Syd Barrett, with his nursery rhyme lyrics and rhythmic guitar strumming, was an unfortunate casualty on the road to rock and roll music as we know it. This isn’t to say he died as young as some of the other greats (though he wasn’t really old, dying at age 60), but he was unable to continue creating music after his mental illness (presumed to be schizophrenia) became unmanageable, and he was forced to part ways with the band he formed: Pink Floyd.
Unfortunately, he isn’t remembered as well as musicians like Hendrix, Morrison, and Joplin. But after forming Pink Floyd, and before he left our realm of “reason,” he released lesser mentioned solo material, all the while experimenting with what music could be. Since there weren’t any rules to rock music yet, he got to make a few.
And this is really just a starter kit. If you like these and aren’t familiar with his music, check out the rest of Madcap Laughs and Barrett. There are many great songs. But here are my top 10, in order of release.
Love You (Madcap Laughs)
The tinkling of the piano sounds like something out of a saloon in the wild west. It’s upbeat, while seeming effortless and maintaining its even rhythm.
The chorus employs every overused trope-y cutesy name. However, at one point, the official lyrics seem to be “ice cream, ‘scuze me,” but could just as easily be “I scream ‘scuze me’,” which I quite like, because at that point in the song he’s introducing or reintroducing himself to the person the song’s about.
You can just picture a guy either trying to get a girl’s attention from far away or even being close up and speaking much louder than he intended: “SCUZE ME! I’VE SEEN YOU LOOKING GOOD THE OTHER EVENING!” Like that.
And then: it just ends. All of a sudden. The instruments all simultaneously stopping on a pinpoint.
Here I Go (Madcap Laughs)
One of the more accessible tracks from Syd, “Here I Go” is fairly simple in its story, a love song with a bit of a twist ending. But, as almost always is the case with Barrett, there’s a little more to it than what’s on the surface.
The song actually becomes extremely meta when you realize it’s about the very song he’s playing. One of the lyrics refers to the song as “kinda catchy,” and that it definitely is. It’s just really fucking cute.
I think the stand out lyric is “so now you see my world is…” and then he doesn’t complete the thought, the next line being “because of this tune” of this tune.” Which is more accurate as to how people talk really, than a grand love song. If we could see him (and he weren’t playing a guitar), he’d be gesturing vaguely around.
Octopus (Madcap Laughs)/Clowns and Jugglers (Opel)
The reasons I’ve put two songs together like this is that there are two versions of the song on two different albums, each with its own virtues.
“Octopus” has a slightly harsher sound to it than many of Syd’s other songs. Quick short strokes and over-enunciated words, emphasizing “T” and “K” sounds. And in the chorus he really let’s himself wail, unafraid of the occasional voice crack.
“Clowns and Jugglers,” the latter version of the song, starts with a rattatat drumming, like toy soldiers, By the end, the sound becomes psychedelic.
All the song is really about is wandering around a carnival. And there’s this one ride that’s shaped like an octopus. Not so mad and non-sensical. Just a really good song. And another really good version of that song.
Feel (Madcap Laughs)
I probably wouldn’t have put “Feel” on the list on the merit of the song alone. But several tracks from Barrett’s albums include him talking to the guy recording him in the booth.
I kept checking to see if this was because I’d reached the bonus tracks (and he does a lot of talking on those), but nope! It was actually a regular song released that way on purpose. Cause, why not? Who says you can’t?
And I know he’s not the only or first person to do it, but I can think of several other songs since then that have a bit of talking, just left in there for ambience. They’re part of the songs, not only auditorily, but the way we think of them. The spoken words are as important as the lyrics or the music. And some of that wouldn’t have stuck around if it wasn’t for people like Syd doing weird shit on their albums.
Baby Lemonade (Barrett)
“Baby Lemonade” has an intro that work’s almost as its own tiny track. It’s a good way to start an album. That almost western twanging guitar is in there, starting the song off alone.
I heard it was Syd warming up, and attached by Gilmour, who was one of the album’s producers. It’s worth noting that both David Gilmour and Rick Wright played on Barrett’s albums.
When the rest of the instruments join in, the tone shifts. I think Syd’s saying a lot in the lyrics on this one.
It’s message, whatever it really is, isn’t cheery. It starts on a drab scene, and he’s comparing someone or something to clowns and suggesting a cold audience applauding at their antics, quite possibly commenting on his own experiences playing live music. He seems frustrated and lonely, but it’s a great song.
Repetitive in both its music and its lyrics, “Rats” creates a sense of anxiety, an air of restlessness.
The lyrics that don’t repeat, seem like a stream of consciousness, and while love is mentioned several times in the former half of the song, it seems anything, but romantic. Rather the ending lyrics (the bit with the rats) seems more at the core of the song, which, of course, is more likely a metaphor for people feeling unneeded and unloved, simply trying to keep out of the way.
All the elements together create a hypnotic effect. Placing it between “Is It Obvious” and “Maisie,” makes the three tracks seem to work as part of a larger whole, the pace becoming slower and Syd’s voice getting lower. The guitar part playing during all three, while different, is similar enough to create an arc.
Effervescing Elephant (Barrett)
Jungle sounds set the scene for this track, and an upbeat tuba accompanies the song as a stand in for the ill-fated elephant. The track is less than 2 minutes long, and the music doesn’t start until 20 seconds in, and continues for 20 seconds after the song ends.
Of all Barrett’s songs, the lyrics to this one sound the most like they could be a children’s book. With wild animals, a Suess-esque rhyme scheme, sound effects, the afore mentioned tuba, and the jaunty tune, this track’s delightful.
It seems like it should have some sort of moral to it, but I can’t figure out what it would be, other than don’t be an elephant when there’s a tiger nearby. Though when you listen to the elephant sounds after knowing how the story turns out, it’s a little disturbing. That elephant sounds distressed.
Lanky, Pt. 1 (Opel)
Well, you can’t make a list of Syd Barrett songs and not include a track that’s purely 5+ minutes of instrumental only music. At points it’s reminiscent of “Interstellar Overdrive,” but with chimes and bongos.
The title of the track also tickles me. While it’s possible there was meant to be a follow up, it’s just as likely Barrett never intended a Lanky, Pt. 2. I wonder if the Kinks took a cue from that for their album titled Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One, which was never to have a sequel. Combine that with the fact the Lanky ends with the instruments seeming to sort of just peter out, almost as though the musicians all became distracted by something outside the studio and just sort of wandered off, and it really seems to suggest it ends in the middle.
Wouldn’t You Miss Me (Dark Globe) (Opel)
“Dark Globe” first appeared on Madcap Laughs, but when Opel was released, this track was titled “Wouldn’t You Miss Me (Dark Globe),” and I like this version better.
Not unlike “Octopus” and “Clowns and Jugglers,” the version of this track on Madcap Laughs is a little more manic sounding. There was clearly a theme he was going for on that album. The Opel tracks seem to be more mellow versions.
This particular selection hits me for certain lines that sound as though they’re almost prophetic, specifically “please lift a hand. I’m only a person” and “wouldn’t you miss me at all?”
Unfortunately, suffering from a disease that so little was known about at the time, he didn’t get that help. But he is missed.
Bob Dylan Blues (The Best of Syd Barrett: Wouldn’t You Miss Me?)
This song appears to have been written earlier than most of the others, though it wasn’t released on any of Syd’s albums (it was recorded while he was working on Barrett).
Syd, like many artists in the 60’s (and forever after), was greatly inspired by Bob Dylan. So, Barrett wrote a Bob Dylan song. And it’s really good. The lyrics are from Dylan’s perspective, and it showcases the folksy and bluesy style to Syd’s music that is sometimes overshadowed or overlooked by the rock and psychedelia he became famous for.
This song is pure charm and admiration. It would have been written not long before he formed Pink Floyd, and there’s a freshness and optimism to it that’s atypical of most of his music, but a very welcome turn. So maybe it’s actually a perfect note to end the list on.
Syd Barrett performing in 1964