Monday, January 16, 2012

Syd Barrett Part 2: An Odd Bike and a Raw Octopus

Judging from my previous post, you might get the idea that back in the day, I wasn’t too impressed with Syd Barrett. You’d be right. Although I never got rid of my copy of Barrett, until last November it has been in my collection for nigh on twenty years with virtually no play. At the time, it cemented my prejudice against Pink Floyd’s pre-Dark Side catalog. Sometime around 2004, however, when YouTube was new, I happened across a DIY video for Bike (a video which sadly no longer seems to exist - although it was almost as silly as this one).

Immediately, this tune burrowed its way into my ear, so I decided to take Barrett’s pre-breakdown work with Pink Floyd for a spin around the block and try to accept it on its own terms. I bought Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and thought it was quite good, but unfortunately, 2004 was the beginning of a bad period for me personally.  Very little new music was making any kind of lasting impression. By no fault of its own, Piper at the Gates of Dawn got put on the back burner.

If you have been following the blog regularly, you know that I have had a rekindled interest in Pink Floyd’s early work and, consequently, Syd Barrett’s limited solo catalog. I got The Madcap Laughs for Christmas and, as Stringtapper suggested, it is a stronger overall effort than Barrett. What I find most startling is the impact that Barrett had on Pink Floyd even after his departure. While his former bandmates were experimenting with the excesses of progressive rock on Atom Heart Mother and Ummagumma, Barrett was writing songs that, despite the withdrawn state of his mental collapse, were profound enough to influence Pink Floyd’s future work. Listening to tracks like Dark Globe, Barrett’s influence on Roger Waters’ later songwriting seems obvious.

Although it is more consistent than Barrett, The Madcap Laughs has a bit less studio polish. For me, it is difficult not to view it as a set of demos for a Pink Floyd album that was never meant to be. Its raw nature, however, masks deeper musical concepts. On the surface,  Barrett seems to sporadically drop and add beats in his songs, much to the chagrin of drummer Jerry Shirley. Listen to the rhythm section struggle to keep things straight about thirty seconds into Octopus.

Initially, I thought that Barrett could simply have cared less about things like a backbeat and standard phrasing.  It just sounded like mistakes.  When I returned to Piper at the Gates of Dawn on a road trip this weekend, however, I noticed that this erratic metric sense is pervasive in the music he wrote even before he was triggered. In fact, Bike, the song that turned me on to the album, features this irregular rhythmic concept in virtually every verse. Without getting too analytical, it seems that Barrett makes the entire structure of the song subservient to the natural rhythm of the lyrics, and it is so deliberate that it makes me question just how erratic his performances actually were on The Madcap Laughs.

On a final note, I have gained a much greater respect for Piper at the Gates of Dawn in my more recent encounter with the album. The simple act of drawing boundaries on the songs (i.e. knowing the difference between Matilda Mother and Lucifer Sam) allowed me to see its creative breadth. It’s a fantastically varied work that miraculously coheres under Barrett’s obvious charisma, and although it doesn’t sound like the arena rock that characterized Pink Floyd in the 70s, it has had its own profound influence. I leave you with one of the only clips I found of Barrett playing live.

There's a longer version of this clip available where the rather dour gentlemen you see at the beginning interviews Barrett and Waters, demanding for them to explain just why they are so darn loud.  The only answer he seemed to accept was "we like it that way."

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