Syd Barrett & Pink Floyd
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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Syd Barrett - Old Shoes

syd barrett
Something written by the Laughing Madcaps' own Jean-Grégoire Royer waaaaay back in 2000!

At least once in a lifetime you wake up and think now is the time: you are going to do something forever. Some get married, others stop smoking, and a very limited number of people actually have a real idea of their own. Among them, some create while others somehow create meaning out of the former’s creation; they try to make sense out of it. It is, of course, much more gratifying, as far as the historical record is concerned, to be part of the first group than of the second.

However, overall, it is also much less risky and tiring to belong to the second. No surgeon ever suffered as much as a mother giving birth did. The same thing applies to the critic. Furthermore, that second group is where the power lies. Creation is always too violent in itself. We need to be protected from it and what keeps us safe is the sense we make of it. Moreover, most of the time, the sense we make does not come directly from us but from the critics. They act like shields.

When I first came into contact with Syd Barrett, I had never heard such a thing before. It was strong, undiluted and dangerous. Moreover, whether because I needed a shield to be protected from that danger or because I was a daredevil and wanted to go further, I started looking for more about Syd Barrett. And as there is not much actually in the way of music, I had to make do with words or pictures.

All I know then is what I have been told, what I have read or seen. There are precious few interviews of Syd Barrett, some articles, one or two biographies, and a chapter at the beginning of each of the numerous books that have been written about the Pink Floyd. There are now quite a number of web sites, some offering copies or excerpts from the former, some boasting exclusive documents (there’s one interview of his nephew!). There have been bootlegs, pictures, T-shirts, badges. At one point you could even buy a box set with his first solo album, plus a beautiful collection of photographs, plus a yellow satin shirt like the one he wore on the rear cover of that very album. They have even gone so far as to release a best of ! Some day, somewhere, there may also be a Pink Floyd anthology, a statue and a museum and a Syd Barrett church or temple, who knows?

For the time being what I have at my disposal is a bunch of songs and some (not all) of the items quoted above. And what do you think I know that I did not know or could not have imagined the first time I listened to him? Well, there is Lindsay Korner. And the Mandrax incident. And the lost year. Stars. The bleeding finger. The cellar incident. And the Chelsea cloisters. The dust and guitars. The 1978 photo of a balding beer-bellied Roger. If you put it all together chronologically, it points out to a most extraordinary story. I mean what is more endearing than a fallen angel ? It is both utterly good and so evil. It is all so human after all.

I can remember a time when I was definitely obsessed with this story. Like any of us, I would sometimes dream about it. There was a mysterious record shop where they had all the unreleased tracks. And I bought everything, spent hours simply watching the sleeves, reading the notes (some pieces were part of the home-made demos!) before I listened to the songs themselves and that was far above anything you would imagine. Or was that, really? When I woke up there would be nothing left of course.

This dream was recurrent. It actually lasted until I went to Cambridge. What happened in fact is that I was in charge of a group of students on a holiday camp in the Fens. And there was this visit to Cambridge : punting, a picnic in a park, the visit of an art museum and about two hours of free time. The latter was all I had been waiting for. It started pretty well : there was a record fair on Marketsquare (imagine that, on Marketsquare !!!). Unfortunately, most of what you could find was legal recordings and, what’s more, mostly hits of the period (late 80’s, Sting, Phil Collins, that sort of thing…). There was only just one stall where they had " 60’s " stuff.

I browsed and browsed and found nothing of real interest. Kind of upset (I was losing precious time) I asked the guy if he had any recording by Syd Barrett (I’m French, it was the first time I had come to England and my English was still rather basic, so I pronounced Syd Beret). He looked at me like I had just arrived from outer space. " Pardon ?", he said. "Syd Beret", I insisted, "former member of Pink Floyd" ! And then the guy turned green, well light green actually, and upped it a bit so that everybody around stopped talking and looked at me : "Syd Barrett", he said, "he’s fallen off his trolley man, leave him alone". And that was it. He then he simply refused to listen to me.

I was as good as dead : cold sweat, blushing so hard as I stumbled my way out of the crowd. Next thing I realized I only had an hour and a half left. I walked past a post office, had second thoughts, made a U-turn and entered the office. Opened a directory. Barrett. There were like 40 people called Barrett in Cambridge. None of them Roger. Then I looked for "Andy’s records". I had heard that Syd was always welcome when he went there. It took me some time to locate it on a map but I finally found it and walked out of the office hurriedly, thinking things like "I’m treading the backward path" or "I’m going far further than you could possibly go". Imagine Syd Barrett walking up and down these very streets, high heeled boots, bell bottoms, an alligator leather coat, cropped hair. Then he enters the shop. Two floors. Lots and lots of records.

But forget it ! There is no Barrett record there. Not even the legal ones. So, I go out of the shop and I realize I have less than an hour left. And then there is this huge bookshop. I get in. There is a board telling you that there is a music and fanzine department on the lower ground floor. I browse again, hoping to come across an issue of Terrapin or Dark Globe or something. But there is nothing. So, I go to the counter and ask my question again, this time paying real attention to my accent. "Syd Barrett ? uh", the guy says, "Oh, I see ! Well, I’m afraid we do not have anything worthy of note here, but go to the hifi department and ask for Mark Richardson, he might have something". Thank you very much indeed, says I, thinking to myself that I have been undergoing some sort of test all the way. This is it now, I have passed the final test, I am going to be handed the pearl !

It so happens that the hifi department is not within the same building. It is another shop altogether, and not very far from Andy’s records, am I told! It is now a matter of minutes before I have to go back to my group of students. I start to run. I see the shop, I come in. Breathless. Mark Richardson please. Wait a minute please, he is not available right now. Then I hear someone flushing the toilet. Here comes my man. I tell him the whole story. The guy’s about Syd Barrett’s age I believe, kind of stiff upper lip. He remains silent for a few second and says, "I have a pamphlet at home. I could send it to you if you like. What is your address? ".

I offered to give him some stamps or some money. He bluntly refused. We shook hands and I raced back to my group and bus and Fens. A few weeks later, back home, I received a huge envelope through the mail. And this is what I found : the Making of the Madcap Laughs, by Malcolm Jones, two newspaper clippings from the early seventies covering the release of "Barrett " (one, headlined: "profile", appears inside the 1974 double album edition), and a badge with an octopus on it. Plus a short handwritten letter. It sort of boiled down to what I had been told at the record stall: “Leave him alone".

I immediately wrote back to Mark Richardson. A long letter. I wanted more. Actually, I wanted to understand why so many people in Cambridge had seemed reluctant to simply talk about Syd Barrett. Was there a sort of secret police in charge of his protection?

Mark Richardson never answered. And I thank him again, not only for sending me this “pamphlet” (back in 1989 you couldn’t find such a thing so easily), but primarily for keeping silent.

Silence does not mean consent. Silence makes good room for music. If you like Syd Barrett, listen to him. You need nothing and no one else. So I played the Madcap Laughs as I read Malcolm Jones’s account of its making. And everything it taught me was already there. Or almost. All this frenzied search for something else from or about Syd Barrett suddenly proved pointless. I should have stayed home and listened more carefully.

Still, something from Jones’s pamphlet caught my attention. He had added a few notes at the end of his text. The Pink Floyd recording sheet and the gig sheet to be precise. It is there that I learned there was quite a lot of unreleased Floyd material “still languishing in the vaults ". It dawned on me while peering at those sheets that no sooner had Piper been released than the Floyd began to rehearse new numbers with Syd, probably with a view to making another album. And this came as a shock. The common idea is that “if he had stayed with the Floyd, they’d have died an ignominious death” (1). You know what that means : Syd was supposedly unable to write new material, he couldn’t or wouldn’t play on stage but stood there staring blankly at the audience, refused to lip-synch Emily on American Bandstand, would spend hours dazed and confused, would sometimes have fits of anger… They had to get rid of him or simply disappear with him. But why talk of death or disappearance when a group is still booking studio time to rehearse and record new songs?

We have all heard some of these songs (One in a million, Scream thy Last Scream, Vegetable Man…). We like them, we cherish them but it is also very difficult, indeed almost impossible “to divorce them from their creator’s personal trauma ", as Brian Hogg put it as a conclusion to the liner notes accompanying the “Crazy Diamond " box set. In other words, these unreleased recordings, as well as those resulting from former and further sessions, have always been associated, consciously or not, with the notion of failure, owing especially and first of all to the Floyd’s repeated refusal to release them. The rumour has it that the last thing Syd’s Floyd rehearsed was a tune entitled " Have you got it yet ?" which Syd kept changing, supposedly so as to make it impossible for the rest of the band to follow him. Then the chorus would go (Syd) “Have you got it yet?” (the others) “No! No! No".

Whatever happened during this last rehearsal we will never know. And it is the critic’s duty to stick to the facts. The critic is not expected to start commenting other people’s comments. The time has come to ignore the rumour and pay closer attention to the bulk of unreleased material recorded by Syd Barrett. From that viewpoint, the initiative of the Laughing-Madcaps is probably the greatest Syd-related thing that has ever happened since he last walked out of a studio. For the first time we will have at our disposal a documented series of recordings covering the whole span of his career. It is most likely that this will come as a shock if only we listen to this music without prejudice.

Chronologically speaking, it all started without a doubt when the Pink Floyd recorded "Lucy Leave" and "King Bee" in 1965. Typical British Beat from that era, you would think, and yet most promising. Musically, the latter is very much akin to the Rolling Stones’ version, cut two years earlier, but also hints at a rather more mature, almost ambient approach to music. The former is an original number, reminiscent of the Pretty Things. It could easily have been featured on Pebbles vol.5, along with recordings by the Fairies for instance. At the same time, what immediately stands out at first hearing are the lyrics: as soon as Syd starts singing you realize something new is taking shape. Things are on the move.

Then we have the "Tonight Let’s all Make Love in London" soundtrack Two long instrumentals that do more than keep the promise of the 1965 recordings. The R&B patterns have given way to something unheard of at the time : free form ambient rock. It has often been underlined that the Floyd were not the first to develop that musical style. Some even said that those two instrumentals are directly influenced by an obscure underground group known as Amm. Amm were actually much closer to the French electronic avant-garde of the late 50’s (Pierre Henry…) than to the Rock scene. The early Pink Floyd sound actually bears more resemblance to mainstream sounds. Mick Farren, singer with the Deviants and Rock critic, once described it as an extended version of a middle section from a song by the Who. But anybody can also trace the origin of that sound back to the 1950’s and the Shadows. Syd’s guitar playing is as pure as Hank Marvin’s, only it is free from any rule.

At the same recording session, the Pink Floyd also cut " Arnold Layne " and "Let’s Roll another one". Both are close in content to the 1965 recordings. It is still a very basic R&B sound or Pop sound but it is as though that sound was living a life of its own, bridging a gap between the present and the future. And, once again, what stands out is the lyrics. Anybody who has tried to play these songs has no doubt realized the importance of the lyrics. If you do not sing along, the music does not seem to make much sense. I remember my guitar teacher’s reaction when I asked him to show me how to play "Astronomy Domine" and the rest of the Floyd’s early material. He would go like " Wow ! That is a riff ", and then "What does that mean ? There is one bar too many!".

It is striking that we never pay real attention to Syd Barrett’s songwriting. Throughout his short career, he remained a lyricist rather than a musician. It is true that his lyrics are for the greatest part so abstruse, as it were, that you will inevitably tend to take no heed of them, indeed sometimes ignore them. But from the creative viewpoint, they are the moving force behind his work. It is blatant with any song from the Piper. Even on Waters’ "Stethoscope ", his playing is modeled on the main melodic line and develops as a variation to it.

The Floyd spent the first half of 1967 recording that album and their second single. For some of their early fans, among which you could count Pete Townsend, the result was a definite anticlimax. Most of what had made them famous on the underground circuit now boiled down to very short instrumental sections ornamenting powerful pop songs. It stood as the clear evidence of a move on their part towards novelty. One of the last songs they recorded during the Piper sessions is "One in a million" a.k.a. "She was a millionaire" (18.4.67). It has supposedly been erased, but a live version from September 1967 (Star Club, Copenhagen) clearly indicates that at the very moment they were completing their first album, they were already making another move towards a new sound. Change returns success.

During the summer of 1967 their music got slower and heavier, still merging R&B patterns and free form improvisations, but somehow turning them into something akin to what would then become the trademark of the New Yardbirds (listen to their early versions of "Dazed and Confused") and then Led Zeppelin. Other examples of such a move can be found on "Stoned Again" or "Reaction in G".

The question is, was this move a reaction indeed, or the first sign of Syd Barrett’s incapacity to cope with stardom and work the seam that had made his group famous? The answer, once more, is in the recordings. What we have next is a bunch of songs cut at the end of the summer of 1967, and then in late October of the same year. At that time the group had taken a break from their exhausting schedule and then made their first attempt in the USA. These events have been detailed elsewhere and there is no need to go back to them. So the first thing the Floyd came up with after the Piper was "Scream thy Last Scream". What is striking with this song, according to me, is that it stands as a turning point. The song itself is a whimsical ditty, somehow reminiscent of (or should I say heralding) the Beatles’ "What’s the new Maryjane" : if you compare the 3rd and 4th bars of Syd’s song to the recurrent melody of the latter, you will realize they are almost identical (and I am perfectly aware that this is going to start a new series of squabbles over Syd’s possibly taking part in the recording of "Maryjane" !). The arrangement on the other hand is closer to heavy metal than anything else the original Floyd ever recorded. At that point then the group seems to be torn apart.

Next come the Fall sessions, and the desperate search for a third single. Both "Millionaire" and "Old Woman with a Casket" (the original title for "Scream", it seems) had been mentioned as the possible A-side for that single. Why the group chose neither will remain a mystery. Nevertheless they went back to the studio and recorded "Apples and Oranges", once more a move away from the past. This one is a pearl. Everything about it is just about perfect. Only it is definitely not the sort of song you would choose for a single. Is this a mistake on the group’s part ? I would tend to think it is Syd Barrett’s" declaration of independence ", or rather a first draft of it.

At that time Syd was supposed to be totally zonked out of his brains. It has been reported that on the Jimi Hendrix package tour of December 1967, his collaboration to the group had virtually boiled down to nothing. On occasions, he was replaced by Nice lead guitarist David O’List. Still his playing on both sides of the third single as well as on the December Top Gear sessions is nothing less than powerful and purposeful. Or was this just a lull before his final collapse?
Well, then there’s the real "declaration of independence". "Vegetable man", to begin with. Definitely the song that paved the way for his future output: words, nothing but words, and music as a background. From then on indeed, his music would definitely tend towards a soundtrack. This song is impossible to play. It is as close as you can get to the spoken word without entirely crossing the barrier. And what message! "I ‘ve been looking all over the place for a place for me, but it isn’t anywhere, it just isn’t anywhere". Was this a way to announce that the band should split? Or simply asking for a break? Apparently the group then recorded more stuff: "Remember a Day", "John Latham", the soundtrack to the " Committee " (I am not absolutely sure whether Syd recorded it anyway) . There may have been no plan on Syd’s part to ruin things, perhaps only a desire to make it clear to the rest of the group that they needed to agree on which course to follow next.

But then there is the conspiracy. The three others were not going to let go of the goose that lays the golden eggs. They were neither patient enough to wait for Syd to recover. So they hired David Gilmour (Mason told him "things are on the move", but he should have known they had always been…) and one day simply forgot to pick Syd up on their way to the studio. Just like Brian Jones during the Beggar’s Banquet sessions six months later.

Only, Syd had left a message. In his so called "ultimate self diagnosis on a state of schizophrenia" (2), he sings: "I’m grateful to you that you threw away my old shoes and brought me here instead dressed in red". It has been reported that at the time he wrote these lines (October 1967), he was totally unable to look after himself and had to be taken care of by the Floyd. And maybe it was true or partially true. But why should he have written a song to tell the world that that was it, he was through with the band, for the latter is sake? This does not make sense. Instead what is intriguing is the details in Syd’s descriptions of the situation in "Jugband Blues". The band is a "Jugband", to begin with, something rather old fashioned, you would think, and above all ludicrous. And the singer and songwriter waves them goodbye, improvising a blues song of his own making. He has been dressed in red for this final performance. Red is just a colour. But it also happens to be the one that used to be associated with madness in the days of yore (the days when you would listen to jugband music for want of anything worthier of note). In other words, the band makes him out to be mad. And they take care of throwing away his old shoes.

Whadayamean? Maybe there were holes in his (yellow) shoes? Of course not! Every one of us remembers this: Syd used to wear sneakers as a sign of protest against the frivolousness of stardom (read " Groupie " again if you don’t recall this detail or simply watch the photos from 1967). He was no shallow person. Throwing away his shoes meant dishonest compromise. Meant he could not walk straight any longer but just "careen through life".

So he was ousted. And then "his band", for better or for worse, tried to make up for lost time. And they eventually managed to do it. It did not keep Syd from carrying on. The 1968 recordings saw him start work again with a bunch of songs he had supposedly written during the Floyd days. I’ve always wondered if "Clowns and Jugglers " is not actually an early rendition of the mysterious "In the Beechwoods": while the fair is going full swing (the music at that fair is not swing by the way but most probably jugband music…), while the clowns make faces and the jugglers blow hot air, it is definitely more pleasant to go away and hide. "Isn’t it good to be lost in the (beech) woods"?

Lost he was, or may have been, but he found his way back, back to the studio with Malcolm Jones. Jones lays the stress on Syd’s being totally "together" in 1969, even if still whimsical and a bit "offhand" (as Syd later put it himself) about things. His two official albums as well as Opel and the Crazy Diamond box set do not reveal him slowly "falling into an abyss" (3) but still carrying on with his search for a perfect balance between new words and new music. Syd once declared that he was absolutely satisfied with "Wolfpack", and with hindsight there is no denying that this is a masterpiece: mingling jet and statuesque. But he went one step further with "Word Song", and maybe one too far. If "Scream" was a turning point, then "Word Song" is a point of no return. It is his ultimate statement on the pointlessness of his search. Words are unrelated to each other. Meaning is a fraud. It is a truth, which no music whatsoever can hide.

Maybe he felt at that time that he was going nowhere. Then he went back home to Cambridge, got engaged, considered becoming a doctor, broke the engagement, owing to a dog, went back to London, and back to Cambridge, made several ill-starred attempts at a come back, and fell off his trolley.

Isn’t it sort of scary to think that the last thing he recorded with a name on it was entitled "If You Go, Don’t be Slow"?

What the Laughing Madcaps propose is the key to a mystery. What the Laughing Madcaps propose is what I have been dreaming about for so long I don’t even remember. What the Laughing Madcaps propose is a boon. That is why I am honoured to be one of the Laughing Madcaps. From a legal viewpoint this may not be allowable. But who pays for the lawyers apart from those who are responsible for the waste of Syd Barrett’s talent? What do the lawyers do apart from receiving stolen goods? What do they do apart from keeping Syd Barrett’s old shoes locked in a box since the Fall of 1967?

What the Laughing Madcaps propose is to tear open the box. Take the shoes, they are made for walking, put them on and walk on up the road to Syd Barrettdom. To everything there is a season. Today is the beginning of a new one: after the Fall, let it be the Rise.

Jean-Grégoire Royer, La Flèche , France, 12.21.2000

(1)David Gilmour in " Crazy diamond ".
(2)Mike Watkinson in " Crazy Diamond ".
(3)Julian Cope in " Crazy Diamond ".



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