Syd Barrett - from Pink Floyd to the Madcap Laughs
Who was Syd Barrett?
Syd Barrett was born Roger Keith Barrett but he became known as Syd. He died tragically in 2006 after years of mental and physical illness and living a semi-reclusive life at his mother's house in Cambridge where he occupied himself with his artwork and gardening. Before that period in his life he was the charismatic and gifted singer-songwriter and frontman for Pink Floyd.
At least he had been until problems started setting in and he left the band in its heyday back in 1968. The story goes that he had been using LSD and other drugs and that this had caused him to have a breakdown. He released his first solo album on the Harvest label entitled The Madcap Laughs and this recording is a historical testimony to both his creative spirit and the state his mind was in.
For many people Syd will be remembered as the real genius behind Pink Floyd and a lot of his fans regard the time he was with the band was when they recorded their best material.
Syd Barrett photo
The Pink Floyd years
Syd Barrett wrote and sung the Pink Floyd's first hit Arnold Layne back in 1967 at the height of "flower power" and the "swinging sixties." He had come up with the name for the band too.
Although they had started off playing covers of R&B songs like so many of their contemporaries the Floyd soon established themselves as a unique act due to their experimental approach and improvised sounds. Pink Floyd were quickly to become one of the leading British groups producing psychedelic rock and pop.
They posed for many press photos wearing paisley and floral shirts, beads and kaftans and other '60s hippie-style gear. Light-shows and swirling synthesised sounds at their gigs gave them the perfect space-rock and pschedelic image.
Arnold Layne reached number 20 in the pop charts despite a ban by Radio London due to its controversial lyrics about a man who stole clothes from washing lines. They followed with See Emily Play and that did even better peaking at number six.
Pink Floyd fronted by Syd Barrett also recorded the album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn , and Barrett wrote most of the songs on it. By the time of the Pink Floyd's second album Saucerful of Secrets in 1968 all was not well and Syd Barrett had become increasingly unpredictable and unreliable as a band member.
Unlike the first album where he was the writer of most of the songs only Jugband Blues was Barrett composition on album number two.
Guitarist David Gilmour had been brought in to replace Barrett and eventually he took over permanently.
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The Madcap Laughs solo years
After Dave Gilmour had taken over from Syd Barrett all was not over just yet for Barrett because he recorded two solo albums - The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, both of which were released on the progressive Harvest label.
It is said that most of the songs that were recorded for these albums were already written by Syd Barrett in his most creative period in 1966 and as far as mid-1967. He needed a lot of help recording the tracks that were laid down and both Dave Gilmour and Roger Waters of the Pink Floyd were involved with production for The Madcap Laughs .
Members of the progressive and experimental band Soft Machine were also guest musicians on some tracks. The album, released in 1969, had a very artistic sleeve designed by Hipgnosis with Barrett pictured on an un-carpeted striped floor, which we can assume was his flat.
In the gate-fold inner sections are lots of small reproductions of him dotted about in a surrealist background. These were the days when artwork for a vinyl album was often as important as the music.
Stand-out tracks include the gently strummed Terrapin that appears to be set in an aquarium with all its references to fishes, the almost music-hall good-time Love You and the cheerful Here I Go, a tale of Syd trying to get together with a girl he obviously fancied and with lyrics such as "I strolled around to her pa-a-a-ad, her light was off and that's ba-a-a-ad." But he ends up with her sister.
This last song on one side has Syd singing clearly understandable lyrics unlike some of the very weird "flow of consciousness" and psychedelic whimsy of songs like Octopus with lines including:
"Trip to heave and ho, up down, to and fro'
you have no word
trip, trip to a dream dragon
hide your wings in a ghost tower
sails cackling at every plate we break
cracked by scattered needles
the little minute gong
coughs and clears his throat
madam you see before you stand
hey ho, never be still
the old original favorite grand
grasshoppers green Herbarian band
and the tune they play is 'In Us Confide.'"
Some songs have a much darker feel to them and a desperation in their lyrics and expression. Dark Globe has the following lyrics:
"Oh where are you now
pussy willow that smiled on this leaf?
When I was alone you promised the stone from your heart
my head kissed the ground
I was half the way down, treading the sand
please, please, lift a hand
I'm only a person whose arm bands beats
on his hands, hang tall
won't you miss me?
Wouldn't you miss me at all?"
This is anything but a happy song. It is as if Syd is taking us into his distorted world view and inner suffering but at the same time the album has a magical feel to it like the Alice books by Lewis Carroll. The songs transport you into another world but you come back into this normal lucid one with Here I Go.
The second album simply entitled Barrett has pictures of insect specimens on the cover and was released in 1970. It was produced by The Floyd's Dave Gilmour and Richard Wright, and Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley was the session percussionist.
Again the song lyrics contrast bizarre poetry and imagery of Baby Lemonade with happy-go lucky ones like the end track Effervescent Elephant .
Maisie is a slow blues number but with weird lyrics about the "bride of a bull" who "strode out to meet Maisie in the evening light."
It is a real mixture of love and longing, loneliness and alienation, almost childish naivete and fairytale imagery mixed in with the inexplicable. Even though you cannot understand what the lyrics are about a lot of the time it doesn't matter. Syd Barrett has cast his magical musical spell on you.
It is hardly surprising that these two albums along with a third compilation album entitled Opel that was released many years later in 1988, and is made up of unreleased material, out-takes and demos, have created a cult-like following for Syd Barrett that has survived his death.
This article represents just a fraction of the story and the legend of Syd Barrett. There are many stories and rumours about him, there are books and tributes, facts and fantasies.
Syd Barrett was a creative genius whose few years in the music business have left a lasting legacy to all the musicians he has inspired and to all his legions of fans.
© 2010 Steve Andrews
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