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.
The music that emerged though was surprisingly coherent, especially so on The Madcap Laughs. There is a nod to the very British “music hall” style on both “Love You,” and “Here I Go.” The latter has been treated to a new mix, and Gilmour has added a bass guitar to it as well. Any doubts about where Barrett was psychologically are dispelled with the unnerving “If It’s In You.”
His second and final solo excursion, Barrett sounds like a thoroughly collaborative affair with some of the era’s finest musicians. In truth, it is a valiant effort by Syd’s friends to salvage Madcap’s leftovers. Gilmour, and members of Soft Machine have fleshed out the slight sketches Barrett left behind to great effect on “Dominoes,” and “Gigolo Aunt.” The wordplay that Barrett was so known for previously is highlighted one last time with “Effervescing Elephant.”
The CD closes with the rare “Bob Dylan Blues” from 1970. The song had been in Gilmour’s private collection up until the compilation Wouldn’t You Miss Me in 2001. It is a worthy tribute/send-up of someone Syd Barrett obviously admired a great deal.
An Introduction To Syd Barrett is exactly what it says it is. By including his early work with Pink Floyd with his later solo material, we get a well-rounded picture of what the man’s music was all about. Barrett will always be a footnote in the story of Pink Floyd, but his departure haunted them throughout their career. Many of the songs on both Dark Side Of The Moon and The Wall deal with it. On Wish You Were Here, they were explicit — nearly the entire album was about him.
For the curious, this is an excellent place to start in getting to know the music of Syd Barrett.