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"The Madcap Laughs"
Stories about Syd Barrett are legion.
That he became overbearingly egotistical, impossible to work with. That he was thrown out of The Pink Floyd. That he suffered a psychological crack-up. That he once went for an afternoon drive and ended up in Ibiza. That he went back to live with his mother in Cambridge as a part of a mental healing process. That occasionally he goes to the house of Richard Wright, The Floyd's organist, and sits there silently for hours without speaking.
Some of the stories are true.
Roger Waters: "When he was still in the band in the later stages, we got to the point where anyone of us was likely to tear his throat out at any minute because he was so impossible...
"When 'Emily' was a hit and we were third for three weeks, we did Top Of The Pops, and the third week we did it he didn't want to know. He got down there in an incredible state and said he wasn't gonna do it. We finally discovered the reason was that John Lennon didn't have to do Top Of The Pops so he didn't."
In the past two years he has made a couple of albums. One of them was called "Barrett." The other was called "The Madcap Laughs."
The cover of "Madcap" has a picture of him crouching watchfully on the bare floorboards of a naked room. A nude girl stretches her body on the background.
The picture encapsulates the mood of his songs, which are pared-down and unembellished, unfashionably stripped of refined production values, so that one is left to concentrate on the words and the stream of consciousness effect. His work engenders a sense of gentle, brooding intimacy; a hesitant, but intense, awareness.
Syd Barrett came up to London last week and talked in the office of his music publisher--his first press interview for about a year. His hair is cut very short now, almost like a skinhead. Symbolic? Of what, then? He is very aware of what is going on around him, but his conversation is often obscure; it doesn't always progress in linear fashion. He is painfully conscious of his indeterminate role in the music world--"I've never really proved myself wrong. I really need to prove myself right," he says.
Maybe he has it all figured. As he says in "Octopus," "the madcap laughed at the man on the water [sic]."
M.W.: What have you been doing since you left The Floyd, apart from making your two albums?
S.B.: Well, I'm a painter, I was trained as a painter...I seem to have spent a little less time painting than I might've done...you know, it might have been a tremendous release getting absorbed in painting. Any way, I've been sitting about and writing. The fine arts thing at college was always too much for me to think about. What I was more involved in was being successful at arts school. But it didn't transcend the feeling of playing at UFO and those sort of places with the lights and that, the fact that the group was getting bigger and bigger.
I've been at home in Cambridge with my mother. I've got lots of, well, children in a sense. My uncle...I've been getting used to a family existence, generally. Pretty unexciting. I work in a cellar, down in a cellar.
M.W.: What would you sooner be--a painter or a musician?
S.B.: Well, I think of me being a painter eventually.
M.W.: Do you see the last two years as a process of getting yourself together again?
S.B.: No. Perhaps it has something to do with what I felt could be better as regards music, as far as my job goes generally, because I did find I needed a job. I wanted to do a job. I never admitted it because I'm a person who doesn't admit it.
M.W.: There were stories you were going to go back to college, or get a job in a factory.
S.B.: Well, of course, living in Cambridge I have to find something to do. I suppose I could've done a job. I haven't been doing any work. I'm not really used to doing quick jobs and then stopping, but I'm sure it would be possible.
M.W.: Tell me about The Floyd--how did they start?
S.B.: Roger Waters is older than I am. He was at the architecture school in London. I was studying at Cambridge--I think it was before I had set up at Camberwell (art college). I was really moving backwards and forwards to London. I was living in Highgate with him, we shared a place there, and got a van and spent a lot of our grant on pubs and that sort of thing. We were playing Stones numbers. I suppose we were interested in playing guitars--I picked up playing guitar quite quickly...I didn't play much in Cambridge because I was from the art school, you know. But I was soon playing on the professional scene and began to write from there.
M.W.: Your writing has always been concerned purely with songs rather than long instrumental pieces like the rest of The Floyd, hasn't it?
S.B.: Their choice of material was always very much to do with what they were thinking as architecture students. Rather unexciting people, I would've thought, primarily. I mean, anybody walking into an art school like that would've been tricked--maybe they were working their entry into an art school.
But the choice of material was restricted, I suppose, by the fact that both Roger and I wrote different things. We wrote our own songs, played our own music. They were older, by about two years, I think. I was 18 or 19. I don't know that there was really much conflict, except that perhaps the way we started to play wasn't as impressive as it was to us, even, wasn't as full of impact as it might've been. I mean, it was done very well, rather than considerably exciting. One thinks of it all as a dream.
M.W.: Did you like what they were doing--the fact that the music was gradually moving away from songs like "See Emily Play"?
S.B.: Singles are always simple...all the equipment was battered and worn--all the stuff we started out with was our own, the guitars were our own property. The electronic noises were probably necessary. They were very exciting. That's all really. The whole thing at the time was playing on stage.
M.W.: Was it only you who wanted to make singles?
S.B.: It was probably me alone, I think. Obviously, being a pop group one wanted to have singles. I think "Emily" was fourth in the hits.
M.W.: Why did you leave them?
S.B.: It wasn't really a war. I suppose it was really just a matter of being a little offhand about things. We didn't feel there was one thing which was gonna make the decision at the minute. I mean, we did split up, and there was a lot of trouble. I don't think The Pink Floyd had any trouble, but I had an awful scene, probably self-inflicted, having a mini and going all over England and things. Still...
M.W.: Do you think the glamour went to your head at all?
S.B.: I dunno. Perhaps you could see it as something went to one's head, but I don't know that it was relevant.
M.W.: There were stories you had left because you had been freaked out by acid trips.
S.B.: Well, I dunno, it don't seem to have much to do with the job. I only know the thing of playing, of being a musician, was very exciting. Obviously, one was better off with a silver guitar with mirrors and things all over it than people who ended up on the floor or anywhere else in London. The general concept, I didn't feel so conscious of it as perhaps I should. I mean, one's position as a member of London's young people's--I dunno what you'd call it--underground wasn't it--wasn't necessarily realised and felt, I don't think, especially from the point of view of groups.
I remember at UFO--one week one group, then another week another group, going in and out, making that set-up, and I didn't think it was as active as it could've been. I was really surprised that UFO finished. I only read last week that it's not finished. Joe Boyd did all the work on it and I was really amazed when he left. What we were doing was a microcosm of the whole sort of philosophy and it tended to be a little bit cheap. The fact that the show had to be put together; the fact that we weren't living in luxurious places with luxurious things around us. I think I would always advocate that sort of thing--the luxurious life. It's probably because I don't do much work.
M.W.: Were you not at all involved in acid, then, during its heyday among rock bands?
S.B.: No. It was all, I suppose, related to living in London. I was lucky enough...I've always thought of going back to a place where you can drink tea and sit on the carpet. I've been fortunate enough to do that. All that time...you've just reminded me of it. I thought it was good fun. I thought The Soft Machine were good fun. They were playing on "Madcap," except for Kevin Ayers.
M.W.: Are you trying to create a mood in your songs, rather than tell a story?
S.B.: Yes, very much. It would be terrific to do much more mood stuff. They're very pure, you know, the words...I feel I'm jabbering. I really think the whole thing is based on me being a guitarist and having done the last thing about two or three years ago in a group around England and Europe and The States, and then coming back and hardly having done anything, so I don't really know what to say. I feel, perhaps, I could be claimed as being redundant almost. I don't feel active, and that my public conscience is fully satisfied.
M.W.: Don't you think that people still remember you?
S.B.: Yes, I should think so.
M.W.: Then why don't you get some musicians, go on the road and do some gigs?
S.B.: I feel though the record would still be the thing to do. And touring and playing might make that impossible to do.
M.W.: Don't you fancy playing live again after two years?
S.B.: Yes, very much.
M.W.: What's the hang-up then? Is it getting the right musicians around you?
M.W.: What would be of primary importance--whether they were brilliant musicians or whether you could get on with them?
S.B.: I'm afraid I think I'd have to get on with them. They'd have to be good musicians. I think they'd be difficult to find. They'd have to be lively.
M.W.: Would you say, therefore, you were a difficult person to get on with?
S.B.: No. Probably my own impatience is the only thing, because it has to be very easy. You can play guitar in your canteen, you know, your hair might be longer, but there's a lot more to playing than travelling around universities and things.
M.W.: Why don't you go out on your own playing acoustic? I think you might be very successful.
S.B.: Yeah...that's nice. Well, I've only got an electric. I've got a black Fender which needs replacing. I haven't got any blue jeans...I really prefer electric music.
M.W.: What records do you listen to?
S.B.: Well, I haven't bought a lot. I've got things like Ma Rainey recently. Terrific, really fantastic.
M.W.: Are you going into the blues, then, in your writing?
S.B.: I suppose so. Different groups do different things...one feels that Slade would be an interesting thing to hear, you know.
M.W.: Will there be a third solo album?
S.B.: Yeah. I've got some songs in the studio, still. And I've got a couple of tapes. It should be 12 singles, and jolly good singles. I think I shall be able to produce this one myself. I think it was always easier to do that.
Jay Whitten: email@example.com