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Friday, August 24, 2018

Syd Barrett: Opel


1) Opel; 2) Clowns & Jugglers; 3) Rats; 4) Golden Hair (vocal version); 5) Dolly Rocker; 6) Word Song; 7) Wined And Dined; 8) Swan Lee (Silas Lang); 9) Birdie Hop; 10) Let's Split; 11) Lanky (part I); 12) Wouldn't You Miss Me (Dark Globe); 13) Milky Way; 14) Golden Hair (instrumental).

General verdict: A generally unsatisfactory collection of outtakes — unless you have a very special feeling for Syd at his most stripped-down.

I am not sure why it took Harvest eighteen years to release this collection of outtakes from Syd's solo recording sessions — even less sure why they finally agreed to do so in 1988, which was a bit earlier than the «archival craze» that hit the labels in the advanced CD age — but the fact remains that Opel is a problematic, but legitimate final chapter to Syd's career. Altogether, there are eight songs here that had never been officially released before; six alternate raw takes on the previously published originals from The Madcap Laughs and Barrett; and, if you get the 1993 reissue, six more alternate raw takes to satisfy your hunger for bloody Barrett meat.

The actual value of this LP, however, will sorely depend on how much you love Syd Barrett as the blisteringly badly tortured demented soul that he was around 1968–70. Some people love that kind of Syd Barrett more than their own, so disgustingly sane and rational, fathers and mothers; such people are fully in their right to claim that the rawer it is, the better, and therefore these embryonic, even-sloppier-than-usual takes on ʽDark Globeʼ and ʽOctopusʼ (here given in its original title, ʽClowns & Jugglersʼ) are actually preferable to the «overproduced» versions, where Syd's pure, pristine vision was contaminated by the likes of Gilmour, The Soft Machine, Malcolm Jones, Peter Jenner, and whoever else. Or that ʽOpelʼ, whose six minute-long acoustic strum is technically reminiscent of the first bars of Dylan's ʽIt's A Hard Rain A-Gonna Fallʼ, is actually the quintessential confessional Syd Barrett song, a prolonged, intense, straight-in-your-face call for love, help, and sympathy.

From that kind of perspective, it is Opel, not the older records, that constitutes the perfect ideal for the indie singer-songwriter — I would go as far as to say that I hear the echoes of Opel the album (and ʽOpelʼ the song) in every hipster icon from Jeff Mangum (passable) to Conor Oberst (abysmal). Truly and verily, these outtakes are Syd Barrett at his rawest, and I could never bring myself to calling them unlistenable — after all, he isn't that sloppy on his acoustic guitar, and even in that totally wasted state he could generally hold a note once he'd started it, so that all the drawn-out "I'm liiiiiiiving, I'm giiiiiiiving..." wails on ʽOpelʼ reach the mark.

However, that one reason why The Madcap Laughs still holds up after all these years is that, no matter how crazy and wasted the artist was, at that point he was still a songwriter. It is all too easy to forget that Syd Barrett not only had a soul and a vision — he also had talent, and he could think of touching, intriguing, and diverse melodic twists on a regular basis... except when he was too stoned, too sick, too catatonic to concentrate on more than one or two finger movements. And as far as «rawness» is concerned, Syd was never the «loner genius with an acoustic guitar» — he loved loudness, distortion, psychedelic effects, and a general fullness to the sound, meaning that «Syd and his guitar» were very much just a technical inevitability at the stage where Syd himself was no longer capable of adding extra layers to his sound.

Consequently, when it comes to the salvaged outtakes laid out on Opel, I cannot share the opi­nion that they represent «true Syd» and could in any way be considered superior to what we already had available before that. I find ʽOpelʼ (the song) to be an ambitious, but failed, epic, whose six-minute length is not in the least justified by its allegedly mesmerizing capacity. I think that ʽDolly Rockerʼ is a bare skeleton of something that could be a lively and exciting pop rocker in an alternate dimension, but, as it is, is not even saved by such lyrical lines as "she's as pretty as a squirrel's nut". I insist that ʽWord Songʼ is three minutes of gibberish that would be of more interest to a psychiatrist than an average listener.

In fact, I believe that the only track here that even begins to approach an «accomplished» status is the grim blues-rocker ʽSwan Lee (Silas Lang)ʼ — perhaps because, unlike the others, it features a few extra overdubs, including a sly little slide guitar flourish that makes all the difference; or perhaps because there is a little bit of impassioned role-playing going on, as Syd weaves a mock-Indian epic that almost seems to predict the future solo career of Nick Cave (I think the song would have fit in perfectly on any of Nick's early albums). Actually, I stand corrected: another song with multiple players is the instrumental jam ʽLanky (Part 1)ʼ — five and a half minutes of quiet psycho-blues noodling that has no reason to exist in between the legacy of, say, Cream, and, say, Grateful Dead. If this was some sort of attempt to awaken Syd's classic demons — the ones that used to turn the UFO club into a daughter branch of Purgatory — it can only be classified as an unfortunate failure. More likely, it was just a warm-up. At any case, it is at least better than the unreleased ʽLanky (Part 2)ʼ, which is allegedly said to consist of two drum tracks running over seven minutes. (Not that it wouldn't fit on this album, mind you).

In the end, it is probably best to think of Opel as simply an archival add-on for completists, rather than a record that could stand on its own — an accidental collection of outtakes, regardless of how much it might remind us of certain brands of indie songwriting that do this kind of crap intentionally. But, like any such archival add-ons, it is good to have access to it if you are at all interested in the strange and inscrutable ways in which one sick person's affected mind might work. Like everything that Syd has ever done, it is capable of eliciting a mixed admiration-cum-pity reaction from the listener — except this time around, there is clearly much more pity than admiration.


  1. I'm sticking with my early hypothesis that Syd wanted the music industry and by extension, us to eff off. Six minutes of Jing, jinga jing jing in Opel? Christ help us

  2. The title track is okay, though could have used the backing of the Soft Machine to flesh it out. "Milky Way" and "Silas Lang" are good. No "Bob Dylan Blues" or the Wright penned/co-penned (most likely the former) "Two Of A Kind", though. Oh well.

    1. Those two songs are some of Syd's most coherent solo work I believe. Wonder if George has heard 'Bob Dylan Blues'?

  3. One of these I would call clearly superior to the "finished" version: "Rats", which is freed from the well-meaning but jumbled mess of overdubs piled on it for Barrett and takes on a much more unsettlingly foreboding character all its own.