Syd Barrett proved himself as a master of psychedelia with his startling solo debut, which backlashed his removal as the frontman of Pink Floyd.
The Madcap Laughs is a 46-year-old obituary to the overt creativity of the 1960s. The album is middle-aged and yet continues to zephyr an air of vitality in the way it holds itself as a testament to all young minds, flooded by uncontrollable external forces. Barrett was suffering from psychological as well as drug related problems when he was booted from his band, Pink Floyd, which had an extremely adverse effect on his future career prospects. Without the push of some of his fans, like producer Peter Jenner, and his ‘friends’, Roger Waters and David Gilmour, The Madcap Laughs would not be available for our listening pleasure today.
‘Terrapin’ immediately introduces us to Syd’s translucent thought bubbles. We are transported to a subaquatic scene, as if we are floating aimlessly alongside the turtle that is the Terrapin. The subdued guitars complement the crystalline vocal, and present how Syd was at his best when it was just him and his guitar, drowning in a trip of luminous fins and fishes. We are then catapulted into a different sort of Syd; ‘No Good Trying’ blasts overdubs of strident guitar licks and sporadic drum beats to carry Barrett’s ostensible sneer. Syd seems to be accusing someone of the crime of masquerade – the remarks about rocking towards the “red and yellow mane of a stallion horse” suggest that that Syd is warning his previous band. Perhaps they didn’t know enough about the musical path they were treading, because it revolved around the psyche of a trip: one that Syd was much more familiar with.
The following track, ‘Love You’ reinforces Barrett’s playfulness. It’s hard not to fall in love with this whimsical, jolly song. The jangling of the cheesy keys paints a picture of a sequin clad Syd skipping down Carnaby Street on a sunny day, with the musical notes flitting above his head. But again, Barrett startles us with a change in direction. Ahead of its time, ‘No Man’s Land’ is a surge of screeching guitars and atonal vocals that can only be described as paving the way for punk, around 6 or 7 years before its emergence. The guitars grind out, and the ferocious mood is acted out further in the next number, ‘Dark Globe’. At first an unnerving, acidic attack on the Floyd, the urgent attempt of Syd’s guitar to keep up with his pleading vocals act as an expose of his lost soul crying out for attention from his would-be band. He begs, “please lift a hand / I’m only a person” and the rest of the song touches us with his fragile, nonsensical notions of lost hopes and dreams.
Almost as quickly as he switched from lighthearted to languish, Syd brings us back up with ‘Here I Go’. Although the song that sparks off many a romance with Syd Barrett, it is not entirely a love song. In fact, one could view it as another outburst at his removal from Pink Floyd. However, the song serves as an excellent listen without delving deeply into the lyrics. The simplicity of strums and deadpan vocals combine together to make this frolic the album’s best work. ‘Octopus’ carries on the mood of merriment. We could strip down and examine the erratic guitars and bizarre ramblings, but it would just reduce the beatnik novelty of the song. A girlfriend of Syd’s once said that he would ask her for three different letters; from them he would pick his favourite words beginning with the letters. Throwing the words into the air like a maniacal juggler, he would have a song in the making. For that anecdote, and that anecdote only, we should simply sit back and enjoy the “octopus ride”…
Syd projects himself as the godfather of ambience in ‘Golden Hair’. The lyrics were taken from a 1907 poem by James Joyce who said that his work was intended to be “set to music”. A haunting timbre is generated through Syd’s emanating vocals; a supernatural entity of some sort is spectred whenever this song is played. Syd’s innovative mix of [then] new-age psychedelic surge and sampled literature create a sublime song that has since been covered from Hope Sandoval to Slowdive.
The Madcap Laughs is living proof that Syd Barrett was a frontman who could not and would not be defined by a band. The fact that Barrett is still remembered shows that he was not shadowed by the jaded roots of his previous projects with Pink Floyd. May you forever ‘shine on you crazy diamond’.
Words by Alicia Carpenter