Skip to content

Ten of the Best: Syd Barrett songs

When people talk about wasted potential in rock and roll, it’s usually premature deaths like Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, or Kurt Cobain. But Pink Floyd’s original leader Syd Barrett also belongs on the list – although Barrett lived into his sixties, his musical career was effectively over by his mid twenties, burned out by a combination of LSD and schizophrenia.

But Barrett left a glorious legacy of music, in a career that seemed equally informed by nursery rhymes, old bluesmen, and Lennon and McCartney’s psychedelic era. While Barrett’s recordings can sometimes be rough, marred by his unsettling vocal style and by his own struggles with mental health, he’s blessed with an impeccable pop sense and his songs are often catchy and memorable.

Despite Barrett’s relatively small output, his best work is spread out over multiple releases. His best material is concentrated on Pink Floyd’s debut album The Piper of Gates of Dawn, released in 1967, and his solo debut, 1970’s The Madcap Laughs. But to get a full career overview, you need to dig a little deeper; here are ten of his best songs:

Arnold Layne

Non-album Pink Floyd single, 1967
Pink Floyd’s debut single contains the universal subject matter of a laundry stealing transvestite. We’ve all had a neighbour like that, right?

See Emily Play

Non-album Pink Floyd single, 1967
Pink Floyd’s second single was also written by Barrett, and it reached #6 on the UK charts – not surprising for a tuneful, succinct psych song at the height of psychedelia.

Astronomy Domine

from Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967
‘Astronomy Domine’ showcases the space-rock that shares album time with Barrett’s nursery rhymes on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Lucifer Sam

from Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967
The psychedelic moments of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn can sometimes feel dated, but Barrett’s pop sense shines through on moments like this. “That cat’s something I can’t explain”.

Bike

from Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967
Barrett at his most nursery rhyme-ish closes The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

I know a mouse, and he hasn’t got a house 
I don’t know why. I call him Gerald 

Jugband Blues

From Pink Floyd’s A Saucerful of Secrets, 1968
Barrett only wrote one song on Pink Floyd’s second album, A Saucerful of Secrets – he was replaced by David Gilmour as he was becoming unreliable on stage. But his sole contribution was memorable – ‘Jugband Blues’, with its opening line “It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here”.


Scream Thy Last Scream

Cancelled Pink Floyd single, 1967
The intense ‘Scream Thy Last Scream’ was intended as Pink Floyd’s third single, but it was shelved by EMI at the last minute, along with the b-side ‘Vegetable Man’. Widely boot-legged over the years, it didn’t see official release until The Early Years 1965–1972 was released in 2016. It features a rare lead vocal from drummer Nick Mason.

Octopus

from Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs, 1970
Pink Floyd had tried to keep Barrett on as a non-performing writer, but when that failed and he was removed from the group, there were attempts to record him as a solo artist. These initially failed, but after time in psychiatric care, Barrett regrouped for his solo debut. Initially known as ‘Clowns and Jugglers’, ‘Octopus’ was Barrett’s only solo single, and provided the album with its title after David Gilmour misheard the lyric “the mad cat laughed at the man on the border”.

Golden Hair

from Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs
The b-side to ‘Octopus’, ‘Golden Hair’ was based on a poem by James Joyce, and features Barrett at his prettiest and most plaintive.

Effervescing Elephant

from Barrett, 1970
Syd Barrett’s second and final solo album was light on inspiration compared to his previous projects. Its highlight was the closing track, an animal fable that Barrett wrote in his teens.

Did I leave out any of your favourite Barrett songs? Are you a fan?




26 thoughts on “Ten of the Best: Syd Barrett songs Leave a comment

  1. Great to see poor old Syd getting some recognition.
    I agree with all your choices but would add the Floyd single Apples and Oranges and just about all the songs on Barrett and The Madcap Laughs, including Love Song, Baby Lemonade, Love You and Long Gone. Even the stop-start attempts at If It’s in You.

    Some say he was finished before he even began and that Piper is effectively his swansong as well as his debut. But gems like Lucifer Sam sound perfectly lucid to me.
    While I would never expect even a fellow music lover to share my love of Syd’s stuff, and to many it must be painful, embarrassing to listen to, I’m a long-time fan. Funnily enough I often use it to get through the tedium of household chores such as ironing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think he came and went a bit after his initial breakdown – had moments of lucidity. I tried to represent a broad spectrum of stuff, but I was going for favourites, I would have taken more from Madcap Laughs, as it’s my favourite of his.

      Like

  2. I didn’t know what to expect because of his reputation when I first heard Pink Floyd’s first album in the 80s. I was pleasantly surprised. You are right…he had a very good pop sense about him. I thought I was going to hear psychedelic sounds with no melody…It was actually quite good.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I only know Octopus, as I’ve just never really jumped into his solo stuff. Keep meaning to, but, y’know, there’s always other stuff. Rich is right, though; this is a good primer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are about five different eras of Pink Floyd, and it’s possible to enjoy some and not others. I generally like i and iii the best.
      i) Psychedelic Barrett era (1967-68)
      ii) Experimental and democratic band (1968-1970)
      iii) AOR monsters (1971-1977)
      iv) Roger Waters is in charge (1979-1982)
      v) David Gilmour (everything since)

      Like

  4. We’ve discussed Syd before. I devoured his two solo albums (will eventually do a take). Cool that you feature his music. I’m sure he’s just a footnote with a lot of folks. Not you or me. “Baby Lemonade’, “Terrapin’, ‘Here We Go’ I love those albums. ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ is an all time fave cut, period

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to moulty58Cancel Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: