In 1988, due to constant enquiries and even petitions sent in by Barrett’s ever growing legion of fans, EMI-Harvest finally relented and released Opel, a compilation of previously unreleased songs and recordings, eight of which had never before been made available in any form, or at least not officially. That the album was released at all is interesting, considering that EMI had insisted that there was nothing of any worth. But how often have we heard that from the major labels?
Beginning with the title track, inexplicably it was left off The Madcap Laughs. Why, I have no idea, because it is one of the most evocative songs Barrett ever wrote. The verses at the beginning are followed by a long instrumental section before ending with Syd’s mournful voice, where he repeats the lines “I’m trying to find you/I’m giving/I’m living/To find you”.
“Clowns and Jugglers” is an alternate take (take two to be exact) of “Octopus”, a song first issued as part of The Madcap Laughs. The lyrics are a bizarre combination of nursery rhymes, Wind in the Willows, and Elizabethan satire. This version dates all the way back to July 1968. “Rats” is another outtake, full of rambling poetry and erratic playing. To be honest I can’t say that I’ve ever been much of a fan of it.
Interestingly we have two versions of the exquisite James Joyce inspired “Golden Hair”, the first recorded in June 1969, and the second in May 1968. The former is take six, and at only 1:44 it’s just a little shorter than the master chosen for The Madcap Laughs. Still, the version presented to us here is nevertheless quite enchanting as is.
One of the qualities that permeate these sessions is Barrett’s apparent state of indifference, or ennui throughout, and “Dolly Rocker” is no exception in that respect. The problem seems to lay not so much in a lack of talent or imagination, far from it, but the necessary willingness to see his ideas fulfilled.
“Word Song” is an unreleased number left untitled at the time of its recording. The song itself consists of seemingly random and unrelated words spoken over Syd’s languid strumming. Very little of it makes much sense, and it’s difficult to know whether any of it was a deliberate play on the English language, or the beginning of Barrett’s abandonment of communicating altogether with those around him.
“Wined and Dined” is one of my favourite songs by Barrett, and is a lulling, wistful composition. And when he sings “Only last summer, it’s not so long ago” it’s almost as if he is looking back on a time he knows he shan’t ever experience again. Like an essay on melancholic reflection, the song drifts by as if it were a dream, one that will never be recaptured.
“Swan Lee (Silas Lang)” is takes five and nine spliced together with some additional overdubs recorded later. Here Barrett is in Henry Longfellow mode, a distant narrator committing his story to paper. As usual, the song is fraught with scattered imagery and disparate word play. The pastoral jaunt of “Birdie Hop” is next, where Syd expresses his love for the natural world, something not unusual for him, since many of his songs contain references to botanical pursuits and animals in general (his father was a keen botanist in his spare time).
“Let’s Split” is a sort of negative love song, and a tetchy one at that. Syd strums his guitar in an almost petulant manner, where by around the 2:20 mark he decides he’s had enough, before saying to the engineer “Hold it can you.. That’s all, cheers.”
The instrumental “Lanky (Part 1)” consists of guitar, piano, vibes and percussion, and is in truth of only passing interest. Intriguing yes, but in a historical sense more than anything else. Better is the first take of “Wouldn’t You Miss Me (Dark Globe)”. One of the things which has always struck me is Barrett’s association with the metaphysical poets, amongst whom the concept of beginning a poem with a strong opening line was an idea that obviously appealed to our very own troubled troubadour. And on this number in particular, it becomes apparent that Syd was certainly a member of that same school. The line “I tattooed my brain all the way” could be an acknowledgement of his overuse of LSD; while “Pussy Willow that smiled on this leaf” is especially delicious, in the best Shakespearean tradition. Anyone who immediately dismisses Syd’s lyrics as nothing more than infantile gibberish would be doing him (and themselves) an enormous disservice, because clearly there’s a lot going on here, if one only chooses to look carefully.
The unconventional “Milky Way” has a lovely almost old world charm to it, even if it is obviously under rehearsed (although it wouldn’t be Syd if it wasn’t). Barrett’s lyrics become a little shambolic toward the end, not to mention his voice is at times out of tune, which gets kind of irritating after a while.
The aforementioned “Golden Hair” concluded the original release of the LP, and is a nice, haunting way to end things.
Now just like the other reissues, Opel has several bonus tracks tacked on to it which, while nice to own, probably don’t really add any additional depth or enhancement to what is already a relatively modest collection of irregular gems, although any version of “Effervescing Elephant” always manages to deliver a little extra cheer into the room.
One would assume that based on our current knowledge of what exists in the vaults, it’s a safe bet that Opel will likely remain the final word on Barrett’s legacy for a very long time, which is probably best, since any further excavation would serve no other purpose than to the detriment of his memory.
There can be no doubt that Barrett brought a great deal of Englishness to everything he did; and whether he ever reflected on his past or was even conscious of this collection is perhaps irrelevant, as he had turned his back on that aspect of his life already many years before, unable to understand much less comprehend what all the bother was about. Whatever blew Syd’s mind has been at the centre of discussion ever since the early 1970’s. But who he was as a young man and who he was in later life were two distinct and separate things. Ultimately one is left with the reality of Syd not as some psychedelic luminary aging gracefully in his home town of Cambridge, but that of a mentally and physically frail man who just wanted to be left alone, apparently unaware of just how important he was not only as far as old friends were concerned, but to the music world in general.