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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Syd Barrett: The Madcap Laughs


1) Terrapin; 2) No Good Trying; 3) Love You; 4) No Man's Land; 5) Dark Globe; 6) Here I Go; 7) Octopus; 8) Golden Hair; 9) Long Gone; 10) She Took A Long Cold Look; 11) Feel; 12) If It's In You; 13) Late Night.

General verdict: The big winner of the Musical Paralympic Contest of 1970, and its record is still waiting to be beat.

Considering the state of Syd Barrett in late '67, it is nothing short of an absolute miracle that he eventually managed to recover enough to get back to a recording studio — with a lot of help from his friends, of course, but still sufficiently conscious to work on new material. That Peter Jenner and Andrew King, Floyd's original managers, chose to cast their lot with Syd is understandable: he'd been the primary songwriter and visionary, and I doubt that listening to Roger Waters' early compositions such as ʽTake Up Thy Stethoscope And Walkʼ could have inspired a lot of con­fidence in his future songwriting career anyway. But that they actually managed to get Syd on his feet and squeeze out those last drops of artistic brilliance from him... well, I am in no position to judge if this conduct was sadistic or salvational, but I am amazed that this record even exists.

Granted, it is still a mess, but would we expect anything else from a man whose only live solo public performance consisted of four songs with a non-working microphone, after which he just stood up and left? With different producers and different scraps of working bands coming and going in the studio, with various sessions stretched over more than a whole year, with songs where you can almost feel how damn painful it must have been to work them up to the level of an actual song, The Madcap Laughs is more like The Madcap Does The Strain, and, frankly speaking, Syd's pose on the album cover also suggests the latter. Yet it is in many ways a fasci­nating strain, and I dare say that, while initial impressions of the record might not amount to much, it is one of those records that has a good chance of growing upon you as you go through life, and especially if, at any period in your life, you find yourself in an existential crisis. (Okay, breakups may count as existential crisis, too, but only if your other looks like Roger Waters).

To begin with, The Madcap Laughs is actually two mini-albums wrapped in a single package. Five of the tracks were laid down in April 1969 and produced by Malcolm Jones, with members of The Soft Machine helping Syd to achieve a fuller sound. Most of the others were recorded in the summer of the same year, with Gilmour and Waters now taking matters in their own hands and assisting Syd in producing and playing — said «assistance» much too often implying a rather spontaneous and free-form approach to things, meaning that the sound is comparably quite lo-fi, and the songs are much closer to ramblings than to songs. At the time, some people (including Jones) abhorred this treatment and even hinted that Syd's former bandmates were intentionally sabotaging his solo career; today, I guess we look back fondly at this kind of sound, because... well, where would Neutral Milk Hotel and other indie troubadours be without this acid pool of sloppy, incoherent inspiration?

In any case, much of what is here is acutely and strangely beautiful. Nothing sounds much like the material from Piper, because at the time of Piper Syd was still focused, and his songwriting still largely consisted of creative vignettes in which he painted either the terrifying vastness of space or the little comical figures from children's books. Here, almost everything comes from deep within — introspective, depressing, disturbing streaks of self-consciousness, as if the man set about to probe himself to death. It is pure coincidence that the album was eventually released in 1970, the year when confessional singer-songwriterism really took off, but in a way, it is the most devastating of all these records, being just as brutally honest and coming from the perspec­tive of a man who had pretty much buried himself alive — or, as he eloquently and understan­dingly puts it himself, "tattooed my brain all the way". (Its only contemporary competition comes from that other infamous lunatic across the ocean, Skip Spence, but that's what the difference between American and British perspectives is for).

Technically, most of the songs should be qualified as love ballads, which is somewhat curious in itself because there were no love songs whatsoever on Piper. Barrett did break up with one of his many girlfriends in 1968 and was allegedly going through rough times with another one in 1969, but something tells me that things would not be that much different had he been living alone all that time — the «you» that he sees the need to constantly address is merely a pretext to escape the maddening feel of loneliness.

The "I really love you, and I mean you" that opens the album is hardly directed at anyone in particular; in fact, it is quickly followed with a "I wouldn't see you, and I'd love to", implying that the second part is imaginary. Moreover, the entire atmosphere of ʽTerrapinʼ clearly paints the image of a long gone lunatic, sitting out there with non-blinking eyes, scraping together a few shards that are left from a formerly rich pool of emotions — the lyrics are half-sung, half-spoken in a way that could be equally well decoded as «loving and tender» or as «completely drained and devoid of any detectable emotion», depending on how actual feelings mix with traces of Syd's old-school haughty Britishness. The most amazing thing about it, though, is that the three lines of the verse form a perfectly shaped pop melody, every bit as well-written as anything on Piper. It is only when we get to the bridge that the man begins to ramble — "floating, bumping, noses dodge a tooth..." — and unlike the verse, the bridge never gets a proper resolution, just sort of leaving you hung up in mid-air. But then it is back to the verses again, and ultimately the track proudly shuffles along to a satisfactory conclusion. It is perfectly symbolic of Syd's overall state at the time, lapsing into a comatose condition only to re-emerge refreshed and ready for action, only to drop quasi-dead without notice at any unpredictable moment.

Not all the album is completely dominated by Syd's acoustic guitar: ʽNo Good Tryingʼ and ʽNo Man's Landʼ are fuzzy, distorted pieces of psychedelic blueswailing, particularly the former, where Soft Machine members are helping the man out to create the impression of hot, melted brains gradually evaporating into the atmosphere (special prize goes to Mike Ratledge's velvety organ tone). ʽNo Man's Landʼ, in comparison, is an idea in search of a proper song body, a search that is abandoned midway through but still leaves a weird aftertaste, like, here is a man who wanted to make a sinister statement, but ended up lost and confused, so was that even a threat, and should we be afraid or what? In any case, electric instrumentation does not hinder the flow of the album; it just adds to its overall messiness, and makes it easier to sit through, because if you are going to make something as sloppy as this, at least do your best to alternate acoustic sloppi­ness with electric one.

Arguably the most Piper-ish tune of the lot is ʽOctopusʼ — it has a name that would very much fit in with Piper's Siamese cats and scarecrows, it has psychedelic rather than befuddled love lyrics, and a cheery psycho-folk melody where, for once, Barrett manages to sing in an uplifted, though still stark raving mad, manner. (Unsurprisingly, it was one of the earliest songs written for the album, originally titled ʽClowns And Jugglersʼ; also unsurprisingly, it was chosen as the album's only single, though it never had any chances of charting). It is so cheery, in fact, that it stands at odds with most of the other material, usually melancholic or gloomy; the stimulating chorus of "please leave us here, close our eyes to the octopus ride!" is oddly reminiscent of "I'd like to be under the sea, in an octopus' garden" (why is it that octopi were so commonly associa­ted with magic and escapism back in the late Sixties?), but it is also as close as Syd personally got to his own ʽMagical Mystery Tourʼ, with the main difference being that he was not nearly as sympathetic to the idea of taking others with him.

As for the Waters/Gilmour-produced tracks (ʽOctopusʼ is one of them, by the way), I do not feel so bad about them. They are raw, and Syd often sounds on these tracks as if he were in one room and the microphone were in the other one, but I do not think this was an intentional (let alone evil) oversight on the part of the Floydsters — rather, on the other hand, it was an attempt to preserve Syd's legacy just the way it was created, to convey the atmosphere of self-loss and confusion; in short, a case of genuine application of lo-fi values where they actually mattered, as compared to future generations of self-important indie clowns who wouldn't know real suffering if it bit them in the ass. ʽDark Globeʼ (which may have served as a blueprint for a good half of Jeff Mangum's entire career) alone is utterly devastating, a cry for help and forgiveness ("won't you miss me? wouldn't you miss me at all?") that, unfortunately, could not be heard, or even if it could be heard, it was already too late. On the other hand, ʽGolden Hairʼ (based on a Joyce poem) and ʽLong Goneʼ are slow, murky, somber, almost creepy ballads (ʽLong Goneʼ, with its deep bass and Syd's gravelley singing, sounds like an early prototype of a Nick Cave murder ballad). And while I used to hate the flubby, tuneless, rambling attempts to sing on ʽIf It's In Youʼ — and in a way I still do, because my ears are too sensitive to positively react to Syd going for inebriated melisma on the "yes I'm thinking" bit — the song has a certain desperate, defiant charm to it (again, very much presaging Jeff Mangum's «drunken minstrel» acoustic challenges on Aeroplane).

That Syd was not completely spent as a musician, either, is especially evident on the last track: the basis of ʽLate Nightʼ was laid down in 1968, but in April '69 he was still capable of embel­lishing the song with several overdubbings of his slide guitar playing, creating a gorgeous «weeping wall» behind the main melody that works as a near-perfect conclusion for the album. But this, too, is just one of those momentary flashes of brilliance that come and go, because on the whole the album does not even begin to approach the imaginative depths of Syd's playing when he was still in secure control of his own mind.

Overall, as I am relistening to the thing now, almost half a century since its release and about twenty years since I first heard it myself, I am amazed at how tremendously modern it is — and how it puts to shame so many acclaimed indie singer-songwriters of the last two-three decades. Well, perhaps «puts to shame» is a bit strong: Barrett has the combined advantage of being a talented songwriter, a psychologically and physiologically broken down human being, and a trailblazer in an age when the world was still undecided about how to react to such manners of self-expression. In 2017, an album of such quality would probably be greeted with thunderous acclaim by the musical community (just look at the adulatory reception received by something like Mount Eerie's A Crow Looked At Me, whose creator is lucky to have a tenth part of Syd Barrett's talent); in 1970, some critics gave it nice, but confused reviews and that was that. But it might just turn out that the madcap has got the last laugh, after all.


  1. I hated when I first heard it and still hold to that today; to me its the most passive aggressive album of a man under immense pressure to perform who is to polite to say no. I bet he thought hopefully if I give them the absolute bare minimum of nonsense and rubbish they will eventually go away which eventually they did (after an even worse album,

    1. Mmm, that's a hot take.

    2. Well, if the recording sessions are to be believed, Barrett seemed to put some effort into some of the tracks when Malcolm Jones was in the producer's seat. On an interesting note, in one of his last interviews, Barrett mentioned that he wasn't totally satisfied with the material in his solo albums.

    3. from either biographies or documentary' i vaguely remember the producer saying that whenever he heard Barrett doing something interesting and he asked about it, Barrett would basically stop doing anything. I'll have check into that again to confirm.

    4. I read that this was the case during his final recording sessions in 1974 (and during his retirement, where he'd just play simple folk tunes by himself whenever he felt like it, as opposed to the demand of others).

  2. are we assessing the quality of the music in itself, or all the surroundings here? Were this album not released by Syd Barrett (orif we just wouldn't know and would think it was from a sane average Joe), but have the same music, I think the above review would be much more negative. Which means the music may not be all that great...

    1. You are missing the point. Were this album not released by Syd Barrett, it would never have the same music. Besides, music is not reducible to sheetnotes, and cannot be separated from the personality (provided, of course, that there IS a personality behind the music, and in this particular case that is not a question).

  3. This review was fine, but the constant indie bashing got REALLY annoying fast. Like okay George, we get it. You don't like modern music. Whoopty doo. Why do you have to constantly bring it up up nearly every paragraph? Once is fine, but you just keep doing it over and over. IT doesn't add anything to the actual review, and makes you just come off as kind of a douchebag. Like, I'm not even like a huge fan of indie singer-songwriter music but like, if I wanna read a review of Madcaps Laughs, I would much rather read a review of the strengths of the album without constantly being reminded how much Neutral Milk Hotel and Mount Eerie suck in comparison.

    I am unsure if you will take this criticism into account, and I'm sure you might feel a lot of bitterness towards those artists, but like if you really want to let that out then just review their music on their own page. When you passive aggressively put them down on a a completely separate review it makes it more needlessly passive aggressive and unpleasant, which in turns makes it harder to read. And I'm not saying this as a fanboy of those either of the mentioned groups, I'm just saying it as an appreciator and reader of your blog. I hope you understand. Thank you.

    1. For the record, I must state that nowhere in this review has it been indicated how much Neutral Milk Hotel "sucks" in comparison. Mount Eerie certainly sucks in comparison, but then Mount Eerie would probably suck in comparison with just about anything.

      As for the larger point, I will compare anything to anything as long as it makes sense to me, thank you very much. My perspective, in case you haven't noticed, is almost always comparative and has been exactly that for twenty years. I am reviewing past albums from the point of view of how they stack up to the future, and modern albums from the point of view of what they offer to add to past experience. I see absolutely no point in reviewing otherwise, because no art piece exists in a vacuum, and no art piece has an objective, self-sufficient value that is completely independent out of context. Of course, this is a subjective take on the subject, nurtured by my own and nobody else's experience. But in this particular case, I insist that it makes a LOT of sense to draw such comparisons - regardless of whether one attaches a qualitative judgement to them or not.

      If you love Mount Eerie, that is fine by me. If you value my writing, but feel irritated by the disagreements in our tastes, use this as a stimulating incentive to think about the possible reasons for such disagreements, instead of getting pissed off for petty reasons. If you do not value the writing, well, what are you doing here then?

    2. He mentioned Neutral Milk Hotel twice. Both times just to say that this album was an inspiration. You're inventing something to be offended by.

    3. I haven't seen a Franco this triggered since the Spanish Civil War.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. Hello George, I'd like to apologize for the pissy comment I made last night. I dont really have an excuse but I was fairly exhausted and i think i just didnt really have the best frame of judgement. I actually have thought about why I posted this, and to me I feel it was just overexagerration of what you seemed to imply rather than what you actually said. Although I am not an expert in modern music I do get annoyed with the mindset of "in this Era music was shit while in this Era music was good", and while I know you in particular have ambivalent views of the modern state of music at the time I thought that tone was harsher within this review of the classic album then in others, and I sort of went by instinct. However looking back while there are aspects that I can understand bothering I do think I overreacted quite a bit, and honestly I am still not entirely sure why, but I'm probably thinking my exhaustion that night probably may have played a rol. Anyways thank you, and I hope you have a nice day.

  4. Here, here to comparison! Just what the hell would analysis be without it? That said...

    Comparing Syd's Octopus with Octopus' Garden just because they both feature the word 'octopus' seems a stretch. Even more of a stretch is characterizing the former song as "uplifted" and "cheery". That's like calling Songs of Innocence and Experience upbeat (okay, so the lamb was cute).

    Thank goodness for you not having a drug-addled brain, George, but the one minor drawback is that you are sometimes at a disadvantage when contemplating the wild depths of psychedelic (chemically insane) meanings. Unfortunately, I've been addled just enough in my day to know that Syd's Octopus is a whole different beast from Ringo's quaint & idyllic symbol of refuge from his squabbling buddies. Something tells me that Syd's psychedelic metaphor was probably rooted in the industrial carnival ride that became popular in the early 60's, called The Octopus Ride: a greasy, weirdly mesmerizing, hydraulic monster. "Trip to heave and ho, up down, to and fro. You have no word". And this is only how it gets started...

    There's an age when a child might see such a ride as whacky, wondrous fun, but this song's phantasmagorical lyrics point more toward a sickening sense of loss of innocence. "Cracked by scattered needles" ... "The drones they throng on mossy seats. The creaking door will always creep". Etc.. As darkly psychedelic as Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit is, it can't measure up (or perhaps down) to Syd's figurative Octopus, unless you extend the rabbit hole metaphor into Matrix territory. And who wants to go there? The common theme may be that ignorance is bliss, but there is, deep down, nothing cheery or uplifting about being forced to realize that fact.

    For me, the hollering chorus, "Please leave us here! Close our eyes to the Octopus Ride!" is spine-chilling -- a frantic tone that stands apart from the clanking rhythm of the verses -- like a desperate cry to undue menacing revelations of a bad trip, or escape some other psychotic reality that contains more than a few grains of terrifying truth. To "merrily trip" may be bliss, but the monstrous fucking ride is what Octopus is really about.

    I honestly envy anyone who can find this masterpiece of psychedelic art uplifting in any way. Whenever I hear it (speaking of comparisons), I think of the image of that tripping lunatic standing offstage from Mick Jagger in Gimme Shelter. Something tells me that poor sod was whirling away upon the monster cephalopod that Syd so desperately wanted off of. Ignorance is indeed bliss.

    So let us rejoice?

  5. Beautiful album! Even the simplest songs on this record trip me out more than any recent "neo-psych" song. Syd was psychedelia incarnate.

  6. Great retrospective review! This part especially:

    "Overall, as I am relistening to the thing now, almost half a century since its release and about twenty years since I first heard it myself, I am amazed at how tremendously modern it is — and how it puts to shame so many acclaimed indie singer-songwriters of the last two-three decades. Well, perhaps «puts to shame» is a bit strong: Barrett has the combined advantage of being a talented songwriter, a psychologically and physiologically broken down human being, and a trailblazer in an age when the world was still undecided about how to react to such manners of self-expression. In 2017, an album of such quality would probably be greeted with thunderous acclaim by the musical community (just look at the adulatory reception received by something like Mount Eerie's A Crow Looked At Me, whose creator is lucky to have a tenth part of Syd Barrett's talent); in 1970, some critics gave it nice, but confused reviews and that was that. But it might just turn out that the madcap has got the last laugh, after all."

    Syd Barrett has seen a resurgence in popularity among alt teenagers and 20 somethings, similar to Joy Division or The Smiths (but not at the same magnitude). This album really does sound forward-thinking and translates well to the 2010s, it has an appeal to modern music listeners. The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and other 70s acts don't have the same lasting appeal, perhaps because they were so popular in their own time period that people always associate them with the 60s/70s, whereas Madcap Laughs feels a bit disconnected from whatever was popular at the time.