Out of any rock figure’s life, I think that Syd Barrett’s is the most compelling to look at, in the sense that a majority of his life was shrouded in mystery. I briefly went over Syd’s role in the history of Pink Floyd in a previous installment of Masterpiece Monday ( “Wish You Were Here.”) This talented musician became a central figure of the 60s psychedelia movement, got kicked out of Pink Floyd in 1968 for his drug dependence, possibly developed schizophrenia, and ultimately became a hermit. In the Pink Floyd song “Pigs” (“Animals,”1977) one of their lyrics is “just another sad old man all alone dying of cancer.” Syd Barrett died in 2006 from pancreatic cancer at age 60 while in his life of reclusion. It was a weird premonition that the band got right.
Syd Barrett’s debut solo album “The Madcap Laughs” was released in 1970 and remains one of his most known works before departing from music altogether. It’s good to note that some of the members of Pink Floyd, like David Gilmour and Roger Waters, helped get it produced. “The Madcap Laughs” is complex in the sense that there isn’t a reoccurring theme in each song. It also seems as if Syd jumbled things together, which adds to a theme of insanity. Compared to “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” by Pink Floyd (which Syd was a part of three years prior), Syd’s songs on “The Madcap Laughs” are toned down. They do feature some elements of 60s and 70s psychedelia, but this album is more folk and rugged than anything.
“Terrapin” starts “The Madcap Laughs” off in a simplistic way. It just has an acoustic and electric guitar in the background supplementing Syd’s voice. Even though the song is five minutes long, there are only four lines of lyrics. It’s not clear who the song is intended to be about, but the terrapin (turtle) in the song could be a metaphor for a person in Syd’s life. He loves this person but constantly hints to the feeling of fright when he sings, “Oh baby, my hair’s on end about you.” From there on, Syd gives us some beautiful imagery of what a turtle does best like hiding under rocks at the bottom of a pond and floating around.
We start to see Syd Barrett’s descent into insanity in “No Good Trying.” This song is the most psychedelic on the album, and also one of my favorites. In the beginning, Syd sings, “It’s no good trying to place your hand where I can’t see/ because I understand that you’re different from me.” He realizes that he’s too complex of a person, and there isn’t any point of hiding it. This is probably why people started manipulating him when he first started getting famous with Pink Floyd. He surrounded himself with people who weren’t “real.” They just hung around him for the thrill of it and offered him drugs.
“Octopus” is easily my favorite on “The Madcap Laughs” because of its ability to make a somewhat happy song with a disturbing backstory. It’s straightforward in terms of keeping a consistent beat, featuring a variety of instruments other than just using the guitar, and has some pretty catchy lyrics. However, once you tentatively look at the lyrics, you’ll realize that this song expresses Syd’s level of insanity in musical form. At some points, he describes one of his many LSD trips when he sings, “Trip to heave and ho/ up down/to and fro,” and, “Trip to a dream dragon.”
There are various lyrics hinting at Syd believing that he has two conflicting personalities inside his body. When he sings, “Please leave us here, close our eyes to the octopus ride!” it seems like he’s pleading to a higher being to leave those differences behind and make the most of his psychedelic trip. In a sense, this song is a cry out for help.
Overall, I really like how “The Madcap Laughs” is not forced. Compared to other albums made during this time, Syd’s is rugged and almost seems like he did every song in one take. Though I could understand how people might not like that, I feel as if Syd made this album for him for his enjoyment first and then released it to all of us. After this, he went on to make two more solo records before departing from music. From then on, Pink Floyd paid homage to him through their music. Syd has become a tragic hero and has developed a cult following over the decades. Needless to say, he left his mark in music history.