Syd Barrett – The Madcap Laughs


To this day there remains a core of devoted followers who believe that Syd Barrett was the very heart and essence of Pink Floyd, and that without him, nothing was ever the same. And while that can be said to be true, what is also true is that the other members themselves took the band indeed far more seriously than did Syd himself, who became increasingly indifferent to the processes of recording and touring, until things reached a point where it appeared as though he no longer really cared if he was in the group or not.

Whether his deteriorating state was due to a pre-disposed mental condition, the drugs, or both, is something people have been speculating on ever since the late sixties. It is a topic which everyone has an opinion on, but cannot provide any answers to. Not even his own family, who did their best to protect and shield him from the outside world, until his death in 2006. One of the interesting aspects of the whole Barrett phenomena, is that he is probably better known as that singer songwriter who went crazy before disappearing into a life of seclusion, than for his actual music. But this is not surprising.

Virtually nothing he ever recorded gets played today on classic radio; his songs never appear on any of those greatest hits compilations we see in record stores and newsagents the world over. In fact I’d guarantee that any DJ bold enough to follow “Born on the Bayou” with “Bike”, would either lose his job, or see the station’s financial backers immediately threaten to pull out half their shares if the programmers ever did it again. And yet his legacy endures, no doubt thanks to the rest of Pink Floyd who went on to write haunting musical tributes to their former comrade (I wonder what Syd himself thought of these tunes. Once again, like so much else in his brain, no-one seems to know).

One thing the listener can expect on The Madcap Laughs is the unexpected, and opener “Terrapin” has the feel of someone who has just woken up and starting playing their guitar while still half asleep (either that or a person who just didn’t give a fuck). Actually it’s not a bad song, even if it is performed in a way which sounds like Syd’s taken far too much sarapax.

The psychedelic “No Good Trying” has more of a total band feel, where the musicians seem to be doing their best to flesh out a tune that was likely hardly there to begin with. The silly “Love You” is ridiculous and charming at the same time, in that ‘hey babe, let’s get married and spend our honey moon at the local mental asylum’ kind of way. “No Man’s Land” is all distorted guitar, anchored by an (almost) heavy rock beat. Here Barrett puts in a performance nearly bordering on normal. “Dark Globe” is just Syd and his guitar, and reminds me of a bad imitation of Bob Dylan’s “Hard Rain”. Barrett’s vocals are strained and desperate, probably like his mind.

“Here I Go” sounds strangely modern, even if Syd’s voice is occasionally off-key. For some reason the song begins to fade out at the moment when it begins to get interesting, where Barrett starts playing a guitar solo I’m sure many of his fans would appreciate to hear.

Side two (as I always say) starts off with the excellent “Octopus”, which was released as a single, and honestly I’m not surprised. It’s quirky, catchy, and more importantly, none of it makes any sense. In other words, your quintessential Syd Barrett song. The ethereal “Golden Hair” definitely has that early Pink Floyd feel about it, and I’m sure would have all the tripsters floating about in pharmaceutical bliss if it had have been recorded a year or two earlier. As it is, it remains an affecting piece of semi-medievalism. What James Joyce would have made of it would have been fascinating to say the least, since Barrett took the words from Joyce’s poem “Lean Out of the Window”. Maybe the poet should have received a song writing credit?

At this point on, the rest of the album starts to disintegrate. “Long Gone” sounds like a Bowie outtake, which means it could be absolute genius or a complete waste of time. Actually the song is neither, although I still reckon that Bowie may have taken something from it (he was a serious Barrett fan after all). “She Took a Long Cold Look” may be interpreted simply as a man in distress because his girlfriend has left him, or as someone who is finding it difficult to keep things together in other ways. “Feel” has Barrett playing some messy guitar, and while the lyrics are interesting, the song itself never really gels. “If It’s In You” is even worse, and should have been left off the album completely. Now for some reason the last track “Late Night” brings to mind The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”. Syd’s vocals (and lyrics) naturally bear no resemblance at all to Jagger’s, but just listen to those guitars and tell me that they hadn’t been listening to “Let It Bleed”.

The now standard edition of the album has several bonus tracks, none of which add anything to Barrett’s legacy, and perhaps do the man a bit of a disservice. And unless you’re a Scholar of all things Syd, it’s hard to imagine anyone of more than ordinary interest drawing much pleasure from these unsettling musical digressions. However at the end of the day, one can either appreciate this sort of music or perhaps join politics. And while mental illness is not something I’d recommend (one look at the album cover and you know the man wasn’t faking it), I know which side I’d rather be on.