Poor Syd. A young man who deep-fried his brains on LSD and God knows what other drugs he was ingesting at the time, who later gave up music entirely to tend to his garden and paint a few pictures. As founding member of Pink Floyd, whether Barrett was a true genius is a debate best left for others more qualified than myself. What is certain however is that he left behind a legacy as unique as it was brief, and one of the most distinctive as you’re ever likely to find in the annals of rock, pop, or any other form of late 20th century music.
Barrett is the second and sadly last studio album released under his own supervision (for want of a better word). And while it’s generally his debut The Madcap Laughs (a great title by the way) which tends to garner the majority of critical acclaim, Barrett has its own fair share of memorable moments, and is certainly the more accessible of the two (which is probably one of the reasons critics tend to regard it as being slightly inferior to its older more erratic brother). The record is definitely his most produced and well polished effort, thanks predominately to old band mates David Gilmour and Rick Wright, both of whom stepped in just to prove that there were no hard feelings since ditching Syd from Pink Floyd a year or so earlier. Something I’m sure Syd wouldn’t have minded either way, considering that at that point his head was likely someplace else at any rate.
First up is “Baby Lemonade”, which begins with a nice bluesy guitar intro, before segueing into something part sane and part deranged. And with loopy lyrics such as “In the sad town/Cold iron hands/Clap the party of clowns outside/Rain falls in gray far away…” it’s clear that Barrett’s mental state has taken a pretty interesting detour since “The Piper at the gates of Dawn”, Pink Floyd’s debut LP released just a couple of years earlier. Whether this song was a plea for affection (“You’re nice to me like ice…Come around, make it soon, so alone”) is pretty hard to gauge, because Barrett himself doesn’t give much away, so we’re left to make up our own minds. Still, it’s a pleasant, unhinged little opener, proving that Syd hadn’t completely lost it.
“Love Song” is a dreamy number, dedicated to an ex-girlfriend whom he is evidently still fond of. Syd sings the opening lines “I knew a girl and I like her still/She said she knew she would trust me/And I her will”, words which establish that he had clearly something of the poet in him, but more of the 16th century variety than anything one would expect from early 1970’s London. Wright plays some lovely piano, endowing the song with a bit more structure than it otherwise might have had in its original form.
“Dominoes” is another wistful composition, dominated by Wright’s organ, and Syd’s pensive vocal performance. Sung in laconic fashion, lines such as “In my tears, my dreams… Life that comes of no harm/You and I, you and I and dominoes, the day goes by…” seem to indicate a mind troubled and yet philosophical all at once, for what is life ultimately but filled with brief moments of meaning and excitement, along with vast and extended periods of ennui. Barrett’s backwards guitar gives it an almost haunted atmospheric quality, if nothing else.
“It is Obvious” makes it obvious that something was definitely remiss when it came to Syd’s state of mental health, like watching someone slowly losing their grip on reality. “Rats” resembles a jam held deep in the basement of some mental asylum post midnight, after all the interns have gone to sleep. Likewise “Maisie”, which is nothing more than a simple blues jam, where Syd murmurs in a deep baritone such esoteric rhymes as “Strode out to meet Maisie in the evening light/Maisie, his illuminous grin put her in a spin”. Had he not short circuited so many neurons, I’m sure he could have easily become an established poet if he’d wanted to, in that metaphysical, post T.S. Eliot sort of way.
Side two kicks off with the buoyant and bubbly “Gigolo Aunt”, which consists of a few superb verses, namely “Heading down with the light, the dust in your way/She was angrier than, than her watershell male/Life to this love to me, heading down to me/Thunderbird shale”. Like a sort of Sir Walter Raleigh of pop.
“Waving My Arms in the Air” is full of strange time changes (like its author’s mind no doubt), but is enjoyable nonetheless. It quickly transitions into the muddled and childlike “I Never Lied to You”, where Wright and Gilmour are obviously doing their best to hold the entire thing together.
“Wined and Dined” is simply exquisite, where Barrett’s poetic thoughts appear to drift between random memories of his past and present, but executed in an almost fairy tale manner, as if the whole song were written as a lullaby for sleeping babes. Well, it certainly puts me in a relaxed mood.
We all know what a wolfpack is, having read our WWII history books, where the following lines are particularly notable: “…the life that was ours/Grows sharper and stronger away and beyond”. Clearly there was enough intelligence remaining that he couldn’t have been so completely beyond repair. This was apparently one of Syd’s favourite compositions, for reasons which we can only guess at, and whose ultimate meaning the listener (much less scholars) can merely speculate upon.
“Effervescing Elephant” is the final track, and although puerile, it ironically offers the most together performance of the entire album. It’s certainly one of Barrett’s most charming and entertaining ditties, and never ceases to put a smile on my face every time I hear it. It’s also a song which makes one wonder that perhaps Syd was not that mad after all. That much of his “condition” owed itself more to his sheltered and extremely eccentric upbringing. All that we do know is that the man himself never really elucidated on the subject. A potential genius who strayed too far off the tracks and never came back. But who’s to say he wasn’t happy, bicycling his way around Cambridge, stopping in at the local pub for a pint or two after shopping? Some people are not who you think they are, nor who we want them to be either. For as much as creativity can be a magnet, perhaps it’s best to know when to occasionally let go.