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Syd Barrett
Syd Barrett
Wave Your Tentacles In The Air Like You Just Don't Care
Introduction
The Madcap Laughs
Barrett 
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Lots of folks like to talk about how wild and crazy rock 'n' rollers can be.  Like how 'insane' Steven Tyler got to be in the early 80's when he was shooting up half the GNP of Bolivia and shooting handguns at his jukebox, or how 'nuts' Johnny Cash was in his bad-old speedfreak days when he'd go out in the desert and, umm...shoot his handgun at stuff. Fuck 'em...there's craploads of sociopaths and borderline personalities in the rock world (don't you have to be just a little bit of a narcissist to want to hop up in front of people and wiggle like you've got a centipede in your buttcrack?), but there's very few actual cases of diagnosed insanity.  Brian Wilson, maybe.  Jack Gordon, the formerly brilliant Derek and the Dominoes drummer who ended up killing his mother.  My own nominee Mariah Carey, who I'm convinced is one broken fingernail away from a Columbine-style outburst. And perhaps the most legendary example of psychotic burnout...Syd. While others may have been more 'wacky', no other rock crackpot quite captures the imagination like the former public-school dandy who pioneered acid rock the only way he knew how: by taking shitloads of acid until his psyche finally just came unhinged completely and some dormant schizoid tendencies began to take over. By 1968, he'd been deemed unable to continue fronting Pink Floyd after such stunts as going on national television and spending an entire performance staring into the camera lens without so much as moving a muscle.

The story hadn't finished, however. In a show of humanity that seems quite out of character after all the shit that's rolled out of these guys since, former bandmates Roger Waters and David Gilmour took it upon themselves to assist Syd with a solo career. It seems that though his actions were about as predictable as Boris Yeltsin on a moonshine bender, he was still writing songs and wished to attempt a comeback.  His first album was recorded with members of the Soft Machine, a jazz-psychedelic fusion band that had released their debut about the same time as Floyd's Piper at the Gates of Dawn and had the unique qualifications to follow Syd's frequent left-turns, key changes, and tempo fluctuations both from a musical prowess standpoint and through a firsthand knowledge of at least some of the lysergic planes he was broadcasting from. He recorded a second album several months later, this time mostly with his Pink Floyd compadres, with plenty of struggle against his mind's desire to shoot around like a cat with it's tail on fire. By 1971, Syd had disappeared completely to his mother's house, where he shaved off all of his hair, started eating fried steaks until he resembled Marlon Brando more than Mick Jagger, and watched TV all day every day.  He made a couple of half-assed attempts to reconnect with Floyd in the mid 70's, the most intriguing being the time he showed up at the Wish You Were Here sessions, ironically a nostalgic love letter from his former bandmates, and sat at a table with no one recognizing him for several hours until he announced he was ready to plug in and start laying down his parts. Wacky.  Since then, the man's only gotten farther and farther away from his former life, still hanging around his neighborhood parks on occasion but spending most of his time indoors. There has been no indication he even remembers his Floyd days,  so those of you hoping for a Syd Barrett comeback can let your breath out now.  It ain't happenin'...

Syd's solo work isn't particularly listenable or entertaining, but it is fascinating in a cerebral way.  I doubt anyone really into his solo albums is in it for anything other than the 'boy, this is weird!' factor, worshipping it precisely for the same reason that other people like Wesley 'Rock Over London...Rock Over Chicago...' Willis or watching videos of skateboarders falling down and breaking bones: because it's cool to witness a wreck in progress.  Oh, Syd's not just blathering aimlessly about Urge Overkill or McDonald's or like that, but he was struggling breathlessly against himself and losing.  And when all the rules are off, you're bound to be caught unsuspecting with a boot to the head every once in awhile. The man was a seriously talented songwriter, and on his first two solo albums we can see he hasn't lost it all yet...in fact most of the time he's writing legitimate songs with choruses and mostly understandable themes that just happen to take more left turns than a one-armed narcoleptic truck driver. I suppose you could attempt to enter into a sort of Joycean analyst role and attempt to make sense of each and every line as if Syd's engaging in a narrative, but I say that's pretty pointless. He's degenerated wildly from his Piper at the Gates of Dawn days, and even when you identify a great line, it's impossible to be sure if you're understanding it the same way that Syd intended.  When I hear a line like 'it's no good trying to place your hand where I can't see, because I understand that you're different from me', I might interpret as Syd's acknowledgement that he's beginning to lose himself into paranoia and madness, and that this separates and alienates him from society.  Syd, on the other hand, might as well be talking about somebody picking their nose, I dunno...who can tell with these wack jobs?

Anyway, in the final analysis, Syd's two solo albums present him writing extremely similar songs, mostly backed with only a languishly-strummed acoustic guitar, little rhythmic pulse, and lots of odd melodic turns.  He also fits and starts at will, changing key or tempo completely just because he probably lost concentration and decided to start again where he thought it should be at that particular moment.  There's little in the way of 'arrangement' here what with it changing from take to take as the innumerable alternative versions collected here show.  The Floyd guys were probably used to it, but one can only imagine the frustration of the Soft Machine dudes they brought in to back him up.  I tell ya, trying to improvise key and tempo in real time is like trying to change your oil while travelling at 70 mph.  It's pretty impossible unless you're so amazingly fucked up on LSD, that you might just be able to hack it as long as the colors don't keep changing.  And listening to the final result through once in a long while is probably enough...hearing these over and over is liable to turn your brains into linguine. You've been warned.


The Madcap Laughs - EMI 1970

Probably less overtly nuts than Barrett, Syd is still able to pen what I'd call 'pop ditties' on Madcap Laughs, which despite more ragged production and more difficult backing by the Soft Machine, gives this one the nod over the more bleak Barrett. Syd was always into that fairy-tale Carrollesque trips more than the heavier shit like 'Interstellar Overdrive' (whose violence and could probably have cracked his skull wide open like a can of tuna by this time). 'Terrapin', which I think was even a single, is the best example of this.  It's a loping ballad with lots of flying and swimming imagery that seems divinely optimistic, and the lazy summer's nap musical backing is perfectly fitting.  He gets downright silly on the two-step 'Love You', a legitimate uptempo love song like he never brought himself to contribute to the Floyd. The Soft Machine sometimes gets their role
(not to mention the key!) completely wrong while chasing their Crazy Diamond, which leads to certain tracks being total train wrecks ('Long Gone'), and often has them making 'far out' psychedelic noises when more conventional playing would have been more effective, but most of the time you won't even notice them. In their defense, I fervently believe there's a lot more integrity in attempting to make the music follow Syd 'in the moment' than cutting the tape all up and manipulating it to make Syd fit the music like Floyd did on Barrett.

When Syd gets serious, however, it's devastating.  When he pleads 'Won't you miss me? Wouldn't you miss me at all?' after admitting he 'Tattooed his brain...all the way' on 'Dark Globe', you have to realize he's completely lucid about what's happening and that the only outcome he can see is to isolate himself.  'No Good Trying' is more aggressively paranoid, talking about people not being able to be what they pretend to be, and is backed by incendiary hard psychedelia that heaves with anger.  I've heard Syd had the ability to be downright physically violent when he wanted to be, and after hearing him deadpan these hallucinations, I can believe it.  He never yells, hell...he pretty much always sounds like he's one more Valium away from slipping into a coma on these records, but the threat is there. But on 'Here I Go', he laughs at his craziness and hopes that his girl will let him 'hold her hand and forget that old man', and let him play her a song even though she likes 'big bands' better (is that supposed to reference Floyd?).  Again, he realises his psychoses are like thunderstorms that come and go, and when the skies are clear he's optimistic enough to believe he can fall in love and someday be 'lying in bed, happily wed'. Contrast this with 'Octopus', which is so far beyond the pale you wonder if he was just free-associating his way through a particularly ominous hallucination. He yelps 'Please leave us here, close our eyes to the Octopus rise!' with a fanatic zeal that sounds like he's welcoming the new savior...it makes the worms of Roger Waters' The Wall seem like an idiotic parody in comparison.

Okay, so I've pretty much failed to describe this album in any meaningful way, though I guess I've taken a stab at showing you, dear Reader, that while Syd had his problems, he's still quite capable of making pretty decent little songs about what was between his ears at the time, both good and bad.  There's a sense here that what he's trying to describe isn't necessarily 'reality' for him, but his ability to control his associations is completely gone. He's like a firehose without a nozzle or a handle, spraying his creativity around haphazardly and with no hope that it'll ever turn off and let him get some rest. 

The outtakes, however, are either dull, failed alternate takes without band backing, or are roundly unnerving glimpses at his total inability to communicate himself when things weren't 'on'.  His false start to 'Feel' is especially creepy, as he struggles to get through the opening few bars and then babbles with frustration at the control booth before finally getting through a take with a tuneless moan which leads into a fairly uninteresting song.  It's also nice to hear his still-interesting minimalist metal-folkie guitar technique, which hasn't lost much over his Floyd days. There's a lot more boring repetition than interesting snapshots in these additional tracks, though, and it's recommended that you turn off this album before you get overexposed to 'Love You' or 'Octopus' so much you can't stand to hear them in their legitimate versions again, which would be tragic.

Capn's Final Word: They say to write what you know.  This is what Syd knows.

 

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Mike thepublicimage79@hotmail.com    Your Rating: A-
Any Short Comments?: This is a fantastic, disoriented album. Barrett was deteriorating, but he still had a ton of talent, and  so he used what he could muster, which was a lot. The single from this album was, believe it or not, "Octopus" with "Golden Hair" on the B-side, and I think that was Syd's only single as a solo artist. His electric guitar playing has gotten more normal, but he still plays uniquely (listen to that backwards lead guitar on "No Good Trying" - apparently they couldn't get him to do it correctly for a long time, so they reversed the tape and had him improvise to the backwards tape. He pulled it off instantly, and they reversed the overdub of him playing afterwards). Apparently, Barrett didn't even use his own amp (he certainly didn't use his echo box) at the sessions: tellingly, he borrowed Gilmour's. The Soft Machine only plays on "No Good Trying" and "Love You." Humble Pie's Jerry Shirley is the drummer on all other tracks, John "Willie" Wilson is the bassist on most others, and Gilmour definitely plays bass on "Octopus" and possibly adds organ to "Long Gone." That's about as much as I can supply about this album...but yeah, good review! I hate that beginning to "If It's In You," but otherwise it's amazing.

 


Barrett - EMI 1971

More of a Pink Floyd album with Syd doing all the writing and singing than a Syd Barrett album with various folks playing alongside, Barrett actually sounds like a real live album that a real live person would release.  Those of you who wouldn't be able to handle the daunting dose of musical chaos that was Madcap Laughs but are still interested in paying a dime and seeing the sideshow geek are directed thisaway...don't make your Syd experience harder than it absolutely has to be. Former bandmates Rick Wright and David Gilmour (admirably caring for the guy he essentially made redundant in the Floyd, instead of ignorantly letting him rot the way most rock guys would do...just imagine if Mick Taylor had offered to produce a 1970 Brian Jones solo project, you know, if he hadn't been drowned in his pool by a bunch of construction worker goons) make sure that all the flubs and fuckups were pruned off and whisked away before this thing came even close to the pressing plant.  Moreover, the music seems to have been tacked on to the master tapes after whatever manner of editing, splicing, and pitch-shifting had been performed to make the appearance that Syd was playing in an established key and was dutifully following along the chord changes instead of making it up as he went along.  The end result is a very 1970-era Floydian product that completely obscures (by clouds!) Syd's deterioration, instead making him sound perfectly normal, if not damned boring. His voice is even more gummy and inexpressive than last time, and he really sounds drugged down into a stupor a lot of the time.  Hell, his words are still colossally off the wall, but this time the music doesn't attempt to accentuate that fact. Last time, the Soft Machine sometimes overstepped their bounds by taking every opportunity to explode into psychedelic freakout, but could create real excitement from time to time (as much as was possible considering the circumstances, anyway) Wright and Gilmour just add overly tasteful sheen onto Syd's rudimentary melodies and make them all sound like, well, something off the first side of Meddle, which they were probably writing at the time.  I'm already not the world's biggest Floyd fan, especially not during this particular phase of the band when they apparently felt playing slow was 'far out' and chord changes took up to several months to complete, and they had yet to start playing melodies like they gave half a shit. Adding their 'melodic sensibilities' to Barrett's unfinished business just sounds completely wrong.  If he'd had all his marbles, there's no way he'd have allowed 'Maisie' to come out sounding like a Lightning Hopkins song played by a downer addict, or 'Dominoes' to sound just like a demo version of 'St. Tropez'. More often then not, the Floyd boys get it wrong, and their manipulation is unnerving.  Instead of coming off like pals helping their old friend make an album, they sound like two guys exploiting him to advance their own musical ideas, as if Syd were tacitly agreeing with their approach.  To a fan of the Syd band that wasn't sure how wild they were about Floyd's new direction, it's like he were saying 'I dig the new Floyd sound! It's not lazy, boring, and unimaginitive at all! See, I like it so much I made an album that sounds just like them!' It's bullshit.  Though I firmly believe their hearts were in the right place, I do believe they made it sound like this on purpose.  The simple fact is, if Syd had full control of his faculties, he sure as hell wouldn't have made an album that sounds like this.

The other bummer about Barrett is that his songwriting skills have taken a nosedive.  While there's a few fantastic pop nuggets that sound like they could be radio hits (really! Like 'Waiving My Arms In The Air' or 'Wined and Dined'...how exactly is that any different than what Donovan was doing at the same time? Quick, give me 5 differences! You can't can you, you dolt!), apparently the best tracks were leftovers from sessions passed dressed up to fill out the album.  The Barrett sessions were real bummers, as far as I've heard. Much of the time he was unable to contribute anything at all.  The real problem, though, is the total lack of meaning here. Most of the time Syd's just free-associating his lyrics without nary a thread of narrative to follow along with, and all the juicy, fascinating glimpses into his thoughts and fears that were so plain on Madcap Laughs are totally absent here. When he starts chanting 'like the cord around sinew! Like the cord around sinew!' on 'Rats', he's not trying to make a point about being straightjacketed by his illness, he just needs a good strong slap in the face to make him shut up. 'Maisie' and 'Gigolo Aunt' are just unlistenable.  Shit, sometimes I can't even tell what the hell is supposed to be happening...on 'Wolfpack' it sounds like they got two vocal tracks with completely different melodies and layered them together because they had no idea what else to do with them. 

There are more alternative version tracks, and while you might assume they'll give you a candid peek at how much more zinged-off Barrett was versus the last album, but even they seem to be quite cleaned up (complete with overdubs and such) and don't reveal much of anything.  When he screws up, he just stops cold and doesn't chatter fascinatingly like on the last album (the take of 'I Never Lied to You'). Mostly, these extra tracks just show how lame Syd's original melodies were in the first place.  Apparently he thought he was coming up with better material than he actually was. It's interesting, though, to play 'catch the reference' with what was later procured for use on Floyd stuff.  Syd sings about a 'steel rail', for example, which would later form a line of 'Wish You Were Here', and some of Syd's screaming seems to have been imitated by Roger Waters on some of the nuttier sections of his Wall album.

Barrett is superficially 'better' than Madcap, better production and more reliable instrumentation, but if you're listening to a Syd Barrett album to hear normalcy, you probably ought to schedule an appointment with a psychologist yourself.  Syd's for odd wordplay and the game of trying to figure out what's real and what's fantasy and how the man feels about the difference, and on Barrett the game's over. Madcap showed the facinating view of a man who was going off his rocker and knew it.  On Barrett, he's already gone, and all we're hearing is some reflexive flashbacks into his former self.  There's no self-reflection...he's nuts and that's that, and if I may say so, he wrote a lot more interesting lyrics when he still had a foothold on the other side of the door. There's strong glimpses of his genius ('Dominoes', 'Waving My Arms', 'Baby Lemonade'), mostly leftover from happier days, but the other material is near useless. Add in the fact that it's hard to tell when Syd ends and Floyd begins and you begin to realize the game has not only stopped, it's been lost, too.  

Capn's Final Word: The good songs are all silly, sloppy roots-rockers, and the 'good' music is dull folk. Guess who is responsible for each one? Give you two guesses.

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Mike     Your Rating: B
Any Short Comments?: Eh...this could have been a lot better. Gilmour and Co. didn't select the best takes of songs. The acoustic take of "It Is Obvious" on the "Crazy Diamond" box set is far better than the originally released take, and "Rats" is better acoustic than with the electric instrumentation glopping it up. "Wolfpack" is simply awful and shouldn't have been released, and basically, there was a scarcity of material here. "I Never Lied To You" isn't that great either, and segueing it with "Waving My Arms In The Air" detracts from both songs.

But the good songs here are phenomenal. "Baby Lemonade" is a classic, "Love Song" is cute and catchy, and "Dominoes" is absolutely brilliant, evoking a rainy day, a heavy load of melancholy, and sounds like it's stuck in reverse gear while going forwards. I even like "Maisie," because it's so uncharacteristic (Syd doing a bass-heavy blues number in a hilariously low voice? meh?), and even though it's total stream-of-consciousness, it's good stream-of-consciousness. "Gigolo Aunt" is another good one, though a little too long. "Waving My Arms In The Air" should have been faded at the end, but it's a good song, and "Wined And Dined" is another Syd classic. "Effervescing Elephant" is fantastically funny, though short, and hey, everyone loves a good tuba.

But this could've been better, even with the shortness of material they had. I wouldn't have minded "Swan Lee (Silas Lang)" being put on here, and I would have preferred hearing "It Is Obvious" and "Rats" purely acoustic. It was difficult to construct an album out of these songs, but even though it was tough, there was better stuff out there.

 


Opel - EMI 1988

Though hearing an uncut bootleg of Syd attempting to be productive in a recording studio while the octopus was busy wiggling its tentacles all inside his ganglia is something I'm dying to hear, getting a dose of what was too lame to get glopped up with a bunch of Rick Wright's ambient organ and put on Barrett is definitely not. Ditto for the alternate versions of songs I wasn't wild about anyway.  The big deal here, of course, is the 6-minute title track, which is about 90% godawful boring and about 10% just as good as 'Dark Globe' or 'Octopus' off Madcap Laughs.  Only at about 4 minutes through does it take off, with Syd's turn into a raw, sweeping melody that despairs about how he's 'trying to find you, living...and giving...to find you'.  One can only guess who he's talking about...a friend, the person whispering in his ear, maybe himself? But it's just a moment... 

Otherwise, this album sucks, even when viewed through the Syd Barrett Filter that allows a person to look past a lot of screwups and silliness. Included here is a nasty version of 'Octopus' called 'Clowns and Jugglers' with a lot more noisy clamoring by the Soft Machine dudes and a more 'kwayzee' vocal take. There's some very weird surfy guitar on 'Swan Lee (Silas Lang)' that would make Quentin Tarantino cream his drawers faster than a toe-suck by Uma Thurman, a truly disturbing and uncomfortable 'Word Song', wherein Syd seemingly recites each word that comes into his head.  I'm happen to be completely disappointed he never once says 'dingleberry', 'motherfucker', or 'chlamydia'. This guy was a pussy. He also performs a lost track that has to rank up there with one of the most irritating songs not sung by David Coverdale, 'Birdie Hop', which is the aural equivalent to scraping a rusty fork against a fryingpan. Seriously. Pussy! 

Just kidding.  Hey! Would a pussy release several more alternate versions of tracks that already have several alternate versions available? I suppose he probably had less involvement in the release of this album than Oprah Winfrey did, so maybe he's still a pussy, but what I'm saying is I need two more takes of 'It's Obvious' like I need an icepick jammed under my kneecap. The rest of the CD can be described thusly: Syd sing-talks in his thick Brit accent like Alestair Cooke with a tongue infection while he either scritches on his guitar or Soft Machine twiddles knobs/changes strings/lets wild geese walk around on their instruments. 'S all. Only a true nihilist Syd-licker really needs anything beyond maybe the first two tracks of this heap, and probably has the entire sessions on first generation reel-to-reel bootleg anyway, so what's the point with this release, anyway?  All the Syd you really need is right there on the first album and Pooper at the Gates of the Toilet Stall.

 Capn's Final Word: Do I need more outtakes and alternate recordings? Not recordings of someone flipping out in a recording studio, so don't buy it thinking you'll get some cheap laughs. .

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Mike     Your Rating: C-
Any Short Comments?: Not too good. "Opel" is one of the greatest songs Syd ever penned, but "Clowns and Jugglers" sounds like it was recorded by a bunch of thorazine addicts with an asylum inmate yelping his head off on the mike. "Word Song" and "Birdie Hop" should not have been released for commercial consumption, as all they do are show how far gone Syd was; putting such recordings on an album and calling them songs is dangerously close to outright exploitation. Come to think of it...that's exactly what the album is!
Forgot some things. "Swan Lee (Silas Lang)" is completely psychedelic (dig the muddy backwards bass contrasting with that acid-soaked surf guitar) and I love it. "Rats" is better here than on "Barrett" - just Syd bitch-slapping an acoustic guitar and rambling. Like Jandek, but galaxially better. The acoustic take of "It Is Obvious" is also better than on "Barrett" - Syd's vocal and guitar are so delicate and inoffensive that it actually becomes a good song.

But much of this release is exploitative and tonelessly tuneless, so that's why I'm giving it a C-.

 


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