What’s That Sound?: Shambolic Masterworks

When the Beatles were finished filming the rehearsals and rooftop performance that would become Let It Be, hours and hours of multitrack tape were handed over to Glyn Johns with the direction to compile a verité version of the group, “warts and all.” From almost the beginning, the Beatles, under the leadership of George Martin, were masters of studio polish, but here, as an antidote, the intention was to strip away the gloss to reveal the familiar four at their most candid. We now have a number of iterations of the album to choose from but they all have a certain rough beauty, even the version where Phil Spector nearly ruined the ballads with layers of brass, strings, and angelic choirs. It’s an album that shatters our preconceived notions about the Beatles, forcing us into the vulnerable position of having to reconstruct a new vision of the band. It’s a volatile, unexpected utterance from a band that valued presentation almost as much as the music they made.

Here are looks at a few similarly ramshackle works that, by tearing away artifice and expectations, reveal powerful statements of purpose. These are deconstructions that challenge the listener to find the beauty in the mess. Deconstruction can be cathartic and it’s not an uncommon move for a band or artist to play with our expectations. Here are a few that go deep.

“Tonight’s the Night”

Neil Young – Tonight’s the Night

Let’s start here with the big daddy of all works of tarnished, disheveled beauty, in music or elsewhere.

In March of 1972, Neil Young’s Harvest pushed Don McLean’s American Pie off the top slot in the Billboard albums chart to become the only number one of his career (“Heart of Gold” also was a number one single around this time). Neil famously described what he did with that sudden wealth and success in the hand-penned liner notes of the 1977 release of his 3LP career retrospective, Decade

“Heart of Gold” put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch

– Neil Young

In fact, it was some tragic circumstances that sent Neil veering off the road. 

Close friend Danny Whitten’s heavy heroin use, having already inspired “Needle and the Damage Done,” wasn’t enough to deter Neil from wanting him on 2nd guitar for the upcoming tour in support of Harvest. But Young found that the Crazy Horse leader’s playing just wasn’t cutting it in rehearsals. After firing him from the tour in mid-November 1972, Whitten died that night from a Valium and alcohol overdose (or Quaaludes, it’s unclear), using the $50 Neil had given him as severance. A sad side note was that Whitten’s original attraction to heroin was for pain management; he was a long sufferer of rheumatoid arthritis.

The ill-fated tour went on without Whitten. Taking the Harvest band on the road, however, proved to be a challenge since the Stray Gators were made up of working session musicians. Drummer Kenny Buttrey demanded $100,000 to make up for lost session work, and the rest of the players followed suit (that would be about $600,000 per-player in today’s dollars). Neil acquiesced and agreed to steeply up everyone’s pay but it left a bitter taste. Still reeling from Whitten’s death, and with a new penchant for tequila (most of the band was miles from sober), the shows were raucous, slipshod affairs, with Young’s own playing faltering (his favorite Les Paul, dubbed “Big Black” losing a pickup, Neil switched to a Gibson Flying-V that wouldn’t stay in tune). Buttrey was replaced by Johnny Barbata on drums when Neil’s abusive, erratic behavior became too much for the seasoned pro to put up with.

“Fourteen junkies, too weak to work…” the first line of the opening title track of Time Fades Away set the tone for the frayed live document of all-new songs released in late 1973. Hailed by critics, but viewed by Young as his worst album (animosity among the band members and bad memories certainly clouded his view), Time Fades Away, along with 1974’s brilliant On the Beach, what many fans consider his “bummer masterpiece,” constitute the first two “ragged but right” albums of Neil’s notorious Ditch Trilogy (see the above quote). The last, most ditchbound member of the trilogy to be released in June of 1975 was actually completed long before On the Beach, but was held back from shelves for a number of reasons.

Tonight’s the Night kicks off with the title track’s ominous opening couplet “Bruce Berry was a working man/he used to load that Econoline van.” Berry was a CSNY roadie who got involved with heroin through Danny Whitten and ended up overdosing a few months after Whitten had died. Another story of the needle and the damage done, and this one names names. This is the tip of the spear of Neil Young’s dark exploration of the underbelly of the 60s utopian hippie trip, but at the most personal level, which is what gives this music such inestimable value. Other bands and artists have subsequently mined this subject both thoughtfully (Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender” among other songs), and less so (The Eagles’ Hotel California album). Neil’s Ditch Trilogy, and the grief-laden Tonight’s the Night in particular, is an inside look at the aftermath of delusion, disappointment, and drug abuse, and it’s nothing short of devastating. When asked later what made him grow up, Neil cited two things, “the birth of my kids and the death of my friends.”

Recorded (almost all of it over the course of one night) at an L.A. rehearsal studio with mic lines leading to a remote recording truck in the parking lot, with every bar of music, you can hear Neil and the band (dubbed the Santa Monica Flyers) feeling for the walls, stumbling forward with a sense of discovery, spontaneously weaving parts as Neil spills his ever-lovin’ guts at what sounds like the lowest point of his life. The band for most of Tonight’s the Night is the remainder of the original Crazy Horse on bass and drums (Whitten had yet to be replaced by Frank Sampedro), plus Ben Keith on lap steel, and ringer Nils Lofgren on piano or guitar, and there’s a fractured beauty in every note they play together. Tonight’s the Night is a work of tremendous realism and emotional depth that gives shape to Neil Young’s artistry and the whole mission of rock music at its dizzying height as an art form. Its glorious imperfection is not for everyone, but it’s an enduring gut-punch of an album that is at once strange and compelling, and proves to be more and more accessible given a little time. Far from an easy listen, Tonight’s the Night is one of the most rewarding albums that rock music has to offer.

“Kanga Roo”

Third/Sister Lovers – Big Star

Big Star started out with Beatles-level talent, promise, swagger, and undeniably great songs. Their first album, a power-pop masterpiece with the cocky title, #1 Record, is a true jawdropper – powerful, melodic, wry, poignantly heroic, relatable, and radio-friendly too – one that Big Star and their team must have thought would take off and establish them as a major phenomenon in rock.

The music industry responded with a shrug. Call it bad timing, label incompetence, or terrible luck, but what happened to possibly the greatest American band of the 70s was a slow-moving crime that is both frustrating to behold and heartbreaking to contemplate.

Originally the product of two major songwriting talents (both top-notch rock singers) and a killer rhythm section, the band was formed in 1971 in Memphis when Chris Bell turned down Alex Chilton’s offer to form a duo a la Simon and Garfunkel, but ultimately invited Chilton (ex-lead singer of the Memphis-based 60’s pop group, the Box Tops) to join his trio, Icewater, with Andy Hummel on bass and Jody Stephens on drums and Big Star was formed. Figuring large into the equation was the band’s mentor, John Fry, owner of Ardent Studios (which had one of the earliest 16-track tape machines) and head of Ardent Records (a subsidiary of Stax), who signed the band and was there to provide production guidance and unlimited studio time to experiment with sounds and parts to hone and shape what turned out to be a perfect gem of an album. Fry was credited as “executive producer” on #1 Record but maintained that the album was produced by the band.

Consciously modeled on the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership, Chilton’s gutsy, rough-hewn rock impulses mixed with and tempered by Bell’s sweeter refinement process provided the basis of the Big Star creative approach, and the indie-rock sound that came out was a good 20 years ahead of its time. Initial reviews of #1 Record were uniformly stellar. People read in Billboard and Cashbox about this phenomenal new rock band, but their album was essentially rendered “vaporware” by Ardent’s parent company and distributor, Stax Records.

See, very few people got their hands on this or any Big Star LPs, or even heard the songs via radio, so botched and ignored was the pressing, distribution, and promotion of their albums by the once powerful soul label, Stax, at that point in serious decline. Most of us future fans got wind of Big Star long after their demise via the grapevine – cover songs, mentions, and other boosts by the rock cognoscenti. But, just as an indication, the New Rolling Stone Record Guide I have here (1983 printing) has short reviews of records by Big Brother and the Holding Company, Big Maceo, Big Maybelle, Big Twists and the Mellow Fellows, and Big Youth, but completely skips what would later become the seminal, deeply influential and profoundly moving albums of early 70s indie-rock pioneers, Big Star.

It’s hard to blame the publishers at Rolling Stone when you consider that so few copies of #1 Record were printed and even those weren’t properly distributed. When Stax was eventually able to sign a deal with Columbia Records to improve their reach, Columbia refused to engage with the patchwork of the independent distributors Stax had set up and ended up recalling all of the copies of #1 Record that Stax was able to get into stores. All of this incompetence and crushing disappointment with the band’s prospects caused enormous tension within the band, even fist fights, smashing of instruments, and other mayhem, leading to Big Star breaking up at the end of 1972.

When Big Star eventually reformed, it was without co-leader Chris Bell, so the follow-up album was made as a trio. Radio City was another work of extraordinary beauty, if not a little more emotionally tattered and a lot less themed in innocence and teen heroics. Still as tuneful and captivating as ever, most of the songs of Radio City are marked, however, by palpable tension and a jagged, more fragmented sense of songcraft, as well as looser, more active drumming required by the trio setting. It’s only at the end of the album with the gorgeous power-pop anthem “September Gurls” and the eternally sweet “I’m In Love with a Girl” that things smooth out and display the glimmering, wistful appeal of #1 Record. But, despite their late placement in the sequence of Radio City, these two songs were not at all a portent of what was to come. Despite uniformly great reviews, poor marketing and the same distribution disaster befell Radio City as had fated #1 Record. Columbia, now fully in charge of the Stax distribution, simply refused to process Radio City because of some internal dispute. Pure insanity. Two brilliant, original, endlessly inspiring Big Star albums killed by the music industry (500,000 copies is what it takes for a record to earn a gold record in the US; the first two Big Star albums sold 10,000 and 20,000 respectively). Something was seriously wrong here and it’s no wonder the band disintegrated before our eyes.

Like Chris Bell before him, now bassist Andy Hummel was seen exiting the band after the Radio City debacle, reportedly to concentrate on his studies in his final year of college. That left just Alex Chiton and drummer Jody Stephens of the original band members. When the two went back into Ardent Studios in late 1974 with producer Jim Dickerson, a revolving cast of Memphis musicians, and a haunting crop of Chilton-penned songs, it wasn’t to make another Big Star record. And what came from these sessions bore little resemblance to the punchy rock heroics, trebly folk ballads, and power-pop anthems that the Big Star name evokes. The album was never officially released at the time of completion, but instead, seeped out unannounced three years later without the band’s knowledge under the Big Star name. Jody Stephens maintains that Third (released elsewhere with a different running order as Sister Lovers), is an Alex Chilton solo album and was only tagged as a Big Star record by whatever suits made that marketing decision, and that’s a useful lens by which to view what unfolds as nothing less than the soundtrack to an American tragedy.

Not surprisingly, Alex Chilton, the man, was unraveling at this point and the songs here reflect a fragile, yet still fertile state of mind. It’s an oddball, cubist assemblage of tracks, simultaneously deconstructed and still undergirded with faith, poetry, and abiding humanity. Third is full of holes, but seems to cohere in the mind of the listener, which is what makes it a postmodern masterpiece. As such, it’s an album that is so open to interpretation that it serves as sort of an inkblot test for each listener who commits to entering its spooky terrain and coming out the other side with their mind still intact.

I hear death lurking throughout the album, but not as the end of life, more like a membrane or a veil, something to look through (pass through?) from either side. “Riding in my big black car” is sung by a protagonist corpse on the way to his own funeral. “Holocaust,” with its arching melody and fawning slide guitar has the protagonist’s deceased mother giving assurances from what is decidedly not the beyond (“she’s in your bed” – what an image). And even “Thank You Friends,” the most chiming, Big Star-like anthem on the album, has such an elegiac quality that, given its context here, seems to me to be sung as a warm welcome given by the honoree at his own funeral. The other main theme of Third, the promise of love and romance, is a constant, but its concern is split between two objects of affection (Lesa and Dana), neither of them providing anything close to fulfillment.

The paths to attainment on Third lead nowhere, yet the feelings are earnest. Defeat looms large but is not a fait accompli. Musically, the serpentine, ever-melodic guitar lines and billowy keyboard textures soaked in reverb evoke an otherworldly quality, like wet sheets flapping in the dank breeze. Rocking drums are a rarity on Third (despite the leadoff song, “Kizza Me”). Mostly, the songs are mid-tempo swamp wades or crawling dirges, and the drums, where they occur, clang and reverberate in time, helping to establish and underpin the netherworld setting. It’s all in service of keeping the listener susceptible to their own thoughts and reactions and it’s this participatory quality that ultimately elevates the album into its own category. I, for one, am happy to think of this as the third and final Big Star album, because it gives shape to their arc as a band, which has them shedding members and falling apart as they progressed. Third is an appropriate landing point for Big Star, the rock and roll embodiment of American promise. Their arc as a band culminates, not in a crumbling heap, but in a wellspring of possibilities where death is but a portal and depth of emotion and the strength of melody has the enduring power to rekindle life. “Shambolic” is usually meant to signify a work left in shambles, but, I have to think that somewhere working into that etymology is the word “shaman” and nowhere is the spirit world more alive and powerful than here, in the haunting, indelible songs and performances of Big Star’s Third.

“Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon”

After Bathing at Baxter’s – Jefferson Airplane

Although they didn’t endure very long as a group or as any sort of deep influence on future generations of musicians, Jefferson Airplane was a great band, arguably the best that the San Francisco scene offered up in the heady days of the psychedelic 60s. Starting out as an “only slightly weird” electric folk-rock ensemble with stacked vocals and a foot in the blues, The Airplane were the first San Francisco band to ever score any financial success with, not one, but two Top Ten radio hits from their breakout second album, the iconic Summer of Love artifact, Surrealistic Pillow.

Jefferson Airplane was quite literally lead singer Marty Balin’s band. In an early expression of hippie capitalism, Balin, already a veteran of the folkie hootenanny scene and a member of the folk group, the Town Criers (1963-64), opened a nightclub on Fillmore Street in 1965 called The Matrix and proceeded to assemble a house band modeled on electric folk-rock hybridizers, the Byrds. First adding fellow folkie songwriter Paul Kantner, Balin soon after hit the jackpot when he enlisted two genius-level instrumentalists in lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady (one of the best bass players in rock history). When, after the band’s somewhat modest debut, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, failed to chart, the group added jazz-influenced drummer Spencer Dryden and replaced singer Signe Anderson (having just given birth to her first child) with wild child Grace Slick, the pieces were suddenly in place for the version of Jefferson Airplane that would truly take off with Surrealistic Pillow, and eventually land itself on the cover of Life Magazine, in an issue titled, “The New Rock” subtitled, “music that’s hooked the whole vibrating world.”

The Dryden-Casady pairing is the thrust while the signature Kaukonen lead guitar provides the lift that makes the Airplane fly. Add the layered, contrapuntal voices of three lead singers in Balin, Kantner, and the inimitable Grace Slick, plus a unique approach to songwriting, an audacious spirit, and it’s clear why Jefferson Airplane instantly became a fixture on the late 60s rock scene. Surrealistic Pillow has all of the band’s assets on display, including an eclectic mix of songs that range from propulsive rave-ups like “⅗ of a Mile in Ten Seconds,” “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” and “Somebody to Love,” Balin’s gorgeous pair of moody folk ballads “Today” and “Comin’ Back to Me,” the Spanish bolero hit single, “White Rabbit,” a couple of uniquely Airplane-styled rockers in the opener “She Has Funny Cars” and my favorite track (with the needlessly cryptic title), “D.C.B.A. 25,” plus one Jorma Kaukonen solo acoustic workout, “Embryonic Journey.” It’s a wonderful album, full of personality and deserves a spot in the collection of any self-respecting fan of 60s music (especially the mono pressing, which sounds much punchier and in-your-face than the reverb-drenched stereo version). After the leadoff single tanked (the Mamas and Papas soundalike “My Best Friend,” the worst song on the album by far), two Airplane remakes of Great Society songs (Grace Slick’s former band), “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” were released as singles and both shot up the charts.

Having two big hits from one album is enough to establish any band as the next big thing, but rather than backwards-engineer and regurgitate the formulas (formulae?) that created their two very different hit singles, to their enduring credit, the Airplane used their moment in the sun as fuel to launch an entirely different sort of mission, one that must have confused the execs at RCA Records. But the “cigar chomping old guys” (not “hip young guys”) who didn’t know what they were hearing who Frank Zappa describes in this video clip, labeled “Decline of the Music Business,” took a chance on proven tastemakers the Jefferson Airplane and their crazy idea to step up the weird factor (and L.S.D. intake) to create one of the great shambolic band efforts in rock, their third album, After Bathing at Baxter’s (“Baxter” was reportedly band code for acid, so the title could be translated as “after tripping on L.S.D.”).

Let me say right off that, unlike their first drummer Skip Spence (whose lone, shambolic solo album I wrote about HERE), these people can really handle their drugs. No matter how much abstraction the Airplane introduces here to try to disorient the listener – with titling (the 11 songs here are presented as 5 different, haphazardly named “suites”), with fully-improvised group jams, shifting tempos, feels, and alternating lead singers (four in total), and the almost non-stop competing among the contrapuntal vocal parts – the overall structure of After Bathing at Baxter’s is well-balanced and the album really hangs together. I give credit to the Dryden-Casady rhythm section for anchoring the whole adventure with solid time and a very intentional underpinning, as well as the sound and vision duties held down by legendary producer Al Schmitt, certainly an asset, if not a secret weapon here.

The album opens with a wash of guitar feedback and vibrato, segueing into the slashing group vocal workout, “The Ballad of You, Me, and Pooneil,” and the lyric “If you were a bird and you lived very high… Say to the wind as it took you away/That’s where I wanted to go today,” setting the tone for a trip into a strange, unpredictable world. The listener’s journey from beginning to end with Baxter’s is a mix of sublime and ridiculous, liquid improvisation and solid songcraft, gossamer and jaggedly piercing textures, ending with the last song, the L.S.D.-drenched romp through what I envision as Golden Gate Park, the most endearing group vocal workout in their catalog, “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon” beckoning the listener with “acid, incense, and balloons” and the memorable cadence, sung as one, “I do care that you do see.” Along the way we are treated to a musical feast; Kantner’s moody electrified Celtic ballad, “Martha,” Jorma’s best Airplane rocker, the curiously-titled “Last Wall of the Castle” with the memorable chorus hook “Understanding is a virtue, hard to come by/You can teach me how to love if you only try,” “Rejoyce,” Grace Slick’s jazzy abstract musings on the writings of James Joyce, and her spaciously weird but driving “Two Heads,” a Casady feature adorned with harpsichord and guitar atmospherics. There is a pre-classical, even madrigal charm to much of the music on Baxter’s, owing to Kantner’s English folk obsession, the occasional harpsichord touches, and the constant weaving together of disparate vocal lines.

A word on the unique Jefferson Airplane vocal style. To be blunt, their vocal blend whenever they harmonize is usually pretty terrible. You can hear each individual voice very distinctly, even when they are stacked in harmony, so the Airplane vocal style is aptly more reliant on counterpoint than harmonizing (even when the voices are rhythmically in sync, there is almost always an independent shape to each vocal line, one going up, the other going down or staying on one note). Add to this the tendency for Balin to do long swoops and fall-offs, which are not pitched to any one note. And also, Grace Slick’s voice is distinctive and commanding, but does not, to my ear, play very well with other voices. All of this adds up to a unique vocal approach in the annals of rock and an often less than beautiful sound that might be off-putting to some ears, but immediately marks their recordings with an instantly recognizable stamp (a plus). They seemed to double down on this vocal style on the shambolic Baxter’s and it’s one of the ways that, even when there is formal cohesion within the album, the threads are always being insidiously  pulled apart within the music.

And finally, those two group improvisations. The short, abstract Zappaesque aural collage, “A Small Package Of Value Will Come to You, Shortly” (which, incidentally, feeds into the punchiest, most focused song on the album, “Young Girl Sunday Blues”), and the long, wandering, Casady-driven “Spare Chaynge” might be frequently skipped by digital listeners, but are absolutely vital parts of the LP experience that After Bathing at Baxter’s provides. This abstracted cohesion the Airplane achieves here is what elevates the album’s sense of scale beyond a mere collection of songs or a heap of disjointed ideas. The band would go on to make two more excellent albums before they broke apart with the extended mood piece, Crown of Creation and the eclectic jukebox album, Volunteers, but they were never more ambitious than when they were at their artistic peak with their acid-soaked, messy masterpiece, After Bathing at Baxter’s.

“Dark Globe”

Syd Barrett – The Madcap Laughs

Not all was well, however, in the experimental lysergic forests of the late 60s.

There are so few true originals in music, but Syd Barrett, founding leader of Pink Floyd, has to be thought of one. Born Roger Keith Barrett in Cambridge, England to a middle-class family, Syd dabbled in music as a kid but concentrated on visual arts and painting in art school where he met David Gilmour in 1962 (Roger Waters had been a boyhood friend). Like so many others, Syd heard the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and was inspired to start writing songs. By 1965, Pink Floyd had formed and started performing and recording together. It was also that summer that Syd first tried L.S.D.

Starting out playing short R&B songs, the group soon started experimenting with long, instrumental explorations augmented by colorful, pulsating light shows, and by 1966, Pink Floyd’s overtly psychedelic performing set was composed of Barrett originals of various lengths as they started building a fan base at the UFO Club in London. Syd at the time was not only the creative force of the band, but a leaping gnome onstage, rousing the crowd, and pushing the band and his own conscious mind to reach beyond their limitations during these long improvisations. UFO Club owner, American record producer Joe Boyd (later of Fairport Convention and Nick Drake fame), took them into Sound Techniques studio and recorded a number of songs from their live set, including an expertly produced version of “Arnold Layne” (which was recorded in its original longform iteration, but edited down to single-length).

Unsurprisingly, Pink Floyd was attracting label interest at the time. After a bidding war with Polydor, EMI signed them in early 1967, initially releasing two remarkable singles, the Boyd-produced “Arnold Layne,” and an EMI-produced single “See Emily Play.”. As much as psychedelics and other drugs had started to creep into their process, the Pink Floyd songs were tightly conceived and their records well-produced. Kevin Ayers, a founding member of Soft Machine, himself a true original, is quoted as saying:

When we produced our first single, “Love Makes Sweet Music,” the Floyd brought out “Arnold Layne” a few weeks later and I thought: “Fuck!” We sounded like a Saturday night pub band compared to the slick production of a great sound and song. I don’t know how much was due to the production or the band itself, but it was definitely under good control, and the arrangement was very smart.

– Kevin Ayers

As charming and cohesive as those quirky singles are, the first Pink Floyd album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, released in August of 1967, is in a whole other category. Syd’s catchy, childlike, acid-tinged ditties and story songs live among driving rockers (“Lucifer Sam”), throbbing invocations (“Astronomy Dominé”), as well as a superbly executed studio version of their longform stage vehicle, the abstract psychedelic ballroom jam, “Interstellar Overdrive” on their sterling debut. Their signing with EMI placed Pink Floyd under the wing of producer Norman Smith (who engineered every Beatles album through Rubber Soul), and into EMI Studio One (alongside the Beatles who were there simultaneously recording the tail end of Sergeant Pepper and the beginning of Magical Mystery Tour in Studio Two), Those interesting tidbits aside, the thing to know about The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is that it’s just so damn good. Listening to Piper is an enveloping, immersive experience in the British psychedelic style in its purest form, so pure and expressive that it feels honest and, surprisingly, not dated. Pink Floyd would go on to make unquestionable classics, but they would never exceed the pinnacle heights of their first album.

Piper was released in England at the end of the Summer of Love in 1967 (by then, both previous singles had risen to Top Twenty positions on the British charts). Pink Floyd were in their ascendency, but it was at this time that, by all accounts, Syd Barrett went off the rails, working himself into a daily regimen of L.S.D., a grisly process of self-medication/self-harm that eventually led him to psychosis and often left him in a near-catatonic state, sometimes on stage. In order to cover for their fallen leader’s incapacity, David Gilmour was brought in as second guitarist, initially to keep the live shows from falling apart, but eventually as Syd’s permanent replacement in Pink Floyd. Gilmour took on most of the guitar duties on the band’s next album, A Saucerful of Secrets, a full-on space rock album except for “Jugband Blues,” one whimsical Barrett-penned song with Syd taking the lead vocals. Over the course of the year when Saucerful was made, the hope that Syd Barrett would stay on in Pink Floyd as a non-touring member similar to his American Beach Boys counterpart Brian Wilson proved impossible, so damaged were Syd’s mental faculties. The band went on from that point to a chain of astounding peaks in subsequent years while Syd Barrett circled in a holding pattern, still writing his songs and occasionally recording.

Incredible to ponder, but most of Pink Floyd’s American fans are probably unaware of the band’s Syd Barrett-led origins, so deeply embedded are Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here in the classic rock mindset. In fact, they probably don’t even know that both of those records were inspired by (some say exploitations of) their former leader’s slip into mental disrepair, or may have never even heard the name Syd Barrett. At the time, however, even in the fallout of his psychological collapse, there was avid interest in England in the curious, whimsical genius of British psychedelia’s true original, so ex-Floyd managers Peter Jenner and Andrew King worked to bring Syd back into EMI Studios in mid-1968 (now known as Abbey Road) to complete the remainder of his tracks started in the Saucerful of Secrets sessions. Barrett, instead wanted to lay down new songs, resulting in an even larger pool of unfinished tracks that would be completed and trickle out as various Syd Barrett solo albums, the first and most captivating and enduring being The Madcap Laughs, work for which began in early 1969.

Part of the reason The Madcap Laughs sounds so shambolic is that these songs were originally recorded alone by Syd and his guitar, playing with little regard to maintaining a solid tempo or even a steady 4/4 meter (he freely drops beats here and there), after which drums, bass and other overdubs were layered on top, to varying degrees of success. What the two whimsical songs completed by the talented members of Canterbury heroes Soft Machine (including Robert Wyatt on drums) lack in rhythmic coherence is made up for by a surplus of charm, something Syd still had in good supply at this time. The droney, less interesting “No Man’s Land” fuses together as a band effort slightly better but that’s probably due to its more conventional structure and steadier pulse in Syd’s original track. Those three songs as well as the slow, hypnotic opener “Terrapin” and the lighthearted music hall number “Here I Go” are produced by Harvest Records head Malcolm Jones. The rest of the album’s eight tracks are produced either by ex-bandmates David Gilmour and Roger Waters or by Gilmour and Barrett together. So that’s another disorienting aspect of The Madcap Laughs, its disunity of sound and style given the very separate approaches taken by the producers.

Side A (mostly Jones productions) is a bit of a grab bag of song styles that leans toward whimsical fun, except for the disjointed inclusion of “Dark Globe,” which is a mood breaker, to say the least. Side B (all Gilmour and Waters and/or Barrett productions) wisely avoids adding drums apart from the first and last track, giving the album side a bookended structure that contains Barrett’s eccentricity and rhythmic ambiguity quite well, many of those interior tracks presented as just Syd and his guitar with some added reverb or a single layer of keyboard or vibraphone texture. Structure aside, The Madcap Laughs contains more than a handful of truly compelling songs, which is what elevates the album beyond hipster totem status or a mere curiosity.

“Terrapin” is a slow, luminous, aquatic love song set in a fishbowl. “No Good Trying” (with wonderfully colorful backing by Soft Machine) is a baroque, oddly-shaped song about the pointlessness of feigned conformity among eccentrics. “Love You” and “Here I Go” are Syd’s take on the British Music Hall (aka, Vaudeville) music that benefits from his slightly fractured style. “Octopus” (produced by Gilmour and Barrett), the single from the album, is a disorienting fairy tale with a solid beat and strong melody that is full of animals (bees, grasshoppers, a “dream dragon” and an octopus that gives rides) which asks “Isn’t it good to be lost in the wood?” “Golden Hair,” a song about closing a book because the story has come to life, is a languid, minor-to-major constantly repeated phrase (quite beautiful) with cymbal rolls and vibraphone textures behind Syd’s inventive guitar chording. Songs like “Long Gone” and “She Took a Long Cold Look” are about alienation, and the album closer, “Late Night” is about being abandoned, but the centerpiece of the album has to be “Dark Globe,” where Syd asks if he would even be missed if he were to up and leave. 

It’s a very personal album steeped in dual themes of close intimacy and distance, and that dynamic works between the artist and the listener too. We enter The Madcap Laughs as fans of “Arnold Layne,” “See Emily Play,” and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, searching for that singular voice, that true original with an inventive ear and a kaleidoscopic way with words, and what we find is warm, endearing individual reaching out for intimacy from the people around him, the people from his past, and mostly from us. There’s a heartbreaking sadness in the life story of this eternal seeker that is bound up in his music. On first listen, The Madcap Laughs seems cobbled together, certainly shambolic and disheveled on the surface, but it is a work of thematic integrity, lasting beauty, and great humanity. Syd Barrett is a poet in the tradition of Lewis Carroll with a quirky musical language all his own. His tenure in Pink Floyd was so brief, but all of his work is worth exploring and taking to heart. It has been a humbling journey as a Pink Floyd fan to start at Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, two of the most “normative” entries in the classic rock canon, and make my way back to the strange and vulnerable world of Syd Barrett, music that is refreshingly devoid of pretense (in stark relief to the later Floyd). Piper is a stunning artifact of its psychedelic moment in time, but The Madcap Laughs gives you a stripped-back glimpse of Syd Barrett, the person, his unique style, his poetic voice, his abiding innocence, and his humanity. His work can be elusive but looking for Syd and letting him wear down your many preconceptions is time well spent.

Abstract photo Photo by Pixabay