|Terrapin||The Madcap Laughs|
|No Good Trying||The Madcap Laughs|
|Octopus||The Madcap Laughs|
|Golden Hair||The Madcap Laughs|
|Late Night||The Madcap Laughs|
|Gigolo Aunt||The Peel Session|
|Wined And Dined||Barrett|
Contributor: Rob Morgan
“Get off those pause buttons!”
It was Spring 1986, and Andy Kershaw was sitting in for John Peel who was on holiday. Kershaw didn’t have any new bands in session but was repeating old sessions from the BBC archives and on this particular evening he was broadcasting the session recorded by Syd Barrett from 24th February 1970. Of course I was there taping it and after the first song, Gigolo Aunt, fumbled to a conclusion, Kershaw uttered the above sentence. He knew just about everyone listening would be taping it, because we were. This was important music, this would surely add to the legend, this would offer some insight into the mind of a genius whose talent wilted away …
See, I’m already falling for it. I certainly fell for it at the time. In the mid eighties Syd Barrett was a legendary figure and it was hard to separate the man and the music and the myths around both. So let’s get the basics out of the way with some facts. Syd Barrett formed Pink Floyd back in 1965, led the way from R&B to psychedelia with his dissonant glissando guitar style, songwriting which was as much English whimsy as spacerock freakouts, and provided such a vital part of the soundtrack to the summer of love with the See Emily Play single and The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn LP. But excessive drug use led to Barrett becoming unreliable during the later months of ’67 and he was eventually replaced by David Gilmour in the early months of ’68. The material Barrett wrote for Pink Floyd was pivotal to their emergence as part of the counterculture, and it was hard to imagine the band continuing without their leader/songwriter/guitarist. But as time passed and the sixties came to a close there was little sign of a debut solo album from Barrett.
Finally the LP appeared in the first week of 1970, entitled The Madcap Laughs. It wasn’t an easy listen by any means and the number of producers (Peter Jenner, Malcolm Jones. David Gilmour, Roger Waters) showed that it had been worked on over a long period of time – almost eighteen months of sessions produced thirty seven minutes of music. It wasn’t cohesive, swinging from acoustic solo performances to full electric band performances to whimsical ditties to harrowing truths, yet Barrett’s voice rang clear throughout. The band performances are ramshackle – members of the Soft Machine trying desperately to keep up with Barrett’s wayward sense of rhythm – but this adds to the overall charm. The solo performances are more wracked, more personal, and sometimes feel like an intrusion to listen – the halting Feel and If It’s In You always make me feel uncomfortable. Yet the album works well – there’s a strange romance within the gentle strum of Terrapin, No Good Trying is as heavy as any metal, Golden Hair is spectral and gorgeous, Octopus is a perfect pop song glimpsed through frosted glass. Some of the songs on side two of the album have a wonderful crepuscular atmosphere, shadows slipping into darkness as twilight descends – this is best demonstrated on the closer Late Night. A perfect evocation of that strange dislocated feeling of romantic loss – Barrett sounds quietly devastated as he sings, “Inside me I feel alone and unreal, and the way you kiss will always be a special thing to me” while multiple overdubbed slide guitars squeal over a simple drum beat – it’s like nothing else in music.
The Madcap Laughs was well received on release early in 1970 – it reached the lower regions of the UK LP charts – and a session recorded for John Peel’s “Top Gear” radio show previewed more new songs like Effervescing Elephant, Baby Lemonade and Gigolo Aunt. There was an easy-going flow to this session, it was campfire folk with a bunch of friends – David Gilmour on bass and organ, Jerry Shirley (from Humble Pie) on percussion. After that session in February, Barrett returned to the studio to record a second album, issued at the end of 1970 and entitled Barrett.
This LP was guided by Dave Gilmour, contributing guitar, bass and numerous other instruments alongside Rick Wright’s keyboards and Jerry Shirley’s drums. Somewhere along the line, the carefree campfire atmosphere from the Peel session is lost, replaced by a sometimes lumbering attempt to rein in the sound, to turn the music into a straightforward rock band. One has to wonder how much Barrett enjoyed the experience. Gigolo Aunt jogs along but turns into a half-arsed jam – Barrett barely interested in playing lead guitar. Maisie is slower than a comatose slug. Baby Lemonade is let down by haphazard guitar work which prevents the song from truly soaring. I love the song, but it’s not quite perfect. But expecting perfection from Syd probably isn’t the point. It’s not all bad though. Dominoes is quite lovely, droning organ and electric piano and backwards electric guitar and one of the best vocals on the album. The medley of “Waving my arms in the air“/”I never lied to you” works well; Barrett can still reflect loss beautifully while the band stumble to keep up. Rats and Wolfpack are slightly manic glimpses into his mind. Wined And Dined is a beautiful love song, and for once Gilmour’s overdubs add to the atmosphere rather than distract. But overall it’s an imperfect album – Barrett sounds straitjacketed into a format which doesn’t suit him, and only occasionally breaks free for the restrictions around him.
After the second album was released in November 1970, Barrett slowly disappeared from view – a few interviews in 1971 to promote Barrett were his last words to the world. From there he effectively retired, returning to his childhood town of Cambridge to paint and do as he pleased. A brief appearance at EMI’s studios during the recording of Pink Floyd’s tribute Shine On You Crazy Diamond in 1975 shocked his former bandmates – he was bald and podgy. And then silence.
Of course silence is the best way to stoke up a legend and over time articles and tributes would appear in the music press about Barrett – exaggerating the stories, true or false. Even the Television Personalities sang I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives in 1981 to add to the mystery. By the time that Kershaw played that old Peel session in 1986 the legend was larger than ever – and I fell for it all. I’d heard a lot about Barrett – Julian Cope was constantly being compared to him as a fellow acid casualty. But that Peel session was my first hearing of Barrett’s music and from there I bought The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn and Relics and the two Barrett solo LPs (in a mid 70s double set) and started exploring the nefarious world of Floyd and Barrett bootlegs, hunting out rarities and out-takes. I also started buying fanzines like “The Amazing Pudding” and “Opel”, full of news and rumours and half-truth. There was even a rather wonderful tribute album Beyond The Wildwood in 1987 where little known indie acts attempted to recast Barrett’s songs into fuller arrangements.
Finally in 1988 a ‘new” album of Syd Barrett material was issued by EMI. Opel was a collection of unreleased songs recorded between 1968 and 1970 and while it was greeted with much joy by many (including myself) at the time, it clearly is a set of out-takes, rehearsals and run-throughs. Some songs are barely there – Word Song, Dolly Rocker and Let’s Split are sketches which were never returned to – while there are a few recordings from early in the process of recording The Madcap Laughs which show Barrett still had the ability to create engaging music; Swan Lee was a Red Indian fantasy, Lanky Pt 1 was a groovy jam session, Milky Way was as charming as any of his best love songs. But the jewel in the collection was the title track. Opel contained one of Barrett’s most magical melodies, even within a bare bones arrangement of guitar and voice, and the closing section – “I’m trying to find you” – is both heartbreaking and haunting.
Obviously there would be no more music from Syd Barrett, old or new, besides one ‘new’ track issued on a compilation Wouldn’t You Miss Me?. He passed away in July 2006 and his legend remains – there are many books written on his few years of musical activity and many years of retreat. However the music should be more important than the legend, and that remains as well. I hope I’ve done justice to the music and the man. The crazy diamond’s music will continue to shine on.
Rob Morgan writes about music, and some other almost as important matters, at A Goldfish Called Regret.