No Good Trying: Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs at 50

Rock & Roll Globe contributor Bill Kopp shares an excerpt from his acclaimed book Reinventing Pink Floyd

Syd Barrett / art by Ron Hart

In early 1968, mere months after Syd Barrett left (or was dismissed from) Pink Floyd, his management team of Peter Jenner and Andrew King encouraged him to begin work on a solo album

Upon Barrett’s exit from Pink Floyd, Jenner and King had cast their lot with Barrett, believing that the prime architect of Pink Floyd – and its primary songwriter – had the better potential for ongoing creative and commercial success. In a 1996 interview, Rick Wright recalled that the band’s managers “thought Syd and I were the musical brains of the group, and that we should form a breakaway band, to try and hold Syd together.” Barrett’s managers thought that his unschooled approach would combine effectively with Wright’s more traditional musical foundation. “I doubt if Syd could read music,” Jenner says. He had observed Wright’s strengths within the context of Pink Floyd. “Rick could read music; he knew what chords were. He was always the one who set the harmonies and things in the studio,” Jenner recalls. “If we said, ‘let’s have some backing vocals,’ he would be the one who would get the notes together for them.”

That January, Wright and Barrett were sharing a flat in southwest London. “Believe me,” Wright told interviewer Mark Blake, “I would have left with him like a shot if I had thought Syd could do it.” But by most accounts, Barrett could not. 

Jenner had seen potential in the few songs Syd had written near the end of his time with Pink Floyd, though he was fully aware that the material was not of an especially commercial nature. “As his songwriting became more interesting, it also became more sort of weird and psychotic,” Jenner says. “It wasn’t what the record company wanted.” An attempt was made to get Syd – now a solo artist – into the studio. But early recording sessions with Jenner producing yielded little suitable for release; the producer would later admit that he had underestimated the difficulty of working with Barrett in his current state. Today, Jenner says that working with Syd reminded him of the electric trolleys he encountered as a child in postwar London. 

“You’d stand there in the fog and you couldn’t see anything,” Jenner says. “Trolley buses were silent; they were electric, so this light would come toward you out of the fog, and then it would disappear away again into the fog. And I always thought that that’s what had happened to Syd in the studio. Something would emerge from what he was doing, and we’d say, ‘Oh, that’s good! Can we get more of that, please? Can you do that again?’ And then he would go back into the fog. And then the next time he came out of the fog, it was something different.” Shortly after those abortive May 1968 sessions, Barrett returned to Cambridge and went under psychiatric care.

By the end of the year, Syd seemed well enough to return to work on recording his debut album. The project was handed off to Malcolm Jones, the head of Harvest Records, EMI’s progressive subsidiary label. Sessions with Jones producing took place in April 1969, focusing on both new recordings and overdubs and edits to the 1968 tapes. Barrett enlisted the help of friend Willie Wilson from Jokers Wild, David Gilmour’s old band. 


AUDIO: Jokers Wild “Don’t Ask Me What I Say”

“I knew Syd from when I lived in Cambridge,” Wilson recalls, noting that Barrett sometimes sat in with Jokers Wild. Once David Gilmour joined Pink Floyd, he, Wilson and Syd all lived in close proximity to one another. “Syd just said to me one day, ‘I’m going into Abbey Road in a few days’ time; will you come and play drums on a couple of tracks?’”

The handful of recordings in which Wilson took part would initially feature only him and Barrett at EMI’s Abbey Road. “It was a huge, cavernous studio. I had my drums, and Syd had his Telecaster.” Wilson’s friend Jerry Shirley – drummer for Humble Pie – was at Abbey Road as well. “I was a chauffeur,” Shirley says with a laugh. “You couldn’t rely on Syd to get himself there. They needed somebody reliable to make sure Syd got to Abbey Road. I had a car, and Willie had a license.”

“After we recorded the tracks, it was then decided that bass was needed,” Wilson says, “So Jerry got the job.” “They needed a bass player and there wasn’t one,” Shirley recalls. “But there was a bass. So I picked it up and played it.” 

“But because of Syd’s erratic chord changes – and Jerry not being an actual bass player – he found it really hard,” Wilson says. He describes Shirley’s bass on those tracks as “a bit of hit and miss as far as the particular note he should be hitting.” Shirley recalls adding “percussion bits and pieces” for several tracks on The Madcap Laughs as well.

Syd Barrett The Madcap Laughs, Harvest/EMI 1970

Even though The Madcap Laughs sessions represented the first time Wilson had been in a recording studio, Syd’s loose style of playing didn’t present a challenge for the drummer. “Not having to follow a chord sequence, it didn’t really make a lot of difference to me,” he says. “Syd was fine rhythmically.” Comparing Barrett’s approach to meter with that of old blues men, Wilson says, “if it sounds right in your head, then you do it that way.” Shirley concurs. “That was Syd all over. He was obviously listening to a lot of blues when he was younger.”

Barrett didn’t offer much in the way of direction for Wilson, leaving him free to sort out his own drum parts on the Jones-produced sessions. “I don’t seem to remember too much of anybody saying, ‘This is what you should do,’ or, ‘That’s what you should do.’ So I just played as I played at the time.”

Later sessions involved overdubs to Barrett solo recordings; those featured three members of Soft Machine: bassist Hugh Hopper, keyboardist Mike Ratledge and drummer Robert Wyatt. These sessions, too, were fraught, as Barrett’s idiosyncratic approach to songwriting – coupled with his mental instability – made communication and progress difficult. Though they would yield recordings for use on the final album, in general those sessions with Malcolm Jones producing didn’t go well, and by the end of May 1969, Jones had given up. Wilson says that Jones “found it a bit hard going; he couldn’t quite keep up with Syd, the way that Syd was. So Dave and Roger took over production on that.” 

Barrett had approached his old friend David Gilmour – then on holiday in Ibiza, Spain, the setting for the Barbet Schroeder film More – and asked him and Roger Waters to produce. They agreed, and scheduled overdub and recording sessions on spare days between live performances and post-production work on Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma.

On its January 1970 release, The Madcap Laughs would feature 13 original Syd Barrett songs; the finished product was a an attempt to organize the hodgepodge of recordings Barrett  made over the previous year and a half. Five of the finished tracks bear a Gilmour-Waters production credit; two others are listed as Barrett-Gilmour productions. Most of the remainder is sourced from the Malcolm Jones sessions of April 1969, with one track (“Late Night”) featuring a Jones-overdubbed take of a recording from the earliest sessions produced by Peter Jenner.

Inside gatefold artwork from The Madcap Laughs

Though neither Gilmour nor Waters had any official production credits prior to 1969, the band’s work on the More soundtrack at Pye Studios had given the pair a good deal of hands-on experience behind the recording console. Jerry Shirley says that by this time Gilmour “had already grasped what it took to be an excellent engineer and then producer. He was learning as he went. I’m sure that whole experience was a huge learning curve for him.”

Unlike the Jones-produced sessions, most of the songs overseen by Gilmour and Waters would be solo performances featuring only Syd Barrett’s voice and acoustic guitar. Production duties, then, would have less to do with technical matters and more to do with marshaling a suitable performance from Barrett. Syd’s unwillingness to conform to conventional rules of song structure and meter meant that no two takes of a song were the same, so the idea of post-production editing-together of acceptable sections from multiple takes could not even be considered; Gilmour and Waters would instead have to coax several takes out of their charge, and select from among those.

The haunting “Dark Globe” employs Barrett’s signature unconventional compositional approach, and the solo performance would appear unadorned on the record. “Long Gone” features Barrett’s overdubbed vocal harmonies and a sympathetic organ part supporting his acoustic guitar melody; it features one of Barrett’s strongest lyrics and an unusually disciplined musical approach.

The very brief “She Took a Long Cold Look” finds Barrett wedding a simple folk-style acoustic guitar part to his typically stream-of-consciousness lyrics; the take threatens to break down at the halfway point, but Barrett catches himself and continues. The song ends suddenly, to the sound of Barrett flipping the pages of a notebook. After a message from the control room (“’Feel,’ take one”), Barrett delivers a disjointed tune featuring oblique lyrics and seemingly random chord sequences. “If It’s in You” is even less disciplined; it’s barely a song, and sports an odd vocal melody; the recording includes a snippet of Barrett speaking, expressing frustration at the manner in which the session is progressing.

The pair of tracks noted as Barrett-Gilmour productions (“Octopus” and “Golden Hair”) are the product of a more conventionally fruitful session several weeks earlier, in mid June 1969. Though additional “Golden Hair” musicians aren’t listed on the album sleeve, it’s possible that an uncredited Rick Wright provides a vibraphone accompaniment that doubles the song’s melodic line. Otherwise the recording features only Barrett. On “Octopus,” Barrett plays both acoustic and electric guitars, and the song is closer in style and structure to the songs he had written for Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn two years earlier. David Gilmour adds basic drum and bass guitar parts, likely overdubbed after the guitar and vocal were cut, in reversal of the customary studio overdub procedure. Barrett’s meter is erratic as ever; Gilmour would have faced a challenge following it, but the experience may have helped prepare him for his next album project with Barrett.

Syd Barrett spoke to Melody Maker‘s Chris Welch about the album in January 1970, days after its release. Welch prefaced his printed interview with a disclaimer of sorts: “It was not always so easy to understand his erratic train of thought,” he wrote, adding, that in his estimation, Syd was “only as confused as he wanted to be.”


AUDIO: Syd Barrett “Octopus”

Referring to “Octopus,” a song chosen off The Madcap Laughs for release as a single, Barrett said, “I like to have really exciting, colorful songs. I can’t really sing. But I enjoy it and I enjoy writing from experiences. Some are so powerful they are ridiculous.” Perhaps responding to the solo acoustic nature of  the Gilmour-Waters-produced tracks on the LP, he noted, “When I was with the Floyd … the volume [they] used inclined to push me a little.”

Likely owing at least in part to the romanticizing of Syd Barrett’s legend in the years to come, The Madcap Laughs – which had received mixed reviews on its original issue – would be lauded in some quarters as a cracked classic, even a work of genius. A more measured perspective could be found in Allan Orski’s brief Syd Barrett entry in the weighty tome Music Hound Rock: The Essential Album Guide. Characterizing a 1994 compilation that collected all officially-available Syd Barrett solo recordings, the reviewer described The Madcap Laughs as “a harrowing set of rough sonic quality, full of false starts and half-finished compositions that harshly illuminate the muse of a bright talent.” Other modern-day reviewers were wholly unmoved. In a 1994 review in MOJO Tom Hibbert described the song “No Good Trying” as “a song less than pleasant to listen to,” and suggested that its title “seemed to sum the whole matter up.”

In a 2003 interview with Record Collector‘s Daryl Easlea, Gilmour recalled the sessions for The Madcap Laughs as “pretty tortuous and very rushed.” Describing Barrett as “very difficult,” Gilmour found himself quite frustrated. Barrett, on the other hand, seemed unfazed and blissfully unaware of any problems with the sessions. “I want to record my next LP before I go on to anything else,” he told a Beat Instrumental reporter in March 1970. “And I’m writing for that at the moment.”

And despite the challenges of The Madcap Laughs sessions, Gilmour would return to help Barrett a few months later – this time in a more hands-on manner – as both producer and sideman for Syd’s second solo album, Barrett.

Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon by Bill Kopp

Bill Kopp’s Reinventing Pink Floyd explores the British group’s development to the point at which they created the groundbreaking album The Dark Side of the Moon. Hardcover and e-book editions were published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2018; a paperback edition followed in 2019.


AUDIO: Syd Barrett The Madcap Laughs (full album)

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Bill Kopp

Bill Kopp is a music journalist, author, historian, collector, musician. His book Reinventing Pink Floyd was published in 2018. Follow him on Twitter @the_musoscribe

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