I feel conflicted when it comes to Syd Barrett The Madcap Laughs. Part of me thrills in horrid fascination at the tentative, unfiltered, unexpurgated sound of a highly creative man slowly losing his grip on his mind and charting it in his songs. But the better part of me knows that this is just another example of rock and roll fandom’s ghoulish obsession with madness, death and decay; our modern-day equivalent of the high Victorian pastime of paying to tour the festering lunatic asylum and every bit as reprehensible, perhaps.
Syd Barrett’s story has an irresistible tint of mystery about it, the fact that such a fabulously different looking, different thinking young man became such a casualty, for whatever reason, from a band that climbed so high in the firmament is one thing. The fact that he then lived out his final 28 years reclusively and resolutely out of the limelight, is what really distinguishes his story from the likes of Peter Green. How much was mental illness, how much the drugs were to blame, how much was a creative butterfly’s inherent fragility we will never know and ultimately, it matters not at all. Whatever the nature of the particular sun that melted his wing wax, Icarus still drowned; we are left with the records trying to glimpse the truth by peering through the centre holes.
I can salve my under-developed conscience in the fact that this is the product of a musician recording and practicing his art, aided and abetted by his friends. What I’m waffling about here is that this is no field recording from a bedlam, this LP was created as a work of art, whether as a therapeutic and/or cathartic act, or not. Barrett’s peculiar Lewis Carroll via Kenneth Grahame penny rhyming always seemed to be something of a teetering high wire act in better times, with the exception of a couple of jarring moments this collection of songs could simply be an under-developed continuation of that. You dig?
I have a bit of a troubled relationship with Syd Barrett, I have no patience at all for some of his whimsy and doggerel that clog the arteries of early Floyd, that some folk mysteriously champion but when his unique visions could be channeled through the prism of the band in full flight, the results were unparalleled – I’ll fight anyone who refuses to groove to the brilliance of ‘Astronomy Domine’, ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, ‘Arnold Layne’ or the poptastic ‘See Emily Play’. I picked up The Madcap Laughs in 1997 because of its place in history and because the cover is brilliant*.
I have heard this LP a good few times but for some reason I really don’t think I have ever listened to it properly until this week. I was very prepared to sneer sadly at it** but The Madcap Laughs is a much stronger work than I ever remembered it being. Given that despite the best efforts of assorted Soft Machine-ers^, Gilmour, Waters, Malcolm Jones and Peter Jenner, this is to all intents and purposes an LP of demos, there is some great stuff here. It has to be said there are also places where it meanders off into the realms of the tonally unwell.
I don’t have much time for the opener, ‘Terrapin’, you can hear the accompanying players following Barrett as he played, trying to second guess him and almost audibly trying to box him in with structure. I find it difficult not to shout ‘Just play it properly!‘ at my speakers during this one, whatever charms it may possess are lost on me. ‘No Good Trying’ is better, various Soft Machinists make period-appropriate psychedelic noises behind Syd’s tune, which has a sound that a whole bunch of ill-disciplined indie bands stole in the 90’s. You can stick the rinky-tinky-tink jaunty ‘Love You’ where the sun don’t shine though.
The Madcap Laughs starts to really get interesting on ‘No Man’s Land’, which just bristles with a lot more intent and feeling. There’s a certain heaviness in the air here, musically and mentally, ‘We under all, we awful, awful, crawl’. Which leads us neatly to the coal-black diamond at the heart of the album, ‘Dark Globe’, a track oft fetishized by Syd obsessives. If it isn’t the sound of someone fearfully circling the vortex of their own collapse, it’s a damn good simulacrum. You know those bits of Floyd where Roger Waters utters a despairing, slightly lightly ‘mad’ cry? well this is the real thing^^. It really is quite something.
Putting ‘Here I Go’ next in the running order is a triumph of sequencing, it’s a jaunty shuffle, borderline Kinks-y about meeting a girl who doesn’t like to rock and roll, attempting to woo her with a song, missing her and ending up with her sister instead. It’s a real mischievous charmer, as it says itself, ‘kinda catchy’.
Side 2 starts with probably the most fully realised song on The Madcap Laughs^*, ‘Octopus’ which peddles a grimier psychedelia than Floyd were at the time and is the least fragile sounding 3 minutes of the album. ‘Golden Hair’ is a gorgeous setting for a fragment of James Joyce’s poetry, echoing ‘Set The Controls For The Heart of The Sun’. After that it’s a bit of a case of diminishing returns, I’m afraid. I can enjoy the terribly-terribly English off-kilter blues of ‘Long Gone’, but after that it is only the guitar on LP closer ‘Late Night’ that holds any interest for me.
The Madcap Laughs is a far stronger, far better realized set than I remembered. As a result it is a far less voyeuristic experience than I remember it being and a much more enjoyable listen too. Icarus may have been hurtling towards the water but at least he was able to fall with some grace.
PS: I managed to write all that and not mention my parents seeing Pink Floyd twice when Barrett was in them. Blooming parents, they’re so infra dig.
*I am a very deep person, all it takes to win my hard-earned cash are floorboards painted orange and purple, plus a nude chick on a bar stool.
**it’s a technique I have only recently mastered.
^including one of my favourite people on earth, Robert Wyatt.
^^I’m thinking of the likes of ‘Mother’ – the similarity between their voices is uncanny there. ‘Dark Globe’ was produced by Gilmour and Waters, of course.
^*the LP got its’ name from David Gilmour mishearing the lyric ‘the mad cat laughed’.