Boxed Set Review: Syd Barrett – The Solo Works of Syd Barrett

The life and music of Syd Barrett have long fascinated music buffs. The founder of Pink Floyd, Barrett was its leader, primary songwriter and public face. But less than a year after the band released its landmark debut LP The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Barrett was out of the group, dismissed as a direct result of his erratic behavior. To this day, speculation swirls around the circumstances of his firing: was he an acid casualty, did he have a psychological breakdown, or both?

Of course Pink Floyd soldiered on without Barrett, embarking on a five-year musical journey that would eventually culminate in the epic release The Dark Side of the Moon. But the end of Syd’s time in Pink Floyd didn’t signal the end of his musical endeavors: he would go on to make two acclaimed solo albums, notably with the help of his friends and former band mates. Both released in 1970, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett are cracked, flawed masterpieces that provide a window into the shadowy post-Floyd world of Syd Barrett. Those two LPs – plus Opel, an ‘80s era compilation of outtakes and leftover tracks – have been newly reissued in a lavish boxed set from Third Man Records. Titled The Solo Works of Syd Barrett, the package is entry #57 in the label’s Vault series of curated, limited-edition vinyl releases.

Recorded over several sessions between mid 1968 and summer ‘69, The Madcap Laughs is in turns playful and spooky. There’s a folk vibe to much of the music, the inevitable result of the manner in which the record was made. Barrett played acoustic and/or electric guitar, either on his own or (at sessions toward the end of the project) backed by Jerry Shirley of Humble Pie and Joker’s Wild drummer Willie Wilson (on bass, oddly enough). Barrett famously never played a song the same way twice, making collaboration near impossible. But the sessions nonetheless yielded some superb material, most notably “Terrapin,” “Dark Globe” and “Octopus.”

The difficulty making The Madcap Laughs might have spelled the end of Barrett’s recording career, but its good sales figures led parent label EMI to give the green light to a followup LP. If anything, Barrett was in worse condition for these sessions, often not showing up at all or leaving suddenly in the middle of a song. Co-producers David Gilmour and Richard Wright (Pink Floyd’s keyboardist) overdubbed instrumental parts onto semi-finished tracks, cobbling together an album’s worth of songs in that manner. Remarkably, considering how the album was made, Barrett is arguably the more accessible of Syd’s two albums. The LP features bizarre yet pop-leaning songs like “Baby Lemonade” and “Gigolo Aunt,” and a whimsical tune that would have fit seamlessly on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, “Effervescing Elephant.”

Save for some abortive sessions in 1974, Barrett would be the final musical statement from Pink Floyd’s founder. Leftover tracks from the making of those records would be released in 1988 as Opel, reportedly with Barrett’s blessing. Syd Barrett never again appeared in public, preferring a quiet life at home in Cambridge. He passed away in 2006.

The new set also features a 7” single featuring Barrett’s childhood friend (and replacement in Pink Floyd) Gilmour, live in 2002 performing reverent yet distinctive version of two Syd classics, “Dark Globe” and “Dominoes.” Third Man Records’ package houses the colored-vinyl LPs and singles in a sturdy and attractive slipcase featuring artwork by Greg Ruth.