Artist: Syd Barrett
Title: "The Madcap Laughs" and "Barrett"
Format: Double LP
Catalogue Number: SHDW404
Year of Release: 1974
Part One - The Madcap Laughs
A1 Terrapin (4:04)
A2 No Good Trying (3:16)
A3 Love You (2:23)
A4 No Man's Land (2:57)
A5 Dark Globe (1:57)
A6 Here I Go (3:05)
B1 Octopus (3:43)
B2 Golden Hair (1:56)
B3 Long Gone (2:45)
B4 She Took A Long Cold Look (1:48)
B5 Feel (2:13)
B6 If It's In You (2:22)
B7 Late Night (3:12)
After 15 years, listening to this album still makes me laugh, shiver, and cry.
And for the last two hours I've been trying to write something better than that about it, and have failed.
But 15 years ago, Christmas 1992, I got this as a present from my then girlfriend. To cut a long story short, and one that paints me in a rather unflattering light, she was no longer my girlfriend by 1993. In my defence, I offered to give her the album back, but she graciously declined. It's a debt I have no idea how to even begin to repay.
I'm trying to put my finger on what makes this such an astonishingly good record. It's mostly the songwriting, which is by turns mystical, simple, profound, touching and whimsical. Album opener Terrapin covers all bases, beginning:
the star above you, crystal blue
Well, oh baby, my hairs on end about you...
Moving on to:
the fins a luminous
fangs all 'round the clown
is dark below the boulders hiding all
the sunlight's good for us
'Cause we're the fishes and all we do
the move about is all we do
well, oh baby, my hairs on end about you...
(Clearly influencing the "Two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl" lyric from Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here, by the way, although that's all that will be said on the matter of Pink Floyd milking the Syd Barrett story for the rest of their over-long career)
The accompaniment to Syd's vocal and acoustic strumming is sparse. Much is made of The Soft Machine being the backing band on this album, but they only feature on No Good Trying and Love You, and you can hear them struggle with the song structures at times. The tracks that work best are Syd alone, or with some just electric guitar and extra vocal overdubs. Dark Globe is the best example of this, and the first track on the album to really raise the goosebumps:
pussy willow that smiled on this leaf?
When I was alone you promised the stone from your heart
my head kissed the ground
I was half the way down, treading the sand
please, please, lift a hand
I'm only a person whose armbands beat
on his hands, hang tall
won't you miss me?
Wouldn't you miss me at all?
The end of Side A, Here We Go, can be read simply as a tale about having an unappreciative girlfriend, then getting off with her sister. Or, it could be a metaphor for fame and life in Pink Floyd. Let's face it, with lines like "She said a big band is far better than you", it doesn't take a genius to work out which one it is.
I like to think of Side A as being the one the producers were happier with, and Side B as the one Syd was happier with. Where No Man's Land from Side A ends with some mumbled and partial lyrics in the last minute, that were apparently a mistake kept in, Side B is full of the kind of noises you'd expect on a home recording. Admittedly, Octopus is flawless. A gem of song in fact, and the one that the album title comes from:
they'll never put me in their bag
the seas will reach and always seep
close our eyes to the octopus ride!
Whatever it all means, it's glorious. Long Gone is similarly cracked. This time the lyrics are simple enough, but the production, with its faraway shouted vocal ghosting the two main lead vocals, and moments where the guitar playing might actually stop, add up to an emotional performance that you could believe was from a man recently left.
She Took a Long Cold Look takes it further, where you can hear pages of music or lyrics turning, and Syd struggling through it, even lamenting how short the song is at the end, as if it should have sounded longer, because it felt longer a the time. Studio chat starts Feel, but only briefly compared to If It's In You, which has a painful false start and one of the oddest sung melodies you're ever likely to hear.
The musically sparse, unpolished, and lyrically obtuse songs that make up most of Side B are I think, there as an exquisite contrast to the last track. Syd had a hand in mixing the album and setting the running order, so I don't think his 'madness' was being in anyway exploited, as some have written, by putting false starts and things muttered to himself on the record. I think he knew exactly what he was doing.
Late Night opens with some beautiful slide guitar and simple drum backing. The instrumental sections of this track are the best on the record, and Syd's vocal performance is solid throughout, but it's the lyrics that have such a crushing depth of feeling:
a very special thing to me...
The irony that this album features a lot of breakup songs is not lost on me, but I think it also covers love, death and humour too. As does this story: I played this album to my Dad once, he listened through to both sides with me, I must have been 16, and when it got to the end he said, "When he can hold it together, he's pretty good isn't he?". Yes, he is, I thought to myself.