Thursday, 26 May 2011
Syd Barrett "The Madcap Laughs" (1970) (News, Views and Music 101)
Syd Barrett “The Madcap Laughs” (1970)
Terrapin/No Good Trying/Love You/No Man’s Land/Dark Globe/Here I Go//Octopus (Clowns and Jugglers)/Golden Hair/Long Gone/She Took A Long Cold Look At Me/Feel/If It’s In You/Late Night
Pink Floyd always give us the unexpected. Just when we thought the Live 8 reunion of 2005 was going to be a one-off there they were, David Gilmour and Nick Mason joining Roger Waters on stage for only the second time in 32 years. It was as close as I think this band will ever get to coming to terms with their past and how much they mean to people. But there’s one figure of course who looms even larger in the Floyd history than these three, the figurehead who was used to giving us surprises all the way through his short career and whose presence still casts a palpable glow on his old university chums. I swear he was hovering as a ghost that night last week when the Floyd, his band, were temporarily together again, keeping a darting eye over what his old friends had gone through without him there to lead him. Now if you’re already a major Floyd fanatic (and let’s face it, who isn’t after an introduction to almost any of the myriad twists and turns of this band’s fascinating career) then you will know I’m talking about Syd Barrett, one of the most towering presences on the whole of this site, even if he only ever had a hand in one Floyd LP and two solo releases (and until now we’ve only reviewed the first of those). He may have been pushed out of the band for his unreliability and a descent into madness that was either planned, accidental, forced upon him because of fames, stress, drugs or inherited, depending on who you read and listen to, but Pink Floyd just wouldn’t have existed without Syd and as late as the 1990s Waters and Gilmour were still writing songs that could be traced back to his influence (‘Three Wishes’ from ‘Amused TO Death’ and ‘Poles Apart’ from ‘The Division Bell’ respectively).
The only thing stranger at that recent reunion would have been if Syd had popped up from the grave and said ‘No I’m not really dead’ and sent the band straight into an encore of ‘Interstellar Overdrive’. Certainly it makes little or no sense that someone as mythical and legendary as Syd Barrett can die in middle age after suffering ill health – that just surely isn’t on. It seemed wrong at the time when we looked at the pictures of the thin and fiery Roger Keith Barrett on his album covers – and it seems even more wrong now when we realise that for all time his reputation now has to rest on those three albums and a scattering of singles. Debate has raged before and after his death about how great and inventive Syd really was – whether his ‘psychedelic whimsy’ would ever have lasted the test of time in the critical eye after 1967 had not his legend grown so great without him and had Pink Floyd not scored even bigger with ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ six years later and whether the band really were better off without him. I hear what critics are saying – Syd’s songs exist in a universe of their own making which no other artist has ever entered, so it’s hard to work out what their worth would be. But it’s also complete nonsense – Syd’s songs aren’t scatterbrained so much as working to an entirely new template of their own, his pioneering guitarwork and growly voice aren’t just weird but essential to the impact of his art (and equal to anything Hendrix or Clapton ever did) plus Syd’s songs aren’t just oddball, they’re groundbreaking and so far ahead of their time we haven’t even caught up with them yet. Just think for a short moment how different our music now would have been had Syd and Brian Wilson not suffered their breakdowns just at the point where their art was eclipsing everything that had ever come before it – or after it. Think what we got instead (prog, punk, boybands, Michael Jackson, Spice Girls, Lady Gaga) and weep.
There has been much written about Syd in the 40 years since his disappearance from music barely a year after the release of this album - much of it insightful, most of it rubbish - but the quote that gets me is that Syd was so capable of writing about anything and everything that he could never filter his brain down fully enough to concentrate on just one idea, so rather than choose he just spent the day in bed jumping from thought to thought. Does that sound like any other AAA man we know? (Why no one else has made the connection between ‘Piper At The Gates of Dawn’ and ‘Smile’ I’ll never know). Syd’s disappearance and retreat back to an ‘ordinary’ life with his mother in Cambridge wasn’t just because he was overloaded by fame or drugs – I think it’s because he didn’t know how to interpret his ideas in a rock setting any more (he happily continued to paint for the rest of his life but never once touched the guitar again, as far as we know, associating it with too much unhappiness). The failure of the 1968 run of Floyd singles – particularly the under-rated ‘Apples and Oranges’ – were a case in point: Syd had crossed over the thin line between being fashionably adventuress and hopelessly ‘weird’ and uncool.
If even half of the stories about him are true then it’s clear the Floyd had to something about Syd’s decline or go under (there are millions of tales I can quote but I’ll give just two – the day he turned up for a German TV broadcast with his hair dyed green and dripping down his face while we refused – or was unable – to mime the words to ‘See Emily Play’ and an incident in the recording studio where his new song repeated ‘Have you got it yet?’ over and over whilst passing through an unfathomable maze of tempos, time signatures, keys and chords). But arguably they should have responded in a kinder way than simply not driving over to pick Syd up for the gig one day, leaving him wondering where the others had gone (legend has it that Barrett got to the next night’s gig, stood in the front row and stared out new member David Gilmour whilst mouthing ‘what are you doing with my band?’) Syd was left to fend largely for himself and without a network of friends or colleagues around him (barring the loyal Peter Jenner) Syd declined heavily. The rest of the band still feel guilty about it now, but then we know how the story turned out – they didn’t back then and had to keep their career on track somehow.
The real surprise isn’t the decline (Syd was always heading for something judging by his reaction to his sudden fame - unlike many fans I think drugs escalated his problems rather than caused it, but heck I wasn’t even born then so what do I know?) but the bounce back. These two albums – released much closer together than most Floyd albums in that period – took the world by surprise. In the interim since leaving the Floyd Syd had still kept up his writing and it was him who turned on the front doorstep of Abbey Road asking if he could have someone record him – the record company had already written off any chances of keeping Syd to his contract. He clearly felt he had a message to deliver (though unarguably the extra cash would have come in handy too) and it’s intriguing to follow a line of thought throughout the album, even if it’s not a happy one. What’s most notable about ‘Madcap’ isn’t so much the shambolicness of the recordings or the strain on Syd’s voice but the change in style. For the most part ‘Piper’ is a series of songs about as world that’s not what it seems to be, with outside forces like scarecrows, gnomes, the I Ching, space and Syd’s cat and bedtime stories making token appearances to illustrate the quicksilver nature of the worlds around us. On ‘Madcap’ the world is still an unstoppable force but its a more melancholy one – critical girlfriends leave unexpectedly, the world turns into unhappy but pretending to be ‘clowns’ or ‘jugglers’ balancing several chaotic balls in the air at once and in the end everybody leaves. This is a much more autobiographical record than either of Syd’s other works (‘Barrett’ too is more about the world than the self) and as such is essential listening for everyone whose ever been won over by the innocence and magic of ‘See Emily Play’ or the derring do of ‘Astronomy Domine’.
There’s no getting round it though. Syd’s two solo albums (‘Barrett’ followed just 10 short months after this album) are hopelessly down the ‘weird’ end for most people, off the scale for some, even for Floyd fans who found ‘Piper’ so fascinating and avent garde. But this site absolutely abhors fashion (why should something timeless be good one year and ghastly the next? It makes no sense buying music just because the people down the street and in the same class as you do!) and so we’ll try to see Syd’s oeuvre in quite another way. But be warned – neither of these albums will appeal that much to the casual listener, sounding unfinished and hesitant to modern ears, even those brought up on ‘Dark Side’ and ‘The Wall’ and curious Floyd fans who want to know what influence the founder member had on the band he got pushed out of in 1968 should run straight to their nearest record shop to purchase a copy of ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’, do pass go, do collect £200 along the way if you want to own the thing on vinyl (because it’s quite rare these days).
For those of you still here, this will be a bumpy ride. Syd sounds way more together than most books will tell you in this period – like Brian Wilson his real breakdown which leaves him totally out of it won’t happen till a fair few years down the line – but he still sounds nervous throughout, altering the lines and scansions of his hastily scribbled songs at a moment’s notice, without the blistering trailblazing confidence that made him the talk of the town in 1967. That’s not so much a problem for this album as it is for the later, and possibly superior, ‘Barrett’, where the desperate producer Peter Jenner decides to overdub electric instruments over the top of Syd’s voice-and-acoustic performances, with mixed results (you try and overdub over the top of something that has no reliable metre, repetition or verse-chorus structure!) But it does mean that for the most part this album is bare bones long before unplugged was an acceptable word in music circles and that often all we have to concentrate on is Syd’s cracked voice and rapidly declining guitar skills. But you know something else? Such is Syd’s magnetism that that really is all you need. Remember the days of punk, when the likes of Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten went around wearing ‘I hate Pink Floyd t-shirts’ as a statement against 17 minute long prog rock epics and meandering ambiguous prose? Well, the ambiguous prose is still here, but ‘Madcap’ is possibly the one Floyd albums punks will love – its basic, to the point and short and snappy, whilst Syd’s vocal often sounds snarling and angry here, like the best punk singles (before they started doing tuneless covers of ‘My Way’) Syd had a lot to be angry about – the band he’d formed and named had kicked him out for being ‘unreliable’, his attempt at a new band named ‘Stars’ went disastrously wrong and only ever played one gig and the world that had seemed to be at Syd’s feet just a few years before seemed to have forgotten him entirely. But mostly, sadly, Syd sounds angry at himself – even more so than the other albums we’ve reviewed on this site this album’s lyrics could and probably are about all sorts of things at once, but there’s a feeling of misery running across this album.
One of the biggest rock legends switches to pre-rock crooning just one verse into ‘Here I Go’, with the narrator’s girlfriend telling him that the genre he’d pioneered is out of date and that ‘a big band is far better than you’. ‘It’s no good trying...’ sighs Syd on another song... ‘Because I understand that you’re different from me’. And has there ever been a more punk-like track pre 1976 than ‘No Man’s Land’, with its snarling guitars and its angry, bitter lyrics about betrayal where no matter how the narrator tries his loved one just won’t listen to what he says. Sure Syd proudly wails ‘they’ll never put me in their bag!’ on this album’s highlight ‘Octopus’ and well he might, but alas the lack of boundaries and restrictions seem to have caused more misery than happiness across this album. Unlike other albums of the late 60s, whether ‘Smile’ or ‘Sgt Peppers’, the singer isn’t rejoicing in being different and groundbreaking – he desperately wants to go back to feeling ‘normal’, but can’t remember the way back. ‘Madcap’ is a sad album - much sadder than Syd’s real farewell to the world ‘Barrett’ interestingly enough – and in it’s own sweet every way every bit as depressing as ‘Wish You Were Here’ (which is all about Syd’s decline and the pressures of the music business) and ‘Animals’ (which is all about the unfairness of society, ignoring those with something to say).
A lot of fans will know these songs from the excellent ‘Wouldn’t You Miss Me?’ compilation that takes the best from these two LPs and if you already own that you don’t really need this album because the weaker tracks here are pretty much all the Gilmour produced tracks added at the last minute and left off that set (though do buy ‘Barrett’ cheap if you can find it – I can’t believe Harvest left off ‘Maisie’, possibly the best Syd solo track of all – ‘Her luminous grin put me in a spin’...) Whichever set you own, though, Syd’s solo work is more than overdue for reappraisal and – though you might never put one of these albums on for casual listening – they really do expand the Syd Barrett story some quite considerable distance.
That distant journey starts with ‘Terrapin’, one of the more ‘mainstream’ songs here and well regarded by Barrett-ophiles. It’s the closest to a happy song for the entire record, with a gentle understated vibe and a lovely lilting melody played on Syd’s usual bottleneck guitar over his own acoustic strumming. Lyrically this is also the closest Syd ever came to writing a ‘love song’ (much more so even than the forthcoming ‘Love You’), with lines about being at one with nature and how man is simply a ‘fish’ under the sun swimming his way round the world (or ‘two lost souls in a goldfish bowl’ as Roger Waters will neatly put it in 1975). But even here there’s danger lurking in the waters (pun intended) as the lover’s effect on the narrator takes effects on his body he doesn’t quite understand (‘my hair’s on end about you!’) By the second verse the narrator is left to sigh ‘I wouldn’t see you and I love to’ as if he’s just been served an asbo and isn’t allowed to go near his loved one anymore (the band perhaps?) But like many of Syd’s songs there’s no resolution to the piece. Unlike most Floyd songs there’s no beginning middle and end here, possibly because Syd is still living this song and doesn’t know the outcome yet himself, which is unfortunate – not least because the only change in mood is a rather trying stream-of-consciousness stream of words that don’t seem to mean an awful lot (though look out for the line ‘fangs around the clown’ which will make more sense after hearing ‘Octopus’). The title is also confusing – Syd’s singing about being a fish here, not a terrapin (although see the Grateful Dead’s ‘Terrapin Station’ – a song based on an old legend that the world sits on the back of a terrapin – if Syd had heard that same story could he be implying that we’re sitting on top of the world oblivious to what’s really going on and the ‘terrapins’ in charge? If so then it’s typical of Syd not to mention the fact in song and merely infer it from the title, seeing if his fans could make the jump with him).
‘It’s No Good Trying’ sounds like it was written and recorded by a completely different man – which of course Syd might well have been if the stories about his sudden mood changes and debates about him suffering from schizophrenia are true. The shocking thing though is that this song was recorded barely hours after the last track and already Syd is every bit as ill at ease with life as you’d expect, haunted, paranoid, all the love of the last song disappeared in a puff of smoke. This is one of the few of the songs on this record to have overdubbed electric instruments on top and they suit this song well, every last chaotic second of them – Jerry Shirley’s drumming, so reliable on Humble Pie records, is all over the place as Syd changes his rhythm at the flick of a switch to a beat only he can hear. The result is a mess but arguably that’s what it should sound like – Syd’s basically been let down by everything in this song and sees no way out from his problems, thinking that he shouldn’t even bother trying to get out. The key line here is the one we’ve already printed, that ‘I understand that you’re different from me’. For the rest of the song the real world – the one where real people live and do ordinary things – exists side by side with a cavalcade of blurred hallucinations, with Syd breaking off from his anger to give us lines like ‘yellow prickly mane on a stallion horse’, as if one has just walked past him at that second (perhaps it had...) There aren’t many Barrett songs that sound voyeuristic – however bad he got there’s usually some message in there he wants to communicate – but this song is uncomfortable for even fans to listen to, as if we’re over-hearing something that Syd doesn’t want us to hear. It’s still a fascinating recording, though, lurching from one crises to another before righting itself – only for another trick of the tempo to send the song haywire, as if we’re riding on the back of a bucking bronco and don’t know which way the world will turn.
‘Love You’ is one of the lesser tracks on the album for me, even though fans tend to regard it highly. It’s a word association game with lines like ‘ice cream excuse me’ that are both cute and trite at the same time. The trick is to think that Syd is playing a little game with us – he did have moments of sanity where he’d deliberately play up and spoof his problems after all – and it’s as if Syd has realised he hasn’t got the ability to write a proper ‘love song’, so he just writes his normal way and tacks a few romantic words on top of it. Where this song does work to some extent is the performance: Syd’s irregular tempo means the whole song lurches forward as if dragging its feet across the floor to his beloved, with the shy narrator plucking up the courage to tell the girl of his dreams ‘I seen you lookin’; good the other evening’. Even that seemingly certain part of his life is quickly undermined however – ‘Are we in love like I think we be?’ runs the next line, as if Syd’s not even certain about that any more. I doubt many chat up lines have been accompanied by tack piano, a mellotron played on the ‘flute’ setting and more noisy drumming though and the result is suitably weird (certainly this song sounds far better with the overdubs – a version of Syd with just a guitar is added to the CD as a bonus track). The funny thing is that Syd sings this entire song straight, without the slight chuckle in his voice that he holds for so many songs on this album, as if the whole lyric is of some great importance. For me the best part of the song is Syd aping one of his childhood favourites Charles Kingsley with the line ‘think I’ll hurl it in the water baby’ – just as the title of ‘Piper’ is an allusion to a chapter title from ‘Wind In The Willows’, is Syd here quoting another (and for me superior) book where the natural law of things is quite different to how we suppose and how real and fantasy worlds can exist side by side? (We’ve quoted before on this site about the famous ‘discovery’ that ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ can be played as an alternative soundtrack to the ‘Wizard of Oz’ film but have you ever tried playing ‘Piper’ next to the cartoon/live action film of ‘The Water Babies’? The result is, erm, very psychedelic!)
‘No Man’s Land’ is another heavy, difficult song, with a menacing head-hanging riff that sounds like the world caving in and a lyric that starts off as a song about confidence you used to have in the past fading and soon turns into another stream-of-consciousness flight into the dark underbelly of the soul (either that or it’s yet more nonsense). Interestingly, though we never find out if the person who used to ‘hold their head up high’ is Syd or another, its definitely him ion the first person singing about fixing things and being there to help – is this the sound of two Syds talking to themselves or Syd offering his sympathetic services to another? Either way, this is an eerie song, another on which the spiky electric guitarwork and angry drumming really do embellish the song, with a frightening instrumental section where Syd gabbles gibberish just out of ear shot while the band seem to stab each other in turn with music. No wonder this song is called ‘No Man’s Land’ – this is a man under heavy fire, who can’t dodge the bullets coming his way, cut off from the home where he used to be and not yet at the place where he will find sanctuary. Syd’s still lucid enough to rattle off one of his better lyrics on this song though – ‘we all will crawl all full awful crawl’ is half-funny, half-frightening, a line that sounds like the world is becoming a darker, more terrifying place with each of its inhabitants crawling deeper into the mud to get answers when they should be looking at the sun (a key image on many Barrett songs). Unlike the breezy ‘Emily Play’ or ‘Matilda Mother’, though, Syd has no answers for us this time around as he’s already too deep underground to turn back, with his clarity getting more and more obscure the further he goes, leaving him to garble gibberish at us while Jerry Shirley hits the guitarists musically over the head over and over before the song finally fizzles out. How on earth could the punk movement possibly had such a beef with Pink Floyd when their founding member is creating their whole genre here for them seven years early?
‘Dark Globe’ is back to Syd the minstrel alone with his guitar. It’s lighter than what’s come before, but only just – there are still several key ‘Floyd’ words like ‘stone’ ‘alone’ and ‘only’ that reveal this song as a cry from the heart about being hard done by (Roger Waters was clearly listening when he came to write ‘Dogs’ for the ‘Animals’ album in 1977) and that oh so painful chorus line ‘Won’t you miss me? Wouldn’t you miss me at all?’ It’s easy to see this song as being about either Syd’s demotion from the Floyd or his knowledge that he might be disappearing for good one day – certainly that’s how many fans have taken it, not least the compilers of the Barrett comp that shares it’s title with this song – but actually I think this is another song about Syd’s pained love life. As we’ll be hearing on the next track, Syd may have been called a genius by many fans to follow, but in 1970 he only compared about what his girlfriend thought –and she didn’t like his kind of music at all (as we’ll be hearing in the next track). As a result, this latest stream of consciousness lyric sounds more like a lost in love type song, with the narrator’s head ‘touching the sand’ because he can’t reach the heights his girl expects of him, rather than what the world expects of him. Again, there are lots of nature images in this song, as if its Syd’s short code for telling us that he’s back in the ‘real’ world in this song dealing with ‘real’ problems rather than taking his sub-conscious for a stroll. Again, this isn’t one of the album’s better songs – it’s too short to make that much of an impression and you do miss the band overdubs here more than on the other solo pieces – but it does have a charm and plenty of talent on display. One question though – why is it called ‘Dark Globe’? Like ‘Terrapin’, Syd doesn’t even get close to including the title or theme in his words!
‘Here I Go’ is either a sign of a redundant talent or a hilarious put-on depending who you ask. I’m more inclined towards the latter, with Syd spoofing his image as a trailblazer with a simple song about how he could accomplish great art – but his girlfriend thinks his music’s redundant and she’d better off listening to a ‘big band’. In the past Syd may well have stormed out but for now he’s convinced himself that if only the pair of them can get married then she’ll see the world as he sees it and ‘I won’t think about her and what she’s said’ and he can spend his days writing poetic poppy pap like this track. Except it isn’t poppy pap at all, but a hilarious pastiche of every bad pop song that’s ever existed, with the laughs firmly directed at the narrator himself (just listen to the deadpan way Syd sings it, especially the line ‘kinda catchy’ in a way that’s anything but!) He’s clearly hurt by the comparison (just listen to the way he growls the opening verse to the song) but turns his feelings towards writing comedy not angry protest (this is almost the only all out comedy song in Syd’s canon except for the closing song of ‘Barrett’, ‘Effervescing Elephant’, which is thought to be the earliest song of Syds on record). You’d never want to nominate ‘Here I Go’ as being Syd’s best song, but it is funny – once, at least – and it offers a fascinating insight into how lonely it can be when you ‘just aren’t made for these times’ and are leaving the rest of the world behind (as another AAA artist had it).
No such qualms about ‘Octopus’ though – it may well be the best single song Syd recorded for either of his solo albums (though the forthcoming ‘Late Night’, plus ‘Maisie and ‘Gigolo Aunt’ all cut it close). On the face of it it’s yet another nonsense stream of consciousness lyric, but is it just me or does this song sound deeper than the rest? The song starts off as a sea shanty (probably the most ‘real’ world ie physical genre you can have) about having ‘no words’ and running out of ideas before Syd leaps on a ‘dream dragon’ and can’t write the words down fast enough. No wonder Syd pleads with us to ‘leave him here’ – he’s happy here, without responsibility and away from the clutches of the ‘octopus ride’ (which is surely a metaphor for the real world’s demands, with its many tentacles reaching out toi grab and trap unsuspecting poets like Syd). There’s even a brief sojourn in a wood which – if I’ve been reading my Barrett lyrics right – is the frightening but magical place in the mind that Syd retreats to, one full of scary beasts but also magical creatures that only a select few can see. Shed a tear, then, that one of Syd’s last messages to the world is that he’s lost in the wood and keeps changing his mind over whether being left there is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (it’s both, in the space of a single couplet). There’s also the interesting image of ‘clowns and jugglers’ (originally the song’s working title), suggesting that we’re all in the circus playing our parts, either pretending to be happy whilst being genuinely sad or worn out juggling our priorities as they each take our fancy (Syd would have loved the Sims game, with an unending demand for sustenance, hygiene, employment, socialibility, fun, rest and the like). Finally, there’s that famous shout ‘they’ll never put me in their bag!’ – the last little sign that Syd is happy in a world of his own making and wouldn’t swap it for a normal life where everyday rules apply. No wonder so many fans have seized up on this song as a kind of Barrett manifesto about being yourself no matter what the cost – for, like so many other Syd songs, it’s not the narrator whose acting strange but the world around him. There are other lyrics too - many, many lyrics, with this the most wordy Syd song for some time – but to some extent these are filler and the song can best be summed up as representing a carnival gone mad which just isn’t fun anymore.
The music is for once on this album a perfect fit for the lyrics, stumbling over itself in its haste to first enjoy all the things the carnival has to offer – and then beating a hasty retreat to the nearby ‘wood’. Syd’s double-tracked vocal is too shrill and squawky for some, but for me it’s the revelation of the set as the Barrett of old comes alive, revelling in the weirdness of the setting he’s given himself and the sturdy riff that underpins the song and keeps it from falling off the edges (for this recording anyway – listen to the outtake on ‘Opel’ if you get the chance, which is even less stable than this one and probably it’s superior). There’s even a neat fade where the song detours into a fascinatingly scruffy instrumental break before finally rejoining the chorus line somewhere about the middle – this is Syd throwing off his problems and having fun, especially the last verse which just keeps on going, rhyme after rhyme passing by before the song finally moves on. The best song on the album by a country mile, this is Syd at his poetic and energetic best and your first port of call if you want to download a single song and find out if Syd’s solo work is for you.
‘Golden Hair’ is usually spoken about in similarly hushed tones by fans, who treat it as the other great message on this album. But this song, which comes with the surely unique co-writing credit to writer James Joyce, doesn’t really hit the mark for me, being too reverential and cautious about setting one of Barrett’s poems to music. The melody is slowed down to a crawl, putting the strain on Barrett’s voice (which sadly can’t take it) and the fascinating backing of glockenspiel, organ and cymbals (which thankfully can). Presumably this song’s high standing comes from the fact that this song is the most representative of what the Floyd were doing in 1970 on ‘Atom Heart Mother’ (in short, being moody with synthesisers). But for me it doesn’t work. James Joyce would undoubtedly have loved the rest of this album, with its playful stream of conscoiousness list lyrics and thought processes sung out loud – indeed, of all the musical genres there have ever been, Floyd-style psychedelia would have suited his work best of all (though only one other group, Jefferson Airplane, attempted to copy his work with the four minute dilution of ‘Ulyssess’ on ‘ReJoyce’, a track from the album ‘After Bathing At Baxters’ – you can reads how the Airplane got on at review no 15). But one of Joyce’s more conservative lyrics matched with one of Syd’s most conservative melodies just isn’t that exciting and the song simply repeats itself and gives up, leaving us confused as to what we should take from it. Is this a simple paean to love? Or something deeper? (Some fans have commented that the golden haired girl is a siren, singing to the narrator ‘through the gloom’ and encouraging him to his death out of the window – although that might be taking things a bit far). Either way, not one of Syd’s better ideas.
‘Long Gone’ is much more Syd-ish, a song that rolls between the deepest and most growliest detached-like song so far on the verses and a near-falsetto squeal of impatience on the chorus. For many fans this is the biggest example around of Syd’s possible schizophrenia, but this is a common song-writing trick (The Who do it all the time, to better showcase their soft underbelly under all that shouting) and it may well be that the contrast simply appealed to Syd’s still pretty sharp ears. The tale of the lyrics is again another unhappy one – the girl of his dreams has not just popped out the door for a sandwich but is ‘long gone, long long gone’, Syd drawing out the line as if to emphasise the sheer distance between them now that love has died. The chorus sounds like a genuine cry from the heart to me – as Syd comes to terms with his loss, so does he panic, doing all sorts of weird things as if superstitious that if he doesn’t behave just so she won’t be coming back (‘I stole a page from a leapord’s cage). Contrary to received fact, Syd actually sounds very together here (it’s one of the few songs with a backing that doesn’t get in the way of Syd’s original performance) and you’d be hard pressed to work out whether this was a ‘Piper’ or a solo song if you didn’t know, complete with beginning middle and end (of sorts), as Syd finally comes to terms with the fact that there’s nothing he can do to get her back. Syd turns in another sterling vocal performance, kidding us to the fact that he doesn’t care only to reveal his very real hurt in the contrasting section of the song and it’s so frustrating that this is almost the last time we hear that wonderful roar of a voice at full stretch.
From now on comes a run of tracks completed by producers David Gilmour and Roger Waters at the absolute last minute in July 1969 in order to finally finish the album and bring an end to the recordings (which had come to something of a full stop three months before in April 1969). By and large they’re not as good – or indeed as finished – as the other songs here and especially on first track ‘She Took A Long Cold Look At Me’ you’re crying out for some electric overdubs to break up the sound. Not that this song is bad, just a tad underdeveloped, because Syd’s eye has rarely been sharper than on this song’s lyrics, with yet another girl (or perhaps the same one) showing her disdain not by talking (where the imaginative Syd could always beat her with words) but in her body language (which Syd can do nothing about). Syd does try to move on, with a sudden jabbing ‘but I got up’ verse that sadly fizzles out, leaving the narrator to stew in his unhappiness once more. Interestingly, the lyrics are that she took a long ‘cool’ look at me (as in ‘long cool woman’) not cold – whether he sang the wrong words or the record company got it wrong on the sleeve is something we’ll probably never know. The melody, such ait is, is sadly no match for the lyrics though and sounds more like Syd ‘filling in’ until a better idea comes along (which sadly it doesn’t). Still, you can’t help but feel that had this song came out with Dylan’s name on it everybody would have been jumping up and down about how clever and ambiguous it was!
‘Feel’ is the biggest mistake on the album. The sound is so raw that Gilmour and Waters even leave on the slight false start and studio chat at the start of the song and Syd’s defensive comment about it still being ‘a bit short’. This is another song that patently isn’t ready to be heard yet – Syd even seems to lose his way in the instrumental link, which might have sounded fabulous on electric guitar but here sounds like a songwriter unsure of where to go next. There’s also only two verses, short even for this record, but they are good ones, again harking back to Syd’s themes about sensing things from those around him rather than hearing their thoughts and feelings directly. To some extent it’s another love song, with the narrator and his couple out enjoying nature without the need to communicate, but ‘Feel’ sounds more rushed than ‘Terrapin’ and isn’t anywhere near as cute as ‘Love You’.
The biggest mistake, though, is in letting take 4 of ‘If It’s In You’ go through complete with a painful wrong note from Syd and a pained ‘look...you know...do it again, I’ll start again’. Alas take 5 isn’t much better, with Syd wobbling alarmingly off a note he would have held comfortably three years before on a gradually cascading tune that sounds like a Christmas Carol put through a psychedelic blender. The lyrics aren’t Syd’s best either – Henrietta is a ‘mean go getter’ and the narrator’s got to ‘write her a letter’... You get the idea. Gilmour and Waters have said in interviews since how curious they are that this song, especially the false start, got passed for release and yet one of them must have said something as they were both nominally in charge of the sessions. The result is that ‘Feel’ is a painful listen, with an audibly failing Barrett clutching at straws to get to the end of the song, making mistake after mistake on a song that would arguably have been the weakest on the album even if played perfectly. ‘Yimmy yam yoomy yam yom’ sings Syd at one point, as if the strain of keeping this song on the straight and narrow is too much for him – alas at this point in his life it probably was. Thankfully the sessions for ‘Barrett’ a few months later find him much more in control of both his life and his work.
The album ends back in time with a song from May, ‘Late Night’, which another of the strongest songs on the album. Syd sings the song in his usual detached mode, with another unhappy lyric that finds the previously heroic narrator ‘all alone and unreal’ in the middle of a deep dark night, wondering where everybody’s gone. But it’s his guitar playing – little heard otherwise on these solo albums – that expresses his true emotion, with little bubbles of fear, anger, hurt and dejection skating across the song as Syd’s overdubbed bottleneck guitars compete for our attention. According to those at the session, Syd played his guitar part with a cigarette lighter rather than with his fingers, giving this song as fascinating eerie unreal feeling quite unlike any other guitar effect by anybody else and yet still recognisably Syd. If you can, get hold of the outtakes album ‘Opel’ where, in addition to an even better take of ‘Octopus’, you can hear the backing track to this song and marvel afresh at Syd’s ingenuity and style of playing. As for the song, it’s one of the simplest Syd ever wrote yet still tremendously touching despite all that, with a sing-songy melody line that sounds like a nursery rhyme and yet suits Syd’s half-rhyme style of writing well. Alas, though, for all it’s brilliance, it isn’t the skill on ‘Late Night’ you remember so much as those pained lyrics ‘all around me I feel alone and unreal...’ Just as on the Floyd’s ‘Jugband Blues’, this is Syd’s way of saying goodbye, not knowing if he’ll ever get the chance to speak to us again...
But of course thankfully Syd did and we hope to bring the adventures of ‘Barrett’ at a later date. Basically it’s a more together album with songs like ‘Baby Lemonade’ and ‘Gigolo Aunt’ that could have been huge commercial hits with just a few tweaks to compositions and recordings. It’s ‘The Madcap Laughs’, though, that many fans prefer, with its unsettling, melancholy air, switches of mood tempo instrumentation and even ability, plus two exceptional songs in ‘Octopus’ and ‘Late Night’ that rank with the best things the Syd-era Floyd ever did. Fanatical Fans will love it, casual fans will be bemused by it and those who hate Pink Floyd will have run screaming for the hills. But painful as it is to listen to – and painful as it was at times to make – I think all Floyd fans are grateful that ‘madcap’ exists and like me they spent 40 years longing for a third album in the same style. Let’s just hope Syd has finally found some happiness lost in a quite different sort of ‘wood’ and that the Floyd never forget the influence of this most marvellous of marvels.