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"Piper at the Gates of Dawn" - John Cavanagh Print E-mail

John Cavanagh's Piper At The Gates Of Dawn bookPublished October 2003, Continuum Publishing. ISBN: 0826414974

Available through this link for US/International orders, or this link for UK/EU orders

Once in a while, a different approach is made to oft-covered subjects. John Cavanagh's book, "Piper At The Gates Of Dawn" enjoys just such an approach.

Released as part of Continuum's "33 And A Third" series, it concentrates on a single album - in this instance, Piper. But it doesn't just focus on that album, it also looks at the artists responsible for the work, and the period of time involved composing and recording the work.

Being part of a set of like titles, it is a smaller format book than other Floyd biogs, but this is no bad thing (indeed, the impetus in the publishing world now seems to be towards the more accessible, more concise book - Tim Willis's recent "Madcap" book is another example).

It has meant that Cavanagh has needed to provide strong focus on the key personnel and events which shaped the album. It is this focus which has resulted in an incredibly readable, enlightening and enjoyable tome.

Cavanagh, for part of his research, managed to gather an impressively suitable list of people to interview - from Nick Mason and Storm Thorgerson, through to the likes of John "Hoppy" Hopkins, Jenny Fabian, Peter Jenner and Duggie Fields.

In some of his interviews, he has managed to elicit information that, to my knowledge, has never been covered in any depth before.

The book starts in the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, in 1975, and recounts the author's discovery of Piper (hearing it on the radio), and the awakening of an interest in Syd's incredible musical legacy. He makes his intentions clear from the outset:

  This is not another book about "Mad Syd", this, instead, is a celebration 

of a moment when everything seemed possible, when creative worlds and

forces converged, when an album spoke with an entirely new voice...
The narrative covers this aim in depth, putting the album into its historical context in a way that has rarely been covered by other authors.

Cavanagh has clearly done his research, covering even small facets in good and intriguing detail. This gives a great atmosphere and depth to a number of passages. Early on in the book, there are fascinating recollections from Hopkins and Fabian of the early shows - held at the London Free School, and the UFO - and a good wrap-up of the signing of the band to a record label. Few people are aware of the possibilities there were before EMI secured the band - Elektra were courted but not interested, Polydor came up with a deal, but EMI effectively outbid them and got the band. Cavanagh covers the negotiations and decision-making well.

With the band signed, EMI naturally wanted to start getting a return on their investment, with a need to capture their live, freeform experimental style into something permanent and accessible outside of a club. This was never going to be easy, and the complexities of the recording process, using the high quality yet technically primitive equipment at Abbey Road, is covered in great detail. Much of what Pink Floyd did was pioneering and Cavanagh describes it well. There are some fascinating recollections of these sessions, although sadly not from Norman "Hurricane" Smith, who refuses to talk of the Floyd these days. Cavanagh makes up for this by using Nick Mason's memories, together with a number of segments from a magazine interview with Norman Smith from a few years ago. This makes interesting reading, not least for some of Smith's not overly complementary views of the band:

  "...there had to be a drum roll, and [Nick] didn't have a clue what to do.

So, I had to do that. Nick was no threat to Buddy Rich. Roger Waters, on the

other hand, was an adequate bass player, but to be honest he used to make

more interesting noises with his mouth..."

The book contains an interesting discussion on the growing influence of drugs and the alternative culture of the time, and how, as part of this culture shift, Pink Floyd managed to stay remarkably unscathed by the media. Peter Jenner talks of how the band's publicity was geared towards the chemical culture: "There we were, quite clearly simulating drug experiences, that's part of what we were doing. Hey, when you take a trip, you hear sounds like this...". Thankfully, the author shies away from the oft-told Syd folklore in this section.

Instead, Cavanagh examines some of the other influences to Syd's music. Not the least of these was literature - some contemporary, but most, classic. The I-Ching is, of course, mentioned, along with works by Tolkein, Milne, and Hilaire Belloc, who we learn, thanks to the memories of Andrew King, was the inspiration for the original version of Matilda Mother:

  There was a boy whose name was Jim

His friends were very good to him...
If it wasn't for the insistance of Belloc's estate that the lyrics be changed, the song would've been very different to that we all know and love!

There are plenty of other examples of where Cavanagh shies away from the stuff most Floyd fans knows about; for example, he mentions the Pat Boone Show appearance in passing, but concentrates on the just as bizarre Perry Como Show instead. He has some interesting commentary from Pete Drummond, compere of the Winter 1967 Jimi Hendrix tour (which included Pink Floyd as one of the support bands), Nick Mason, and others who were involved or saw these shows. This tour is hardly even mentioned in most other biographies of the band, and the constraints and compromises imposed on the band (getting 20 minutes to do "their thing") are fascinating, as is the depth of detail given on the Games For May show in London the same year.

This detail and coverage is one of the reasons why I enjoyed this book so much. You find yourself glued to the page - it is a very readable tome, not least for its convenient size. You may find yourself finishing it in a few (extended) reading sessions but this is no bad thing. Cavanagh has an easy, informal, yet informative style - perfect for the subject matter. You never feel bogged down in detail or filler.

Let's hope that he now turns his attentions to another of their albums. A Saucerful Of Secrets, the second album and a period of change and upheaval in the band, would be the obvious choice... how about it, John?


The book can be ordered through this link for US/International orders, or this link for UK/EU orders.

 
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