The Pink Floyd albums: Saucerful of Secrets (1968)

13 Dec

A belated (some might say) second post to follow my The Piper at the Gates of Dawn review. Not very seasonal I suppose, but there is something Christmas-esque in the whimsy of Syd Barrett era Floyd, even though his impact was largely superseded by this album, Saucerful of Secrets. For Floyd novices, this is the difficult second album after their former leader left (and went a little ‘strange’). By posting this I feel as if I’ve now committed to writing about all of this seminal rock band’s albums (at least the studio offerings). A brave move! So, with no further delay….I give you 1968’s Saucerful of Secrets!

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Saucerful of Secrets (1968)

In 1968 Pink Floyd must have felt like a band with a very uncertain future. It had become clear that founder Syd Barrett was not a well man, and was finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the pressures of fame, success and being in a high profile group. As Syd was Pink Floyd’s lead singer, guitarist and principal songwriter this was a worrying state of affairs. Everyone was looking at him to deliver new songs and it was clear that he just wasn’t up to the challenge.
It’s difficult to imagine where Pink Floyd may have gone if Syd had managed to stay with the band, although its perhaps unlikely. Even without the aggravating effects of LSD and other substances, Syd may have still gone the way he did.

Roger Waters has spoken about the last time he played with Syd. It was a new song Syd had written called “Have you got it yet?” After changing the structure of the song every time Waters tried to play it, thus making sure Waters got it wrong, Waters finally got the joke and put his guitar down. By the time of his last live appearances with the band Syd would just stand there strumming one chord. One famous anecdote has him crushing Mandrax (a sedative) into Brylcreem and spreading it all over his head. Other stories tell of psychotic behaviour to people outside the band, such as girlfriends. It had become obvious to the other band members that he wasn’t right of mind.
Either way, Syd Barrett’s place in Pink Floyd was as good as over.

So Saucerful of Secrets is an album which was made against a backdrop of uncertainty. In the absence of any sizable input from Barrett the other band members had to step into the breach. Thankfully they did rise to the occasion quite well, although nobody’s song writing on here is as good as it would become some years later. Roger Waters contributed the most songs, and many of them seem to replicate the style of Syd Barrett (although not always successfully). I can understand this, as the band was probably initially keen to continue with their established ‘sound’.

“Let there be more light” gets the album off to a decent start (although its no “Astronomy Domine” in that respect). The track hints at the progressive rock future of the band, and there are parts that wouldn’t be out of place on later albums. I especially like the guitar intro. My favourite track is “Remember a day”, which I first heard on the compilation “Relics” (I think). It therefore has a more special place in my heart and was the first non-Barrett Floyd song I really liked. It’s a wonderfully mellow piece, infused with the remnants of the ’60s hippy dream. Then we get “Set the controls for the heart of the sun” and the album starts to become a little tired. By this point it’s evident that Saucerful of Secrets lacks the verve, psychedelic panache and skewed pop sensibilities of its predecessor. While “Set the controls” can be quite evocative to listen to, it’s also quite meandering and can border on the dull. There is nothing to rival “Interstellar overdrive” on this album. “Corporal Clegg” is alright, but it plods on in a rather annoying fashion. It’s as if the song was designed to be a Syd Barrett clone, to the point where it highlights how much better at this kind of thing Syd was. The title track is a weak affair as well, although it boasts moments of aural oddness that almost capture the best moments of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Overall though, I have to be in the mood for it, as it treads the fine line between a ‘Wow far out’ reaction and realising its probably four young men dicking about in a decent recording studio. It’s a fine line Pink Floyd would tread a fair few times!
“See-Saw” is another contribution by Rick Wright (“Remember a day” being the other) and it’s quite a fragile, almost beautiful little number. Perhaps the sole contribution to ape Syd’s style that actually works. I think I prefer Wright’s contributions to this album to Waters (although Waters would become a far better songwriter in the long run).
Finally the album ends with “Jugband blues”, Syd Barrett’s sole song writing contribution to the album. The song is quite catchy, if slightly discordant (due to the Salvation Army band that Syd had invited in, and were told to play what they wanted). It is seen by many to be a farewell of sorts by Barrett, who realised that his days with the band were numbered (“It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here, and I’m most obliged to you for making it clear that I’m not here”) Its piognancy is increased by knowing that it may also have been Barrett communicating his realisation that his mental health was deteriorating. His alienation from the rest of the band, and marginalisation, is probably another factor in the lyrics (“I don’t care if the sun don’t shine, and I don’t care if nothing is mine”)

And there Saucerful of Secrets ends…. The sound of a band riding the choppy waves of change, most of it out of their control. The band obviously had the talent to continue without Syd Barrett, but his importance to the band’s genesis and his ongoing influence cannot be underestimated. Syd would cast a long shadow over Pink Floyd for many years to come, and while the band’s style would mature and develop away from Syd’s psychedelic whimsy, his initial creative spark would never be forgotten. It’s also interesting to wonder how much effect the trauma of seeing their close friend degenerate had on the other band members. Themes of loss and mental illness would surface later in Floyd’s career and the memory of Syd would be a clear and painful catalyst for those themes.

This then, is a much weaker album than their debut, but considering the circumstances of its creation it’s still a good effort. I expect producer Norman Smith played a big role in getting this record made, although I’m not sure of the facts. I imagine he encouraged the other band members to double their efforts in the light of Syd’s withdrawal and he did comment that the lads would have to knuckle down and produce something special for next time! Luckily they just about managed for Saucerful of Secrets.

It’s the sound of a band in the process of change and development and is a fascinating listen if only for that reason.

3 out of 5

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Pink Floyd as a five piece….but not for long!

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