Psych album of the week: Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs (1970)

As a pop album, it’s a disaster. As a document of Syd Barrett’s splintering psyche, on the other hand, it’s fascinating

barrett

For all its harrowing moments, The Madcap Laughs is not devoid of flashes of the whimsy that Barrett had brought to Pink Floyd tracks such as "The Scarecrow" and "The Gnome".

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Possibly the most astounding thing about Syd Barrett’s first solo LP, The Madcap Laughs, is that it exists at all.

Toward the end of his tenure as Pink Floyd’s frontman, Barrett’s behaviour had become increasingly erratic. On-stage, he would detune his guitar and stare, dead-eyed, at the audience. This left David Gilmour—brought in to augment Barrett but soon to replace him—to pick up the slack.

Some blamed the drugs. Others have claimed Barrett suffered from either depression or schizophrenia—possibly both. The numbers, in any case, tell the tale of a man rapidly losing any desire to make music. For the first Pink Floyd album—1967’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn—Barrett wrote or cowrote all but one of the 11 songs.

His sole contribution to the following year’s A Saucerful of Secrets was “Jugband Blues”. The lyrics lay bare both his feelings of disconnection and his ambivalence towards his burgeoning pop stardom. “It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here/And I’m most obliged to you for making it clear/That I’m not here,” he sings. “And I’m wondering who could be writing this song.”

Not quite finished

And yet, Barrett wasn’t quite finished with music. Nor was he ready to sever ties with his erstwhile bandmates. It seems he had more songs in him after all. Perhaps even a whole album.

Initial sessions with manager Peter Jenner in the spring of ’68, however, were interrupted by a breakdown that landed Barrett in psychiatric care. Almost a year later, Barrett took another crack at it, first with Malcolm Jones in the producer’s chair, and then with Floyd mates Gilmour and Roger Waters taking over.

The result is a mess. As a pop album, it’s a disaster. As a document of a talented tunesmith’s splintering psyche, on the other hand, it’s fascinating.

The arrangements are shambolic, a result of the artist’s famous refusal (or inability) to play a song the same way twice. This left the musicians brought in to overdub parts (these included Gilmour members of Soft Machine) to sort out Barrett’s idiosyncratic and occasionally mystifying timing.

Flashes of whimsy

The Madcap Laughs is not devoid of flashes of the whimsy that Barrett had brought to Piper tracks such as “The Scarecrow” and “The Gnome”. For an example of Barrett at his most freewheeling, dig “Love You”. The song is a music-hall pastiche with suitably silly moon-spoon-June gibberish lyrics: “Honey love you, honey little/Honey funny sunny morning…”

“Octopus” is arguably on par with Barrett’s best Floyd compositions, its lines about mad cats and grasshopper bands etching a vivid picture of childhood wonder shot through with druggy nonsense. (To be fair, a finer analysis of “Octopus” reveals that it’s not nonsense at all. It’s actually a carefully crafted word-collage of nursery rhymes, Victorian verse, and reminiscences of fairground rides.)

Showing the cracks

There are plenty of cracks on show, too. Barrett can’t quite get through “If It’s in You”, for instance. That Gilmour and Waters opted to leave in their ex-bandmate’s false starts and off-key crooning didn’t sit well with Malcolm Jones, who said: “I felt angry. It’s like dirty linen in public and very unnecessary and unkind”. Gilmour admitted, “Perhaps we were trying to show what Syd was really like. But perhaps we were trying to punish him”.

Barrett didn’t need much help in that department. Taken at face value, it’s hard not to read unalloyed despair into songs like “Feel”, in which Barrett sings “Oh, so alone/I want to come home.”

The most harrowing by far is “Dark Globe”, which finds a tortured Barrett crying out, “Won’t you miss me? Wouldn’t you miss me at all?”

Barrett: the album

Remarkably, he still wasn’t quite done with music-making. EMI released The Madcap Laughs in January of 1970. The following month, Barrett and Gilmour were back at Abbey Road, this time with Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright along for the ride.

The resulting LP, Barrett, is arguably more cohesive than its predecessor, but it failed to find a foothold in the charts.

In early 1972, Barrett formed a band called Stars, which played a handful of gigs before dissolving. Yet another return to Abbey Road in ’74 yielded a few disjointed blues instrumentals (like “If You Go, Don’t Be Slow”, below). The sessions were aborted, no third album was forthcoming, and Barrett left the music industry for good. He died in 2006.

Trippiest lyrics

“Trip, trip to a dream dragon/Hide your wings in a ghost tower/Sails cackling at every plate we break” (“Octopus”)

“Inside me I feel alone and unreal/And the way you kiss will always be/A very special thing to me” (“Late Night”)

“The end of truth that lay out the time/Spent lazing here on a painting green/A mile or more in a foreign clime/To see farther inside of me” (“She Took a Long Cold Look”)

Sonic psych-out

Halfway through “Octopus” comes an instrumental break that neatly summarizes just how bizarre Barrett’s sense of rhythm was. His guitar jumps around willy-nilly, following a logic entirely of Barrett’s own making, while, on drums, Gilmour gamely lays down a shuffle beat that almost keeps up.

In their own words

“‘Octopus’ is a particular example of recording being discussed as something exceptional because it takes an unusual metre. I don’t read much, but I think I picked up Shakespeare as a book that just happened to be lying there to read. It was meant to be verse. I like to have really exciting, colourful songs. I can’t really sing, but I enjoy it, and I enjoy writing from experiences. Some are so powerful they are ridiculous.” (Syd Barrett, interviewed by Melody Maker in 1970)

 “Trolley buses were silent; they were electric, so this light would come toward you out of the fog, and then it would disappear away again into the fog. And I always thought that that’s what had happened to Syd in the studio. Something would emerge from what he was doing, and we’d say, ‘Oh, that’s good! Can we get more of that, please? Can you do that again?’ And then he would go back into the fog. And then the next time he came out of the fog, it was something different.” (Peter Jenner, quoted in Bill Kopp’s book Reinventing Pink Floyd)

Related

Over at Straight.com, read Steve Newton’s post about the deluxe boxed-set edition of Pink Floyd’s classic live album and concert film, Delicate Sound of Thunder. The set includes performances of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”, a song the band wrote about Barrett.

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