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"I tattooed my brain all the way"

Class E

Main Category: Psychedelia
Also applicable: Singer-Songwriters
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: --------



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Out of all the Pink Floydsters, the only active member whose solo work I really had an ardent a desire to review is Syd Barrett (well, I actually brought myself to making a brave stab at Waters' solo career as well, but that one's... eh... kinda iffy, so I thought I'd leave it as an appendix to the Pink Floyd page). And it isn't really because he was a Pink Floyd member, nor is it due to the largeness or 'greatness' of his back catalogue that only includes two albums, hastily recorded all in one year's time, plus a collection of half-decent, half-lousy outtakes. Nor, indeed, is it due to the fact that I like Syd a lot, because, to tell you frankly, I don't. I'm not the biggest fan in the world of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and I consider Syd one of the most gruesomely overrated rock legends in history. The guy was a pretty good songwriter, of course, but who wasn't at the time? His artificially constructed image as 'premiere space-rocker' always tended to overshadow his less-than-stellar (but occasionally with traces of genius) songwriting and performing abilities, and he really burned out too early to leave behind a decent number of classics. In short, there's too little of Syd to place him among the greatest musicians of the planet; and thank God he hadn't died back then in the Sixties, or we would have to endure another Morrison/Hendrix/Joplin-type dead legend on our shoulders.

BUT, on the other side, Syd Barrett is certainly a unique event in rock with no visible analogies to speak of. And the greatest surprise is that Syd's uniqueness really only manifested itself in its pure (and hideous, unfortunately) form after he left Pink Floyd and delved in these feeble efforts to become a solo star. Truth is, while he was still a member of Pink, he was just stoned (or 'spaced out', if you prefer speaking in euphemisms). When he went solo, he was mad - mad as a hatter or even worse. The two albums he recorded were undeniably the product of an incurable madman - but a madman who originally had a genius, and in this respect Syd can be securely placed on the same list with Vincent Van Gogh, Friedrich Nitzsche and Robert Schumann or any other mad genius that might come to mind. And this means that no way is there that you can find any record in rock that would remind you of The Madcap Laughs or Barrett. You will either throw these records away with the scream 'what the living hell is this @#$%^?' or just gape at them with your mouth open wide and your eyes and ears totally bewildered. Either way, this is something you're certainly not likely to hear from Pink Floyd - this is a totally different kind of music (if you don't count the unhappy moments, of course, when Dave Gilmour and Rick Wright messed up in the studio for too long...), and not every Floyd fan will be able to bring himself to enjoy these outrageous albums that seem to break every prescribed musical rule, especially Madcap.

It doesn't even sound to me as if Syd was intentionally messing with his melodies - complicating them, bringing in dissonance and atonality in a grandiose hope to expand the musical horizons of his generation, like some humbler-level Frank Zappa. The actual songs on his solo albums always give the feeling of having been pretty normal, at least, having been conceived as pretty normal - and then Syd's twisted subconscious would just take these melodies and make certain inescapable 'adjustments' while everybody just stood and stared. It's all the more proven by the fact that a certain song would often undergo a rapid-fire evolution in Syd's hands, changing key, tonality and structure after each subsequent take. This, in particular, makes all of his outtakes and alternate versions well worth hearing, at least from an analytical point of view - to trace their developments and thus, the development of the mad Syd's conscience itself. Therefore, take my evaluation of all of his albums with a grain of salt: I can't help judging them from the point of view of 'music to be enjoyed', and quite a lot of material gets dissed in the process which is only natural.

I mean, if you ask my personal opinion, I'd say that these albums are more interesting to me from a scientific rather than artistic point of view - listening to this stuff for pleasure is the equal of spending all your free time standing on your head. There are some patches of beauty now and then, but for the most part this is either listening for the psychologist or listening for the fully initiated, if you get what I mean. In this way I can't give Syd a rating that would be more than an E, but I adjust it: this is a special E. Listen and you'll hear. This is a special E.



Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 11

Actually, he whines most of the time - but that only makes this extraordinary record sound more intriguing.

Best song: LOVE YOU

Track listing: 1) Terrapin; 2) No Good Trying; 3) Love You; 4) No Man's Land; 5) Dark Globe; 6) Here I Go; 7) Octopus; 8) Golden Hair; 9) Long Gone; 10) She Took A Long Cold Look At Me; 11) Feel; 12) If It's In You; 13) Late Night; [BONUS TRACKS:] 14) Octopus (takes 1 & 2); 15) It's No Good Trying (take 5); 16) Love You (take 1); 17) Love You (take 3); 18) She Took A Long Cold Look At Me (take 4); 19) Golden Hair (take 5).

Gee. This record is almost purely impossible to describe. Just because most of the time you describe a record going, like, 'this song sounds like a bad Paul McCartney ballad', or 'this looks like a funny Yes parody', or, at least, 'this is just a groovy piece of bebop crossed with reggae'. No analogies for Madcap. There is at least a ton of great musical ideas here, and it all deduces from the fact that, as somebody recalls, Syd had a new idea every minute and wanted to record all of them. To do that, he mostly just used an acoustic guitar, but on some tracks he is backed by members of The Soft Machine who clock in with a heavy, distorted, fuzz-full guitar sound and treat Syd's numbers as if they were your average psychedelic stuff which it is certainly not.

Not to say that the backing is really bad: a lot of fun was made over these backing tracks over the years, with people jeering at the band members for not knowing what to do with Syd's material, failing to keep his tricky time changes, and even playing a totally different ('normal') melody just because nobody expected that Syd would play a certain song in a different key with every new take. Yes, all of these accusations are certainly correct, but I still like these backings: their clumsiness certainly adds to the overall chaotic, structureless atmosphere of the record, and it's certainly a better bet than the 'normalization' works of Gilmour and Wright that were made postfactum with the Barrett material.

As for Syd himself, he always sticks to an acoustic, narrating his lyrics in a sleepy, lazy, relaxed tone - lullabyish, you might call it, until he lifts you out of oblivion with certain screams and howls on tracks like 'If It's In You'. The lyrics themselves are for the most part totally schizophrenic (the famous 'Octopus'), but there are 'glimpses of Nirvana' coming through now and then (the confessional 'Dark Globe', the funny, self-deprecating 'Here I Go': 'This is a story about a girl I knew/She didn't like my songs/And that made me feel blue/She said: 'a big band is far better than you'...). But, of course, it ain't the lyrics that's the main selling point of the record, but the melodies - or, better to say, the 'melodic atavisms'.

Mad as he was, Syd was clever enough to plague these little ditties with his own special hooks, and it works. A couple of numbers get really really dull, just because the hooks ain't there ('She Took A Long Cold Look'; 'Feel'), but for the most part, each of these songs does something to grab your attention. Sometimes it's the song's ultimate, almost defiant simplicity that also does a good job in showcasing Syd's vocal talents, like in the opening 'Terrapin' where Syd keeps playing the same chords over and over again and sings what is likely to be a generic blues tune until he suddenly swirls backwards and rips into a crazy middle eight section taken directly from 'Astronomy Domine'. Sometimes it's a feel of funny aggressiveness - in 'Octopus' Syd simply goes overboard with a catchy pop melody and lyrics that mean absolutely nothing but are sung with such a lot of passion ('PLEASE leave us here! close our eyes! to the octopus R-i-i-i-de!') that you can't help wondering what he really thought himself of this song. Sometimes it's a strange feel of desperation and 'other-worldliness' in the fantastic 'No Good Trying' (with Soft Machine doing a fine job, IMHO - there's more psychedelia going on in that track than on most of Syd's contributions for Piper) or the similar and yet different 'No Man's Land', with Soft Machine doing an even finer job: Syd's gloomy melancholy backed by loads of 'astral distortion' give me the chills, particularly when I synchronize listening to the song with looking at the back cover of the album. Sometimes it's just atmosphere, but such a dark, depressing, murky atmosphere that it almost makes you wanna drown even if it's just a psycho love song set to lyrics by James Joyce ('Golden Hair'). And sometimes it's just a little bit of a terribly catchy pop melody - like in 'Long Gone', probably the closest he ever got to an actual 'song' on the album.

My personal favourite on the record is the hysterical, word-playing 'Love You', with its fast, ascending melody in the choruses and the rollicking electric piano that almost gives you a sense of nothing particular going on when in fact, the whole song is such an obvious creation of a madman that a 'normal arrangement' makes the contrast all the more creepy. But I admit that this preference has no obvious reason - there are only about two or three songs on the whole album that could hardly be anybody's favourites. As it is, the record is very even, although in the 'weird' sense of the word, and it certainly gives the most accurate picture of Syd's state of mind at the time. A bizarre, intriguing record, and if you don't have it, your knowledge of the possibilities of rock music is far from complete. (I know some would argue that this stuff ain't rock music, but it is, believe me).

The CD re-issue of the album adds several bonus tracks, but none of them are essential, being just alternate takes of the stuff above. It's interesting, though, to witness Syd's multiple mistakes and trippings over the process of recording, some of which are fun. Some, indeed, have been included on the record itself, thus transferring the 'fucked-up' atmosphere in the studio onto the album (witness Syd's off-key singing in the beginning of 'If It's In You', for instance), and this adds up to the album's character. Groovy.



Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 9

The worst problem is that this is really a Pink/Syd collaboration, and the result is a mess.

Best song: MAISIE

Track listing: 1) Baby Lemonade; 2) Love Song; 3) Dominoes; 4) It Is Obvious; 5) Rats; 6) Maisie; 7) Gigolo Aunt; 8) Waving My Arms In The Air; 9) I Never Lied To You; 10) Wined And Dined; 11) Wolfpack; 12) Effervescing Elephant.

A good chance wasted. The barrel was far from being empty - maybe Syd's new ideas were getting more and more messed up as he was falling further into insanity, but his back catalogue was not yet depleted, and the second album promised to be at least as good as the first, if not better. Some of the first-rate material here proves it, actually: 'Baby Lemonade', 'Dominoes', 'Gigolo Aunt' all have that fire in them, being as madly beautiful as the Madcap material.

But there was a problem. Dave Gilmour and Rick Wright, who had already took the informal position of Syd's musical curators, made a fatal mistake by deciding to make Syd's second album more 'commercial': that is, take most of the material and develop it to a certain state that would be acceptable by the general public, like writing some tight arrangements, inserting some generic keyboard solos and mixing out all of Syd's mistakes and lapses. This proved to be a double-sided decision. On one hand, this really contributes to the album's listenability: this I would never deny. Some of the songs here do sound like real and true rock songs instead of sounding like personal raving confessions of a schizophrenic. This probably explains why some people rate this as Syd's finest hour - just because they're not able to stomach Madcap and run for cover into the company of more 'normal' arrangements. In another world I would probably have done likewise, as I'm always in favour of the "golden middle" - a nice balance between the 'weird' and 'traditional'. Hell, I gave Zappa's Freak Out a 10, after all, just for that reason.

But unfortunately, there's no true "golden middle" here. The problem is that what the Floydsters did was contorting Syd's real image and personality in favour of rather dubious 'acceptability'. Yes, rockers at heart will probably appreciate this second album more, but goddamn is it boring. Maybe if they had let Syd mess around in the studio alone with his guitar, the results would have been more satisfying (actually, this is proved by some of the outtakes on Opel). As it is, lots of songs are stuffed with half-spirited instrumental passages that have nothing to do with Syd (indeed, as Dave later admitted, quite a lot of work was done on the songs after Syd had already left the studio) but instead have everything to do with a nearly-comatose, totally uninspired Rick Wright. The worst blow comes on the would-be good, classic tune 'Gigolo Aunt', an upbeat pop rocker where Syd seems to come to his senses and deliver something nice and 'stable'; but it ends in a lengthy jam and goes on for almost six minutes when it should have certainly been limited to three. Is this really Syd Barrett?

However, if it were just for the instrumental passages, the situation would have been tolerable where it really isn't. The reason is that the lame Pink Floydsters manage to overshadow Syd on virtually every track - the vocals are buried so low that sometimes they're hardly audible at all. I mean, it is understandable that Syd could hardly be coped with at the time - most of the period he was in total prostration, only coming out once in a while, but wouldn't that mean that the people around him were obliged to make the best of his abilities? Yet they wouldn't, instead letting him rave and rant and then muddying up his vocals even further which leads to such freak-outs as the mumbling 'Rats' where Syd sounds like a person in total delirium muttering incoherent words on his deathbed.

The throwaways here are even more throwaway than the ones on Madcap ('Waving My Arms In The Air', 'It Is Obvious' and 'I Never Lied To You', for instance, never seem to do jack for me), and as it is, there are only about three or four finished songs. 'Baby Lemonade' is probably the best of these, recalling Syd's childish stuff on Piper, and 'Gigolo Aunt' and 'Wined And Dined' are also very good. The latter even has something Beatlesque about it, don't you think?

Finally, 'Dominoes' should probably hold the record as Syd's saddest song, certainly written in a particular fit of melancholy. Speaking of Beatles, it also reminds me of Paul McCartney's 'Junk' a little, in the atmosphere department - so sad, personal and deeply moving for no particular reason. And the record closes with one of Syd's earliest compositions, 'Effervescing Elephant', which is just about one minute long and is very very funny indeed.

My personal favourite here, though, is not very Syd-dish: it's a heavy, bluesy tune with menacing booming drums ('Maisie'), where Syd unexpectedly adopts a very low growl and is obviously just having fun, I mean, real fun. Face it, it's interesting to hear a madman having fun. It's not much of a song, and it's certainly not representative at all, but it has a dark charm of its own: like a generic blues song reinterpreted by a schizophrenic. Or, rather, a schizophrenic trying to concoct a generic blues and captured in the process of struggling with the melody and lyrics...

I fully understand that quite a lot of people would never agree with me in my assessment of this album. Well, tastes are tastes, but one thing's obvious: if Syd's nature and Syd's genius is what you're looking for, this is not the first place to stop. Better still, just keep listening and re-listening to Madcap until its mad brilliancy soaks deep into you, and you'll be surprised at how dull and ultimately predictable and generic this second record is, even with all the high points.



Year Of Release: 1989
Record rating = 5
Overall rating = 6

Outtakes. Mostly lousy. Sometimes not. Anyway, not something I'd call 'unpredictable'.


Track listing: 1) Opel; 2) Clowns And Jugglers; 3) Rats; 4) Golden Hair; 5) Dolly Rocker; 6) Word Song; 7) Wined And Dined; 8) Swan Lee (Silas Lang); 9) Birdie Hop; 10) Let's Split; 11) Lanky (Part One); 12) Wouldn't You Miss Me (Dark Globe); 13) Milky Way; 14) Golden Hair; [BONUS TRACKS:] 15) Gigolo Aunt (take 9); 16) It Is Obvious (take 3); 17) It Is Obvious (take 5); 18) Clowns And Jugglers (take 1); 19) Late Night (take 2); 20) Effervescing Elephant (take 2).

I don't really understand why they'd waited for almost twenty years to release this album, full to the brink of odds and ends from Syd's 1968-70 recording sessions, but this is the ultimate truth. Anyway, it's a good thing to see that this interest for Syd and his music hasn't really waned over the years, and if the reason is that the recording company had been waiting in order to boil up the fans' appetites, well, it's an interesting one.

However, another reason might lie in the fact that the album's plain not good. Basically, it can be divided into two parts: (a) alternate takes of Barrett and Madcap tunes; (b) outtakes that have been previously unreleased. Of the latter, not even a single one stands up to Syd's 1970 standards. Yeah, I know that 'Opel' the song is a fan favourite, but strike me thunder, I just can't see what the fuss is about. Yes, the lyrics are confessional, with Syd singing about how he's drowning and all, but we had some earlier and better examples of this genre in 'Dark Globe' and elsewhere, and the melody seems to be a simpler retread of 'Terrapin'. And it's long as hell, well, I just don't get it. Anything but a good song.

The others range from dreary and boring ('Swan Lee') to simply undistinguishable ('Milky Way', 'Let's Split'). Nah. It's easy to see why Syd wasn't so enthusiastic about these songs - they sound like they've been thrown together in a couple of minutes, maybe less. And in painful search of more material to fill up the record, the company has even included a terrible, ear-destructing jam ('Lanky') full of murky noises and stuff that nobody could appreciate, fit for a John Lennon experimental album. Another 'experiment' is 'Word Song' - a rudimentary melody over which Syd just recites, true enough, words - random selection of words not even united by a thesaurus topic. Again, interesting for scientists and Barrettology specialists, but listen to this over and over? Never in my life, however long it will be.

Now the alternate takes, well, this is the only redeeming factor. Or maybe not - they are so superior that they make all this 'new' stuff sound even worse. 'Wined And Dined', in particular, sounds far more tasty and moving than it does on the Pink Floyd-spiced Barrett, and even 'Rats' is funny here where it was nasty on that album. However, the Madcap outtakes can't really hope to overshadow the originals because they were perfect in the first place. At their best, they're just equal (the other version of 'Octopus', here under its primary name 'Clowns And Jugglers'), but usually they're a little weaker. There's also a mysterious instrumental version of 'Golden Hair' that closes the album and sounds even more intriguing without the words, but that's about it.

Again, the re-issue includes several bonus tracks, all alternate takes on well-known standards, mostly forgettable (two takes on 'It Is Obvious'? WHY??), and the album is only and exclusively for Syd fans and specialists in psychoanalysis. Still, it's a good thing that it was released, isn't it? Guess so. All the outtakes will see the light of day sometimes - why waste time, then? If you don't like it, don't buy it. Or better still, pay homage to the poor Syd who still lives his reclusive and half-ill life somewhere in Cambridge and buy it. He'll get some royalties. Poor chap.



Year Of Release: 2004
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 9

Treasure every drop.

Best song: if only I had a little more choice...

Track listing: 1) Terrapin; 2) Gigolo Aunt; 3) Baby Lemonade; 4) Effervescing Elephant; 5) Two Of A Kind; 6) Baby Lemonade; 7) Dominoes; 8) Love Song.

"This is the first time all of Syd's BBC recordings have been officially available, astonishing when you consider he recorded them over 30 years ago". Frankly, nowhere near as astonishing as realizing that the entire BBC output of solo Syd Barrett barely scrambles over eighteen minutes, in today's measures not even fit for a CD single. Although, wait, maybe even more astonishing is the fact that somebody, even today, has actually seen fit to make an official release of an eighteen-minute music CD like that. It's not just that the Barrett legacy "lives on", it's that his legacy can still constitute even a minor "event" like this. Certainly in recent years there has been a real flood of memories, with the archives flung wide open and people now being able to learn many times as more about their Sixties idols than they were able to learn in the Sixties themselves, but still, there's always something special about Syd, and this "something" definitely has to do with the amazing scarcity of his output. (Perhaps in twenty years' time there will be a similar aura around Jeff Buckley - although even Jeff Buckley's legacy looks positively voluminous next to Syd's).

The album sleeve, the liner notes, the generally positive reviews next to an understandable lack of sales - there's a special air of unusual solemnity around the album... solemnity around eighteen minutes? Hmm. Bet Linkin' Park ain't gonna receive that when they are old, fat, out of their minds, and tending flowerbeds in Cambridge.

Anyway, what we have here is eight songs from two sessions, only one of them nicely 'n' fully listenable. The late great John Peel, one of Pink Floyd's first admirers and propagators, got Syd to appear in the studios in February 1970, right after the release of Madcap - curiously, though, out of the five songs only 'Terrapin' is from that album. Obviously, there was no question about actually promoting the record (a thoroughly hopeless business if there ever was one), but still, it's interesting that Syd didn't seem at all interested in recreating the material he'd already gotten off his chest, as if he were only too happy to move on to the next batch of waves floating through his head once the first batch had evaporated. Instead, three other songs are from the upcoming Barrett, and one, 'Two Of A Kind', is unavailable elsewhere. It's sort of a jolly rootsy shuffle, opening on a progression not unlike the Mamas & Papas' 'Creeque Alley', maybe even a bit too normal for Syd's usual state - which might explain its non-inclusion on Barrett. (The liner notes hint at it possibly having been written by Rick Wright, which clears things up a bit).

However, I must say that this five-song session looks generally normal. Maybe John Peel treated Syd with a quick firehose procedure before the lights went on, but there's next to nothing to provoke you into thinking crazy thoughts. So there are these goofy "popping" noises heard during 'Terrapin', which some evil-minded people used to think were related to speedy consumption of substances, but come on now. You try playing guitar, singing, and popping acid at the same time. Syd Barrett may have been the twentieth century Schubert, Liszt, and Chopin rolled into one, but Julius Caesar he was not. Besides, the noises don't even seem to be coming from his side. Maybe Dave Gilmour was too heavy on his bean dip. :)

Speaking of Gilmour, it is indeed him that backs Syd up creatively with organ, bass, and guitar, while Jerry Shirley plays the drums (of which he seems to have little besides a small set of these Indian ones). Dave also helps out with the singing, beefing up the sound and not really letting anything go wrong. Add to this the immaculate clarity of the sound (how do you think we discern all the popping noises?) and there you have it - a nice musical portrait of a pretty young inger-songwriter, a little childish in his imagery, perhaps ('Effervescing Elephant', eh?), but certainly with a clear head and a bright heart. Who cares if his inventory of chord progressions is limited.

The big problem is, I have a nasty feeling these tapes are actually pre-recorded. If Gilmour is credited for both organ and bass, how come we do hear both organ and bass at the same time? Surely he wasn't pulling a Ray Manzarek or something? It's all too clean for me to believe it was a spontaneous live performance. And this kills off a big part of the excitement, because in that case the result is not all that different from what you hear on all these endless "takes" made into bonus tracks on CD editions of regular albums.

The second session, now, that one is almost certainly live, from beginning to end. Recorded in 1971, upon Syd's very brief return from Cambridge, it was apparently "lost" by the BBC staff and so offered to us in a predictably crappy off-air version, with inaudible drums and creaky-croaky acoustic guitar concealed by the monstrous bass roar (no idea who's the bassist this time). On top of all that, Syd is singing his saddest songs like 'Dominoes' in a voice that could presumably belong to somebody like me if I were dying from tuberculosis. And haven't had anything to eat for the last several days, either. It's not that he's offkey or anything - he just sounds completely lost, not understanding very well what he is doing and/or why he happens to be doing it. Thus, in a way, it's a blessing that only three songs had been layed down like this: a couple more and my hands would probably start shaking all by themselves.

Despite all the odds, this BBC recording sure has its uses, like most BBC recordings do. And I don't mean just a "Syd Barrett revival" - surely it won't win the guy any new fans; and I don't mean just a "good excuse to give the man a little more well-earned money" - surely it won't bring much even if they sell it at full price, which would, of course, be ridiculous given the length; what I mean is that these sessions, the last one in particular, sort of logically wind up the man's career. There's always, of course, the enigma of the 1974 tapes, recorded at Abbey Road during Syd's last ever spontaneous outburst of creativity, but knowledgeable people say that the backing tracks on these tapes are unlistenable and vocals practically non-existent, so we'll just have to assume that these live performances from 1971 were truly the last moderately well articulated artistic utterings the world had heard from Syd Barrett, and live with that.


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