“Astronomy Domine” by Pink Floyd, Released August 4th, 1967
The first sounds one hears when cuing up Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Syd Barrett’s first foray into the album format, are the garbled distress signals of a lost cosmonaut.
Has there ever been a more fitting opening for the debut of a legacy than this?
Then, just as the double-tracked calls of the doomed explorer threaten to fuse into sheer noise, a series of lonely bleeps sound out, a ghost in the circuitry, a radar line that just can’t locate any targets, hailing the oncoming of Syd’s frazzled, de-tuned E chord riff.
This is 20 seconds of sheer cosmic doom that instantly hatched thousands of bands screaming from the void. What self respecting teen space cadet of 1967, after all, could watch Syd Barrett performing this track on the tube with his outstretched arms casting sorcerer shadows against a cheesy BBC backdrop and not wish to follow this pretty, dead-eyed man into the ether?
And the lyrics haven’t even kicked in yet.
The majority of rock lyrics scrawled on the topic of “outer space” generally come from the “final frontier” viewpoint from which space is a really, really cool thing, man. First off, it’s trippy as fuck. There’s, like, black holes and milky ways and colorful stars and planets and shit. Second, there’s a very cool isolation angle to the outer realms that’s always been incredibly attractive to those who fall into the “outsider” category, which any self-respecting 60s or 70s (or 80s or 90s or 50s or Aughts or whatever they call this decade) rock musician would claim to hail from. Finally, there’s the attractively freaky possibility of alien life, and while Philip K’ Dick spent a lifetime reminding people that they most likely wouldn’t want to know whatever horrific and deadly lifeforms may be out there, your average rock dude simply envisions toking up with a lil’ green dude rocking Ray Bans.
But not Syd Barrett.
Neptune, Titan, stars can frighten
Chanted in a nursery rhyme cadence, you can feel his fear dripping off every stilted syllable making up these words like sheen from a too-bright star. A star about to explode. This is the space of nightmares, where there’s nothing to “the great beyond” but an endless icy void laced with objects and beings designed to do one harm. This is beyond mere loneliness or “I’m just a blip in the universe” musing. This is the terror of the vastness.
Lime and limpid green, a second scene
Now fights between the blue you once knew
All that you see, all that you know, is a simple trick of the eye. It’s all Brahman, a gate to a second scene, the real scene, and it’s a scene you don’t want to know, man. But Syd knows it, or at least senses it, utilizing color chart comparisons he’s learned as a painter to try to let you know in his own cryptic, compellingly garbled way. Has the message gotten through?
Blinding signs flap
Of course it hasn’t. The messages are there, displayed for you, but they’re too bright for you to see, flapping in the void until they’re swallowed away, like Syd himself seems to know he soon shall be.
Onomatopoeia, another of Syd’s golden tools, is on brilliant display within this void.
Flicker, flicker, flicker blam, pow, pow
Stars hissing and exploding all around like burnt synapses. The expanse is singed but never broken. Syd could break it down to a cheap comic book action sequence, but he could never truly break it.
Imagine for a moment that you are 15 years old. Your name is Dan. You are sitting in your darkened bedroom with headphones on. Perhaps you have ingested a small amount of LSD or taken a toke or two. You cue up Piper for the hundredth time, but this time something jumps out at you, a message from Syd Barrett encoded specifically for you, that you never noticed before:
Stairway scare, Dan Dare, who’s there?
Would your mind not be blown for good?
Space is no soft, inviting realm. It’s cold and dark and maddeningly infinite.
Floating down, the sound resounds
Around the icy waters underground
Syd the Conjurer, laying bummer vibes on thick. His formless chords slash and scrape. These aren’t even chords, are they? Half notes and nodal tones, careless but always on point, what his homey Roger Waters would later describe as “Random Precision”, betraying his architectural education. Speaking of Dear Rog, he and his Floyd Mates do a bang-up job here following Syd’s “lead”, which couldn’t have been easy. There’s that ultra-creepy descending riff after each verse that comes on like a tarantula slowly making its way down a spiral staircase. Near the track’s middle you can even hear echos of the band’s early blues fixation, only with the phrasings warped and stretched like like an old sweater you’ve pulled to cover your knees. And check out how the melody lines all run on top of another, grinding down and losing velocity, as Syd’s verse, and perhaps the man himself, descends into those icy waters underground.
It’s no secret that David Bowie was a massive Syd Barrett fanatic. Of the five million pounds Syd was worth when he finally checked out of his earthly body, how much of that came from when Bowie covered “See Emily Play” on Pin-Ups? Always one to recognize an opportunity, it seems your fave chameleon definitely took even greater note of “Astronomy Domine”. Hmmmm, let’s see, we have a cosmic astronaut lost out in space. Themes of loneliness, drug-induced paranoia, infinite realities. Any idea which massive hit was most definitely birthed from the charred “AD” vacuum? But while Major Tom called out in vain for Ground Control, Syd Barrett beamed a coded cry of true fear from the mind’s void, and he was calling out to YOU.