control room door opens and in walks Paul McCartney. He wanted to meet the boys. He’d heard of them. And after a little chat with them, he comes across to me, puts his hand on my shoulder and he says to the Pink Floyd boys, ‘You won’t go wrong with this bloke as your producer.’ ”
McCartney was down the hall working with the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the time. Both Pepper and Piper were recorded on four-track open-reel analog tape, the state-of-the-art format in 1967.
By today’s standards, this may seem primitive, but Abbey Road’s engineering staff had developed an arsenal of techniques for obtaining a dazzling variety of sounds from this circumscribed recording medium. Piper at the Gates of Dawn stands at the beginning of a long tradition of compelling sound effects on Pink Floyd albums.
Perhaps the best known examples of this are the ticking clocks, heartbeats and running footsteps that help dramatize Dark Side of the Moon. But the evocative soundscapes go all the way back to Piper’s opening track, “Astronomy Domine,” which begins with telegraph-like “satellite” effects and the voice of Floyd manager Peter Jennings reciting the names of stars and galaxies through a megaphone.
Automatic Double Tracking (ADT) is a tape-based doubling technique that had been used to process everything from vocals to guitars and sitars on Beatles recordings. On Piper, it was used quite extensively on Syd Barrett’s lead vocals. The album production entailed a great deal of tape editing as well, splicing together different takes of a song. This was especially efficacious given the mercurial Barrett’s tendency never to perform a song the same way twice.
The psychedelicized chaos of the instrumental classic “Interstellar Overdrive,” destined to become a long-time Floyd concert staple, was achieved by recording the band playing the composition all the way through once, freeform improv and all, and then having them dub a second pass over the original take. Barrett’s Telecaster is particularly biting and angular.
On “Interstellar Overdrive” and other Piper tracks, backward tape loops create a particularly tripped-out effect. The eerie, time-warped sound of analog tape traveling in reverse motion across the playback head of a tape machine was first heard on the Beatles’ 1966 hit “Rain.”
It was John Lennon who first stumbled on this arresting tonality by accident, having mounted the reels of his home tape machine the wrong way around. But it soon became a staple of Abbey Road’s late-Sixties bag of tricks.
“I’m rather hoping that my contribution to that was the reason it then started to be used,” Smith says. “I think my main contribution to Piper at the Gates of Dawn, apart from advancing the melodic side of the music, was sounds. In those days, 40 years ago, the technology in the control room was nothing like it is now for developing sounds. But I had a few tricks up my sleeve.
All of the Pink Floyd members except Syd got very interested in what you could do to develop sounds. And they took on board any little musical changes I would make. They were only little things, trying to get the best of the melodies. Although, once again, Syd was pretty difficult.
At this point Barrett was not only Pink Floyd’s frontman and principal songwriter, he was also London’s hippest new heartthrob and psychedelic pied piper. Whether he was disdainful of Smith’s musical suggestions or utterly oblivious to them is hard to say. Perhaps it was a combination of both.
“The band would be in the studio recording a particular number,” Smith recalls. “I would bring them back into the control room to listen to the playback. And I would suggest perhaps a little phrasing alteration in what Syd was singing. Syd was nodding. He didn’t say anything, but he was nodding, like a “yes” nod. He seemed to be paying attention, so I said, ‘Okay, go back in the studio and we’ll do another take.’ So they go back in the studio and Syd did exactly the same thing he’d done on the previous take. I said to myself, ‘I think I’m wasting my time here.’ ”
In despair, Smith found himself relying on Roger Waters. In years to come, Waters would become Pink Floyd’s principal lyricist and conceptualist. But in 1967, he was just the bass player. His sole songwriting contribution to Piper, “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk,” is one of the album’s least memorable tracks. There’s not much of a chord progression or melody.
Waters seems to be attempting to imitate Barrett’s alliterative style of lyric writing, only giving it a dour spin that is far less appealing than Barrett’s sunny, childlike outlook. But even at this early stage of the band’s career, Smith glimpsed in Waters the leadership qualities that the bassist would later come to assert.
“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.”