Syd Barrett’s career as a recording artist was as brief as it was inspired. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, the quality of the music can be more easily appraised. Beyond his growing legend, the musicians who’ve taken an active interest in Barret’s work have tended to be some quirky, experimental indie and alternative acts. It then seems only appropriate that we count down the best and the worst of the singer’s brief, often stellar career.
Here are the albums Syd Barrett contributed, ranked worst to best.
Not so much a studio album, as an odds & ends collection, Opel features songs recorded during Barrett’s most fruitful period. Of course, the best selection of those songs found their way on to Barrett’s two 1970 solo releases. This record has its charm nonetheless.
Upon release, EMI was quick to point out that the artist had presented his approval. Still, it’s clear that the decision to compile this record stems, especially, from the public’s growing fascination with the former Pink Floyd frontman, who by now had entirely retreated from the public eye and had ceased any recording activity (to our knowledge).
The Barrett myth, however, was built on a solid foundation. In the decades that followed his brief foray into rock music, nobody had been quite able to replicate the sound or pin down its origins. Many had either deliberately tried. Some that didn’t, but provided similar facets to their music (Roky Erikson, Daniel Johnston, Half Japanese) were instantly, perhaps lazily, compared to Barrett.
A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
By 1968 the experimental contingent of British music was beginning to pull together every single one of its ideas into the complex styling of what the press would christen prog rock. Pink Floyd would be heading in that direction as well, with Barrett soon to be out of the picture, but not before they attempted an earnest follow-up to their well-received debut.
While it’s certainly a compelling listen, A Saucerful of Secrets tries to approximate the innocent sonic detours of its predecessor. What is missing, as Floyd’s members and management easily remarked, are a bunch of great Syd Barrett songs.
Instead, he provides only one composition, Jugband Blues, easily the most interesting cut on the record, and is featured sporadically on a few other songs. By this time, David Gilmour, Syd’s childhood friend, was stepping in to help/replace the former front man.
While this was going on, the other members of the band were learning to write songs. Their struggles with grasping the basic techniques are painfully obvious at times. Barrett would be removed from the band soon after. He would record a handful of albums individually, and toy with the idea of creating another group.
Floyd would float on the seas of sonic noodling for a while yet, before Roger Waters would, in fact, learn to write songs, really good songs, as a matter of fact, depart from the band’s original calling card and become one of the most consistent stadium-fillers in the known galaxy.
Syd released not one, but two albums in 1970, the most productive his career would ever be. Once again, Barrett, is assembled from various recording sessions that had been directed by David Gilmour and Richard Wright, his former Pink Floyd allies.
If Syd Barrett was as difficult to work with at the time as legend would suggest, it’s hard to tell by looking at his output in 1970. Recording sessions and radio appearances were booked and attended, songs were written, and two albumswere released.
The music itself makes no plea for commercial acceptance, much to the record label’s chagrin. But, it does not sound wholly different from Pink Floyd’s early singles, which sparked EMI’s interest in supporting Syd Barrett as a solo performer in the first place. The label had failed to find their British-born Brian Wilson, as they had sought to do, but this record is as eerily compelling as anything that the original Beach Boy created.
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
In 1967’s London, the Pink Floyd (later they shortened the name) was the wildest thing on English soil. Syd Barrett was the architect of the controlled sonic and visual chaos that magazines had dubbed psychedelic rock.
No serial rock experimenters were as ambitious as Floyd. But, while other bands only had bravery constructed on strong narcotics on their side, this group made up of middle-class teenagers, benefited from Barrett’s singular songwriting voice. His innocent fairy-stories and pop songwriting chops made the young man’s reporting appear on par with John Lennon, the rock wordsmith of the day, with whom Pink Floyd shared studio space while recording Piper at the gates of dawn.
Depending on the issue you’ll be lucky to get, the record should contain some of Syd Barrett’s best-known compositions. There’s room for hallucinatory explorations like Astronomy Domine. There’s the avant-pop of Bike.
Extended cuts will even mix in the band’s best early singles, Arnold Layne, the tale of a cross-dressing thief, and Emily Layne, the band’s biggest hit and the root of the excessive amount of expectation placed on Barrett’s young shoulders. Few psych-rock heirlooms of the 1960s have endured as well as Pink Floyd’s debut.
The Madcap Laughs (1970)
The Madcap Laughs is the album where, depending on your interest in Barrett’s work, things get truly interesting, or especially bizarre. Having been dismissed from the band he had helped create, the musician half-heartedly set about recording music on his own. By most accounts, Barrett may not have been in a great frame of mind at the time. But, freed from the shackles of having to turn in another See Emily Play he was able to put down on tape some of the finer songs in his catalog.
His former Pink Floyd collaborators, David Gilmour and Roger Waters assisted him with recording the music. According to them, it took a good deal of work on their part to piece together the core of the record.
Pieced together may the most suitable way to describe the record. While all compositions are strong and reveal more of Syd Barrett than any other of his albums, the Madcap Laughs sounds as if it is unraveling upon each new listen.
The collection has grown to be viewed as a cult classic. David Bowie, John Frusciante, or REM all covered songs featured on the record. Terrapin, Octopus, Golden Hair, and Dark Globe remain some of the best songs written by anybody during that period and provide a glimpse into the mind of a hypersensitive artist.
But, beyond the eccentricities of Syd Barrett’s music, his peculiar vision and the undeniable quality of his songwriting, make him remarkably influential, in alternative rock especially. The fact that his brief recording output was financed and promoted by a large recording company s an echo of a by-gone era where the innocence, madcap inventiveness of Syd Barrett was viewed as a genuine pop-rock commodity.