Friday, December 13, 2019

Syd - 50 Years Ago - The Madcap Laughs

Syd Barret was a martyr for 60's extremism, a man whose mental health issues were exacerbated by drug use, particularly LSD, and who would spend his life, after founding Pink Floyd, in obscurity. After his departure, Roger Waters became the principal songwriter for the band that in the 1970s offered up Dark Side of the Moon (AM10), an album that spent 736 weeks on Billboard’s Top 100 (more than 14 years). Following the release of Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Syd Barrett's decline into obsuricty became apparent, flipping out in classic 60s burnout fashion. Barret would contribute to Pink Floyd's sophomore effort, but by December '67, Pink Floyd would add guitarist David Gilmour to the lineup to compensate for Barrett’s erratic behavior, and by March of the following year, Barrett would leave the band.

Waters, Mason, Barrett, Wright
Roger Keith Barrett had attained the nickname "Syd" by 1963. By then he was writing nearly obsessively and honing his songwriting abilities. He carried a notebook called “Roger’s Songs” everywhere he went. He formed a blues/R&B band called Those Without, yet a turning point came in November that year when Syd, accepted at London’s Camberwell Art School ran into Cambridge friend, Roger Waters. Waters  asked Syd to join his band, which among other names had gone by The T-Set and The Abdabs. The line-up included Nick Mason on drums and Rick Wright on keyboards. Syd mentioned that two of his favorite bluesmen (both from Georgia) were Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Pink Floyd officially took off on their new journey with a gig in 1965. There are those who would argue, but Pink Floyd was Syd's band only in name; the found of Pink Floyd was clearly Waters.

The band's gigs at The Marquee and UFO brought them to the attention of Peter Jenner and Andrew King, who would both eventually sign on as managers. The first was an intricate light show, something that had never been seen in England before. The only other band at doing something similar of course was The Velvet Underground. The second factor was the band's decision to do strictly originals, a concept that in '65 even the Beatles had not accomplished.

The duality of Syd's influence was reflected on the two disparate sides to the band’s music. The "A" side featured long free-form instrumentals like "Interstellar Overdrive" and "Astronomy Domine," which highlighted the freak-outs at UFO. The "B" side was the poppy side, which Jenner and King hoped to exploit for commercial purposes. Syd was pushed to the forefront and told to "Come up with a hit song." At the same time, LSD was becoming the drug of choice over pot among the Swingin' London Set and Syd was an overzealous participant. On March 10, 1967, Pink Floyd’' first single "Arnold Layne" was released by EMI and became a UK Top 20 hit, though it was banned by Radio London as "too smutty." The second single “See Emily Play” was released on June 16, 1967 and was also a UK smash. The song was based on a 16-year-old schoolgirl who frequented Floyd shows but was made fun of by the older crowd ("Emily tries but misunderstands."). Suddenly Pink Floyd was a pop sensation, even appearing on "Top Of The Pops."

Syd's contribution to The Piper at the Gates of Dawn success was immeasurable. He wrote all the songs except one and created a sonic landscape of guitar effects using wah-wah, distortion and other strange methods (such as playing with a ruler) to create the albums revolutionary atmospherics. Although Piper was well received in both the UK and abroad, the pressure was on Syd to produce the next big single. When "Apples and Oranges" was released on Nov 17, 1967, it tanked. Syd said he "Couldn’t care less," but this was probably not the case. Syd was starting to crack under the strain. TV appearances in the U.S. were so awful that the band agreed that something had to be done. American Bandstand required a mime job and The Pat Boone Show was even worse. Syd refused to answer any of the host's questions, just staring into space instead.


Barrett would go on to release two LPs, each showcasing what may have been, though The Madcap Laughs makes Barrett's marginal functionality obvious through his often rambling incoherent lyrics and out of time backing tracks. It's an effort not without its charm, and it's an ultimately sad indicator of who Syd could have been, particularly the out of nowhere "No Man's Land" and the Floydesque "Long Gone." The album was recorded throughout 1968 and 1969 with producers Malcolm Jones who produced most of the first half of the disc and the closing classic "Late Night." The rest of the tracks were produced by Roger Waters and David Gilmour.


Gilmour and Richard Wright got Syd back into the studio to cut Barrett, with Gilmour on bass, Wright on keyboards and Humble Pie's Jerry Shirley on drums, but this illusion of a real band only negated the charm. Barrett and The Madcap Laughs are definitely worth a listen. If not time well spent (I'd rather suggest listening to The Soft Machine, who's obscurity is absurd rather than self-inflicted). By this point, the effects of Syd's drug use sadly started to deteriorate his songwriting skills and his mental state (he sadly passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2006). There are those who look back on Piper and the singles and envision a Floyd with a coherent, healthy Syd. To me, that scenario obfuscates Dark Side and Wish You Were Here; I cannot even fathom such a world.