Friday, December 13, 2019

Acid Casualty - Part 2

Most writers focus on Syd's "deterioration" as the reason for the breakdown/breakup with Pink Floyd, and while there's no denying it, a component is missing in that theory. As the band began to attract a larger fanbase, it became clear that Syd's fluid approach to writing, performing and recording – spontaneous, one take only, nothing repeated – was increasingly at odds with the expectations of the band. After bringing in Gilmour, Pink Floyd hoped to call on Syd's compositional artistry for their studio work  similar to not-quite-as-crazy Brian Wilson's role in the Beach Boys – while David Gilmour bolstered the band in live performances. The experiment didn't work and, in January 1968, after a handful of shows as 5-piece, the band elected not to pick Syd up on the way to a Southampton University show. So it goes.

Syd and Floyd officially parted company in March 1968 and EMI's new Harvest label committed to a Barrett solo project. Over the course of a year, Syd recorded The Madcap Laughs. Recording commenced in earnest in April 1969 with EMI's Malcolm Jones alongside David Gilmour, Rick Wright and Roger Waters. 

Thanks only to Yoko Ono, every piece of crap that John Lennon ever wrote is available in a myriad of formats. From a historical view, that’s a bonus; the ability to look deeply into the processes of Lennon's writings, good, bad and ugly. But it's not what John would have wanted. Like William Butler Yeats, Lennon wanted his finished works to look effortless. They were not. He toiled over every track he released. Syd Barrett, on the other hand, didn’t care. His output was out there; if not his life, he wore his art on his sleeve. And so, released in January 1970, we have the sprawling, raw, insane The Madcap Laughs, in which the first seven cuts are brilliance, with the bullshit (bar "Octopus" and "Late Night") tagged onto side-two. From the hypnotic, bluesy opener "Terrapin", to the Soft Machine drenched astral psychedelia of "No Good Trying" where Syd's guitar, distorted organ solos, fuzz bass and blasting drums are all played with no-holds-barred insanity, Madcap show a promise from Barrett that Pink Floyd lacked after his departure. The jaunty lounge-bar, piano-driven ditty "Love You," the distorted rocker "No man's Land," the acoustic "Dark Globe" and a skewed love song called "Here I go" help to convey a sense that Barrett, not Floyd, would find his niche, particularly amidst the Soft Machine backdrop.

While "Octopus" sums up Syd's sad story ("Isn't it good/ Lost in the woods/ Isn't it bad/ So quiet there/ In the woods), don’t confuse intrigue with anything more than an AM6+; this is far from Piper, with only "Octopus" coming close to "Arnold Layne" or "See Emily Play" (and Madcap is slightly better than Barrett). 

The Madcap Laughs was well received and sold reasonably by the standards of the time, so EMI decided to record a follow-up straightaway. The sessions for the album Barrett started in February 1970, with David Gilmour as producer, Richard Wright on keyboards and Humble Pie's Jerry Shirley on drums. The album was released in November 1970.

Syd was pretty much a wreck of a man by this time, but managed, with the help of Gilmour and Wright, to create his most sane if over-polished pop offering. It's not as good or as consistent as The Madcap Laughs or Piper, and while it's no Pink Moon, it's still pretty damn compelling as far as albums written by drug-riddled folksy artists go. Considering his state of mind at the time, and how he still had some negative vibes towards Gilmour and Waters for taking control of "his" band, this is a trippy reminder of just how much Syd could play the strings of a listener's soul and mess with his head so much that he has to stop and figure out what the hell he just heard. It's eerily brilliant and deranged, and because of that, it doesn't hold up as much as it could have if Syd had complete control of his mind, which wandered and wavered in a sea of abstract uncertainty, but then it wouldn't have been Syd.

In 1970 after the release of Barrett, David Gilmour and Jerry Shirley backed Syd for his one and only live concert. The trio played four songs at the Olympia Exhibition Hall in London as part of a Music and Fashion Festival. Syd made one last appearance on BBC Radio with three songs from his sophomore effort on February 16, 1971.

In 1972, Syd formed a short-lived band called Stars with ex-Pink Fairies member Twink on drums and Jack Monck on bass. Though the band was initially well received, one of their gigs at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge was disastrous, and Syd quit the band after a scathing review. In August 1974, Peter Jenner convinced Syd to return to Abbey Road Studios in hope of recording another album, but little came of the sessions. Syd withdrew from the music industry and subsequently returned to Cambridge for a life of painting, creating large abstract canvases. Syd had one noted reunion with the members of Pink Floyd on June 5, 1975 during the recording sessions for Wish You Were Here, when he turned up at Abbey Road unannounced as the band was working on "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," itself a dedication to absent friends, including their erstwhile leader. As the story goes, the members of Pink Floyd didn't even recognize who he was.

There isn't much to the Barrett canon: a few singles, Piper, Madcap and Barrett, and his life overshadows his music, but step back from that and just listen with a British ear: you'll hear England amidst the insanity with odd snippets of reality smouldering underneath. It's like if The Wind in the Willows was set to music.

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