Melody Maker, March 27, 1971.
The Madcap Laughs
Michael Watts talks to ex-Pink Floyd man Syd Barrett
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
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
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,
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
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
donUt 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
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...thatUs 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.