Pink Floyd and London's notorious UFO Club

The loud, lysergic anarchy of the band's earliest underground shows

Published November 11, 2017 5:30PM (EST)

 (Getty Images/Bloomsbury Publishing/Salon)
(Getty Images/Bloomsbury Publishing/Salon)

Excerpted from "Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" by John Cavanagh (Continuum, 2003). Reprinted with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing.

Contemporary recordings of Pink Floyd speaking about their music are very rare, but they described their approach in that CBC interview. First, Syd: “In terms of construction, it’s almost like jazz where you start off with a riff and then you improvise on that . . . ” Roger cut in: “Where it differs from jazz is that if you’re improvising around a jazz number and it’s a sixteen bar number, you stick to sixteen bar choruses, you take sixteen bar solos, whereas with us, it starts and we may play three choruses of something that lasts for seventeen and a half bars each chorus and then it’ll start happening and it’ll stop happening when it stops happening and it may be four hundred and twenty three bars later, or it may be four!”

A set list from a Free School event on 14th October 1966 closed with ‘Astronomy Domine’ and also included ‘The Gnome’, ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, ‘Stethoscope’, ‘Matilda Mother’ and ‘Pow R Toc H’, six of the eleven titles which would end up on "The Piper at the Gates Of Dawn." ‘Lucy Leave’ was still there; a couple of Bo Diddley numbers were the only non-original material played that night.

Writer Jenny Fabian’s impression of the live Floyd experience was intense: “The first time they had less impact on me than later on, when I was on acid. It was at All Saints Hall and it was just — wow! — they’re really weird and quite interesting looking.” As the Free School events got busier, Hoppy knew it was time to step up a gear: “Joe Boyd said to me, ‘If I can find a venue, why don’t we take this West and run a club?’, which was how UFO started and, of course, the first people to play there were The Pink Floyd.” The opening night of UFO (pronounced “U-Fo” by the cognoscente) was two days before Christmas 1966 in the basement ballroom of The Blarney, an Irish pub on Tottenham Court Road. Jenny Fabian recalls: “The UFO things are imprinted forever on my consciousness. Kaftans, blobs . . . wonderful! You couldn’t have asked for anything better than to be out of your head at UFO.” Fittingly, for a club in an old ballroom, the audience was no longer static, as Duggie Fields remembers: “The first person I ever saw dancing to them was at All Saints Hall. All the projections and all the visuals were going on and everyone was laid back, except for one person who was dancing on his own and he was amazing! At UFO people would dance, that was just evolution.” As Syd Barrett told the CBC reporter, “We play for people to dance to . . . they don’t seem to dance much now, but that’s the initial idea. So we play loudly and we’re playing with electric guitars, so we’re utilising all the volume and all the effects you can get.” Roger Waters added: “But now we’re trying to develop this by using the light.” Jenny Fabian: “They did play music for our kind of dancing that was evolving. There was a very heavy rhythm thudding away, with these cosmic bleeps on top and then it would go off into something. If you’re on acid, you just drift in that bit of music and gradually the rhythm seeps from underneath and you’re taken over by the rhythm and it really used to enter into our bodies. Everybody danced, obviously plenty were flat on the floor! There were people floating around to it and people bopping to it quite nicely. I could do anything to their music.”

The handful of UFO events crystallised a scene of cross-culture creativity, where Pink Floyd would appear with The Soft Machine, Marilyn Monroe films or AMM. Aside from UFO, the club circuit was vibrant: a look at Pink Floyd’s live schedule from early 1967 finds them appearing, variously, with Cream; The Who; Alexis Korner; belly dancers, and . . . Tuppence the TV Dancer. In addition to music, the incursion of Beat writers meant that Pink Floyd might share a bill with, for example, the Scottish poet Alex Trocchi. This movement was propelled by a poetry event at the Albert Hall in 1965 and the efforts of people like Hoppy and Barry Miles to put more free thoughts into print. Jenny Fabian: “It was quite a London scene of underground thoughts and hedonism. People say now that it was a time when we were having all these thoughts of peace and love, but there was anarchy involved as well. The Floyd just fed that for us. They were opening the doors of musical perception and we felt they belonged to us. There were other people . . . there was Dylan, but he was far away and sort of God-like, The Beatles had evolved, but they didn’t play live. So The Floyd were like our local consciousness come to life. It was as though they’d always been there . . . poets from the cosmos.”

The Pink Floyd had gathered so much momentum with their live show that interest from record companies was inevitable. Both the band and their managers were fans of artists on the American label Elektra, founded in the 1950s by folk enthusiast and recording pioneer Jac Holzman, which had lately branched out from its New York H.Q. to sign some of the most exciting acts emerging on the West Coast. Peter Jenner: “We did audition for Jac Holzman, who turned us down. We did a showcase in the afternoon at The Marquee and he wasn’t impressed. He did come more from a folky thing and I think it was a bit too loud and weird. If you think about the people he had — Arthur Lee and Love, proper songs and things, and The Doors were a band he would’ve found easier to relate to, whereas he had trouble later with The Stooges and the MC5 when David Anderle signed them. He couldn’t quite handle that stuff. But we gave him all the waffle. He got the full ten minute rambles! I’m sure he thought, ‘I’ll never get this band on radio in America’ — and we were probably out of tune.”

By John Cavanagh

MORE FROM John Cavanagh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

33⅓ Book Excerpts Editor's Picks Lsd Music Pink Floyd Roger Waters Syd Barrett Ufo Club