Producer Norm Smith Discusses Pink Floyd's First Rock Milestone, 'Piper at the Gates of Dawn'
“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.