By 1970, Roger Keith ‘Syd’ Barrett was 24, famous, and completely lost. Having frittered away his position as leader of the prog-rock outfit Pink Floyd, Barrett was marooned on an island, struggling with mental illness exacerbated by the effects of psychedelic drugs, most prominently LSD. If he wanted, Barrett had studios, a record company, and managers waiting for him to create music. However, the haze that surrounded him was often too thick to see through.
After a year of fits and starts, Barrett had managed to assemble enough material to put together his debut solo album, The Madcap Laughs. With significant assistance from his former bandmates, Roger Waters and David Gilmour, Barrett had kicked started his life outside of the Floyd, but his erratic behaviour meant that gigs and promotional appearances were out of the question. Still, The Madcap Laughs was enough of a success that EMI asked Barrett for a follow-up.
Waters no longer had an interest in trying to make sense of Barrett’s recording habits, so Richard Wright was brought in with Gilmour to assist on his second solo album, Barrett. Far less developed and more loosely arranged than his debut, Barrett represents the point where little else could be done besides sitting Barrett down in front of a microphone, recording him singing while strumming an acoustic guitar and having other overdubs on top of the results.
The songs seem to unfurl without any real structure or distinction. ‘Maisie’ is a slow-moving blues number with Barrett intoning a barely legible spoken word over the top, while ‘Rats’ finds Barrett haphazardly barreling through what sounds like an arrangement being made up as its being recorded. ‘I Never Lied to You’ abruptly ends just as it gets going, while ‘Waving My Arms in the Air’ is almost a parody of a cowboy country song.
Depending on what kind of music fan you are, the album comes to either its peak or nadir as it stumbles into its final two songs, ‘Wolfpack’ and ‘Effervescent Elephant’. Both represent Barrett at his most out there. You can certainly trace the origins of acts like Animal Collective and Orange Juice back to the muddled erraticism of these two songs, but the lack of focus put into them doesn’t sound like a genius at work. It sounds like a crazy person with a guitar singing whatever comes into his head, and the people around him trying to make sense out of something, or anything they can.
The most difficult part of Barrett is that there are signs of the lucid Syd Barrett still in there: ‘Baby Lemonade’, ‘Gigolo Aunt’, and ‘Love Song’ have shades of Barrett’s rambunctious, child-like imagination and wonder. But mostly, the album is too zonked out, too isolated, and too opaque to penetrate. It was an accurate representation of Barrett in his current state, but that’s not something that should be applauded.
It’s impossible to listen to Barrett without seeming like a voyeur, looking in on someone who desperately needs help but is instead being gawked at like an animal in a zoo. The album marks well past the point where someone should have stepped in and intervened for Barrett’s own well being, but perhaps it was already too late. Syd was in Syd’s world. There’s an obvious fascination about seeing how this man’s mind works, but it also feels obtrusive and wrong.
There would be no follow up to Barrett. The singer performed the songs ‘Baby Lemonade’, ‘Dominos’ and ‘Love Song’ on BBC Radio in early 1971, followed by a year of inactivity. He briefly contracted a new band called Stars in 1972, but that fell apart, as did his final recording sessions in 1975. When he made his infamous appearance during the sessions for Wish You Were Here, the old Syd Barrett was now just a ghost. Attempts to restart his music career or employ him as a producer went nowhere, and by 1978, Barrett moved back home with his mother and went back to being called Roger. Although he would live another three decades, the Syd Barrett that the world knew was effectively dead.
That makes Barrett ultimately his final statement. Find the glimpses of brilliance where you can, because the album is a slight, baffling, and often difficult listen. But it’s still Syd Barrett, and the genius is still there within the fog. If you can listen to Barrett without any sense of ogling at a man well past his expiration date, then you’re a stronger person than I.