Syd Barrett first entered the studio as a solo artist on 30th January 1968; just ten days after his last show with Pink Floyd, for what would be an unfruitful session. Sessions resumed in June and July produced songs Late Night, Octopus and Golden Hair; all featured on The Madcap Laughs. Peter Jenner, who had worked on these sessions claimed that they had not gone smoothly although he got on well with the singer. Shortly after July sessions Syd suddenly stopped recording, breaking up with his then girlfriend Lindsey Corner and then going off a drive around Britain in his Mini only to end up in psychiatric care in Cambridge.
By the start of ’69 Barrett, somewhat recovered, resumed his music career and started working with another engineer Malcolm Jones, after both Jenner and Norman Smith (Pink Floyd’s producer at the time) had declined his request to work on the album. Over four sessions beginning on April 10th 1969. Syd had recorded songs Opel (a beautiful misty ballad that would not see the light of day until 1988), No good trying, No man’s land, Here I go and Love you. The sessions all together were not very productive because in those days recording four or five songs on just guitar in four or five hours wasn’t considered very productive. It was something the engineers tried to avoid.
The Madcap laughs was released on January 3rd 1970. and it warmly received by the public. The Madness of King Syd seemed to have touched a nerve with a generation who had seen the end of the decade take a darker turn; failure of hippie revolution, Altamont and the bombing of Vietnam. The Madness of King Syd was something that attracted people to Syd; it seemed as if those around him wanted to drink from his spring of creativity and ingeniousness; they wanted to see what he sees, hear what he hears, venture into unknown area of mind. If anything the dark romance of a beautiful young Englishman gone mad certainly increased his allure. By late ’68 Syd was directionless and spent his time hanging out with west London hippie scene. He was taking copious doses of LSD daily and that proved to be his undoing.
During the recording of the album Syd was also on Mandrax and he’d sit on a stool and then fall off it. Barrett and his friends were taking the infamous LSD-25, a powerful psychiatric drug still legal in UK those days. It was almost a religious-like experience for Syd, and many others who indulged. Syd really did believe the psychedelic revolution was flowing through him. The world was changing and he thought we should all be perfect beings, cool and groovy. Syd began taking acid regularly with enthusiasm many found alarming. It was in May 1967. that his eyes crazed. At the time of The Madcap Laughs Syd had already completely surrendered.
The Madcap Laughs is an album filled with long forgotten symbolism. The songs are a mirror of Syd’s mental state of the time and in them he expressed, perhaps deliberately perhaps not, his loneliness and growing alienation. Though some of them have a cheerful rhythm like Love you, one can feel a spark of melancholy. In song Terrapin for example Syd shows his love of the blues while some of the songs sound more like a concept rather than a finished and polished songs. This album features some almost child-like songs with optimistic melodies and ostensibly cute themes (Love you and Here I go) through darker and deeper subjects (Dark globe, Golden Hair and No man’s land) to melancholic cries for rescue from his loneliness, alienation, hopelessness and feeling lost. Besides melancholy, most of the songs have a dreamy feel to it; psychedelic guitar work, most notably Late night. Song Golden Hair is actually based on a poem by James Joyce.
This album and the following Barrett reflect not just his state of mind but also the atmosphere at the time, sorrowful end of the sixties whose optimism, innocence and mind-expanding ideas had faded away. By that time the hedonistic atmosphere of the Swinging London was long lost. Perhaps albums The Madcap Laughs and Barrett are a remembrance of the ’60s for they were created at the dusk of this beautiful era; era which Syd belonged to and sadly died with.
Since loneliness pervades every corner of this album it’s no wonder that the album sleeve, that has contributed to a myth of a musician, is a portrait in alienation. Lyrics such as And I wondered for those I loved still (Long Gone), Inside me I feel alone and unreal (Late night), not to mention the haunting You feel me, away far, so empty, oh so alone, I want to come home (Feel) show how he felt at the time and what was on his crazy mind, and they also show that after all he was still acutely self-aware; aware of how lost he actually was, lost and lonely, alienated from the people that were his dear friends since teenage days.
The album sleeve is mysterious and intriguing as the album itself. It shows Syd alone in his room with painted floor and a vase of daffodils. By the time of The Madcap Laughs Syd found refuge in an apartment in Wetherby Mansion near Earl’s court, far away from excesses of his previous home on Egerton Court. Syd’s apartment was far from being impressive; it had nasty electric fireplace, a few mobiles and there were only his bed, a desk with a record player and some canvases piled against the wall, some of which were started by a watery idea. A drab and sad place to be, lonely above all. In reality, his bohemian lifestyle masked his growing alienation prior to the subsequent complete withdrawal.
The photo session for the album cover took place in spring 1969, most likely in March when Syd painted his floor in orange and purple stripes and then, proud of his work, invited his friend Mick Rock to come over and take some photos. At that time Syd lived with Iggy The Eskimo who was a friend of his ex-girlfriend Jenny Spires. Iggy and Syd weren’t lovers but she was a good company. She answered the door to Mick completely naked (usual thing for hippies and students of the time) who had just arrived that day only to find Syd in bed, still in his underpants; a moment he captured with his new camera Pentax he had just recently bought. After he’d got up, Syd donned a pair of trousers with colour stains on them; from the floor paint. Iggy then added kohl to his eyes to achieve that elegantly wasted look.
Anyways, the photos came natural all together; Mick worked with elements he had: a painted floor, a vase of daffodils, nude Iggy in the background and a huge Canadian car parked just in front of Wetherby Mansion. None of it was planned. Later that day, Storm Thorgerson arrived and his solo focus was the floor. He shoot photos in fading light placing a wide angled lens millimeters of the ground to achieve an Alice in Wonderland effect, giving the floor elastic quality. Syd just crouched by the fireplace and he looked natural; he spontaneously adapted to the background. His pose suggests defiant exhaustion and a dark edge of ‘knowing’. Syd looked like a poete maudit; something that came out of Rimbaud. There was only one corner of the room that Syd hadn’t painted and that was the only clean angle if you didn’t want to expose this ‘set’ for what it was; a drab living room with a nasty electric fireplace. As long as he occupied his island-mattress surrounded by striped painted floor, reality and a world of possibilities remained outside his door. The photo that would eventually be the cover photo was also taken by Thorgerson.
The most interesting element of the photo is the painted floor and a story lies behind it too. Syd approached things as a painter, and he did that for the rest of his life. He was inspired to paint his floor in alternate stripes of orange and purple colours by Gustave Caillebotte’s 1875. painting Les Raboteurs de Parquet or Wood Floor Planers. Caillebotte was a French Impressionist artist though he painted in more realistic style then the rest of the Impressionists. The painting depicts men scraping wood floors in striated patterns; something that shows Caillebotte’s interest in everyday life and perspective. Syd admired that painting while he was still in Camberwell College of Arts; back in the 1964. when all the Pink Floyd psychedelia and LSD were ahead of him. Now, in 1969. he was crouching in the shadow of a human condition; from cheerful and dreamy psychedelic boy whose witty mind was behind The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Syd’s look in late ’69 mirrored the dark mood that had begun to engulf him.
Also, grainy quality of the photo brings nostalgia and serves as a barrier between psychedelic vivid colours of the ’60s to more drab and sad reality that came with the ’70s. Long gone is the multicoloured glamour of the ’60s Swinging London psychedelia and instead the cover of The Madcap Laughs suggests the ’60s decadence exposed and photos have that sad party’s over feel.