“Pow R. Toc H.” by Pink Floyd, Released August 5th, 1967
Has there ever been a more unlikely pioneer of something than Syd Barrett and his early use of beatboxing? And by “early” we mean “1967”, nearly a full decade before the Bronx MC battles started kicking up dust in the pop culture consciousness. That’s right, Syd the Cambridge-born DayGlo nymph traces a direct lineage to KRS One and beyond, and you don’t have to listen to more than the first few seconds of “Pow R. Toc H.” to hear it for yourself. Right there on the intro, our dear young Syd, glistening in the midst of his pop prime, very clearly beatboxes with a confidence and skill that would have gotten him some serious daps on the breakdancer circuit in 81.
Often categorized as an instrumental, there’s really nothing ambient about “Pow R. Toc H.” There’s vocals all over this thing, it’s just that none of them are actual lyrics. There’s scatting, screaming, screeching, chanting, cheek pops, backwards incantations, and yes Syd’s scarily great beatbox skills. Written by the entire band, it’s interesting to think of how they collabed on the “lyrics”:
Richard: Ok, here’s the part where I’ll screech like some sort of furious ape
Roger: But I was going to do a blood-curdling scream there…
Syd: Gents, gents, I got it. You do your scream, Roger, then I’ll let out a long hiss, then Richard can do his monkey-in-heat thing, then I’ll round it all out by making my voice sound like a malfunctioning drum machine that is yet to even exist. Sound a plan? Shall I put a kettle on?
An absolutely legendary track in the Syd-Era Floyd cannon, a surefire contender with “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Astronomy Domine” for the “MY MIND IS BLOWN” music-as-space-exploration medal, the studio version as released on Piper At The Gates Of Dawn pales very much in comparison to the live versions floating around on bootlegs and grainy Floyd TV appearances from the year which yielded the Summer Of Love. Check out, for example, this bit of visceral insanity from a show in Stockholm right after Gates was unleashed.
As a matter of fact, one of the absolute most legendary images of Mr. Barrett comes from this BBC appearance where the young pop star, still very much in control of his dark, proto-goth majesty, flaps his arms/wings like some sort of psychedelic bat casting reverberating shadows on the TV studio backdrop.
If you wanted to dig deeper, the longer vids from this same session contain an interspersed interview with a hilariously skeptical and horrified Beeb presenter which highlights just how clear-eyed and creatively fertile our Syd was during the Piper album cycle.
With the album version we have what sounds like a sketch, albeit a fully formed sketch, of a piece of music that would later take flight as something altogether more experimentally sinister and exploratory. A mild template, if you will, for full blown madness. It’s interesting to point out here just how disciplined and methodical the Syd-led Floyd really were even as they cranked out some of their most challenging, unhinged music. They had this seemingly improvised piece of music down note-for-note, screech-for-screech, beatbox beat-for-beatbox beat well before the red light got switched on at Abbey Road the day they laid it down, before they set about smashing it to splinters with palpable glee in a live setting on tour later that same year.
Just like with nearly all things Barrett, the song’s title has lots of obscure ties with ye ol’ strange English provinces. Talbot House was a forward-thinking, interdenominational Christian organization that would have been flourishing in the Cambridge region when Syd was a child. The organization’s initials, “TH”, translate to “Toc H.” in army signallers’ code that was used to signal the original Talbot House which was a club where all enlisted men were equal regardless of their ranking. Got all that? How interesting Syd’s mind functioned. Just to get the title of a lyric-less deep cut, the kid researched where the name of a local Christian group came from, a group around during his youth that he never belonged to, and then traced that lead back to it’s military signal code. Layers upon layers upon cryptic layers, such were the building blocks Barrett used to build and curate his everlasting empire.
Like all things Piper, we can’t forget about the rest of The Floyd here and how essential they were to these songs. After all the “Toc H.” would be nothing but scattered patchwork brilliance without the little jazzy interludes holding it all together, snatches ruled by Rick Write and Roger Water’s dance of the keys and strums. And I’m not sure which vocal effect Nick Mason put down on this thing, but chances are it was unsettling and brilliant since all of them are. But the real walk-on influence here was a different foursome of paisley sonic explorers. PATGOD happened to be recorded one room down the hall from where John, Paul, George, and Ringo were putting together an unjustly obscure album named Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (look it up, it’s really good). All it took was for the paisley-clad early Floyd to stroll across the hall to borrow some lumps of sugar and come upon the boys in the midst of laying down “Lovely Rita”. Syd and Crew kind of dug the weird, wordless vocal effects being used on the track and decided to come up with a little ditty of their own.
Outsider art masquerading in the pop sphere, found sounds coalescing into something much more solid than its building blocks, a legend being woven right from thin air; such was Syd Barrett and his fellow Floyd conjurers in 1967.
Artwork by reluctant-martyrs