The Madcap Laughs: a glimpse of Syd Barrett’s potential

Syd Barrett’s post-Pink Floyd career is too wild to be ignored.

Syd Barrett’s legacy is often spoken about as the tragedy of a man who lost his mind, and later serving as the muse of various works by Pink Floyd years after he had left. Rarely is he remembered for bringing together the initial members of Pink Floyd or even giving them their band name. In his brief time with Pink Floyd, he wrote eight of out 11 tracks on Pink Floyd’s debut studio album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and a handful of other songs before his infamous departure from the band in 1968 as a result of deterioration due to psychedelic abuse.

As a solo artist having been outcast from Floyd, Barrett began recording his debut solo album, The Madcap Laughs. Recording began in 1968 but was postponed due to a brief psychiatric stint. A year later in 1969, Barrett returned to finish recording of the project at Abbey Road Studios with production of the album handled mostly by Malcolm Jones. Additional production help and instrumental assistance came from Pink Floyd members Roger Waters and David Gilmour.

The 1970 album itself is a self-contained thirteen track composition. Opening track “Terrapin” sets the tone for the album with simple acoustic guitar chord progressions while Barrett narrates what seems to be a love story: “‘Cause we’re the fishes and all we do / The move about is all we do.” Coincidentally, on Pink Floyd’s 1975 eponymous album, Gilmour sings “We’re just two lost souls / Swimming in a fish bowl,” on “Wish You Were Here.” While it is known that “Wish You Were Here” was recorded as a tribute to Barrett, this lyric in particular sees a 29-year-old David Gilmour appearing to wink at Barrett’s solo work.

As the album progresses, tracks “Love You” and “Here I Go” solidify the album with a variety of stream-of-consciousness lyrics and simple drum beats. There is a child-like musical quality provided by a combination of acoustic and electric guitars with a subtle level of distortion. Though this album has less of a distinctive sound compared to Barrett’s other works, it still finds a way to build and morph into a simpler outlet of psychedelic pop fused with folk-like guitar lines. “Octopus” is the album’s most telling song of Barrett’s self narrated descent into insanity, with the song telling a tale of an LSD trip and becoming stuck in a state of madness, “Trip, trip to a dream dragon / Hide your wings in a ghost tower / Sails cackling at every plate we break.”

While the lyrics are sometimes disorganized, hard to fathom and sometimes pose a puzzle for listeners, that’s part of his greatness as a lyricist. As seen on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, a lot of Barrett’s lyrics seemed to be pulled out of unlikely sources of inspiration. This makes a lot of his songs head-scratchers when taken literally, but his breaking of rhyme schemes and playing with simple and complex words tossed around with irregular syntax create a unique blend of spoken word poetry and happily upbeat songs. In an interview with Rolling Stone, when talking about Barrett’s solo work Gilmour said “Some of [Barrett’s lyrics], quite often it felt like he was making them up as he went along … they all definitely mean something to him, but there’s a sort of barrier between him and me and anyone else that prevents us from being able to hear it.”

Barrett further shows his mental depth on the release by quoting two 19th century poets throughout the album’s tracklist. The first being “Golden Hair,” which sees Barrett reciting a poem titled “Lean Out Of The Window” by James Joyce over an acoustic guitar. The latter is part of the first verse in “Octopus,” where he uses part of a poem by Sir Henry Newbolt’s “Rilloby-Rill.”

If Syd Barrett’s musical potential were a house, The Madcap Laughs is only a room. While the album is not a top-tier polished work of art that has stood the test of time such as other albums by his Pink Floyd counterparts, it does have a variety of moments that are telling of Barrett’s promise as a musician. As the album draws to a close with its funhouse lyrics and punchy sounds, Barrett answers questions about his potential, yet leaves new ones for listeners who wondered “What if? about the late musician. 

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