Needless to say, Pink Floyd do not belong to the contingent of lower-profile or just plain obscure bands that are often featured in blogs like mine. On the contrary, their fame is such that, outside the restricted circles of progressive rock fans, they are considered as mainstream an act as the likes of Madonna or Michael Jackson. However, with A Saucerful of Secrets we are as far removed as possible from the stadium-filling phenomenon the band would become just a few years later. This a disc of whose existence most fans of the band’s best-selling albums are barely aware, and that gets unfairly overshadowed by the cult status achieved by The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
Pink Floyd’s sophomore effort is undoubtedly an album that can polarize listeners’ opinions. Some see it as dated, or lacking in cohesion, since it was released at a turning point for the band, when Syd Barrett, who was slowly descending into mental illness, was being gradually replaced by his friend David Gilmour – which involved a significant shift in the band’s overall sound. In my personal opinion, though, it is one of the great unsung masterpieces of progressive rock.
No mean feat for a band specialized in killer openers, A Saucerful of Secrets can boast of one of the strongest opening tracks ever committed to record. “Let There Be More Light” is the archetypal psych/prog composition, with weird, mesmerizing, Eastern-influenced sound effects, and vocals alternating between chant-like whispers and shouts. Together with the album’s best-known song, the equally iconic and hypnotic “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” (whose definitive version appears on the “Live at Pompeii” movie), the track was written by Roger Waters, who was well on his way to becoming the band’s true driving force. Those who maintain that Waters was a less gifted composer than Gilmour should probably take a careful listen to both songs.
The mood changes almost abruptly with the following number, the Richard Wright-penned “Remember a Day”. With soothing, wistful vocals that match the nostalgia-filled lyrics (which seem to foreshadow Wright’s untimely passing), it is a delicate, charming piece that is definitely easier on the ear in a musical sense. In a similar key, the lullaby-like “See Saw” (also written by the late keyboardist) is not, however, equally successful, and is, in my view, the weakest track on the album. On the other hand “Corporal Clegg” and “Jugband Blues” hark back to the whimsy of much of the Floyd’s debut album, with endearingly zany vocals, odd noises and ironic, nonsense-filled lyrics. “Jugband Blues”, which closes the album in stark contrast to the eerie soundscapes of the opener, can be seen as Barrett’s testament, and feels particularly poignant nowadays, four years after Syd’s demise.
An album’s title-track often acts as its focal point, and this is particularly true of the schizophrenic masterpiece that is “A Saucerful of Secrets”. Over 12 minutes long, the track is introduced by an uncontrolled chaos of weird noises and hypnotic percussive patterns, a sonic storm that suddenly abates to be replaced by a solemn, organ-driven section, featuring wordless singing somewhat suggestive of a church choir. In a way, the song reflects the nature of the album itself, and the circumstances in which it came into being.
For those who have come to know Pink Floyd through their milestone albums of the Seventies, this record may well turn out to be a disappointment, since it is in no way as accomplished, let alone as polished as regards production values. A Saucerful of Secrets is a child of the late Sixties – raw, experimental, slightly incoherent – and as such captures the essence of an era in which creativity and envelope-pushing were rife. It also captures Pink Floyd’s full potential just a few years before the quantum leap that would lead them to conquer the world. An essential listen, and – incidentally – my own favourite release by the band.
1. Let There Be More Light (5:38)
2. Remember a Day (4:33)
3. Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun (5:28)
4. Corporal Clegg (4:12)
5. A Saucerful of Secrets (11:57)
6. See-Saw (4:36)
7. Jugband Blues (2:59)
Syd Barrett – guitar, vocals
David Gilmour – guitar, vocals
Nick Mason – drums
Roger Waters – bass, vocals
Richard Wright – organ, piano, vocals