When Syd Barrett passed in 2006, there were two things mentioned in every obituary. He founded Pink Floyd in 1966, and left them in 1968 as rock’s first “acid casualty.” The stories surrounding Barrett’s breakdown are fascinating, but they threaten to overshadow the shear brilliance he often displayed as a musician. The new collection An Introduction To Syd Barrett is the first to incorporate his work with Pink Floyd with his later solo material.
The eighteen songs are presented in chronological order, making Syd’s deterioration painfully apparent. “Arnold Layne” was Pink Floyd’s first single, and the appropriate lead track. It is a pure slice of Swinging London psychedelia, circa 1967. The lyrics concern a transvestite who steals women’s clothing, and got the record banned, although it still managed to chart at number 20. The next single “See Emily Play,” had no such controversy attached, and went to number six.
EMI were impressed enough to fund an album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Of the eleven songs, ten were either written or co-written by Syd Barrett. The six Floyd songs here share a whimsical lyrical tone, but the power of the full band is what really drives them. There is an edge to Barrett’s voice, and to the music itself that is almost explosive. It is as if everything is teetering on the verge of total collapse.
In contrast, Syd’s solo work is nearly somnolent. An Introduction illustrates the differences vividly. The last Pink Floyd track included, “Bike” is an intense rant from a seemingly unhinged fellow. The solo “Terrapin” follows, with Barrett singing “I really love you, and I mean you,” as he lazily strums his acoustic guitar. Whatever demons that plagued him before no longer seem to trouble him. In fact, nothing seems to bother him anymore. From the tone of his voice, the subject matter, and the songs as a whole, we are hearing what remains of a man who has checked out.
His first solo album, The Madcap Laughs was released in 1970. The title comes from a line in the song “Octopus,” and could not be more apt. The tracks had been worked on sporadically since his final appearance on a Pink Floyd album, A Saucerful Of Secrets in 1968. Syd’s permanent replacement in Floyd was David Gilmour, who produced both Madcap, and the later Barrett. By all accounts, the sessions were trying.