No Good Trying: Syd Barrett’s ‘The Madcap Laughs’ at 50 (Part 2)

Continued from Part One

excerpted from my book, Reinventing Pink Floyd

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.

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.”

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.

My book 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.