Some things to consider if you’re coming to this new:
The most important one is that it’s a transitional album. The story is well-worn by now, but in case you’ve never heard it – Syd Barrett’s increasingly erratic behaviour led to, firstly, the band recruiting Dave Gilmour to play Sid’s guitar parts live, as the man himself was prone to just wandering about the stage, gradually detuning his guitar, and secondly, to dropping him from live performances altogether ( apparently, in the van on the way to a gig one night: “Shall we pick Syd up?” “Nah, let’s not.”).
As a result, only ‘Jugband Blues’ is a Barrett song on this, and it appears on the surface to be his reaction to being eased out of the band. He plays some part on ‘Remember a Day’ and ‘Set the Controls’, but is otherwise gone from the band. The album, therefore, is an unusual document of a band in flux – sometimes a four-piece without Gilmour, sometimes a four-piece without Barrett, and – on ‘Set the Controls’ at least, a five-piece.
Produced – as the first one was – by Norman ‘Hurricane’ Smith, who was reportedly frustrated at the band’s tendency to mess about with experimental sounds instead of recording three minute pop songs.
Smith also plays the drums on ‘Remember a Day’, as Nick Mason – never the most technically accomplished of drummers – couldn’t get the drum part right.
There was a single released first – the generally unremembered Barrett song ‘Apples and Oranges’:
After Syd left, but before the album was released, this piece of Rick Wright whimsy was released as a single:
It’s called ‘It Would Be So Nice’, and would later be erased from history (it’s not on ‘Relics’, and Nick Mason called it “fucking awful”.) To be fair, it is ‘fucking awful’.
So, is it any good?
Nick Mason called this his favourite Pink Floyd album. Nick, mate, you made ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and ‘Wish you Were Here’. You made ‘Meddle’ and ‘Animals’ and ‘The Wall’. ‘A Saucerful of Secrets’ isn’t anyone’s favourite Pink Floyd album.
Frankly, to these ears, it’s a bit of a mess. Losing the principal songwriter will do that to a band, I suppose, but it’s remarkable how everyone has a go at writing songs, and they all seem to just try to write what they think Syd would have written. Even ‘Set the Controls’, which is much more like later Floyd in many ways, seems to borrow directly from ‘Astronomy Dominie’ in structure.
You can, however, hear snatches of what they would become in the title track, which was apparently cobbled together from bits and pieces when they realised they were a whole 12 minutes short of a full album, and didn’t seem inclined to include the Syd Barrett tracks they had already recorded ( there’s one called ‘Vegetable Man’ which might have made it if they’d been able to keep Barrett as a non-performing member). I think that the experimental stuff in ‘A Saucerful of Secrets’ shows promise, although it’s also more than a little flabby in places – the final section approaches brilliance, and fortunately, they seem to have realised that themselves, and tried to move in that direction.
Marks the first appearance of Roger Waters’ endless whining about how the war took his daddy away, although Corporal Clegg only lost a leg (‘he won it in the war’ is actually quite a clever line, but the song itself is only just this side of music hall parody).