This month, John Scott revisits the 1968 classic from Pink Floyd, Saucerful Of Secrets.

Released in June 1968, Saucerful Of Secrets is Pink Floyd’s second album.  It appeared barely ten months after the release of their debut, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, but the time between the release of the first album and the recording of the second was a tumultuous one for the band.Pink_Floyd_Saucerful_of_Secrets

The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn had very much been the vision of founding band member, guitarist, vocalist and principle songwriter Syd Barrett. While The Beatles has introduced psychedelia into mainstream pop music with tracks like Tomorrow Never Knows from their Revolver album in 1966 and with much of the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album the following year, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn was Britain’s first fully-fledged psychedelic album.  It combined a timeless, childlike, bucolic whimsy with what would eventually come to be known as space rock, taking pop music into previously uncharted territory.

During the recording of Piper, Barrett’s use of LSD increased and producer Norman “Hurricane” Smith found him increasingly difficult to work with.  Following the album’s release, Barrett’s erratic behaviour began to manifest itself during the band’s live performances, Barrett often standing motionless as the band played around him.  Gigs and tours had to be cancelled or curtailed; during a show at Winterland on the USA tour, Syd slackened his guitar strings until they fell off and when recording a performance of their single Apples And Oranges for The Pat Boone Show he perfectly lip synced the rehearsal then remained tight lipped during the whole of the actual take.

Realising that they could not continue as things were, the band recruited guitarist David Gilmour in December 1967.  Gilmour  had played with Barrett in bands at Cambridge Technical College and had busked with Barrett around the south of France and the initial idea was that Floyd would perform as a five piece with Gilmour covering  Syd’s guitar parts.  Barrett’s behaviour made that unfeasible however, and Syd became a non-performing member of the band to allow him to concentrate on songwriting.  Unfortunately, even this solution was untenable and Barrett left the band in January 1968.

In the midst of all this disarray, the band had begun recording the follow up to Piper, firstly with an abortive session lasting just two days in August 1967 with Barrett, and then with Gilmour from January to May 1968.  The ensuing album, Saucerful Of Secrets is a transitional one for the band – but then, Pink Floyd were a band for whom musical transition would be par for the course for much of their career –  as they retain their psychedelic style but cast off much of Barrett’s whimsy. Syd appears on three of the album’s seven songs but only contributes  one of his own, Jugband Blues in which he seems to acknowledge that he is not existing in the same reality as the rest of the band.

The album opens with Roger Water’s Let There Be More Light.  This takes the space rock of Piper’s Interstellar Overdrive and Astronomy Domine to new levels.  The music, pulsates;  the vocals are a whispered  chant.  The lyrics reference Lucy In The Sky but this is a darker trip than Lennon’s world of plasticine people and marmalade skies.

The mood is lightened by Richard Wright’s Remember A Day.  Over the next few years, Floyd would excel at producing a particular kind of blissed-out English pop song and this is the first, and perhaps best, of them.  It is lazy and woozy, Syd contributes acoustic guitar and an almost bird-chirping slide guitar – a perfect summer song.  Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun is another Waters space rock song.  Space was, of course, in the forefront of popular culture at the time as the public eagerly awaited the launch of Apollo 11 and the subsequent moon landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on 19 July 1969.  The moon, or at least one side of it, would feature large in Floyd’s mythology a few years later but for now Waters had his sights set on the sun.   As with Let There Be More Light, the lyrics are opaque but the title says it all; the music blasts us off on a journey towards our home star and, it would seem, certain destruction.  It is the only Floyd track on which all five members of the band appear.  Side one of the album closes with Corporal Clegg, another Waters song but very much in the Barrett style.  The jokey music with its jaunty kazoos belies the story of a disabled and troubled ex-soldier struggling to cope with civilian life. War and the consequences or war on its participants and their families was a theme that would almost consume Waters in a later phase of the band’s career and perhaps the seeds of that obsession are sown in this seemingly innocent ditty.

Side 2 of the album opens with the title track, a twelve minute  experimental, impressionistic instrumental in four parts – Something Else, Syncopated Pandemonium, Storm Signal and Celestial Voices.  This proved to be pretty much the last straw for Hurricane Smith who was again producing and was determined to steer the band towards shorter more commercial material.  Anything less commercial would be hard to imagin;, Saucerful is closer to the contemporary classical work of the pioneering composer Karlheinz Stockhausen than anything ever produced by a British beat group. It is not inaccessible though – although as a fourteen year old who had just discovered Pink Floyd through Dark Side Of The Moon, it took me good few plays to appreciate this.  The versions from the Ummagumma album and the Live At Pompeii film show what a powerful, moving and uplifting piece of music it was when performed live.

The album moves towards a close with See Saw, another lazy-sounding summer song from Richard Wright before ending with Barrett’s Jugband Blues.  “It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here” he sings, “ And I’m much obliged to you for making it clear that I’m not here.” He was very much a member of the band at the time this was recorded and yet he seems vey much aware of his own absence.  The song, and the album, ends with the sombre lines “And what exactly is a dream? And what is exactly is a joke?”

Sadly, Barrett would never recover sufficiently to be able to re-join the band.  Gilmour and Waters assisted on his first solo album, The Madcap Laughs, and Wright and Gilmour helped out on his second, Barrett but Syd withdrew from public life, garnering semi-legendary status as an acid casualty, something that was almost certainly unhelpful to his attempts to reintegrate himself with the outside world.  He remained an influence on the band – the inspiration for Shine On You Crazy Diamond- and Gilmour’s inclusion of Astronomy Domine on the band’s live album Pulse, and of Barrett’s Dominoes on the deluxe version of his Live In Gdansk album ensured a continuing flow of income for Barrett and his family both before and after his death in 2006.

Saucerful Of Secrets stands as a bridge between the old Floyd (all one album of it) and the new.  Syd was gone but he would never be forgotten.

John Scott





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