Syd Barrett in 1970
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
How 1970 Became The Year Of Syd Barrett
50 years after 'The Madcap Laughs' and 'Barrett,' GRAMMY.com looks back at the former Pink Floyd frontman's debut solo efforts
After 1969 symbolically brought the decade to a frightful close, with the escalation of war in Vietnam, the Manson murders and Brian Jones's death kicking off a series of untimely losses for Pop, 1970 arrived as a slap in the face, designed to wake counterculture up from its fantasist dream for good. As the Beatles made their separation official and irrevocable through the uncomfortable psychodrama that was Let It Be, a whole generation either grew discouraged by the inexplicable resilience of the establishment, or simply escaped altogether.
Syd Barrett had been escaping for a long time, though. After having been sacked by his own band colleagues two years prior amidst the predictable personal and societal confusion the Spring of 1968 had precipitated, a block seemed to emerge between his stubborn, ever-flowing geniality and a saddening inability to pour it out in a comprehensible way—a dichotomy embodied by the backwards solo in Barrett's "Dominoes," which remains a striking testimony of the way he was perceiving and performing his psyche. But Syd was probably "bored, as well as ill," according to biographer Tim Willis, and definitely not as insane as most media would later portray him. Although he was painfully aware of his deteriorating mental condition, some of his public antics were likely more a product of his eternal provocateur persona than of an irreversibly mentally disturbed individual—a behavior whose inadequacy psychiatrist R.D. Laing would often defend as deriving from society's normalized notion of "sanity" and not from a sick mind itself. Rumor has it Laing even paid a visit to Barrett in 1970, although the circumstances and eventual results remain fuzzy.
Nevertheless, and however harsh Syd's own personal reality might have been at the time, 1970 was ironically his year. Aided by former Pink Floyd colleagues (albeit some critics find their work on Syd's solo material to be little more than patronization fueled by a sentiment of profound guilt for having fired their band's founder), Syd put out two albums that would prove fundamental not only for his enduring legacy but also as unquestionable references for many artists that followed: The Madcap Laughs was released in January, three days before his 24th birthday; Barrett came out in November.
While a somewhat more cohesive, Madcap may conceal a process filled with false starts that included several changes in approach and personnel (following Peter Jenner's departure, producer Malcolm Jones would too be replaced by Gilmour and Waters), Barrett is unapologetically more scattered, portraying Syd's frustration with a certain dead end he was encountering in both his career and personal life: "I made sure they were closed sessions," EMI engineer Pete Bown later recalled of the recording process. "Because if anyone had seen Syd, that would have been it." His erratic behavior is perhaps best illustrated by the often evoked anecdote of housemate Duggie Fields once arriving home to find Syd lying on the floor, static, stating that this stillness granted him every option in the world, while a decision would make all but one disappear. The problem is, of course, that no option is real unless action is taken towards it, and both Madcap and Barrett often seem like abstract attempts of an action whose results didn't quite satisfy Syd the way he expected them to.
Yet it is perhaps fairer to say that, by then, Syd bore little to no expectations at all. Barrett is a profound reflection on loneliness and sadness, and Syd's mental engagement with it seems much more fickle when compared to a relative vivacity present in its predecessor. This is, of course, something he was very much aware of: "[The songs of the album] are very pure, you know; [but sometimes] I feel I'm jabbering," he confessed during a conversation with music journalist Michael Watts at the time of the album's release. Containing few tracks that actually feel finished and an aura of despair coronating the ensemble, Barrett augured a premature ending to Syd's offerings.
But the album also represented an announced return to his Cambridge hometown, be it in its themes, its compositions ("Wined and Dined," for example, had been written there), and even the cover art, which was based on one of the many drawings Syd had made some years earlier. Darker and arguably heavier than Madcap, Barrett showcased how Syd had become increasingly desperate for a reencounter with the simple life and with himself: "I've always thought of going back to a place where you can drink tea and sit on the carpet," he would later say. Having grown disenchanted with the life the swingingest capital of the swinging world had provided him with, Syd mutely acknowledged the end of a volatile excitement that had only revealed to be shallow and deprived of the creative richness it had once remotely promised.
Barrett is Syd's very own Pastoral. His return to the country as a respite, a celebration, or even a ritual, might have come about not in the fairest of circumstances, and even a tad too late if we consider his mental state at the time; but the universes he had been bringing about since the early Floyd days kept inhabiting (haunting?) him until he was left with no other choice but letting himself be absorbed by them, both inside and out. After going back and forth for another decade, in 1982 he walked all the way from London to Cambridge never to return. The peregrination suited him as his own Via Dolorosa, towards freedom and distance from earthly sins; but as Syd turned his back on a mess he didn't ask for or even related to, he remained oblivious to the fact that he would carry a part of it with him forever.
Photo: JMA/Star Max/GC Images
David Gilmour Guitar Collection Heads To Auction In June
Gilmour looks to the future as he parts with more than 120 guitars, to be auctioned by Christie's to benefit charity
Auction house Christie's has announced The David Gilmour Guitar Collection will go under the hammer to benefit charity on June 20 in New York. Pre-auction displays of the more than 120 guitars will begin with the full collection at Christie's King Street in London March 27–31, followed by highlights shown in Los Angeles May 7–11 and finally the New York sale preview on June 14–19.
David Gilmour's haunting guitar explorations with Pink Floyd can obscure his solo accomplishments, musically, as a producer and as a philanthropist. While influential releases piled up on Gilmour's discography, his collection of guitars also grew and grew. While it might seem drastic to leave himself a smaller collection of 20 guitars, Gilmour vows he's moving ahead with new music, so this is no liquidation sale.
"These guitars have been very good to me," Gilmour told Rolling Stone. "I just think it's time that they went off and served someone else. I have had my time with them. And of course the money that they will raise will do an enormous amount of good in the world, and that is my intention."
While all the instruments in the Christie's auction catalog have their own unique history, what's grabbing the most attention is the 1969 Fender Black Strat used by Gilmour on most of Pink Floyd's iconic studio recordings. "The notes for the beginning of 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' fell out of it one day," said Gilmour. "It's on so much stuff, but Fender have made replica ones that they sell, and I have two or three of those that are absolutely perfect. One of those might be my future guitar of choice."
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Photo: Rick Kern/Getty Images
Spoiler Alert: There Is No "Dark Side Of The Moon"
How Pink Floyd's classic album created a scientific pop culture misnomer that's still spinning 44 years later
Let's face it, science and art are different. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and Emmy-nominated host of the Nat Geo show "StarTalk" is interested in both, but he's not afraid to blow the whistle.
Tyson got right the point in breaking the bad news: "There is no dark side of the moon. There's a far side and there's a near side, but all sides of the mood receive sunlight across the month."
"The fact that Pink Floyd had an album with that title, I spend decades having to undo people [ideas] as an educator," Tyson joked. "So if I had a time machine, I'd go back and change the title of that to The Far Side Of The Moon and I would restore thousands of hours of my life back."
Inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 1999, The Dark Side … has been appropriately shrouded in mysteries for decades, including the theory that it intentionally syncs up perfectly with the 1939 version of The Wizard Of Oz (It does, by the way).
But here, Tyson uses the album in this context to illustrate a point, arguing "pop culture is such a force in the world that it's very hard to undo something that people are mis-thinking if it is embedded in pop culture. … One needs to stay vigilant to maintain a sound foundation of what you will then think next."
Box Sets In Time For Holiday Shopping
The recent flood of deluxe sets is offering fans remastered albums, bonus tracks, video, and collectibles
As the music industry readies to turn the page on 2011, things are looking up, literally.
Through August, cumulative album sales in the United States had increased 4.8 percent compared to the prior year. Interestingly, catalog album sales were up 3.5 percent, but sales of new releases were down 9.5 percent. And while physical album sales showed a 4 percent decline, the deficit was smaller compared to the 19 percent decline during the same period in 2010.
One factor playing a part in this positive growth is the recent proliferation of box sets.
Going back to the late '80s, some box sets simply consisted of multi-CD packages combining the artist's best-known recordings with a selection of previously unreleased tracks. Today, many box sets are far more elaborate. Recent box sets have been released in multiple versions with the most involved packages designed to appeal to the artist's most dedicated fans. And box sets are no longer just career retrospectives. Many are dedicated to single beloved albums.
In September EMI Music released an "Immersion" box set for Pink Floyd's landmark 1973 album Dark Side Of The Moon, including three CDs, two DVDs and one Blu-ray disc featuring rare audio and unreleased video. The collection also includes a deluxe booklet and photo book, a replica backstage pass and tour ticket from the Dark Side Of The Moon tour, and collectible cards, coasters, a printed scarf, and black marbles.
A similar "Immersion" box set for Pink Floyd's 1975 album Wish You Were Here was released in November, and a set based around 1979's The Wall is scheduled for release in February 2012. September also saw the release of the Pink Floyd "Discovery" box set, an elaborate collection featuring the band's original 14 studio albums remastered and an accompanying 60-page artwork booklet.
In 2010 Bruce Springsteen unveiled a box set called The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge Of Town Story. In addition to a remastered version of his 1978 album Darkness On The Edge Of Town, the set features two discs of unreleased tracks, a concert DVD from his 1978 tour, a 90-minute documentary on the album, and a DVD performance featuring Springsteen performing the album in its entirety in 2009.
With digital sales continuing to rise, the influx of deluxe box sets might appear to be a last gasp attempt by record labels to exploit the connection older music fans have with physical product. But Bill Gagnon, senior vice president of catalog marketing at EMI Music North America, believes the decline of brick-and-mortar retail outlets for recorded music and the growth of Internet sales and marketing have actually allowed labels to invest in compiling these box sets.
"We're finding a way to let consumers know about our packages through digital marketing," says Gagnon. "The mass distribution isn't going through your mass merchants like Walmart and Target. So we decided to build the best product we can possibly build and find a way to get it to the consumer because we don't need to rely on the mass merchants to find a racking home for these box sets."
In October Rhino Records released a deluxe collector's box consisting of the Smiths' entire catalog. Limited to 3,000 pieces worldwide, the box set comes in a mini-trunk and features the influential '80s British rock band's eight studio albums remastered on CD and vinyl and their entire output of 25 7" vinyl singles. It also includes a DVD compiling the band's music videos, poster and art prints.
Die-hard fans of the Smiths may be the most passionate consumers when it comes to the band's deluxe box set. But Dan Chalmers, president of Rhino UK, claims that his label isn't discounting younger listeners in its overall marketing campaign.
"There's definitely a growth in the collectible market," says Chalmers. "But there's also a new generation of fans who are not used to physical packaging and that really drives us to make sure they are aware of this and that it's represented in its best form. We always have to make sure we're adding enough value to justify the prices we're charging."
Which brings us to arguably the "dark side" of the box set story: price. Referring to his own The Return Of The Spectacular Spinning Songbook!!! set, Elvis Costello wrote on his website on Aug. 11, "Unfortunately, we…find ourselves unable to recommend this lovely item to you as the price appears to be either a misprint or a satire. All our attempts to have this number revised have been fruitless…." The set currently costs $262.26 for the "super deluxe edition" at Amazon.com, which highlights that many deluxe sets come with deluxe prices.
Deluxe box sets are constructed based on available material and what makes the music or artist special to begin with. Dark Side Of The Moon was originally viewed as an essential audiophile experience. There is also a seeming scarcity of filmed concert material of the band from this period. So the deluxe box set emphasizes the state-of-the-art surround sound that's represented on its DVD and Blu-ray discs, though these discs also include some visual materials.
Conversely, EMI's recent deluxe box set surrounding the Beach Boys' Smile album is all about resurrecting an unfinished and mythic album that was intended to be the follow-up to the band's legendary 1966 Pet Sounds album. The project features five CDs, two vinyl LPs and 7" singles each, pulling together the entire album with demos, alternate takes and instrumentals.
Like many deluxe box sets, both the Smile and Dark Side Of The Moon projects are available in simplified, cost-friendlier versions. The former is available in a two-disc format, with the latter also available in a single CD digipak.
The fourth quarter of 2011 has also seen box sets and/or deluxe editions devoted to albums by Nirvana (Nevermind), the Rolling Stones (Some Girls), U2 (Achtung Baby), and the Who (Quadrophenia), and more would seem likely in 2012.
In January Rhino Records will release a two-disc deluxe set commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Doors' L.A. Woman. The set will include the unreleased song "She Smells So Nice," as well as eight never-before-heard versions of songs from the classic album. Rhino will also release L.A. Woman: The Workshop Sessions, a double LP featuring all of the unreleased material found on the CD collection.
"People want to have something tangible...some cool artwork in their hand to look at while hearing the sounds," notes former Doors guitarist Robby Krieger. "There will always be a need for vinyl. Vinyl is making a comeback. It just sounds so much better."
"These type of deluxe box sets have a life for a few years," says Gagnon. "But in 15–20 years that consumer may be consuming music in a much different way. There will be some emerging [technology] and we're going to have to be there to meet that challenge if we want to remain relevant. It's no different from what we're doing now."
(Jon Matsumoto is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.)