Syd Barrett, the psychedelic poet who explored that very fuzzy area between the insanity and somewhere slightly further away from the point of no return, created a new archetype from his look and aesthetic, of which David Gilmour once noted on in a short BBC segment; to paraphrase: Syd Barrett was just one of many young men and women lost in a city like London, that would eventually suffer from mental illness as it would further expose itself, around their mid to late 20s.
Was Barrett’s loss of his mental capacities and increasingly loosening grip on reality a detriment to his genius, or did it help make him who he was to slip into, later in his life, specifically with his solo albums?
Barrett’s songwriting; from his incorrectly-played notes to his seemingly sloppy musical arrangements, to his lazy style of singing about non-sensical and surreal quaint stories whimsically placed within the framework of pop songwriting. “I don’t think I’m easy to talk about,” Barrett said to The Rolling Stone, three years into his shaky solo career. “I’ve got a very irregular head. And I’m not anything that you think I am anyway.”
Ironically but tragically, Barrett did come through with clarity and poignancy at times, singing the words “you shouldn’t try to be what you can’t be” on the song ‘Waving my Arms in the Air’. Perhaps this is one clue to where Barrett’s genius may truly lie. Does the keen listener hold on for dear life, as they tumble through the surreal landscapes of Barrett’s songs, waiting only for one moment of revelation – a crystal clear omniscient view of the universe? When that moment hits, all the chaos stops, everything is in line, or at least where it’s supposed to be. Was Barrett exactly where he was supposed to be in his life?
A true genius pop song economises its use of time. The hardest part of writing a good pop song is crafting that rare gem of a centre – the easy part is creating the shell around it. So when that time comes, the listener will have been entranced in the outer layers of the song. The gem within the middle makes itself known and shines its mystique, blinding the listener just for a few moments, and while it is a short moment at that, it completely changes our understanding and feelings regarding the song – that is the hook.
Another element of Barrett’s genius lies in the fact that Syd understood how to write this kind of hook. As a young art student and leader of Pink Floyd — for only about two years of the band’s illustrious career — Barrett was an art student. Roger Waters reflects on the early days with Syd Barrett in an interview with Cosmic Magazine: “Syd was full of ideas,” he recalled, “And deeply attached to the west coast experimental stuff that as going on with Love and other bands. And the rest is history.”
Under Barrett’s leadership, the most well-known Pink Floyd Album is 1967 effort The Piper at The Gates of Dawn. A dazzling crystal ball of multitudes of sacred shapes, dreams, and colours. It is truly a timeless record – a sonic masterpiece within the avant-garde, psychedelic, and free-thinking realm.
During the recording sessions of their follow up in 1968, A Saucerful of Secrets, Syd’s mental condition worsened and, at first, David Gilmour joined to assist the band with guitar duties, but would eventually completely replace Barrett. The only song to appear on this album accredited to Barrett, would ‘Jugband Blues’.
We decided to take a look and delve into the ten songs that made Syd Barrett a genius.
Syd Barrett’s 10 best songs:
10. ‘Here I Go’ – Madcap Laughs
Arguably his most accessible and catchiest number, ‘Here I Go’ tells a story of a man who stops by an apartment hoping to see a woman he likes but she’s not there, instead, her sister is present. So, what does one do in a pinch? Of course, just fall in love with her sister! The original sister didn’t really like his songs anyway.
While the language is some of Barrett’s most straightforward writing — possibly ever — the story itself still is reminiscent of a slight absurdist view on life. Nevertheless, while musically and structurally it is very simple and more middle of the road for Syd, the song deserves to be on this list.
9. ‘Love Song’ – Barrett
This effort arrives from his other 1970 solo album simply titled Barrett. While it is similar to ‘Here I Go’, structurally and theme-wise, I think as far as this list is concerned, ‘Love Song’ is more typical of Barrett’s style of pastiche writing.
Quite honestly though, I think it is interesting because it raises attention to the idea that those gone “mad” can still be in love. This song gets me every time, it’s sweet and simple, one can almost sort of picture Alice in wonderland via Venice while Syd sits with her by the side and watches the gondolas drift on by.
8. ‘Terrapin’ – Madcap Laughs
This one is classic Barrett. Here, the musician explores the absurd through the way he uses language in the lyrics, the production of the song, and the style of playing. From the aesthetic of hearing Syd strum his acoustic, the slow-motion feel of the whole production and his elegant and soft vocalisation, ‘Terrapin’ is a beautiful look into the fantastical but tortured world of Barrett’s imagination.
It is worth mentioning that a terrapin is a smaller species of turtle. ‘Terrapin’ is the album’s opener, some good insight into Barrett’s interest in the blues, and has absolutely nothing to do with turtles.
7. ‘Baby Lemonade’ – Barrett
The opening track of his Barrett album, this is a crash course into how to write a great psychedelic song.
Syd Barrett, who plays all the guitars heard on the number, included the little guitar interlude heard before the song begins which is him simply warming up. As Barrett once famously stated: “I’m full of dust and guitars” but, on this song, he’s all guitar.
The album, as a whole, is produced by David Gilmour and arrived as the second and final studio album from Barrett as he struggled somewhat to deal with life outside of Pink Floyd.
6. ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ – Pink Floyd – Piper At The Gates of Dawn
Onto some of his earlier work and visiting the time when Syd Barrett was the singer, principal songwriter, and the overall genius creative behind Pink Floyd.
‘Interstellar Overdrive’ is over ten minutes of deep space exploration of the soul, the universe, the imagination, and the machinery and ultimately the imminent destruction of humanity.
Syd Barrett proves himself as a leading figure of avant-garde creative expression with this one.
5. ‘Lucifer Sam’ – Pink Floyd – Piper At The Gates of Dawn
Another gem off Pink Floyd’s debut album, ‘Lucifer Sam’ embodies just about all of Barrett’s songwriting ingredients.
The song features great guitar riffs, the bridging between the various pieces of music, while it may seem disparate and obtuse, Syd Barrett was, after all, a genius, he knew how to create a piece of work that was different from sheer chaos. Of course, let’s not forget about the members of the band, especially Roger Waters, who was a creative mastermind himself.
4. ‘Matilda Mother’ – Pink Floyd – Piper At The Gates of Dawn
Continuing with yet another track off the same album, I would suppose, at this stage of ranking Barrett’s songs, it really does become a subjective thing. I do think that ‘Matilda Mother’ has what most of the other strong songs have on the album and, to me, ‘Matilda Mother’ just has that extra touch.
The arrangement of the song is beautiful; the mix of the actual sound of the instruments and production is perfectly weaved into what the notes of the music are.
3. ‘No Good Trying’ – Madcap Laughing
Undoubtedly my favourite song off Madcap Laughing and this is the part of the list that features the Barrett songs that will just blow your roof off.
‘No Good Trying’ is another monumental psychedelic composition, solidifying Barrett’s position as the father of psychedelia, avant-garde, and the surreal.
It also, simultaneously, disproves any notion of Barrett losing his songwriting edge later in his career.
2. ‘Gigolo Aunt’ – Barrett
‘Gigolo Aunt’ proves Barrett’s far-reaching influence in other areas of popular music. This is a blueprint for glam rock; it is a precursor to David Bowie’s ‘Jean Genie’ and Marc Bolan’s own brand of whimsical details of elves and sultry dandies of the underworld.
Not to mention, it is one of his more rock and roll songs, but it doesn’t give itself away, the song has brilliant energy and a lifetime supply of hilarity every time you hear the chorus. One can only wonder what a Gigolo Aunt is.
1. ‘Astronomy Domine’ – Pink Floyd – Piper At The Gates of Dawn
Of course, we had to close with a Pink Floyd number.
‘Astronomy Domine’ represents the height of Syd Barrett’s mostly-sober, crystallised, focused creative vision of what he wanted his music to provide as an experience. It’s not a song, it’s an inter-dimensional painting. It’s even got some Velvet Underground influence in there.
Barrett’s using a Fender Esquire plugged into a Binson Echo Machine. This is how he created the space rock extra delay sound.