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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Syd Barrett Opel - A Retrospective







Syd Barrett Opel, the collection "Opel" was released in the late 1980s and consists mostly of outtakes from Barrett's two solo albums as well as a few alternate takes. Most of the tracks had not even seen the light of day for years before their release, and the fact that Syd had this many songs left is really quite surprising considering that he only recorded two albums during his solo career. Clowns and Jugglers is better and more imaginative than the version called Octopus on Madcap (good as that is), and it and the sparkling instrumental Lanky look towards the 1980s.

Fans of Syd Barrett will justly celebrate this collection of outtakes and previously unreleased recordings, culled from the last few years of Barrett's brief creative career. Known for his unusual songwriting in Pink Floyd, this collection finds Barrett less self-consciously trying to wrestle a psychedelic vision, and just letting his inner world flow out. Syd's playing is often clumsy, but never insincere in these uncompromising yet good-humored numbers.The sound quality is excellent and pared-down, often merely Syd and his guitar feeling his way through the new material (though there are some fascinating experiments like the murky basses on "Swan Lee" and the vibraphone instrumental version of "Golden Hair.") It gives me chills to hear his quiet, accented voice gently intoning a series of random words on "Word Song" - some of them ("glaucous") quite nonsensical. There is a childlike purity to this work that defies proper description. For those who prefer stream of consciousness, visionary work to radio pandering, you will not want to miss this. Fans of Barrett's other solo work will enjoy the intimacy of this inclusion to the canon.

Therefore, "Opel" is not a compilation of previously released material but more like a different snapshot or take on Syd, just like his two solo albums. By understand this it helps to realize how Syd worked and what his approach was. Most musicians go into the studio and lay down a carefully written piece of music knowing what they want it to sound like and working toward that final product. Syd went in and depending on the day of the week would lay down a dozen versions of the same song, no doubt leaving David Gilmour, Roger Waters, and his other producers scratching their heads a bit. Rather than working toward a preconceived final product they would pretty much pick the best take and go from there with overdubs by others. Or they would try to get Syd to follow previous trackings of the song which usually didn't work too well.

Here is how Gilmour described the process of producing his friend: "The potential of some of those songs... they could have really been fantastic. But trying to find a technique of working with Syd was so difficult. You had to pre-record tracks without him, working from one version of the song he had done, and then sit Syd down afterwards and try to get him to play and sing along. Or you could get him to do a performance of it on his own and then try to dub everything else on top. The concept of him performing with another bunch of musicians was clearly impossible because he'd change the song every time. He'd never do a song the same twice, I think quite deliberately."

Listening to "Opel" its ringing starkness reverberates his eminent end, but leaves one triumphant at the conclusion. Songs like "Birdie Hop" drip that playful loathing in common with other songs on Opel. "Milky Way" is simply a great song relying on that shuffle beat that exemplifies Syd's best work- glorious! And one more, "Swan Lee" sounds strong alone, but I always imagine what could have been, given collaboration by Syd's Pink Floyd. Another Gem of a song. Opel is a collection of Syd's work at the end of his musical career. It is gritty, rough and downright unpolished. But under the mistakes, flaws and noise you can hear the brilliance that you can't find anywhere else; a true ability to create songs of a magnitude unattainable by anyone else.

Yes, Barrett had his problems with the drugs, the fame, the mad pressure, but I say he's at a similar approaching-superhuman level to a Jack Kerouac, a Nick Drake, a Bob Marley, a Miles Davis, an Roky Erickson: you must forgive such figures their foibles, focus on their achievements, hear THROUGH their shamanic slurs & hallucinatory goneness to the artist's communicating heart. This from a listener who cannot bear any Pink Floyd unless it's the Syd cuts; i.e. their greatest album = THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN! & the Syd singles: Heaven! You wouldn't want OPEL to be the only Barrett album in your collection, but it is an important gem (a veritable Opal!) containing cuts of both breathtaking beauty ("Golden Hair") & savage strangeness ("Rats")...

"Swan Lee" is another one of Syd's "storytelling" songs (see "Here I Go" form "The Madcap Laughs"), and is very interesting because Syd relates the story of the title character, who is a Native American warrior. Among all of the references to "wigwams" and "canoes," it is interesting to point out that some of the guitar work here is very reminiscent of the Ventures with its echo-laden surf-rock twang. A curious listen indeed. Syd makes a complete left-turn on the instrumental piece "Lanky (Part 1)." Rather than use an acoustic guitar and a simple strum like he tends to do sometimes, here he picks up his electric again and actually attempts to play it in a lead guitar jam fashion not heard since the Pink Floyd days. In fact, "Lanky" is highly reminiscent of two of the Floyd's best Barrett-era jams: "Stoned Alone" (aka "Reaction in G") and the now classic "Interstellar Overdrive" from the "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" album. The closing track, an instrumental take on "Golden Hair" is a bit inessential but a fascinating listen nonetheless.

There are some real gems that make owning this collection worth it. "Golden Hair," although not too different from the version used on "Madcap" (save for the lack of keyboard and cymbal embellishments) still sounds great. The demo version of "Wined and Dined" here features Syd unaccompanied, and works really well. "Wouldn't You Miss Me" (aka "Dark Globe") is by far the best version of this song ever, and outdoes the "Madcap" version by a long shot; this track alone is well worth getting this album for. Outside of the alternate versions that I just mentioned, two previously unreleased tracks stand out here as being two of the best that Syd ever did: "Dolly Rocker" and "Milky Way." "Dolly Rocker" in particular is an absolutely beautiful song, one that's definitely worth singing to your girlfriend (she'll instantly love it). When Syd stops to turn the page, and then goes into the "Oceans may travel" section, it beautifully affecting, and truly makes me want to cry, it's just that beautiful. A must listen. "Milky Way" is one of Syd's best kept secrets; unlike some of the material here, this is Syd at his absolute best! Great chord progression, great rhythmic guitar playing from Barrett, and above all, a joy to listen to. One of Syd's best songs, hands down.

This collection of out-takes and alts is close to being as good as Madcap Laughs. It has several of Syd Barrett's best recordings and is essential for fans. Only a brilliant natural (a Syd Barrett) could prop him self up in front of a mike with an unaffected guitar & create a visionary gem of such transcendent breadth & depth as the cut "Opel" & the following cut "Octopus". Frankly, if you don't own and appreciate Syd Barrett Opel, you have a serious hole in your collection.

Personnel:
Syd Barrett - Guitar, Vocals, Producer
Gareth Cousins
David Gilmour - Producer
Peter Jenner - Producer
Malcolm Jones - Producer
Roger Waters - Producer

Guest musicians on "Clowns and Jugglers":
Mike Ratledge - Organ
Robert Wyatt - Drums
Hugh Hopper - Bass

Track listing:

All songs by Syd Barrett, except where noted.

1. "Opel" – 6:26
Take 9, Recorded 11 April 1969
Produced by Malcolm Jones

2. "Clowns and Jugglers" – 3:27
Take 2, Recorded 20 July 1968
Produced by Peter Jenner
From The Madcap Laughs song no. 7

3. "Rats" – 3:12
Demo, Recorded 5 June 1970
Produced by David Gilmour
From Barrett song no. 5

4. "Golden Hair " – 1:44 (Barrett/Joyce)
Take 6, Recorded 12 June 1969
Produced by Syd Barrett and David Gilmour
From The Madcap Laughs song no. 8

5. "Dolly Rocker" – 3:01
Take 1, Recorded 14 July 1970
Produced by David Gilmour

6. "Word Song" – 3:19
Take 1, Recorded 17 July 1970
Produced by David Gilmour

7. "Wined and Dined" – 3:03
Demo, Recorded 5 June 1970
Produced by David Gilmour
From Barrett song no. 10

8. "Swan Lee (Silas Lang)" – 3:13
Take 5, Recorded 28 May 1968, overdubs added 8 June 1968
Produced by Peter Jenner
Further overdubs added 25 April 1969
Produced by Malcolm Jones

9. "Birdie Hop" – 2:30
Demo, Recorded 5 June 1970
Produced by David Gilmour

10. "Let's Split" – 2:23
Take 1, Recorded 14 July 1970
Produced by David Gilmour

11. "Lanky (Part One)" – 5:32
Take 1, Recorded 14 May 1968
Produced by Peter Jenner

12. "Wouldn't You Miss Me (Dark Globe)" – 3:00
Take 1, Recorded 26 July 1969
Produced by David Gilmour and Roger Waters
From The Madcap Laughs song no. 5

13. "Milky Way" – 3:07
Take 5, Recorded 7 June 1970
Produced by David Gilmour

14. "Golden Hair" – 1:56 (Barrett/Joyce)
Take 1, Recorded 14 May 1968
Produced by Peter Jenner
From The Madcap Laughs song no. 8

In 1993, Opel was re-issued with several bonus tracks of further alternate takes:

15. "Golden Hair" – 1:56

16. "Gigolo Aunt" (Take 9) – 4:02

17. "It Is Obvious" (Take 3) – 3:44

18. "It Is Obvious" (Take 5) – 3:06

19. "Clowns And Jugglers" (Take 1) – 3:33

20 "Late Night" (Take 2) – 3:19

21. "Effervescing Elephant" (Take 2) – 1:28


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